Ikhide

Father, Fighter, Lover

Month: November, 2012

Uche Nduka’s Ijele: Recollections for the tattooed ears of the wind

The poet Uche Nduka works hard at defying labels and definitions. His new work Ijele, published by Overpass Books, Brooklyn, N.Y. only deepens the enigma that is this seer. Who is Nduka? Well, if you group Nigeria’s post-colonial literature by generations, starting with Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka et al as the first generation, Niyi Osundare et al as the second, Nduka would belong in the third generation. From my perspective, this generation is probably the least studied, which is interesting because they have put together a robust body of work over the years.

ijelepictureNduka’s generation of writers is mostly scattered all over the globe; the democratization of writing through the Internet has dispersed their works all over the place and it is hard to pin their works in defined volumes. Who are these writers and thinkers? In addition to Nduka, I am thinking of writers like Olu Oguibe, Afam Akeh, Molara Wood, Lola Shoneyin, Victor Ehikhamenor, Abdul Mahmud (Obemata), Obi Nwakanma (Rex Marinus), Sola Osofisan, Obiwu Iwuanyanwu (Obiwu), Chuma Nwokolo, Nnorom Azuonye, etc. Some of them, like Nduka, Akeh, Osofisan, Oguibe, Obemata and Wood, are elusive, if not reclusive. Almost all of them are defined by a common trait: They are not overly eager to publish. Several years ago, when I first came across them in a listserv (krazitivity), I was struck by how much they obsessed over each word of their work, employing rigorous and sometimes brutal peer review to polish their works. The good news is that many of them are finally coming out of the literary shadows. In addition to Nduka, Akeh has a volume of poetry, Letter Home & Biafran Nights coming out soon, Ehikhamenor just released Excuse Me! (Parrěsia Publishing) and more works by these writers are on the way. You don’t have to wait for published works though; simply google their names and feast on the prodigy of these renaissance artists.

I enjoyed reading Ijele. For one thing, it is different. It is billed as poetry, I am not sure we are to call it that. It certainly makes one reflect on how poetry is defined today. Nduka is not merely boundary bending, he is not bothered by it; he leaves that issue to the reader to resolve. By the way, I love traveling everywhere with a book of poetry because there is no pressure to finish reading it ever. I play this game where I randomly open the book to savor a literary treat. Ijele did not disappoint, it is full of treats. Take the piece Rough Plaster; how can you not be intrigued by these delightfully rebellious lines?

you can be as oversubtle as you want. i’m not interested. why deny the vigor of discordant anagrams. the city-hearted will express errata. disillusionment will grow old between coitus and faux pas. take on magnetism: taste paragenesis. there is no escape from this becoming. you take a step towards a memo for lobsters. i shall mislead all these tourists asking for directions uptown. (p 6)

In Ijele the poetry seems disconnected from space and context, chock full of enigmatic lines, curt, rebellious and uber-cool. The reader is forced to appropriate and own the poems and assign deeply personal contexts to them. And enjoy them. Ijele is impressive, a pretty little book pregnant with lovely divinations. I was struck by the lunatic, mathematical precision of Nduka’s genius. As an example, the piece, Exit Trampoline is a puzzle; its lines read like concept titles for long poems in the head.

i will flash you 3 times and then strip. if the sky complains throw it down from a balcony. The dawn may or may not squeal when it falls. razor again but textile not steel. (p 2)

Ijele is shattered shimmering brilliance, white flapping wings of dying innocence drying on clothes lines, soapy, reeking of malarial feverishness. Nduka is quietly defiant and unapologetic about his life, the sum of his experiences. He declares at the beginning of Ijele, “three continents converse in me, no one can stop their arguments.” (p 3) Indeed, in Nduka’s peripatetic musings the restless angst of exile is acknowledged – and abandoned. In Not Surrendering, everything comes together nicely in a loud vulnerable sigh:

i see you as you braid her hair, orchids of mire, seven-petaled night. beyond needing time to nurse a child. the art of breaking hoops. Soot undersung otherwise. I must understand & not mock my task of flight. I need your attention. Venice can wait. Someone like you walks through faces i can fade into. the hidden lust of a star teasing the sky can’t stay hidden any longer. i did not know what to say when she told me he kicked her umbrella off her hand into traintracks. the sidewalk painters of prince street need your attention. my seabag hangs on a wall. (p 4)

There are things the reader sees in Nduka’s words, he blindsides the reader with the cool torrent of his words: Exile, longing, despair, narcissism, all wrapped in the toga of invincibility, of coolness, defiance, even. Here, defiance is an art, a protest march in one burst of a movement. In the lunacy, chaos is disciplined into focus – sheathed machete writing, writhing in pain, refusing the anesthesia of ogogoro. Cool scared, a careful riot almost at the tipping point of manipulative contrivance. We are scared still because we are boys still:

until the tackle took you. i was charmed by your seminars swear words. stay or be away. damned either way. we lose the world the moment we define it. the clutter of yesterminutes. connecting boundary to source. you rolled into mornings, yestermornings. furnished or not, no room escaped our love, pulse and pause: our entanglement. this clarity of hair-hold. (p 8)

In the stunning lines of Pedigree, the reader imagines the power of words folding the past into the past, threading the present into the past, and willing a future that is now:

your appetite parts the day. breaks the day into two. on one side a house. on the other a wilderness. you cover both sides. what stresses them. not departing birds. there are plenty of bridges still to burn. sometimes shriveled flowers. what stresses them. not harmattan threshold. there is still the tooting bamboo. perhaps nailhead perhaps white paper. like leaving a toll gate. one half is a wisp of silk; the other a conversation with bass clarinet. discourse on her abandon. the wanton, the sultry belle. she is at the north gate. in the hallway. at a foyer. in an emergency. her fireflies are wind-bled. (p 9)

Coitus is a recurring encounter. Semen drips from the pages into damp dank drunken stairwells, odes to broken men, women and dreams. The narcissism, the fuck the world attitude never truly overwhelms because there is the constant re-imaging, re-booting of self. In poems like Tactic or Reprisala and Any Way You Want, the reader’s mind is fixated on this intrepid wanderer: You wonder, where has this poet been? Where have those hands touched, what?

You dared and joined the nudist circus. Later you had nightmares of trekking around town naked, not finding clothes to wear. You remembered Auntie Joy’s store at Ajegunle where she sold 7Up, Maltex, trebor, bread, peppersoup, Gala, kolanut and beer. You recalled me testing how fast my fingers could lift a coin or two from her wooden cashbox without being seen. You knew she occasionally caught me during those pilfering sessions but hardly rebuked me. Instead she always pulled the box nearer her at the discovery of an invasion or impending invasion from me. Most tomes she delighted me with offers of soft drinks and pieces of fried meat. Now these are recollections for the tattooed ears of the wind. (p 44)

In Estate Too, Nduka alludes to our daily war. In this new war, all we have are words, and we are not winning this war – of words. For they have the machines that staple our angry words together into meaninglessness.

must you stage an escape? Must you paint a skinscape? date blunder, not plunder. kick a habit, not a rabbit. intrude on vixens and wizards. shine on roof and briefcase. till the soil of lunatic aromatics. moving like a caterpillar. how do you handle a stressful situation? you eat chocolate and play a piano. are those actions vague and wooly? no. are they palliatives? no. (p 53)

Nduka writes about sad days. And happy days. Everything is mixed up; it is a rich mess, he chants, cowries aloft. He is right, the poet sees. The poet is a seer. Nothing escapes Nduka’s brooding gaze, not even hickeys; I must shroud my lusty neck in turtlenecks. This is not the seventies. This volume of poetry is the sum of the poet’s experience, smashed, broken china in the rain channeling JP Clark hung over from his rage. Periods, full stops, bear sentences like burdens, each almost unrelated to the next. Do not even attempt to connect the periods. For each line is a poem. Brilliant.

With Ijele, one soon ceases to be shocked. You have to read Coming Apart (p 63); these are words trekking onwards with more than a sideways glance at Nigeria, that geographical construct the poet is not coming back to because he never really left in the first place. The poet says these boundaries live rent-free in our heads. There is something schizoid about these lines, feverish, alternating among shades of darkness and light, the clashes blinding the eyes. And nightmares return in reverse order: Aluu, Biafra.

six children burnt in front of their parents. dying for what they knew nothing of. that country? “mere geographical expression.” some historied sepia. my room rejects drapes. chimera is something else. I whiz with it… this won’t do. this won’t do for meridians or for you. once a year and once upon a bear. an allergy that needs to be heard. you do sugarcoat it. a solidarity abandoned. who believed that tripe: “no victor, no vanquished.” miles away from where snapshots are.

