The West Is The Giver And Taker Of Literary Life – Chinedu Ogoke, Nigerian Writer

by Ugochukwu Ejinkeonye

There is some hope, however. Recently I was a guest at literary an “Outreach Programme” organized in a secondary school by the Imo State Branch of the Association of Nigeria Authors (ANA), and I was excited at the measure of interest the kids displayed towards literary works. If such events are intensified, I think it would go a long way to reinvent the significant interest in readership of literary works. Or you don’t think so?

The recruitment drive at that stage as you witnessed is remarkable. The benefit will be no doubt immense. But the goal shouldn‘t be raising readers from among them who would lack books to read, or people who would have stories to tell and would want to be heard, but wouldn‘t exercise any of that. Not when failure has been arranged in advance for them. Definitely, we will not spoil their fun if the institution of the right circumstances will come before or coincide with their maturity.

I notice that our celebrated writers have found themselves being mobbed by these kids during literary workshops. It‘s welcome, but it will be awkward to conceive something without directing the energies into texts. We shouldn‘t be too preoccupied with those events without raising the literacy rate or political awareness in the country. University admissions, you will agree, are now prohibitive. We are deprived of reading moving stories like the type a friend told me recently about his childhood. If you spent a part of your teen years in a village between Abeokuta and Port Harcourt, it may also be your untold story. The friend and I agreed his story was not unique, but it ought to cease being just faint images in our consciousness. It is not found in any book. Now, imagine such thrilling experiences that happened on that stretch of land never being reported. Our oral traditions made certain that such gaps or ecological dilemmas never existed. To go back to my point again, literature is very sensitive. It only thrives in a democratic setting. Nigeria isn‘t a democracy.

What can you say about the dominance of subsidy publishing, or what the Americans call, “Vanity Press” in the Nigerian literary scene – where writers either have to print their own works or sponsor its publication?

It is disturbing. Yet, it‘s inevitable. What‘s behind it is resisting the hostile forces that intend to stem the flow of literature. Well, if there is no ladder available to climb to the top, people have to device ways of getting up there. Publishing houses can‘t assemble good teams to work with given the problems in Nigeria. Nigeria overflows with talents whose abilities publishers can tap into. Without editorial input, someone in that capacity bending over the manuscripts, like Irene Staunton, the publisher of the Baobab Press, did with some Zimbabwean writers, literature in Nigeria will only manage to stand over its mediocre neighbours,’ and short of expectations. It’s the case with a movie, which needs a director’s competence to modify certain elements for desirable results. Also, it has to be linked to a good distribution network. ANA is simply handicapped by its short-sightedness.

Like I said earlier, language may be a strong barrier in those Western nations where English is not the official language, like Germany. Because works of Nigerian writers are better known in the UK, for instance. Apart from Achebe and a few others, how many other Nigerian writers have had their works translated into German, for instance? You don’t feel some interpreters and language scholars, especially, of African descent, have not done enough in this regard?

Language is without doubt a factor. But the problem is more of attitude. Use of English has developed so much that the population with this knowledge at its disposal can consume the trickle that comes in. The people have a strong appetite for books. Unless you have a book that does to everyone what Things Fall Apart does to people, pushing an African book into someone’s hand is like handing him a bitter pill. The contents of African works are in conflict with the local taste. Readers are reluctant to explore Africa with Africans as tour guides. I am not making the connection of appreciating African literature because of it being unusual.

The source of the material plays a role. They dedicate their time and resources exclusively to much advertised concepts. The same thing goes for cuisine. Chinese restaurants are popular. In effect, Chinese products, including its literature, benefit from this development. The new interest area now is the Middle East. Latest events in the world make the people curious. You don’t also rule out old traditions. Assuming Africa begins to command some respect around the world, its literature will be popular here. The Harry Potter series are especially popular because the writer is a British woman. When David Beckham dons your jersey, you obviously will smile to the bank. An Austin Okocha may not get such following in spite of all the wonders credited to him on the pitch. We should find a way of redesigning the African image, clearing away the backlog of slavery, colonialism and neo-colonialism. Previous attempts to correct these have, sadly, been futile.

Many works by writers from Nigeria can be read in German. Saro Wiwa, Soyinka, Achebe, Chimamanda Adichie, Nkem Nwankwo, etc. And even a new guy, Francis Obimma, who just rolled up his sleeves here and started writing, debuted only in 2006 is about to join that club. Somebody looked at the young man’s work and decided the state should put its translation services at his disposal.

African scholars can play a role by preparing the home turf, and letting the world know about the good news from Africa. Promise Ogochukwu is doing her part by establishing the Soyinka Prize. A writer putting up a structure and allowing another writer to walk away with $20,000! When we hold up the hands of one of our own so high, Europeans will take note. When what applies to some of our frontline books also apply to a book like Obinkaram Echewa’s I Saw The Sky Catch Fire, then we can talk about clear perceptions by African writers and critics. Standards must be maintained but African critics must employ new tactics in their criticisms. African scholars must endeavour to free Africans, Europeans, Asians and everybody from neo-colonialism. A lot cannot be reversed, but we must decolonize everybody’s mind. The result will be Africans bankrolling events like the late Zimbabwean Book Fair; organs like the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) and the African Book Collective will have to be strengthened.

Your work was not published in Nigeria. Is there any form of collaboration with a Nigerian publisher to have the book adequately exposed to Nigerian readers?

It hasn’t been published in Nigeria. I wish the second one would first make its appearance in Nigeria, before making the trip outside. There is no collaboration to do that. I would have received a call from my publishers if there has been any interest emanating from Nigeria. Though insignificant, there has been an uninterrupted flow of copies to Nigeria. This shows that the people over there are not unaware of the book. The publishers also have this information. They have to bring the book home.

When last did you re-read your novel? Did you have any cause to feel it could do with some form of revision, or even editorial input?

Last time was late last year. I take it off the shelf occasionally to read it in a critical way. No considerable length at a time. Definitely, aspects responsible for some scary remarks about the novel have to be revised. It‘s sad if the book has to suffer more for those lapses than it is considered worthy of acclaim. There have been criticisms I consider unhelpful. One critic, Professor Shuiabu Oba AbdulRaheem, a former vice chancellor of University of Ilorin, passed a judgment on the novel with which I agree. He developed an argument using especially my novel in a paper he delivered at an annual Lecture of the Nigerian Academy of Letters (NAL) in 2005. His assessment of the novel included very severe criticisms. The judgment I find interesting was his observation that “Although Chinedu Ogoke does write vividly, the same kind of critical fate which excluded the likes of Cyprian Ekwensi’s Jagua Nana from the ranks of the great Nigerian novels will, regrettably, overtake this exciting, juvenile novel.“ I know it is necessary that the book emerges from that rear position, where it wasn‘t intended to be in the first place. Identifying its weaknesses personally isn‘t easy, though. But I am aware I still have some work to do to make it catch up with those other works. Other things have my attention now, like the one about to join the small family, which is the second novel.

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