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Committing literature to the voiceless majority: Commitment in the era of alternative truths – Part 1

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Chinua Achebe

Being keynote address at the Second Chinua Achebe International Conference held at the Institute of African Studies, University of Nigeria Nsukka from May 22 to 25, 2018.

Introduction
LET me restate from the outset that the thematic concern of this conference Wole Soyinka and the Literature of Commitment, which has formed the thrust of my keynote address provides us with a platform to interrogate both past and contemporary experiences with a view to identifying where the ‘rain began to beat us’ as a people as academics and as a nation, if I may freely borrow from the Achebe pantheon of metaphorical expressions.

In plain terms it centres on the age-long question of commitment in art and how art should serve the purpose of exploring both self and society.

The state of flux, of indeterminacy which entwines us as a nation invites a serious engagement with the process and channels of extrication. As writers or teachers of literature, we recognize the fact that the type of governance in the country impacts negatively or otherwise on us. Thus this discourse becomes part of that ritual of self-purgation through the power of the written word.

Let me also state that as a thematic or academic concernin Western academy the issue is as old as literature (art) itself, starting as it were from the ancient conflict between poetry and philosophy, generated by Plato and Aristotle; a conflict which was never resolved and perhaps may never be resolved and should not be resolved in order that academic disputations may continue.

Perhaps it is Hobson’s choice for us because the eternal conflict between truth and falsehood continues to dominate narratives in the world; and as our elders have assured us, as long as we have lice in the hair, our fingers must remain stained with blood or if we do not eat yam because of palm oil we will eat palm oil because of yam.

I dare say that commitment in art needs no definition in this gathering beyond saying that it is a reflection of a writer’s work in the areas of political or non-political beliefs, moral, religious or aesthetic concerns and their literary consequences’.

What may be disputed is the level of commitment, to what cause, on whose or which side we stand in this great divide of inequalities.

Well, how do we measure the level of commitment, that is, what are the parameters? Now that the old ideological warfare has been submerged in the sea of liberalism how do we pitch tents?

Certainly these are questions we routinely encounter and each of us tries to provide a response as we deem fit. Differences in point of view, in ethnicity, in race and religion still exist, sometimes overtaking other issues in a rather bizarre manner that defies compartmentalization.

The self within our national context seems to me to be in doubt in relation to the acts of brigandage and official sanctioning that has become rudely familiar.

There is an emerging narrative which pitches ‘them’ against ‘us’; them and us being within the framework of power relations.

It is not tangible; but it is felt. Decades-long convention of managing the unity of the country, crude as they were, are being brutalized in an aggressive manner.

At the political level, rats of different hues are jostling for space to represent us, to tell us that they are more committed to us than we really think or know. Words and phrases have new meanings, almost vacuous, but appealing all the same.

The new with a small letter ‘n’ attached to an old name becomes a proclamation of being born anew in the spirit of change.

In a sense therefore this keynote address offers nothing novel that can or could influence or alter the destiny of the human race or of Africa or Nigeria for that matter.

I have no such grand ambitions. What is there in our history or in literary studies that we have not encountered before?

Perhaps a fresh perspective to the discourse, that is, within the context of our contemporary experience, will help us navigate through the labyrinth of conflicting and conflating ideas in the polity. Let me offer a minor anecdote which I think sums up for me where I think we stand at this time of our national history.

My poetic imagination was activated last week as I witnessed the volcano erupt in Hawaii, spewing lava into the atmosphere, expelling human tenants from their habitation into temporary shelters, humbling a super-power nation.

Those fires and the contents of the underground belly of earth got me ruminating over the urgency of our national crises about which our honoured guest recently proclaimed a Mayday distress call.

And I asked myself whether we as a people are not currently sitting atop a mountain that is seething with natural anger in its belly ready to spill its volcanic contents on us once we by design or default activate an invisible button of self-destruction.

If I have captured our current political situation in such apocalyptic metaphors it is because of the daily news-intrusion into the privacy of my mind, through social media, newspapers, and the weekly Editorial Board meetings at The Guardian, where there is often no cheering news.

If it were possible to withdraw from the public space and avoid being inundated with the inanities and foolishness of the powers on the throne that would have been gladdening. Alas, this is no such holiday for an academic whose routine duties find expression in daily engagement with everyday realities.

Let me pay deep tribute to the honoured guest of this conference, Professor Wole Soyinka our first and only Nobel Laureate in Nigeria, whose commitment to the voiceless has transcended writing, creative and otherwise; who has been active both as a man of ideas and as an activist, with boots on the ground, daring military regimes, daring civilian scoundrels, and bearding civilian administrations for some six odd decades now.

For in his model, we may need to draw examples about how to define and redefine commitment in our environment and how it could be a marathon, how it has been a marathon for him and some others from the early years.

Whether we refer to tape-substitution in a radio house in Ibadan, or ‘denunciation of the war in the Nigerian papers, or a visit to the East’, that is, a trip into the ‘rebel enclave’ while tension was at its peak.

Or ‘attempt to recruit the country’s intellectuals within and outside the country for a pressure group which would work for a total ban on the supply of arms to all parts of Nigeria, creating a third force which would utilize resulting in long term solitary confinement, resulting in The Man Died.

