“The old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum there arises a great diversity of morbid symptoms.” – Antonio Gramsci
“You, who was born for poetry’s creation,
Do not repeat the sayings of the ancients.” – Anna Akhmatova
“The will of man is beyond surrender.” – Wole Soyinka
“Why is the first window that opens out on this fictional world the consciousness of an idiot?” -J.P Sartre on William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury”
A writer’s business is to voyage into and take up commands at the threshold of consciousness; and report back freely the news of what is there. This is why the writer in any society being a freelance explorer of spiritually dense zones gains a certain license to behave differently from other people, to be eccentrics in order to fulfil the singularity of his/her vocation in the society. The definition of madness is arbitrary and at most political. The term madness fixes limits and could be exploited for alienating and repressive use; the frontiers of madness define who is ‘Other.’ The exemplary writer is a broker in madness because therein lies the powers of the new. And so when a writer accuses the other of being mad, we should ask what is his definition of madness? In the service of what idea is this definition and in whose interest is this idea?
I read with dismay Odia Ofeimun in his poem Anarch of Hubris (Sunday Mirror, 25 June 2006) deeming Chiedu Ezeanah, a younger poet, a mad, drunkard, morally irresponsible individual who mortgages resources for his wife and daughter to red-light captains simply because Ezeanah self-assertively queries Ofeimun in a soki poem, The Spinner of Dialectics (Sentinel Poetry, #43, June 2006) on why Ofeimun had to release larger doses of himself into his private life. Interestingly, their use of poetry as such flows from the tradition of the neoclassical poets: John Dryden, Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, William Congreve and such use had spun brilliant masterpieces like The Rape Of The Lock, MacFlecknoe, The Dunciad. Had I not reckoned the physics of paradigm shift and boundary maintenance, I would have disqualified my mind and pen from the fray. The godfatherly overstretch is a figuration in the process the older generation employs to pollute the progressive conditions that make vigorous, serious and necessary literature viable. The new Nigerian writer even before s/he is born or converted to one is already encumbered with the triple tropes of sleaze: enfeebling tuitions, philistine criticisms and standards, and insidious paternalism.
Unfortunately, Ibadan has yielded reluctantly its esteemed place as the capital of Nigerian literature and literary criticism to Lagos which unlike the days of Ibadan, is too considerate, obedient, compliant, kabiyesi-ish, worshipful, offensive to life of significant contentions, germane to received and comfortable positions and attitudes, and more about literary politics and self-posturing than critical vitality and qualitative literary tradition. In fact Lagos is an Absurdistan where to write and to line up are synonymous verbs; whereas continual rebellion is the driving force of aesthetic dynamism. Ever since this change of seat, there has being just one man, a Don, who does not entertain questioning, whose over dozen year dictatorship coincides with the inevitable loss called ‘the lost generation’ and his own inevitable literary leanness.
Says Helon Habila: “Odia Ofeimun was probably the most influential and the most visible poet in Nigeria. He was something of a cult figure among young poets, and few poetry books were published in Lagos during the 1990s without his name among the acknowledgements.” (Granta 80: The Group). He later adds: “Some of my friends advised me to get close to Odia Ofeimun, because in Lagos he decided who won which competition.”
Undeniably, Ofeimun cannot ‘blind himself to putrefying carcases in the market place pulling giant vultures from the sky’, nor can one refute that The Poet Lied is not a cherished addition to the Nigerian canon, nor that Ofeimun in Postmodernism and the Impossible Death of An African Author is not of obese intelligence, nor that Ofeimun of Imagination and the City is not a superb literary archivist. Chinua Achebe offers a good paradigm in Arrow of God where the people of Aninta set fire to and crush their god because he refuses to serve them and in its place installed another god. More pertinent here is the Yoruba mythological paradigm of Atunda, the first insurrectionary grand iconoclast. At the birth of time, his revolutionary initiative of rolling a stone over his master Orisanla (god of purity and father of the gods) disintegrating him – the original godhead into countless debris so that there is not just one god but many gods. That action liberated humanity from the divine tyranny of theism and monotheism. It inaugurated continued gustiness, revolution, fragmentation, individuality vis-à-vis heterogeneity and their other polysemic significations which in the Ibadan days of actively progressive scholarship were the impelling credos not only in spirituality but also the choice of literary teacher, mentor, critic, muse, discipline, genre of fiction or type of literature, worldview and epistemological system.
