Farewell to scholar without borders (Abiola Irele, 1936 – 2017)
When Serendipity conspires with Fate, the result is almost invariably a combination of astonishment and eye-popping bewilderment. This observation provides a painfully perfect script for my own ‘Irele narrative’, especially with regard to my interactions with this great scholar and generous enabler in what has now turned out to be his last few weeks on earth.
The immediate chapter of this narrative has to do with the dedication of my new book of poems, If Only the Road Could Talk, just released in the United States by Africa World Press. In the over 15 years I worked on those poems, it never occurred to me that I was going to dedicate them to anybody. Nor did that thought ever cross my mind in the hectic months leading to the final editing and revision of the galleys. Then, one morning, I woke up with something close to a Eureka feeling: voila, I have found a worthy dedicatee for my new book and that person would be none other than Abiola Irele. That decision itself was both curious and complex; for I already had a piece written in his honour in the book of essays I was readying up for publication – an essay which had missed the chance to appear in The World in Africa & Africa in the World: Essays in Honor of Abiola Irele, a highly valuable festschrift edited with a characteristically comprehensive and provocative introduction by Biodun Jeyifo. In spite of all this, I woke up with that irrepressible urge to put Irele’s name in my new book’s dedication page. When I called Kassahun Checole, my publisher, and revealed my new decision, I knew the manuscript was set and ready to go to the printer. But the Irele name did the magic. My publisher had the grace to wait for another two days, during which the following was born:
To Abiola Irele
Scholar without borders
These seasoned offspring
Of Songs of the Marketplace
My curious instinct had not run its course. Two weeks after the manuscript had gone to press, I did something that is absolutely out of my character and habit: I “leaked” the dedication to Professor Irele, thus sabotaging the pleasurable surprise I had planned for him upon a later discovery of the dedication in an already published book! Of course, Irele’s response was touchingly grateful. Weeks later, I kept wondering: why, considering the stated prevailing circumstances, did I undertake to pen a paean for Irele? And, even more perplexing, why did I make sure he read this ahead of its publication? Nothing could have told me about his imminent passing. The last time I saw him and Eka, his lovely wife, it was at the funeral of another great scholar and humanist, Isidore Okpweho; and I still remember telling Professor Irele how fresh and well preserved he looked, and how eloquent his tribute to Okpewho was. Death, our insatiable foe, must have been laughing behind the curtain!
I am sad Professor Irele didn’t see my new book before he passed away, but glad that he read my dedication and had a measure of the high regard in which I hold him, and the gratitude I owe him as a writer, scholar, and aburo. For, Irele’s New Horn Press was my first publisher. Unknown to many people, the very title of my first book of poems came from him. I had completed this collection of verses, christened it ‘I Sing of Change’, after one of the major poems within its cover, and started wondering which major publisher would be foolhardy enough to stake his investment on a timid, yet unknown novice, when the Irele ‘Angel’ walked in literally through the door. ‘Niyi, I understand you have a new poetry manuscript; can I take a look at it? I’ve been reading your poems in West Africa, (the then highly influential London-based newsmagazine) and I like them’.
With much trepidation I handed him a bound copy of a collection called ‘I Sing of Change’, and he promised to get back to me in ‘about a week’. But the very next day, Professor Irele left a hand-written message on my office door, telling me the poems were ‘terrific’ and asking if I would let New Horn publish them. Of course, my answer was a resounding affirmative. Two days later, he announced with palpable enthusiasm, ‘I have a new title for your collection: ‘Songs of the Marketplace’. I think that sounds more intriguing, and it captures the essence of the entire collection’. That was it. That name stuck, and the moniker, ‘Poet of the Marketplace’ was born – with Irele as Francis the Baptist.
Thus, Irele was not only there at the beginning of my literary-creative journey; he was vitally instrumental in giving my fledgling dream a name, and shaping the trajectory of a life career. Any wonder then that If Only the Road, which arrived with my 70th year on earth, and over three decades since the initial Irele Magic, kept on insisting that it would not be complete without that dedication to the Spirit of the Beginning who gave voice and verve to the ‘hawker’s ditty’ in the marketplace of songs? No doubt the God of Gratitude has wondrous ways of communing with the Spirit of Serendipity. . . .
Irele’s New Horn initiative predated my Marketplace experience. First on the New Horn Poets list was Harry Garuba, whose Shadows and Dreams (1982) struck the literary public with its poignant precocity and intensely engaging rendering. Following four years later was Conflicts, debut poetry collection by Mabel Segun, who had already made a name as one of Nigeria’s finest short story writers; and much, later, Poems of the Sea by Jean Baptiste Tati Loutard, one of Africa’s most eloquent poets. Irele had an overriding passion: to discover, nurture, and promote a new crop of writers after the phenomenal achievements of the Achebe-Soyinka-Clark-Okigbo generation. The ‘New’ in his ‘Horn’ was both a statement and a promise; a literary journey and cultural investment, with a staunch hope in the future of African writing.
There goes Abiola Irele, the doer and enabler. Admirably cosmopolitan and inspiringly literate, Irele was a man and scholar constantly re-inventing himself and his ideas, an ageless humanist with an astounding combination of youthful energy and the seasoned wisdom that comes with age. We will sorely miss his fertile, encyclopedic mind, his stupendous zest for life, his powerfully resonant voice, his infectious passion for music, wine, and enlightened company.
• Niyi Osundare writes from Ibadan
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