How writing in indigenous languages became talking point at Book Party
Despite the achievements and successes recorded in recent times by the country’s crop of writers, the recurring theme at this year’s Committee For Relevant Art (CORA)-Nigeria Prize for Literature Book Party was the diminished interest and capacity of Nigerian authors to write in their indigenous languages together with the equally diminishing number of speakers in the various indigenous languages.
Respected actor and artist, Dejumo Lewis, at the event held last Sunday at Terra Kulture Theatre Arena, Victoria Island, Lagos, with other guests queried the eleven shortlisted poets for the coveted US$100,000 prize at length on why they avoided writing in their indigenous languages.
The eleven shortlisted poets at the event sponsored by Nigeria LNG Limited included Tanure Ojaide (Songs of Myself: Quartet), Abubakar Othman (Blood Streams in The Desert), Jumoke Verissimo (The Birth of Illusion), Ikeogu Oke (The Heresaid), Humphrey Ogu (Echoes of Neglect) and Seun Lari-Williams (Garri For Breakfast). Others were Ebi Yeibo (Of Waters and The Wild), Peter Akinlabi (Iconography), Hyginus Ekwuazi (One Day I’ll Dare to Raise My Middle Finger at The Stork and The Reaper), Obari Gomba (For Every Homeland) and Ogaga Ifowodo (A Good Mourning).
Reacting to the query, Jumoke Verissimo (The Birth of Illusion) observed that most modern day writers’ grasp of their mother tongue is at best average, noting that many do not have the commanding grasp of their indigenous languages to write adequately in it.
She, however, argued that even English, as a language in Nigeria, has undergone certain modifications and has metamorphosed into something that renders it uniquely Nigerian in expression and usage, so much that it can no longer be regarded as a foreign language. She added that this change has created a unique Nigerian English language that is distinct to the country alone as against the Received English from the U.K.
She said: “The understanding of my Yoruba is quite urbanised. I was brought up with English language and, on the street, I learnt Nigerian languages and pidgin. Actually, I will really be confusing more people if I try to write in Yoruba. I don’t think I will be writing literate Yoruba if I were to write in it. The Yoruba that I would write will be one that recreates the language. But I am already doing that with the English language because I’m recreating the language using my indigenous language. So, I am creating English in a new form and that is the essence of language. It evolves. A lot of the words we use in our English today are through literature.”
In his on contribution, Ogaga Ifowodo (A Good Mourning), said ordinarily, he would have been elated to write in Isoko, his language, but he realised he would have been writing for only a small audience, adding, “We take it for granted that every Isoko person, Yoruba, Igbo is literate in his language and can read and understand at the level of literature, not at the level of just social communication. I mean, reading and writing it at figurative level. And poetry, of course, is the most difficult of the genres since it thrives in figurative use of language. So, how many market women can read poems I write in Isoko and understand it? But I want to reach as many people as possible. I want people from all divide in Nigeria to read my work, but if I start my project in Isoko, I am afraid I might be speaking to only myself.”
Ikeogu Oke (The Heresaid), however, underscored the importance of producing literature in indigenous languages, saying he is proficient enough in Igbo to write poetry in it. According to him, the nation must produce knowledge and literature in indigenous languages and also put it to commercial use. He also challenged translators to step forward and be counted. Just like others, Oke said writers or poets alone should not be left to bear the burden, as translators can step in and be mediator between writers and readers
“There is nothing we can do to raise the profile of our languages if we don’t do these three things. This is the time for us to start; don’t leave it at the door of the poets. Get involved, translate one short poem or one short story into your language.”
The poets, however, enjoined Nigerians with in-depth mastery of indigenous languages to help translate the literature being produced into the country’s various indigenous languages.
Explaining the role of the poets in the transformation of language, renowned poet, Odia Ofeimun, noted that what poets do is develop the language of the tribe, the nation and the world and warned that if language were not used properly, people would be endangering their capacity to make discovery and change the way the world was.
He remarked that in discussing what a poet can do with language, it is not so much whether that language is simple, but whether it is able to impact on people in a manner that makes them live humane lives.
