If we don’t create, we die. If we don’t recreate, our species die. Those were my thoughts when I sat on a panel last week to discuss the fate of writing in Nigeria. The discourse was organised by the Association of Nigerian Authors.
Others on the panel, including the ebullient Kole Omotoso, projected a pessimistic tone. The Nigerian writer was a lost cause. In his well-manicured, hoary beard and confident diction, Omotoso noted that Nigerian writers, including novelists, playwrights and poets, did not pay attention to details, including punctuation, and could never compete. Hence those who made waves were the same Nigerians who were discovered or lived in the western world.
Others moaned over piracy, bookshops that fleeced writers and publishers that leeched their writers. I thought that this was no time to weep. They all said the truth, I said, including novelist Omotoso and author of Just Before dawn. But only a version of the truth.
“I am not here to bury the writer,” I intoned, “but to wake him up and out of his slumber.” I noted that we needed a historical perspective on the creative life of a nation. The first generation of Nigerians, including Soyinka, Achebe, Clark and Okigbo, thrived on a colonial boon. They worked on the infrastructure the white installed for everything else, including roads, power, education, health care. We became independent in the afterglow of British help.
So, the writers were discovered and projected by the white man. It was easy to write and get an airing. I alluded to a recent interview on BBC’s Hard Talk with writer Ben Okri. The host referred to the view advanced by novelist Tricia Nwaubani that the prominent African writers soared on western endorsement alone. Good luck to you, no matter your quality of output, if the west did not see it, you will shine in self-congratulation in your unlighted, suffocated cocoon. Okri denied it and said Achebe, Soyinka and others did not thrive on western accolade. He also said it was not the west that made him and he was doing well as a writer in Nigeria.
I have never heard anything more fraudulent about Nigerian literature. Okri, who has made himself a pariah of Nigerian letters by voting himself more as a Briton, manifested such damnable disingenuousness that it is necessary to expose him. He should tell us why he never comes to Nigeria to engage. He should describe the infrastructure of writing, discovery of writers and marketing in the 1950’s and 1960’s and tell us whether it was mastered by the British and other western poachers, including Uli Beier. They decided what was great art and what was not in their own lights.
Later we had the African Writers Series (AWS) that Achebe edited. It was a forum created by the white man to stir African letters. Omotoso told me that before he finished his PhD, he had published two works. He said also that, in the age of the Internet, it was easy to access information. I replied that the AWS was an easy platform for the western poachers to know what was happening in African writing. Once you were in, you could savour a fair play.
I noted at the conference that we no longer had such an easy infrastructure. Hence we have the ennui of today. For most writers who want to be read, the task is hard. Even critics and professors of literature have to enjoy a sort of western bear hug to be regarded as top flight in the ivory tower.
What does that mean? It shows that the west has to decide what is important not only in style and content, but what issues we should take seriously. In the Hard talk interview, Okri caviled at what he thought was the tendency of African literature to journalism because of its political overtone. This is sheer hypocrisy. This is the author of Famished Road who confessed to family anxiety during the 1960s pogrom when his half-Igbo mother had to be hidden from the menace of marauding bigots.
He is an alien to his African soul. If someone writes to capture such malady, he would say it is not great art. He wrote a piece saying that African writers are afflicted with the “tyranny of subject,” and that we should look away from such subjects as slavery, colonialism, poverty and war. We should shy away from writing about heavy subjects like suffering. I know Dickens, Austen, Balzac, Tolstoy, etc. They all focused on heavy subjects of suffering.
I think Okri has been too colonised. I don’t think Okri is an African writer. He is a writer from Nigeria toadying up to his western masters. He is no longer our writer, but theirs. Some have argued that we use the white man’s language and they know what is good and bad. That is surrender. We have appropriated the language and good Nigerian English should not be dictated by the English.
I agree, as Omotoso noted, that our writings published here have imperfections. But this is a world in which the writer is on his own. I suggested that we should establish the readers’ commune in Nigeria. I suggested to ANA to work with corporate Nigeria, local governments, state governments and the federal government to set up readers’ clubs in each local government. Young Nigerians and some of the old will be encouraged to meet once a month with a selection of a Nigerian writer. Each cell can organise itself idiosyncratically, as a debating club, recitation competition, political group, etc. But everything can surround a prescribed text for the month.
I salute the efforts of the NLNG, Etisalat, GLO, Nigerian Breweries, etc for their investments in a literary Nigeria. But they encourage writers to win prizes. We need a more grassroots approach to literature, especially from the reader’s perspective. During his lecture on Biodun Jeyifo’s 70th birthday, Professor Dan Izevbaye noted that some of the new writings are hard to get, including playwright Sam Ukala’s Iredi War that won the NLNG drama prize.
While the corporate sponsors have done well by way of nudging writers out of silence, we need to create an infrastructure to evangelise them among our people. Or else our letters will be fodder for the west only.
If we have readers’ cells everywhere, we can encourage publishing in bigger scale because we will be “forced” to read them, and an industry will emerge. Our imperfections can be gradually removed through competition and reward. If no one takes local output seriously, we should make our industry compelling. The world may be forced to pay attention. After all, novelist Patrick Modiano won the Nobel Prize even though he was unknown outside France.
We cannot allow others to tell us how to articulate our own experience. This happens in other arts. Fela and Sunny Ade often adapted their rhythms and beats to western sensibilities when they performed in Europe and North America. Recently I attended the Asha show in Lagos. The greatest artiste of this generation lives in France and her song has changed somewhat. She is still great but she lacks that power of utterance that resonates like the chant of an African goddess.
The arts are not alone. We struggle with political system. Presidential or Westminster? Even in currency, we are trying to change masters from the American dollar to the Chinese Yuan. Globalisation should not obviate identity. The BREXIT debate in Britain is about that among other things.
If we cannot be bold enough in other spheres, the literary world can be a start.