Nigeria will be 52 tomorrow, and yet another time to take stock in the nation’s historical journey. The nation’s cultural life, especially its literary life, has travelled a certain path of honour. But how has it really fared? What more can be done to better situate it on a sounder path so that the writers can be further applauded as true ambassadors of their craft? What is the role of leaders towards engendering a literary-conscious citizenry? How does the citizenry force literary awareness on leaders to better humanise them? ANOTE AJELUOROU spoke to two craftsmen in the business – poet, political analyst and essayist, Odia Ofeimun and teacher, gender expert and novelist, Prof. Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo – in this vintage read. Excerpts:
How have literature and the arts fared in Nigeria in the 52 years of her existence?
We’re no longer in the days where Soviet officials measured the progress in literature as if they were looking at how many bags of cement they produced or how many houses they built or how many children went to school. What we ought to simply ask ourselves is how many novels, plays or how poems or anthologies of poetry did we produce. It will sound trite and banal to begin from that angle. But frankly, it does make sense to do so, to ask in terms of actual productivity: what have we done? And, if you look at it from that angle, we’re one of the most productive countries in the world.
It’s true that there are countries with better publishing culture than us; largely because of the poorer state of our publishing industry, we cannot measure up to other cultures. But in general, if you’re looking at the volume of the work produced in Nigeria, Nigeria is certainly one of the most productive countries in the world in terms of literary productivity itself. Much of that productivity is hogwash; it’s not readable and not worth selling in the market. But the literatures of all countries in the world begin by disposing of all that fluff, of all that unreadable stuff.
You ought to have had so much of that stuff before you can start talking of the quality of the literature being produced. If we didn’t go through Onitsha Market Literature, we may not have had Cyprian Ekwensi, Amos Tutuola, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka and the rest of them. So, there is a sense in which you cay say at whatever level of incision you may want to look at the literary productivity of this country and say, we’ve done fairly well.
If you’re looking at how well we measure up against other societies in Africa and in the world, Nigeria literature, for a very long time, was the measure by which other literatures in Africa were judged: whether in South Africa, Ghana, name it, except perhaps in North Africa because we did not have the kind of indigenous facility like the Arabic tongue that is native to them. For instance, in one of Nadine Gordima’s books on African interpreters, she made the point very strongly: that, but for Nigeria, most of the productivity in Africa would not have been worth talking about.
So, we certainly produce in volume and in quality the literature that we could bounce against the literatures of any other country in the world in terms of what the literature did for us. Remember, of course, that this was a culture that hadn’t a scribal culture until very recently. There were countries in Europe that did not have much of a literature before us. I was surprised to see that Finland wasn’t much of a heavy-going literary culture. And in terms of actual development, we can match much of what has been produced in that country. Although you talk about European literature as if it was a thousand years old, the literature that has been produced in Nigeria has been able to stand up to it in a very interesting way.
It is true, in volume and quality we certainly are not near what you find in most European countries because the publishing culture in Europe out-distances us in a manner that removes the word ‘competition’; it’s not worth talking about in that sense. I mean, the pre-existing literary culture in Europe before Nigeria entered the field was so massive that when Nigerians and Africans started writing, it was as if we were simply a figment of European imagination. To a very large extent, it still does look like that because in terms of weighing our shoulders against the productivity of Europe, you can say that for every book an African has, you can find a European equivalent in terms of subject matter, in terms quality and in terms of the direction of aesthetics and social demands. Oh yes, you can actually match them and say, this is what we have done, and this is what Europeans did. Well, all literary culture has a tendency to mime and copy one another; it appears we’re not competing with any country.
Very many people in the world know Nigeria because of the writers we have produced. Achebe, Soyinka, Ken Saro-Wiwa, all those who have made their mark internationally, they’ve formed some kind of cultic group by which you measure the pioneering efforts of all other African writers. You want to find out where African literature began, you come to Nigeria, although a country like Senegal produced a Leopold Sedar Semghor long before our poets started making it. The poets we produced about the same time did not have the same cultural literacy as Senghor. We’re like teething efforts; I mean, a Dennis Osadebe or Nnamdi Azikiwe were certainly not in the ranks of Senghor.