Nduka the poet is a weaver-bird that has witnessed things. There are words in these meanings weaving more meanings from the diarrhea of the mouth, stages of needy grief, defiant, aloof, defiant, and needy. Nduka the poet is an imp, a mad, brilliant imp. You break into an impish grin at these lines in Counterfactual:

at the soul’s Sulphur Springs, i took photographs. when i went into a darkroom to develop them, the negatives went into a coma and never woke up. say something. break out. break out from twisting your grunts around a bus stop. i throw way salute-0. Man no die, man no rotten, you may prostrate before those vengeful elders but don’t do it on my mat. not even between clauses and golden pots. (p 67)

Fascinating. Sometimes you imagine this mad man in the market place wandering around muttering to himself picking up unrelated trash by dusk. And the clutter is art. Sometimes you think the poet is talking about you. There is sense in the broken shards of broken men. You are filled with wonder as you find the eulogy in the lunacy of the lines of Slow Trek and your heart breaks into applause:

what is connected disconnects itself. grief raps loudly on a windowsill. you head for the fast track ahead of earnest scavengers. in this season of financial homicides, bills rig your worth. rig your worth. but you keep a date with mourners for no one is free from the madness of death. of course the last gasp remains a prophesy on a slow trek to infinity. it badgers wine, flowers, meal for two. it is the voice that speaks undisturbed. a drop of water is its drop of seed. it teaches what holds, what thaws, what delights. hard lives pluck dignity from ancient experiences. (p 69)

Sometimes the self-absorption grates the poetry into overbearing nonsense. Read Into The Fray and you shake your head at lines like: who gives a shit about how much ice is on your Rolex? (p 71) You want to know and perhaps own the poet’s demons. You have a sense of an interesting, perhaps, dark existence lived in luscious painful narcissism like the rest of us. In Branching (p 72) the bemused reader asks: Why do we waste our lives so? Nduka doesn’t seem to give a rat’s arse what you think. He has written. You figure it out. He has spoken. Listen to the wind-rush of brilliance and lunacy. (p 72)

In Likeness and Impasse (p 73), Nduka is at his most powerful. He keeps the reader at bay, helpless. With the context withheld from view, the reader flounders and begs for context, crack cocaine between the covers, emptiness and nakedness, natural allies in the buff. There are all these phrases twisting in the wind, tart, bad attitude. And funny as hell. The lunacy is almost contrived but not quite. Everything is in place in the way a lunatic’s things are not in place; carefully strewn about with the careful carelessness of a diviner’s cowries. All the emotions are here carefully sifted from the silt, exquisitely calibrated.

Is this poetry? I don’t know. I don’t care, I am a consumer, mine is to enjoy it. This is different, it does not fit anywhere. I don’t obsess so much about the lines of poetry. I simply enjoy them. I enjoyed every morsel of Ijele, even those I disliked. That is the beauty and genius of Nduka’s brooding insouciance. Music is the result. Joy triumphs over the banality of heartache. Listen to the dibia in Through the Gap (p 81)

To countervail rudderlessness with rootedness. I can’t love you unconditionally, you said, I won’t hold that assertion against you. The caucus is of no interest to a poet waiting tables.

Applause. Dambudzo Marechera would approve.

Lara Daniels: The Officer’s Bride

The other day I read Lara Daniels’ romance novella, The Officer’s Bride. What do I think? I must confess that I am not a fan of romance literature. It is not my thing. I generally restrict myself to reading mainstream fiction, preferring for the romance to creep into my subconscious as part of a story, not as the story. Chalk that up to my warped upbringing; I was fed a steady diet of “serious literature”, groaning with heavy burdens. The writers of my generation were mostly male brooding gods of letters too pre-occupied with social issues to worry about  romance and sex.

So, what is The Officer’s Bride all about? The setting is Nigeria in the mid- to late-nineties. General Sani Abacha rules the nation with several iron fists, there is fear and lawlessness in the land as people are killed for flimsy reasons. Nafisah, the chief protagonist, lives in near penury with her family. Things are dire, her father is ailing, there is no money, she is illiterate and there doesn’t seem to be any other pastime other than living wretchedly and waiting to die.

Things soon heat up, Nafisah is abducted by Musa, a most despicable and murderous military officer who, enraged that her dad would not repay a debt, slaughters everyone except Nafisah, and takes off with her, ostensibly to make her his mistress. Things don’t go quite as he planned; Musa is implicated in a military coup and eliminated, and Nafisah somehow finds herself living with Officer Edward (Eddy), an officer, scholar and gentleman. The next five years is like a dream for Nafisah. Eddy home schools her and remarkably, she turns out to be a great student who has a voracious appetite for books and eventually a hunger for Eddy’s love. It takes five years of intrigue; much of it not helped by the fact that Eddy seems obsessed with getting rid of General Abacha – all in the interest of Nigeria. A starry-eyed idealist does not have much patience for the banality of love. How does all this end? Well, no spoilers for you, you’ll have to read the novella.

This is only the second African romance novella I have read and reviewed, the first being Kiru Taye’s His Treasure (Men of Valor). It is interesting, the styles and offerings are similar, and I had trouble differentiating between their works. Much of what I had to say about Kiru Taye’s novella (here) applies to Daniel’s novella. Romance writers like Lara Daniels and Kiru Taye work hard to customize contemporary notions of romance to suit notions of African culture and customs. I applaud Daniels for working hard to create a setting that many Nigerians can relate to. The novella is readable, thanks to Daniels’ accessible enthusiastic prose. I enjoyed peeking into a subculture, getting my feel of what Nigerians consider contemporary romance.

However, I found The Officer’s Bride only moderately entertaining because Daniels worked exceedingly hard to keep the story tame. The sex scenes are lame rip-offs of Western chick lit. It was improbable in several places. It is hard to believe that a Nigerian living in the nineties had never seen a television before. I had trouble imagining an educated middle-class Nigerian in the late nineties without a personal computer. Nafisah must be a quick study, getting an education and a cultural education in the space of five years. The dialogue was sometimes stilted. The novella reads like a contrived formulaic imposition of Western practices on contemporary Nigerian life. But then, many would argue that mimicry defines authentic Nigerian life today. Many of the conflicts are clearly contrived to tell a story and in a few cases the scenes are so hastily manufactured they are remarkable only in how improbable they are.  There are some editing issues, the plot is far from complex; many would call it inchoate and formulaic. It bears restating, the most substantive criticism I would level against this novella is that it is not very original; it is derivative of Western fare and notions of romance, etc. This is clearly not serious literature and it shows, however, this does not diminish the important contributions of writers like Daniels in pushing the frontiers of African literature in various directions. For one thing, they are exploring sensuality and sexuality from a female perspective, something that was missing in my youth. Without these writers, African literature would be even more defined by its narrowness of range.

There is a potential market for this niche even as it struggles for market share with movies, and hard core porn, blogs and social media. Readers might be reluctant to pay for tame offerings when they can go to a blog like Ramblingsofadiva (follow her on Twitter @Reine_LaGlace) and feast on something delectable like this – for free. Many writers on the Internet and social media are writing some steamy – and pretty good stuff while at the same time making important observations about how we currently live our lives. I read the other day, a pretty ambitious story about e-relationships and it was very good – and, yes, free. So, Daniels and Taye have competition – and it is free. In my youth, things were much easier for writers. I have pleasant memories of my mother reading magazines like True Romance, Sadness and Joy, Drum, etc. I was a very voracious and curious reader as a young boy and I always read these rags because I wanted to know what was in them that lit a fire in my mother’s eyes. I can report that they were very engaging but there was hardly any explicit sex in them, certainly not fellatio, however they sold like hot cakes. I wonder where my mother’s magazines are. I’d like to read them again. I know, I am a cave man, I live in the past. Please pass the bowl of termites and ukwa. Belch.

And oh, follow Lara Daniels on Twitter @LDParables.

Chika Ezeanya on Olaudah Equiano: Before We Set Sail

The writer speaks out of real or imagined experience, tales do not spring from nothingness. And often, the reader studies fiction closely – for the truth. Works of fiction tell us stories of an era and complement history books. Yes, there is this compartmentalization; there are history books and there are novels and it is not often that you find a historian who tries fiction to document a lived life, writing history, so to speak. I recently got lucky; I just finished reading Before We Set Sail, a historical fiction by the historian, Chika Ezeanya. It is a novel based on the imagined life in Africa, of the freed slave Olaudah Equiano. Equiano, aka Gustavus Vassa (1745-1797) hardly needs an introduction; as a freed slave, he actively advocated for the abolition of the slave trade. In his lifetime he was variously an author and entrepreneur who travelled widely around the world. He wrote an autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African, in which he maintained that he was a child slave from Igboland in Nigeria who eventually bought his freedom.

