A writers’ body and the burdens of current Nigerian writing – Part 1

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I attempt to do three main things in this presentation. The first is to highlight what I refer to as the Nigerian tradition of writing, which I locate in the postulations of the hegemonic faction of the first generation of Nigerian writers. In this regard, I highlight Chinua Achebe’s and Wole Soyinka’s conception of the writer’s responsibility to his/her society and very briefly remark on how Christopher Okigbo’s Path of Thunder is the demonstrable signal foundational Nigerian text of poetic dissidence. I draw on my previous reflections on this matter as several of the relevant writings are not yet in the public domain. Next, I note some trends in current Nigerian writing. Finally, I meditate on Achebe’s reflection on the corporeality of the writer, that is, the writer’s body, as well as a body of writers, in his ANA inauguration speech and attempt to show how that links with the two other concerns of my presentation.

As the aesthetic structuring of words to create and underscore meaning and value and to stimulate pleasure, literature in most societies has a depth of significance set in relief both by the ascription of the powers of the artist to divine inspiration and the traditional emblematic equation of the work of literary art with oracular discourse. The privileging of one of these functions of literature over the other, is of course determined partly by the genre or type or simply by the writer’s own temperament or ideological disposition. But it is equally determined too by cultural expectations or even more crucially by national traditions. I speak in awareness of the theoretical objections of the “post-nationalist” school of scholars and critics to the deployment of nation-states and national traditions as a basic framework for literary and cultural studies, that is, in recognition that all nations and national traditions in the modern world are embedded in currents and circuits of cultural production, reception and exchange so intricately interwoven to interrogate any uncomplicated notion of time and (political) space.

Vilashini Cooppan contends that nations are “spaces of flows and movement,” and traces “a politics of relationality within which the national and the global are tandem ideas, twinned identifications, and doubled dreams”. Drawing productively on Cooppan in his examination of Nigerian literature, Hamish Dalley argues that the reliance on spatio-temporal constructs to categorise authors into generations fails to account for the complexity of the texts it classifies. He notes how the spatio-temporal imaginary of the postcolonial novel is typically multiple, accumulative and ambivalent and shows how “recent Nigerian novels are shaped around ambivalent spatio-temporal imaginaries that exceed the national-generational framework”. This insight is potentially of extended implication. Literature, unlike other texts, is protean; even when of particular relevance to its time and place, it is not fixed to its age, but adapts to other times and places.

The Nigerian accentuation of this signal insight can easily be discerned even in a fleeting attention to the crucial contributions of Nigeria’s preeminent pioneer writers—Achebe, Soyinka, and Okigbo—to the enunciation of the canons of the Nigerian writer’s vocation early at its formative stage. This clearly justifies the deployment of nations and national traditions as powerful and engaging contexts and frameworks for literary and cultural studies and equally highlights the necessary imaginative reworking of the topical that renders it new. In this conception, the poet’s social responsibility as that of a visionary, has the implication that he/she is not only committed to imaging contemporary issues in his/her poetry, but that he/she does so as a “prophet,” that is, envisions present events and their future consequences in images that appear to have been invoked from dreams.

Speaking at the Afro-Scandinavian Writers’ Conference, Stockholm, Sweden, in 1967, Soyinka had sternly denounced the divorce between the artistic preoccupations of many African writers and the realities of their societies. Identifying the preeminent role of the African writer “as the voice of vision” and the conscience of the society, Soyinka cautioned: “When the writer in his own society can no longer function as conscience, he must recognize that his choice lies between denying himself totally or withdrawing to the position of chronicler and post-mortem surgeon”.

Similarly, in a talk titled The African Writer and the Biafran Cause delivered at Makerere University College in Kampala, Uganda in 1968 with the Nigeria-Biafra war raging, Achebe pronounced the absolute proverbial irrelevance of so-called African literature divorced from crucial political issues: “It is clear to me that an African creative writer who tries to avoid the big social and political issues of contemporary Africa will end up being completely irrelevant – like that absurd man in the proverb who leaves his burning house to pursue a rat fleeing from the flames.” Appraising very highly the impact of Soyinka and Achebe’s positions in the two papers referred to above, Sule Egya observes that they have provided an ideological connection among different generations of Nigerian writers .

