After Melody Of Stones, PEN Nigeria in Silver Lining
In 2003, the Nigerian chapter of PEN International published Melody of Stones, its first anthology of Nigerian writing. Silver Lining is PEN Nigeria’s second anthology. Published by University Press Plc in the second half of 2019, Pen Nigeria President, Folu Agoi and Professor Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo, the editors, spoke in their Editorial about the need to put together a ‘robust’ work of Nigerian literature; one which will project, as ‘one vibrant voice’, an intergenerational caucus of artists and thinkers: early career, mid-career, and veterans. No legislated themes or approaches: writers were asked to make their own choices about what to express and how.
Before I begin my review of Silver Lining, I would like to take a quick look at examples of the worldwide campaign to mainstream African literature. It continues to gain ground. France-based Nakiri – Rights Solution and digital distributor, Italy-based StreetLib, two stakeholders in the success of African publishing, have come together to scale the sale of foreign rights and distribution of francophone books across international and linguistic boundaries, leveraging expertise in rights trading and cutting-edge digital technology. Individual linguists across Africa and community resources such as the Red Sea Cultural Centre, Hargeysa, Somaliland, are translating books and short stories into local languages to encourage consumption of African literature by the widest possible local audience.
The Mabati Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African literature was inaugurated for the purpose of translating texts from, between and into African languages and to promote writing in African languages. Fellowships and residencies hosted locally and overseas are on the rise. With and without international guest-lists there is momentum behind the spread and upgrade of literary festivals, book fairs and writers’ conferences on the continent. It is clear that as our self-esteem has grown, so has the vision of the community of writers which PEN represents, to sustain vigorous conversations around literature between Africans at home, Africans across our borders, Africans in the Diaspora at the same time as our books are being integrated into the world’s biblio-diversity.
Momentum is rising behind cross-cultural and cross-border collaborations to facilitate the distribution of African writing; to mainstream it. With their capacity to project a multitude of diverse voices, a high premium is being placed on anthologies. Examples: The Granta Book of the African Short Story (ed. Helon Habila. Granta (UK)) New Daughters of Africa (ed. Margaret Busby. Myriad Editions (UK)); Migrations: New Short Fiction from Africa (eds. Helen Moffett, Efemia Chela, Bongani Kona. Short Story Day Africa (South Africa)); Limbe to Lagos: Non-Fiction from Cameroon and Nigeria (eds. Dami Ajayi, Dzekashu MacViban, and Emmanuel Iduma. Goethe Institute (Nigeria)); the annual Writivism anthologies (Writivism. Uganda), the annual Caine Prize anthologies (co-publishers: New Internationalist (UK); Interlink (US); Lantern Books (Nigeria) Kwani? (Kenya); Sub-Saharan Publishers (Ghana)); amaBooks (Zimbabwe); Huza Press (Rwanda); Mkuki na Nyota (Tanzania); Red Sea Cultural Foundation (Somaliland, Somalia, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan, South Sudan and UAE), Safe House: Explorations in Creative Non-Fiction (ed. Ellah Wakatama Allfrey. Cassava Republic Press (Nigeria)) and Best ‘New’ African Poets 2018 Anthology, edited by Tendai Rinos Mwanaka, published by Mwanaka Media and Publishing (Zimbabwe) and distributed by the world’s largest marketing and distribution firm of Africa published books, African Books Collective (Oxford, UK).
While PEN Nigeria laboured to make its own anthology happen, Regula Venske, President of German PEN and member of the Board of PEN International, waited in Germany to receive Silver Lining. In her generous Foreword, she introduces Germany’s LitProm and its website which lists about 108 entries from Nigeria out of an existing 1,000 entries from the continent. She explains LitProm’s goals: under the auspices of the Frankfurt Book Fair, LitProm encourages cross-border learning and dialogue through the promotion of literature of the world, namely literature from Africa, Asia, the Arab World and Latin America. Venske expresses the hope that Silver Lining will be added to the titles from the canon of new Nigerian literature that have been made available in Germany by dedicated translators. They are still too few. She makes special mention of Das Wunderhorn, led by Manfred Metzner and Indra Wussow. Since 2010, the Frankfurt-based publishing firm has undertaken AfrikAWunderhorn, which she describes as ‘a courageous endeavor to translate young writers from Africa’.
There are 21 poems, 10 prose entries, one play and one critical essay from 33 authors in Silver Lining. Ralph Tathagata, author of the critical essay, Of Nursery Rhyme and the Truth of Poetry, moderated the panel discussion during a World Migration Day 2018 program organized by PEN Nigeria at CORA House, its Lagos HQ. Many others are names I have never have heard of until now including Olu Oyawale (A Homeless Fellow Contemplates Suicide in the Thames), Kayode Adaramoye (Migratory Flight), Toyin Adenubi (The Outcast), and Ethel Ngozi Okeke (I come to see you, Mama) and playwright R.C Ofodile (A Magical Meeting). Here they are, showcasing ability, which ranges the spectrum on a stage shared with celebrated artists including a winner of the NOMA Award for Publishing in Africa and the first African Nobel Laureate of Literature.
