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A historical tribute for a sensitive idealist


Pa Gabriel Okara and Lindsay Barrett

Gabriel Okara’s role and status as one of the pioneers of modern African literature in English, or indeed in any Western colonial language, has been affirmed for decades. When his extraordinarily profound, but deceptively simple, masterpiece ‘The Call of The River Nun’ won the best all round literary award in the Nigerian Festival of Arts in 1953, he had already attained a maturity of style and facility of language that placed him in the company of accomplished poets in the global arena. However, the care and caution with which he practiced his craft rendered his output of verse both minimal and less accessible than the outpourings of the many more well-known writers, who emerged from the furnace of creative reactions to the colonial experience at about the same time that he did. Nonetheless, the philosophical depth and primary relevance and topicality of his works embody such sensitivity to the principles of moral order in society, that it would be a major disservice to him and his potential readers, both at home and abroad, if his relatively small but dynamic oeuvre were not studied and kept alive for subsequent generations of readers throughout Africa and the rest of the world. This remarkable volume of essays, Gabriel Okara (Onyoma Research, Port Harcourt; 2017), focusing on his work in particular, rather than on his life, is an important contribution to this cause.

More than a quarter of a century ago when Okara clocked seventy years of age, the University of Port Harcourt, which had already designated him its first Doctor of Letters (honoris causa) and Writer-in-Residence, celebrated the event with a major conference on his work. The papers presented at this gathering were a polyglot collection of deeply considered analytical essays produced by a cross section of brilliant academics and professional editors and even a translator from Italy. The broad corpus of concerns and issues dealt with by this illustrious gathering of authors serve to showcase the disproportionate impact and influence that Okara’s work has achieved when compared to the diminutive volume of his output. In a short foreword, Emeritus Prof. E. J. Alagoa indicates that the inordinate delay in bringing out this anthology of scholarly opinions was due to some unidentified misfortune. No matter what that might be, its eventual appearance just as Okara attains his 96th year of existence is a cause for celebration, all the more so because time and circumstance have conspired to make the eternal truths that he has always promoted grow more self-evident in the life of his nation and people.

This perception assumes added credibility with a careful reading of the historic opening address that was presented by the late Chief Harold Dappa-Biriye, a political hero of the Niger Delta, Okara’s homeland and the locus of his muse. Dappa-Biriye’s speech entitled ‘The Words That Win,’ recalled issues of human empowerment and progress that he felt the people of the territory had been led to expect as natural consequences of modern existence, but which he said had been rather withheld from the territory. He believed that poets and other creative advocates of human morality should not relent in their advocacy of human progress and he expressed the assurance that Okara’s talent and skill would continue to provide for this. A major essay by the editor, Chidi Maduka, places this exhortation in relevant perspective as it provides an impressive catalogue of arguments that bring out the political elements that can be discerned in Okara’s novel The Voice. However, the bulk of this anthology focuses less on the political relevance of Okara’s work and more on the remarkably powerful resonance of his technical prowess and the philosophical content of his work. We are also indebted to Prof. Maduka for setting the tone of assessment of Okara’s creative relevance and stature with his opening study of the poet’s place in the pantheon of African literature as a whole.

The sense of professional respect for Okara’s mission as a communicator and artist/messenger is captured in a long poem in his honour by Obiora Udechukwu. Entitled ‘Okara Na Bomadi,’ it serves as the opening coda of the congratulatory theme of the work. This long heraldic anthem is an experimental marvel in which intervals of choruses in a traditional African language punctuate more extended expressions of poetic reverence in English. This format echoes Okara’s well-known advocacy of experimentation as an objective method of ensuring authenticity and creative credibility in presenting the point of view of Africa’s social reality. This anthology is divided into sections based on subject matter. The longest and most substantially complete is the section devoted to critical studies of The Voice, Okara’s famous and only novel. This reflects the continued notoriety of this remarkable short work that has remained high on the list of Africa’s most celebrated works of fiction for more than five decades since it was first published in 1964.

The value of this book is substantially enhanced by the fact that it provides what might be the most comprehensive and instructive guide so far to understanding a work that has proven to be the source of one of the world’s most contentious literary discussions. Several critics dismissed Okara’s experimentation and the authenticity that it sought to articulate in the early days after The Voice was first published. Most of these critics were apparently put off by the adventurous, not to say innovative, English syntax that Okara deployed in an effort to replicate the thought and speech patterns of his Ijo characters, when contemplating or expressing issues in their mother tongue. Over the years, however, a more careful and tolerant audience of readers has grown to accept the presumptions that Okara utilised in conceiving the work. The language, while appearing clumsy and unconventional to some critics, has gradually come to be recognised as being more appropriate to the narration of the story than orthodox English would have been. With this technical prejudice out of the way, the reader can truly enjoy one of the most unique narrative experiences available in African literature and the seven essays that make up this section render this experience even more enlightening. They include detailed examinations of the philosophical and moral assumptions that underpin the concept of the tale as well as interpretations of the phraseology and the formal structure of the tale, which tend to suggest that oral, rather than literal expression, might be the natural medium for its dissemination. In this light Obi Maduakor’s essay entitled ‘Myth and Mysticism in Gabriel Okara’s The Voice,’ and Onyemaechi Udumukwu’s ‘Gabriel Okara: The Author and the Reader in The Voice’ are just two examples of vitally imaginative studies that shed new and exciting light on a work that has come to be acknowledged as a slight but enduring masterpiece of modern African fiction.

