The Poet Lives in Us

As someone who thoroughly enjoys reading Nigerian poetry, let me just observe that several of our new poets are timid holdovers from the Soyinka-Okigbo era; that era that Chinweizu famously derided as unreadable and obscurantist. Such an uncritical adherence to that era ignores the fact that even as oblique as their works were, Wole Soyinka and Christopher Okigbo were truly relevant to the times in at least one sense. They spoke in decipherable code to their fellow intellectuals (some of them in military uniform) and the intended audience listened closely. Soyinka has many seasons of incarceration to show for the effectiveness of his poetic rage. Okigbo died carrying his message.

An uncritical adherence to a Euro-centric approach has the unintended consequence of isolating our best voices, and assigning their songs to a pantheon of obscure mediocrity. On behalf of our long-suffering people, I would like to urge a return of voices to the true songs of our people. Africa cannot afford the consignment of its griots to the barracks of the unreadable. How does the poet become truly relevant to the yearnings and anxieties of our people?

Soyinka, Gabriel Okara, Okigbo, these poets spoke to the oppressors in the language they understood. Our new oppressors do not understand the complex nuance of the type of poetry that many of our poets seem to favor, that pass the smell test in the West. And if therefore they do not read our poetry, when will they hear the clanging of the chains around our people’s necks? Which begs the question again: What are our poets living for today? It is about seizing opportunities. Our lands lie devastated, enduring rape upon rape. Our poets stare stunned, in disbelief and in shame, because, this time, their voices have been drowned in shallow pools of self-absorption. Word to the poet: turn your poems into songs of freedom, and let your songs morph into weapons of war. We are at war, what are you doing stringing together incoherent sentences?

The poet lives, breathes in all of us. And as Soyinka would probably say it, the poet dies in all who keep silent in the face of tyranny. Let us honestly divine the difference between poetry and unadulterated drivel. The consumer is the ultimate arbiter of what good poetry is and what is painful to the eyes. But I miss the haunting lyricism and imagery of poets like Okogbule Wonodi. Hear him sing to me: “But we have poured more wine/than the gods can drink/more than the soil can drink/and have become outcasts/dispersing the fishes/for which the baskets are laid/and the fisherman did not like us.” [Okogbule Wonodi, Icheke: IV]

Is Wonodi a bad poet? I would never know. I hope that there are many more bad poets where he came from. I come from a land of simple people who hide deep meanings inside simple words. One has to listen carefully to my people to get the insult or the accolade. I look for those kinds of poems to enjoy. Freed from the stifling confines of classrooms, I have taught myself to only pay for that which my heart seeks. If a poem turns out to be what the acerbic reviewer Randall Jarrell refers to as giving “the impression of having been written on a typewriter by a typewriter,” I will simply move on quietly to a more worthy pursuit. Our poetry is not dead; it just needs packaging.

Thriving societies of thinkers and doers look at their world and they see visions of possibilities and they say, why not? We have inherited a culture that celebrates customs as sacrosanct, and the past poses as the present tense. The great societies take their best thinkers and exhort them to think, no, dream of a better world, and worry about the constraints later. Every day, we lose our tenuous grip on our continent; I think we are going to drown in the syrupy fluid of Western customs and traditions.

In the beginning there were walls. And in the beginning walls defined every being and everything. The Berlin Wall is no more and poets lament the coming of the new dispensation. Except that the new dispensation is not new; it is here. Books are dying, poetry as we know it is limping on life support and prose is hawking her wares in obscure literary journals like a junkie in need of a fix.  But the world lives, life goes on and ideas continue to rock our foundations. In the seeming irrelevance of the written word, the poet lives. Poet, do not cripple your voice with silly little sentences that make sense only to the terminally drunk. I say, speak up, don’t stutter. Straighten up and lift our people’s dreams on the strong backs of your strong voices, and carry them through to the deaf myrmidons of darkness who live beyond the valley of darkness, past the hills of decadence. And sing it; sing it for a people long used to the silence of her priests. The poet lives. The poet lives in all of us.

