By Gregory Austin Nwakunor and Anote Ajeluorou
The world of books and those who create them is always a fascinating one, especially with the way ideas about society are thrown up. This year’s Port Harcourt Book Festival organized by the Mrs. Koko Kalango-led rainbow Book Club was no exception. There were writers from far and within and they came with their bagful of inspiring ideas on how the book could advanced and how society can better be improved.
Right from its opening on Tuesday, October 22, when former Minister of Education, Mrs. Oby Ezekwesili spoke on Literature and the Creative Economy and admonished writers to engage more with other segments of the arts for an enriched banquet, there was no holding back on the floodgate of ideas. Rivers State governor, Rotimi Chibuike Amaechi, also a student of Literature, came hard on writers for failing to do more in their writing to expose current political ills in the country, as a way of galvanizing a critical mass in the polity to push for needed change.
As always, Amaechi said he always keeps faith with A man of the People, Chinua Achebe’s all time expose on Nigeria’s political malaise that is still fresh from its first publication in 1966. Amaechi argued that since that book, no other writer or book has taken on Nigerian politics as frontally as Achebe.
Ezekwesili echoed this view when she posited, “Writers can leverage their goodwill with the broader society to amplify the voice of citizens. A collective led by writers who are well connected to those issues which assail the broader society can actually help build the culture of public debate and citizens' demand for good governance. The absence of these democratic processes or institutions is the leading cause of failure of governance. The fact that evidence-based citizens' engagement with democratic institutions exerts the kind of intellectual rigour that only they can fill makes it necessary for the literary community to collaborate. It will make them natural leaders of the intellectual process of mobilising the kinds of citizens that relentlessly demand for accountability and results from those that govern at all levels.
“A backward or forward integration of writers' solid content with the mass reach of musicians or actors/actresses can in turn produce formidable policy entrepreneurs. Such advocates for sound policies can facilitate the quick ascent of the creative economy to the top of public agenda. Partnership can only lead to a race to the top for all sides or a rising of standards and quality. The writers’ community should be at the centre of the British Council supported project that is mapping of the creative economy to generate evidence-based data for advocating informed policy interventions by government. That would be more productive a venture for the creative industries than any attempt at losing their creative freedom, which has been their critical success factor.
“By resisting the temptation to invite government to provide generalised subsidies that could stifle their growth the literary community will bring their legendary independence of thought and action to the benefit of their larger community of citizens who have earned a living completely devoid of reliance on the public treasury. Their message of the monetary and non-monetary values of diligent effort/ hard work is perhaps one of the best value repositioning that any group could give to our leaders and citizens alike.
“There is a dignified life outside of oil rent. Indeed, there is a rewarding life of individual drive to create and excel that resides within millions of our citizens that will accelerate our rise to the largest economy if we committed ourselves to making it happen”.
IN responding to Ezekwesili’s keynote, Dr. Obari Gomba, Chika Unigwe, copyright lawyer and publisher, Ayodele Ayeni and Kenyan writer, Binyavanga Wainaina praised her for the forthright presentation of Nigeria’s woeful economic status and how the creative industry, with literature as leader could positively the game-changer from an oil-dependent economy.
Gomba, a literature lecturer at Department of English Studies, University of Port Harcourt, posited that the creative sector of the economy has a direct bearing in wealth-creation. He argued further that as writers, “It’s sheer masochism for them to remain poor. We don’t need to work hard but to work smart because I like the good things of life; I would not allow the system to drag me down. I should be able to drink good wine as a writer”.
For Wainaina, the dynamism in the new music revolution in vogue across Africa should rob off on literary creativity. He urged the political class to promote policies that art-friendly. Wainaina expressed happiness at the new platforms of social media capable of delivering content faster to audiences for which he pronounced the death of the book, saying, “The book is dead as it is today. So, why not put content on screens for our pupils. This is the African hurricane, which is Africa fully transformed or slide. We are no longer in a place of choice. We need not fear change”.
2012 winner of The Nigeria Prize for Literature and Belgium-based author of On Black Sisters Street, Unigwe, said although there were fewer platforms for literary creativity like Kenya-based Kwani?, a journal for creativity that gives diverse writers, writing was on the ascendance on the continent, especially Nigeria. She carpeted against government’s support of art, and said but for Belgium government’s grant she got, she would not have had the space and time to write.
She noted, “Government’s investment in creativity is not a bad thing. Digital technology has helped contact across the world. There are readings and book clubs. What I see is a huge collaboration of writers. There are publishers now as against when I left 18 years ago. I’m thinking of a Writing Centre because I’ve been a huge beneficiary of writing centres of other governments. I’m looking at setting up a Writing Resort, Application Developers; but we need to get government support”.