But once that 1930 generation burst onto the literary scene with the Achebes, the Soyinkas, the Christopher Okigbos and the rest of them, they out-distanced whoever was close by so fast that at 30/32, Achebe was already being seen as a grandfather in the business and had become a measure of how Africans could do it. It’s therefore one area in Nigerian public life in which we really ought to be celebrating ourselves more than we’re doing. And then the generation that came after never quite took the back seat even when the economic situation frightened off the multinational publishing corporations and publishing landed into doldrums of a very vicious kind. You can still measure what was being produced in Nigeria to what was being produced anywhere else in the world.
And then gradually, being the kind of country we are - and this is not being arrogant – in spite of the doldrums in the Nigerian economy, Nigerians still found a way of beating what would have been a ‘proper book famine’; that was what it was called then by Chinwizu and company. It was a proper book famine that needed to be squelched; and it was done in such a way that today if you’re judging Nigerian writers against any other African country, people want to use not just the volume but the number of prizes that have been won. Here, we haven’t done badly.
It’s true that the front-runner role that Nigeria had was properly asserted by the fact that it was a Nigerian who won the Nobel Prize for Literature first in Africa before any other country. But it did not exactly end there; almost like a running tab, Ben Okri won the Booker Prize (with Famished Road); there has been other Commonwealth Prizes here and there, Orange Prize (Chimamanda Adichie with her Half of a Yellow Sun), Caine Prize for African Writing; so, by the time it came to Adichie and company, we had become the standard to follow.
Talking about Adichie, who before they had become, shall we say, middle age, are being treated like grandmother; and, she has done very well trying to create a groundswell of creativity among a younger generation of Nigerian writers. It’s wrong to just say a younger generation of writers; she has challenged older writers by the manner in which she has performed certain things. Her first book, for instance, was a very deliberate way of weighing her shoulders against that of the master – Achebe!
If you read Purple Hibiscus carefully, you will see that the young girl was looking at the big man in the eyes and saying, ‘yes, there’s some updating we must do’; and I think she did a very good job although you can say that what she did was to take a coder and match step by step Things Fall Apart up to the very end. In fact, that book is a book that requires a very special study because from a never-do-well father to a very enterprising son and the man who had to move, I mean Okonkwo – Purple Hibiscus matches it. Even the movement to the maternal homeland in order to escape the problem in the paternal homeland, all of them arrived there in the book.
Now, the reason it is important to bring Achebe into the story this way is simply to say that we haven’t really abandoned the turf that the older writers created; we’re still producing literature within the same format; which is why I always argue that you need not to make a distinction between generations of Nigerian authors because we are still within one tent. We haven’t ruptured the ground so much to the point where you can say the difference; it’s still the same literature.
If you want to look at Nigerian literature, you can simply say that as long as we remain this turbulent, unstoppable and very difficult country, we will always know what to do. And, our writers are not doing badly. Of course, there are themes you don’t encounter in Nigerian literature. But what we should be asking ourselves is not what we don’t do, but how well we do what we do. Nigeria literature still promises to be the literature of the future by which I mean, it is still to be the literature that is more challenging than what you find in countries that do not have the luck of the diversities that some people will say poison our country! But I think that is really what makes Nigeria a beautiful place.
In spite of the honours Nigerian literature has brought to the country, leaders still look at the literature and its writers as ‘others’, people with whom they have no connection. Why is this so?
I think we’re lucky that government has generally always ignored Nigerian literature. Maybe that is why we’re producing the way we are. To be very honest, as an official of Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), I always stressed this point: government ought to be concerned with the literature is treated and used. At the same time, we need to be very careful because the kind of interest that government shows in literature is usually very distractive and sometimes very disruptive such that they interfere and reduce the quality of what is being produced.