Equiano may be dead but he lives on not only through a vast volume of work devoted to his life, but thanks to controversy about his place of birth and the authenticity of his narrative as a child slave from today’s Eastern Nigeria. One school of thought asserts that Equiano was most probably born in the United States, not in Igboland as he claims in his autobiography. These scholars argue that much of his narrative is based on secondary sources. The most persistent of these “birthers” is Vincent Carretta who tried to make the case that Equiano was born in South Carolina, in a 1999 essay Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa? New Light on Eighteenth-Century Question of Identity. He extends his analysis into his biography of Equiano, Equiano, the African: Biography of a Self-Made Man. Jim Egan’s incisive review of Carretta’s book sheds more light on the issue. Skepticism about Equiano’s narrative has been met with an equally vigorous push-back from several scholars. Ike Anya’s feisty essay describes with some hilarity the fireworks that ensued when the two opposing forces met. Here is an analysis that lays out the argument for whether or not he was born in Africa.

In writing the book, Ezeanya sought to fill that gap in Equiano’s narrative, growing up as a child in Igboland, being captured as a child slave and sojourning in several places before being sold off and shipped to the West Indies. According to Ezeanya, there is little in terms of that aspect of Equiano’s life that is documented elsewhere. What do I think of Ezeanya’s work? I loved it. In my judgment, Ezeanya pulled off this ambitious project rather nicely. She combines her muscular skills as a historian with a gift for storytelling to produce a suspense-filled, engaging and informative novel. Ezeanya also wisely sidesteps controversy about Equiano’s place of birth and with the aid of deft research and sleuthing cobbles together a story about what life must have looked like for Equiano or any child in his circumstances in Eastern Nigeria during that era. That is the issue, an undue obsession about Equiano’s true origin misses the fact that these awful events happened to someone and to a people. Ezeanya has a useful book trailer on YouTube where she provides a context for the book. Biko Agozino who reviewed the book here gets to the heart of what I admire most about Ezeanya’s novel, which is that this is not yet another hagiography of Africa penned by a starry-eyed clueless Pan Africanist:

 [Ezeanya] displays evidence of thorough historical research on what Cheikh Anta Diop theorized as pre-colonial black Africa. The only distinction here to her credit is that Diop painted a Negritude picture of an improbable civilization that appeared so perfect that there were no villains while Ezeanya shocks the reader into accepting the obvious reality that there is no such thing as a perfect civilization in a history characterized by widespread violence and terrorism. Readers who expect to find an un-spoilt innocence in pre-colonial Africa will be disillusioned to find that there were already unscrupulous people driven by greed to seek to profit from the sorrows of their fellows. Similarly, those seeking the heart of darkness in the pre-colonial epoch would be shamed into finding a thriving civilization in the hinterland.

Agozino is spot on. In Before We Set Sail, Equiano the young protagonist leads the reader through several civilizations, cultures and geographic states in parts of what is today’s Nigeria, beginning with his home town which he calls Essaka from where he and his sister are abducted into slavery. Written with pride and understated passion, the book is a quietly bold and successful attempt to assert a particular narrative because as Chinua Achebe reminds us in the East African proverb, until the lion tells the story of the hunt, the hunt will always be glorified by the hunter. Ezeanya helps Equiano tell his story and assert Black Africa’s humanity and civilization with defiance and pride. In the process, the reader learns a lot about the Black Africa of the mid 1700s through the eyes of this book and Ezeanya’s heart and soul.

I loved the prose. My best line: “I stared at the ground as my tears made balls out of the mud.” (p 69) Nice. Ezeanya’s imagination is vivid, you can feel the ambience, the atmosphere; ancient groves of malevolent deities come alive and in some passages you are filled with an intimidating spiritual presence. The pacing is exquisite, it would probably make a good movie script. Ezeanya’s depiction of commerce at the Bende slave fair shook me to my roots and the savagery will stay with me for a very long time. Ezeanya does a marvelous job at capturing the times and the good and the bad. These were medieval times, commerce was robust and cowrie shells and slaves were used as currency.  It was also a highly organized patriarchy in which men spoke and women and children were mostly seen not heard. But it is a thriving place that the story describes, there is sadness and joy, and in the story of the abduction of Equiano and his sister Ezinne (at ages 11 and 8 respectively) we see children enduring heartbreaking loss and we are strangely diminished. The reader learns that Igboland was a civilization whose people were filled with the knowledge of genetics and science. Even before the coming of the white man, the men had access to guns which indicates that there was inter-state commerce.

The research is exquisite, awe-inspiring. Ezeanya invests her creative energies in developing with great attention to detail, a few major characters like Didi, easily the best female lead character in the book. Like Okonkwo in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Equiano masterfully appropriates the English language as his own.  There are so many lovely stories within stories in this feisty book, including one that explains the origin of the four market days in Igboland. That fable alone is worth the price of the book. More importantly, in this book, one comes face to face with a certain Africa that has been relegated to the background of history in the race to stereotype and diminish her worth. We see thriving industries, astute businessmen and women negotiating deals with the best (or worst) of the West. We see a vibrant, highly organized workforce of slaves and apprentices Iron smiths and apprentices. Ezeanya makes the crucial point that the Igbo had slaves, that indeed there was a thriving slave trade before the coming of the white man. Beyond the clinical banality of commerce, the book also offers powerful evocative testimony to the efficacy of spiritual priests and indigenous healers.

Before We Set Sail is not the poverty porn that characterizes much of of what is referred to as African writing; instead Ezeanya pens a wondrous tale of Equiano’s childhood with loving parents, living in harmony with siblings and relatives in a land thriving with commerce and industry. Ezeanya pulls this off with a writing style that hearkens to Achebe’s, words steeped deeply in a way of life that seems now to be eluding a people long used to being uncritically assimilated into Western ways:

Just as I have brought my son to you here today, so Ijeenu your great-grandfather was taken by his own father to somebody who agreed to train him. Today, you have the ways of Akputakpu in your blood. I ask only that you do unto me as someone else did to your own great-grandfather — teach my son the ways of Akputakpu so he can teach his children and his children’s children. Let the kite perch and let the eagle perch. If one rejects the perching of the other, may his wings be broken. (p 59)

Ezeanya frequent deployment of proverbs and parables to convey the book’s burden reminds us of the Igbo saying:  Proverbs are the palm oil with which words are eaten. Equiano puts it beautifully in the book:

Father had often warned me when I engaged in rough play with older boys that “the crab says it has no business with any play that involved the twisting of arms.” Our education in Essaka, although not written like the Aro people or the British and people of the New World, involved the heavy use of proverbs, idioms and such wisdom packed in short, easy-to-remember sentences. From one proverb, one could write thousands of volumes such as the works of Plato, St. Augustine or, more recently, John Locke. (p 129)

This book is all about history, in delectable doses. Readers will find invaluable  insights into the Ekpe secret society, the ancient writing nsibidi or nsibiri, the treatment of biracial children in Calabar (they were disposed of like twins), etc.  We also learn about many dysfunctions and issues that are  with us today, for example, marital abuse, and the West’s reluctance to effect technology transfer (like rum manufacture). The hunger for Western consumer goods heated up the slave trade (not much different than today, many consumers might as well be slaves), and we observe ruefully how the wholesale assimilation into a Western culture turns a people into caricature-consumers as gaudy ostentation is bought with hundreds of slaves.

It is not a perfect book. For one thing, I am surprised and disappointed that such an important book has been so poorly publicized. Before We Set Sail is published by The History Society of Africa and is available in both kindle and paperback at amazon.com and other leading book stores.  You can read excerpts at www.beforewesetsail.com. Go find a copy and enjoy yourself. There are minor editing issues and sometimes, the prose becomes awkward and ungainly like a civil servant’s memo.  The book is rich with profound sayings, many awkwardly translated, for example, “Show me one living person who doesn’t have one problem or the other? Is there anybody whose anus you could look at and not find pieces of shit?” (p 22) This is not so much a criticism but an observation of how things get lost in the translation because of transitions like the forced voyage to the new land and the unlearning of one’s ancestral language. When Equiano reflects on “the fattening rooms of Calabar” one soon realizes that the term is a misnomer. If the dialogue is sometimes stilted, it is consistent with the style of the flamboyant Equiano. Before We Set Sail is technically a novel, but the absence of a bibliography is disappointing. A bibliography would have been helpful. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Half of a Yellow Sun comes to mind as a worthy example; it has about 30 helpful references on the Nigerian civil war. And yes, my pet peeve: Nigerian words were painstakingly italicized as if to hard-code our otherness.

All in all, Ezeanya spoke to me in this book. I read the book  at a time when I was reflecting on the notion of identity, chafing at the realization that even as color confounds, Africa is fast becoming a pejorative used to lump together for nefarious reasons, scores of nations and cultures and languages. Did Africans sell off fellow Africans as slaves? Did these people see themselves as monolithic Africans or as distinct nations warring each other for spoils and profits? Much of the contemporary commentary on Africa is superficial only because good scholars have bought into the myth of a monolithic Africa. Ezeanya brilliantly rejects that narrative and offers a uniquely creative version  of world history that doubles as an enduring celebration of the humanity of a people long hunted and haunted by forces beyond their control. All through this lovely book, nothing tells of the abiding dignity and pride of black Africa more than these resounding lines by a defiant Equiano:

The strength of my nation in farming is profound; my people never lacked food, and the rarity of ill-health among my people is direct testimony to the wealth of our diet, and our industriousness. We cultivated yam, our chief staple in several varieties; also, maize, beans, fruits of diverse kinds, assorted vegetables, and other crops made their way to our tables every mealtime and to the market every market day. Fish, game and certain edible insects are found in abundance in my part of the world, and provided the nourishment we needed from time to time. (p 29-30)

Hear! Hear! I love this book.

