Since 1965 when his first novel Toads for Super came out till date, the books of His Majesty Prof. Chukwuemeka Ike, Eze Ikelionwu XI of Ndike Kingdom of Anambra State, have wrought transformations. This is even more so since some of his novels are recommended as schools’ examination texts, especially The Bottled and The Potters Wheel. In 50 years Ike has bestrode Nigeria’s literary landscape with telling impact.
It was, therefore, no surprise when last week foremost publishers, University Press, Ibadan, rolled out the drums to celebrate him at the company’s yearly Authors’ Forum held at Kakanfo Inn, Ibadan. The gathering had many literary scholars and enthusiasts in attendance, including Prof. Kanchana Ugbabe, an Ike scholar, who also gave the keynote address titled ‘Celebrating Chukwuemeka Ike: A Literary Icon of Our Time’.
In welcoming guests, Chairman of University Press Dr. Lalekan Are described Ike as “an acclaimed creative writer, whose first novel Toads for Super was published in London in 1965. To date, he has written several short stories, eleven novels, one novel in Igbo (published by University Press), one fictional travelogue, two non-fiction books, four monographs and edited eight non-fiction books.
“Eze Ike uses his stories and creative works to mirror, command, reproach and persuade society, with the intention of having a better society. His stories centre on the transformation of the individual, the transformation of Nigeria, as well as the transformation of society at large. This is a valuable achievement worthy of emulation. We are indeed proud to have him as one of our valuable and esteemed authors… Eze Prof. Ike became the paramount ruler of his community in 2008. Also, in recognition of his contributions to the literary world and society in general, he was given the Nigerian National Order of Merit (NNOM) award in 2013”.
In giving proper perspective to Ike’s quantum of literary works, Prof. Ugbabe analysed his works in three categories: Reading Ike for pleasure, Reading Ike as a Scholar and Reading Ike as a Teacher/Teaching Ike. These three categories enable her to situate the accomplished author in the different but interwoven social contexts of his works. Ugbabe examined the entire gamut of Ike’s preoccupations, particularly his seeming fixation on children and young adults and how he is able to explore their psychological makeup, as they make sense of a world dominated by imperfect adults.
Satire and humour abound in Ike’s novels, and he uses it to prod at the foibles of society. Tribalism, according to Ugbabe, is one worrisome subject Ike took on early as Nigeria was grappling with the business of forging a new nation, captured in Toads for Super. Toads are not desirable meat, as crossing tribal lines was in time past, with resistance often came between young people of different tribal origins.
As Ugbabe put it, “It is evident from Ike’s first novel that these prejudices operated at the institutional and personal levels as well. The mirror that Ike held up to nature reflected the good and the desirable, as well as the ugly and evil aspects of human nature. Toads for Super took on the ‘cankerworm of tribalism’ head-on, the culture of conflict resulting from this is seen in the lives of Amadi and Aduke, the central characters. Simultaneously, the novel brings to the fore the conflicts experienced by young people between tradition and modernity”.
In expousing the novelist as a visionary, teacher and prophet maxim, Ugbabe held up two of Ike’s texts Expo ’77 and Our Children Are Coming, as seeing far into Nigeria’s grim future that will be messed up by its aberrant adult. On Our Children Are Coming, Ugbabe stated, “…Ike lashes out in vehement anger and satire in this text. Nigerian society of the 1990’s had changed for the worse. The injustices meted out to young people by adult society forms the focus of this novel. The young are victims of a corrupt adult society which throws up its hands in despair…”
Also on Expo ’77, she argued, “Ike’s Expo ’77 sounds the alarm bells concerning exam malpractice as far back as 1980. It is a sad comment on the decline in societal values and our educational system that our youth have perfected the techniques of exam malpractice to an extent that the author could not have imagined when he wrote the book”.
The University of Jos lecturer of many years also highlighted Ike’s tremendous work in the area of propagating reading culture through The Nigerian Book Foundation he set up years ago to address apparent lapses in the book chain, and the impact of the social concerns in his works that continue to haunt the conscience of his country Nigeria when it fails to heed the ominous signs he pointed out a long time ago before the country arrived at the crossroads in the 21st century. Through Ike’s foundation books were taken to many rural areas, with Mobile Reading Workshops undertaken to spread the gospel of books to young, indigent folks. Ugbabe happened to be part of it at the time.
In fact, Ugbabe summed up what is at the heart of Ike’s lifelong work by asking two rhetorical questions: “How do we make books accessible to the reading public in Nigeria? As publishers, academics, book lovers, how do we ensure that the wonderful books written by writers like Ike are widely read and appreciated?... In 36 years at University of Jos, I have sadly seen the quality of education deteriorate, a lot of it directly related to the decline in the reading culture…
“The year 2000 and beyond has seen reading reduced to cell phones. Students access internet on their phones with ease… Their written language is the language of text messages, pithy, cryptic, and badly spelt, using acronyms in place of entire words”.
These are concerns of Ike; they should be the concerns of book lovers, of government, the entire society. And Ugbabe aptly summed this up, putting Ike in the centre of things in ode fashion, “We celebrate the power of the Pen; we celebrate the prophetic attributes of the writer who ‘sees’ it before it comes to pass and who ‘speaks’ it without fear or hesitation. We celebrate the writers’ craft, its ability to transform individuals and society through the printed word. We celebrate the ‘Gentle Giant’, his humility, commitment and humanity!”