By Anote Ajeluorou
A fortnight ago, university don, Prof. Remi Raji-Oyelade of English Department, University of Ibadan, won the keenly contested leadership of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) as president in an anniversary convention that was clearly a flop. But Raji-Oyelade insists he has his feet firmly on the ground and is poised to steer the writers’ body in the right direction in spite of odds
FOR Prof. Remi Raji-Oyelade, the writers’ body, ANA, has been boxed into a position of near-irrelevance as it has failed to function as it should in recent years. But as the body with the most vibrant and creative people, all is not lost yet; Raji-Oyeladee says the body’s lost glory can be redeemed. It is the reason he captioned his acceptance speech, ‘Gather to Reclaim ANA!’ obviously from the abyss it has sunk.
Therefore, part of Raji-Oyelade’s repositioning agenda consists of formulating a reliable data base for the association for ease of accountability and documentation. Until now, Raji-Oyelade states that ANA had operated like a flock without a shepherd as its vast membership spread across the country could not be properly accounted for. With his knowledge of Nigerian writers, both at home and abroad, Raji-Oyelade says the task of gathering writers together would be his priority, saying now was the time for writers to come together and make themselves really count for what they are worth.
Raji-Oyelade insists that for this reason and many others, funders and supporters could hardly be blamed for not taking the association seriously, arguing that the body has not shown seriousness on its part. Therefore, a necessary first step would be to put the writers’ house in order before outsiders could be invited to partake in its many socially and culturally uplifting activities.
Writers, Raji-Oyelade affirms, are at the vanguard of nobility and order in society. For them to be found wanting in these two vital areas bodes no one any good.
Raji-Oyelade is optimistic that government’s rather lukewarm attitude to writers has been as a result of their inability to organise themselves properly, saying government would be willing to partner with the new ANA leadership to raise the profile of writers so they could play their part in society. As a much travelled poet and former Chairman of Poets, Essayists, Novelists, PEN International, Raji-Oyelade says time had come for a virile writers’ body like ANA to attract institutional support just like South Africa, where he frequents for conferences.
He notes that institutional support or sponsorship for writers should be something to be taken for granted given the role writers play in advancing the cause of literacy in society with their written craft.
“Our problems are institutional problems,” he states. “We talk about Bringing Back the Book, reviving our culture and re-orienting society to imbibe wholesome values; how can these be done without writers and their writing, without literature and literacy? I will soon be travelling to South Africa; there, literature and literacy programmes are supported by institutions and governments.
“How many residencies do we have? We do not lack writers, but we lack support and patrons. Writers can’t function where there are no editors, no translators to translate works into other languages. We need workshops; we need support in every facet of writing such as patrons, sponsors, proper accounting by publishers for royalties for writers, support of Nigeria Copyright Commission against book pirates. Distribution is key. The life of a book doesn’t end until it ends in the hands of readers. We have 80 million potential readers; with just five per cent accruing to me from that number in book sales, I’m okay. We need discipline to do what we need to do to get Nigerian writers to their destination.”
Government and corporate apathy to supporting literary engagement has become legendary, with a few minor exceptions.
However, Raji-Oyelade says he would tackle that apathy with determination, saying, “Literature, as you know, is all that gets written and performed; it is the nucleus of most art forms known to man, yet, it is the least supported in our society. We want to raise awareness about the significance of literature for a nation like ours; we plan to use all legitimate means to prove that the author is indeed an important decimal in the cultural life of our societies.
“It has happened before. The troika of Achebe, Soyinka and Clark proved once and at different times that the Nigerian author is a crucial conscience of national development.
“Indeed, the quality of the production of the literatures of a nation, as well as the dissemination and patronage of the literary industry, is a measure of that nation's civilization.
“From ANA, we want to send the signal first that writers are a serious and talented lot committed to teaching lessons and giving pleasures to their audiences; we intend to collaborate with other literary and creative groups in executing innovative programmes that will bring attention to our association. We want to impress it upon our potential funders --- philanthropists, governments, institutions and corporations --- that the support they give to our members, either individually or collectively, through grants, residencies or sponsorships is a support against under-development, ignorance and poverty. Such institutional support as we will seek to happen in our time is a support for literacy”.
In recent times, ANA's silence and absence from national debates and conversations that affect the Nigerian people, like the subsidy issue, and many others have given senior writers concern. One senior writer, Prof. Niyi Osundare, had pointedly asked if ANA had been ought and by whom. Raji-Oyelade, however, says a new wind would soon blow in ANA that would make it truly people-centered.
He states, “For many years, ANA has contributed to national debates, which affect the Nigerian people. The silence that we witnessed in the past two years was only self-inflicted. This will change. On behalf of the body of the association, we will be responsible and firm, patriotic and analytic. As writers, we will be engaging but circumspect of unnecessary controversy. As ‘unacknowledged legislators of the world’, we will support, criticise and advise governments, constructively on behalf of the people”.
ONE issue Raji-Oyelade has had to respond to is how he intends to work with the LNG-sponsored The Nigerian Prize for Literature board, which has a slot for ANA president. There was a slight public row between the award-giving board and Raji-Oyelade in 2009 when the panel of judges rejected his poetry entry for the then $50,000 on grounds that it was not a new publication, an action the poet considered an error of judgment. But Raji-Oyelade is quick to dismiss the row, stating that there is a difference between himself and the ANA position he now occupies as president. Moreover, he says two of his colleagues in the LNG board had since apologised to him over the error, although he did not name them.
More importantly, Raji-Oyelade states that the prize has since recognised and implemented some of his observations, which include reversing the exclusion of Nigerian writers in the Diaspora from taking part. This was to culminate in the late Esiaba Irobi winning the 2010 award with his seminal drama piece, Cemetery Road, even while residing abroad.
Raji-Oyelade notes, “The LNG-sponsored The Nigerian Prize for Literature is very interesting. I do not have problem with them. I had issues with the logic of the prize. It was wrong to limit the scope to Nigeria’s physical space. The depth of our writing lies outside the country right now. I was willing to bury my own ambition or subject it to wider competition. I don’t want to be a local champion.
“Two of my senior colleagues have come to apologise to me about what happened to my work. It takes a lot of modesty, humility to accept mistakes and move ahead. I’m still waiting for the public apology.
“In any case, the slot is not for me as a person, but for ANA, to move Nigerian literature forward, to move writers towards excellence. I don’t have anything against that”.