According to him, “It is not just about whether the language is simple. Every kind of language you push to its extremity does it to its proponents. The job of a poet is to keep a balance. He ensures that the musicality of the language is such as to make humans to listen further. And if we do not, our being languages being music-oriented, we bore each other. The poet’s job is to make sure we don’t bore ourselves.”
He, however, said despite the fact that the country had a language that was imposed on her during the colonial period, Nigerians are fortunate to have a language that has interacted with so many other languages in the world and acquired gravitas that enables the language to incorporate words from all the languages of the world.
EARLIER in his welcome remark, Secretary General of CORA, Mr. Toyin Akinosho, noted that The Nigeria Prize for literature is the biggest cash prize award for any literary competition in Africa. He said 184 entries were received and said the Book Party was a way of ensuring that there is a robust audience engagement with the eleven books that have been longlisted for the award, while also midwifing the interaction between culture producers and the consuming public.
According to him, this is the third time CORA would be focusing on poetry, noting that one literary genre is picked every four years. He noted that the prize is on its fourth round of genres and is featuring poetry for the fourth time since inception.
Akinosho said that more than creating a community of book-lovers and an economy around the book trade, CORA’s passion is to always expand the membership of the community of culture patrons.
While stating that the depth, intellect, and the pedigree of the competitors are apparent, General Manager, External Relations of LNG, Dr. Kudo-Eresia Eke, described the eleven shortlisted works as quality works of art that appeal to readers who have the sophistication to appreciate deep philosophical works.
He announced that the prize, since its inception in 2004, has excited the publishing of over 1,630 books with 530 representing 32 per cent of works on poetry alone. According to him, a shortlist of three is expected to be drawn from the eleven works in September and a possible winning work would be announced by the advisory board in October 9.
Eke stated that it is the company’s expectation that the panel of judges, which produces the shortlist, would again prove their mettle to the literary world by delivering an exceptional work as the winner.
There were many interesting aspects of the Book Party, moderated by journalist and poet, Akeem Lasisi, which kept the full house audience fully engaged all through the 3-hour long event. First was that Verissimo is the only female poet on the longlist of 11. So, although a gender minority on the list of 10 men, she made her views known poignantly and strongly, which endeared her to the audience.
Secondly, if sheer number of entry from the same geo-political region is criterion for winning, poets from the South-south, otherwise famously known as Niger Delta would win easily. Five poets made it to this critical point of the prize – Prof. Ojaide, Dr. Ifowodo, Dr. Gomba, Ebi and Ogu.
Nevertheless, if popularity and audience eager responses and applauses to submissions made on the evening are the criteria, then the son of actor, poet and teacher, Lari-Williams, would easily win the prize. Starting from his down-to-earth title, Garri for Breakfast, Lari-Williams and his easy, almost innocent responses had the audience laughing out loud. As the youngest poet, he made no pretentions about his talent and offering. Clearly, he is a talent worth looking out for in the years to come.
Although designed to save time, the poets were not allowed to read or perform their works, as actors read from them. But Oke ingenuously had his way and read and performed. First, he read from his poem in Igbo, and then performed an excerpt from The Heresiad, garbed as he was in his Ohafia warrior regalia.
Spicing up the event were Illuminate Theatre, paid tribute to the late Fela Anikulapo Kuti, who died exactly 20 years ago this August, Edaoto and also A.J. House of Poetry, another drama group used their performance to recite excerpts from all the eleven shortlisted works. Notable personality who read excerpts from the eleven works included, Bimbo Manuel, Toyin Oshinaike, Dotun Olagbadebo, and Ayoola Maku.
Jury panel for this year’s prize is led by the chairperson, Prof. Ernest Emenyonu, professor of Africana Studies at the University of Michigan-Flint, U.S. Other members of the panel include, Dr. Razinat Mohammed, associate professor of Literature at the University of Maiduguri and Tade Ipadeola, poet, lawyer and winner of The Nigeria Prize for Literature, 2013.