On the other hand, Okigbo’s contribution to the debate can only be discerned in his work as his reflections on the writer’s role in society in interviews often entailed outright renunciation. In a 1965 interview granted to Robert Serumaga, Okigbo virtually denied being concerned with communicating meanings: “Personally, I don’t think that I have ever set out to communicate a meaning. It is enough that I try to communicate experience which I consider significant”. Yet Okigbo’s response to the topical political issues of his time completely transformed the form of Nigerian poetry, and his innovations continue to resonate in the practice of many current Nigerian poets. Ben Obumselu argues that the basic inspiration for that transformation was the deepening political crises of the 1960s and remarks on how the turbulent events of that period “changed not only Wole Soyinka and Okigbo, but Chinua Achebe, Gabriel Okara, Kenule Tsaro-Wiwa, Okogbule Wonodi, and Elechi Amadi from mandarins into militants”. Okigbo’s self-image in his final sequence “Path of Thunder” as town-crier, speaking truth to power in a public idiom, and thus a potential martyr, is a recurring image of the committed poet in contemporary Nigerian poetry:
If I don’t learn to shut up my mouth I’ll soon go to hell, I, Okigbo, town-crier, together with my iron bell.

Dan Izevbaye remarks on “the dismantling of the barrier of anonymity that separates author and hero” in Okigbo’s earlier sequences in “Path of Thunder”, and discerns in that final sequence of the poet a demonstration of “the practice of art and commitment that the sixties held out as its ideal”. Where the attention paid to the topical is invariably in tandem with social commitment, topicality is the subject of the media. On the other hand, literature works with imaginative material or medium, constantly breaking down the boredom of worn or overused materials and clichés. Originality is its mantra.1

Expectedly, writers’ individual talents and their ideological persuasions regulate their response to any prevailing literary tradition and could possibly interrogate or reinvent it. Typically, then, the compact between the literary imagination and the historical process, just like the medium of its expression, remains focal in many Nigerian writers’ “manifesto works.” When Osundare declared in Songs of the Marketplace that “Poetry is / not the esoteric whisper / of an excluding tongue” aimed at mystifying a “wondering audience” (3), he was evidently embarked on a poetic revolution that would redefine both the scope and language of poetry, placing the folk and the underprivileged at the heart of the poet’s compassion while equally drawing on the resources of their oral arts and privileging an accessible idiom of expression. Yet, like Soyinka and Okigbo, he apprehended the topical in visionary terms and remained committed to the craft of poetry.

Moreover, given the demonstrable correspondence between Osundare’s aesthetics with William Wordsworth’s “revolutionary” poetry in Lyrical Ballads which aimed to use “the real language of men” and to focus on the “humble and rustic life”, it is indeed remarkable how the apparent renunciation of a convention could well mean the revivification of another. But then the Osundare example is well known and has received considerable critical attention. Thus, I am inclined to pay some brief attention to two younger poets whose interrogation of tradition I consider utterly fascinating, the first Esiaba Irobi and the other Abubukar Othman.

Handgrenade is a representative poem of Irobi’s art at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, when he flaunted his iconoclasm; it incarnates the basic aims and form of the poetry that Irobi aspired to, at least in that period of his career. It is a monologue addressed to the speaker’s second-year teacher of poetry. It reappraises and interrogates all that the speaker (in the course of the poem identified as Irobi himself) has learnt about poetry, beginning from the Greeks, in the context of the urgent challenges of his chosen activism. Rejecting the “rusty theories” and “mossy touchstones” associated with elitist poetry, the poet chooses as kindred artists the blacksmith, the carpenter, and the carver, in a symbolic demolition of delusions of poetic grandeur that apparently separated the poet from the grey realities of the common life and so inhibited the social relevance of his productions.