For Professor Toyin Falola: Celebrating Our Stories…

Writing is a mystery. Why do we think about things and write them down? Writing is a laborious, messy, painful, sensual, time consuming process. The poor soul drawn to this form of self-flagellation er self-expression may attract fame, more likely notoriety, but it is almost always the case that riches will not accrue from this disability. Disability? Yes. Many would consider the ability to write and engage an audience a gift, but one suspects that a typical writer would confess to a crushing burden, of sometimes having to stop any and everything to record something. Many times, that something makes absolutely no sense. The truly burdened or gifted writer is moved by an unseen hand to transport mind matter through the hand into words – of wonder and sometimes of inanity. It is what it is, a mystery. But in the fiction of our word griots lies the history of our people.

Africa’s owners of words have attained a new status as custodians of our history because the oral history of our clans cannot compete with the written. Warriors die with their stories and the living are left to re-tell the stories. Stuff gets lost in the re-telling, memory is a forgetful lover. Some of the best poets I have ever known died without ever writing a book. Many more will die. It is the nature of things. But then, there is no book robust enough to capture all of history. History is easily distorted, as Chinua Achebe reminds us with the East African proverb, “Until the lions produce their own historian, the story of the hunt will glorify only the hunter.” We know now that much of what passes for African history is defined by the (white) written, much of it distorted by the lenses of the (white) historian. It does not help that many African historians have fled to more nurturing societies where they unwittingly toil at writing and teaching someone else’s perversion of African history. What remains is remarkable only for its shoddiness and laziness of craft.

American history is deeply and apologetically Eurocentric and indifferent to those periods that make the majority uncomfortable. Indeed re-writing the right history of America will soon become a civil rights issue.   Every day young warriors of color swim mean seas, scale impossible peaks and ride on the roofs of indifferent trains into America (“illegal aliens” these beautiful warriors are called) and they forcibly change the landscape. You don’t see that in the history books of this country, because it is HIS-story, NOT our story.  In fifth grade my daughter Ominira’s class Ominira participated in a “field trip” called Westward Ho where they were required to reprise the rush West. As parents, we were required to walk behind them through brooks, streams, hills and all sorts of contrived hurdles designed to simulate the white man’s struggle to get to Nirvana. Nowhere was there mention of the fate of Native Americans and needless to say, the fate of black slaves was nowhere to be observed. I almost wept when in the evening, my daughter broke away from a dance to offer me “Santa Fe Stew and corned bread”, dressed in an apron and a bonnet. The conquest is complete and irreversible.

While we are being frog-marched to Babylon, we can at least sing ourselves our songs. Upon the death of Dim Ojukwu, many of us donned the flag of Biafra. One young Nigerian reached out to me on Facebook and asked what the flag was about. I told him. He asked me to tell him more about Biafra. I asked him how old he was. 35 years old. A man born in Nigeria in the 70’s told me that very little of Biafra was taught him in school. How can that be? After all these moons living far away from the land that cradles my placenta, I have become aware of the power of the historian. Many events have shaped my awareness. Dark were the days when I visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC and the Hector Pietersen Museum in Soweto, dark were the days.  Civilization is a euphemism for barbarism, markers for those humiliating periods when the world went mad.

Many versions of our history lie in the fiction of our griots, from Ngugi Wa Thiong’o to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and finally to Professor Toyin Falola. Falola? Google Falola and your computer may crash from the umpteen hits. I will never forget reading his autobiography, A Mouth Sweeter than Salt: An African Memoir which I reviewed here.  Falola has probably written dozens of books about the African journey. One of them, Etches on Fresh Waters, a collaborative effort in poetry with Dr. Aderonke Adesola Adesanya is a coffee table book with muscle. It sits my living room with pride, showcasing the dignity of our humanity.  Falola does not know it, but like Achebe, Soyinka, Ngugi, Adichie, Pius Adesanmi, Okey Ndibe, Lola Shoneyin, Chika Unigwe and others, he is an inspiration to many of us.  On this February, what we call Black History Month in America, I rise to salute you, Alagba Falola.

