The Guardian Literary Series: As it was in the beginning

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The monumental contributions of “The Guardian Literary Series” to the consolidation of Nigerian literature will remain undiminished. A look at the writers that came under the critical attention of contributors will show that there was hardly any Nigerian writer from inception to the 1980s that was left out in the critical engagement. From Olaudah Equiano to Ben Okri, almost every Nigerian writer that ever published was made a subject of critical inquisition

Much of what constitutes Nigerian literature derives its origin from the pages of newspapers. Scholars have pointed to the 19th century as the tentative moment for the evolution of what metamorphosed into written Nigerian literature. Lagos which now means so many things to Nigeria came into prominence in the 19th century. The return of freed slaves to Lagos, its annexation by the British in 1860, the coastal presence of the Atlantic Ocean and its proximity to large settlements easily made it a place for different cultures to meet. Described as “the Liverpool of West Africa”, the evolving city easily caught the bug of Victorianism which the fading British Empire let loose on the world. Hence the notion of Victorian Lagos became a significant reference point in socio-cultural and intellectual discourses.

One of the indices of the Lagos of the 19th century was the presence of newspapers which primarily kept the emergent elite informed, edified and entertained. Beyond this, the newspapers charted a new consciousness of self-expression and assertion of the African personality struggling to be free from the encumbrances of Slave Trade and European imposed inferiority status. Some of the leading newspapers which defined Victorian Lagos were The Anglo-African, Lagos Observer, Lagos Standard and Lagos Weekly. Apart from carrying news from Britain, other West African enclaves, Lagos and environs, the newspapers also published short stories and poems. The involvement of the newspapers in promoting literary engagement was aimed at depicting the vitality of the indigenous culture. This turned out to be in sync with the growing anti-European consciousness of the period. Since newspapers could easily reach a large audience the emergent literati used them to portray their literary prowess and taste in an early attempt at cultural nationalism.

The consolidation of newspapers as veritable platforms for the propagation of what appears as the earliest intimations of Nigeria’s literary production continued into the 20th century. In the first four decades of that century, budding Nigerian poets tried their hands at poetry which first appeared in newspapers such as The Sierra Leone Weekly News based in Freetown and The West African Pilot owned by Nigeria’s Nnamdi Azikiwe, but based in Accra in the then Gold Coast now Ghana. The poetry appearing in these newspapers complemented the strides of Nigerian nationalists during the struggle for independence. Some of the poets whose poems appeared in the newspapers were nationalists in the vanguard of the anti-colonial struggle. Nnamdi Azikiwe and Dennis Osadebay were prominent in the fold.

Nigeria’s independence came in 1960 and the nation basked in the usual euphoria of freedom, but not many people paused to consider the role newspapers played in the realization of the hard won independence. None probably gave a thought to the role played by newspaper poetry. However, as the nation evolved through many twists and turns more newspapers were established to serve different motives. It was part of this national evolution that saw to the birth of The Guardian newspaper in 1983.

The Guardian set out as a liberal newspaper with a high destiny which it expressed in its motto “conscience nurtured by truth”. The publisher, Mr. Alex Ibru looked in the direction of the ivory tower in his bid to ensure that the newspaper he was setting up would turn out like no other not just in Nigeria, but in Africa. Before then, however, there was a salutary development in Nigerian journalism in the late 1970s which fostered Mr. Ibru’s intention. That phenomenon was the marriage between the ivory tower and the fourth estate of the realm which Dr. Stanley Macebuh represented at The Daily Times. When Ibru founded The Guardian, he did so with Macebuh a literary scholar with a doctorate as his man Friday. In assembling what has become known as the “sunshine commune” Macebuh beckoned to cerebral elements in the universities. Soon The Guardian was invaded by university dons of radical persuasion and the newsroom almost got transformed into a classroom. Among those who bestrode Rutam House as the building housing The Guardian is known, were Femi Osofisan distinguished playwright, Yemi Ogunbiyi drama teacher at the then University of Ife, Onwuchekwa Jemie of Towards the Decolonization of African Literature fame, Odia Ofeimun notable poet and first rate public intellectual, Edwin Madunagu leftist university don, among others. In no time The Guardian established itself as Africa’s leading newspaper as its editorial and opinion essays were nonpareil. The newspaper became the toast in town and its popularity among all classes of Nigerians was high.

The literary scholars at The Guardian particularly Dr. Yemi Ogunbiyi extended Ibru’s dream beyond a scope unimagined in Nigerian journalism. Ogunbiyi thought of devoting some pages to literature. The idea sounded out of place in a context where hot news items and advertisement competed for space with profit margins in mind. The question of how literary engagement will bring in profit for The Guardian which is essentially a business outfit cropped up. However, Ogunbiyi was fortunate to have a literary virtuoso of the stature of Macebuh as the man in charge of things at The Guardian. The presence of other literary maestros also softened things for Ogunbiyi who then naturally emerged as the general editor of what became “The Guardian Literary Series”. Ogunbiyi was to write years later,

“It was quite clear from the inception of The Guardian as a serious daily newspaper in July 1983 that sooner or later, the newspaper would have to participate in the effort to help ‘popularise’ our vibrant literature. It was clear to the founding fathers that the literary pages of a serious national newspaper had an abiding duty to participate, initiate and even stir up debate in the all-important area of literature and culture. In a broad sense, that was a prime objective for starting The Guardian Literary Series (GLS).”

