Gabriel Okara… Restoring the genius of Africa’s oldest living poet
Many writers and cultural workers are agreed that notable poet from the Niger Delta, Pa Gabriel Okara, who recently turned 96, and whose honour a literary festival has been instituted at the University of Port Harcourt, has suffered ‘marginalisation’ in Nigeria’s critical discourse. Famous for his poem, ‘The Call of the River Nun,’ which he wrote in 1950, and later his collection, The Fisherman’s Invocation, Okara has not enjoyed as much critical attention as befits his towering poetic genius. To redress this, a book, Gabriel Okara, an anthology of critical essays dealing with the various aspects of Okara’s works and edited by Prof. Chidi T. Maduka (University of Port Harcourt), will be launched in Yenegoa, Bayelsa State on May 18.
While delivering the keynote address at the maiden Gabriel Okara Literary Festival 2017, organised by the Institute of Arts and Culture, University of Port, notable poet and essayist, Mr. Odia Ofeimun, had posited that ‘The Call of the River Nun’ is “generally regarded as the opener to the virtual sesame of Nigerian modernist poetry. Okara was the virtual pathfinder, if not the path-breaker, whose performance set the stage, if not the tone of the Poetry in English Language. Hence the delight with which anthologists went for his poems.”
But in spite of this obvious genius, Okara has remained largely missing out in the discourse of Nigeria’s critical, literary establishment. A few factor have been adduced for this. First is that his works did not come in a single collection early enough to form a holistic view of his works. Second is that his style, especially his fictional, as manifested in The Voice, put critics in a fix on how to interpret him because of the Ijaw cultural nationalism it exemplified. Third was his not being a writer from the university establishment, which didn’t tend to take his works seriously enough.
In fact, it was the Director, Institute of Arts and Culture (UNIPORT) and organisers of the Okara festival, Prof. Julie Okoh, who succinctly put Okara’s neglect in the hands of the critical establishment thus, “His works are still in the shadow of literary discourse in Nigeria. Okara has written in all literary genres, yet not much attention has been given to his work. I may be wrong. If there are publications on his creativity, we would like to have details to enable us upgrade our bibliography on his works. Briefly, I believe his works deserve better attention.”
Editor of Gabriel Okara and a foremost literary critic, Maduka, said the book is a compilation of the creative output on Okara as a poet and novelist from a symposium previously organised in Okara’s honour at the Faculty of Arts, University of Port Harcourt.
According to Maduka, the book Gabriel Okara “Tries to examine Okara, his place in African literature and the fact that he has not been given his full due in African literature. Okara is a great writer, but he hasn’t been so recognised by critics. His Fisherman’s Invocation has not been well examined. He has not been given sufficient critical attention as an author. So, it’s a book that people should read.”
Maduka attributed Okara’s negligence in critical circles to a number of factors. First, he said Okara’s poems did not come out in time in one anthology for critics to look at in one whole. Secondly, Maduka said Okara’s style, especially his fiction, is very invocative and many didn’t know how to approach his works and found them difficult to access.
Thirdly and perhaps more importantly, Maduka said Okara “is very immersed in Ijaw oral tradition and performance,” which made his works difficult to approach, adding, “he needed detailed study to unearth his meaning. He is a cultural nationalist, with a unique style. Okara is very nationalistic. His works have to be carefully studied. He achieved much more than he has been given. His novel, The Voice, is considered irregular; that is why it wasn’t considered for the curriculum. What he did there was a transliteration of Ijaw into English and it made that work not easy to understand or relate with”
Maduka vehemently rejected the charge that Nigeria’s criticism, often rooted in ethno-criticism, might have come in the way of giving Okara his due place in critical discourse, saying it wasn’t fair to say that Nigeria’s critical discourse is marred by such narrow consideration, “I don’t think it’s ethno-criticism; I don’t believe it.”
Rather, he said unlike some of the earliest writers like Wole Soyinka, JP Clark, Christopher Okigbo and Chinua Achebe, who went from Government College onto University College, Ibadan, Okara didn’t go any farther and wasn’t part of that coterie of writers or hobnob with them.
“He didn’t go to university,” Maduka said, “but he had a firm grasp of English and was able to use English with ease. I want to say he was discriminated against. Okara didn’t go to university to mix with the Soyinkas, the Clarks, the Achebes and the others.”
