By Anote Ajeluorou
Associate Professor of Comparative Literature, Dr. Akin Adesokan, teaches at Indiana University, Bloomington, U.S. He took the opportunity of being in town to entertain Lagos literary audience at The Life House to an evening of stimulating discourse. He spoke on his current works, read excerpts from one and spoke on literature and Nigeria’s export to the world, Nollywood, a field he has done scholarly work on and his take on Nigeria’s 13-year old democracy. Adesokan is as engaging as he comes
His current work
I want to express my appreciation to The Life House for this initiative to host cultural and artistic events. I was here during the Odia Ofeimun’s event on Okigbo. I remember in those days, it used to be at the Russian, French or German Cultural Centres that these events took place. But now, we are coming to stage these events in our own space, which has a different kind of philosophy, orientation. I want to say that it is a remarkable place, and I hope the Adegokes (owners of The Life House) should keep it up.
So, I’d be reading from my current fiction work, South of the Still River, but I want to add that I have another book, which is a result of my doctoral degree thesis, Post-colonial Artists and Global Aesthetics. South of the Still Waters is like an autobiography about the African novelist not of my own generation, but an African novelist of the 1960s. In this book, I’m trying to explore the idea of belonging on the African continent; that is, the idea of an African who at least does not belong. I mean, he identifies with Africa but because of the nature of belonging on the continent, he is often not considered African.
And I think that is very contentious point; and it says a great deal about the way we identify with the continent. It is instructive that this was a writer born on the continent but his peculiar history makes him live outside the continent. What is also instructive about this main character his kinship with what happened between Laurent Gbagbo and Alasan Quatara of Cote D’Ivoire, where Gbagbo claimed that the other was from Burkina Faso and so could not contest elections in Cote D’Ivoire.
But the point is that partly because of the complexity of the African history and the relationship between Africa and the Diaspora, and the identity of the African living abroad, you tend to see things from the continental stand, you tend to look at things as a person who is looking at the totality of experience of the entire Africa. So, that in a sense is what I’m trying to address or relate to in this work. Virtually everything about Africa is about tribalism, about exclusionism like the Cote D‘Ivoire scenario. That is a bit of an African life, not just about the politics.
Even in my thesis, there is the concern with the particularity of the cultural form like Nollywood, but of a relation with the work of a writer who sort of moved to the world. So that in itself that simultaneity of sort, of holding onto the particularity of a place like Nigerian and then relating it to something as global and constantly changing as the experience of black people in the world.
Like I said, it’s an autobiographical novel, and the character is a fictional figure; he doesn’t really exist. I published a short story in Farafina in 2003, and it was basically about a young Nigerian writer who goes to Equatorial Guinea to meet a writer who was his favourite author. So, after that story, I began to think that I could actually expand it into a novel. That writer who then in that short story lived in Equatorial Guinea is this writer.
So, it’s actually a conceptual idea, a conceptual novel in the sense that it looks at the phenomenon of a pan-African writer, an individual who did not belong. And I thought that the most intellectually satisfying way to represent that is from the point of view of a writer, who deals with the question of homelessness. That is the whole idea. So, it’s not me. I didn’t live in the 60s!
Also, there is another theme that I’m working on. One is already written; it’s called Underground Movement; it used to be called Yellow Fever. My idea is to actually write about Lagos in ways that are exciting, which is different from my first work, Roots in the Sky. But the point is that as a writer, I will generally not do what others do. There are different kinds of writers. One can read different kinds of novels and one can write different kinds of novels. I’m capable of doing that.
Let me start with the scholarship. Virtually everybody wants to be a Nollywood scholar. It’s a very fascinating and troubling phenomenon, partly because of the irrepressibility of the phenomenon itself. So, they tend to think that they have a point to make about Nollywood. Like it happened to literature, which, when the novel began everybody wanted to get a piece of the action; Nollywood is a form which everybody thinks he or she has an opinion about, which ultimately should have been a good thing because the cultural form and aesthetic form actually survive on the strength of being talked about. The more they are being talked about the more they are institutionalised and entrenched.
