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The portrait of an artist as a scholar

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Nduka Otiono


Born in Kano, Nigeria, Nduka Otiono is an Assistant Professor at the Institute of African Studies, Carleton University. He was educated at the University of Ibadan and University of Alberta where he obtained his PhD in English and won numerous awards including the Izaak Walton Killam Memorial Scholarship, and was nominated for the Governor General’s Gold Medal for academic distinction. He held a postdoctoral fellowship at Brown University where he was also appointed a Visiting Assistant Professor, and won a Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship to Carleton University. He is a two-time recipient of the Carnegie African Diaspora Fellowship (2015 and 2016), winner of a 2017 Carleton University Faculty of Arts and Social Science Early Career Research Excellence Award, and winner of a 2016 Capital Educators’ award for excellence in teaching.

Prior to turning to a career in academia upon relocating to Canada in 2006, Otiono was a journalist and cultural activist in Nigeria and had published hundreds or stories on arts, culture, and political economy.  He served as General Secretary of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA); Member of the National Committee for UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage; Founding Member of the Board of the Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas (NLNG)-sponsored $100,000 Nigerian Prize for Literature. A fellow of the William Joiner Centre for War and Social Consequences, University of Massachusetts, Boston, Otiono is the author of The Night Hides with a Knife (short stories), which won the ANA/Spectrum Prize; Voices in the Rainbow (Poems), a finalist for the ANA/Cadbury Poetry Prize; Love in a Time of Nightmares (Poems) for which he was awarded the James Patrick Folinsbee Memorial Scholarship in Creative Writing. He is the co-editor of We-Men: An Anthology of Men Writing on Women (1998), and Camouflage: Best of Contemporary Writing from Nigeria (2006). He speaks with GREGORY AUSTIN NWAKUNOR, Arts and Culture Editor, on the challenges faced by the Nigerian writer, the media and other sundry issues.

It’s been a while since your last work came out. What’s happening to you?
Life and Time have been happening to me…Hahahaha! Incidentally, this year marks the tenth anniversary of the publication of my last creative writing book, my collection of poems, Love in a Time of Nightmares. Time has stolen into the poet’s anointed temple! So, your question is understandable. Since 2008 when that volume of poems was published, I have been professionally on a roller coaster…from Canada to the United States where I worked with the venerable Chinua Achebe (may his soul rest in perfect peace) and back to Canada. I have engaged in multiple intellectual engineering projects, African Diaspora academic fellowships to Nigeria, establishing a career in teaching after my initial life as a journalist and then a doctoral student, and then working on multiple scholarly research projects that are at various stages of progress. I have also written some new poems as part of a collection-in-progress entitled April Child.

For my efforts I have been blessed with several professional awards. More recently, I have completed (with a colleague and co-editor, Josh Toth of MacEwan University, Edmonton, Canada), a book project on the outstanding musician and Nobel laureate for Literature, Bob Dylan. While pushing the frontiers of my academic career, I am also concerned with my creative works that were published before I relocated to Canada. These works have been victims to the same kind of conditions that many books published in Nigeria (and in Africa) outside of mainstream Western publication industry and businesses have suffered; which is, absence online and even in physical space.

As you know, Amazon, and now, Okadabooks, and all other kinds of online distribution channels have provided portals for books published marginally in the postcolonial world or in the so-called Third World to have opportunity of getting wider market and circulation as e-books or hard copies.

Before this digital repositioning, a whole lot of titles published in postcolonial Africa and many parts of the developing world hardly made it into global circulation. And so, it’s not unusual in this context to find exceptional works which win important prizes such as the Nigeria Prize for Literature, sponsored by Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas company (NLNG), and so many other local prizes, not being available to people who live outside the catchment areas where these books were published. In some cases, people not only do not have access or any knowledge about the existence of such books, they may never have heard of their publication at all. This is the fate of some great books and not so-great ones published in Nigerian. It’s to this new technology of online distribution that we owe the possibilities of a wider circulation network of cultural productions in the continent and their remote opportunity of travelling outside the shores of Nigeria.

More recently, therefore, I have been agonising about this cultural politics of off-shore/onshore publication and the out-of-circulation status of many of the books that are published here or what I prefer to call “on-shore”. I have published two books of poetry, a collection of short stories and two anthologies that I hope will gain traction if republished and made available online. These are some of what have been happening to me, or if I may, that I have been happening to…Hahahaha!

