Sunday, 24th September 2023

In spite of challenges, Nigerian writings score high at 35th convention

By Anote Ajeluorou, Assistant Art Editor, who was in Abuja
06 November 2016   |   4:18 am
The socio-political and economic challenges in the country notwithstanding, Nigerian writers have been scored high in their chosen vocation.
Keynote speaker, Prof. Isidore Diala, having his citation read at the convention

Keynote speaker, Prof. Isidore Diala, having his citation read at the convention

The socio-political and economic challenges in the country notwithstanding, Nigerian writers have been scored high in their chosen vocation. This is so because they have largely responded to what literary scholar and award-winning critic, Prof. Isidore Diala, refers to as spatio-temporal demands imposed on them by their ever-changing environment. Diala, who teaches at Imo State University, was the keynote speaker at this year’s 35th International Convention of Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), held in Abuja. He addressed the all-embracing issue of ‘A Writers’ Body and the Burdens of Current Nigerian Writing.’

According to Diala, he set out to achieve three things with his lecture, namely, to “highlight what I refer to as the Nigerian tradition of writing, which I locate in the postulations of the hegemonic faction of the first generation of Nigerian writers. In this regard, I highlight Chinua Achebe’s and Wole Soyinka’s conception of the writer’s responsibility to his/her society and very briefly remark on how Christopher Okigbo’s ‘Path of Thunder’ is the demonstrable signal foundational Nigerian text of poetic dissidence. Next, I note some trends in current Nigerian writing. Finally, I meditate on Achebe’s reflection on the corporeality of the writer; that is, the writer’s body, as well as a body of writers, in his ANA inauguration speech and attempt to show how that links with the two other concerns of my presentation.”

Continuing, Diala, noted, “As the aesthetic structuring of words to create and underscore meaning and value and to stimulate pleasure, literature in most societies has a depth of significance set in relief both by the ascription of the powers of the artist to divine inspiration and the traditional emblematic equation of the work of literary art with oracular discourse. The privileging of one of these functions of literature over the other is, of course, determined partly by the genre or type or simply by the writer’s own temperament or ideological disposition. But it is equally determined too by cultural expectations or even more crucially by national traditions.”

Diala’s was restating the obvious when he fleshed out the artistic vision that guided the pioneers – Soyinka and Achebe – who see writers as “that of a visionary, and has the implication that he/she is not only committed to imaging contemporary issues in his/her poetry, but that he/she does so as a ‘prophet;’ that is, envisions present events and their future consequences in images that appear to have been invoked from dreams.”

Given the dire conditions on the continent, Soyinka had described the African writer “’as the voice of vision” and the conscience of the society,” while “Achebe pronounced the absolute proverbial irrelevance of so-called African literature divorced from crucial political issues.” From these two masters, Diala traced the relevance of Nigerian writers through the generations to current literary crafts men and women and how they discharged their duties to their society honourably. In what is effectively a literary tour de force, Diala the scholar, made a sweep of Nigerian literary landscape and charted the various under-currents that underpin the writing from Christopher Okigbo to Niyi Osundare, Femi Osofisan, Esiaba Irobi, to younger writers making marks in the country such as The Nigerian Prize for Literature winner, Mr. Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, Elnathan John, Ogochukwu Promise and lots more.

It was Okigbo, who took his literary activism to the point of martyrdom after he had originally fancied himself on the art for art sake prism. As Diala put it, “Okigbo’s self-image in his final sequence ‘Path of Thunder’ as town-crier, speaking truth to power in a public idiom, and thus a potential martyr, is a recurring image of the committed poet in contemporary Nigerian poetry: ‘If I don’t learn to shut up my mouth I’ll soon go to hell,/I, Okigbo, town-crier, together with my iron bell.”

Diala continued, “Expectedly, writers’ individual talents and their ideological persuasions regulate their response to any prevailing literary tradition and could possibly interrogate or reinvent it. Typically, then, the compact between the literary imagination and the historical process, just like the medium of its expression, remains focal in many Nigerian writers’ “manifesto works.” When Osundare declared in Songs of the Marketplace that “Poetry is/not the esoteric whisper/of an excluding tongue” aimed at mystifying a “wondering audience”, he was evidently embarked on a poetic revolution that would redefine both the scope and language of poetry, placing the folk and the underprivileged at the heart of the poet’s compassion while equally drawing on the resources of their oral arts and privileging an accessible idiom of expression. Yet, like Soyinka and Okigbo, he apprehended the topical in visionary terms and remained committed to the craft of poetry.”

