By Anote Ajeluorou
University of Ibadan professor of Drama, Prof. Femi Osofisan, is not always in the news. And, at the new literary reading place, Foxhole, at 11 Maryland Crescent, Maryland, Ikeja, Lagos, Osofisan gave a rare insight into what he thinks about writing and Nigerian literature after a rare performance
Between Nigeria’s bleak literature and heroism
When Osofisan speaks, the world of letters and the humanities generally listen. This was the case last Saturday. Although a combination of local government election in Lagos State and massive rain dampened the enthusiasm of most literary lovers to miss keeping a date with the erudite professor, the few that braved it got a treat of their lives.
And although the rain had driven the foxes out of their holes, the cozy home of Foxhole patron and award-winner writer, Omo Uwaifo, provided the right ambience for Osofisan to bare his mind. The issue that had long been nagging the mind of the professor regarding literary engagement is the depressing nature of the creative output of Nigeria writers, and its clear inability to create heroes and envision a different future from the stark reality of the moment offers.
The professor first affirmed the supremacy of the responsibility writers have towards their societies in creating wholesome values that hold society together, which also serve as models for the future. In Nigerian literature, however, Osofisan can only see bleakness, hopelessness and corruption. While he said these issues - the perennial preoccupation with corruption, dictatorship, bad leadership, failed affairs - were necessary as they reflect the reality of situation on the ground, there was the need to create and project the picture of hope.
The professor’s concern was how much negative impact the bleak literature was capable of having on the minds of young people for whom no other models existed for them to copy and aspire. Arising from the hopeless literature, according to Osofisan, was the clear absence of heroes being created by Nigerian writers. This would also mean that the writers were not being futuristic in outlook in creating role models and a better imagined future distinct from the present that seems harsh and brutish.
Said Osofisan, “All writers have a responsibility to our society. When you look at our literature, you get a depressing picture, of corruption, dictatorship, failed leaders and affairs. In a sense, it’s the reality of our society. But my concern is this, ‘our children are reading it; what’s likely going to be the impact if we have this bleak and negative literature? What’s the model children will aspire to be? We don’t portray the positive side. It’s time we began to do something about it”.
He painted the picture of the American society that is the world’s envy, especially its mongering for heroes in its fictive narratives, whether in films or literature, when the reality on the American streets in starkly different. However, the American society and system have successfully sold the hero dummy to the world; it’s the weapon of domination that America has used to conquer and subdue the rest of the world. And the world stands in awe of America.
Nigeria, Osofisan asserted, lacks this essential hero-creation in its film and literature, choosing to be preoccupied instead with the already failed system, with the result that a literature of pessimism is what has emerged. Osofisan also gave indication of the role America’s State Department plays in the creation or imagining of a better society and the heroes that drive Hollywood and its literature just as Nigerian government shows apparent apathy to everything imaginative or creative in Nigerian society.
According to Osofisan, “In American literature, you get the impression of the American hero, a picture created by literature, film; it’s a myth they have created of the American hero. When can we have a Nigerian hero like Fela or Gani? When can we celebrate them? Yes, in Nigeria, it’s possible to be virtuous.
“The American State Department gets a vote and assembles the best writers and filmmakers and asks them to envision the future, to imagine the future. Their future is not left to chance; it’s programmed. We need not neglect the truth about ourselves, but we can re-imagine our future also. Writers in the U.S. create a deliberate image of what the future would look like and (scientists) work towards it”.
While contributing to the discourse, notable poet, Odia Ofeimun, said criticisms in Nigeria do not often give alternative views of what should be done. He said there was a tendency among the critical elite to assume that those in government knew what to do to bring about the desired development critics cry about. Ofeimun noted that this was wrong assumption, as those elected may in fact not know what to do beyond winning an election and staying put in office.
“Those in power are not getting organised opinion to inform their decision,” he stated. “We can do it in fiction and non-fiction. We need to start thinking for the leaders. Now that Europe is in trouble, they’ll probably come back to re-colonise us again since we have failed to do the needful.”
Nigerian literature too serious, examination factor
Again, of concern to Osofisan is the kind of literature being produced in Nigeria and why he thinks it has come to be a serious disservice to the reading culture. Indeed, for the teacher of drama, Nigerian literature is too top heavy and busy chasing major prizes, especially the Nobel, which it may not get. The sheer absence of popular literature, thrillers, adventure stories that attracted young readers in years gone by had since made the literature unfriendly to the reading populace.
Also, the tailoring of Nigeria’s first generation writing for examination purposes created problems for it, especially the works of Achebe, Soyinka, Clark, etc. Osofisan said once examinations were over, children didn’t feel obliged to read literary texts anymore whereas literature ought to provide a lifelong reading material and experience irrespective of a person’s choice of career later in life.
He stated, “On readership, we had thought that if people will not come to literature, then literature should come to the people. When we began to read, we were attracted to adventure stories like Ridder Haggard’s and the rest. It seems to me that Nigerian literature started from the top-end rather than bottom-up. Whoever remembers the pacesetter series these days?
“Then again, literature became associated with examinations, especially from Achebe up, which was bad. After exams, nobody had reason to read again. So, why don’t we develop the popular literature, adventure stories, detective and thriller stories. We don’t have much of that level of literature again. We all write for the Nobel; we can’t all get it. My next target is to do adventure and thriller stories. I’m happy children’s literature has grown in recent years”.