They introduce extraneous, very parochial criteria for determining what is good literature. And there are writers who attempted to run into governments’ corridors in order to buy those extraneous criteria that do not help literature to grow. At some point at ANA, some people were getting angry that winners were coming from a particular part of the country.
As General Secretary, I was sometimes mulled by critics within the association, who believed I had a say who could win a prize. I never try to have a say, but I was always interested in what the results were and if I was certain that a particular result did not meet the standard, I did not pretend; I voiced my opinion.
It’s important that we know some of these nuances in the progress of our literature because government’s intervention has ways of worsening standards of judgement. In most cases, once government intervenes, they bring in factors that are not intrinsic to literature. However, it’s also good that we recognise the danger society runs when the government is uninterested in the literature that is being produced. First, when the leaders do not appreciate or do not acknowledge one of the most creative areas in the life of a country, it simply means that they have banalised social issues and make it difficult for the things of the mind to be centralised as issues of date. When that happens in a country, it is not just literature that is affected; almost every other area of national life is adversely affected by it. It means you do not get a normal, everyday promotion of thought and creativity.
Does this not also mean that those in leadership positions do not consume cultural production like literature? If so, how then can they imbibe the humanised virtues of literature to do what is needful?
No; that is not the part that bothers me. What bothers me is that we live in leader-centred societies at traditional or modern levels. And, when a society is that leader-centred and the people focus attention on where the leader is at, the tendency is that they tend to do what the leaders do. And if their leaders do not really read literature, they (the people) won’t read literature, too. A leader in Nigeria, for instance, who has read Tahir Ibrahim or Labo Yari or J.P Clark, Mabel Segun or Achebe and talks about them is very likely to influence how others are reading. The people themselves ought to be leaders in this process of appreciation of literature. If children who go to school are brought in contact with writers of their country and they grow older, there is a tendency for them also to literally wean over the legacy to whoever is coming behind.
However, we don’t have a school system built to appreciate indigenous creativity. Very many children who go to school come to poetry as a matter for examinations; they don’t see it as a way of interpreting the lives that they are living. If fact, many children actually see poetry as harder than mathematics, especially because there is a general fear of the unusual. Whereas education should be an adventure into what is already known and what is not yet known. We should be able to turn our school systems into such adventures. If the leader knows that a particular author is being read, he will not dare not to read. A leader who knows that a particular author is being read, would want to read such author; because if he does not read him, he may not know where the next stone will be thrown at him.
There’s something that we must look at from the social angle. The average educated Nigerian, after his university education, stops reading. And when they read, they read religious tracts, and the religious tracts they read are the most banal ones; the ones that are not educative in the Christian sense, the ones that look for miracles rather than the ones that make them to understand what it means to be related to God or their neighbour. It’s therefore a critique of society when we say that books are not being bought or there is no book market here; when we criticise our leaders for not reading, we are almost saying that our whole society is guilty!
It takes both ways: If readers read, it influences a majority of people to read; but whether leaders read or not, they will get to know that the masses are reading; they will dare not to read, at least for their own good.
Moving forward, what roadmap would you propose to move Nigerian literature forward?
I have a way of not only emphasising purely intrinsically literary issues when I am asked about the way to go because it’s a very serious social question. If we had a society in which people earned regular salaries and the informal sector were reduced to the barest minimum, it would be easier for families to plan even the entertainments that they have or consume. Families can decide how many times they can go to the cinemas in a month; how many times to go to a play house a month; how many Nollywood films to buy beyond the ones they watch on DSTV and so on and so forth. But in a society where the salary culture has been so thoroughly debased that it almost does not exist, families cannot plan their necessities not to talk about what they regard as pleasures.
And, at the heart of the Nigerian dilemma is this very reality that unemployment and under-employment, which are at the heart of the debasement of culture generally. When I was in school, books were fairly cheap the way they are not any more. Now, it is still possible, if you are interested in books, to get second hand books with cheap access. But it is not everybody who lives in Lagos; so that access itself is a bit wonky.