Diala argued that Irobi took the Osundare trend further in putting poetry in service of the ordinary people. As Diala put it, “Locating the poet then in the fraternity of artisans, Irobi appraises poetry as an art form that serves society a crucial utilitarian purpose as a means of combating injustice and tyranny. His deployment of military motifs reveals his absorption with the military further foregrounded in his self-image in this poem as “a soldier of diction”. His toils aim to transform his similes into “shrapnel,” his images into “bayonets” and his symbols into “hand grenades.” Irobi’s ideal poet apparently envies the blood lust, which Irobi contends typifies the military, given that that poet’s deepest longing is to “slash the heads of heady Heads of State” and that he adores the glint of “bayonets planted between the ribs of tyrants.”

Also for Diala, “The core of Nigerian literature is the lived experience of the people… The kind of literature developed around each important historical moment is determined by what I could refer to as the heroic resonance of such a moment. The civil war undoubtedly has been the epicentre of Nigerian history. It raises fundamental questions about human freedom that are of political, philosophical, and even aesthetic consequence and has resonances with epic, tragic and mythic dimensions. Continuing debates and recent writing on the civil war evidently demonstrate its enduring grip on the national imagination and consciousness. For younger writers, it remains topical and significant fictional accounts of the war continue to be published. Among the most recent include: Lilian Uchenna Amah’s Dreams of Yesterday, Abigail Anaba’s Sector 1V, and Sam Omatseye’s My Name is Okoro.

“Military despotism for similar reasons caught the imagination of the Nigerian writer. Indeed, the militarisation of the psyche of the Nigerian public and even of the Nigerian artist may well be one of the greatest exploits of the Nigerian army. Niyi Osundare, Odia Ofeimun, Tanure Ojaide, and Femi Osofisan, regarded as some of the most distinguished voices of the ‘second generation’ of Nigerian poets, are all renowned for the talent with which they have consistently spoken truth to power even when it also required great courage”.

The Niger Delta debacle of environmental despoliation, marginalization and neglect, according to Diala, has featured prominently in literary engagements, especially of writers from the region with “Ebi Yeibo, g’ebinyo Ogbowei, Ibiwari Ikiriko, Ogaga Ifowodo are focal voices here as they explore the despoliation of the environment and the expected sacrifices and criminalities at the heart of a struggle for both survival and the redistribution of wealth”.

Then enters Boko Haram insurgency in northern Nigeria, which “understandably has equally gripped the imagination of contemporary Nigerian writers, and Elnathan John’s Born on a Tuesday and award-winning Abubukar Ibrahim’s Season of Crimson Blossom are peerless. John’s Born on a Tuesday tells the sober story of a young man’s sensual and religious awakening. Told in the first person narrative, the novel exploits both the protagonist’s own naivety and his genuine groping to understand a complex world of religious and political violence for both humour and moral illumination.

“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 light on 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.”

Also, Diala pointed out another preoccupation of Nigerian writers in what he called “clinical examination of the human body. Typically exploring terminal diseases such 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.”

Diala also noted the migrant strand of Nigerian writing as gaining strong momentum in its flowering and an addition to the rich canon that make up the country’s literary tradition. Diala quoted Prof. Tanure Ojaide extensively on “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.”

According Ojaide, “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.”

Diala stated that “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 become a 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.”

However, in spite of these obvious achievements Nigeria literature has made over the years, the father-figure of the craft, Achebe, saw far ahead of his time, when he expressed misgivings about the business and politics of culture as it affects the book and its practice.

According to Achebe, “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, book shops, printers… You can’t really talk about African literature unless you have all these other aspects of the book trade in Africa. This is my stand.”

Diala concluded by noting, “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…

“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 35 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”.

While addressing his literary colleagues that included Professors Femi Osofisan, Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo and Sunny Ododo, Jerry Agada, Dr. Wale Okediran, Sen. Shehu Sani, who hosted the convention, Mrs. Nneoma Okorocha and delegates from the 36 states of the federation, President of ANA, Malam Denja Abdullahi, re-emphasised the vision of the founding fathers of ANA 35 years ago when the late Chinua Achebe set the association on a three-point objective.

