Thursday, 29 September 2011

Echoes from Garden City Literary Festival in Port Harcourt

Stories by Anote Ajeluorou and Gregory Austin Nwakunor

(Just back from Port Harcourt)

How oral literature shapes modern writers’ sensibilities

It was literary icon, Prof. Chinua Achebe, who set the tone for the robust discussion that kept everybody thinking all through the six days that the 4th Garden City Literary Festival held in Port Harcourt.
   Titled ‘Literature and Ethnicity: To what degree is all literature shaped by the cultural contexts of the authors?’, Achebe argued that though ethnicity had long acquired derogatory racial and cultural political connotation, it nevertheless holds promise for those who remain true to its original form.
  For writers and well-meaning individuals, Achebe said ethnicity pertains to “matters, which reach back to the beginnings of a people as a people, the earliest memories, which they consider important and wish to preserve and so recount in well-chosen, pleasing and memorable language, which are about the beginnings of literature… Needless to say that these origins did not involve pen and paper or their ancestors of clay and Papyrus”.
  In his view, this is where oral literature plays its part. Achebe stated that this interventionist's role is still perceived with suspicion or reluctance in many quarters.
  For some, oral literature has long ceased to make meaning since the beginning of written literature.
  But Achebe affirmed that this was far from the truth as oral literature still shapes modern literary engagements. He averred that all literature are shaped by the cultural contexts that give them life, which should also be the concern of writers, whose sensibilities are a reflection of those contexts or environments.
   He stated, “The creative enterprise is a magical space onto itself ––the mind in mutual collaboration with the world and its elements produce something of aesthetic value. Creative writers are like painters, using words to paint a literary tapestry. I think that words have a magic, that human situations–– one’s environment, culture, ‘ethnicity’ as we have spent time rediscovering – can be unburdened to enjoin other factors wordsmiths use to create literary magic – that extra dimension that the writer can conjure up by placing ideas about the human conditions side by side on paper."
  The erudite scholar added, “I suppose that cultural context is another name for what we have so far been calling the factors of ethnicity. Quite clearly these factors do shape literature. The cultural context within which a writer finds him/herself is relevant in so far as it brings something of literary value – contributes to the world story – and does not claim superiority over, deny, obscure or jaundice, even oppress other perspectives or stories."
  Having said that, Achebe admitted, "there are other factors and not least among them is the genius and free-will of the author. Good literature, whether oral or written, will bear the marks of the author’s cultural as well as his or her personal signature”.
  While discussing the notions of oral and written literature in a panel, several views were posited regarding this, especially in a modern world that is far removed from when those oral stories originated and their implication for an era  and a people that are in desperate search for the right directions.
  Literary scholar and gender expert, Prof. Molara Ogundipe, while commending Achebe’s paper for its gracefulness, depth and devoid of pomposity, said ethnicity was used to discriminate against coloured peoples and those in the third world.
   She noted that an author could not avoid being who s/he is, especially his or her culture.
  Ogundipe, however, cautioned Africans on the emerging neo-colonialism dressed in the garb of globalisation, which makes sure that person does not know his/her culture, as it interfered with people’s appreciation of their own culture in preference of supposedly global one.
  Ogundipe also warned against post-colonial studies, which she said is a way of suppressing African cultures, and a kind of European celebration of Africa, and how they conquered Africa.
  She contended that reasons for the failure of Nigeria and other African countries is the lack of control of their own economies as they should do.
  The gender expert said, “We focus too much on micro-politics and fail to be part of politics outside Africa. Macro-politics enables us to see the antics of those creating puppets, dictators, wars and chaos in Africa like International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, like the IMF-imposed Structural Adjustment Policy (SAP) of Gen. Ibrahim Babangida in the 1980s, which caused obstruction of growth in the country”.
  Ogundipe argued there is a more constructive relationship between ethnicity and literature, especially oral literature as it could help to develop a national language.
   She stressed the need for African people to decolonise their minds and begin a conscious programme to educate their young ones in the different local languages or mother tongues.
  However, Prof. Femi Osofisan disagreed with Achebe and Ogundipe and stressed that “the oral past is simply no longer sufficient in dealing with modern reality because of the complexity and contradictions that abound in ethnic equation."