This writing life: Ranting, cutting, grunting and pasting

For you…

“Being a writer is like having homework every night for the rest of your life.”
– Lawrence Kasdan

The other day my friend was bemoaning a writing slump. The words were stuck somewhere, refusing all entreaties to come out – and play. My friend is a fairly prolific writer; multitasking on a book, a blog that could use some more tending and an active Twitter and Facebook account. If my friend’s tweets and Facebook postings were cobbled together, the result would run into thousands of words that make delicious sense. This is the same for many other folks that I know who are regularly afflicted with anxieties about that affliction called the writer’s block. They should perhaps get off Facebook and Twitter to write what the world considers writing. I hope they do not flee into the dying warmth of books. That would be sad because like my friend, they are a lovely, vibrant presence on social media, coolly cerebral with enough wit and zing to make us grateful readers always wanting more. But like a happy spinster who is not happy until she bows to the dictates of tradition and immerses herself in an unhappy marriage, many of today’s writers are not complete until they have filled the spaces of tradition. They must write that book, maintain that blog that defines and completes them if they are to remain current in that coveted coven of writers.

If you are a writer, it is easy to understand my friend’s anxieties about (not) writing. One must write to be called a writer. Even in the 21st century, in the age of the Internet, one must write in the right places to be called a real writer. Even as the book is dying, the first and best space that establishes a writer’s cred is the book. Conventional wisdom says you are not a real writer until you have written a book. I do book reviews; as long as I fawn over a writer’s works, I am safe, but I always get the “Go and write your own book!” venom spat at me whenever I sheepishly admit that perhaps a book I just read is not to my personal taste. I have never written my own book; I have contributed pieces to a number of books. However, I prefer the digital space, it responds instantly to the immediacy of my thoughts. What I have to say should not have to wait to be cloistered in a book. I write nonstop and all my writings floating freely on the Internet would fill several books. But I am the first to agree that I am not a writer, certainly not in the conventional sense. I am a reader who writes, so there. I have previously said that I will never write a book; scratch that, I am feverishly writing a book of awsome prose. This has nothing to do with the fact that next year’s NLNG prize, a mere $100,000, will be for prose (whatever that means). I intend to enter for the competition. And I expect to win.

I do maintain a blog. This blog. If my blog is feeling neglected, it is because this is the first time in a long time that I have written my own blog post. In my defense, I was occupied elsewhere, I fell in love with a certain campaign for the presidency of the United States and I could not stop obsessing, reading and writing about it. I could not. Actually, I was propelled not so much by love, but by rage, a certain burning anger about the sense of entitlement of the other, that had declared me the other. I wanted to make this so right. President Barack Hussein Obama had to win this for humanity. I found a spot under an e-tree and I kept reading, writing and ranting about my world, the world I would leave our children in. The polls held me spellbound; I trolled the Internet looking for polls that would tell me what I wanted to hear, and I hissed and snorted with derision at those that told me that well, my Obama was toast. In my rage, I became the other, snarling, hissing, and foaming in the mouth like a venomous snake that had fatally bitten itself. In the end Nate Silver was right to the last dot, and America proved why it is perhaps the greatest nation on earth; she broke down under the withering sun-rays of my glare and elected the right person to the White House. That Tuesday night ended my long vigil of cutting, snorting, grunting and pasting war missiles on Twitter, Facebook and listservs. My audience endured this avalanche of venom, glee, data (yes, Nate Silver is the man, when it comes to accurate polling data) that kept me hostage to my own fears and desires. I could not physically write, but some would say I was writing. If I cobbled together all I have “written” in the past several months, it would be an embarrassing pastiche of borrowed rage. It is over (Obama won, yay!!!), and I feel better. So I did not write anything original in that time period, but I was busy doing my best to rescue our presidency from those who do not see us as Americans. Actually, come to think of it. that is not correct; I managed to write reams on Facebook and Twitter about Chinua Achebe’s new book, There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra. I should cobble together all my tweets and Facebook posts about it into one essay and see if it makes sense. Now that’s a thought. Nah, I think I’ll simply keep reading.

Reading is easier for me than writing. Yes, writing has been hard for me in the past few months but I have managed to read. Most of what I have read has been about identity and our shared humanity. So, I read Chinua Achebe’s memoir, and Chika Ezeanya’s Before We Set Sail, an awesome historical fiction about Olaudah Equiano. I also read Uche Nduka’s lovely book of poetry, Ijele and Wole Soyinka’s new book, Of Africa. Achebe’s book as we all know caused a furor among Nigerians because of his views on the hell that was Biafra. It is probably the only book that I know that was reviewed by people who are yet to read the book, a big shame. I also took a detour into unfamiliar territory and devoured Lara Daniels’ romance novella, The Officer’s Bride. There was no rhyme or reason for why I chose these books; they just happened to be around, and I grabbed them to calm my nerves in the searing heat of the campaigns. I am back now, I am feeling a lot better and I promise to write more often in the traditional places where people expect my opinions. I took a lot of notes in the e-margins of these books (yes, Kindle is great like that) and I hope to cobble together my opinions on as many of these books as I can mutter. Pray that I get this done before the next presidential campaign.

In other news, a big congratulations to Chika Unigwe for winning the NLNG Prize for literature, a prize that is growing in stature and dollars. I am happy to see that the sponsors of the prize have stuck with a vision, mostly from listening to often biting criticisms. That is how it should be. The prize is still a work in progress and I shall have a lot to say down the road.  Unigwe’s victory was also a commentary on identity and porous walls. The NLNG Prize in granting eligibility to writers in the Diaspora has ensured that no Nigerian writer subject to the debilitating mediocrity of most of Nigerian publishers will ever taste that prize. Mediocrity does not compete well with imported excellence. And again, I am not referring to the Nigerian writer. Speaking of which I know of many great Nigerians on Facebook and on Twitter who should be writers based on their postings. Tell them they are writers and they embrace writer’s block.  I am back here I think, but I can’t promise I’ll stay here forever. I wail wherever dawn meets me. Let’s just make this simple, don’t wait for my blog posts, instead, follow me on twitter and on Facebook. I accept all comers.

I am enjoying reading the works of African writers, I wolf them down any and everywhere I can find them. They are doing for me, what Soyinka and Achebe’s generation did for me in my childhood. They are different writers and thinkers but they were the Internet warriors of my time. Their generation of writers taught and entertained my generation – in the absence of the mystery and magic of technology, computers and the Internet. As a teenager, I loved Soyinka’s the Jero plays, and Ake, that wondrous book ranks up there on my list of memoirs. Soyinka is a genius as a playwright, however much of his poetry does not speak to me. There are many other poets of his generation that do (JP Clark, Awoonor Williams, Okogbule Wonodi for instance); nothing against his genius, just a personal preference. My lover swoons each time she reads Telephone Conversation. Whenever I am headed to the doghouse, if I read it to her, it sometimes earns me a reprieve. I really do not much care for Soyinka’s prose; it is opaque when it should not be. How many PhD theses have been written on that (in) famous line in The Interpreters, Metal on concrete jars my drink lobes?

My favorite Achebe book is Things Fall Apart, followed by No Longer at Ease, A Man of the People, Arrow of God in no particular order. I don’t much care for Anthills of the Savannah. I love his essays,. Many people I respect have convinced me that in a technical sense at least, Arrow of God is Achebe’s best book. My dad, Papalolo, the autodidact swears by A Man of the People. He also loved No Longer at Ease. He admired the new bourgeoisie, the new intellectuals coming back home from England in those big ships and he was amused no end by their antics. I remember him, glass in hand (filled with Star Lager) twirling an imaginary key ring in his hand and going, “Sam Old chap, how’s the car behaving?” That was perhaps paraphrased from No Longer at Ease. My dad always reminds me that if I had not been born, he would have ended up in England like the Soyinkas and Achebes, and returned from England dressed in a winter coat and gloves! He also loved TM Aluko’s works, especially One Man One Wife and One Man One Matchet, don’t ask me why. Those were the days. Whenever I remember Achebe, I remember my dad Papalolo and the power of words, how one man’s words far away could connect me and my dad and bond us over a shared passion. I do love my dad and many of my stories come from him, especially Cowfoot by Candlelight. I have said he was an autodidact, he did not advance past the 8th grade but the quality of the education of his time was such that he could today put many PhDs to shame when it comes to reading and writing. Rant over. And you, my friend, this is a long rambling way of saying, keep writing. I enjoy your writing. And you know that.