According to Abdullahi, “When our Association was founded 35 years ago by the leading lights of Nigerian literature, led by that evergreen late patriarch of modern African literature, Chinua Achebe, it was rested on a tripod, on which we still stand. You may wonder what that is. ANA, as contained in the inaugural speech of Chinua Achebe, delivered at Nsukka on June 27, 1981, was formed to assist Nigerian writers to build their capacity to deal with the business side to writing, to safeguard the freedom and safety of writers and to use writing to build an egalitarian society.

“Looking back to the last 35 years, our association has discharged itself adequately on two of its founding ideals as our writers and members of our association have been vanguards of freedom of speech and writing and have always been found on the side of the people and the oppressed. It will be trite to repeat here the sacrifices made and the price paid by our writers in their individual and collective fights for a better society and a greater nation. We are, however, yet to fully grapple with what should be done to ensure that the writer earns a decent living through his or her crafts.

“Our association, at this period of reflection and with a full sense of accomplishment in the service of self and our dear nation this 35 years, must, however, re-examine itself critically to recalibrate its operations in order to run better and achieve greater goals in tune with the demands of our contemporary world.

“The steps we have taken to ensure this, via drawing a strategic plan for the association and documenting its history, achievements and prospect audio-visually, will soon be unveiled to you. Changing long-held perceptions and ways of doing things that are no longer of benefit to the common good, from the Nigerian present experience, is not an easy task. We are, however, determined to achieve all our objectives as promised to the congress of the association within the time given to us to serve, no matter the odds.”

Abdullahi restated the association’s commitment to the aspirations of Nigerian writers and “continual dedication to the Nigerian project and our readiness to assist in the never ending task of building a better society. We will not stop being vigilant as writers in the protection of the weak and speaking for those whose voices may have been stolen or muffled.”

He called for a minute’s silence in honour of departed colleagues like Captain Elechi Amadi and Ken Saro-Wiwa Jnr.

Also responding as host was Senator Shehu Sani (representing PDP, Kaduna Central), who castigated politicians for lowering the political bar in the country. Unlike First Republic politicians, who brought a measure of intellectual rigour to debates and quoted extensively from books and philosophers to advance their arguments, Sani lamented the low intellectual capacity of current breed of Nigerian political leaders at all levels. He also said politicians who have libraries in their homes consider the books as mere part of the architecture, rather them serious resource materials to be consulted to advance democratic values.

According to Sani, “I’ve said it also that one of the basic problems we face today is the declining level of our intellectual potency and value of our national discourse. If you go through the conversations of the politicians of the First Republic, when they speak, you see them quoting Socrates, Pluto and other philosophers. You see them making references to renowned authors. But that seems forbidden in what we have now. When politicians have libraries in their houses, they are simply part of the architecture of those houses. So, I think the challenge before us at this anniversary convention is that our submissions should add value, should add weight, and should add substance to our multifaceted problems.”

Sani also expressed caution on those he termed political leaders, noting, “We must ensure that we make ANA relevant and impactful to our political leaders. When I say political leaders, I’m concerned. Our politicians will claim to write books and launch books. But when you confront them to discuss some of the chapters in their own books, they don’t know. So, they never even had time to read the manuscripts of their own books written for them by ghost writers.”

The lawmaker commended writers for the important task of keeping memory and history alive through their writing, saying, “This is an important part of our history and our memory. If there is any value to add to his gathering it is to use this gathering to take positions and make pronouncements that will add to our national discourse in the search of a more progressive, prosperous and functioning Nigeria. I feel pained when I see the failing interest in literature and what we can do to revive that interest and that vigour in literature by our young ones. My basic concern is if we don’t do anything, no one will do it for us.”

Sani charged young Nigerians to thread softly on the path of social media usage, noting that social media usage without a literary and literate backing that works of literature advance is meaningless.

According to him, “Our young people today spend 90 per cent of their time on social media. They post, they chat, they tweet; what they don’t know is that if you don’t read, you will have nothing to post, chat or tweet on social media. So, posting, chatting and tweeting are simply vehicle to transmit messages. But if you don’t have that message, you will be transmitting nothing”.