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A writers’ body and the burdens of current Nigerian writing – Part 2

By Isidore Diala   |   05 February 2017   |   3:31 am

On the other hand, Ibrahim’s Season of Crimson Blossom offers a factual survey of contemporary Nigerian history, especially the history of religious and political bigotry and violence as well as cultural repression in northern Nigeria. However, in Ibrahim’s compelling narrative, the past is the implacable shadow that haunts the present, illuminating its tensions and cross purposes. The novel’s true strength thus lies in its exploration of the deepest recesses of the human mind as the crucial background of the motivation of action and choices. Exploring the manifold forms of the profound impact of trauma, it casts a lurid lighton human relationships and even national politics. Between these two exceptional novels, the writer’s power to transform especially tragic historical experiences into timeless works of art is clearly demonstrated.

I also wish to draw attention to the growing corpus of Nigerian fiction literally fixated on a clinical examination of the human body. Typically exploring terminal diseasessuch as cancer, heart diseases, stroke, diabetes, sickle cell anaemia, epidemics or simply mysterious wasting diseases, the novels in this subgenre evoke the image of a frail and wasted human figure struggling against death. Yejide Kilanko’s Daughters Who Walk This Path, Aramide Segun’s Enitan: Daughter of Destiny, Maryam Awaisu’s Burning Bright, Ogochukwu Promise’s Sorrow’s Joy, Ifeoluwapo Adeniyi’s On the Bank of the River and Ifeoma Okoye’s The Fourth World: each has a character whose potentially terminal ailment is central in the scheme of the various novels. In John’s Born on a Tuesday cholera epidemic recurs and corpses are abiding presences in the death camp while in Ibrahim’s Season of Crimson Blossoms the pervasive human stench of a dying elderly man is specifically aimed at evoking intimations of mortality.

The possible link between this theme andthat of terrorismis strong. Terrorism, like torture, exploits the vulnerabilities of the body to make a political statement. By its celebration of carnage, terrorism sets the flesh in all its corporeality in sombre relief. The grisly spectacle of skulls smashed, bones broken and crushed, limbs severed, the innocent and the guilty, the young and the old, men and women arbitrarily bound together in a bizarreorgy of hatred has the distinction of foregrounding the human body in its infinite precariousness. Ahmed Yerima’s critique of violence in the Niger Delta conflict in Hard Groundderives its strength from this insight. The adolescent militant leader’s account of the gruesome murders at the shrine reveals the terrorist’s careful attention to the hungers of the body as well as its burdens; it equally underscores the frenzied blood lust beside which even the sense of the sacred pales into significance:


We did not want to kill them in the shrine. We drove them until they ran in, after two days they got hungry, and one sneaked out to look for food. The boys caught him, and hacked him to death, removing his head from behind as he sped. In the wildness, my boys ran into the shrine, pulled out the second man [. . .] a stick was pushed through his anus until it came out in his bowels. We then dragged them back into the shrine, and burnt them. It seemed the best way to dispose of their bodies at the time.

Yet the body in thisliterature that I refer to as “clinical”for want of a better name is not restricted to the body mangled by the terrorist’s lethal embrace.It is thus possibly a reflection on the broader national condition. A period of economic depression is characterised by a general decline in the quality of the people’s life, and this is especially manifest in health care and medical resources. Many of the novels in this group indeed pay particular attention to the quality of health care in Nigerian hospitals. Yet I think that the fixation on the body of characters suffering from terminal diseases is a concern with the oldest theme of literature: human corporeality, a sober awareness of humans’ trenchant mortality, the human condition. This, incidentally, is the theme of Achebe’s ANA inauguration speech, with particular reference to the writer.

A body of writers
Established in 1981 with Chinua Achebe as the founding president, the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) has aims and objectives rooted in the promotion of Nigerian literature, written and oral; the enhancement of the wellbeing of Nigerian writers and protection of their rights; the stimulation and development of indigenous talents, skill and intellectual powers; and the promotion and development of the book culture. So passionate indeed was the promotion and development of the book culture in Africa to the founding father of ANA, Achebe, that he thought it pivotal for the development of African literature. Conceding that such foundational texts of Nigerian literature like The Palm-wine Drinkard and Things Fall Apart would probably never have been published but for Western publishers, Achebe thought of that as only the first stage in the history of African publishing and envisaged a pattern of development in which Africa would be central in its cultural production needs. He contended:

If you are going to have a genuine literary tradition, then the entire book business should have an indigenous base. Not just writers being here, but their publishers, editors, bookshops,printers…[Y]ou can’t really talk about African literature unless you have all these other aspects of the book trade in Africa. This is my stand.”