Or whether we refer to combating high risk drivers with regulation-enforcement or whether we reference entering the old near iconic Dodan Barracks along with two other writers to plead for the life of a fellow writer, a serving General caught in the web of coup-plotting.

We are dealing with commitment at different levels which has become a part of our history and history yet unfolding. Instructively there is no indication that the mode or nature of his commitment has been or will be tempered or mellowed by time and age.

His intervention on what I may term ‘the other side’ has been in the three genres of literature, critical and theoretical writing, music (I love my Country), stage performances of drama, public demonstrations, lectures, and newspaper articles, his most recent as far as I know being Mayday! Mayday!!Mayday!!!, which was published in

The Guardian of 1st of May 2018. In the essay under reference, Soyinka says we must go beyond arresting a token handful of herders caught with arms-there
are still hundreds of them in the forests.

It is not enough to back the anti-grazing laws, so late in the day, but we shall leave that for another day.

Right now, the violated and the dispossessed demand restitution, and with no furtherdelay or subterfuge.

All available forces should be deployed to right a hideous, unprecedented wrong that has left the nation drowning in blood.

The plain expression is ‘ethnic cleansing’ and we must not beat around the bush.

The shade of Rwanda hangs over the nation.

He then called for an agenda ‘of restitution to the displaced, the maimed, the traumatized survivors and the nation’s suppurating psyche’.

He concluded by asserting that ‘the auto-pilot plane (which Nigeria has slid into) cannot remain as hitherto, while the pilot strolls up and down the aisle, assuring passengers that all is well’.

Indeed, all is not well.

To be sure this is a clarion call to action, very much in the now familiar tropes of the literary interventions of Wole Soyinka the writer, the activist, the iconoclast and avatar.

With a solid reputation of mediating and intervening at different stages of our national history, at great risk to his life and character, Soyinka can be described as the literary conscience of the nation, a generalissimo with troops in academia, journalism and the free society.

I salute you Sir!

Chinua Achebe whose spirit forms the basis of this conference was so troubled in spirit by the state of the Nigerian State that he wrote The Trouble with Nigeria, in which he blamed the woeful state of things in Nigeria on the leadership class.

He wrote:

The trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership.

There is nothing basically wrong with the Nigerian character.

There is nothing wrong with the Nigerian and climate or water or air or anything else.

The Nigerian problem is the unwillingness or inability of its leaders to rise to the responsibility, to the challenge of personal example which are the hallmarks of true leadership. (1)

Some twenty-five odd years after that intervention there is no indication that we have developed a framework to lead us out of the infamous woods.

The cycle of waste of raised hopes and expectations and followed by a dash of optimism against the woods, has continued to torment the spirit of both the wayfarers and the bystanders.

In spite of the profundity of the truth in his universally acclaimed novel Things Fall Apart and the other works in his pantheon, the Nobel sadly eluded him. I was personally not amused when the Nobel went to a songwriter two years ago.

The import of these observations therefore is that even commitment at the highest level is not often rewarded by contemporary thinking. Commitment it would seem is its own reward.

It is for the conscience which feels for others so that others may know and feel the strains of humanity that binds us all.

As we honour his memory, we must observe that he was no less a committed writer than those for whom the world literary community sand the loudest hallelujahs.

Truth and Alternative Truth

Writing and writers have continued to draw from their immediate environment, from how they encounter reality and light the path to what ought to be.

Of course reality functions at different levels just as our levels of perception of reality can be mitigated or obfuscated by external circumstances or loyalties or antecedents.

History, that is the past, according to George Orwell is not located somewhere we can go visit and see and experience.

It exists in books, in the mind and in other forms of storage. To the extent that that stored fact, that bank can be altered or manipulated, we must always learn to decipher between truth and lies. That ability to see the difference is what I may refer to as commitment within the ambit of this address.

In interrogating the conflicting notions of truth which the colonial academy imposed on the empire, Achebe once observed that:

it began to dawn on me that although fiction was undoubtedly

fictitious it could also be true or false, not with the truth or falsehood

of a news item but as to its disinterestedness, its intention, its integrity.

Needless to say I did not grasp all of this at one bound but slowly

over time and experience of life and reading. And reading came to

mean reading with greater scrutiny and sometimes rereading with

adult eyes what I had first read in the innocence of my literary
infancy and adolescence’. . (34)

It was George Orwell’s rather enchanting novel 1984 which first drew my attention to the conflicting pictures of what truth could be and how truth can be manipulated.

Forced on me by my Canadian Prose Fiction lecturer then Ms. Barbara Turner while I was in my first year in the university, it opened my eyes to the inherent conflict which totalitarian states reinforce through manipulations and outright fabrications of reports.

Orwell pointedly described the imposing structure of the four main Ministries which dominated the imaginary world of Big Brother.

According to Orwell, they were the four homes of the four Ministries between which the entire apparatus of government was divided.

The Ministry of Truth, which concerned itself with news, entertainment, education, and the fine arts.

The Ministry of Peace which concerned itself with war.