Locating the poet then in the fraternity of artisans, Irobi appraises poetry as an art form that serves society a crucial utilitarian purpose as a means of combating injustice and tyranny. His deployment of military motifs reveals his absorption with the military further foregrounded in his self-image in this poem as “a soldier of diction”. His toils aim to transform his similes into “shrapnel,” his images into “bayonets” and his symbols into “handgrenades.” Irobi’s ideal poet apparently envies the blood lust which Irobi contends typifies the military, given that that poet’s deepest longing is to “slash the heads of heady Heads of State” and that he adores the glint of “bayonets planted between the ribs of tyrants” (21).

The poet-speaker, called by Irobi’s first name “Esiaba,” acknowledges the manifold approaches to the door of poetry but privileges the militant: “I was on the other side. And / Poetry is this child crying in my hands / Crying only as a child would cry, shovelling / Everything into its starving mouth, including / Bread, ballots, bullets, bayonets and blood” (Inflorescence 21). The poet’s “other side” is the obverse side of power and privilege as the famished child epitomises the location of social periphery, Lear’s poor naked wretches, whom the poet chooses above the socially powerful.

However, even in his exaltation of the utilitarian value of poetry, especially the annexation of art as a weapon of the revolution advocated, Irobi remains an artist. Through his principle models—the rigorous blacksmith, the painstaking carpenter, the crafty carver—he revalidates the traditional concept of the making of art as a meticulous labour of love. He is only seeking to modify a tradition.

For Abubukar Othman, on the other hand, it is not the poet’s craft even under the tempest of pain that counts; it is instead the use of words as weapons and the inscription of pain that define poetry: When words drop from your pen/ Like arrows from the quiver/ Does it matter how they fall on paper/ It is the pain they paint/ That creates the emotion for poetry.

But surely one can counter by citing the opinion of another writer with much greater experience and, moreover, with a personal history of state persecution: “A book cannot begin to fight against a sword on a battlefield. If the book does indeed in the end win, it is precisely because (the writer) refuses to take up the same weapons as his opponent [. . .] Even anger can be distilled to something lasting”.

Moreover, going by Othman’s metaphor, the archer who does not merely let his arrows drop but (as the careful poet devotedly sifts through the dross of language for pearls) is painstaking in taking an aim is likelier to hit his target. Posturing quite apart, the paradox of the activist-artist’s situation is that to the extent that he desires to intervene in history through poetry rather than suicide bombing, for instance, he is dependent on words, and that is both a boon and a limitation; a boon given the discursive powers of words, their capacity to create and recreate the world, to outpace and outlast the bullet; but a limitation, nonetheless, as words often typically fail even to convey the mysterious untranslatable reality of experience or phenomenon let alone become action itself. A presiding sub-theme in some of the world’s greatest literature significantly is the anguish of the poet in search of the word.

In any case, the core of Nigerian literature, the various artistic modes of expression quite apart, is the lived experience of the people and thus the indispensable social commitment of the writers is the filter through which their peculiar image of the human situation is represented. The kind of literature developed around each important historical moment is determined by what I could refer to as the heroic resonance of such a moment.

The civil war undoubtedly has been the epicentre of Nigerian history. It raises fundamental questions about human freedom that are of political, philosophical, and even aesthetic consequence and has resonances with epic, tragic and mythic dimensions. Continuing debates and recent writing on the civil war evidently demonstrate its enduring grip on the national imagination and consciousness.

For younger writers, it remains topical and significant fictional accounts of the war continue to be published. Among the most recent include: Lilian Uchenna Amah’s Dreams of Yesterday, Abigail Anaba’s Sector 1V, and Sam Omatseye’s My Name is Okoro. Indeed in a recent propagandist appropriation of the conflict, it is transformed into an arena for staging transgressive lesbian relationships. Literature certainly remains a vehicle through which the West strives to impose its values on African traditions and identity, that is, a theatre of neo-colonial extensions. Debunking the Bible, the Koran, and African traditions as so much cant in the bid to espouse a permissive notion of sexual freedom is to extend the moral battlefields of the West to Nigeria/Africa.

This temptation, with an obvious political dimension, is a major burden that contemporary Nigerian/African authors will increasingly face. By its nature a literary text is a seed that other writers could fertilize so that it blossoms and becomes a source of literary imitation and influences and could thus grow into a movement or even a tradition. The artist thus necessarily assumes a moral responsibility towards the traditions and socio-cultural goals of his/her people, while remaining committed to positive change. Artistry impressed in the service of a controversial moral standpoint is prostitution of art.

