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Ovation, admiration as Ifeoma Okoye reads at UNILAG

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The audience clapped intermittently while being entertained by the octogenarian guest writer who read from her 2013 novel The Fourth World with great precision. The book made the longlist for the NLNG Nigeria prize for Literature 2016. In her usual meek and humble demeanor, she responded to the medley of questions that were asked at the end of a fascinating event duly attended by literary and academic minds. Okoye is one of the pioneer female writers in Nigeria.

Room 307 on the 3rd Floor, Faculty of Arts, University of Lagos, Akoka, Lagos, was stretched to full capacity on Tuesday, February 28 when some personalities in the Nigeriam literary space assembled alongside creative writing students of the Department of English. They had come, particularly the students, undergraduates and post-graduates alike, eager to learn from one of the mistresses of literary craft and questions on how to better their fledgling art.

The occasion was the first in a long time the ‘Marxist-feminist’ writer would engage her Nigerian audience. Thus, it was a stimulating journey into her literary ideas when she gave ample insight into the background that inspired her stories. Aimed to bridge the widening gap between old generation and aspiring writers, the event marked the second outing in the collaborative initiative between the Department of English and the Committee for Relevant Arts (CORA).

In his opening remarks Head of Department of English, University of Lagos, Professor Hope Eghagha, highlighted the event’s objective, when he said, “it is a way of establishing contact with the next generation of writers because we have a generation of writers in the department who are interested in creative writing. The programme is a meeting point for the different generations so they can relate and take a cue on how to write and how to face the challenges of a writer.”

Amb. Poopola Olukani, Mrs. Florence Imo and May Okoye after the reading at UNILAG.

Thereafter, Eghagha expressed gratitude to CORA “for creating the avenue for budding writers to creatively express themselves” and also commended CORA’s Secretary-General, Mr. Toyin Akinosho, for being on ground, and observed that the NGO’s programme Chair, Jahman Anikulapo, was not present due to an international engagement, as part of Professor Wole Soyinka’s contingent to Port-au-Prince, Haiti. “I am sorry Jahman isn’t with us because of flight delays from Haiti. Meanwhile, on the guest writer of the day, I have known Ifeoma Okoye for the past 40 years, but only got to meet her over an hour ago. She has been quite prodigious in her creative outputs, remarkably in her 1984 novel Men Without Ears.

Separated in two phases, the first segment of the reading guided the rapt audience into the gruesome details of the poverty-stricken world that the central character, Chira, lives in. Within the pervasive despair among Kasanga Avenue residents, a little girl nurses a strong ambition to redeem herself through access to education but when death claim her father, her hopes plunge fast into a terrible abyss. Although some literary pundits may conclude that the novel is one of those regular poverty porn narratives, the situation portrayed is the living reality of most Nigerians. A truly committed writer cannot simply look the other way from chronicling the realities that bare its fangs at a hapless citizenry everyday.

Nevertheless the first reading was introductory to the horrendous hardship Chira is enmeshed. The second reading didn’t just expand on the harrowing accounts. It also went ahead to usher in a somewhat deus ex machine-style of resolving Chira’s mounting conflict. In its entirety, the book is a realistic portrayal of the excruciating poverty of the downtrodden, of people living on the fringes of society, with opulence a few hundred metres away, of individuals who live the basest of life, who are miles away from all the appurtenances of modern civilization.

A teacher in the department, Dr. Patrick Oloko, gave a brief but fascinating review of the novel. In it, he observed, “In a very general sense, the main concern of The Fourth World is poverty. Accordingly, the author has keyed all focuses and attentions to illuminating poverty in its material, spatial, ideational and intellectual force. The protagonist in the context and situation and the people they relate with make these poverties to come alive in the physical space of Kasanga in a way that compares with how Charles Dickens made the social conditions of 19th century England to become so visible and tactile in the famous request of Oliver Twist for more food. What has emerged effortlessly in this novel is to quell social concern about the vulnerable and how they are produced by misgovernance. So, despite all that we know and have heard about the contemporary ineffectuality of artistic commitment, about the failure of Marxism and the attraction of utopia that lead writers to see their societies in dystopian terms, Okoye urges us in this novel that the spirit of social criticism is still alive. This should be so because social criticism is the DNA of literature. It is the bone and flesh of literature. And because the conditions that spurred Carl Marx are still very right with us…”