Now, the other is that we have reduced all our societies to the lack of turenci kind of societies in the sense that almost everybody believes that when you read books or are attached to books, you’re doing something un-African; it’s a very deep-rooted trend in our culture. And many educated people are so intimidated by this general attitude, which was over-played by the military, which laughed at turenci, which laughed at akukuo, which laughed at iwe!
That culture sipped into popular culture in a way that has turned people away from books. If you’re in London and you take the tube you will find that a lot of people sit down and start reading. If you enter a particular coach and you find black people reading, they tend to be Nigerian if it’s London. If you moved towards them, you will find out that what they are reading are religious tracts. There’s nothing wrong in reading religious tracts, but when that is what people concentrate on, they lose a sense of self and their commitment to their creator; they don’t realise that that is what they are doing. Albert Eistern was a great Christian philosopher; it did not stop him from being a great physicist. Our great physicists around have abandoned the knowledge that is in physics in order to prove that they are children of God. It’s the most terrible way to vilify your maker and destroy the connection that you have with Him! They fail to learn what God created.
Our people think that when you turn your back against what God created, that is when you are closer to God. If you are a Christian or a Muslim and that is what you are doing, you are, in fact, moving away from God. In fact, when you look at the destructiveness and evil in our societies, it is precisely because of this deliberate pretence that you are closer to God only when you do the things that the koran or the bible tells you to do. No; in most cases, it is the surest way of knowing people who do not believe in doing things right. The bible or Koran points the way to you but you have to live in the real world.
Prof. Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo
Nigerian literature and the arts 52 years after, how would you say it has fared?
Well, talking about Nigerian literature is a very complex issue. Complex in the sense that so much has been accomplished and yet so much needs to be done. It looks like we‘re making progress but in some ways we appear to be retrogressing. So, it’s a very complex situation. When you look at the fact that many good writers have emerged, and some of them are even producing what you may describe as classics or canonical texts, and I’m not even talking about the founding fathers and mothers like Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, J.P. Clark and the women like Buchi Emecheta, Flora Nwapa; what I’m talking about are real good books; the founding fathers and mothers wrote well, but I’m talking about people who are very contemporary who have written very well as well.
Here, I’m referring to both to those who reside in Nigeria and some in the Diaspora who have done well. I’m referring to writers outside like Chimamanda Adichie, Helon Habila, Segi Atta, Opeyemi, Chris Abani, Chika Unigwe, Teju Cole; there are quite a number of them. What I’m saying is that they are doing well. in Nigeria here, I can think of a few writers who are doing well like Jude Dibia, Odili Ujubuonu, Ogochukwu Promise, Lola Shoneyin, not forgetting established ones like Femi Osofisan, Niyi Osundare, Odia Ofeimun; they belong to the group I describe as skilled writers.
So, we have these writers and they have done very well and we can really be proud of their achievements. But when you also look at some of the books that are being published, you get worried. And, some of us have tried to analyse the factors responsible for what is happening to our literature from this perspective I’m looking at. And you know, it is the same thing that is happening to Nigeria. Nobody can look at Nigerian today and genuinely say that things are working well; things are not working well. There are so many problems; the economy is not so good; people are suffering. The educational system is not performing as well as one would expect. Some of the students being produced are not good enough when you compare them, say with children produced several years ago. So these problems are there.
And then the problem of publishing, along with the quality of works that are being published that are poor is another. Abroad, it is so difficult now to find a work that is badly published even in the so-called small presses. We know that in the U.K and the U.S, we have large conglomerates like Random House, etc you can hardly find an error in the works that are produced. Over there, publishing is big business; but in Nigeria, it looks like publishing is deteriorating, maybe because many publishing companies are not really focusing on literature, and it’s worrisome. Literature is an aspect of book culture that should be encouraged. And when publishers pay scant attention to it and concentrate on textbooks or biographies or autobiographies, it becomes a problem. You may not be able to talk about some of these other books sometime in the future; but quality literature books always remain topical.
