Some of the finest literary minds in Nigeria were in Awka Saturday 14 December for the public presentation of James Eze’s brilliant collection of poems, dispossessed, reinforcing the view that only the deep call to the deep. Michael Jimoh reports…
People living within a modest radius of Oma Events Centre in a noiseless neighbourhood in Okofia part of Awka know what to expect most weekends. A lot of traffic, men and machines, more than other days of the week, all heading to a detached, blue-roofed reception hall about the size of a tennis court.
From their windows, balconies and up close in the street, residents see them arriving, chauffeured or driving, dapper and smug behind the wheels, their expectant countenance telling it all: people going to have a good time nearby.
With time on their hands, the smarter and mobile ones among the locals prepare for such weekends convinced that, as any long-serving apprentice would have encouraged and reassured them, someone is sure to come by and ask for something to buy. So, they bring their wares (assorted articles of trade, confectioneries and drinks, cigarettes, recharge cards) near the party point – a post-wedding reception maybe, an anniversary, birthday, business or social get together.
The bolder ones among them show up dressed to the nines. With the appropriate smile and unhurried steps of someone important, they are sure to be ushered to a sit and asked: “what will you like to eat or drink, sir?”
Depending on the occasion, among the guests may be sighted several Eze title holders, beaded traditional rulers and collared clerics, high ranking politicians and civil servants, Nollywood notables and has-beings, most of them very well turned out in their Sunday best. Not to mention security pointing out empty parking spaces to ease your vehicle into, photographers clicking away at the smiling faces stepping in, plus the uniformly attired ushers gesturing you here or there.
So it has been on countless Fridays and Saturdays at one of the most frequented event centres in Awka with ample parking space within and outside its premises. And so it was on Saturday 14 December when it was filled with, to undiscerning locals, the usual crowd of party people.
In reality, it was neither a business nor social engagement, nor even post-wedding reception. If by chance you hinted any of them a book party was about to begin, and that people came from across Nigeria (Enugu, Lagos, Nsukka, Port Harcourt) and beyond (Canada and the United States) to be part of it, the Mbanu (na lie) would have been instant and final.
And yet, it was a book party cum “reunion of the literary community in Nigeria,” as one of the eminent guests later put it. Right from the foyer, evidence of the official unveiling stared at you, from billboard-size posters of the book against a verdant background to young men and women donning orange-coloured T-shirts inscribed with the title of the book. It was the public presentation of dispossessed by James Eze, onetime journalist and banker, now Chief Press Secretary to Governor Willie Obiano of the state.
The book in question, a collection of poems in three segments “innocence,” “transgression” and “atonement,” is the author’s first. Ever since its publication last November, dispossessed has been talked about and hailed by poets, reviewed, all in just a few weeks of leaving the printing press.
“It is a brilliant book,” Amu Nnadi said in an interview. He should know, being an accomplished poet himself one of the last three men standing in the Nigeria Prize for Literature, an NLNG sponsored poetry award in 2013. “I have had the good honour of going through it,” Nnadi went on, insisting that he “posted a few excerpts not just to promote it but to affirm that it is a brilliant book.”
Another poet and senior journalist, Uzor Maxim Uzoatu, described Eze’s dispossessed as capable of holding its own among world class collections. “It qualifies among the best poems across the globe,” Uzoatu said. “We are expecting more from him because he is a gifted and natural poet.”
And there is yet another poet who, long before the public presentation of dispossessed that Saturday, had been involved in birthing it. Professor Nduka Otiono, Coordinator of Graduate Programme Institute of African Studies Carleton University, Ottawa, who flew all the way from Canada said of dispossessed and the author: “James contacted me very early on when he started talking about the book and I have been mentoring him.”
For his mentorship, Otiono had to be in Nigeria for the official unveiling. “When I read the manuscript,” Otiono continued, “I was struck by the intensity of the poems, I was initiated into the rite of passage that the book is,” describing dispossessed as “a great accomplishment. Part of the strength of the book lies in its capacity to reinvent, renew and remind us about the Biafran genocide, all of which constitutes an atmosphere, constitutes the whole thematic range that the book deals with.”
Though not a poet himself, Dr. Reuben Abati, celebrated columnist and former Chairman The Guardian Editorial Board and reviewer of dispossessed, summed up the literary ambience at the unveiling. The mid-December gathering, he said, afforded him the opportunity to meet many of his friends in academia and literary community. More than anything else, it was the quality of attendance that most impressed Abati.
“James Eze,” he said, “has used this opportunity to invite many members of the literary community in Nigeria to Awka. Many of us are excited to see each other because some of us have not seen each other for quite a while. It is a great moment for many of us. I have seen persons who are in this country that I have not seen. We all grew up together within the literary community.”
How true! Moments before Abati’s interview, a female journalist who’d complained Abati was unreachable for much of the time he was media spokesperson to former President Goodluck Jonathan, was found swooning on Abati’s arms, delighted, at last, for a reunion.
“You can see the literary community is excited and I will like to urge Governor Willie Obiano to continue to support literature and the creative industry generally in and out of office,” Abati urged, “because there is a lot of resource in that direction that is useful for Nigerians, for individuals in terms of developing individual talents.”
If there is any state chief executive in Nigeria today who has shown a strong predilection for literature or some intellectual pursuit for the state, it has to be Obiano. In his first year as governor, Anambra state hosted the first ever meeting of poets by the graveside of Christopher Okigbo right in his family compound at Ojoto-Uno.
