Revisiting the politics of literary criticism as Nzekwu goes home

Okara & Barrett

It was Mr. Chike Ofili, a poet, who stirred the hornet’s nest two Fridays ago at the evening of tributes held for late Chief Onuorah Nzekwu in Lagos. Offili had lamented the neglect the writer suffered even when his peers like Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, and J.P. Clark enjoyed robust critical attention, to the effect that their works gained wide exposure and mass appeal. Even more telling, was the fact that a mere handful of writers attended the event designed to honour him before his final burial yesterday in Onitsha, Anambra State.

Many writers and cultural workers are agreed that the author, who was famous for Eze Goes to School, a children’s story he co-authored with Michael Crowther, suffered ‘marginalisation’ in Nigeria’s critical discourse. However, he was not alone. There are other fellow travellers in that road of critical neglect. Late popular city novelist, Cyprian Ekwensi, was one such; he was actually chastised for pandering towards the profane. Timothy M. Aluko was another neglected writer. Pa Gabriel Okara, with Jamaican-born Nigerian writer, journalist and photographer, Mr. Lindsay Barrett, completing the team of marginalised writers in Nigeria’s critical canon.

Okara’s longevity has served him well, as a book of critical writing on him was presented in April to establish his pre-eminent place in Nigerian literary canon. The book, Gabriel Okara, has Prof. Chidi T. Maduka of University of Port Harcourt as editor.

What has come through from the narrative of neglect of these writers is that they are not university-based writers. As a result, the university teachers, who, arguably, define or set the tone for critical discourse, tended to have ignored and even dismissed these writers as non-inheritors of a literary tradition.

Maduka, also a university teacher, lent credence to this assertion, when he offered, “The book Gabriel Okara tries to examine Okara, his place in African literature and the fact that he has not been given his full due in African literature. Okara is a great writer, but he hasn’t been so recognised by critics. His Fisherman’s Invocation has not been well examined. He has not been given sufficient critical attention as an author. So, it’s a book that people should read.”

Maduka attributes Okara’s negligence in critical circles to a number of factors. First, he said Okara’s poems did not come out in time in one anthology for critics to look at in one whole. Prof. Akachi Ezeigbo-Adimora also agrees, arguing that Okara didn’t write much and also had his manuscripts lost during the Nigerian Civil War.

“Okara hasn’t written much,” Ezeigbo-Adimora argues, “I taught his worksfor over 20 years in the university. The Fishermen’s Invocation was his only volume for a very long time, and a slime volume, too. He was not very prolific and he lost his manuscripts during the war.”

Secondly, Maduka and Ezeigbo-Adimora are agreed about Okara’s style, especially his fiction, which is very invocative and experimental and many critics didn’t know how to approach his works. Ezeigbo-Adimora says of The Voice, “I don’t think his only novel, The Voice, was successful; he was experimenting with language.”

Thirdly and perhaps more importantly, Maduka says Okara “is very immersed in Ijaw oral tradition and performance,” which made his works difficult to approach, adding, “he needed detailed study to unearth his meaning. He is a cultural nationalist, with a unique style. Okara is very nationalistic. His works have to be carefully studied. He achieved much more than he has been given. His novel, The Voice, is considered irregular; that is why it wasn’t considered for the curriculum. What he did there was a transliteration of Ijaw into English and it made that work not easy to understand or relate with.”

ANOTHER writer, who suffered the same fate is Barrett, who, like Nzekwu and Ekwensi, also didn’t go to university and was largely ignored by the critical literary establishment. Maduka attests to this fact of non-university education, when he says of Okara, which is also true for the other writers, “He didn’t go to university, but he had a firm grasp of English and was able to use English with ease. I want to say he was discriminated against. Okara didn’t go to university to mix with the Soyinkas, the Clarks, the Achebes and the others.”

Barrett says the fact that he and Okara (and Nzekwu) were not university types worked to their disadvantage, as Nigerian academics didn’t tend to take such writers seriously, even when they produce prodigious works.

“What they didn’t know was that I was published by Howard University, Washington DC, U.S. when I was in my 20s. Okara was prolific in poetry. We (Okara and I) were not university-based writers. In Nigeria, people in the universities don’t know me as a writer. They believe if you are not attached to university, you are not a serious writer. Okara is a most dedicated poet at every stage of his life.”

