‘Gabriel Okara has written in all genres, yet not much attention has been given to his work’

Gabriel Okara

Julie Okoh is a professor of dramatic arts and Director, Institute of Arts and Culture, University of Port Harcourt. She is also the chairperson, Organising Committee, Gabriel Okara Literary Festival, scheduled to hold from April 25 through 28. The festival has as theme ‘Nigerian Literature Since Gabriel Okara: Continuities and Departures’ and will have Mr. Odia Ofeimun delivering the keynote address. In this interview with ANOTE AJELUOROU, Okoh spoke on the canonical place of Okara on African literature and how he has been overlooked in the continent’s literary discourse.

Prof., this is the second edition of the Gabriel Okara Festival. What useful lessons did you gather from the first festival last year? How will such lessons impact on the organisation of this feast?
A symposium was organised by the Faculty of Humanity, University of Port Harcourt, in 1991, to celebrate Gabriel Okara at 70. That year I was away, doing my PhD programme at the University of Bordeaux, France. The Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), Rivers State Chapter, as well as Bayelsa State Chapter, honoured him during their conferences. Okara was also one of those honoured during the UNESCO World Book Capital 2014 project in Port Harcourt. From enquiries, no other ‘festival’ has been organised on his behalf. But this is the first literary festival organised in honour of Okara.

This festival is designed to honour Pa Okara. Just how big is Okara to Nigerian, nay African literature?
Gabriel Okara is one of the pioneers of modern African literature, the first renowned English-language black African poet, the first African modernist writer, and the first Nigerian writer to publish in the influential literary journal, Black Orpheus (1957). According to Brenda Marie Osbey, editor of his Collected Poems, “It is with publication of Gabriel Okara’s first poem that Nigerian literature in English and modern African poetry in this language can be said truly to have begun.”

Beginning his writing career in 1940 by writing plays and features for radio broadcasting, he has solidified his status with his prolific writing. He has written in all literary genres, including poetry, prose and drama and has won many national and international awards. Written in 1950, his poem, ‘The Call of the River Nun,’ won a literary prize in 1953 at Nigerian Festival of Arts. In 1979 his collection ‘The Fisherman’s Invocation’ won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize, and in 2005 he captured the highest prize for literature (poetry) in Nigeria, with The Nigerian Prize for Literature instituted by Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas (NLNG) company. His most popular poems include: ‘Piano and Drums,’ ‘You Laughed and Laughed and Laughed’ and the poetry collection, The Dreamer, His Vision (2005).

The Voice (1964) is his only novel. He has also written two books for children: Little Snake and Little Frog (1981) and An Adventure to Juju Island (1992). His poems have been translated into several languages by the early 1960s. Although he once told me that the ideas no long flow in as fast as before, but at almost 96 Gabriel Okara is still writing and mentoring young writers at the Institute of Arts and Culture, University of Port Harcourt, where he was serving, until recently, as one of the Writers-in-Residence. In 2016, University of Nebraska Press published a collection of his poems, edited with an introduction by Brenda Marie Osbey. The volume contains old poems and some poems that have never been published before.

Do you think Okara has enjoyed the celebratory status befitting his work and longevity?
I doubt. To the best of my knowledge, the only published detailed study on his work was done by Eldred Ibibiem Green, titled, Gabriel Okara: The Man and His Art, published in Port Harcourt (Onyoma Research Publications, 2007). That is to say his works are still in the shadow of literary discourse in Nigeria. Okara has written in all literary genres, yet not much attention has been given to his work. I may be wrong. If there are publications on his creativity, we would like to have details to enable us upgrade our bibliography on his works. Briefly, I believe his works deserve better attention.

Apart from this festival, in what ways can Okara and his literary output be better celebrated?
This can be achieved in several ways such as establishment of Gabriel Okara Foundation: The foundation will provide residency for writers from all walks of life (composers, fiction and non-fiction writers, playwrights, poets, video/filmmakers, multi-media and visual artists) seeking time and space for reflection and disciplined work, without disturbance from professional and personal exigencies; organising a yearly lecture series in honour of Gabriel Okara; endowment of Professorial Chairs in the various genres of Creative Writing in honour of Gabriel Okara; establishment of Creative Writing School named after Gabriel Okara that will create a forum where young writers could learn to write creatively through workshops and short courses; integration of more of Okara’s literary works into WAEC/NECO school syllabus (‘The Piano and Drum’ is already on WAEC syllabus), and awarding of diverse literary prizes in honour of Gabriel Okara.

Have papers from last year’s festival been published in a book? How can it be obtained?
The papers from 1991 symposium have been published by Onyoma Research, Port Harcourt, Editor: Chidi T. Maduka, Copyright: University of Port Harcourt, 2014. Copies of the book will be available at the festival. We have also contacted Nebraska University, U.S. to send down copies of Okara’s collected poems edited by Brenda Marie Osbey.

Celebrating Okara as your institute is doing is a rare thing in Nigeria’s social discourse, which is usually left until such icons have departed. Just how important is this celebration and how can it be better appropriated as service to memory and exemplary individuals who have served society admirably like Okara?
Yes, in Nigeria the prevailing culture is to celebrate the dead and not the living. We are deviating from that tradition. We pray to have the celebrant in attendance during the festival. We intend to put a smile on his face and give him the opportunity to reflect on his works and talk to burgeoning writers about creative writing.

Just how challenging is it to organise a festval like this; and What institutional/individual support have you got apart from your university?
Organising a festival of this nature demands a lot of strategising and a lot of meetings with different categories of people and establishments. We are putting all our efforts into it. We have appealed to the governments of Rivers State, Bayelsa State and Delta State to kindly partner with us to give honour to this great, but hardly celebrated Nigerian literary icon. We have appealed to some agencies and corporate bodies to come to our help. We are using this medium to appeal to all illustrious sons and daughters of both Rivers and Bayelsa States, all admirers of Okara’s literary works, all Nigerian lovers of arts, to assist us make this festival a very memorable occasion for this nonagenarian, who has contributed so much to the development and growth of Nigerian literature. Let us join hands to put a smile on his face. Nobody knows tomorrow.

Continuity is usually a problem with festivals like this. What framework have you established to ensure the festival lasts longer than its originators?
We have taken the initiative to start the festival. By incorporating both entertainment and intellectual explorations, we have structured the festival in such a way that it will continue to attract patronage from various categories of people (artists working in various artistic disciplines, including composers, fiction and non-fiction writers, playwrights, poets, video/filmmakers, and visual artists, even fashion designers, producers and marketers), lovers of the arts, young and old. Hence, the programme of activities include Legacy Lecture, Book Presentation, Panel Discussions, Creative Writing Workshops, Readings, Performances, Cultural Excursion, Book Exhibition, Gift Items Market, and Award and Dinner Night.

The sustainability of the festival depends on the support of all those who believe that the arts are crucial to the discourse around complex social issues, global challenges and are also very critical to the well-being of humanity. To win his election into office the first time, Barrack Obama appealed to American citizens to donate at least one dollar to his campaign fund. We are all living witnesses to his success story. We are hereby appealing to every Nigerian citizen, lovers of creative arts, and promoters of art and culture in particular to kindly donate to Gabriel Okara Literary Festival. No amount is too small.

• Donations may be made into: Gabriel Okara Literary Festival Account. Access Bank, Uniport Branch, Account No: 0725748115
Thanks to every donor. May God bless you abundantly!

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Gabriel OkaraJulie Okoh
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