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The return of ‘The Guardian Literary Series’: One year after

By Sunny Awhefeada
10 September 2017   |   4:32 am
The mediation of the first coming of GLS by Yemi Ogunbiyi, Femi Osofisan, Odia Ofeimun and G. G. Darah was not a romantic experience. This has also been what the present run of the series encountered last year.

The series took the critical evaluation of Nigerian literature from the stolid space of the classroom and the cold boring pages of journals and arcane textbooks to the alluring and inviting pages of a newspaper.

It was exactly one year ago, in September 2016, that “The Guardian Literary Series” (GLS) was revived after being out of season for over two decades. In its first coming in 1985, the series helped in no small measure in advancing the fortunes and frontiers of Nigerian literature. The series took the critical evaluation of Nigerian literature from the stolid space of the classroom and the cold boring pages of journals and arcane textbooks to the alluring and inviting pages of a newspaper. That gesture ushered in a new interest and gave wide acclaim to a literature whose narrative is entwined around the trajectory of the nation that birthed it. To be sure, it must be stated that newspapers and magazines played key roles in the emergence and consolidation of Nigerian literature. Right from the era of the anti-colonial struggle, newspapers and magazines devoted pages and considerable columns to the publication of poems and short stories, which negotiated the notion of cultural nationalism as a complimentary engagement to the nationalist movement. Even after independence to this moment many newspapers still devote a page or two to literary representations. But what GLS did in the 1980s by focusing on the critical evaluation of Nigerian literature in a programmed manner was not only unique, but was unprecedented in Nigeria. For once, literary appreciation shared pages with hot political news, money spinning advertorials and other conventional journalistic desiderata.

The mediation of the first coming of GLS by Yemi Ogunbiyi, Femi Osofisan, Odia Ofeimun and G. G. Darah was not a romantic experience. This has also been what the present run of the series encountered last year. Before the present series commenced, there were interactions with Ogunbiyi, et al., and the insights gleaned from those interactions were frightening, but very useful in coming to terms with many factors that could make or mar the engagement. Once the decision to revive the series was made last year, The Guardian ran the announcement for days on the front cover just by the mast. The editors were also generous enough to run it on the Arts page for some weeks.

Soon, September which was the month envisaged for the first essay to be published knocked at the door. The title of the inaugural essay is “As it was in the beginning”. As the titles points out, the essay looks back at the GLS and what it did for Nigerian literature in the 1980s. The result of that intervention was the engendering of a robust tradition of the critical evaluation of Nigerian literature. The evidence of that robustness is the publication of Perspectives on Nigerian Literature: 1800 to the Present, volumes I & II, edited by the initiator, Yemi Ogunbiyi. The essay is more or less a critical reconnaissance which delineated Nigeria’s literary antecedents as well as envisioning the role the revived GLS will play in the evolution of Nigerian literature as it is now and in years to come.

Since the first essay of the present series was published on Sunday 4th September, 2016, the GLS has run for one full year uninterrupted. This feat is attributable to the interest and commitment of the contributors. There is no doubt that the informed criticism of Nigerian literature remains an academic enterprise carried out by students and teachers of literature. There are a few instances of well thought out criticism by practitioners outside the classroom, but these are too few to consolidate Nigeria’s literary criticism outside the classroom. A roll call of contributors to the series, even from the 1980s will reveal that ninety-nine percent of them are students and teachers of literature at the tertiary level of education. The end result is that GLS has given the gown an avenue to produce literary criticism for the town.

The reality that Nigerian literary criticism is bound to the nation’s tertiary institutions throws up a challenge that the present series has been contending with and has so far been able to overcome. Right now, our tertiary institutions are struggling to come to terms with the travails of nationhood as well as self inflicted institutional impediments. The unstable socioeconomic climate has thrown up a difficult social reality that has constrained the productive capacity of academics. The enterprise of literary scholarship thrives on profound thought and focus. But the harsh economic condition that now buffets Nigeria has constituted a great distraction to the academic. There is now a contest between scholarship and survival and the latter seems to be carrying the day. The attrition in the number of academics is another index affecting productivity. Many universities have had cause to place embargo on employment! The effect of this is that old and retiring academics are not replaced. What follows is the affliction of the remaining teaching staff with extra workload which leads to perennial distraction with reduction in productivity. Furthermore, the “publish or perish” syndrome assailing the universities has restricted many scholars to publishing in journals that will count when promotion time comes. Since newspaper essays do not count for promotion, no matter how brilliant or insightful they are, many scholars no longer see reasons why they should spend precious time writing a full essay that will be thrown away by the dreaded appointment and promotion committee. So, instead of sending such essays to GLS, such scholars rummage the internet for offshore journals, even in odd places like Afghanistan, Syria, Lebanon, Somalia and Sudan, that will earn them heavy points and make them qualify for promotion.