While it is possible to single out a selection of the essays about The Voice for special mention, the quality of all the contributions in the section are of a high standard and each one is of particular interest for the uniqueness of its perspective. The two papers presented from the European perspective are of especial interest for actually illustrating the inherent practical universality of Okara’s appeal. The shorter section that follows sets out to examine Okara’s poetry. This is the core legacy of his creative mind. Appropriately, although there are only three papers in this section, each one plumbs profound issues and might be said to be following a fundamental structural initiative aimed at placing his lyrical verse in a historic social context. The first essay ‘Gabriel Okara: Poet of the Mystic Inside’ is by the aforementioned Obi Maduakor and continues to probe the theme of spiritual formalism that his earlier essay on The Voice promulgated. This time, however, he finds the mystic sensibility being utilised as a means to an end that is quite different from that in the work of fiction. Maduakor here discusses the mystic language of Okara’s verse as a technical rather than a spiritual element of formal versification and he discusses this in relation to the accessibility of Okara’s poetry to a broad readership base.

The two essays that follow in the section on poetry expand on this theme of enhancing the reach and role of Okara’s verse in the broader context of historical relevance. The titles of these essays indicate their objectives. They are ‘Gabriel Okara as a War Poet’ by Innocent C.K. Enyinnaya and ‘Cultural Nationalism in Gabriel Okara’s Poetry’ by Ibitamuno Aminigo The first of these is a credible examination of the poet’s reaction to the traumatic circumstances of civil war, which left him trapped in the war zone of the secessionist enclave. One of the most controversial issues to arise in this book is domiciled in this recounting of Okara’s reflections on the distressing consequences of the conflict. This scholarly study shows how Okara’s morality was utilised as a key element of his poetic sensibility and asserts that the affirmation of his compassion and sympathy for the plight of the ordinary citizens of the Eastern Region eliminated any assumptions of political empathy with the Nigerian cause that he might have felt. This assertion is effectively proven by the revelatory inclusion of a major poem that has been characterised for years as a legendary “lost” masterpiece. Entitled ‘Leave Us Alone,’ this is a long epistle of protest in several stanzas in which Okara takes the stand that the cost in human misery can never be justified by any political objective regardless of its supposed rightness. The inclusion of this poem as the last contribution to the anthology gives the work additional historic significance in any assessment of Gabriel Okara’s life and work.

Prof. Aminigo’s essay is one of the longest in the book and without a doubt one of the most important studies of the impact and relevance of Okara’s work to be published to date. It provides a clear guide to understanding how and why Okara’s minimal production of creative work resonates with such power in the overall repertory of Nigerian literature in particular and African literature in general. Prof. Aminigo illustrates the profound concern for the preservation of traditional values and attitudes that reverberate throughout Okara’s poetry from its earliest manifestation. He proves to be adept at identifying the symbolic and other strengths that give Okara’s work deeper significance in the context of its historic origin and provenance. In focusing on this aspect of the work of one of Nigeria’s most important artists, Prof. Aminigo’s work gives greater relevance to the overall direction and achievement of this historic book. It provides a basis for the evaluation of Okara’s idealistic role as a conscientious advocate of both the spiritual and the commonplace legacies of Africa’s historic realities as reflected in the existential reality of the contents of his work.

The final essay in the book is an analysis of a minor work of Okara’s crafted by Karibi T. George. This essay takes a look at the technique and the concept utilised in the writing of ‘An Adventure to Juju Island,’ a children’s story written by Okara, and while it provides additional evidence of Okara’s brilliance and his facility as a communicator, it is something of an anti-climax as the concluding chapter when compared to the overall impact of the more substantial earlier sections. The inclusion of the lost poem that indicates the depth of Okara’s disillusion and hurt over the circumstances that surrounded Nigeria’s civil war in the appendix adds a sensational element to the value of this collection, but its profound relevance is based on the respect for Okara’s lifelong commitment to his art and his ideals that the long overdue publication of the book represents.

•Lindsay Barrett is a novelist, poet, essayist, journalist and photographer

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