By Anote Ajeluorou
Last week, Uyo, the capital of Akwa Ibom State played host to writers under the auspices of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA). It was the yearly convention, the 31st edition. It had as theme Nigerian Literature, Social Media and Security with Canada-based Nigerian scholar, Prof. Pius Adesanmi as keynote presenter.
The yearly gathering of Nigerian authors has come to symbolise the indomitable spirit of the country’s literati in its march forward in spite of the many odds confronting writers and writing in a country that has gradually become anti-intellectual, where books are no longer the staple diet of a vast majority.
Yet these writers gather yearly to reflect on the question of nationhood and how to make the country work better for its citizens.
Chairman of the opening ceremony and notable poet, Odia Ofeimun captured this indomitable spirit of the Nigerian writer when he averred that the oneness usually expressed by writers in the country in their yearly gathering was a source of hope that all was not lost.
Ofeimun noted that writers’ commitment to their cause and to each other was something the Nigerian polity would need to emulate to move forward, saying that no mater the challenges facing writers, something good still managed to come out of them for the benefit of all Nigerians.
He reasoned, “We are opinion leaders, future leaders who have made Nigeria look like a country; without writers, Nigeria will not be a country.”
However, in his postulations, Adesanmi submitted that literature may not necessarily provide security in the physical sense of the word but noted that literature does secure memory, a vital aspect of nationhood that must be kept intact for future generations. His submission becomes more relevant especially in a society like Nigeria where history as subject has been removed from school syllabuses. Indeed, even history is sometimes seen as a poor repository of memory, which only literature aptly chronicles amidst the dins of the present and memory retrieval from the fog of the past.
In fact, Adesanmi noted that literature may not even secure the individual writer from state persecution like it happened to such eminent writers as Wole Soyinka, who was imprisoned in 1968 for calling for cessation of hostility between Nigeria and Biafra, or Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was murdered on November 10, 1995 for championing the rights of Ogoni people.
Indeed, Adesanmi rephrased his subject to read, “What Does (Nigeria) Secure?” in order for him to properly situate the problem. For Adesanmi, therefore, “Every society tells and records the story of their march in history, of triumphs and travails, of failures and successes, of reversals and progress, of ups and downs, of heroism and betrayal, of war and peace, of love and hate.
“Fictional truth secures these memories and acquires an authority superior to other modes of recording. This trans-temporal authority of fictional truth is the only reason why we view Ancient Greece today largely through her arts, mostly her literature and architecture. Think of the trials and tribulations of that society during the years of the Peloponnesian War. Think of The History of the Peloponnesian War, a magisterial account of that war written by the great historian, Thucydides, and ask yourselves why our civilization, looking back at Ancient Greece today, prefers memories of that war and era secured by the fictional truths of the Greek tragedians, especially Sophocles and Euripides. Why does our current civilization prefer to gaze at Ancient Rome through the fictional truths of a Virgil than the documentary accounts of an historian like Tacitus?
“I am saying that a thousand, two thousand years from now, a future civilization will look beyond the archives constituted by disciplinary history and privilege the truths secured by Nigerian fiction today as a window into how we negotiated our march towards the mountaintop, the roads taken and the road not taken (apologies to Robert Frost), how we lived, laughed, loved, and hated. How we kidnapped. How we bombed. How we killed. How we pogromed. If, as it is tempting to predict, given our talent for self-inflicted national injuries, we somehow never make it to the mountaintop, we need not worry. Our literature will secure that failure against forgetting.
“Why do people privilege the security offered against forgetting by literature and the arts? Does it have something to do with the aphorism that when the chips fall wherever they may, literature and the arts are the only evidence, the only trace that a civilization truly leaves behind? Civilizations whose skeletal remains defy even radio carbon dating have left us the marvel of rock paintings. When the artist, Victor Ekpuk, looks for what remains of his forbears, the only window he has left to reconnect with them is the scribal art that has defied time, Nsibidi (art).
“Does the privileging of the security offered by literature and the arts have something to do with man’s fundamental instinct of self-preservation? Does a civilization disappear, confident that evidence of its passage through time has been secured by the scribal talents of her writers and artists?”
ON the role of literature as memory bank for the future, Adesanmi further argued, “Writers are the world’s window into a culture. In essence, those looking back at today’s Nigeria a thousand years from now will detect evidence of our literature’s attempts to offer the security of a predicted future. They will read Wole Soyinka’s A Dance of the Forests, Chinua Achebe’s A Man of the People, and the Menippean satires of T.M. Aluko, especially Chief The Honourable Minister, and glean evidence of the errors of the rendering.
“They will gain insights into how fictional truth imperils the artist ironically through its own vatic function. Let’s not forget the reaction to A Dance of the Forest by a political establishment, which, like the dog, failed to hear the hunter’s whistle and perished in the forest of postcolonial anomie.
“If it is clear from the foregoing that Nigerian literature offers the security of memory and the armour with which to shatter the carapace of forgetting, it is equally pertinent to add that the vatic essence of fictional truth is an attribute which makes it a very dangerous truth indeed. This truth places a double-edged sword in the hands of the writer. Tell the truth and be damned; don’t tell the truth and be damned.