Ayeni contended that there was a “fundamental place for literature in creative economy because a developed nation consists of a developed people” and added that there was too much “miles between literature and the other sectors of the creative industry”. He, however, noted that literature was the “mother of creative industry because all others feed on it”.
The copyright lawyer further charged writers to see themselves as entrepreneurs, and advised that embracing an economic model would assure them of the good life. Ayeni assured it was only as entrepreneurs that writers could be said to be creating value since commerce was key in intellectual property, saying “It’s like real estate, and you need to protect it by knowing how valuable it is. Government should be interested and must help in fighting piracy. We need some force, which writers don’t have. We need collective management organisations (CMOs)”.
In summing up the session, chairman of Port Harcourt Literary Society, Dr. Chidi Amuta, urged support for the proposed Creative Village soon to be built, as part of facilities for the UNESCO World Book Capital 2014 which Port Harcourt won early in the year. He said it would “provide a non-governmental platform to harness the creative economy; we urge those with enough cash to support it. I’m delighted there are younger chaps coming up to take over the baton of creativity. There’s a lot of hope in the creative economy in the younger generation”.
The session was moderated by art and culture writer, Omolara Wood.
ON the sub-theme ‘Literature and the Performing Arts’, comedian, Julius Agwu, radio presenter and poet, Uzo Nwamara and spoken word artist and writer, Sammy Sage Hassan made useful presentations. It was moderated by 2013 winner of The Nigerian Prize for Literature, Tade Ipadeola.
Hassan pointed out, “I’ve never seen poetry separate from prose or film. For me literature is one, a body of cultural and philosophical expression of ideas. The divide is merely academic. Art for me is more than words, an expression of emotions using words. Artists communicate culture, philosophy”. Although he writes jokes, Hassan said he lacked the timing and punch to deliver jokes and quit being a comedian as a result.
He, however, faulted those who ascribe certain roles to writers as sort of society’s savior. He said it was not necessary for him to write to save society, but that it was a universal given for all human beings in society to do something for public good.
Agwu said there was nothing like doing something with passion, “doing something that satisfies you. I discovered early enough that entertainment was for me. The turning point was when I decided to study Theatre Arts to get a grasp of the theoretical part”.
Nwamara opined radio affect listeners in different ways. He lamented poverty being suffered by writers as a result of lack of patronage of their works. He urged artists to “do a rethink to come out of comatose. We don’t take what we should take seriously. The writer is dying because we celebrate failure and mediocrity. We’re being devalued. There should be endowment for writers. A serious writer cannot be a businessman”.
Nwamara drew an interesting parallel from Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, when he stated that Okonkwo’s father, Unoka, a musician, died of swollen disease, a result of poverty or hunger. Unoka was a flutist and Umuofia, like modern day Nigeria, didn’t not give him due recognition and died a shameful death. He averred, “You cannot live in an environment where you are starved. Writers need nourishment. Failure of understanding who Unoka was is a metaphor of the artist in Nigeria. On the last day, he took his flute away with him at his burial.
“Obi, Unoka’s grandson in No Longer at Ease, didn’t want to be like him and so stole money to overcome poverty”.
On the performance value of his art, Agwu said, “My performance is didactic; while making you laugh, I make sure you think and say, ‘Na true o!’ He also stated that one of his comedy products, Festival of Love, which he celebrates at Valentine’s Day, is in response to the bloodletting in parts of the country and as a way of stemming such.
While noting that there was a need to reward those who make people laugh, he also argued that Nollywood is the most kleptocratic industry in Africa, as it virtually copied with acknowledging or paying for materials it uses.
ALSO, a session was devoted to ‘Digital Technology and Literary Sector’, where opportunities in digital technology, with its many social media platforms, can be harnessed by writers and publishers alike to leverage on writing and its delivery for end users, readers. Moderated by Atodele Ayeni, it had Farafina Chief Operating Officer (COO), Dr. Eghosa Imasuen and filmmaker, Chris Ehindero as panelists. Ehindero stressed that while the platforms were exciting, what was usually lacking was the solid content to put on them. He submitted that what would help reading culture was not social media but the use to which it is put but delivering valuable content.
Sophie, who made her presentation from London via Skype, presented the many opportunities and recent trends in digital publishing and how best to leverage on them. She asserted that publishing was a massive gamble, which must be approached with care.
SESSIONS were devoted to some of the writers that held workshops at the festival. Such writers as Wainaina (One Day I Will Write About This Place), Unigwe (On Black Sisters Street), Agwu (Jokes Apart) and Horsfall (From an Orphan to a Queen Esther).