Femi Osofisan: A Song for JP Clark, Our JP Clark

by Ikhide R. Ikheloa

The playwright Professor Femi Osofisan has quietly written a book on John Pepper-Clark Bekederemo, enigmatically titled JP Clark: A Voyage bearing the name the world knows him by still. All I can say is this: JP Clark, the book, is a masterpiece of quiet industry, prodigious intellect and simmering passion, one told lovingly by a master story teller. It is also an important book that should be handed out to every student of African literature. John Pepper-Clark Bekederemo’s contributions to African literature are muscular and this book makes that point eloquently and puts to shame any other biographical work that has been written on Clark (yes, let’s call him Clark). It also says to African writers, we can write and publish it ourselves, and write and publish it well.

This lovely book can stand side by side with any biography written in the West and it will compete favorably. Bookcraft, the book’s publisher did an outstanding job, the editorial work was outstanding. It is a pretty book, with a handsome layout. I thought the collage of Clark’s headshot on the cover was inspired. This book was clearly a labor of love, a work of academic rigor. In using JP Clark as the book’s title, Osofisan forces the reader to wrap the mind around the JP Clark that we knew, that smoldering, enigma that has insisted on doing things his own way.

JP Clark is the product of good research by someone trained to listen to oral folklore and reconcile it carefully with the written. This is a tale warmly told; the reader is at the feet of a story teller, lapping it all in. Read the book and sit enthralled as Osofisan weaves a touching tale about how the name Pepper came about. The book itself is poetry in motion, the pieces ofClark’s poems Osofisan showcases are mostly exquisite in how they chart Clark’s trajectory as a poet and as a person. His humanity is evident with all its dignity and warts and the reader bonds with this most complex of men who it turns out is not the curmudgeon that he makes himself out to be.

The book entertains, educates and subverts with a quiet, steady, unassuming force; you can almost see the twinkle in Osofisan’s eyes as he demonstrates that you do not have to waste reams of trees writing about the environmental devastation in Nigeria’s delta. A few well crafted, well placed sentences, gbam, you are there, soaking in the gas flares. Osofisan pans some of Clark’s poems and the book America, their America, but it is without malice. He dismisses America, their America, with a gentle but pungent force:

“… I consider it a minor milestone in JP’s career, something like a brief diversion in an athlete’s course. The book is most uneven at best, combining passages of brilliant observation and graphic phrasing, with crude generalisations and highly idiosyncratic opinion.”

By Osofisan’s account, Clark’s play Ozidi Saga is a great piece of work. Here Clark is a genius in transcribing an indigenous epic as opposed to recreating Greek myths out of banalities. One gets a sense from the book that much of Clark’s latter poetry is autobiographical, a tad too accessible, prose broken into bits, hinting at the poetry of a man in the winter of his craft. Speaking of reviews and reviewers, we learn that Soyinka once reviewed the same book and laced the review with well-placed insults:

“Each page of America reads exactly like that picture we see often in the Nigerian street, of a child fighting a man ten times his size who stands very still while the child’s arms flail wildly over his head, crying all the time in frustration and self-pity… America their America will prove a useful book to give to any American we particularly wish to insult.” (p. 159)

This earns a swift retort from Clark:

“… it was worthy of Mr. Soyinka, a compulsive performer with a penchant for upgrading himself. It should earn him more return tickets from Uncle Sam. One positive aspect of this performance directed at a packed gallery; it showed that Mr. Soyinka can write simple prose after all. I did not have to take a purgative after it.” (p 163)

JP Clark is a work of anthropology and sociology, a tender and balanced rendering of a complex life lived complexly. Osofisan deploys the rich language of a seasoned and impish playwright; this is a writer with enough self-confidence to appropriate the English language as his own and write is as he feels it. And boy does the reader feel this owner of words as the story is told with near clinical detail but with enough passion and skill to keep the reader thirsting for more. This is one important book, not lazy drunken opinions hurriedly stapled together for a quick buck.