OSOFISAN said that celebrating the oral past would amount to a glorification of what was mostly the setting of precedents that are hardly palatable, particularly in the shameless profligate way such characters as the great king of ancient Mali Empire, Mansa Musa, squandered the wealth of that nation on a spending spree and pilgrimage to Mecca.
  Osofisan contended that that example, set way back in time by an African king, is still the trend in modern political culture.
   And since oral literature is mostly a glorification of the past with its strong leaning to praise singing, which was usually to kings and their baggage of spend-thrift courtiers, then such genre should be suspected.
  Osofisan also stated that the views Achebe usually explore in his essays are in opposition to the ones in his novels, a contradiction he found hard to believe or accept.
  The renowed dramatist also took the extreme view that some ethnic languages that had outlived their usefulness should be allowed to die, saying that what is expressed in them is hardly worth listening to.
FOR public commentator and writer, Lindsay Barett, there is still a place for oral literature because it provides a bedrock for written literature.
  Barret called for the translation of oral materials into written forms for a wider audience.
  He also suggested that great literature from other lands should be translated into the different ethnic or local languages as a way of enriching the local languages and as incentives for young people to develop interest in them.   
  Barett argued that orality is essential to modern literature, especially African literature, because telling stories didn’t start with the written word but through oral narratives told to children and communal gatherings.
    He, therefore, suggested that such stories, particularly folk narratives told in the different local languages, should be retold in written form for young people to read.
  Literary critic and teacher at the University of Port Harcourt, Prof. Chidi T. Maduka, countered Osofisan both on the usefulness of oral narratives and his assertion about some local languages that deserve to die.
   He said such extreme views are counter-productive, as oral narratives would continue to be a communal experience and that no language deserved to die even if it is spoken by two people.
  To this end, Maduka proposed the imposition of Nigerian languages on every Department of English in the country’s universities as a way of making young people to be proficient in indigenous languages so as to avert the threat of extinction hanging over many of them.
  Former Commonwealth Secretary-General, Chief Emeka Anyaoku, who chaired the event, hinged the nation’s growth on the appreciation of the power of words.
  He said Nigeria’s quest for development would be far from achieving its objectives if it lacks literary culture.
  Anyaoku said politics would be hollow if it is not inspired by intellectual expressions. 
The elder statesman, noted that practitioners of literature and politics live in their different habitats, but observed that politics need literature because the two reinforced each other.
  He stated, “Good politics of democratic governance creates the infrastructure and environment where literature flourishes. But politics would be hollow if it is not inspired by intellectual expressions”. 
  Anyaoku also stressed the importance of mother tongue, especially in the arena of international politics, where he had operated for the most part, saying, African leaders seemed to have continually failed to make impact. 
  Anyaoku contended that having a grasp of one’s mother tongue “gives the individual confidence. You suffer the handicap of being diffident, and global competition rests on confidence. Our leaders don’t have the confidence to relate well with politicians from the developed world at the global arena”.
RIVER State Governor, Rotimi Amaechi, also took active part in all aspects of the discourse, making useful contributions and asking the professors questions. It was he who had proposed the theme of this year’s GCLF, ‘Literature and Politics’ in the hope that a symbiosis of sorts could be found between the two as they seem to stand in diametric opposition to each other.
  Amaechi, a graduate of English from the University of Port Harcourt, argued that literature doesn’t just have to be a source of entertainment alone but that it should bear some moral responsibility to society and how such is organised, especially in helping to shape the values in that society for its health.
   For Amaechi, literature should tackle the realities that daily confront society, as a result, writers need not be sycophants to those who hold power as that would diminish their roles and reduce them to court jesters.
  He expressed happiness at reuniting with his lecturers again at the University of Port Harcourt, where he trained in the Department of English Studies, saying he felt humbled seeing the teachers who made him what he is today.
  He enjoined the students to use the occasion of the festival wisely because it isn’t commonplace for a large array of writers to gather in one place to discuss literature, saying it is a rare treat in his time as a student.
  Amaechi charged the students to interact with the writers and be in fellowship with them.
  He revealed that he was discussing with festival director and organiser of Rainbow Book Club, Port Harcourt, Mrs. Koko Kalango, to find ways to institutionalise the GCLF and make it independent of government sponsorship so it could stand on its own even when he would have left office.

