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

by Ugochukwu Ejinkeonye

[In 2002, Chinedu Ogoke, a Nigerian writer resident in Germany published his first novel, Under Fire. His second novel is being awaited. In this interview with UGOCHUKWU EJINKEONYE, Mr. Ogoke speaks on his work and the state of African Literature in relation to the still thorny issue of audience definition]


When we talked in September 2003, after the publication of your first novel, Under Fire (2002), you said you already had the outline of another novel, how soon should we expect to read the novel?

2003! That is already an age. You mean I have allowed so much time to pass without coming up with another work? Phew, in that time, two novels ought to have been breathing on the table.

I had thought that what I had had been brought to a stage and so laid out that one should just do a smooth drive and that would be it. How wrong I was. Some pages of the outline, which is elaborate, have gone missing. Snatched away by the wind of time. I built a pattern, though simple, that requires a reorientation to keep it going. I have found myself in an undesirable situation whereby I have to walk through the worlds I meant to depict, or replay events in those contexts. I have to rediscover our people’s speech habits and choice of words to construct such scenes. Something like that. They are not inconclusive outlines, but whole portions gone missing. You cannot insert peanuts for perm kernels and expect a flow. The right attitudes have to be found in the appropriate places.

Besides, my current research work came in and has to get priority attention. That naturally, caused some delays. Unless this current project gets out of the way, the manuscript will be lying where it is at the moment. The research work is boring. I detest conventions, and this is what I am forced to do. Rules here and there. Flowery language may be unwelcome here, which takes away the fun and the urge to move ahead with it. Assuming it were a novel, I wouldn’t need a driving license in every corner or adhering to a thousand traffic rules.

In fact, I work on the novel once in a while as a kind of push for the project at hand. Else even the project will be there, with nothing going. One third of the novel has been written, which includes the last page. Let’s see; by the end of this year, 2008, we can be talking about a conclusion of a second novel. Publishing is something else, for obvious reasons.

Thank you. How much of African and Nigerian Literature is being studied in Germany?

German society is served by as much African Studies as the country requires. A German student who finds himself or herself in a classroom for African Studies understands his or her business there is a foundation for eventual social work in Africa. When one turns to a lecturer of African Studies, the reasons might be different. From the score sheet of African studies, the University of Bayreuth takes the lead here. The spirit for which it has been recognized manifests even now. Presently, it has a series of events that runs like a continuous programme in any university anywhere.

In Mainz, there is the Ethnology Department, which houses the famous Jahn Library. The library is presently headed by a young lady, Dr. Anja Oud. It is awash with African books. The largest collection of African books in the whole world, I am told. This is mere aspiration than the fact, I guess. For all I know, a visitor will see as many books as possible. How they have been able to lift even the most unlikely books to the place is interesting. The response to the need for those books, while neglecting the use of the very books, is a great puzzle. There are insufficient courses, lecturers and purposes for so many books. So, the books lie there idle. The Ethnology Department is certainly home to the largest collection of African music worldwide. The man responsible for this is a Prof. Wolfgang Bender. He had had assistance from one Bayo. Ow-, the other name is elusive. Once, I benefited from a well-attended promo on Nollywood given by one Professor Frings.

Yet, compared with the situation in the USA, UK or Canada, African Studies here is at the kindergarten stage. In the Ethnology Department, they are under-funded. Students are brought face to face with scholars from Africa through a commendable exchange programme. Why Africans only have to come and go remains a puzzle. Like Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo was in Bayreuth some time in 2006.

Elsewhere, African literature has really not qualified to ride in the same vehicle as say American literary studies or English literary studies. This is not far removed from the prestige that accompanies these literatures and cultures. In the English and Linguistics departments the closest students may come to anything African is the encounter with the name Nnamdi Azikiwe in Langston Hughes’ poems, or Onwuchekwa Jemie’s work on Langston Hughes, all in African American Studies. In which case, Jemie’s and Azikiwe’s roots are lost. In the library, Chinua Achebe’s and Wole Soyinka’s books may lie below an often visited book, the latter hardly noticed. Their literary status here is hardly diminished, for they are well represented in people’s leisure time, especially in the hands of people desirous of good literature. Ken Saro-Wiwa is the most prominent personality.