“In the attempt to secure memory and social history with this double-edged sword, the writer often discovers that the security, which his work guarantees for the social body, is hardly ever coterminous with the security of the writer. There is often a terrible opportunity cost: secure memory and forego your own security. This is true because society hardly accords the writer the privilege of value-free, personal remembering.
“If you examine the social memory inscribed in the poetics of my generation from the perspective of what it sought to secure it from – or against as the case may be – you will discover that the idea of which nation’s memory is being secured becomes quite fuzzy, quite uncertain, shorn of a unifying centre, such as ritual or mythopoeia, which had tied the works of earlier generations to project nationhood. No matter how expansive and how ambitiously itinerant the imagination is, it is always possible to detect a silhouette of either the national or the ethno-national centre in the poetics of Achebe, Soyinka, and Clark; in the restless social realism of Osundare, Osofisan, Obafemi, Okediran (what a succession of Os!) and Iyayi, whose novel, Violence, typifies this trend. To the question – was there a country? – the work and praxis of the generations before mine had an answer: yes, Nigeria”.
Nigerian literature and social media (Best novel on 419 by a Canadian)
ON literature and social media, Adesanmi’s said, “being a very active member of literary cyberia (my neologistic contraction of Cyber and Nigeria), I could understand and relate to the social media part of the theme”, saying, “the rise of Cyberia poses the question of border security in a very real, literal sense. The phase of Nigerian writing which houses writers I don’t even ever have to meet face to face to feel like I’ve known them my whole life, largely because they have social media personas, is an interesting phase indeed. It is an age where literature has been nervous about losing the book form, as we know…, and now to the efflorescence of forms of literature associated with blogs, Facebook, and Twitter”.
He listed young Nigerian writers, who have seized on the magic of social media platform to ply their literary trade to include “Richard Ali, Tolu Ogunlesi, A. Igoni Barrett, Ifedigbo Nze Sylva, Jumoke Verissimo, Chinyere Obi-Obasi, Egbosa Imasuen, Uche Peter Umez, Ukamaka Olisakwe, Paul T. Liam, Su’eddie Vershima Agema,Onyekachi Peter Onuoha, Rosemary Ede, Saddiq M. Dzukogi, and so many brilliant writer-citizens of Cyberia face border security problems beyond the simple threat to the book”.
Adesanmi expressed the democratic license Cyberia offers its users such as writers, noting that with the advent of social media, defining a writer within a particular geographical locale becomes an increasingly difficult task. He noted thus, “There is a democracy that comes with social media and it has radically transformed the idea of the writer. Everybody with a blackberry and a blog is now a potential writer. We may wax puritanical here, declaring that we know who a writer is; the problem is with cultural shifts in the West that seem to validate the idea of a nomenclatural borderlessness when it comes to who is a writer in the age of social media.
“It is in this expanded context, where literature is increasingly determined by very loose understandings and definitions, that our emergent crop of writers must try to secure not just the social memory of their own generation. This new cultural context challenges their very ability to own stories devolving from our national experiences, good and bad, in the global marketplace of creativity.
“What does it mean, for instance, that one of the most powerful accounts of South Africa’s attempt to exorcise the ghosts of Apartheid through the truth and reconciliation framework has been written by an American? I am sure you have heard of the blockbuster novel, Absolution, by Patrick Flanery? What does it mean that the novel that will probably settle the argument over the national origin of 419 is not Tricia Adaobi Nwaubani’s I do Not Come to You by Chance but a novel recently published by a Canadian writer, Will Ferguson’s 419, which has just been awarded Canada’s biggest literary Prize, the Giller Prize worth $50,000? The ownership of stories South African and Nigerian by an American and a Canadian writer has been facilitated largely by social media. We live in days and times when a Tibetan Monk can write an authentic Nigerian story, in an authentic Nigerian voice, after spending a year on Twitter and Facebook”.
WHILE summing up, Ofeimun restated the function of memory in the make-up of nationhood, noting that memory was like a limb, which, if lost, would imperil forward movement. He said, “If you loose your memory, you loose your country. If we want to remake your country, we must start by remaking our literature.”
Writers remember Saro-Wiwa, as Mimiko bids to host in 2013
A moment of silence was observed in honour of slain former president of ANA, Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was killed on November 10, 1995 in Port Harcourt by Gen. Sanni Abacha’s brutal regime for agitating for the rights of Ogoni people, whose land was and is still being polluted by the activities of oil companies.
Also, governor Olusegun Mimiko of Ondo State, who recently won a re-election, through the state chapter of ANA, bided for the hosting of ANA 2013 convention. Ondo State last hosted in 2010 and ordinarily should not be eager to host again considering the financial costs involved. But as patron and in order for governor Mimiko to launch the near-completed new arts centre, he intends to host Nigerian writers again to showcase both the new arts centre and to share his new vision for cultural production.
While some congress members cheered the bid, others were skeptical and wondered what the motive was. Kaduna State also bided to host the yearly gathering next year. But with new ANA rules, hosting rights would have to be vetted through visits from the national executive to be sure of preparedness of such states; thereafter, congress would vote online before the final right is awarded.