Could you explain a little more this cultural politics of ‘off-shore’ / ‘onshore’ publication?
One great Nigerian writer that exemplifies this process is John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo (J.P. Clark). In the past 15 years or so, he has managed out of an understanding, I believe, of the unavailability of his great works in circulation to put them back into circulation, first in Nigeria, by having local publishers republish them. Whether these local publishers can get into the international publishing marketplace from Nigeria given the logistical and infrastructural challenges that hamper all forms of economic production in Nigeria remains to be seen. During the recent first J.P Clark international conference at the University of Lagos at which I was a plenary speaker, I was delighted to find works by Professor Clark such as Ozidi Saga that had gone out of print. Inspired by Clark’s impressive experimentation with getting his old works reissued and publishing many new works as well through local publishers, I decided to use the opportunity of my homecoming to work on having the electronic versions of my two poetry books, Voices in the Rainbow and Love in a Time of Nightmares. During this trip, I completed the recording process of those two volumes and we are now going into the proper production and post-production process towards having them as audio CDs with some musical accompaniments overlacing them.

Looking at your transition from journalism into academics, how has it been and what, in fact, prompted it?
That’s a big question. What prompted the transition? I wish I could have a simple answer, for example, say, I wanted to take advantage of an international opportunity to pursue higher knowledge or that I needed to leave the country or that I was tired of working as a journalist. I do not have any simple answer to your question. My relocation was prompted by a combination of factors that had been troubling me while working as a journalist and as an adjunct lecturer at the Department of English, University of Ibadan. I think that in the early 21st century, around 2001 to 2004, I was already going through professional crisis of not finding the kind of fulfilment I sought in journalism; I was also scared of what the future held for me as a journalist. Besides the debilitating work environment, there were issues of unpaid salaries and lack of funding for the beat—travels, etc. However, I was fortunate to be two-time general secretary of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), and so, besides my job as a journalist, I was also involved in cultural advocacy as a secretary of the writers’ guild. Within this period, I was able to deal with the trauma arising from my being shot point-blank at Apapa-Lagos under suspicious circumstances that looked like a car-jack incident or an assassination attempt considering the kind of socio-cultural politics I engaged in at the time. That incident is one unfinished story in my life; the scars had been so deep I am yet to really exorcise it in writing. I hope to write about it in a memoir in the near future.

The incident happened in 2001. I was barely out of intensive care in Eko Hospital when Bola Ige was assassinated two days after my miraculous survival. I think Chief Ige was shot on December 23, mine was December 21, and there were a couple of other political assassinations in the country at the time, including journalists. I was not exactly on the crossed hairs of anybody as I was not a political activist or political journalist. Nevertheless, I had written a couple of scathing political cover stories during the heydays of the Abacha regime as assistant editor for The Sentinel magazine, and as general secretary of ANA I issued strong condemnation of some government policies especially affecting knowledge production. So, I have no clear view of things that led to my being shot. However, I survived it and I continued to deal with the trauma. However, I began to be more introspective about my life as a journalist and as an intellectual in Nigeria. I became gradually disillusioned about the path that opened to me as a journalist in Nigeria and began to interrogate my options.

And so, I thought I needed a leap of faith, and since I had located myself within the intersection of journalism and academics, I decided to choose one, the academic life, because I thought it was going to be more fulfilling for me intellectually in the long run. Fortunately, I had friends who encouraged me to explore the alternative life in the Diaspora—chiefly Pius Adesanmi, Onookome Okome, Harry Garuba, and E.C. Osondu. And fortunately too, it worked out and I got admitted for a PhD with full scholarship at the University of Alberta, Canada. The rest, they say, is history.

Let us look at the art space in Canada, what would you say they are doing right, which we are not, especially for somebody who has been so much involved in the Nigerian art space and now exploring the Canadian alternative?
I think the Nigerian art space is one of the most exciting and most vibrant in the world. Things might not be done to the kind of professionally acceptable standards as one would expect, but at the same time, by the sheer volume of cultural production and sustainability of this space, Nigeria stands heads and shoulders with the very best in the world. From the literary circles to art exhibition spaces and Nollywood, you have Nigerian artists, to use the cliché, who virtually scoop water out of stone. They receive zero funding for their work, but what drives them is their creative passion and stubborn hope. These are factors responsible for the thriving of the arts in Nigeria despite the extenuating material conditions and the absence of institutional frameworks that support excellence in cultural production.

It’s not unlikely to find outstanding artists who have never won any form of government support in terms of fellowship or grants to execute any project. The Canada Council for the Arts supports various initiatives that aimed at producing excellent cultural representations for Canada. Whereas Nigeria has equivalent government bureaucracies that we don’t need to name here, But they haven’t rendered any comparable, or better still reasonable, support to artists.

Art, by its very nature, depends on patronage and sponsorship, because very often and in the short run, it may not immediately yield financial rewards. But as you know, in the long run, great art can have lucrative returns such as Ben Enweonwu’s long-lost masterpiece “Tutu” which recently sold for £1.2 million. Sometimes, some of these artists die in penury and their works sell significantly, posthumously. However, and more importantly, a mercantilist view of art is most unfortunate since art exists more for its aesthetic value—something that surpasses money for many artists.