Ennobling as Ogunbiyi’s vision appeared, it was not easy getting the series started. In his own recollections, the plans for the series began early in 1984 during which he had a brainstorming session with G. G. Darah, then his colleague at Ife. Yet it did not kick off until Saturday, February 2, 1985 one full year later! However, once it began the series did overwhelm its proponent Ogunbiyi and the literary musketeers who shared his vision. Every Saturday, the series published critical essays on aspects of Nigerian literature. From the first publication to the last when the series was rested, it contributed immensely to the critical evaluation of Nigerian literature. Of particular interest is the range of the essays which covered the origins and development of written Nigerian literature as well as literatures in indigenous languages such as Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba. These essays have gone a long way in establishing an authentic literary pedigree not only for the ethnic nationalities represented, but also as a template for groups not represented. Many of the contributors drew attention to different trends and tendencies in Nigerian literature. The discursive interventions cover women, language and the Nigerian civil war. There were also debates, especially the one on “literary criticism in the Nigerian Context” an illuminating tiff between Abiola Irele and Dan Izevbaye, two of Nigeria’s leading literary critics.

The series also provided a platform for the celebration and affirmation of literary scholars and their achievements through their contributions to the development of Nigerian literature. In addition to this is the exposure of Nigerian literary critics to the reading public. It is instructive to note that academics of the period in question were largely isolated and cocooned in the ivory tower with the exception of a few who joined the tradition of column writing in newspapers. “The Guardian Literary Series” bridged the gap between the populace and the literary critics through the regular Saturday encounters. The significance of these Saturday encounters was situated in the enunciation of a critical dialogue between the reading public and the literati. Many readers of The Guardian got addicted to it because of the literary menu it offered.

The monumental contributions of “The Guardian Literary Series” to the consolidation of Nigerian literature will remain undiminished. A look at the writers that came under the critical attention of contributors will show that there was hardly any Nigerian writer from inception to the 1980s that was left out in the critical engagement. From Olaudah Equiano to Ben Okri, almost every Nigerian writer that ever published was made a subject of critical inquisition. The creative endeavours of some writers such as Pita Nwana, Obi Egbuna, John Muonye, Pol Ndu, Adegoke Durojaiye, Oladeji Okediji, INC Aniebo, etc, that would have been lost in the critical reckoning of Nigerian literature were exhumed and subjected to critical appraisal. Hence Timothy Aluko, Aminu Kano, Mamman Vatsa, etc, found a space as much as Wole Soynka, Chinua Achebe, Niyi Osundare. The series also brought many new writers as well as critics to limelight.

In retrospect, it could be said that the birthing of “The Guardian Literary Series” at the time was by no means fortuitous. This is so because the 1980s can be regarded as the high watermark of Nigerian literature and the series was just on hand to help give the literature the critical validation it needed. Truth, the first half of the 1960s was promising for Nigerian literature, however the Nigerian crises and the attendant civil war numbed the writers into creative hiccups. The 1970s was a decade of rumination and recovery from the physical and psychological devastation caused by the war. Truth was that some works were written against the background of the civil war in the 1970s, nevertheless the literary enterprise of that decade did not approximate the promise of the 1960s.

Yet it must be said that the 1970s was the period of ideological gestation that came to maturity in the 1980s. The 1980s was not only remarkable as the decade of Wole Soyinka’s winning of the Nobel Prize, it also witnessed a creative windfall that brought Femi Osofisan, Odia Ofeimun, Niyi Osundare, Tanure Ojaide, Festus Iyayi, Zaynab Alkali, Olu Obafemi, Bode Osanyin, Obiora Udechukwu, Ossie Enekwe, Molara Ogundipe-Leslie, Livinus Odozor, Femi Fatoba, Funso Aiyejina, Ada Ugah, Ezenwa Ohaeto, Harry Garuba, Tess Onwueme, Sam Ukala, Ben Okri, Eno Obong, Ifeoma Okoye, Wale Okediran, Ken Saro Wiwa and others to the attention of the world.

Protean and wide ranging as the creative output was, the critics of that era rose to the occasion and did a yeoman job in their analysis and evaluation of the literary works. The robust critical interventions which the critics wrote for “The Guardian Literary Series” are about the most significant engagements ever with Nigerian literature. The critics not only evaluated the works, they also gave them critical authority which ushered them into canonicity and it can be said that the influence of “The Guardian Literary Series” facilitated the confidence which engendered the codification of Nigerian literature as a national literature. A roll call of the authoritative critics who wrote for “The Guardian Literary Series” is interminable. Such was the verve and single mindedness of purpose with which the scholars pursued the agenda to evolve a critical canon for Nigerian literature in the series. It is however, sad to note that many of the critics who contributed to the series as well as the writers whose works they provided critical anchor for now live and work outside Nigeria. The brain drain of the late 1980s and 1990s ensured that they migrated to Europe and America.