Guest Blog Post – Professor Pius Adesanmi: What Does (Nigerian) Literature Secure?

By Professor Pius Adesanmi

Winner, the Penguin Prize for African Writing

Author of  You’re Not a Country, Africa!

 Keynote lecture delivered at the National Convention of the Association of Nigerian Authors

Uyo, Akwa Ibom State

November 9, 2012

Protocols!

When I first received the theme of this conference in a somber email from the soon-to-be-Dean, Faculty of Arts, University of Ibadan, I wondered what writerly demons took possession of my great friend, Professor Remi Raji, Richard Ali, Denja Abdulahi, D.M. Dzukogi, and other members of the National Executive of the Association of Nigerian Authors, and made them settle on a theme advertising such apparently incompatible terms as literature and security in the same sentence. Being a very active member of literary Cyberia (my neologistic contraction of Cyber and Nigeria), I could understand and relate to the social media part of the theme but security? National security? Was it the demons of audacity? Was it the demons of limitless and unbounded imagination, a sine qua non of our trade as writers?

Being traffickers in what Vaclav Havel, our Czech literary kindred spirit, calls “the art of the impossible”, I guess it is not too difficult to imagine a group of Nigerian writers, gathered somewhere (perhaps at abe igi in the National Theatre), struggling to hear each other above the thunderclap of Boko Haram’s bombs, the threnodic rat-a-tat of armed robbers’ machine guns, the riotous skid of kidnappers’ getaway vehicles, the boom of petrol tankers exploding daily on our roads or passenger buses suddenly thinking themselves cruise ships and taking a plunge in the river, especially in a country where setting forth at dawn is no longer an act of self-preserving prescience, our roads, skies, waterways, and half-existent railways being permanently famished; no, it is not too difficult to imagine that writers thus assaulted by the choric banality of mass deaths in this nation-space would exclaim at some point: what can we do? What is our role in all this? What can literature secure? Does literature secure?

But the assault on the senses is not merely auditory. It is also visual for our Republic of Noise – the noise of death – also offers a generous daily quota of crimson contemplation, of morbid ugliness to the eye of the citizen-beholder. Increasingly, our ways of seeing (apologies to John Berger) are clouded by the unavoidable contortions of human forms whose body fat feeds the flames consuming them, victims of the latest madness of necklacing mobs. The victims come younger and younger. You take your eyes off the raging inferno fed by the body fat of a mad country’s youth only to confront a spectacle common in the land, radically different from what Léopold Sédar Senghor of Négritude fame had in mind when he penned one of the most memorable poetic paeans to the naked body of the black woman in these lines: “naked woman, black woman/clothed with your colour which is life/with your form which is beauty!”

No, the naked body on visual offer in our Nigerian case is not the stuff of poetic jouissance and Négritude aestheticization. It is the body of the latest victim of the mob. It is the eponymous body of the pubescent or post-pubescent Nigerian female, stripped naked on campus, at the bus stop, in a mall or in any other imaginable space of quotidian errands; stripped naked by her male compatriots for stealing a blackberry, an iPad, or even a recharge card. In essence, were it even remotely possible for our putative “abe igi” group of writers to escape the auditory evidence of national insecurity all around them, they must still contend with the interpellative authority of the visual, especially in the age of social media, where violence and the desecration of the human  effectively belong in the economy of viral dissemination made possible by Youtube, Facebook, and Twitter. Sooner or later, these assembled writers must confront the question: what can we do? What is our role in all this madness? Can literature help?

If I am mapping a possible route taken by ANA EXCO to theme and sub-themes that shall exercise us in this convention, “Literature and Security”, it is because I am mindful of a certain Aristotelian dilemma in framing the very purpose of Nigerian literature. It is true, this dilemma has always been with us insofar as project nationhood has been one bloody trajectory from colonial dehumanization to the deadlier afterlives of colonialism but the Kafkaesque nature of our postcolonial present makes it all the more urgent for us to interrogate it. And the dilemma is this: if one of the key thematic strands of Aristotle’s theory of Art, especially in Poetics, is the much-bandied about notion that art imitates life, I believe we have reached that moment in our national unraveling when writers can legitimately begin to exclaim: Art we see and know but, pray, where is life?  Where death in its physical, spiritual, and metaphorical actuations dragoons a nation into what Frantz Fanon famously calls “the zone of nonbeing”, and life is marked more by its absence – or its painful emptiness when present – how does art fulfill that Aristotelian imperative of imitating life?

Although he comes into this argument from the standpoint of his philosophical engagements with religious fundamentalism, one of the postcolonial discontents emptying Nigeria of life, of too many lives too quickly, followers of Wole Soyinka’s various attempts at a Cartesian engagement with the national spectre of insecurity and death would agree that his discursive move has a double entendre. In other words, Soyinka’s various appropriations of the Cartesian cogito in his public intellection – “I am right, therefore you are dead”; “I am dead, therefore I exist” – serve as pointers to the intractable nature of this particular form of national death and prefigure the perplexity of the artist. The said perplexity brings the artist to a fundamental question: in a nihilistic national context, where death increasingly boasts its own ubiquitous ontology, when is art? Alternatively, as I am framing it here, what does or what can literature secure?

These dilemmas about literature, art, and security would be a non-starter if Africa, and Nigeria in particular, had been able to reach a Platonic nirvana which is said to be the desire of states and political entities. You may not remember many things about Aristotle but I am sure you recall that, in certain ways, he was a rebellious student who bothered little with gerontocracy. To put it in Nigerian parlance, Aristotle nor get respect for elders. This explains why the said Aristotle would exercise his intellect developing a workable theory of art imitating life while his great, illustrious teacher, Plato, preferred the easier option of banishing art and the artist from his own ideal Republic. Indeed, were Plato a Nigerian, he would by now have been rewarded with a GCON, keeping the illustrious company of Aliko Dangote and Mike Adenuga, for evincing a situation in which the state wouldn’t have to worry about art and artists.

In essence, the proper place to begin to problematize the intermesh between literature and security is the physical and corporeal integrity of the artist, the writer in our case. After all, a Yoruba adage says that when a man proposes to adorn you with rich new clothes, perhaps the most expensive lace material in town, it is proper to pause and examine what he himself is wearing. In the build-up to this conference, the moment word got out that I would be your keynote speaker, I received a number of interview requests from journalists on the ground here in Nigeria. Alas, I was only able to grant one. One of the questions that I was asked pertains to the journalist’s conceptualization of the theme of this conference. “How can writers help in solving the socio-political, economic, and security problems that Nigeria is mired in”, the literary journalist, Awaal Gaata, asked me. This question evokes the proverb I only just deployed about a stranger’s promise of new clothing. When writers in a nation under siege are forced to confront the incubus of insecurity from the standpoint of a possible Aesculapian role for their art in society, we must pause to ask whether literature has ever secured the writer himself.

Of the three national solitudes evoked in the interview question above – i.e. the role of literature in socio-political, economic, and security problems – I believe we can pass quickly, even if somewhat superficially, on number two – economic problems. Even if you are a Chika Unigwe, and you published a fantastic novel, On Black Sisters Street, which has just earned you ten million naira in prize money, there is only so much you can do to contribute meaningfully to solving Nigeria’s economic woes as a writer. In fact, if I may throw in some yabbis into this discourse, speaking of writers and economics or economic security, I must confess that I nearly changed my mind about answering the call of the Muses when I got to Ibadan in the early 1990s and saw Odia Ofeimun’s beaten and battered 17th century Volkswagen Beetle!

The second solitude, literature and socio-political issues, has a longer and stronger purchase tied to the modes of emergence and the ideological contexts of modern African literatures, related as they are to the epochal highpoints of what Okwui Enwezor has aptly called Africa’s “short century”. The charged, recovery-of-the-self atmosphere of the 20th century, which nurtured such ideological signposts as pan-Africanism, Négritude, cultural nationalism, and decolonization, and produced radical discourses of African/black agency typified by Frantz Fanon, Amilcar Cabral, Walter Rodney, and our own Chinweizu, produced a deontology which linked our literature to socio-political issues. What Achille Mbembe famously calls African modes of self-writing connects our literatures, especially Nigerian literature, with the praxis of political and cultural agency in very significant ways.

In other words, ours was mainly a literature of protest and commitment to struggles framed on the socio-political front. Art, we said, was not for art’s sake in Africa. You need not go farther than the literary-essayistic careers of Chinua Achebe and Ngugi wa Thiong’o in the last four decades for affirmation of this point. Similarly, the art and essayistic interventions of Nigeria’s radical generation of writers in the 1970s and 1980s also point to this vision of art as socio-political praxis. I am thinking here of Odia Ofeimun, Niyi Osundare, Femi Osofisan, Bode Sowande, Olu Obafemi, Tunde Fatunde, Abubakar Gimba, Wale Okediran, and Festus Iyayi, amongst others.

