Naming the Unnameable: A Memorial For Ebereonwu

by Austine Amanze Akpuda

Any discussion of Ebereonwu’s life and career without a reference to his brash and often mischievious moments would be incomplete as such add to his total picture. For instance, as early in the day as our first meeting during the ANA Convention in Abuja in 1997, Ebereonwu told me that ” i no go school”. Moreover, during the same encounter, I was literally put off by Ebereonwu’s rather impish behaviour of abandoning us when Obu Udeozo’s Mercedes we were driving in broke down on the way to our hotel rooms. While others pushed the German big car, Ebereonwu carefully disengaged himself and all those present felt very bad since we needed an extra hand desperately.

Probably because of the hangover he had as a result of some disagreements with certain ANA overlords, Ebereonwu at different moments discountenanced the community that should have been his first constituency. In an interview with Shaibu Hussieini first published in The Guardian Saturday, December 9, 2000, Ebereonwu sounds very professional and seemingly harsh in his evaluation of the works of some members of his generation. As he posits:

We must improve in the quality of books we turn out. We shall improve the fellowship with good books. For my generation, I will tell you quite frankly that most of us are not writing – we are merely re-writing; we don’t have our own voice. People are still writing Okigbo,Achebe,Soyinka among the young ones. Why should I read you when I know you are just imitating another man? I will simply go back and read the real man (“Maverick”30).

For the young writer who always described himself very proudly as “a Lagos-based writer and film producer”, ordinary creative writing as a literature worker made him a poor man whereas the same job in the video sector made him a rich and popular fellow. Come his privileged presentation at the special 2005 ANA Convention in Kano recognizing the interface between literature and film, Ebereonwu seized the day to make his most scathing statements about the Nigerian literary scene. I remember having to come to the aid of a participant who wanted to fight Ebereonwu for some of his relatively controversial comments. Here are some of them as reproduced in “Between Nigerian Literature and Nollywood; a stake holder’s comment” courtesy of Sunday Vanguard August 27, 2006:

While Nigerian Literature has created only two stars, the movie industry has created a multitude of stars who can be recognized in the remotest corners of the world. Put it to a popularity test, a sudden appearance of Aki and Pawpaw in a street in Ghana will draw more attention than a month advance notice of the appearance of five great Nigerian writers… Today, while the Nollywood assumes the sky as starting point, Nigerian Literature is in the emergency ward, very close to the mortuary, and not far from the cemetery. So, to truly represent the relationship between the two industries, the apt title for the theme of the Convention would have been; “The Nigerian Movie Industry and the fading Literary Industry”. If we accept this new exchange of roles, we can now begin to ask, what can the movie industry do to upliftNigerian Literature? (46).

The above are among some of the very provocative statements Ebereonwu made at the Kano Convention that made so many people uncomfortable, angry and unhappy not necessarily because they felt insulted but also because they realized that the money power and glamour he talked about later were seriously lacking for more than 70% of the ANA members. That was typical Ebereonwu writing as if we do not have the Adichies, Oyeyemis, Abanis, Habilas, Afolabis and so on.

However, noting the above does not necessarily mean that Ebereonwu turned his back on his first intellectual constituency, Nigerian creative writers. For instance, during the heated debates accompanying the supposedly botched NLNG Literature Award for the year 2004, Ebereonwu’s “My generation, lack of standard, tufiakwa” was one of the most polemical and pungent on the prize problem. Published in the Sunday Vanguardof October 24, 2004, Ebereonwu’s essay addressed issues relating to haste, grammar and standard. In his seemingly volatile piece, considered as an adequate response to “the gas traders insult “, Ebereonwu states as follows about the concept/problem of haste:

… What determines a hasty work? Most writers live with their manuscripts for years, rewriting and reworking before getting published… But then what is wrong with writing a book in a haste? Barbara Cartland holds a world record for bringing out twenty-one books in one year. When Anthony Burgess was told by his doctor that his death was imminent, he went home and wrote thirteen books, hoping that the royalties from these books will take care ofhis family in his absence. They were not bad books. Most of the great playwrights normally complete a play within a month … (40).

