*Ofeimun kicks the Biafra dust
By Anote Ajeluorou
Preparatory to October 9 announcement of the final shortlist of three writers for the $100,000 prize money of the LNG-sponsored The Nigerian Prize for Literature, eight out of the initial 10 shortlisted writers exhibited their credentials to the literary public last Sunday at Freedom Park, Lagos, at the 4th edition of CORA-oraginsed (Committee for Relevant Art) yeary Book Party.
Seven out of the 10 writers were in attendance. There were Vincent Egbuson (Zhero), Tricia Adaobi Nwaubani (I Do Not Come To You By Chance), Jude Dibia (Blackbird) and Ifeanyi Ajaegbo (Sarah House). Others were Lola Shoneyin (The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives), Olusola Olugbesan (Only A Canvas) and elder writer and author of Eze Goes to School, Onuorah Nzekwu with his entry, Troubled Dust.
Two writers based abroad, Chika Unigwe (On Black Sister’s Street) and Ngozi Achebe-Onaedo (The Blacksmith’s Daughter), and Minna, Niger State-based Emmanual Agya aka E.E. Sule (Sterile Sky) could not make it to the event but sent their regrets. Although Olugbesan (Only A Canvas) and Egbuson (Zhero) could not personally attend, they had representatives. Egbuson’s publisher, Mr. Steve Shabba (kraft Books) stood in for him while Olugbesan (who was reported indisposed) had his wife Nike standing in for him as well. He even wrote a letter to explain why was absent, while expressing fraternity with his fellow writers on the shortlist.
In spite of these absences, it was a remarkable event and each of the authors had a moment to share his or her writing ideas with the audience.
THE full-house event also featured a mixed grill of performances. Opening the floor before the literary fireworks was Oluwapelumi Baba (Pelumi Lawal), a theatre actor cum technician now a Yoruba hiphop rap artist, who playfully strung words together in the late Da Green style to thrill the audience.the performance at first appeared too lightweight for the nature of the gathering. But CORA Programme Chair, Jahman Anikulapo, contradicted those who would ordinarily not allow that sort of performance in a highly cerebral event as a literary one. He said willingly or not, such performances had since permeated society and was possibly defining its taste; any attempt, therefore, to pretend that such performances have no place or out-of-synch or not in harmony with even an intellectual gathering is like attempting to wish away current reality in the shifting cultural taste and expectations of the society.
He charged the culture community to see Freedom Park, a former colonial prison now remodeled as a scenic park, as space for artists to engage themselves and to use it as a space for free expression. "We must claim this space of our past pains and dehumaning experiences for our free cultural expression where we celebrate the civilising and humanising principles of the arts," he said, urging greater patronage for the facility, which supprted the Book Party project through generous discount.
South African author Kgebetli Moele (author of Room 207 and Book of the Dead), who had been in Nigeria to participate in the Nigeria-South Africa Week, read an excerpt from Book of the Dead. But before reading his piece, Moele did not only express his delight in coming to Nigeria, he said the cross-cultural visit had been a period of enlightenment, saying, “What I have seen in Nigeria has changed my perception about Nigerians; the way Nigerians live is really great”.
Again, Anikulapo called for greater sharings and literary and cultural exchanges between the two nations, saying "we have no choice; South Africa and Nigeria, aside having their respective capitals -- Jo'Burg and Lagos - as the cultural and economy hubs of the continent, remain the faces of Africa in the global cultural scene; and if we do not work together, we will only waste the inherent advantage and resources in such cooperation."
IN setting the tone for the conversation, CORA Secretary-Genera, Mr. Toyin Akinosho, noted, “Everyone knows that we produce remarkably good books in our country. But we also know that we don’t discuss them enough; we are not made aware enough. The soft infrastructure of the book reading culture is not aggressively under construction. We at CORA have always felt that books that make it to this level in such a major award system as The Nigerian Prize for Literature ought to be known about in every community in the country. Our ambition is to help that to happen; to extend the star attraction of the award winner beyond the Gala Night of the award.
“We have always maintained that the award is an opportunity for a series of events to really make the Book look cool; a series of book reading and discussions in as many crannies of the country as possible as well as on TV discussions and radio shows. Most book readings in the country happen with the effort of the writers themselves. Our country should get past that; we should develop a community of book readership enablers; organisations that exist just to share in the joy of reading. Book readership promotion should go beyond big showpieces as Bring Back the Book campaigns. It should be about how we as citizens engage the organs of the book development in our communities”.
