If we talk about something being fulfilling, Nigerian society rewards people who can boast of patronage, which is what a relationship with the West brings. The question is: what are publishers looking for in a book? Readers in turn would want to spend their money and time for brilliantly written stories. The scenery as painted in a novel may fail to excite a certain reader. In Nigeria, if you draw a line around most writers, you discover they are hardly on the side of justice. They haven’t made us see that they are sincere. A danger can go on as long as the edge of the murderous sword is directed elsewhere.
Each time I hear an African writer demonstrate so eloquently this obsession with Western readers, I am always very uncomfortable; does it really mean that the success of the African writer, every African writer, must necessarily be dependent on his ability to successfully win the heart of the Western reader?
I observe some insincerity in the fact that for an African work to be heard it should exhibit or contain elements that will make Western publishers and readers look kindly at it. Which is the requirement for success. And, has it stopped being the fashion to seek for literary glory overseas? If the market doesn’t exist here, writers definitely will get up if they can and walk away. Besides, it is currently the puzzling nature of literary business between Africa and the West. It conforms to the postcolonial practice of the Chinese or Americans lifting your oil, a hired Italian technician (no offence intended) running to the pulpit, an unlit cigarette in his lips, to tap a malfunctioning microphone, during a church service. It was the least I expected of Nigeria during a visit that oil wealth wasn’t accompanied with ability of the locals to fix even such minor things. Youths in Nigeria live from one Premier League day to another Premier League day; that is from Arsenal-Manchester to Manchester-Arsenal, with their backs turned on Nigerian football. Factions have been built in Nigeria around these clubs. These realities have endured for so long that it’s the only form in which our lives are shaped. It all has a lot to do with literature. Like you have foreign based players, so you have writers who have certified that the material needs of their vocation cannot be satisfied within Nigeria. Let’s say that the oil boom being experienced at the moment may provide a little support for our literature, but that would still be an abnormal growth, since financial well-being derived from a condition where the Nigerian people are at the borderline of what is happening at the oil rigs, and with oil supply being unpredictable, if you don’t look past the oil gushing out of your backyard, and it dries up, if your economy is solely driven by this oil, when it dries up, you dry up. For the writer, the prize is bigger outside. Writers you referred to, can only change their minds if we make structural changes. Only then will there be hope
You seem to believe so much that literary progress is largely dependent on the economic growth in a given society?
Yes, and built on a stable platform.
What of your own work, how has it been received in Germany? Also, do you think people in Nigeria have been able to discover it?
Germany is not a fertile ground for African literature. African literature cannot free itself from the continent’s images of Rwanda, Dafur, etc. Only few African works have been perceived distinctly from these accumulated images that have refused to go away. In some quarters, I have been received much more than the novel. It is difficult to classify the book. There hasn’t been consistency, I have to admit. Personally, I don’t want to be robbed of my little freedom. I have refused to meet modest success at the deserved rendezvous. I have been able to extract myself from the scrutiny associated with success of any degree, to embrace the life on the street where I would be unnoticed. With my cooperation, the novel would have asserted itself much more effectively. Creatively, I can go anywhere with my fantasy. I can roam various spheres. I am aware of my skills. On the novel, there have been gratifying forwarded messages like “Tell Chinedu Ogoke, I can’t wait to read his next novel!” The novel isn’t a lightweight among works from my part of the world. Even when I had had to write essays in German and among people of various nationalities, the content of what I had put down had often drawn attention to me. The celebrity environment is a domain writers share with other artists. This thing is of great value. If I have been received, then yes, the book has been received. How far the book can go is not in question, but how far it has gone, is difficult to say.
We don’t have figures from sales in Nigeria. That market has been left to the mobile phone marketers and so on. I haven’t reckoned with that market. If one out of every five students in Nigeria leaves the book out of his or her reading lists, then there is cause for concern. Here you have a book that celebrates them. But they haven’t discovered it. That is clear.