One learns new things; how JP got the name Pepper, we learn also that he wanted to be a soldier and almost made it in. His father dissuaded him and saves Clark and Nigeria from such foolishness. There are many other side benefits; for example the Lagos of old lives and breathes under Osofisan’s expert eyes. Buried in the book is a nice essay on Nigeria’s pioneer transportation system of lorries or trucks, Armels:

“At Agbanikaka it would make its first stopover and passengers would disembark to ease themselves and stretch their limbs, and regale themselves with bush meat, which was the town’s special delicacy. In fact the joke in those days was that in Agbanikaka you could never tell between dog meat and genuine bush meat.”

Meticulously researched, the book makes all the right connections; the oral and the written, but enriched immensely by the oral. Osofisan is not a lazy man. He chronicles excellently the history of the decline of university education in Nigeria. Nigeria has become a dangerous place, swimming with thugs who would rob and beat up icons like Clark because they don’t know or care about those things. There is a sad passage there where Clark and his family were brutalized by thugs and robbers on campus, cultism had taken over and they had no choice but to flee

The compassion and empathy show; there is good chemistry between Osofisan and Clark. The book has all these pictures, many black and white, of an era gone by. The subject is Clark but it is more than Clark. The eyes of memory linger over each one for oh so long. They are mostly undated (unfortunately, offering hints of careless curatorship) but it is a fun activity trying to guess at Clark’s age and the era. Osofisan expertly avoids gossipy editorials, preferring for the reader to make up his or mind based on the mine of evidence offered. And Osofisan knows his literature, man, he does. I remember a lazy morning alone, wrapped in solitude and a warm conversation, reading this pretty book and luxuriating in delectable pieces of Clark’s poetry:

… the river, black, dazzling

And beautiful in spite of oil spills,

Flowed on, as it did before any road

Was built through forest or desert,

And as it will flow, when forest

And desert have taken over the road.

[The Emissaries’ A Lot From Paradise:24-5]

The book starts out with Osofisan heading out with the writer Olu Obafemi to Clark’s home in Kiagbodo. Touching is the journey itself, there is an easy camaraderie between the two writers as they banter and trash talk their way to Clark, to this beautiful once idyllic place. Avuncular beyond his years, his relationship with Obafemi is a study in the enigma and mystery of friendship.

He records Clark’s tempestuous relationship with the fellow writers of the time, principally, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Christopher Okigbo, Odia Ofeimun, their loves and their spats, which revolved around ideological differences, different ways of seeing the world as writers and activists, differences which came to an explosive head during the Nigerian civil war. Clark gained fame or notoriety for refusing to side with Biafra.

It would be a shame for this important book to gather the dust of indifference. It would be great to have Osofisan and Clark at a forum discussing the many rich subjects covered in this book. This book ought to end up in a digital library with hot hyper-links to the numerous documents, photographs and sources mentioned in the book. What will happen to Clark’s papers? What will happen to Osofisan’s papers?

It is not a perfect book. Sometimes, it is not clear where Osofisan’s source quote is from and that can be frustrating.  I could not place in the book, when Osofisan and Obafemi traveled to Kiagbodo; the journey is undated. There is a helpful bibliography in the end, but I wondered if Osofisan read Soyinka’s memoir You Must Set Forth at Dawn. It is referenced in the book.

In the book, Professor Ebun Clark, Clark’s wife, a pioneering literary authority in her own right cut a quiet dignified figure in the background. I thought about her, Flora Nwapa, Buchi Emecheta and all the other unsung women writers of their generation who toiled quietly but with determination in the shadows of strong men who would not share, these Virginia Woolfs of their generation and my heart sang solo songs for their courage and grit. I wanted to know more about Ebun Clark and her fellow female writers like Flora Nwapa and Buchi Emecheta. They were at best brilliant footnotes, propping up their husbands’ dreams for the most part in a patriarchy.

I thought about Osofisan’s treatment of the turbulent events in Nigeria starting from the Chukwuma Kaduna Nzeogwu-led 1966 coup to the Nigerian civil war that claimed many lives. It could have used a more in-depth look and I wondered if his analysis was colored by his own biases or politics. You would have to read another book to get more out of that history. But as they say, you can’t get everything out of one book. What I got out of this book has earned Professor Femi Osofisan my undying respect. Alagba Okinba Launko, I salute you.

Note:

Also read For John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo: Triumphing Over an Imaginary Tragedy