The third solitude, literature and security, is the most slippery. I have proposed that we start that excursus by examining the writer’s own clothes. Tying the idea of literature and security to the corporeal integrity of the Nigerian writer is not an epistemic move I am proposing just because the realities of the age of transnational terrorism, defined by what the radical leftist thinker, Tariq Ali, has called “the clash of fundamentalisms”, have forced nation-states such as America to shift the meaning of national security from its neoclassical roots in the survival of the state to the survival and personal security of the individual citizen. This is no egg and chick conundrum. The modern nation state understands that the personal security of the citizen precedes and gives birth to national security. The formation of an American Department of Homeland Security, with its focus more on securing the life of citizen on the American homeland, is emblematic of this shift towards the personal in contemporary understandings of national security.

More than this shift, however, I am proposing this move because the personal security of the writer in a nation-space that does not just see the writer as a threat to its Platonic utopia but has also completely demissioned from its sacred mandate of guaranteeing the security of the individual is a subject which cuts painfully close to the bone for Nigerian writers. The discontents of nationhood and the self-inflicted madnesses of the Nigerian project have cost us the precious lives of three writers, including a former National President of this esteemed association. We lost Christopher Okigbo. Then we lost Maman Jiya Vatsa – I remember him every time Richard Ali posts something about ANA’s Abuja plot of land in the Facebook publicity desk he runs for ANA. Then we lost Ken Saro-Wiwa.

No, poetry did not save these three writers. Literature did not secure them. It did not secure Wole Soyinka either. The only consolation art offered Soyinka, as it has done for every writer jailed for his or her art or activism, is to be an exutoire, an outlet. Africa’s prison narratives, from Soyinka’s to Jack Mapanje’s and Ngugi’s, bear testimony to this paltry consolation. The recent kidnapping of Hope Eghagha, one of our notable poets and novelists, is Nigerian insecurity’s way of reminding our literary family that even if she is no longer killing or jailing us, she is still infinitely capable of terrorizing us by whizzing the cap off our creative heads.

However, which artist has art really saved and secured in this direct sense? When has literature literally stood between the writer and the gallows? We can count the examples on the tip of our fingers. The abundance, sadly, lies in those who have perished for art’s sake. The abundance lies in writers who have been endangered, imperiled, hounded, silenced, or simply rendered irrelevant for art’s sake. Odia Ofeimun’s opening paragraph in his essay, “Postmodernism and the Impossible Death of the African Author”, is instructive:

“In 1968”, writes Ofeimun, “the year Roland Barthes, the French philosopher announced the ‘Death of the Author’, Wole Soyinka was in detention for opposing the prosecutors of the Nigerian civil war. The poet, Christopher Okigbo, had been killed in the early skirmishes of the war. Chinua Achebe was in exile, engaged in matters as distant from the literary as raising funds for and campaigning for the rise of the Biafran Sun. Mongo Beti was in Paris on a contested visa, his book soon due for banning in both his Camerounian homeland and France. Naguib Mahfouz’s book, Children of Gebelawi, was banned in his country. Camara Laye was on the run from Sékou Touré’s gendarmes. Can Themba had drunk himself to death in a Joburg shebeen. Bloke Modisane, overwhelmed by the depression of exile, was reported to have jumped down from a New York Skyscrapper, Alex la Guma was still incarcerated on Robben Island. And Dennis Brutus, freed from Robben island, was in exile as was Ezekiel Mpahlele and many other South African writers. One case parodied the other. The fortunes of the producers of African literature was evidently in such dire straits that it would not have required a stretch of the imagination to grasp what the French philosopher was talking about.”

The point must be made that just as Soyinka took on French poststructuralist critique and a certain strand of Nigerian literary criticism it engendered in his essay, “Barthes, Leftocracy, and other Mythologies”, Ofeimun in his own essay is confronting the hegemon of postmodernist theorizing and its attempts to deconstruct the writer into extinction. In the mad rush to detotalize and atomize master narratives by a Europe that had fallen into intellectual ennui after two disastrous wars, the author in postmodernist canard became a location, a text that had exhausted its own possibilities of regeneration. Ofeimun is trying to show that the latest European theoretical fad has little or no meaning for African literature. However, by painting such a graphically gory tableau, the author of The Poet Lied inadvertently raises the question of literature and security in the African context.

With Ofeimun’s essay, my questions return with all their deliberative force: whither art in the security of the artist? What guarantees the corporeal integrity of the writer? Does literature secure? If so, what does literature, Nigerian literature, secure? When, faced with Nigeria’s quotidian threats to life, the Christian sings, “only Jesus can save, only Jesus can save, alleluia”; and the Moslem responds with a similar affirmation of the Holy Prophet’s ability to save him, what is the writer’s recourse? Does he declare himself the “god of poetry” and crawl with Uzor Maxim Uzoatu into “the shadow of pagan poverty”, hoping that the violence and insecurity across this land shall consider him too poor and economically unviable for elimination? Does he acknowledge the obvious fact that art is not law enforcement and does not save in a literal sense?

Perhaps that last point – art does not save – is not entirely true? Art saved Scheherazade or, more
precisely, literature saved her life. That’s perhaps the most famous evidence we have of literature’s direct intervention in the business of security, the business of preserving life, instead of merely farming metaphors and other figures of speech to imitate or represent it. However, Scheherazade’s journey to life via the instrumentality of literature comes with a severe warning to the lazy writer. To live, Scheherazade had to enter the history books as one of the most prodigious – if not the most prodigious – storytellers of all time. She had to spend one thousand and one nights telling one thousand stories at the rate of one story per night. She could not afford boring stories laced with tired metaphors and worn clichés. She had to invest her stories with what André Breton and his fellow French surrealists call the poet’s ability to take the familiar and divest it of every trace of its familiarity. Yet she had to sustain this imaginative flow for a thousand and one nights. Excuse me, folks, but that’s like asking Toni Kan, the author of the fascinating volume of short stories, Nights of the Creaking Bed, to make that creative bed creak every night for one thousand and one nights or else…

Closer to us in time and space, art saved life or deferred death during the Zulu wars. Of the many narratives of the Zulu wars, I particularly like one that comes more from the street stories that have crystallized into myths about that war. For instance, in an interview clip in the documentary movie, Amandla, Hugh Masekela reminds us that the Zulu warriors also had their own Scheherazade moments. They would sing so beautifully, so melodiously, that the advancing imperialist armies would temporarily lay down their arms to enjoy the singing. “Wait, wait, let them finish that beautiful song before we kill them”, the imperialists would exclaim, “we can’t kill them while they sing so beautifully”! Although Professors Toyin Falola and Moses Ochonu, two of Nigeria’s brightest gifts to the discipline of history, warned me as I prepared this lecture that the claim of art intervening to save lives or to put death in temporary abeyance belongs more in the province of legend and mythologies that war inevitably generates than in the archives, I kind of like the sound of that myth all the same!

I don’t just like the fact the Zulus created a lore in which their soldiers resorted to art, musical aesthetics to be precise, to freeze the enemy like the gaze of the medusa. I also like the fact that two eminent Nigerian historians reminded me that war creates lore, legend, and mythology. In other words, wars generate narratives. The phases of existential crisis through which a people pass in the historical trajectory towards nationhood also generate accompanying narratives. By mapping these narratives, through time and space, we begin to get a handle on what it is exactly that literature secures beyond the paltry examples of Scheherazade and Zulu warriors turned emergency artists. We begin to get a handle on what Nigerian literature has tried to secure ever since a literary corpus emerged, branded by that national identity.

Reflecting on the universal dimension and symbolism of the South African struggle during his recent Steve Biko memorial lecture, our brother, Ben Okri, provides a useful window into the form of security which literature and the arts guarantee. Okri conceptualizes a people’s historical march as an upward progression towards what he calls the mountain top. The hint of The Pilgrim’s Progress is unmistakable. So is the hint of the Ayi Kwei Armah of Two Thousand Seasons. Not every people is privileged to reach that mountain top, Okri alleges. In other words, most people crawl and crawl, fording the mythological seven rivers and seven mountains but ultimately still never reaching the mountaintop. This explains why Armah sums up Africa’s march to the mountain top as “a thousand seasons wasted wandering amazed along alien roads, another thousand spent finding paths to the living way.”