How songs define African drama
Osofisan also spoke about the use of songs in his dramatic offerings and how songs partially define African drama from drama from other parts of the world, especially Europe. Although he said his father was a musician, and had a big guitar, he didn’t pay much attention to music or songwriting until much later when he had to put songs in his plays, except his first play that doesn’t have a song. But when he had been groomed by such music impresarios like Tunji Oyelana and Jimi Solanke, he got into the grove and began to write with relative ease.
According to him, “There’s always a challenge how to create African theatre using English. If it’s Yoruba theatre, it would be easy to convince the audience. But how do we convince ourselves about African theatre? But Soyinka, Clark and the rest solved the problem for us. We read them and we didn’t feel alienated; we believed it. It seemed natural for us.
“But it’s quite incongruous for us as well. How can Clark’s Ozidi be speaking in English or Soyinka’s Baroka in The Lion and the Jewel? But we try to take it further. One thing you find that is common to the shrine is music and drumming. This indicates to us that we’re in Africa and the audience loves it. Music is an important ingredient of the theatre. So, I had to get people like Tunji Oyelana and Jimi Solanke to do the songs for me in my plays.
“My real test was writing songs for Midnight Hotel; none of them was around. I wrote five songs but none of them was fit for the play. We then had to build the comedy around the song, which became a trend. However, it’s not true that all African drama has music or songs. Not everybody can sing or dance.”
Writing as a labour of love
For those who would like to take writing as a full time job or who write for the purpose of winning literary prizes, Osofisan has strong words of advice. Writing, he said, is a labour of love and urged writers to hold a job, as the environment is not strong enough to support a writer. It is why he holds a job as a teacher and scholar and has managed to produce so much as a writer. It was for this reason also that Osofisan and others fought for literary prizes to be instituted in the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA). He, however, cautioned that writers should not write with prizes as central goal else frustration became their lot.
Osofisan also condemned the exotic writings that characterise recent writings from African, which are winning prizes in Europe and America, saying it is tailored to pander to foreign tastes and at the expense of Africa’s self-worth and sensibility.
He opined, “Writing has not become lucrative in this part of the world to depend entirely on it. I had to look for a job that will allow me to write. If you’re writing for money, you’ve missed the road. How many people read? You could try some other thing like selling cement, etc.
“With what I’ve written, I’d be swimming in money if I were living abroad. There are the usual problems here. If you write, will you be published? If you’re published, will you be promoted and marketed properly? If you’re promoted, will you be read?
“But there’s also the trend going on now; it’s why some of us chose not to publish abroad. We want to develop local publishing environment here. If you publish abroad, you must please the audience of your publisher. That’s why these people write these funny books about the negative sides about Africa – child soldier, poverty, and wars. The first generation wrote what they considered anthropological literature about the gods, shrines and things like that. Now, this generation is writing exotica literature about Africa.
“On prizes, we knew how hard we fought to get many prizes established although you don’t write for prizes else you get frustrated. Writing is a labour of love; look for a job to do that will give you time to write. You may get money to help you stop working. Don’t be deceived about what happens abroad. Think about those who don’t get known at all. In fact, a very small proportion of writers make money from writing”.
The issue of whether to write in English or indigenous languages often agitate writers. But Osofisan does not see it as a problem worth discussing at all. For him, language has become a political ploy politicians use to deceive the masses, and argued that it does not constitute a hindrance to the nation’s development needs. He cited the instance of market women that trade across borders amongst countries and the facility with which they speak as many as eight languages to ease business.
He stressed, “Politicians are liars; they exaggerate these problems to create confusion. They speak the same language when they buy shares. Like lawyers, they speak esoteric vocabulary to confuse you so you pay them more money. So, it’s the problem of an elite that is irresponsible and corrupt; they are not patriotic. Let the lawmakers make a resolution to move this country forward and you’ll see how rapid that can happen. The problem is that they are not patriotic. We can communicate with every action of leaders if they are sincere”.
Osofisan the poet and dramatist
Nevertheless, Osofisan did not start the discourse straight away. He had first dramatised and spoken about his poetry to a grateful audience. But this was after he had also read the hilarious short story, ‘The drama of Easter’ ‘Or You don’t say that in English’. It drew bouts of laughter on account of its sheer hilarity, of pupils encountering English language and a white man for the first time and the mixed baggage of emotions it elicits. Then Austyn Njoku, one of the organisers of Foxhole, read a poem, ‘October 22’; Akeem Lasisi also performed ‘Correct pricing’ to capture the drama of fuel deregulation.
Osofisan said he only practised poetry as an aside and so didn’t write as often as he wrote drama or fiction. He read from a collection in which he used his pen name Akinba Lauko, Dream-seekers on Diving Chain. He said he wrote it during the military era when the country was difficult to live in. Unlike some of his colleagues, he made the painful decision to stay put rather than leave the country for greener pastures. The military, he said, was determined to ruin the educational system, saying, “It was really difficult but we survived. It was really a time of purgation and I derived inspiration from the Ifai divination system on which the poems are based”.
He performed ‘Iwo pele’, ‘Invocation’ ‘Separation’, a tribute to Soyinka, who had to disguise to flee the country. There was also the cleansing song about the African continent, ‘She thinks in songs’, sung at writing workshops he attended in parts of Africa, and dedicated to Penima. It is based on a call and response and the small audience sang along.