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
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.