The audience digested Akinosho's word with the dessert of a drama performance featuring the duo of Toyin Osinaike and Simi Hassan of One-Six Productions. The versatile actors performed a drama skit ‘Wot’s this all about?’ -- a pidgin adaptation of South Africa's Apartheid-era iconic play, Woza Albert; it was wildly exhilarating and the audience loved it.
Art for art's sake?
FOR some of the writers on the hot seat on Sunday, messages in literary works seem secondary or all together not important in the process of creativity. This drew a little unease and a bit of disapproval from some members of the audience for whom the notion of art for art's sake seems discomforting, especially in a society facing dire challenges of development.
It was filmmaker and actor, Mr. Francis Onwuchie, who first fired his objection to what appeared a tacit agreement on the part of some of the writers that messages are of less value in a literary work.
With the exception of Egbuson, Nzekwu and Olugbesan, the others maintained that their works essentially asked probing questions with a view to eliciting understanding from situations and characters and that they had not set out to send any messages, to preach or to moralise.
Shoneyin argued, “I don’t actually have a message from my book. I wasn’t preaching; I’m just asking questions in my writing. I’m hoping that my readers also ask questions while reading. You can take whatever you like from it”.
For Ajaegbo (Sarah House), stories come in different ways; he said “I may not be able to do something to change the objectification of women, but I may have awakened people to do something about it. No; I didn’t set out to moralise, to preach; I just wrote the book”.
Also for Nwaubani (I Do Not Come To You By Chance), not many readers seem happy with the way she ended her work because she ostensibly avoided preaching to potential 419-ers to keep to the narrow and straight road. Nwaubani tasked experts in psychology and other behavioural sciences to come up with a holistic study and understanding of the why behind people’s behaviour.
“What we lack is the why of behaviour,” she noted. “What engineers behaviour? It’s difficult for me to say ‘take this or that!’ I can’t tell you what is good or bad about my writing. I just show what people do. I just sneak things into my writing. I highlight the mindset that lead to things, crime and what have you. Everybody should write what is in their minds”.
But publisher Shabba, who represented his author, Egbuson, would not accept the idea of writing merely to show that one could write; he believes that literary art is too important to be so consigned to ‘showing’ without holding up a standard of behaviour worthy of emulation. So, he argued on the things that endear him to taking up a manuscript to publish: “What is the role of the individual in a society with so much corruption? What happened to honest hard work? Should we back down from being good?
“There are two reasons why I publish books: the first is to encourage writers and for the work to correct society; Zhero is one such book out to correct society. In spite of the turbulence in the country, there is hope for Nigeria if only Nigerians can read Zhero”.
As a writer, Dibia (Blackbird) stated, “Mine is to find out how one person does one thing and another person does another thing. A work is open to different interpretations. I only hope to ask different questions. In society, there are questions being asked; questions ought to be asked on how things are. We try to interrogate ourselves when writing and that is very challenging. We try to tackle different things in our writing, but not set out to preach or moralise”.
The oldest of the writers, Nzekwu said that as a rule, when he writes, he gives his readers messages, noting, “As a rule, I want to give my readers a message; sometimes, it’s to enjoy the book; sometimes, it’s an open book and then a charge to learn from the book; the standard’s in the book.
“Every writer has a message for the readers; it’s left for the reader to find out what message he can get. You are now left to make up your mind, which way you want to go. Some authors end up telling you where to go. You either accept or reject where they want you to go. No author sets out to moralise!”
On why he published Troubled Dust some 42 years after the Nigerian Civil War ended, Nzekwu said getting the right publisher was a problem; and since he didn’t want to dance to any tune a publisher might play, especially on the issue of balance since the narrative concerned the acrimonious war, whose scars are yet to fully heal, thus becoming an albatross in the nation’s soul. Nzekwu said he intended his book to send a message and that he wanted such message to be the way he originally conceived it.
Olugbesan said Only A Canvas has a message about the osu caste system, which the author researched and that the novel is based both on fiction and factual accounts. In spite of education and so-called civilization, Olugbesan maintained that nothing had changed as the practice was still in place in some communities in the South East.