Achebe had, of course, famously noted—virtually as an inviolable law of nature—that the African writer and his/her audience live in the same place! Achebe certainly understood that the subtle but fierce contest to control the institutions of production and canonization of texts is in reality a struggle for the power to determine and sanction authorized representations of both the self and the Other; it is thus an endeavour consistent with the struggle for economic and ideological dominance. He was aware that by placing itself uniquely to project and reward its preferred concept of African excellence by publication, distribution and award of prestigious prizes, the West exercises powers that have implications that go beyond the artistic. Derek Attridge contends that canonization means so much more than the recognition of an author’s invaluable contribution to literature by publishers and scholars of literature. He draws attention to the cultural and historical contingency of the canon and links it with wider processes of legitimation within the body of culturally recognized narratives. But this form of cultural validation neutralizes and absorbs oppositionality: “All canons rest on exclusion; the voice they give to some can be heard only by virtue of the silence they impose on others. But it is just not a silencing by exclusion; it is a silencing by inclusion as well: any voice we can hear is by that very fact purged of its uniqueness and alterity” .

Commenting on Achebe’s location of the African writer and his/her audience in the same environment, Biodun Jeyifo notes the deterritorialization of the relationship between the African writer and his/her audience. Tracing this process paradoxically to the two decades since 1986, Jeyifo contends that given this “phenomenon of worldwide dimensions, a seismic, tectonic migration of persons, projects, ideas and movements around the globe” overwhelmingly detrimental to the developing world, “the production, dissemination and teaching of African literature have suffered unprecedented reversals”. Tanure Ojaide equally notes the growing number of African writers involved in the world-wide phenomena of migration and globalization, and remarked on the impact of that experience on their writings: “Migration, globalization, and the related phenomena of exile, transnationality, and multilocality have their bearing on the cultural identity, aesthetics, content, and form of literary production of Africans abroad”. In Ojaide’s own later poetry as in Irobi’s and his drama Cemetery Road just as in Chimamanda Adiche’s Americanah, the experience of exile itself becomes the focal preoccupation. The virtually suicidal adventure of many talented young Nigerians across perilous border posts indeed has in itself becomea recurring concern of current Nigeria fiction. Such novels create the powerful image of Nigeria as a veritable hell in which escape is the only rational option.

Writing on the mass migration of senior Nigerian scholars and writers to the West in their later years, Adebayo Williams is deeply elegiac about the impact of this “autumnal exile,” given the loss of the institutional validation which their presence could have lent to the Nigerian university system. But Nigeria currently faces the critical crises of having most of the prominent members of even its younger generation of writers and critics already ensconced in institutions in the West. With the most important journals devoted to African literature based in the West, with the migration of most renowned African (especially Nigerian) scholars of that literature to Western institutions, with the consequent impoverishment of the teaching and discourse of that literature in Nigerian/African universities and newspapers, Nigerian writers and scholars, much like Nigerian sportsmen and women, meditate on their careers in the country as a preparation for the international market. This is especially so given the many outlets for error-free productions in the West, the fortune-transforming literary prizes and the inspiring conditions and incentives for productive and responsible scholarship.
ANA self-consciously strives to enhance the prospects of creative writing in Nigeria. With branches in nearly the thirty-six states of the country and Abuja, its constant presence is felt by writers in the country through monthly readings and workshops, various publications, and state chapter annual conventions.


It also introduces especially young writers to a large audience through the publication of anthologies, the work of individual writers, and the annual journal, ANA Review. ANA equally meditates on its administration of a handful of prizes as a crucial aspect of its formalization of a literary culture. And certainly quiet apart from the ANA conventions and occasional conferences, some international in scope, in which the state of writing and the political and social environment in which that writing is done are discussed, ANA’s position on the quality of writing in the country is made through its prizes. In 1998,at the peak of the decline in the publishing industry already in a crisis in the 1980s,the ANA judges’ report is for example remarkable in its thorough appreciation of the situation of the contemporary Nigerian writer publishing in the country and its recommendation of additional talents and responsibilities to Nigerian writers:

Because of the limited number of publishing outlets, most of the texts submitted in the various categories this year, excluding most of those published abroad, would more accurately be called printed rather than published works. Although one understands the authors’ determination to reach the public, even when self-publishing seems necessary, this places responsibilities on the writer which are normally the duty of publishers. These responsibilities include critical reading and editing, and quality presentation. Authors must make it their responsibility to monitor every aspect in producing their book, from layout, to the cover design, to editing and proof-reading, bringing in expertise from other sources when necessary.

The judges were certainly being euphemistic in reporting on the aberrations of “cash and carry” publishing. Jeyifo’s focus on a critical aspect of this heritage, the inherent linguistic and cultural crisis in the normalization of pervasive misuse and abuse of language which is itself a reflection and reproduction of social contradictions and alienations, is more explicitly articulated. He draws attention to “a gross misuse of language that is part and parcel of a catastrophic decline in the quality of spoken and written language that itself is a product of system-wide malfunctioning of primary, secondary and tertiary education. All forms of writing today confront this grim fact, or rather interlocking sets of facts. And perhaps no modes of language use are more threatened by these facts of pervasive linguistic malaise than those associated with creative writing and critical discourse”. The scrutiny of editors and careful attention of the many other professionals of the book industryensure the emergence of a more attractive and therefore acceptable and marketable product capable of enhancing the book trade.Self-publishing dispenses with all these facilities. Graham Huggan has cited Bourdieu to identify literary prizes as legitimizing mechanisms that set in relief both the symbolic and material effects of the process of literary evaluation:


As Bourdieu suggests, prizes reflect as much upon the donors as their recipients; part of a wider struggle over the authority to consecrate particular works or writers, they are powerful indicators of the social forces underlying what we might call the politics of literary recognition. Far from offering tributes to an untrammeled literary excellence, prizes bring the ideological character of evaluation to the fore.
With Western institutions of interpretation bent on privileging their own pronouncements on Nigerian/African literature, the ANA Prizes are indispensable measures of literary value in Nigeria.Thus, the diminishing number of these Prizes for what the current President of the Association refers to euphemistically as “sponsor’s fatigue” is worrisome.