Lost in America: At the Bookstore…

America. I am at the bookstore shopping for a gift to celebrate a friend’s retirement. She must leave with a piece of me. Procrastination dropped the day on me without warning and I had to go to a bookstore to buy a book. Who does that anymore? I will give my friend Teju Cole’s new book, Open City. She loves New York, classical music, art, museums, classical music, pretty people, gourmet food and wines, and stuff like that. She will like Open City, there’s lots of that in the book.

At the bookstore. There are computer monitors everywhere, you can look up who and what you want and you can even print a map that takes you to the book inside the store. I don’t like going to bookstores. I feel sheepish inside this huge bookstore. I ignore the computers; I did not come to the bookstore to play with computers. Customer Service. I tell a young man, I guess I can look it up myself, but maybe you can help me, do you have Teju Cole’s book, Open City? He looks at me with practiced faux enthusiasm, Oh sure, glad to help! I spell T-E-J-U C-O-L-E and tell him proudly, he wrote Open City. The clerk looks it up on the computer, nope, it is not in stock, I can order it for you.  Nope, I say, not unless you can postpone my friend’s retirement party. What about Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie? I spell A-D-I-C-H-I-E. I do not spell the other names. He divines his computer again. Ah yes, Purple Hibiscus, Half of a Yellow Sun, The Thing Around Your Neck. He says they are in Fiction upstairs. Wow, Fiction upstairs! Not in “Black American,” not in “African-Caribbean,” not in the back of the bookstore, gathering dust with losers. Nice.

I decline the young man’s offer to take me to Fiction, and thank him profusely, nice man. I will go to Fiction upstairs, browse around and pick out something nice for my friend.  At Fiction, I start with G for Petina Gappah, yes, my friend will like An Elegy for Easterly, I love that book, I must have given away half a dozen to grateful readers. There is no Gappah, too bad. This is why bookstores are dying all over America, who needs this? My laptop Cecelia always has these books, point, click and pay, and they show up in three days, plus free shipping.

I scoot over to the A section, A for Adichie, Chris Abani, Chinua Achebe, Uwem Akpan. Abani’s Graceland is there posing with attitude, no, I don’t want my friend to attempt suicide with such a depressing book. Akpan is there with Say You’re One of Them, no, I don’t want my friend to attempt suicide with such a depressing book.  All of Achebe’s books are there; Arrow of God, Things Fall Apart, etc. No more Achebe, please, we have skyscrapers in Africa now and we eat ice cream, she won’t like reading about cute yam farmers. I settle on Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun. I also grab a copy of Pablo Neruda’s 100 Love Sonnets; don’t ask me why, it is a long delightful story.

The cashier’s line is a pleasant line, summer is all lined up. A pretty lady behind me keeps smiling at me, I wonder what is wrong. There is a mother-daughter couple in front of me; they seem to thoroughly love being with each other and my heart yearns for my daughters and sons. I wonder where they are, what they are doing.  My turn. A cashier with auburn tresses calls me up to the counter. I am a member of the store’s club; I give her my identification number so she can shave off a few pennies from my bill. She pulls up my information and pronounces my name the way my ancestors like it. Her tongue wraps around my father’s name like she owns it. Wow! Lovely! I beam with pride at the mention of my name in all the right places. I compliment her profusely, impressive!

She squirms happily like a puppy offered treats. Did I pronounce it right? Yes, thanks! Good! When I was young I had an impossible to pronounce name also so I take care to pronounce impossible to pronounce names correctly. Thanks, I gush with gratitude. From West Africa? Yes, I cry with pleasure, I am going to fall in love with this soulmate! Which country? Nigeria, I say with pride. I passed through Nigeria once. Really? Which Airport? Lagos. As she mentions Lagos, her eyes lower into pretty ice picks, I was going to Senegal and the Congo. They stole my luggage in Lagos, it was awful. She spits out the dagger-words sweetly. Her pain stabs my pain. I deflect. How was Senegal? It was okay, a bit too sleek, I liked the Congo. The Congo was innocent. Innocent! Oh Africa! I flee with my bag of books. Memo to self: Please begin to catalogue all the losses you have endured everywhere in America. Beginning with this bookstore.