Lola’s many wives of trouble
BY far the most controversial author and book, as revealed at the party, is Shoneyin’s The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives. It turned out that polygamy is such an explosive issue with both the men and women. But Shoneyin was ready for the barrage of enquiries on her writing about such a delicate subject from an equally outrageous standpoint. Like a pundit, Shoneyin
stated, “Polygamy exists because of the failure of the state and society not allowing women to be self-dependent. 30 per cent of women who enter into polygamy do it either through greed or laziness; but the others are women that have no alternatives. Society still defines women through marriages.
"As a woman, if you’re not married people look down on you no matter how successful you are. The success of a woman is gauged by her marriage; Miss this or Miss that does not guarantee you a place in society”.
Also, Shoneyin stoutly defended the charge that Bolanle, the only educated lady in the polygamous relationship, is not well developed enough to be regarded as a rounded character, arguing, “the woman in the novel is actually challenging patriarchy. Bolanle’s story is actually a friend’s story of rape; it’s my tribute to my friend. We’re so insensitive to women’s issues in this country. A lot of women and men are a lot more fragile because of the harrowing situations they are facing”.
ALTHOUGH there have been so much published narratives about the ill-fated Nigerian Civil War, many Nigerians, especially those who bore the brunt of the war the most, the Igbo in whose enclave the bloody war was fought till it ended after 30 odd months, have continued to write to exorcise the ghost of that conflict.
Nzekwu’s Troubled Dust on the race for the $100,000 prize is one such narrative. Also, Africa’s best-known fiction writer, Prof. Achebe has just published his memoir, There was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra. It’s Nwaubani’s wish that other Nigerians - Yoruba and Hausa - would write about the war so other perspectives could emerge. She said her parents were still stuck to the Biafra ideal. For instance, her father applauded Gabon when that country played against Cote D’Ivoire in the last Nation’s Cup; Gabon was one of the few countries that recognised and helped Biafra during the war. So, too, did Tanzania.
But it was notable poet and essayist, Odia Ofeimun that brought matters to a head when he declared leaders of Biafra war as 'criminals' that ought to be tried for committing genocide against their own people.
Ofeimun charged, “Everyone who was a leader of Biafra ought to be taken to a Nuremberg-type trial and made to face a proper trial. They committed genocide against their own people. I want to repeat it so that nobody gets me wrong. They knew that the Igbos had no guns; they knew that; they did not prepare for it -- I have a small book published by a traditional ruler who used to be a reporter before the civil war; he didn’t do the big things that all the others did in their work but as you move from one part of the book to another, you begin to see pictures that would annoy you in terms of leaders who took the decision that led the whole people into that war. And because the rest of us were too angry, we allowed them to mislead us.
“Ojukwu said many people had agreed. It is wrong to let your people choose the falsehood of propaganda during the civil war to interpret their lives; it is wrong. What they should never have done they did and the rest of us are being made to feel guilty about a decision they should never have taken. Somebody needed to be made to pay for it. What happened to the Igbos is a very bad thing. Those people (so-called leaders) who took the decision to take Biafra to war, they committed genocide against their own people.
“One was expecting that Achebe would write the way it actually happened. If he told us all he saw, he would either hate himself... And all the other generals said ‘we are not ready to fight the war’. When Awolowo met Ojukwu, he looked around and said he told the man himself, ‘you are not ready for this war’. The story now has to be told properly because Chinua Achebe has literally taken the genie out of the bottle... we need somebody from the inside to tell us why people who were not ready for war went to war”.
The hall fell silent on Ofeimun's powerful presentation, and incidentally a younger Igbo author, Ifeanyi declared in a post-event chat, "I agree in total with the perspectives shared by Mr Ofeimun; unfortunately a lot of Igbo are too emotional about the issue to do an objective reading of the situation." Octogenarian Nzekwu sat pensive but very attentive to every of Ofeimun's words, which drew resounding applause from the mixed-tongue and age audience.
It was this closing shot at the Biafra narrative coupled with the afro-jazz solo performance by dreadlock musician-dancer Edaoto Agbeniyi, that escorted the guests out of the groundfloor of the Kongi Harvest's Art Gallery into the Food Court of the Freedom Park, where the debate continued in a mini-party over wining and dining.