Achebe’s body
In his ANA inauguration speech, Achebe intriguingly, but certainly not gratuitously, begins his address with a meditation on the mortality of a writer: Abubakar Imam. He returns to that theme at the close of his address and accounts for the reference by remarking on the significance of Imam as a “powerful and venerable indication of a new emphasis on, or even awareness of, literature in indigenous Nigerian languages”. But the invocation of Imam’s memory is of greater importance than just that because Achebe also acknowledges the presence of other writers with equal significance. Achebe’s presiding theme in all of that speech is the corporeality of the artist, his mortality, as contrasted with the potential immortality of his work. It is Achebe’s contention that the responsible writer lives in diametrical opposition to the state and that this invariably is hazardous to the writer.He regards writers’ scepticism of government, even when government brings gifts, “healthy and appropriate”. Achebe observes that writers constitute “a countervailing tradition of enlightened criticism and dissent”. His apprehension of the precariousness of the lone artist pitted in a mortal battle with the state is sobering. Thus, Achebe virtually dismisses the business purpose of an association of writers, important though he noted it was, but points to something deeper:

The other reason is more grave and fundamental: the freedom and safety of writers in society. I have no doubt that in the long run the best guarantee of this freedom and safety is an enlightened and humane opinion. But we are nowhere near the long run; we are very much in the short one. And in that condition enlightenment and humaneness are mere dreams for idealists. Therefore writers must seek some of their safety in their own organisation and numbers. In the cosy optimism in which most of us elite Nigerians live and have our being, danger may seem far-fetched. But behind the smiling façade of the present dispensation slouches the rough beast of fanaticism—religious fanaticism, ethnic fanaticism and political fanaticism.


Achebe’s words and metaphors are carefully chosen to evoke terror. His presiding metaphor of the imminence and enormity of danger facing the Nigerian writer is significantly drawn from the same Yeatsian poem from which he chose the apocalyptic title of his first novel. Noting the impossibility of writers as natural sceptics to be safe in an atmosphere of scepticism, he draws attention to “deadly portents” which require no prophetic insights to see. Perhaps alluding further to Yeasts, he makes a distinction between the marching of a Boy Scout and dancing as the figure of the artist in motion which does not only give an insight into the hidden polemic in human movements but also articulates the necessary oppositionality as well as perils of social commitment: “. . . a writer who must be free, whose second nature is to dance to a ‘different drummer’ and not march like a Boy Scout, such person has no choice really but to run great risks.

And we had better know it and prepare for it.”This recognition was the inspiration behind the formation of the Association of Nigerian Authors: the inevitable threat of persecution in defiance of which the writer must function; the vulnerability of the artist’s body which, however, a body or group of writers can shield. Shortly before Achebe’s ANA inauguration speech, Elizabeth Eisentein had drawn attention to the ascendancy of what she referred to as “the Republic of Letters,” a fraternity of literary artists and scholars, as a social group with far reaching powers. Achebe was visionary in his conception of ANA. The helplessness of the association at the execution of Nigerian writers, Major General Mamman Vatsa and Ken Saro-Wiwa, by two different military dictatorships in the country has therefore to be seen as ominous. The will to marginalise the opposition artist or activist is invariably a desire to check dissidence; and if this usually expresses itself in the forms of incarceration, censorship, banishment, or the symbolic carnage of the poet’s tongue, it is in reality a paranoia that often seeks a resolution in the death of a rival considered formidable. Achebe’s terror was founded.

The Association of Nigerian Authors continues to provide the forum for Nigerian writers, literary scholars and critics, in Nigeria and abroad, to meet and work together for the growth of Nigerian literature and nation itself. If at the national level, the Association regards as some of its main handicaps perennial financial problems and the lack of a secretariat in Abuja, the nation’s capital city, given its promotion of solidarity among Nigerian writers; its intervention on behalf of writers in cases of piracy; its visibility in crucial national discourse, its institutional prestige remains on the ascendant. In large measure through the Association’s interventions it is, fortunately, not silent yet at our national cultural front. By highlighting the writer’s representative mortality, Achebe locates immortality in the transcendence of our own personal histories.This is a presiding insight of all great art. Through its continuing espousal of craftsmanship in writing moreover typically committed to the advancement of national socio-cultural goals, and by its sustenance for thirty-five challenging years this body of writers, marked by all that this country has gone through, but driven by the indomitable spirit within it and faith in the future, ANA immortalises its founding fathers and deserves our general commendation. -CONCLUDED

Professor Diala, winner of the LNG prize for literary criticism, teaches Literature at the Imo State University, Owerri




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