Why is it that Shakespeare is still glorified everywhere and not just in the U.K. today? But there are books like biographies that were published in his time that nobody is talking about anymore. So, the number one problem is that we no longer study literature with all the seriousness it deserves, and I’m not talking about universities; I’m talking about primary and secondary schools. I remember that when I was in primary school, my school gave attention to literature in Igbo or what you might call Igbo literature. They started us on the literature in Igbo language because I schooled partially in the East at Ekulobia and in Port Harcourt, but especially at Ekulobia, a typical Igbo town. We read Igbo classics like Omenko and Alabingo, and some of that prepared us for literature; I still remember some of the stories I read. And after that, we were introduced to English texts as we grew older.
So, in the first three years of my primary education, I was taught in Igbo; it was how it was in those days in the late 1950s, when I was in primary school. So, that prepared us and gave us a solid foundation before we graduated to English and English teachers when we began to read some English books and in secondary school. My secondary school in Port Harcourt, then known as ArchDeacon Crowder Memorial Girls Secondary School, we focused on literature; literature was compulsory up to school certificate level, whether you are reading science or art. And the school had very good science laboratory. Many of the girls who graduated from there later became engineers and doctors.
What I’m saying is that many of us read the sciences and some of us rad the arts, but the school made it so compulsory for every student to read literature. But these days, nobody does it with any seriousness; that is, if they still do it at all. By the third year in secondary school these days, students are dropping literature. But literature is the best way to learn a language; if you want to be proficient in any language, you must focus on the literature of that language. So, literature must go hand in hand with the study of any language; if you are studying English language, for instance, you must study it alongside the literature that is written in English. The same thing applies to Hausa, Igbo, Yoruba or Effik or Igala language or whatever language.
Now prof., how much harm is this disconnect in Nigeria’s school curriculum in the study of English and literature causing the school system in terms of massive failures in national examinations?
Of course, why do you think that competence in English has deteriorated so much? There are hardly any students in schools today that can make correct sentences without a grammatical error in it, even those at the university system. Many of our students can hardly communicate efficiently in English, and this is the Department of English! It is very worrisome; it’s a problem that we need to do something about.
But do experts like you talk to government, those at the Ministry of Education about this problem?
But we talk about this everywhere we go like when I give lectures in public; I even say it in my community gathering; we have missed it. Until we make our children start by studying and speaking our mother tongue at home up to the age of three and then introduce English to them at a later age after they would have learnt the mother tongue, we will continue to have serious problems; and it doesn’t really matter which mother tongue. The child should speak his or her mother tongue because the mother is the closest human being that can teach her children her language; the fathers can do it too, and they should do it. But it’s the woman who is really closer to the children before age five. And do you know that at age three, children are already fluent in a language? So, if a mother speaks her language to her children, they will speak it very well. And then you introduce English to them gradually; but now, we introduce English to toddlers and they can never have competence in English because this is a second language-learning environment!
So, it will be difficult for them to speak English efficiently without being grounded in their own native language or mother tongue. And the parents are poor users of the English, and then the teachers are not properly trained; most of the teachers who teach English today cannot speak it properly or write it properly. I assure you that even in the so-called private schools; although the teachers may be a bit better than those at the government, public schools, but that competence is lacking in them. It means we end up having children who are neither competent in English nor competent in their mother tongue; they are rootless, just floating in the air; and it’s so sad. Very sad; that is the root of the problem we are having today.
You now find young writers who are writing in English without knowing how to use English properly, who don’t have competence in English and they are writing in English. They are creating novels, poetry, plays in English. How do you expect that literature to be great if that is the situation? Many of the young writers do not write English the way it should be written; they don’t have the competence; and you can’t give what you don’t have. That is one.