What do you think accounts for Ken Saro-Wiwa’s prominence, the quality of his work, his struggles or manner of death?

It has to do with the type of prominence bestowed upon oil politics. Worldwide, oil has a special place in news coverage. The quality of Saro-Wiwa‘s work has little to do with it. A girl with an African parent and I once honoured him (Saro-Wiwa) with a presentation. We were marketing what we thought was a good product. People were there yearning for their own Saro-Wiwa encounter and we had to satisfy that. In doing it, I was fully aware of what projecting him meant to my roots.

If you took away the struggle and the manner of death, and without the signature of an African dictator, the fan base wouldn‘t have grown out of probably Africa or the UK. You know, Sani Abacha was unpopular in the West, because he was stingy. He forgot the rules of the game, wouldn‘t let the naira depreciate and so made enemies with the wrong people. You don‘t get away with such acts. In spite of the disguises, Saro-Wiwa and Moshood Abiola were rallying points for them. We will never fail to point out what is injustice, which was what Saro-Wiwa‘s was. If you can get that type of picture from Africa, of the innocence associated with literature on one hand and the brutish force on the other, you will have people coil around lit candles, and dance to the drumbeats of those media people. It was all a pre-arranged fight and one of the best plots in our time. Like, I guess, it was you who once pointed that out in a write-up; they must have whispered to Abacha that Saro-Wiwa wasn‘t untouchable. If a Saro-Wiwa were to be pushed into Robert Mugabe‘s hands and no love is shown to the writer, the story would be heard far and near.

Okay, let’s return to the issue of readership of African literary works. I doubt if this matter of under-readership also applies to writers whose works are available in German. Achebe’s works, for instance, were translated into German many years ago.

The need has to be there for the works to be translated. They haven‘t taken much notice of African works. Achebe‘s is like something that is there but out of sight. Things Fall Apart is like an African Beowulf. You wonder if somebody wrote it and disappeared. That is his dilemma. The West is the giver and taker of literary life, and one in charge of the African creative estate. On the other hand, the African writer is an orphan, an adopted child. He has to operate within some accepted standards, and listen to the voice of his guardian, who reports to a higher authority, the Western reader. On the idea of transforming our society into a large reading audience, one Segun Fajemisin, a publisher in Britain, once in a private discussion, suggested that flyers of novels should be slipped into home video CD sleeves, perhaps to invoke the home video magic. That is, making literature part of the menu. This means that Nollywood could pass the message around. There is the easy-to-listen audio arrangement that has gained currency in Europe. That way, consumption of the product may not interfere with every day things like driving. So also, with incentives, we can get crowds to listen to writers read from their works.

We can begin from the home, by making entertainment literature visible in the house. By extension creating a fantasy world within the home that connects with the outside world. Parents will then routinely make their children tell them about the stories they read recently and vice versa. As a child I was myself partly led into the exciting worlds of mathematics and fiction by an elder brother. I found myself aged maybe six listening to the Medusa mythology from a sister of mine. The story was very complex, but the sensation the broken pieces therein left in my head perhaps was helpful. Besides, the powers of the images of Hercules and the two snakes held in his hands, and of orangutans from a book I won as a member of a youth volunteer society entitled Wonders of Nature really did sink in. Every household needs these siblings of mine. My parents were far removed from the scene. Sadly, it was short-lived. I also wouldn’t forget us children partly encircling a village lad and listening to akuko ifo or folk tales. Victoria Ezeokoli did try to re-enact this on TV. But you get these results if you have the African family intact. The family we have come to know today is one left to the care of the Nigerian reality. Now, we don’t know how to get our children back to schools. We need divine help to pull them out of internet cafes, from hawking on the streets, etc. The family has to be put back. Unfortunately, we let the extended family branch fall away, and every other thing is going with it.

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