Naija Notes: What Do You Read?

by Toni Kan Onwordi

Let me extend by one week, my sabbatical from politics. Homo politicus or not, I am trying to lighten this page with tales that have nothing to do with PDP or ANPP.

Let’s talk about books and reading. What do you read? The best selling book in the world otherwise known as The Holy Bible or do you have a thing for mystical and occultic books like Lobsang Rampa’s. Or do you favour action driven novels by the likes of Hadley Chase and Nick Carter or schmaltzy stuff from Mills and Boon or Thrills and Boom. Are you a cognoscenti of literary tomes or are you down right sleazy and in love with lurid stuff like Ikebe Super and Dauda the Sexy guy?

Growing up, I was raised on a rich fare of books, literary books. I was so into books that on my birthdays, friends and their parents knew that my preferred presents were books.

Driving to work this morning, I was ruminating over an e-invitation I received yesterday requesting me to submit the title of the African book that has had the most impact on my life.

Asking someone like me to make that kind of choice is akin to asking a drunk to name his favorite brew: Oga, gi me any thing wey dey shak, sir!

Trying to figure out that one impactful book has led me to think about most of the books I read as a child and like that demoniac said, they are legion.

With time, I know I have forgotten a lot of the titles. But the first one I am going to mention is Dear Parents and Ogre. I can’t remember the author and I don’t recall ever reading the book. I have remembered it now because it was one book I could never figure out how to pronounce the title. What in Jesus name was Ogre?

Then there were the others I remember now because of their covers and their strange titles: Many Things Begin for Change by Adaora Lily Ulasi jump to mind as well as Obi B. Egbuna’s The Emperor and the Sea which had this exotically clad man on the cover.

Ulasi had another book, which was actually the one I read first but memory fails me now. Then I recall reading her novel or was it some one else’s? I think it was called Our Man from Sagamu and had this very black man with a huge grin and a fez cap on the cover.

Talking exotic, I remember my father’s copy of what I would later learn was Camara Laye’s The African Child. My dad’s copy was in French and so was entitled, L’Enfant Noir. I didn’t know what that meant but the picture of the kid with the butterfly on his fingers was just way too cool.

I fell in love with Ayi Kwei Armah’s Why are we so blest because I liked the way he spelt blest and I think that was the book that had a crazy ending where the main character has his manhood sliced off by rebel soldiers or something.

But my love for Ayi Kwei Armah grew into admiration when I read Two Thousand Seasons and got blown away.

I recall reading Ngcobo’s Cross of Gold in 1980 or 81. That was the beginning of what I call my serious phase. I was becoming aware of not just what I was reading but the fact that books had an unusual capacity for unsettling the emotions and making you think.

Cross of Gold introduced me in a big way to apartheid and I remember that after reading Lewis Nkosi’s A Rhythm of Violence, I felt like picking up a gun and going to fight or something.

But my best South African books of the era were Peter Abraham’s’ A Walk in the Night, Mine Boy and Denis Brutus, Letters to Martha, which I always pack with me (with T.S Eliot of course) whenever I am traveling.

The Shakespeare quoting Uncle Doughty of a A Walk in the Night is still stuck in my mind and so is the short story Tattoo, Marks and Nails. I can still feel the tension when the prisoners ask one of the guys to take off his clothes so they could confirm whether he is the traitor they really feel he is.

Anytime I meet a South African, the first question I ask is: where is Denis Brutus? That man made me embrace poetry the way I have. His prison notes distilled into poetry and published as Letters to Martha have continued to give me joy since I first opened their pages as a mere twelve year old.

Where in God’s name is Denis Brutus and what happened to the poetry?

Richard Rice made an impression and so did Ezekiel Mphalele.

Mariama Ba’s So Long A letter remains one of my best novels written by an African writer. Smooth, lyrical, well plotted and moving.

Xala and The Beggar’s Strike had for me what I believe filmmakers call a noir-ish quality. I recall especially that part in Xala (or is it The Beggars Strike) where somebody is spat upon by a group of beggars.

Aha, Nigerian writers: Achebe, Soyinka, Clark, Okigbo, Ekwensi, Munonye, Ike, Ekwuru, Amadi, Okpewho and Okri of course.

Let me not even talk about the masters,: Achebe, Soyinka, Okigbo and Clark. Lets talk about Ekwensi. Who will forget The Passport of Mallam Ilia, A Mid-summer Night’ Entertainment, or the Jagua Nana trilogy?

Who cares whether they were written over the course of nine days on a ship en route England. The stories did exactly what stories are meant to do: sit you down, compel you to read and dare you to stop turning the pages.

I remember the war novels: Iroh’s Forty Eight Guns for the General, Ekwensi’s Surviving the Peace and the others. But the ones I never forget are Ekwuru’s very evocative Songs of Steel and Okpewho’s excellent The Last Duty whose use of the Collective Evidence Technique is a classic of the genre.

Okpewho’s Victims did not just make me swear never to be a polygamist it made me a life long fan.

Elechi Amadi’s The Only Son was a beauty and I remember enjoying thoroughly the reading of that book first as entertainment and then as a set text. Chukwuemeka Ike’s books caught me by the sheer sagacity of their titles: Toads for Supper and The Naked Gods.

But it was Ben Okri who made me decide to be a writer. The year was 1983. I had just turned twelve and my father had sent me for my birthday, three novels: Isidore Okpewho’s The Last Duty, Ngcobo’s Cross of Gold and Ben Okri’s Flowers and Shadows.

I read Okpewho first because his sister was married to my dad’s friend and her son was in my school. Then I read Ngcobo because the picture of the funny cross was appealing. I read Okri last and cried the whole evening after I set the book down.

I was Jeffia: young, smart, and totally confused. The girl I had a crush on was his girlfriend, the one whose father Jeffia’s dad had sent to jail. My mother was an artist who didn’t paint but made ceramic figurines. My dad was not a crooked businessman but we were at a point in our relationship where a gulf yawned between us and he thought I was too attached to my mum.

In short, the book spoke to me and long after I turned the last page and wiped my tears I made my self a promise: I must write something that will move someone to tears.

Back then I didn’t know about Aristotle. I didn’t know about catharsis. All I knew was that I had read a good book that had made me empathize so much the tears came falling.

I knew I had found my path in life.

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muhammad shakir February 23, 2006 - 1:45 pm

just keep reading & writing. younger guys like us are coming behind. beware !

Anonymous January 28, 2006 - 11:16 am

At 59 I was consumed with jealousy at the thought of a 12 year old finding his path in life. I had the same flair for reading and writing as a teenager but I missed my path when i drifted towards science and engineering with the rest of the "smart" students. How I wish i had the same awakening as this young man. I wish him a great future in literature.

Ambrose Okoro

Anonymous December 22, 2005 - 10:32 pm

You bring back so many memories. I hope these books are still available for our kids to read. Oh, how times have changed!

Anonymous December 9, 2005 - 9:39 am

What were you thinking leaving out Obi B. Egbuna and Ngugi Wa Thiong'o


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