Like everything good in Nigeria it was not long before it became sunset for “The Guardian Literary Series”. The economic and political crises of the later part of the 1980s and all of the 1990s took its toll on everything in Nigeria. The university system which was the constituency of the critics and many of the writers was severely assailed and they suffered some level of destabilisation. The economy was in troubled waters and literary productions suffered a great deal. In fact, many critics proclaimed a dead end for Nigerian literature as the struggle for food and survival supplanted the desire for book and reading.

An ill wind that blew nobody any good, as the crises buffeted the nation and everything defining it including literary representations, the initiator of “The Guardian Literary Series”, Yemi Ogunbiyi put together the essays in book form for posterity. The essays now make up two seminal volumes aptly titled Perspectives on Nigerian Literature: 1700 to the Present subtitled A Critical Selection from The Guardian Literature vols. 1 & 2 edited by Ogunbiyi and published by Guardian Books Nigeria Limited in 1988. The two volumes not only turned out to be best sellers, but they have become the most authoritative reference points in the critical expose on Nigerian literature.

The return of “The Guardian Literary Series” is the brainchild of Abraham Obomeyoma Ogbodo the present editor of the newspaper. Ogbodo read Theatre Arts at the University of Calabar in the 1980s and still carries nostalgic memories of what “The Guardian Literary Series” was and did in those days when it provided a mentally nourishing a la carte on Nigerian literature for students, teachers and the general reading public. Many people who read the series during its first coming carry the same nostalgic thoughts bordering on wistfulness. Since the information went out about the return of the series I have been inundated with calls and messages expressing support for the project. I have had cause to interact with some of the doyens who made the series the tour de force that it was. I had instructive interactions with Odia Ofeimun, G. G. Darah and Yemi Ogunbiyi.

Since the 1990s to date Nigerian literature has demonstrated an uncommon resilience. Time there was when many feared that it was going to be asphyxiated, but the literature rebounded with promise throwing up a new crop of writers who can hold their own anywhere in the world. So far, so much has happened since the 1990s or better put since the turn of the millennium in 2000. In prose, drama and poetry new writers have emerged to inscribe the Nigerian experience in narratives, dialogues and verses. The older writers, many of whom were emergent in the 1980s when “The Guardian Literary Series” ran, are still active on the literary scene as they encode the Nigerian experience alongside with the new writers many of whom they mentored and inspired.

In line with the remarkable growth of Nigerian literature new tendencies and trends have also been thrown up. Some of these include rethinking the Nigerian civil war, globalization, migration, exile, dislocation, eco-lit, trans-nationalism, etc. The current state of Nigerian literature reflects bountiful creative harvest, but with scant critical attention. The present generation of critics has not demonstrated enough vigour to match the productive energy of the not so new and emergent writers which has resulted in a gust of literary productions. There is a critical gap between creative works and the criticism generated by them.

There seems to be a general laid back attitude among today’s critics which has stunted the critical engagement of Nigerian literature. The present intervention occasioned by the return of “The Guardian Literary Series” is to check the decline and once again foreground Nigerian literature and its criticism not just as part of cultural production, but as a significant yardstick for measuring collective national aspirations, “hopes and impediments”.

“The Guardian Literary Series” is once again out to provide a fresh platform for debates and critical interaction with Nigerian literature. As has been announced in the past few weeks, this is a call to scholars, teachers and students of Nigerian literature to embrace the new opportunity offered by “The Guardian Literary Series” to send in publishable essays on all aspects/genres of Nigerian literature, writers and their works, as well as literary trends and theories that are of significance to it. Interviews with writers and critics, short stories and poems are also welcomed. The essays should be between 2000 and 2500 words in length sent as attachments.

This is an opportunity and challenge for Nigeria’s new critics to contribute to the discourse on Nigerian literature for the benefit of the present and generations to come. Each time one reads Perspectives on Nigerian Literature vols. 1 & 2, one salutes Ogunbiyi and the scholars who contributed the essays for the rigour and commitment that went into the seminal volumes.

The critical dialogue should not be muffled. Let it continue. Many of the critics who wrote for “The Guardian Literary Series” of old are still active within and outside Nigeria. This is also an invitation for them to send in essays for publication in the new series. It will be very interesting to read their essays alongside those of the younger critics whom they taught the art of literary criticism.

There is so much to be gained. The new series is bound to take Nigerian literature once again to the public. Newspaper buyers and online readers are likely going to enjoy the essays and reviews and as a result make for the book be it a novel, a play or a collection of poems. Nigerians have for long been derided as a nation of non-readers, let us hope that this trend will be reversed with this intervention. The bigger picture is the entrenchment of a critical tradition for Nigerian literature. Let it begin now. Send in your essays and interviews.

• Dr. Awhefeada teaches Literature at the Delta State University, Abraka

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