There have been several other literary and arts festivals organised by the state government since then. Before the book presentation, news circulated of two art festivals in the works, one an exhibition, coming up in the capital, a city famous for its smithery.
A week and some days prior to the official unveiling of dispossessed, at a full session of the Executive Council Meeting, the highest decision-making body in a state with the motto: “Light of the Nation,” Eze recited his poem. Nothing could be more of an executive endorsement of the novel exercise than the governor himself standing, listening and giving the appropriate applause at the end of Eze’s rendition.
Though Obiano was unavoidably absent at Oma Events Centre that weekend (a call for an unscheduled crucial meeting, for instance, should far supersede whatever his physical presence at the book presentation would have meant) the Principal Officer to the state government, Sir Willie Nwokoye, represented him ably.
“It is not just only about commissioning the bridge, commissioning the roads or all kinds of brick and mortar,” Sir Willie said, in tandem with the state government’s pursuit of things of the intellect. “This government has created an environment for the thriving of creativity, products of the mind and of the intellect. In years past, it’s never been heard that there is a literary evening, a book reading or book launch or presentation of some kind of drama which, if you put them together, you will call them the subtle infrastructure being developed.”
The Principal Secretary was not the only senior government official at the unveiling: there were commissioners – C Don Adinuba, Mike Okonkwo and Sally Mbanefo – Information & Public Enlightenment, Housing and Tourism & Diaspora Affairs, respectively. Paul Nwosu, Special Adviser to Governor Obiano on Agricultural Equipment, Senior Special Adviser on Creative Media, Bob-Manuel Udokwu (who was master of ceremonies) were also in the house, as well as Chuka Nnabuife, renowned artist and MD Anambra Printing Company, Nze Uche Nworah, MD/ CEO Anambra Broadcasting Service, all of them having something to say about the book and author.
Nwosu described Eze as “a capable hand because when it comes to poetry, that is his forte, he is a writer…I am not in any doubt that he is going to come up with an excellent anthology of poems.”
His counterpart in Housing recalled of his very first encounter with Eze in 2014. “What comes to mind is the author…since I have known him in 2014, he has tried to change the literary landscape of the state. I am not surprised that he is the one having this programme.”
For Chris Ofodile, a performance poet, Eze “is an accomplished poet and an urbane man, a good communicator, I am sure that his book is going to be absorbing, even enthralling,” while Mike Meze, CEO Winning Concept Limited, described dispossessed as “something new and different to a lot of people.”
One of the roles of a successful artist or writer is to be the conscience of the society, a role Adinuba sees Eze fulfilling quite well. “I am impressed with the fact of Eze’s solidarity with the Nigerian people,” Adinuba enthused, “especially with the under privileged and that, for me, is performing the role of an artist. You must be a prophet, a seer, the conscience of the society.”
Of course, as such public presentations go, it wouldn’t be complete without presenting kola nuts, which Eze promptly did by bringing a tray of kola nuts, garden eggs and peanut butter to the table where the chairman and chief launcher of the occasion, Chief John Bosco Onuchukwu, philanthropist and politician, was, along with Senator Victor Umeh and other dignitaries. Onuchukwu also formally unveiled dispossessed.
To say the public presentation of dispossessed was one of the highpoints of Eze in his career as a poet would be an understatement. In an earlier interview, Eze said it took him four years to put together what is now his very fisrt collection. And now, with the book out finally, you could trace on his face the joy of a father who has just welcomed a new born into the family. Nothing suggests there won’t be any more in the coming years, as fellow poet Uzoatu anticipated.
The inspiration behind dispossessed, Eze said at the occasion, “is the desire for expression. Every individual in this world has a story to tell…some write novels, some are what you might call minstrels and griots who have no time to write but they tell their stories nonetheless. If you are familiar with this terrain where we are, there is a character called Okigbombe, a natural-born poet. The only thing is he doesn’t write his poetry, he goes to the stage and performs his poetry every time. So, that is his own way of telling his stories. Some people are painters. They paint and tell stories about who they are and the way they interpret the world – like Leonardo da Vinci gave us Mona Lisa. He looked inward and gave us something every person could relate to visually. The creative artist is able to look inward and translate what he sees within outwardly so that people can be a part of the experience and share…In my own case, I have always known that I would be a writer but I didn’t know in which way it was going to manifest itself. Today at this launch, I am trying to share my world with the world through this medium.”
Since he works for politicians, does he see himself as one? No, Eze said. “I wouldn’t want to see myself as a politician but as someone who is interested in and intrigued by leadership, which is totally different from politics. Politics is the engineering and acquisition of power. But leadership looks at humanity holistically and looks at how to harness the innate abilities of the community, of every human being for a higher purpose. So, the leader is benevolent, he is kind, he looks at things from a totally different perspective from the politician who just wants power at all costs and by all means and, oftentimes, to no purpose. So, I chose to see myself as someone who is involved in leadership but not involved in politics. I will say Governor Obiano is my pillar of strength as far as my final evolution as a writer is concerned. There are some people you work with and they will kill whatever spark you have, they will discourage you, threaten and frighten you. But, you know, I am lucky to be working with a man who has actually found values in my talents in the sense that before I even produced the book, my boss had been calling me a poet, ‘James you know you are poet.’ Sometimes, he suggests some literary or cultural ideas and he says, James why can’t we do this? You know you are a poet. You can help us do this. So, I feel encouraged. My boss found out who I am and he is not worried about who I am. He helped me fully to come and express myself.”