For societies lucky enough to reach the mountaintop, or to at least get close enough to catch a glimpse of it, here is what Okri believes they bequeath to humanity from that auspicious location: “the value of mountain-tops is not to live on them but to see from them. To see into the magic and difficult distances, to see something of the great journey still ahead; to see, in short, the seven mountains that are hidden when we climb. It may be only once that a people have such a vision. Maybe very, very great nations have such a vision a few times, and each time they do they affect a profound renewal in their history and take a quantum leap in their development. Most nations never glimpse the mountain-top at all; never sense the vastness and the greatness of the gritty glory that lies ahead of them in the seven mountains each concealed behind the other. Maybe Ancient Greece saw such a vision a few times and dreamed up its notion of a flawed democracy and left its lasting legacy in its architecture, its literature, but above all in its political structure for unleashing its genius upon the world. Maybe Ancient Rome saw such a vision a few times too and built straight roads through history, wresting with the idea of freedom and tyranny and conquered a sizeable portion of the known world, and left for us their ambiguous legacy of empire, literature and might.”

Witness the recurrence of literature in Okri’s account of the legacies which Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome have bequeathed humanity from the mountaintop. This recurrence, I must add, is not due to professional bias on Okri’s part. The author of The Famished Road is merely foregrounding one of the fundamental functions of literature. That function inheres in the terrible power of fictional truth to secure memories of not just the past but of a future foretold, and inscribe such narrativizations in trans-temporal dimensions, which come to determine how future generations encounter and engage a people’s march towards the mountaintop. In essence, a people’s march towards the mountaintop is also a function of the stories they tell to temporalize their epic struggles. Not every society reaches the mountaintop, warns Okri and that is true. Methinks, however, that every society tells and records the story of the march, of triumphs and travails, of failures and successes, of reversals and progress, of ups and downs, of heroism and betrayal, of war and peace, of love and hate.

Fictional truth secures these memories and acquires an authority superior to other modes of recording. This trans-temporal authority of fictional truth is the only reason why we view Ancient Greece today largely through her arts, mostly her literature and architecture. Think of the trials and tribulations of that society during the years of the Peloponnesian War. Think of The History of the Peloponnesian War, a magisterial account of that war written by the great historian, Thucydides, and ask yourselves why our civilization, looking back at Ancient Greece today, prefers memories of that war and era secured by the fictional truths of the Greek tragedians, especially Sophocles and Euripides. Why does our current civilization prefer to gaze at Ancient Rome through the fictional truths of a Virgil than the documentary accounts of an historian like Tacitus?

The answer to these questions is bad news for my earlier-mentioned professional historian friends, Professors Toyin Falola and Moses Ochonu. For, I am saying that a thousand, two thousand years from now, a future civilization will look beyond the archives constituted by disciplinary history and privilege the truths secured by Nigerian fiction today as a window into how we negotiated our march towards the mountaintop, the roads taken and the road not taken (apologies to Robert Frost), how we lived, laughed, loved, and hated. How we kidnapped. How we bombed. How we killed. How we pogromed. If, as it is tempting to predict, given our talent for self-inflicted national injuries, we somehow never make it to the mountaintop, we need not worry. Our literature will secure that failure against forgetting.

Why do people privilege the security offered against forgetting by literature and the arts? Does it have something to do with the aphorism that when the chips fall wherever they may, literature and the arts are the only evidence, the only trace that a civilization truly leaves behind? Civilizations whose skeletal remains defy even radio carbon dating have left us the marvel of rock paintings. When the artist, Victor Ekpuk, looks for what remains of his forbears, the only window he has left to reconnect with them is the scribal art that has defied time, Nsibidi. Does the privileging of the security offered by literature and the arts have something to do with man’s fundamental instinct of self-preservation? Does a civilization disappear, confident that evidence of its passage through time has been secured by the scribal talents of her writers and artists?

I got a near answer to these provocations sometime last year on a Nigerian listserv. More on internet listervs later but suffice it to say that listservs are part of the internet revolution which has extended the boundaries of the imagined in the imagined community that is project Nigerian nationhood. There are alternative imaginaries of nationhood going on in listservs, especially among Nigerians in the diaspora. Thus it was that somebody posted one of those grating, provocative commentaries of Wole Soyinka. We know that Soyinka’s essayistic interventions in Nigeriana do not fail to provoke passionate reactions.

That particular intervention of his considerably irked a respected Nigerian Professor of Mathematics in Canada. The Professor in question boasts a mouth-watering CV in his field. I cannot emphasize it enough that he is one of our very best. Yet, in a remarkable display of intellectual collapse, he rushed to the listservs lambasting Soyinka. Soyinka needs to be humble, says our Professor of Mathematics. Those who win the Nobel Prize in Literature should understand that theirs is inferior to the Nobel Prizes in the sciences. Where laureates in Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, and Medicine are talking, Soyinka should be humble and keep quiet or he should hold a rapid dialogue with his legs. I am not making any of this up. It’s in the archives of Nigerian listservs. The mathematician was not done yet. What exactly is it that literature even contributes to society? Only the sciences, the hard sciences, have any bearing on human development, he enthused. Literature, writers, only tell stories to entertain us and we humour them by listening to them. Folks, imagine what would have happened if this Professor, who doesn’t think that literature offers much beyond storytelling and entertainment (he subsequently tried hard to do damage control while essentially not giving up his claims) had heard that the Association of Nigerian Authors had dared to gather to reflect on the role of literature in security! He would have had a heart attack.

On my own account, after miraculously escaping a cardiac arrest from reading the Professor’s reflections vis-a-vis the worthlessness of literature and the inferiority of the Nobel Prize for Literature compared to its illustrious elder brothers in Physics, Mathematics, Chemistry, and Medicine, I wanted to intervene in that thread. I was still contemplating where or how to begin when Oluwatoyin Adepoju, a ubiquitous literary presence on Nigerian listservs, recovered from his own shock and exclaimed, among his several responses to the subject matter, that literature and culture are the windows into how peoples across times have domesticated and applied science. He averred further that the security of the sciences depends on how they are imagined and narrativized by the civilizations they inhabit and such narrativizations are often the world’s and history’s window into a particular culture. I saved my breath after Mr. Adepoju’s intervention. He had said it all. I didn’t need to jump into the thread by pointing out Gyan Prakash’s work, Another Reason: Science and the Imagination of Modern India, on the role of science in colonial India and how imperial narratives of the native ultimately defined how science was applied to his body and environment in line with the overall objectives of Empire. Even almighty science is subject to narratives – a.k.a the art – of its own becoming.

Writers are the world’s window into a culture. That was a key aspect of Mr. Adepoju’s contribution to the discussion in question. In essence, those looking back at today’s Nigeria a thousand years from now will detect evidence of our literature’s attempts to offer the security of a predicted future. They will read Wole Soyinka’s A Dance of the Forests, Chinua Achebe’s A Man of the People, and the Menippean satires of T.M. Aluko, especially Chief The Honourable Minister, and glean evidence of the errors of the rendering. They will gain insights into how fictional truth imperils the artist ironically through its own vatic function. Let’s not forget the reaction to A Dance of the Forest by a political establishment which, like the dog, failed to hear the hunter’s whistle and perished in the forest of postcolonial anomie.

If it is clear from the foregoing that beyond Scheherazade, beyond Zulu warriors turned musical aesthetes, Nigerian literature offers the security of memory and the armour with which to shatter the carapace of forgetting, it is equally pertinent to add that the vatic essence of fictional truth is an attribute which makes it a very dangerous truth indeed. Although societies across time and civilizations have preferred to disdain the forms of mnemonic security a writer has to offer through his art, casting the writer as a Cassandra figure, often never believed until writerly prescience has become regrettable actuality down the road, the truth is that society has a fatal attraction to, a love-hate relationship with the writer’s truth. This truth places a double-edged sword in the hands of the writer. Tell the truth and be damned; don’t tell the truth and be damned.

In the attempt to secure memory and social history with this double-edged sword, the writer often discovers that the security, which his work guarantees for the social body, is hardly ever coterminous with the security of the writer. There is often a terrible opportunity cost: secure memory and forego your own security. This is true because society hardly accords the writer the privilege of value-free, personal remembering. Neither does the writer enjoy the privilege of exercising other forms of prose that are not deemed to carry the authority of fiction. Those of you who have read Salman Rushdie’s new memoir, Joseph Anton, would have followed that writer’s rude introduction to this double jeopardy. If he wrote fiction and entitled it The Satanic Verses, trouble! If he wrote non-fiction and entitled it Imaginary Homelands, wahala!

Chinua Achebe is, of course, currently caught up in these tensions between a writer’s prose, a writer’s security, and the security of public memory. I do not wish to rehash the arguments for and against Achebe but we are all aware of the current situation with There Was a Country. We may raise legitimate questions about the memory the book secures: is it the memory of Biafra? Is it the memory of Nigeria? Is it both memories in their overlapping, fractal, and fratricidal actuations? For my purposes here, that is not where the issue lies. The point, for me, is to try to understand why a writer’s act of remembering – among the mountains of scribal acts of remembering on all sides of our civil war tragedy – is the most susceptible to generating national hysteria. And of all the reactions to Achebe’s book, I am interested in knowing what seems to have conferred an extra authority on an act of counter-remembrance by another writer. I am talking of Odia Ofeimun’s extended treatise, “The Forgotten Documents of the Nigerian Civil War.”