While speaking further, Oloko recalled that “Yesterday in this room we are seated Dr. Kolade Musoro, a publisher, told us in an aside that even though every novel ends with a full-stop, the story it tells often continues. I cannot say I have not heard that before, but I have not heard it said so strikingly before. I am fascinated by the metaphor of the full-stop exhibiting its authority and capacity to determine the finality of a story. Yet, even more fascinating is how the story shows a greater, more insidious authority and capacity by continuing beyond the full-stop, the pages of the novel and even the context of the novel.

“So without any AK47, Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles and Mother Of All Bombs (MOAB), the story continues in its territorial expansion. First, in the imagination of the reader and secondly in the experiences that readers see in practical social life, as transacted on the streets, at work places, in family spaces and in general conversations and finally across geographical, political and cultural spaces. The story is like cloud. It has no respect for national, international and textual frontiers. So after reading the novel, the reader becomes the writer. However, while most readers like me continue to produce great novels that never step out of their heads, some writers are so compelling that their stories produce identifiable sequences – after-text, inter-text, hypertext, post-text, as well as mediation…”

In conclusion Oloko made the connection between literary texts and film as two inter-relating art forms that often intersect, “I want to draw your attention to another way that Ifeoma Okoye inspired or has contributed to inspiring what we know today as the Nollywood film industry. If you reread Okoye’s Behind the Clouds (1982) and Men Without Ears (1984) and take a deeper look at the pages, you would detect the implicit relationship between these novels and the inaugural film of Nollywood entitled Living in Bondage (1992), written by Kenneth Nnebue and Okechukwu Ogunjiofor. This fact is hardly well-known because people still downplay the relationship between literature and films…”

Also lending her voice to the eulogies that greeted the reading was Christy, a South Korean teacher of mind psychology at Caleb University, Lagos. “I could relate very well with the gripping storyline in The Fourth World, as a child growing up in the suburb of South Korea. I was born in 1961 and grew up at a time when it was rumoured Ethiopia was richer than my country. The interesting books I have read about Nigeria made me fall in love with the place and I really want to die and be buried under a mango tree here,” she said with a flourish. In sum, Christy volunteered to assist in translating the book into Korean language.

In one of the intermissions, former Ambassador to Australia Ayoola Olukanni, who also served on Permanent Mission to the United Nations in New York, read his poem that stressed on the theme of girl child education and gender equality. He spoke with recourse to his wealth of experience while working with the international organisation.

On what inspires her in response to questions from the students, Mrs. Okoye stated emphatically that The Fourth World wasn’t inspired by a personal story, as her parents were neither rich nor poor when growing up. The writer sees herself as one suffused with empathy, who is easily moved by the situation of others. However, she recounted a mindboggling story she witnessed while working at a government hospital in Enugu, about a woman who was thrown out of her ward with her newborn because she couldn’t offset the huge bill.

On whether she is a feminist or Marxist writer, she simply said, “I don’t really know. I write what I feel, what I want to write without being conscious of a literary theory or any other trappings at that. They can give me any name. Some people have talked about Marxism in my works. I know there is a bit of Marxism when you talk about the downtrodden but whatever you call me, I answer. Since we have agreed to be in a third world country according to international categorization, any human condition that goes beyond those in the third world, is the fourth world.”

Other dignitaries at the reading were Papa Lekan Animashaun, Prof. Samuel Olajide Timothy-Asobele, Richard Mammah, Toni Kan, Dr. Tolu Ajayi, Gift Osiomwan, Ngozi Osu Anene, Dr. Lola Akande, Dr. Felicia Ohwovoriole, Dr. Bose Afolayan, Dr. Yewande Ogunfeyimi Ntekim-Rex, Prof. Austin Nwagbara, Soibifaa Dokubo, Pa Modupe Oduyoye amongst others.


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