I still believe that enough of the right things have not been done to exploit the potential large market in Nigeria. What really have Nigerian writers, publishers and educational institutions done to revive reading culture among the populace? I remember Chinua Achebe revealing the sales figures of his books in a lecture in the sixties and showing that he had more readers in Nigeria than all other places put together, so what has happened to change that?
The gulf between the huge Nigerian population and the type of literature we‘re talking about is deeper than is apparent. With the forces against change fortifying their positions, hardly anything will be achieved. Lecturers and educational institutions should be prominent voices for change, which sadly they‘re not. They should seek the type of arrangement you have in Europe. As a ruler and as a nation, you need shoulders to stand on, as well as the people‘s consent to confront the world. You can‘t lead the people with a padlock on their lips, their hands tied behind them and with guns on their heads. You can‘t demand loyalty from me when there is litigation on your office and Nigeria‘s legitimacy. The Nigerian question needs our attention, and can‘t be wished away. In Nigeria, going to federal house is always in response to ethnic summons. We can see what the sprinkle of autonomy did somewhere, when after World War 11 Onitsha Market Literature (OML) with its gracefulness held sway. The circumstance spilled over to Chinua Achebe and the rest of them, hence that comment. Think of a currently thriving OML standing condemned in an Obasanjo‘s eyes.
You can‘t build on sand dumped by sea waves. Literature has to be powered by democracy. Readers thirst for that recreation of life as stroked by the writer‘s pen. The book is something to fall in love with. It is romance that‘s involved and a directionless and insecure society chases away potential lovers. If we do what is necessary, that most cherished entertaining literature will find calm waters to drop its anchor and the people will get on board.
Despite the trying situation in Nigeria today, youths can still be encouraged to read once the right things are done. Writers’ bodies could collaborate with the electronic media to awaken society’s interest in literary works through even jingles. You would remember that as youths, we were always given reading lists for the holiday period, but all that appear to have gone now. Youths used to compete among themselves who read more books; we have to find ways of reviving all that, if the literary enterprise would see tomorrow in our society. I think the writer should naturally be at the forefront, but that doesn’t seem to be happening.
Yea, then there was the talk of who did what. We had to listen to someone‘s entire narration about a novel just read. It all conveyed a faith in books. One read texts inherited from relations, and distant cousins. The books contained information on the inside front covers and other places about their names, schools, like St. Catherine‘s Girls, Akabo Girls, Ndoki Grammar School, Abba Techs etc. Those people were valuable in the form of motivation. They left us with things to forge ahead with, therefore a tradition endured. We have to understand that the 50s to 60s Nigeria had some influence on that period when the books I mentioned were still available. But Nigeria has drifted too far away from that path. We don’t like the tune the West is playing but must dance to it. There is Western dictatorship in its fullness. In that 50s, 60s and into the 70s, the African merely found a new playground. He linked up with the African Diaspora to form a formidable team. He had his own share in literary criticism, where to patch and mend and what to ignore when it came to African literature. He went further to point fingers at what he felt about European literature and culture. On a good day, people hardly walked the streets of Paris without perceiving the presence of the African writer. Some writers showed assumed disrespect to the West with books like Pepper Clark’s America Their America. The West was cautious, unsure of our potentials. Now they have come knocking, everything sounds hollow. The African cultural base is now weak. The relationship is now specified. They have to endorse everything. We have scientists we can’t use, writers whose works benefit others. If you are singing before a world audience, of course, it is good to make effort to be understood, but in literature you shouldn’t carry it so far that we won’t find traces of your culture in your work.
Let us say that they have been fair with their criticism, but partly because they criticize what they allow to make it to their table. It will take that African to appreciate African art and interpret it to the world.
Ugochukwu Ejinkeonye, a Nigerian journalist and writer, is a columnist and member of the Editorial Board, Daily Independent newspaper. He is the author the book, NIGERIA: Why Looting May Not Stop (firstname.lastname@example.org)