The Writer: Identity and Purpose

by Ikhide R. Ikheloa

First published in Next Newspapers, August 20, 2010

 Fifty years ago Professor Chinua Achebe stunned the world with the novel, Things Fall Apart, a muscular response to the stereotypical way the world viewed Africa in her stories, Driven by fierce pride in our Africa, recoiling from stories that had turned Africa into a disease-ridden pit of mumbling savages, he set out to prove the truth in the East African adage: “Until the lions produce their own historian, the story of the hunt will glorify only the hunter.”  Achebe was one of an elite squad of super-bright intellectual leaders out of Africa that jacked up conventional prejudiced opinion against the wall of the world’s conscience.

I am in awe of Things Fall Apart. I read it regularly and I always discover something new and insightful in its pages each time I read it. I also marvel at the energy and fierce determination that it took to produce such a masterpiece in a world without word processors and the wondrous tools of the computer and the Internet. Achebe’s generation of writers certainly was seized by a grand vision and in their books they laid it out often with sweeping imagery and majesty. That generation’s energy and disciplined sense of purpose is awe inspiring. Think of what it took to edit Achebe’s manuscript and the energy it required to publish it overseas.

It is virtually impossible to detect an editing issue in Things Fall Apart. This is a miracle considering when, where and how it was written. Achebe’s generation also had the heavy burden of entertaining the community in the absence of the ubiquity of television and the Internet. And they delivered, writing books that even when bereft of any message or ideology, simply delighted and entertained. There was coherence and a consistency in quality and message and it was possible to define and identify a great generation of African writers.

Fast forward to today. Sad to say five decades later, the Nigerian publishing industry is still virtually as inchoate as the environment that drove Things Fall Apart to be published abroad in the fifties. In many ways when you adjust for all the enormous resources available to today’s publishers, one could argue that the publishing industry has gotten worse since then. Sure there are bright spots, but these are sadly outliers. Nigerian writers understandably continue to look to the West for relief from the mediocrity at home. This is a shame; there are many reasons why things are in near disarray; it is not all the fault of our publishers: To say for instance that successive Nigerian governments have been irresponsible is to engage in polite understatement. There is not a shortage of passionate, talented writers willing to write today’s story. But the sad quality of the production mirrors the sad quality of virtually every production from virtually every Nigerian institution. Art imitates life’s reality.

Many Nigerian writers are worthy ambassadors and they do good things for Nigeria. The best of them have been adopted by well funded Western individuals and institutions. The unintended consequence has been to emphasize the narcissistic individualism of our best thinkers. Too self-absorbed to be relevant to Nigeria, they are busy grabbing prizes from the West while giving Westerners condescending lectures for being avuncular and patronizing towards them. They openly eat the cake offered them and demand it back. Given the abysmal state of today’s Nigeria it seems self indulgent for our writers to be jetting around the world, lecturing white folks that we are humans deserving respect.

Many Nigerian writers seem obsessed with garnering lucrative prizes, engaging in gimmicks to enhance book sales, etc. I call it writing to the smell test of dollars. Short stories are hurriedly written to order for the enjoyment of white Johns in return for dollars: “Um, write us a story, fill it with huts, army generals and peasants. I liked the line in your delectable short story, Things Rotten in Nigeria “the fish in the egusi had a face! Brilliant!”

Apparently superciliousness is not exclusive to Nigerian writers. I do love the Caine Prize for African Writing. It has been great for African literature and I applaud the vision of its founders and funders. The Sierra Leonean Olufemi Terry is the 2010 winner of the prize. After winning, however, he assured the BBC that it was “unhelpful” to see writers from Africa as a unique category. Hear Terry: “There is a danger in seeking authenticity in African writing,” He then hoped that winning the prize would help him get his book published.  This is where I lose it with our writers. Terry knew what the Caine writing prize is all about. Hello, it is called the Caine Prize for African Writing, for Heaven’s sakes. Nobody put a gun to his head to compete for the prize. He wrote a short story to the test of this particular prize and he won based on his very “African” short story.  He then proceeds to chide the West for calling him an African writer. Olufemi Terry does not deserve the Caine prize. He should return the prize.