Another writer, who has suffered similar ‘marginalisation’ fate, as Okara, is Jamaican-born Mr. Lindsay Barrett, who, coincidentally, will review the book, Gabriel Okara, in Yenegoa. Barrett said the fact that he and Okara were not university types worked to their disadvantage, as Nigerian academics didn’t tend to take such writers seriously even when they produce prodigious works.
“What they didn’t know was I was published by Howard University, Washington DC, U.S. when I was in my 20s. Okara was prolific in poetry. We (Okara and I) were not university-based writers. In Nigeria, people in the universities don’t know me as a writer. They believe if you are not attached to university, you are not a serious writer. Okara is a most dedicated poet at every stage of his life.”
While Okara’s poetry has been largely accessible to all classes of readers, not so his fiction embodied in The Voice. According Barrett, The Voice presented its peculiar challenges for critics, who, at the time the novel came out, were yet to fashion a proper Afro-centric critical parametres of looking an African work of such innovative ands adventurous nature.
“The period he wrote The Voice,” Barrett said, “African literature was largely not being analysed by Africans or with African-based standards. They were imposing European standards on African aesthetics. Okara was adventurous in his writing; it made his writing seem remote, when it was actually a path-finding work.”
Ofeimun also acknowledged Okara’s primacy in Nigeria and Africa’s field of letters, when he said in Port Harcourt at the Gabriel Okara Literary Festival, “Okara is not just the oldest writer but a foundational producer of the literary arts in our part of the world… Luckily for Okara, he came fully formed.”
In spite of his pioneering role as a poet anthologists are in love with, Ofeimun acknowledges that “Okara’s poems have no doubt suffered neglect” in spite Okara “situating himself and may be fruitfully adjudged in the company of poets like Okigbo, TChikaya U Tam’si and Achebe, whose singular collections provide the fulcrum of their extant reputations as poets. Unlike them whose publishing history is far more enterprising and therefore more fulsomely exegetised in the Academy, Okara’s poem have suffered neglect.
“The justice of time being on his side has, however, laid for him a table in the company of the most distinctive among African poets with whom he would always be assessed. Specifically, with regard to his placement in the ranks of Nigerian writers, his pioneering stand, not only as a forerunner of many of the patterns and themes in the literatures, can now be raised to their foundational status, or at least, as precursors of themes and stylistic innovativeness that critics had overlooked.”
Apart from the Gabriel Okara Literary Festival recently held at the University of Port Harcourt and the upcoming critical book on him, it is the hope of Prof. Okoh that a Gabriel Okara Foundation should be established to “provide residency for writers from all walks of life (composers, fiction and non-fiction writers, playwrights, poets, video/filmmakers, multi-media and visual artists) seeking time and space for reflection and disciplined work, without disturbance from professional and personal exigencies; a yearly lecture series in honour of Gabriel Okara; an endowment of Professorial Chairs in the various genres of creative writing in honour of Gabriel Okara; the establishment of Creative Writing School named after Gabriel Okara, a forum where young writers could learn to write creatively through workshops and short courses; the integration of more of Okara’s literary works into WAEC/NECO school syllabus (‘The Piano and Drums’ is already on WAEC syllabus), and awards of diverse literary prizes his honour.”
There were award of prizes to deserving contributors to the development of literature and education at the maiden Gabriel Okara Literary Festival in Port Harcourt. Among the awardees for Lifetime Achievement Award were veteran journalist, novelist, poet, and photographer, Mr. Carlton Lindsay (Eseoghene) Barrett (born September 15, 1941), General Manager, External Relations, Nigerian Liquified Natural Gas (NLNG) company, Dr. Kudo Eresia-Eke, novelist and essayist, Mr. I.N.C Aniebo, veteran actor, dramatist, TV producer and director, Elder Comish Ekiye, His Majesty, King Christian Atani Okpofaa Otobotekere, and literacy advocate and Director, Rainbow Book Club, Mrs. Koko Kalango.
Also, Bayelsa State governor, Mr. Dickson Seriake was given Lifetime Award for Supporting the Arts in his state. Former governor of Rivers State and Minister of Transport, Mr. Rotimi Amaechi (for promoting literature), and incumbent, Mr. Nyesom Wike (for promoting education), were also given awards even though the duo failed to attend the festival or send representatives.
Toping the list of post-humous awardees was prolific novelist and playwright, Captain Elechi Amadi, who passed on last year. Others were Prof. Elijah Iyagba and human and environmental rights activist and special adviser to President Goodluck Jonathan, Mr. Oronto Douglas.
The colourful award dinner was held inside the Gymnasium, UNIPORT.