By Anote Ajeluorou
Lagos. New York. These are the two famous cities that came under intense gaze last weekend in Victoria Island, Lagos. They are cities in which two writers’ creative geniuses took flight. The writers read and spoke about their artistic love affairs with those cities to enthusiastic audiences
It was such a rare and wholesome coincidence that the poet, political theorist and essayist, Odia Ofeimun, and blogger and novelist, Teju Cole, should hold readings the same day in the city that has come to define their respective creative enterprise. Expectedly, Lagos as a city and the absurdity that Nigeria has come represent also featured in their readings and conversations.
Lagos as a city that has held or captured the imagination of writers of all shades has long been acknowledged. For these two writers also, it holds a special significance and they did not fail to say what it is. Being the city with the largest aggregation of Nigerians and foreigners alike, Lagos continues to excite and repel at the same time. But for such immensely gifted writers as Ofeimun and Cole, Lagos is a celebration of the creative genius and it continues to offer such immense possibilities.
While Ofeimun has recreated Lagos in poetic idioms and Cole in fivctional mode, the city continues to yield more of its underbelly to willing artists. Cole is returning with a non-fictional work on Lagos after his first novella, Everyday is for the Thief. His new work, Open City, is on another famous city, New York City, where he has resided for some years now.
At the open space of Cinnamon Café, reminiscent of an open courtyard in a typical moonlight tale session, Cassava Republic Press, publisher of Cole’s first book, had Cole in conversation with Tolu Ogunlesi. However, the courtyard effect Cassava Republic’s Jeremy Weate wanted to create didn’t quite work. The canopy space provided more humidity than expected. Weate had to take off his shirt to leave an inner t-shirt with the Hausa inscription, Bature, whiteman. Although the view ought to take in the proposed new Eko Atlantic City overlooking the ocean, the steamy discomfort overshadowed such artistic, idyllic intent.
Lagos the absurd
BUT it was a steamy session all the same with Cole poking fun all the time. While Cole’s Everyday is for the Thief is based in Lagos, Open City is about New York, and though he would soon return to Lagos, it would be non-fiction, he says.
For Cole as well as Ofeimun, Lagos is where the creative muse resides. And for its aggregation of all shades of Nigerians and what the country has turned into, Lagos continues to offer writers a wealth of fictional options. Cole asserts, “Lagos is an immensely great city; it was part of my growing up years…” in much the same way as Ofeimun exclaims, “This city, Lagos, made me a poet”.
But while Cole writes about the minute details of the many misdemeanors, the many illogical things that happen in the city that turn logic on its head, Ofeimun is engaged in the vast political shortcomings of Nigeria, shortcomings that have left the country denuded, and which Lagos so readily epitomises. The city also makes up the absurdity, the illogic that Nigeria stands for, a place where things don’t quite work, even with the abundant potentiality.
So, Cole says, “I’m drawn to the perplexed aspect of humanity. There’s a fiction of order and stability in our lives, but there are things that don’t add up. Do we say it is well? Absurdity is part of our universe; things are always striving towards order, part of the centrifuge of our universe. That takes serious stuff, of life and things not working smoothly. There’s a little of something that has gone off, which you try to craft up in language.
“It’s what comedians do, when they push the commonality out of shape, these things everybody sees. They are the things we see that have gone off course. You try to scribble it down before you begin to disbelieve it”.
Since returning a few weeks now, Cole has had to see a slice of that absurdity in a police checkpoint. A fellow was beaten up apparently for not giving bribe along the Lekki road. So, Cole says that real life events in a place like Lagos, and indeed, Nigeria, could almost read like fiction, and even stranger than fiction. For him also, it is part of writing about Nigeria in ironic ways because reality has been stretched as far as it can go.
For instance, the recently held National Honours offers Cole a way of looking at Nigeria differently. The honours’ list, he contends, reads like a typical EFCC list of high profile Nigerians wanted for financial crimes.
For him, shameless, has become a byword by which Nigeria’s leadership operates. In such dire situation in which Nigeria finds herself, Cole argues that the greatest favour writers have towards their country is to be absolutely free to write about these unnerving things. He also concedes that in such situation, a writer’s role is to “bring everybody to a place of productive discomfort; you have to be fearless about your creativity”, with the possibility of bringing about needed change in your society.
OFEIMUN, who read at Lifehouse, Victoria Island, Lagos, says his poetry is rooted in the desperate struggles of Nigerians in their bid to survive the sundry harshness imposed on them by a leadership that has repeatedly failed to deliver on fat promises. So, he insists, in spite of indices indicating otherwise, that Nigeria is eminently a savable country. Ofeimun’s optimism is infectious given the many turbulent years of leadership fiasco the country has undergone.
“I don’t write poetry that takes people to the clouds,” Ofeimun affirms, arguing further that “there is no art by which to make a statesman wise, and any performance in symbols can change the world. When it is said in relation to poetry, it simply means that we cannot learn anything from written matter. That is really what it means. There is no art by which to make a statesman wise is added to the order that poetry makes nothing happen. I just happen to disagree with this.
“Any performance in symbols that can change the way we look at the world can make things happen; it can make the statesman wise. But why bother only about statesman? Educating that child who will become the statesman is actually more important than anything in the world. The kind of education you give to a child before that child is 10 years old may determine all the work that child will do in this world.