Literature and the Niger Delta

America civil rights activist, Rev. Jesse Jackson,while delivering his address said there is a need for an oppressed people to develop a ‘passion for justice’ and that ‘education is the key to liberation’; and ‘strong mind break strong chains’.
  And this seemed a perfect starting point for three young writers with telling fictional works on the problem of the Niger Delta to start a discourse on how their works reflect the issues of the region and how fiction offers the best platform to write on such issues.
   The three discussants were Chimeka Garricks (author of Tomorrow Died Yesterday), Kaine Agary (Yellow Yellow) and Ifeanyi Ajaegbo (Dead Men Walking) in a session moderated by Nigeria’s former CNN reporter, Femi Oke.
    Garricks and Ajaegbo’s morbid titles seem fitting testaments to the horrendous issues in the Niger Delta they reflect upon.
  Garricks’ submission seemed like an antithesis, when he asserted that he did not subscribe to all the views held by characters, especially militant figures, in his novel, Tomorrow Died Yesterday.
  His argument was that the fight for the right to control oil resources or for greater attention to be paid to the development of the oil-rich region was wrongly designed
  For Garricks, “The Niger Delta struggle, for the most part, is a sham because many of the politicians and militants do not have the moral authority for the fight. The politicians still steal from the people; those given amnesty are not the real militants. By the way, are the objectives of the struggle to gain amnesty? Have the objectives of the struggle been resolved apart from amnesty granted a few so-called militants? What have the politicians done with the resources (13 per cent derivation) so far received? Who is the oppressor of the Niger Delta people? Is it the oil companies, the government or the people of the Niger Delta? These are issues to look at critically.”
  Garricks cited the case of a community neck deep in legal tussle over who should be in control of the money an oil company offered them to develop their community.
  On his part, Ajaegbo said he resigned from the employment of Shell Petroleum Development Company (SPDC) because “I couldn’t stomach the ‘madness’” of the policies of the oil giant to the host communities it was operating. “I couldn’t store those images of environmental degradation and violence against the people in my head. But I needed another voice to tell the stories, another voice demanding the change that hasn’t come to those unfortunate communities, anyway”.
  Ajaegbo submitted that the literature that has come out of the Niger Delta could aptly be regarded as a genre in its own right as a “whole lot of writers have been writing on the region about the hopes, dreams and struggles” for a better society.
  For Agary, there are different weapons to fight the Niger Delta cause, ranging from militancy to research documentation, analytical writing (which she was doing before seeing its futility and changing gear to write fiction), and news stories. But she said she found the literary weapon more potent as the other options soon became spent or forgotten.
  But literature, she affirmed, enabled a writer to “reach many people that he/she can’t reach with the other weapons. People can connect with literature; it can bring the issues closer to the general public by tying them up with a character, a memorable character that people love or empathise with. Moreso, literature creates a memory that stays with people much longer, touches them more deeply than any other weapon used in fighting oppression”.