Ikhide the Terrible (Book Critic)

I get a lot of feedback on my columns, publicly and privately, I always appreciate those. Sometimes people write to hurl abuse at me under an alias; I find that cute because I can usually guess at the source from the literary style if the author is a prolific writer. Literary styles are like fingerprints, each one is unique to the author. I was reminded of my plight when I recently read Philip Hensher’s review of James Thackara’s The Book of Kings. This mother of mean reviews is full of well-crafted put-downs that are sure to end the career of even the most stoic of writers. I also read Amy McKie’s honest and fairly blunt review of Professor Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo’s new book on the Nigerian civil war, Roses and Bullets. Amy was not happy with the book, which is a mean feat in itself; she is blessed with an even temperament. For her efforts, she heard loudly from Adimora-Ezeigbo’s fans. They were not happy with her and they lectured her on her blog. Interestingly enough, when I had earlier complained about the book in Of Biafra, Roses, Bullets and Valium, I suffered the same fate in the hands of her fans. Professor Adimora-Ezeigbo has a lot of loyal fans.

My detractors scoff at the idea that I am a critic. They are right; I am not a book critic. What I am is a consumer, a consumer of ideas. I do read a lot of books and offer my views as a consumer of the books. If I like the book, I fawn all over the author. If I hate the book, I retch all over the book. It is my right, especially since I buy most of the books I comment on. I am a picky consumer, yes, that is what I am. I have a huge problem with being called a book critic because it assumes that all I do all day is sit around patiently waiting for someone to write a book so I can gleefully pee on the book. First of all, I don’t think in the year 2012 people should be calling themselves “book critics”; that is so yesterday. The book is dying and ideas live everywhere now. We should have ideas critics. Let’s start a new industry of media critics; there is money to be made in ether!

So, I have gotten a lot of not-so positive feedback based on my loud opinions about books and the politics of literature. They have ranged in temperament. Emmanuel Iduma’s 2011 Caine Prize: Ikhide’s Complaint and Mukoma Wa Ngugi’s Wanted dead or alive: Happy African Writers, are polite but firm analyses of my works. However, a few have been fairly abusive. I am a faithful fan of the Nigerian writer Ngozi Chimamanda Adichie, but when I sheepishly suggested that her book The Thing Around Your Neck was not quite ready for prime time (here), her fans literally declared a fatwa on me. I am still in hiding.

A while back I got a request from a friend to review his friend’s book. I thought the book was awful and shared my thoughts with him via private email. He forwarded the email to his friend (sigh!) who responded with thunderous fury. He called me an arrogant   ignoramus. I am not an ignoramus. Another time, the writer Ahmed Maiwada was kind enough to send me his book Musdoki to read; I did not like many things about the book and I said so. That created a ruckus the likes of which I probably will never witness again. His friends threw him a pity party, and the wailing and carrying on was heart-rending. I was called all sorts of hilarious names, my favorite being an ignorant ethnocentrist who cannot stand successful Northern writers. For the record, Southern writers vehemently disagreed with this falsehood; they countered that I am an equal-opportunity jerk who hates ALL African writers.

A while back, the writer Sefi Atta launched an attack on me from an unrelated question during an interview. I remembered reviewing her book several years ago. Apparently she never forgot that review; her comments about my person are unprintable. Well, here is what she said: “I’m only aware of one critic who reviewed Swallow negatively, and that was in Next. Apparently, he is a bit of a joke and his reviews barely qualify as blogs.” I don’t remember her expressing her appreciation when I fawned all over her book Everything Good Will Come. I live in her head rent-free. We should both go to counseling to sort this out.

The latest writer to throw mud at what’s left of my dignity is Professor Tanure Ojaide. I love Ojaide’s poetry, but I do think he should stay away from prose, he is just not good at it and I said as much many years back when I read his novel, The Activist. Since then, it has stayed with him and finally this January, he lashed out at me in the Sun newspaper: “I don’t know whether it was a misadventure. Ikhide Ikheloa, who made that statement is not a serious critic. He also said a similar thing on Akachi Ezeigbo’s latest work, Bullets and Roses, saying he read only four pages and threw it away and that nobody should read the book. Nobody takes him seriously as a critic.”  Hmmm. I don’t know what I am, but one thing I know is this: I am not going away. Enjoy the review that has kept the gentle professor up at night. Here.