The scene changes to a venue of the Lagos readings of Sefi Atta’s Everything Good Will Come in October 2005. From the floor came a comment from the chairman of a big publishing house: that some days before he was terribly disgusted to see someone deliver a public lecture with a laptop. He was alluding to Dele Olojede, the Pulitzer Prize co-winner who rendered a lecture during NLNG award ceremony. The question is: what is bad in the new possibility of giving a lecture from a laptop? How come this ‘experienced mind’ in literature obstinately persistent in things of the past, whose interest is not magnetised by a dosage of custom-bending features which is what imagination and creativity is all about be a juror of literary prizes? Even more. His company feeding on past glory has not discovered any new writer in the last 20 years. The textbook publishing that is their staple is a process of recycling annually old textbooks that are long overdue for revision. The company like all others (Macmillan, Heinemann, Longmans, Evans, University Press) are yet playing notorious roles in keeping the WAEC and NECO literature curriculum reading lists caked. To mention a few. For African prose, on WAEC’s syllabus, the newest title is Buchi Emecheta’s The Joys Of Motherhood (1979) and on NECO’s (founded 5 years ago) Animata Sow Fall’s A Beggars Strike. For African Drama, on WAEC’s is Athol Fugard’s Sizwe Bansi is Dead (1972) and on NECO’s, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Micere Mugo’s Trial Of Dedan Kimathi (1976).
Students are in all directions fed cognitively with information, themes and atmospheres that history has overtaken and left museum caryatids. Whereas when those books were enlisted, they were refreshingly and contextually relevant. When Odia Ofeimun first appeared in Idoto, the University of Ibadan English Department journal in 1975 and was again included in Wole Soyinka’s Poems of Black Africa (1975), the curriculum quickly accommodated the young poet as the latest happening to literature worth studying. Can the embalmed syllabus do the same today to bombs like Rotimi Babatunde, Kunle Okesipe, Tolu Ogunlesi or a Chimamanda Adichie?
Charles Nnolim’s essay Contemplating Contemporary Nigerian Fiction (Guardian Friday, 5 August 2005) wherein he abducts new writers into a ‘flesh school,’ upbraids their works as flattering debauchery, corruption, irreligion and lacking fidelity to any serious theme or ideological commitment unlike the first generation of African writers (he broadens to Africa) who had as their theme: “the fight against apartheid and colonialism.” For the second generation, the fight is “for social equality, for feminism.” For the third, (he narrows to Nigeria) there is “no clear thematic focus. If anything they depict a people adrift, hedonistic, cowed…people lost in the imbecility of futile optimism, hoping that materialism and the pursuit of dirty lucre will compensate for the nation’s soul.” Nnolim discloses himself as a puritan like the Victorian critics who treat literature like a branch of moral argument. Any critic is entitled to his own wrong judgment, but certain lapses of judgment indicate a copious sensibility deficit. And they are not just isolated mistakes of judgement, but are proposing standards that call for assent.
Literature is special; it accommodates any level of language, any plot, any style, any ideas, any information. In short, it is open and free. Politics is ideological. Religion is dogmatic. Why should literature be stimulated along some predetermined patterns or goals even when the goals are considered desirable for the health of the society? Why should the fluid operations of the creative mind be constructed around certain frameworks of ideological intent or around the exigencies of engagement?
The responsibility of writers is to make an ingredient out of their immediate surroundings. Quality comes from the creative processing of this fund of ingredients, his speculative – probing relationship without declaring at once in advance ideological relations to this fund. To enlist literature at the service of an interest or ideology, in effect is bound to impose an intolerable strain on the imaginative faculty.
It is inaccurate to sum up the outputs of first generation as motivated by a predetermined commitment; they were just prima facie interested in how the colonial encounter has shaped the culturalscape for good or ill. Ditto for the second generation. The honour of literature is its capacity to pay attention to and develop a quarrel with(in) the social order and this is the unifying sensibility at work in writings across the genres and across the generations in the trajectory of Nigerian literature. A body of literature from diverse writers historigraphically unified only by time is insusceptible to easy summaries and categorizations. It is replete with complexities, tensed with (sub) thematic contradictions and every of its walls are unavoidably fluid. The critic must have those in mind as an operational background.
The figures of this different generations have not stop writing. And more, many have published works in generations not designated as his/her own. Flora Nwapa, Gabriel Okara, Buchi Emecheta, J.P. Clark, Chinua Achebe, Festus Iyayi, Tess Onwueme, Femi Osofisan, have published works up till the later generation(s) and the have concerned themselves with realities, visions and anxieties of these later generations. This makes the man-made partitions of generational grand themes shift about and crumple making room for the project of intertextuality, collective dialogue across time. Such that when Nnolim says that the first generation burdened itself with ‘the fight against apartheid and colonialism’ it is easy to look at their later works and see no such fights but the current zeitgeist. When he says the second generation press their work as vectors of ideological theories, social justice, and feminism, it is easy to look at their later works as see no such thing but the status quo. And so when he says the new Nigerian writing is replete with hedonism, corruption and idioms of debauchery, it is easy to recognize the older works’s ‘grand themes’ resonating similarly. Ejike Eze’s dalliance with Ndidi in Omo Uwaifo’s Fattening House (2001) is no less debauched than the adultery involving Adisa and Obofun in Festus Iyayi’s Violence (1979). Chim Newton’s otherwise mediocre imitation of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Under The Cherry Tree (2003) is no less about debauchery than Mongo Beti’s Mission to Kala (1958), or Matei Markwei’s 1964 poem, Life in our Village. Maik Nwosu’s Alpha Song (2003) is no less about a country adrift, prurience, and inveterate beering than Soyinka’s The Interpreters (1965). In fact J.P. Clark, a first generation eminence, started off his non-fiction narrative, America, Their America (1964), “a book that established him as an able journalist, a keen social observer and critic,” with an account of himself, a willing participant, in bed with a call girl.