Interplay of gender, politics and literature

Another sub-theme discussed at the festival was how the interplay of gender, politics and literature shaped social discourse in Nigeria and Africa. Gender politics, it was agreed, has always been a contentious intellectual issue with a large body of written literature on it.
  Such literary heavyweights as Prof. Molara Ogundipe (based in Ghana), Profs. Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo and Karen King-Aribisala (both of English, University of Lagos) and Prof. Julie Okoh (Theatre Arts, University of Port Harcourt) with Ghanaian writer, Prof. Ama Ata Aidoo as lead speaker, though flight problems made her arrive late, made useful contributions to the issue.
  The chairperson of the session, Ogundipe, got the session going with her incisive remarks about what gender is and how it has wrongly been perceived as the fight by women to dominate men.
  She said, “Gender is not just about women and children, but about total society – men and women – and how society determines the sex of people due to the roles ascribed to them and how their sex is perceived."
  The gender scholar continued, "gender is not just about men and women. There are instances of ‘male daughters’, who are made to bear children for their fathers in some societies, and female daughters. Society places, determines what gender is, what manhood and womanhood are. We need men and women to decide what gender is in society; roles are constantly changing."
OGUNDIPE added, “Gender is also about the politics of power between men and women. Who is controlling the money? Who determines what education children should get and where? How does gender play itself out in Nigeria and the literature being produced? There are some practices that are not wholesome towards women. We should think of how to bring the best aspects of the past to bear on modern society. We should look at roles ascribed to men and women without undermining the rights of the other, especially women. What is our attitude to gender politics in society? Nurudeen Farah is the first African writer to write a sympathetic novel about women. Women should be seen as fellow citizens with equal rights and not people to be patronised or people in need of patronage”.
  In his intervention as moderator, Dr.Seyeifa Koroye said he was happy that it is only in Ijaw that the idea of a supreme deity is seen and named a woman, Tamara, thus making the Ijaws the only people in the world that do not discriminate against women, at least in theory.
  Playwright and teacher, Prof. Okoh, lamented that gender politics, especially as it is skewed against women, is very much a problem in contemporary society and that it has to be dealt with for women to find a space to fully blossom as human beings with rights to be respected.
  Okoh argued, “Gender is a social construct but there is ambiguity in this construct. However, there is gender discrimination in this part of the world. A woman becomes genderless after attaining a certain age, usually 60 years, when she is regarded by men as a man and accorded respect and some rights in male-oriented activities”.
   Okoh, however, narrated how her own mother, apparently a princess accorded full rights as a man when she attained 60 and above, was denied such rights when she passed on. The male folks decided to bury her in a three feet deep grave and not the usual six feet for men. But Okoh and her sister insisted and a few paces more were dug but not the exact six feet before she could be buried. For her, this was a horrendous example of a society that starkly discriminated against women.
  “So, there is discrimination in Nigeria, but there should be equal treatment for women,” she stated. “African women writers have been writing about it in different societies, representing women as strong, positive and resilience. We also talk about awkward widowhood rights in Nigeria. But male writers portray shallow images of or representations or their own vision of women, particularly of subservience. I write books or plays that conscientise society about women’s rights.
  “Sadly even in intellectual society, there is discrimination against women. Literary critics hardly pay attention to women writers or what they are writing; younger women writers are hardly known, but they should be critiqued and their works made public, especially female dramatists”.
   On her part, Prof. Ezeigbo, who was also a resource person in the fiction workshop class for young writers, said she shared Okoh’s sentiments on gender politics and how society still discriminated against women. In a previous paper she wrote on gender discourse titled ‘Politics of Exclusion’, she stated how women had been on the receiving end of gender equation.
   More often than not, Ezeigbo said, “Women suffer more than men; it’s why women tend to write about gender issues. There is politics everywhere. Women have been marginalised in politics in Nigeria. It’s why there’s talk about affirmative action to consciously get women into positions of power after many years of exclusion. South Africa did it for blacks after the fall of Apartheid regime to incorporate blacks into mainstream society. But very little change has happened on the gender front. Nigerian politics has been so violent, corrupt and dirty for women to be able to participate in. Women are trying to empower women so as to include them in politics.
  “But women have been writing about political engagement, too. And literature can be used as a strategy for gender activism to fight for that cause, that vision to reduce the imbalance in power, to reduce the agency that hampers women’s ascendency. Flora Nwapa’s play, The First Lady, prophesied that one day a woman will be president; we look forward to it happening. What is evident is that older Nigerian writers have begun to realise that they had been harsh on women.
    “What most people don’t know is that gender in literature is not about presenting women characters in positive or good light, but making them active and assertive characters and not as dummies that have no say in what is happening to them or around them”.
   And for King-Aribisala, gender could only be accounted for in a world composed of duality in nature, of light and darkness, off earth and sky. She stated that some of this duality is concerned with gender, where there is a struggle for dominance in a given sphere and the need to institute balance to ease conflict.
   According to her, “Things fell apart in Chinua Achebe’s famous novel, Things Fall Apart, because of the duality and the divisiveness in things in men and women’s sensibility. Dominance of male ethic made it easy for the colonialists to invade and destroy the community with Christianity and the cutlass or guns as tools to destroy the male society. We need to undress issues such as race, ethnic, sex and group so we can see things as they are. We need to work out spheres of influence and see how we can balance the power equation”.
  Ghana’s Ama Ata Aidoo dedicated her lecture on ‘Gender Spaces in African Politics’ to Nigeria’s late female author, Flora Nwapa, who she said was her friend and a huge influence on her life as a writer. She said African women occupy a dual yet contradictory space, saying that although she comes from the Akan ethnic group in Ghana that is matrilineal in nature, women still do not occupy the prime position that they should be as the birth of a female child does not attract the same excitement as a male child.
  Rather than dwell much on the lecture, Aidoo chose instead to read from one of her latest short stories, ‘New Lessons’, to dramatise the gender politics as she sees a slice of it being practised on the continent. In the story, an older man is in a relationship with a much younger lady to the horror of an older woman who has been observing the goings on.
  But before reading to her audience, she observed that a trend is fast developing in Africa, where writers tend to write with a white audience in mind, and the white audience expecting that the writing would be about misery or the conflicts on the continent blown up for their reading pleasure to further reinforce their set minds that nothing positive could come out of Africa.
   Aidoo also read a poem, ‘The Days’ for children to the delight of the audience. She gave her appraisal of literary engagement in Nigeria, saying things seems to be a lot bettering Nigeria than in her native Ghana, where support for literature and the arts was yet to take root. She said, “Nigeria is definitely leading the way; we only get grants from outside Africa to get things done. But Nigeria’s example is a wonderful affirmation. In Ghana, we’re not used to such open support and love for literature like the Rivers State government is supporting this festival”.

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