It is a highly perceptive Ebereonwu who argues that the so-called ‘haste’ which is a relative term has nothing to do with the final product. For him, since “a good book and a bad book can be done within the same duration” one can then appreciate that “there is no time duration for writing a good book”(40).

On the question of grammar and literary creativity, beyond drawing our attention to the principle of deviance as a stylistic attribute as seen in Saro Wiwa’s Sozaboy and Samuel Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners, Ebereonwu makes the following submission:

The fundamental issue is that English literature and English language are poles apart ….language deals with communication ….which is more important to literature. Ada is a boy is grammatically a correct sentence .But if it happens that Ada is a girl then the wrong meaning has been communicated. Grammatical laws have equally proven to be something you can’t really bet your finger on. English language is not governed by rules of grammar alone. Conventions and traditions sometime mitigate grammatical rules. As such based on the rules of noun and verb concord ‘I is not happy’ is grammatically correct. But English language tradition simply prefers the verb ‘am’ in this situation. I don’t want to be misunderstood as being an advocate of bad grammar. I am simply saying to these judges: Are you sure of what you are saying or did you misunderstand the context by which some of the grammars are constructed?” (42).

Pertinentquestion. Quintessential Ebereonwu. When comes another who will combine humour withseriousness in both creative and critical writing?

Concerning the question of standards and evaluation criteria, Ebereonwu in arguing that “the reasons the judges deduced for their embarrassing verdicts lack merit” remarks as follows:

The job of the judge is to pick the first among the submissions. The contest is among the submissions … can’t withdraw a Prize because the standard was below the previous year’s, or because you expect succeeding years to be higher. Standard comes as a gradual process as the award’s own recognition improves. If the errors in the submissions could not stop them from selecting three books for honourable mention, why did the errors stop them from only awarding the prize? Why did they take the 13 short-listed candidates on a wild goose tour? (42).

Well, although Ebereonwu probably never read E.E. Sule’s take on the NLNG prize to be published much later in The Ker Review, he kept to his assessment of the first NLNG literature prize till his death. That is how far he can go to defend members of his core literature constituency and, more especially, his often denigrated generation of writers.

Whether we are reflecting on the sword-sharp satires presented by Ebereonwu in his portrayal of religion in his film script, Beyond the Vow, his drama, Cobweb Seduction, and in the poems, “Hear who is talking” and “Bury the bishop inside the brothel”(because my daughter’s son resembles him/ My Adaku that went to catechism /Had got a wholly communion/which rounded her stomach (Suddenly God was Naked 33) or the misadventures of the political class in both Cobweb Seduction, and his film, King of the Jungle, there is no doubt that as man and artist, Ebereonwu shared a lot in common with the Satirist in Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. In real life as in art, Ebereonwu would agree with Rushdie’s Baal that the work of the artist is “to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world and stop it from going to sleep”(6). With his core creative work, literary and filmic, as with his essays, Ebereonwu made sure that he stopped the world from going to sleep by starting arguments that continue toresonate in ANA and Nollywood circles. In this inheres Ebereonwu’s inimitability, infectiousness and durability as can be seen in the phrasing, content and logic of Cobweb Seduction, Suddenly God was Naked, Unpublishablepoems, Nero’s Lodge, among others.

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1 comment May 11, 2007 - 1:03 pm

I really enjoyed reading your article. I had never heard of Paul Obinali Eberenowu, for I am an African American. Therefore, I looked him up on a website, and found more interesting facts as well. The website is:

My husband is Nigerian and will be joining me in the states in June. Therefore, I am trying, through him, and many other ways, to find out more about Nigeria and Africa period.

You wrote a very nice memorial to him.


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