Leah Sharibu is the schoolgirl who has remained a hostage of Boko Haram for refusing to renounce Christianity in exchange for her freedom. For Wole Soyinka who provides the powerful opening to the collection, secular humanism is the antidote to the religious extremism, which led to the abduction of the schoolgirls of Chibok, Bornu State and Dapchi in Yobe. A Humanist’s Ode to Chibok, Dapchi – for Leah Sharibu, is his poem exhorting ‘new minds (and) new-attuned’, to reject and consign to ‘mice and termites’ ‘enslaving texts’, ‘gospels of death’ ‘forged to chain humanity to minaret and spire from crib to grave’
Joining him to denounce the terrorism Boko Haram has unleashed on the North-East of Nigeria, are Funmi Aluko with Ballad for the Forest I, II and III and 2018 Wole Soyinka Prize winner, Tanure Ojaide, with Head Count. The poem mourns the decimation of nature, wildlife and ‘thriving settlements’ by the combined forces of marauding Fulani herdsmen and ‘selfish overlords’ at the helm of an industrialization which rides roughshod over the needs of the people who derive nothing from so-called modernising activity but suffering and dispossession of the little they possess.
As Nigerians we know the universality of greed and corruption. Which one of us has not experienced their corrosive effects? They drive the political life of our nation, spill into organized religion and war against our personal outcomes. Greed, corruption and their spawn – desperate poverty and migration – are the dominant features of much of our literary art and this anthology by the writers of PEN Nigeria, is no exception.
Professor Niyi Osundare, 1991 NOMA Award winner has contributed several poems one of which is a lofty exhortation: Let Distribution Undo Excess, and takes as its title, a quote from Shakespeare’s King Lear, Act 4, Scene 1. Ralph Akintan-Ralph’s Christian poem rages at the Merchants in the Temple. Folu Agoi evokes an infamous moment in Africa’s relations with the United States in his ‘fantastically rich, fantastically famished’ Shithole. Akeem Lasisi’s Udeme: Constituency Project is a punchy satire:
‘You will be my only constituency project, Udeme
If I can wriggle my way into Senate House.
When others talk about poverty projects
I will dualize the road that leads into your heart.’
‘Let the crime of the century be etched on every conscience’ is the declaration, which opens For Jamal Kashoggi. Tanure Ojaide’s condemnation of the murder of the Washington Post journalist and A.J. Dagga Tolar’s I Can’t Breathe, quoting Kashoggi’s last words, are loud accusations and (with the possible exception of Toki Mabogunje’s Adamawa), the only pointedly political poems of the book. Dagga Tolar indicts the ‘terror-hero’ of the ‘Saud House’ for ‘the forgotten unending front line of death at Hodeida (Yemen); for killing Jamal Kashoggi, for jailing the blogger Raif Badawi, for sentencing, Ashraf Fayadh, (fellow PEN member), to death for apostacy.
PEN Nigeria’s objective to rally behind writers regardless of culture, creed, religion and political affiliation is tied to PEN International’s Charter, which declares for a free press. Writers must speak truth to power, denounce the persecution of journalists and oppose governments, which flout the laws of freedom and justice. These are the principles underpinning Niyi Osundare’s stand about African poets: they have no choice but to be political. In Silver Lining, Tanure Ojaide and AJ Dagga Tolar have outdone the older poet with their radically political poetry. Without For Jamal Kashoggi and I Can’t Breathe, – their fearless contributions – PEN Nigeria’s anthology would be far less polemical, far less like PEN; a weaker composition.
I went in search of my silver lining, finding glimmers in the flash fiction of Bunmi Oyinsan. A Private Kind of Death, one of her 3 contributions, is a sophisticated piece, introducing a lonely, complicated Nigerian immigrant in Canada. It is a strange picture of dignity. Dare to be Different is Niyi Osundare’s rebel writer manifesto. Tony Marinho’s short story, Touch Me, has an unusual setting and a nostalgic ending with a gently piquant twist. I found The Outcast, a love story by Toyin Adenubi, refreshing. Even if the Road to the Cemetry is Closed by Akeem Lasisi, is a moving elegy on the death of Dr. Stella Ameyo Adadevoh who was selfless, heroic at the time of Ebola, a terrifying moment in our nation’s history. Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo celebrates heroines also: Alyssa Milano of the liberating ‘Me Too’ movement and Amina Mohammed, Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations, who has recently won the Global Citizen World Leader Prize. Writing as Okinba Launko, Femi Osofisan has contributed four poems. The first is a touching celebration of his friendship with Odia Ofeimun, distinguished poet and Hornbill House publisher. Two others are slow, gentle reflections about women friends who have passed.
There are 33 writers of Silver Lining representing a wide range of professions. There are economists, IT engineers, lecturers, teachers, statisticians, lawyers, playwrights, actors, medical doctors and an interesting admixture of business and poetry, Lagos State Chamber of Commerce’s new Director-General, Toki Mabogunje. Niran Okewole is an Abeokuta based psychiatrist and a poet of impressive, muscular capacities. The Conceit of Flora is his poem about a girl, her puberty and puppy love in a run-down classroom in an inner-city Lagos school alive with rambunctious pupils. It is masterful and for me, the standout piece of PEN Nigeria’s 2019 anthology.