Military despotism for similar reasons caught the imagination of the Nigerian writer. Indeed, the militarisation of the psyche of the Nigerian public and even of the Nigerian artist may well be one of the greatest exploits of the Nigerian army. Niyi Osundare, Odia Ofeimun, Tanure Ojaide, and Femi Osofisan, regarded as some of the most distinguished voices of the “second generation” of Nigerian poets, are all renowned for the talent with which they have consistently spoken truth to power even when it also required great courage. It may seem intriguing then that the end of military rule brought new challenges to the Nigerian writer. J.M.Coetzee’s signal insight is that caught up in the dynamic of blaming, the bond between the tyrannous state and the writer committed to truth is virtually one of indissoluble fatal fascination.

The final paradox of this paranoid dynamic is that the writer unable to do without the state in the eventuality of its demise is both exultant and despondent, slayer and bereaved. Helon Habila’s acknowledgement of the use of the dictatorship to literature is a reaffirmation of Coetzee’s position: “[I]n a way, the dictatorship was good for literature because it supplied some of us our subject matter, and also while it lasted, gave us an education in politics that we couldn’t have acquired at school or anywhere else. We saw pro-democracy activists being killed or arrested or exiled—unfortunate for the victims but great stuff for writing”.

The common fare of current Nigerian writing is typically the representation of a gamut of burning contemporary issues: corruption, political intrigues, inter-ethnic strife, gay rights, the dysfunctional family, cultism, kidnapping, violence in its varying forms — domestic, political, religious — terrorism, espionage, migration and exile, drug trafficking, prostitution, and the like. Appraising current Nigerian writing in 2012, Dan Izevbaye had observed that it was mostly hewn out of less momentous subjects, unlike the work of preceding generations located at historical and cultural turning points and so with resonances beyond the nation. Fraud, power failure, impeachment, and loose morals among the youths, which are staple subjects for current writing, he noted, were more suited for satire, as they lacked the immediate tragic dimensions of the more spectacular historical issues of earlier generations.

On the other hand, Izevbaye considers the unrest in the Niger Delta the only potentially epic-scale subject grappled with by contemporary Nigerian writers. EbiYeibo, g’ebinyo Ogbowei, Ibiwari Ikiriko, and many other Nigerian poets, especially from the Niger Delta, are focal voices here as they explore the despoliation of the environment and the expected sacrifices and criminalities at the heart of a struggle for both survival and the redistribution of wealth.

The Boko Haram insurgency in northern Nigeria understandably has equally gripped the imagination of contemporary Nigerian writers. Ironically, the preponderance of the thriller, especially in the form of crime, detective, and war fiction, in contemporary Nigerian writing can be traced to the Boko Haram insurgency and the militancy in the Niger Delta. This form, however, is hardly uniquely placed to meditate on the ethical, theological, political and intellectual questions that these conflicts evoke.

Among the more serious and sophisticated attempts to examine the true human implications of the Boko Haram question, Elnathan John’s Born on a Tuesday and Abubukar Ibrahim’s Season of Crimson Blossom are peerless. John’s Born on a Tuesday tells the sober story of a young man’s sensual and religious awakening. Told in the first person narrative, the novel exploits both the protagonist’s own naivety and his genuine groping to understand a complex world of religious and political violence for both humour and moral illumination. The novel’s most profound and possibly controversial core may well be seen in its tracing of religious extremism to the proliferation of contending religious sects which at best are linked to human egoism and at worst are only a convenient expression of blood lust; and in its appraisal of al-majiris as excitable young adolescents virtually abandoned by their families and easily exploited by ruthless teachers and politicians. However, John’s signal message is also inscribed in his exaltation of his protagonist, Dantala’s, discovery through privation that the good life is an acceptance of the austerity of human nature. Dantala’s experience, involving virtual symbolic death and resurrection, counters the tumultuous life of the ego driven by unregenerate human energy. TO BE CONTINUED

• Professor Diala, winner of the LNG prize for literary criticism, teaches Literature at the Imo State University, Owerri.

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