The consequence of the foregoing for GLS has been that of anxiety arising from the feeling that one moment the essays for publication might just cease. In truth, a lot of excitement greeted the announcement of the revival of the series last year. Many Nigerian literary scholars within and outside the country indicated interest and their desire to send in essays, but once the series started running excuses for inability to send in essays started rolling in from many who had earlier promised to do so. But a sense of commitment to putting Nigerian literature in the public domain beyond the restrictive walls of the classroom and the cold pages of journals made some scholars to continue to make their essays available for publication. There is also pressure by way of reminders from the series editor that has made some contributors responsive and in so doing sustain the new GLS. So far some established critics who featured in the old GLS of the 1980s have contributed to sustaining the new series. Abiola Irele sent in a stimulating essay that was published before his transition. In fact many emails were sent to him requesting for his bank account details to enable The Guardian pay him his honorarium, but no reply came. Unknown to the series editor, the doyen of literary criticism had taken ill. Femi Osofisan, Odia Ofeimun and J. O. J. Nwachukwu-Agbada also sent in essays that kept the new series afloat.

The most salutary effect for the GLS since its second coming has been the drive of scholars that came to maturity post-1980s. In fact some of the present contributors had their first degrees after the year 2000. Some of them are postgraduate students still honing their critical skills, but have been daring enough to mount the platform provided by GLS. Space will not permit to mention their names, but a committed reader of the series would have by now been familiar with the contributors from every corner of Nigeria giving insights into the many nuances and themes of Nigerian literature. Many of the new critics had been students of the ones who wrote for the GLS in the 1980s. What follows from this is a kind of continuity in the critical tradition.

The present GLS is not only premised on a continuity of a critical enterprise, but an enunciation woven around the thematic and aesthetic engagement of new and contemporary Nigerian writing. So far, the series has focused critical searchlights on new writings showcasing Nigerian literature as an effervescent narrative site. Evidence abound that Nigerian literature is flourishing and reflective of the Nigerian spirit. Thus since the late 1980s when the old GLS stopped publication, a big lacuna opened up waiting to be bridged. While, the present GLS cannot truly claim to have bridged the yawning gap, it can at least be said that it is striving in that direction. So far, apart from a few essays on the works of older writers, the present contributors have focused on many new writers and emergent trends in the configuration of Nigerian literary experience.

The return of Nigeria to democratic rule in 1999 created a new template for Nigerian writers to recreate the nation’s experience. Coming from a background of sixteen years of military dictatorship, the writers couldn’t jettison the harrowing experience in a hurry. Hence, they depicted in varied, but aesthetically valid details the sordid experience of a nation in turmoil. The writers were also conscious of new socioeconomic tendencies arising from post-military rule stress. Among these tendencies are violations of human rights, disillusionment, exile, migration and other indices of social dislocation and psychological discomfiture. Another full blown tingling artistic sensibility is the Niger Delta question arising from oil exploitation and environmental degradation. To give a universal coloration to the post-2000 Nigerian literature is the looming spectre of globalization with its multiplicity of manifestations.

The new writers; Helon Habila, Sefi Atta, Chimamanda Adichie, Kaine Agary, Tade Ipadeola, Lola Shoneyin, Obari Gomba, Peter Omoko, Ebi Yeibo, Jumoke Verissimo, Eghosa Imasuen, Igoni Barret, Stephen Kekeghe, just to mention a few, threw themselves into the vortex of the new artistic sensibility occasioned by post-military rule and globalization imperative. Their writing throbs with a new energy, albeit introspective and self-deprecatory. This is not unexpected from writers coming out from many years of military rule that dehumanized the nation. Even with a new civilian dispensation in place, the consequences of the previous era continue to loom before the citizens. The result is the maze of confusion pervading the land and the literary works reflecting the situation. Such flamboyant concepts like transculturalism and transnationalism actually reflect the unsavoury reality of the Nigerian experience as captured in its literature.

The emergence of new literary trends demands that critics should remodel their critical tools and insights. Hence, Nigerian literary critics have had to re-examine their allegiance to the critical enterprise. The critic more often than shares the writer’s imagination in order to approximate the latter’s preoccupation and give an apt interpretation of it. So far the older critics as well as the younger ones have been able to adjust their critical engagement to suit the new artistic temper. Many of the essays published in the series since September 2016 reflect this new critical turn. It is hoped that this will be sustained as GLS seeks to continue to privilege Nigerian literature in the public domain.

There is hope that Nigerian literature will continue to grow and exceed unimaginable frontiers. There is an unrelenting interest in writing. The presence of prizes remains a significant motivation for writers to write. No matter how some critics would want to negate the prizes, they have remained an important boost for Nigerian literature. The prizes usually expose good writers to critics and students of literature and even to the general public. Apart from the monetary consideration, the publicity that comes with the winning of a literary prize has a way of promoting the writer, the book and by extension literature. This has also been the case with Nigeria.

As we move into the second year of the GLS experiment, the publisher and management of The Guardian newspaper deserve commendation and accolades for being integral to the development of the critical appraisal of Nigerian literature. Apart from providing the platform in the form of two full pages, The Guardian also pays a good honorarium to every contributor! For sure, the newspaper has a special place in the narrative of the making of modern Nigerian literature. The engagement with our literature must continue. Prospective contributors should continue to send in essays on any aspect of Nigerian literature. The essays should not be less than 2, 500 words. As hinted, The Guardian pays honorarium for such an endeavour. Such essays should be sent as attachments to:

• Awhefeada, the editor of GLS, teaches literature at the Delta State University, Abraka.