So the value is not really denominated by the price tag. It should be on its own ontological status as great art. You are going to see a performance because it is simply a fantastic aesthetic, and possibly, therapeutic experience; it is not because the President is hosting a state event where artists are then brought to serve as appendages and entertainers. Canadian artists do not operate in such artistic environment. So, we should have venerated poet laureates and recognize writers by naming important public structures, institutions, and streets after writers and artists. Nigeria can borrow from Canada, the overall infrastructure for supporting artists and the arts. But beyond that, you must acknowledge the exceptional resilience of the Nigerian artist in the face of extreme deprivation and infrastructural deficit.

So would you frown at somebody writing for awards?
I think that awards have a way of stimulating creativity and rewarding creative excellence. The reason being that, especially in “Third World” countries, where the paths available to many artists for excellence are rather limited, it’s not going to be that you’ve hit gold like a J. K Rowling whose publication of Harry Potter turned out to be life-changing. You produce works that are exceptional and they’re probably not going to enjoy enough circulation. Winning awards has a way of drawing attention to you. In our context, it also offers financial reward that supports you. It can become handy and a stimulant to produce other works. However, I think that in the Nigerian context, the reward that people get from awards are not commensurate with the profile of the awards. You’d think that winning an NLNG Prize is the same thing as winning other big international prizes like the Man Booker; that is that it can be a life changer professionally for the winner.

Incidentally, I was a founding board member of the NLNG prize. I contributed ideas, as a matter of fact, the guidelines for the prize were adapted from guidelines for ANA (Association of Nigerian Authors) prizes, which as a former General Secretary of ANA, I had commissioned Lynn Chukura, a long-serving ANA prizes judge and formerly a lecturer at the University of Lagos, to produce. So, I recognise the significance of these awards as a stimulant for spurring creativity and providing pecuniary needs that writers and artists required to function. In that case, I think they’re desirable and I’d support the idea of providing more of such awards. But at the same time, there’s a certain vanity that can go into the heads of winners of these awards that may prove ruinous to the productivity.

How do you balance the two sides of you, as a creative writer and as an academic?
Unfortunately, I’ve not been exemplary in striking a balance. And to that question, I would rather invoke the definitive response by Professor Isidore Okpewho, my mentor and the great scholar of oral literature and award-winning fiction writer. In his inaugural lecture entitled, A Portrait of the Artist as a Scholar, Professor Okpewho simply argues the idea that at every time, the creative artist has a price to pay, that is, there are moments where you’re fully absorbed in your scholarship and the other part of your life goes on a recess, because life seems to him not to have been able to process these things at the same level of vigour concurrently. And that’s the biggest challenge: how do you negotiate this? How do you create a situation where one does not suffer for the other?

Do you still have time for leisure?
Yes, I do. I used to brag those days, when I was an undergraduate at the University of Ibadan, that I was the kind of student who knew where all the joints in town were, as well as where all the books in the library were. It’s a difficult thing to balance. It’s like the excitement of the creative artist, who flows into the other space, when they are on stage performing than when they must write reviews of other people’s performances.

What informed the idea of The Post Express Literary Supplement (PELS); was it to ape what The Guardian was doing with its literary series?
As I noted earlier, I have always loved the inter-spaces between journalism and academic life, and I found myself drawn initially to be a professor, teaching. My writing gifts and affiliation inexorably led me to the newsroom upon graduation. The job enabled me to balance my creative writing interests with my curiosity in investigating and reporting. So, being in that interspace, and because both came naturally to me, The Guardian Literary Series had been an exemplar and standard-bearer that I really loved and indeed contributed one of my earlier pieces for a newspaper. It was entitled “Christopher Okigbo: The Judgment of Time.”

When I got into journalism fully, and considering, so to speak, my cerebral preferences, literary series held a strong attraction for me. Additionally, as a student in Ibadan we had strong literary background and flair. So, I also saw it as inevitably getting into literary journalism and that happened to be the case. And part of my dream had been to run a Literary Supplement that was better than The Guardian Literary Series, which wasn’t a supplement as such. I was fortunate in that by the time I got into The Post Express, Dr Stanley Macebuh who had also been the founding Managing Director of
The Guardian gave me a free hand and tremendous support to establish PELS. He was a man of books and ideas, and so, I was fortunate to work in an organisation that shared my intellectual values and vision.

The editor-in-chief encouraged me and because he was supportive, the paper and the office in Apapa grew into a cultural hub in Lagos. Lots of Nigerian writers and intellectuals aligned with our vision in the 1990s. And it didn’t seem that difficult to edit and package a historic literary supplement at the time. The intention was to create—because The Guardian Literary Series had seized to exist then, and many of the journals in the ivory tower had also gone out of existence as part of the consequences of SAP and all that, and so, it was a mission that had to be accomplished—create an alternative platform for the literati to publish their essays, reviews, creative writing, etc. That was the lacuna we filled with The Post Express Literary Supplement, and I was fortunate too, to have on my team then, able writers such as Akin Adesokan, Mike Jimoh and Chris Omozokpia (now Otaigbe).


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