“And for me, when a writer sets out, the first act of grace is to capture that child before you discover that child”.
Perhaps, Ofeimun’s second manifesto as a writer is that literature makes things happen! For a man who studied Political Science, this is saying something of note. But such outlook has enabled him to have a broad view of life, and he effectively availed himself of the much that University of Ibadan could offer by way of extensive reading beyond his training in Political Science.
Ofeimun’s poems have pelted army generals with stones in their acerbic venoms at the height of military rule. He specifically returned to Nigeria from London to be part of the historic June 12, 1993 Presidential elections presumably won by Chief MKO Abiola. Ofeimun’s concern for Nigeria’s economic health has grown in view of recent economic woes facing Europe, which he says may trigger a second attempt to recolonise or enslave Africa all over again.
Nigeria, Ofeimun contends, has repeatedly continued to look outwards, even as the rest of the world, especially Europe, is looking inward to solve its economic problems. He blames the perennial distrust amongst African communities, especially Nigeria, where it has blown out of proportion, and the fractious situations on the continent. Such distrust, he argues, was what was responsible for the first enslavement of Africans, where communities warred against themselves to sell Africans to Europeans traders.
Africa, especially Nigeria, Ofeimun says, is sliding back into the tragic era of 1884, when European powers partitioned the continent into arbitrary, ungovernable nation-states that have since defied cohesion.
Continuing in his note of optimism, Ofeimun contends that Nigeria can begin to make cars and other products of technology, but he equally asserted that the very fractious tendency of pervading distrust will work against this noble venture and make the country permanently dependent on other countries for its technology needs.
For Ofeimun also, literature is far more than just entertainment, as he says it must have a purpose and not something that should be taken on mere surface value. And so, he says his first collection, The Poet Lied, which he wrote when he was just 19, “is a young man’s manifesto as a writer; I wanted to be a writer. What is the point of doing something you don’t want to be defined by?”
Also, it was the time when Wole Soyinka had just been jailed and rumour had it that Soyinka would be wasted by being injected with syphilis. So, The Poet Lied wasn’t just a response to J.P. Clark’s poem, ‘Casualties’ about the Nigerian Civil War, it was also about the huge betrayal that was part of the war in most part of the country, with brother or friend betraying brother and friend. London Letters and Other Poems is about his exile years in London and how Lagos was still very much on his mind as he contemplated the vast ocean and lagoon between the two cities.
In the collection, A Handle for the Flutist, Ofeimun confronts the military establishment of the 1980s and 1990s and Nigeria’s perennial poor leadership that has stifled growth and development. He says, “A Handle for the Flutist is a declamation of what I think poetry should do… But they will not leave a poet in the people’s republic…”.
Also, Afrobeat legend, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti, was one personality whom Ofeimun says “captured my imagination very early, and every collection of poetry I did had a Fela poem”. Thereafter, he wrote the poem, ‘Sermon of the king’s horseman’ after Fela died, which he read. He also read ‘Let the lagoon speak’, the satirical piece, ‘London letter’ among other poems.
Ofeimun’s latest work is on the late sage, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Salute to the Master Builder. He says, “It is a collection of all the poems written on and around Awolowo. Christopher Okigbo is one of the poets. Many people do not know that majority of the poems written by Okigbo were responses to Chief Awolowo. It’s difficult to tell my Igbo brothers who are chauvinists that Okigbo actually wrote those poems in response to a man whom many of them do not like.
“Those who are not chauvinists can read them and see why one of our most exciting poets would write about Awolowo. Awolowo’s political ambitions and his policy orientations were very poetic in nature. When he talked about the dawn, he meant it in the sense that you will actually have day break away from darkness. As you would have noticed in that collection, all the major poets in our literature have written about him. There is a poet who is not there.
“I wrote a number of poems, some in response to how I was victimised as his private secretary. Many people did not expect me to but it was good to do it as poetry because when I am going to do it as prose it will be a different ball game.
Cole and social media
HE started his literary journey on the internet with a blog that eventually metamorphosed into the novella, Everyday is for the Thief. Although his second work, Open City did not take that route, Cole places a premium on the social media for several reasons; he owes much to it, especially facebook. He testifies to the impact social media, especially its power of immediacy and publicity has had on his writing.
His started using social media in 1999, when he began writing online and “putting my work out there for people to read. The internet was absolutely crucial. I was in Lagos in 2004 and when I returned to New York in January 2005, I wrote a chapter every day for 30 days on a blog.
“With social media, you push yourself into instantaneous excellence; it’s an immediate form of reach that grants you instantaneous, real time narrative; it adds value to instantaneity”
Although social media defined his work, there is a limit to which he would use facebook, for instance, else it becomes an addiction for needless self-exposure. And for an introverted writer like Cole, such exposure couldn’t be healthy, “as it can collect too much of your life. You need to have your own secret places. Boundaries are very important part of your health”.
Perhaps, Cole’s armour and need for boundary in an increasingly borderless, global village is his introverted nature as a writer. This is a quality his two characters in his two works have in common. Perhaps, it is also what he shares with them as a person, even as he denies painting a self-portrait in them. He says he strives towards gaining understanding of the psychology of his characters, their interiority. Ultimately, it is such books as his that unearths the depths of human emotions and psychology that interest him as a reader.