Now, what goes for Nollywood, which did not go so well for the cinema of Eddie Ugbomah or Ola Balogun or Francis Oladele and all those people who made films in the 1970s and 1980s was basically that you can see Nollywood; that it is a form, a commodity, a product that you can actually feel. But you could not see films of those people. When you have a material that you can hold, that you can watch; it’s tactile. That is one of the reasons why Nollywood commands that kind of attention.
Like I said, you have a fair idea of African literature, but you realise that with the exception of the departments that came out in Lagos and cities like Ghana and Senegal in the 20s and 30s, which was actually political materials like those of Herbert Macaulay, Nnamdi Azikiwe; it was during the Onitsha Market Literature that you saw the material that was propelled by some kind of high visual power, that if you want, sort of developed from the people.
Like I said, Nollywood has a past; and part of the weakness of the scholarship of Nollywood is actually the claim that it is an orphan that came out of nowhere. That is not true; that is not true. If you’ve lived in Lagos in the 70s and 80s, you’ll know that isn’t just true. You could have seen the music, in theatre and in everything. And I think that that’s what people are complaining. In spite of the imperfection of the form, the fact that it is so internally incoherent, differentiated makes it unique. I have a chapter in my book, and I write on Tunde Kelani, Tade Ogidan, Amaka Igwe.
Now, about the economics, that is a more difficult aspect. But one thing I’d like to say is, there is this guy called Kunle Afolayan. He has a slightly different approach to Nollywood; slightly different from the kind of approach that Tunde Alabi may use or Zeb Ejiro has. So, in fact people are beginning to talk about a new Nollywood; I won’t go so far. But I think that there’s something very imaginative about the kind of work that somebody like Kunle Afolayan is doing. The way he organises his production is very imaginative.
IN any case, if you’re to periodise Nollywood, Kenneth Nnebue’s Living in Bondage is the one that sort of started it. But there are two things here – one thing with the filmmakers is that they actually don’t have a say in how they categorise them. If you know the work of Tunde Kelani back in the 80s, he was not only a cinematographer; he directed Anikura. It’s true that what we have now is, both academical and commercial orientation is an intensification. You can make an argument about the kind of people who never made films at that period, that they are making films now, you know. But that is a technological question, and the kind of technological possibilities that we are exploring now, those possibilities were there in the 70s and 80s. It’s just in the analogical form that is different from the digital form.
So, the point is that of freedom or democracy or democratisation of Nollywood, which is a function of the superstructure of capitalism and all of that. But again, how come that did not happen in Ghana, although some claim it happened in Ghana before us. But how come it didn’t gain root? That in effect didn’t mean because some people were wiser or smarter; it’s because it is real. You have to periodise, you have conceptualise and you also have to historicise. There is no need to be schizophrenic about things; it’s better to talk about where things are coming from. If I want to write a book about Nollywood, of course I won’t put Ola Balogun in the middle; I would be doing a disservice to the work.
One thing that worries me is to think of Nollywood basically as an orphan; and I think that it is actually not true. I agree that there is a commercial intensification but that is as a result of looking at the media in Nigeria; it’s bound to happen.
Of course, not! The kind of struggle that took place then till Gen. Sanni Abacha died still takes place today. It’s just that when people are struggling to rid the polity of dictatorship, some of them would have other things in mind, the general idealism. What we have today is a carricature of democracy, just like what we had with Alhaji Shehu Shagari in the 80s. Although it isn’t as violent like Abacha’s, who was killing people and putting them in jail, violence still takes place in parts of Nigeria.
But in terms of real democracy, no; we’re not yet there.
But you know, victory is a process. Now is another phase of the struggle after the military left. What we stuggled for wasn’t in vain. People still have memory of the struggle. It’s just that people wanted real democracy. The outcome of that struggle in the 1990s is disappointing for people who have understanding of history. I don’t want to magnify my role in it; others suffered more, those who lost loved ones. Mine is not important in relation to what others went through.
I could not participant in the process we struggled to bring about as a journalist went to jail for because everybody had an attitude towards this thing. I saw myself as an intellectual; I had my role elsewhere. Once the struggle was over, I had my goal elsewhere. I saw myself as an intellectual, a writer and a think tank!