I raise this point because Northrop Frye, perhaps the 20th century’s most significant critic of literature and prose, has a few things to say about memoirs and autobiography. According to Frye, “autobiography is another form which merges with the novel by a series of insensible gradations. Most autobiographies are inspired by a creative, and therefore fictional, impulse to select those events and experiences in the writer’s life that go to build up an integrated pattern. This pattern may be something larger than himself with which he has come to identify himself or simply the coherence of his character and attitudes.” Frye goes on to trace the mutations of this intensely personal form of prose to the confessional modes of St. Augustine and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

If what Frye, and indeed, most theorists of creative non-fiction – the genre which houses memoir and autobiography – have to say above is true, it raises the question: why is Achebe not allowed to recollect or select aspects of his life in tranquility? And why are reactions to Ofeimun’s counter-remembering just as passionate, just as heated? The answer is simple. The non-fiction prose of both writers enjoys the symbolic authority of their fiction. There is such a thing as a symbolic capital that comes with the designation “writer” which makes ordinary things suddenly become extraordinary when touched by a writer. History and its scripting become extraordinary the moment two writers, Achebe and Ofeimun, enter into its domain, hence the passion.

If there is a generation of Nigerian writers whose relationship to project nationhood carries the burden of these tensions between social memory, public memory, and security, it is, undoubtedly, my generation. I don’t know why this is so but we sometimes use our friend, Harry Garuba, as the borderline between the generation of the seventies and the early eighties and my own generation. For critical convenience, the critic, Chris Dunton and myself have edited peer-reviewed international journals in which we called mine the third generation of Nigerian writing, a designation that has not come without controversy. Obu Udeozo prefers the expression, “third wave writing”. The publication of Harry Garuba’s Voices from the Fringe in 1988 effectively marked the coming out parade of this generation. Most of them are poets. We were still more than a decade away from the rise to dominance of prose fiction beginning from the 2000s, a rise enhanced no doubt by an avalanche of international literary prizes by members of my generation. But in the late-1980s to the early late 1990s, Nigeria’s social memory expressed itself mainly in the poetry of my generation.

If you examine the social memory inscribed in the poetics of my generation from the perspective of what it sought to secure it from – or against as the case may be – you will discover that the idea of which nation’s memory is being secured becomes quite fuzzy, quite uncertain, shorn of a unifying centre, such as ritual or mythopoeia, which had tied the works of earlier generations to project nationhood. No matter how expansive and how ambitiously itinerant the imagination is, it is always possible to detect a silhouette of either the national or the ethno-national centre in the poetics of Achebe, Soyinka, and Clark; in the restless social realism of Osundare, Osofisan, Obafemi, Okediran (what a succession of Os!) and Iyayi, whose novel, Violence, typifies this trend. To the question – was there a country? – the work and praxis of the generations before mine had an answer: yes, Nigeria.

With the poetry of Obu Udeozo, Uche Nduka, Idzzia Ahmad, Remi Raji, Obu Udeozor, Ogaga Ifowodo, Olu Oguibe, Afam Akeh, Chiedu Ezeanah, Obi Nwakanma, Amatoritsero Ede, Nduka Otiono, David Diai, Obi Iwuanyanwu, Nnorom Azuonye, Toyin Adewale, Nike Adesuyi, Angela Nwosu, and Unoma Azuah, the answer to that question becomes as tentative as it is contested. Harry Garuba has astutely used the poetry of Emman Shehu as an inroad to the loss of the unifying ethno-national centre in Nigerian literature with the advent of my generation.  Therefore, even if this poetry speaks to the socio-political problems of the world it inhabits, which Remi Raji tries to gather into bowls of laughter in A Harvest of Laughters – I suspect it is the bitter laughter that his people call “erin oyinbo” – we get the constant hint from this generation that a transnational imaginary is the only security against the atrophy of project nationhood.

Perhaps, it has something to do with the fact that this generation of writers is the literary contemporary of Andrew, that eponymous popular-cultural character who first offered flight as a praxilic response to generalized insecurity. So, Remi Raji, Olu Oguibe, Ogaga Ifowodo, Obu Udeozo and so many others went on to invest in an aesthetics of that-which-is-home-but-not-recognizable. While the body of the poet was willing to remain rooted as we see in Oguibe’s canonical poem, “I am Bound to this Land by Blood”, the spirit must free itself and roam to mine security and succor in a transnational world that is precariously claimed, as we see in Afam Akeh’s poems thematizing England, Uche Nduka’s “Aquacade in Amsterdam”, Amatoritsero Ede’s “Globe Trotter”, and the direction that Remi Raji’s creative sensibilities took in the collection, Shuttle Songs America, and a recent travelogue published on Facebook, dedicated to his Ukrainian poetic peregrination.

Speaking of Raji ‘publishing’ creative non-fiction on Facebook, the rise of Cyberia poses the question of border security in a very real, literal sense. The phase of Nigerian writing which houses writers I don’t even ever have to meet face to face to feel like I’ve known them my whole life, largely because they have social media personas, is an interesting phase indeed. It is an age where literature has been nervous about losing the book form as we know it – I first heard about this anxiety from Nadine Gordimer way back in 2000 at a conference I attended with Harry Garuba in Pretoria. It’s a long way now from the year 2000 and those intervening years have seen Nigerian literature gradually migrate to Cyberia, first as listserv discourse with the birth of Krazitivity in 1999, to the rise of Nnorom Azuonye’s Sentinel literary empire with its poetry bar, and now to the efflorescence of forms of literature associated with blogs, Facebook, and Twitter.

Richard Ali, Tolu Ogunlesi, A. Igoni Barrett, Ifedigbo Nze Sylva, Jumoke Verissimo, Chinyere Obi-Obasi, Egbosa Imasuen, Uche Peter Umez, Ukamaka Olisakwe, Paul T. Liam, Su’eddie Vershima Agema,Onyekachi Peter Onuoha, Rosemary Ede, Saddiq M. Dzukogi, and so many brilliant writer-citizens of Cyberia face border security problems beyond the simple threat to the book. There is a democracy that comes with social media and it has radically transformed the idea of the writer. Everybody with a blackberry and a blog is now a potential writer. We may wax puritanical here, declaring that we know who a writer is; the problem is with cultural shifts in the West that seem to validate the idea of a nomenclatural borderlessness when it comes to who is a writer in the age of social media. For instance, in Canada where I reside, Canada Writes organizes tweet challenges in which they ask writers and aspiring writers all over the country to condense creative writing into tweets. But the pressure for the writer to become a netizen increases by the day. Salman Rushdie and Paulo Coelho are social media celebrities. In our case, I sometimes fear that the fiery US-based literary and cultural critic, Ikhide Ikheloa, may soon require a certificate of social media occupancy to consider a Nigerian writer worthy of his attention.

It is in this expanded context, where literature is increasingly determined by very loose understandings and definitions, that our emergent crop of writers must try to secure not just the social memory of their own generation. This new cultural context challenges their very ability to own stories devolving from our national experiences, good and bad, in the global marketplace of creativity. What does it mean, for instance, that one of the most powerful accounts of South Africa’s attempt to exorcise the ghosts of Apartheid through the truth and reconciliation framework has been written by an American? I am sure you have heard of the blockbuster novel, Absolution, by Patrick Flanery? What does it mean that the novel that will probably settle the argument over the national origin of 419 is not Tricia Adaobi Nwaubani’s I do Not Come to You by Chance but a novel recently published by a Canadian writer, which has just been awarded Canada’s biggest literary Prize, the Giller Prize? The ownership of stories South African and Nigerian by an American and a Canadian writer has been facilitated largely by social media. We live in days and times when a Tibetan Monk can write an authentic Nigerian story, in an authentic Nigerian voice, after spending a year on Twitter and Facebook.

A generation owned the idea of a homeland and narrativized it in terms of unifying rituals of self-recovery from rape that was colonial. When the mourning after set in shortly after independence and disillusionment weighed heavy on the soul, another generation of Marxist and quasi-Marxist hotheads tried to press social realism into the service of a struggle against self-inflicted postcolonial injuries in the 1970s and the 1980s. A subsequent generation, mine, tried to secure forms of attachment to that homeland despite the inevitable pull of the transnational moment. Now, a new generation must deal – or is it cope? – with the existence of a parallel world which admits of no boundaries whatsoever, be it geographical or even the old boundaries that secured the identity of literature, differentiating creative prose from other forms of writing. It is also a world in which ownership of national imaginaries is no longer easy to determine as a piece of flash fiction could appear anywhere as a Facebook update, telling stories we thought we owned. When social media expands democratic access to the Other’s story and chanhes the dynamics of its onwership, what Nigerian stories will our vibrant new generation of netizen-writers own? On whose terms are they going to tell those stories? Mark Zuckerberg’s?

I thank you for your time and patience.

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