While Okara’s poetry has been largely accessible to all classes of readers, not so his fiction embodied in The Voice. According Barrett, The Voice presented its peculiar challenges for critics, who, at the time the novel came out, were yet to fashion a proper Afro-centric critical parametres of looking at an African work of such innovative and adventurous nature.

“The period he wrote The Voice,” Barrett argues, “African literature was largely not being analysed by Africans or with African-based standards. They were imposing European standards on African aesthetics. Okara was adventurous in his writing; it made his writing seem remote, when it was actually a path-finding work.”

Notable poet and essayist, Mr. Odia Ofeimun, also weighed in, when he posits that ‘The Call of the River Nun’ is “generally regarded as the opener to the virtual sesame of Nigerian modernist poetry. Okara was the virtual pathfinder, if not the path-breaker, whose performance set the stage, if not the tone of the Poetry in English Language. Hence the delight with which anthologists went for his poems.”

Ofeimun acknowledges that “Okara’s poems have no doubt suffered neglect” in spite of Okara “situating himself and may be fruitfully adjudged in the company of poets like Okigbo, TChikaya U Tam’si and Achebe, whose singular collections provide the fulcrum of their extant reputations as poets. Unlike them whose publishing history is far more enterprising and therefore more fulsomely exegetised in the Academy, Okara’s poem have suffered neglect.”

For Nzekwu, Ofili submits that the man produced one of the biggest trans-cultural novels yet in the country, Troubled Dust, just as Nigeria is currently troubled from dusts of agitations for restructuring.

According to Ofili, “But before Nigeria ruins itself again, here is Nzekwu’s vision of a true believer in the country as set out his last fiction work, Troubled Dust. In it Nzekwu makes a metaphor of marriage, using it to symbolise the Nigerian nation’s need to stick together, whatever betides the union. It is the story of mutual exchanges in problem-solving that hardens into an enduring cross-cultural friendship and relationships.”

However, in spite of the prodigious genius of Nzekwu and his neglected tribe of writers by the critical establishment, Ofili offers, rather, combatively, “This is another case of injustice in the field of a bloodless war, the field of writing where the blood that flows, flows not from the barrel of the gun, but from the barrel of the pen, the real contender, the best of the unsung Nigerian novelists, deliberately neglected in the politics of selection by the Nigerian literati of the academia; the critical megaphone of our citadels of learning that learnt most largely from, and promoted most unevenly its own, paying scant attention to non-academics of the same fold among the lettered.

“If there was any non-academic creative writer that they most felt threatened and frightened by, it was and still is, Mr. Onuora Nzekwu. On him they imposed the greatest unnatural silence. If other non-academic creative writers like Cyprian Ekwensi, Amos Tutuola, Elechi Amadi and T.M Aluko, to mention some of the dimmed lights of Nigerian and African literature complained of little and unfair critical attention, a different strategy was applied on Onuora Nzekwu, who most threatened their politics of selection, the strongest contender against their favoured ones, whose works very closely competed, not just from coming from a common background of culture, but who also mutually shared the potent power of the finest art of the written word in its most lyrical form.”

Ezeigbo-Adimora also agrees, noting, “Canonisation is a fetish thing. Chinua Achebe created a new epoch because of the way he wrote. Peter Abrahams of South Africa suffered a similar fate among critics. So, maybe some writers have written better or about things that are serious. Sometimes, people in the academia may have people writing more about them, and having things always recycled about them. One thing about criticism is that promotion depends on papers presented in the university.

“So, I agree with you. Writers in the university system receive more attention. Nzekwu’s is a sad situation. I don’t even know how this can be corrected since other writers are coming up like Chimamanda Adichie, Helon Habila, Sefi Atta, Toni Kan. You ask yourself, how are some writers canonised and others are not? Ekwensi got much negative criticism because of the moral standing of his characters, as if he was praising their moral lapses.”

While, as Ofeimun put it, “The justice of time being on his (Okara) side has, however, laid for him a table in the company of the most distinctive among African poets with whom he would always be assessed,” the same cannot be said of Nzekwu, whose remains were laid to rest yesterday.

So perhaps, the onus rests with lovers of Nzekwu’s works to set about putting the records straight regarding a critical examination of his output. It is never too late; for even in death, a writer still lives on in the indestructibility of his art. Troubled Dust is one work that robustly embodies Nigeria’s current crisis situation. That could be a good place to start reinventing him.

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