The Ministry of Love, which maintained law and order…The Ministry of Love was the really frightening one. There were no windows in it at all’. P.9. and later in the novel, Orwell writes:‘reality is not external.

Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else. Not in the individual mind, which can make mistakes, and in any case soon perishes: only in the mind of the Party which is collective and immortal. Whatever the party holds to be the truth, is truth’ (214)

In 1978 when we studied the novel, the historical date or year of 1984 was still a few years away; but its blinding truth had stared us in the face in the years of military misadventure into governance in Nigeria.

It was in 1983 December that the real Gestapo seized the reins of governance in the country. By decree it became punishable if a newspaper published a truthful material that embarrassed the government of the day.

Indeed the Orwellian 1984 had come to pass before our very eyes and there was and there was nothing we could do but to gnash our teeth in infant gums.

While we were wringing our hands and wondering how we got into the mess of military brigandage of the extreme type, the same soldiers became our messiahs by terminating that extreme form in August 1985.

For the next seven years, the new military dribbled the nation until it scored an own goal, bringing that wily administration to an inglorious end.

Alternative truth serves as a signpost for the other side of falsehood.

It is ‘truth’ that is created to counter the truth as we know it.

Often because there is no authentic medium of verification both forms of truths begin to jostle for space. Your truth is not my truth; their truth is not our truth.

So, truth is not truth. Truth becomes subject to viewpoints.

Truths begin to assume different dimensions not as a result of perspective; but because certain persons want the lie to compete for space with the truth of the narrative or the discourse.

Truth therefore is dead; long live the power to confuse the reader or listener by infusing doubts into the information in the public space. To be sure the alternative truth could come from the most powerful source in the country, or in the polity.

One of the strengths of the voiceless people in society, in Nigeria is the attitude to government announcements.

Perhaps that is the reason alternative truth has not taken hold completely of the nation. The people have become suspicious of government.

Government is not trusted to tell the truth. This is particularly so when there is a great dissonance between what the government says and what the people feel and experience.

So when the government announces the end of the recession, the people say ‘How? Or when the government says that herdsmen do not carry AK47 guns, the people then ask: who has been behind the brutal, genocidal killings in the land?

What has developed therefore is the critical faculty of the voiceless for whom the creative writer stands or ought to stand. This functions at two levels; the level of self criticism and the level of a professional holding the publicized statements of government to account.

It also functions at the level of the professional critic evaluating the creative narrative against the objective realities of the day.

So the writer himself, who may have become partisan and subjective as a result of ethnic or political affiliation, is not completely free from pandering to the doctrine of alternative truth.

We live in a climate where we remain uncertain about herdsmen in the field and herdsmen in beautifully adorned offices holding the reins of power, promoting alternative narratives to confuse the polity.

Denial itself appears to be sufficient reason for us to believe that the scoundrels are renegades of the Libyan era, or politically-sponsored goons who cannot be prevented or arrested by the machinery of the State.

We are yet to come to terms with the fact that Nigerians indeed voted for change but the current spirit of change destroys the commitment of the State to the security of life and property of the people.

The results of the elections of 2015 promised great hope, that a strongman would emerge who would show proper leadership, and that the trajectory of leadership would be altered radically in favour of the people.

All hands were on deck to rid the nation of the civilian administration that was reported to have stolen the nation blind. ‘Clueless’ became the mantra for change.

Sadly, after three years of faithful patience, the Achebean question of knowing where the rain began to beat us has returned with blinding fury and we are once again compelled to enter our house through another man’s door.

Some Clarifications

I have ambitiously added ‘commitment in the era of alternative truths’ to the topic of this discourse with the hope that I would have a platform to engage contemporary issues from the global arena which have implications on our national life.

For in the real sense of it, we are too encumbered by cultural and political issues over which we have no control, or over which we have no say or in which or say is disrespected by a machinery well above our means.

This is the real tragedy- not being able to engage our own challenges from the point of view of strength and knowledge.

Commitment in art is total involvement in all the possibilities of that form of expression, of literature and of the written word.

It entails a definite acceptance of the responsibilities of writing of creating works which show that the author carries a social conscience that could make him ‘go to hell’ if he does not ‘keep his mouth shut’.

It carries with it a moral obligation to be on the progressive side of an argument or an issue, not just for his artistic pleasure but with a view to engaging the hard issues of the day.

But sometimes the writer can look beyond his time and his views may not be accepted or popular within his era or time or age.

To see beyond one’s spatio-temporal time is to be isolated from contemporary current.

It therefore means that as writers of committed literature we should look beyond the current configuration of things and how the political gladiators of the day have injured the sensibilities of the current generation.

Let us pause for a while and do wishful thinking about the Nigerian-Biafra Civil War of 1966 to 1970, let us assume that the separation of the political entity had taken place, what kind of literature would we have produced or would we be producing now?

The truth is that our nationhood is still being interrogated, still being questioned because of the absence of equity and justice and because of perceived notions of superiority and the mentality of ‘born to rule’.

There is a grave distortion of the federal system that we operate which makes a section of the country hold back the rest in how they want to fulfill their dreams.


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