But now, I must say that people do not also write extremely well abroad. But there are good editors who fine-tune what people have written. But in Nigeria, many publishing companies do not have good editors; and this self-publishing issue is another killer of literature. A lot of these young writers just write and rush to the printer next door and print it; they don’t bother to go through the normal process of publishing. There is no shortcut in book production; it must go through the process. Do you know that many foreign publishing companies, the ones that want to maintain their reputation, go through editing, copy editing so much so that they may have up to 10 editors working on the same book? By the time all of them would have gone through, how can you now see an error in that book? If one person does not detect it, another must detect it; that is what is lacking here.
Many publishing companies do not employ good editors; and when they employ them, they do not remunerate them enough for them to be committed, because this thing really requires commitment. Those who are in the book chain must be committed at any level – the writer, who must self-edit thoroughly first; he should not just dish out something and dump it on the literary agent; we don’t even have them here, or editors. Edit yourself first. I always tell young writers who bring their manuscripts to me that they had not edited themselves as soon as I see five or more errors. No publisher would have the patience to look at such manuscript.
So, the thing is that Nigerian literature - and it doesn’t have to be in English because people are writing in local languages - there is need for proficiency in the medium of writing, the medium of communication. Whichever language you want to write in, whether in English or Edo or Ibibio, you must be proficient in that language to be able to write well.
As far as addressing social-political or cultural issues are concerned, how far would you say the literature produced in Nigeria has acquitted itself?
Well, I think that the first and even second generation of Nigerian writers were more conscious of their cultural traditions than a number of newer writers. And I’m one of those (you may think I’m conservative, but I’m not), any writer who writes without that background of efficiency in the knowledge of the culture of Nigeria would hardly ever write well or write something that would endure permanently; that is my submission. I think that no matter how good you are in English, you need that cultural background or foundation to be able to write well. I’m not saying that you should talk about your grandfather; there is a way your whole view, your life view can inform either vicariously or even overtly or covertly on what you write; it’s very necessary.
Now, some have taken up issues with some Nigerian writers abroad in the way they write to satisfy foreign audiences. I think that as Nigerian writers, our primary market is here; then what we write should have universal appeal. That is the ideal thing, but we should not go hankering after universalism. As Achebe said, once you are truly local, you are already universal; to be truly local is to be universal. The literature must be grounded somewhere before it can appeal to people outside your culture. Take any writer from any cultures; take Pamuk from Turkey or Hilary Mantel, a Booker Prize winner in the U.K., who wrote about a historical moment in her culture; she appeals to us all even though we are not British. Or take The Elegance of a Hedgehog written by a French woman. One thing that is striking about these writers, whether from France, Turkey or Russian or Spanish culture or tradition is that there is a way their literature is very rooted in their culture and still appeals to all of us.
Have you read a novel like The Brothers Karamazov or Crime and Punishment? Don't you see the rootedness of those books in their cultures yet you find them fascinating? That is what great literature is. What about Shakespeare? He is rooted in his culture yet he has universal application. When we tend to write as if we are on a platform and we do not take into cognisance our culture to situate our work within a culture in Nigeria, I feel that that writer is heading for suicide, what I may describe as ‘literary suicide’. There are writers like Adichie who have that rootedness in their writing; that is why I really find her work very fascinating. I think there is a way she writes and is able to carry her Igbo tradition along; there is a way she imbues it in her writing. Maybe that is why all these writers in the diaspora are always coming back to take their theme; they still write about Nigeria; you do better at what you know than what you don’t know.
I can’t write a great Russian or Spanish or Turkish novel, but I can write a good Nigerian novel which people outside can find satisfying. I must not be more concerned about satisfying an audience abroad than satisfying an audience here because I always regard Nigeria as my primary audience. If people abroad read my work and they like it, fine; or if I find a publisher over there, fine. But I’m not going to specifically write what people abroad want because I want to sell my books; I do not think that any writer should do that. You should be truly local and then you can also be universal!alirryh=