Alpha Song, the monstrance of Nnolim’s observations can be better assessed as a ceaseless quest of a deeper meaning to life than that given by the instincts and superficial affections alone or read as some allegory of a gnostic conflict of the spirit and body, the depletion of the possibilities of life of the mind by those in power whose day policies not only enlarge the army of the night but also lengthen night itself.
Soyinka in 1972 was part of the jury together with Lewis Nkosi and Martin Esslin that commended Jagjit Singh’s play for BBC African performance, Sweet Scum of Freedom, for “daring to [put] a prostitute into the centre of a play without moralizing about it,” and for “successfully point[ing] out that flesh seems to transcend the basic superficial prejudices.” The life of a whore is the most radical metaphor for the act of lending oneself to others. The ultimate the armed forces, the politicians, the religionists with the omnipotence of their God, the human rights and democracy activists at home and abroad, and the concerned international community could not execute to forestall the impending doom General Abacha was dragging to the nation, prostitutes did it. They offered liberation to a nation of 130 million people! The deed of course becomes a metaphor; a revalidation of the role of red light activity in the society and hence an asset to the literary imagination.
Charles Nnolim is a professor of authority who moulds young minds and he happens to be a judge of literary prizes so he matters. The coy self-textualization of the ravaging impact of the cancerous mushrooming of churches on himself is obvious when he urged on his view against the new literature in the final peroration with which his essay concludes. “In spite of the proliferation of churches,” he writes, “God is dead in recent Nigerian fiction, completely edged out by materialism and Epicureanism… No major character in new Nigerian fiction goes to a religious service on Sunday and none kneels down to pray for God’s intervention in moments of crisis.”
This ghastly religious newspeak criticism deserves a little ancestry. In Nigeria, every minute is being reworked into a Sunday and a Friday. A weirdly increasing number of offices devote enough time at mornings to praise worships. Once you dissent, you are linked to hubris and any failure in that office. Yet in these alternative religions – Christianity and Islam inhere the most powerful and most organized force for anti-intellectualism and ecumenical philistinism. Not in their fanatic varieties since no distinction is evinced between the mainstream and the fringe when it comes to their catechesis on matters of thought and the cultural heritage. While Islam proposes alarmingly growing limits to the influence of literary imagination and places veto on impermissible thoughts, Christianity proposes rigid moralism and spiritual correctness. According to the prevailing Christian diagnosis of the Nigerian socio-political and economic condition, the decay started in 1977 when Nigeria hosted the Festival of Black Arts And Civilization (FESTAC 77) and from far and near “we allowed evil spirits and gods to be brought and worshipped from all over. So God has decided to punish us.” The native mode is always divined to be in sinful competition to God, the disseminator of evil spirits and maledictions. In 2001, Obafemi Awolowo University Ife hosted the 7th World Congress of the Orisha. Barely a week after, different Christian groups comprising lecturers and students mobilized for a mass crusade to sanitize the campus of all horrendous principalities of cosmos the congress had invited, to prevent students’ deaths, secret cultism, exam malpractices, and all evils that allegedly blaze the heels of such gatherings. One of the neo-textual by-products of this prowling irrationality in the field of literary criticism is Nnolim’s charge. Again says he: ”even with the proliferation of churches, God is dead in…no major character in new Nigerian fiction goes to a religious service….none kneels down to pray for God’s intervention in moments of crisis.”
This is equivalent to a piece of cheap proselytizing for a metaphysical possibility. None in Nigerian literature has done such and there is nothing wrong in never doing it. Because in life and literature, the budding generation does not will to bend or kneel down and commune with an almighty, Prof Charles Nnolim like Papa Eugene Achike in Purple Hibiscus’s opening spark “flung his heavy missal across the room and broke the figurines on the étagère” just because his irreverent and irreligious son, Jaja “did not go to communion” on Sunday.
The intellectuals, military, politicians, civil servants, and business gurus who ravaged Nigeria and set a standard of thorns for the young actively grace churches and mosques yet do not reckon any sin in wrecking the country and to distract, they employ godot tactics by urging the masses – their victim, to call on God, a force outside of history for solution. Toni Morrison’s Nobel acceptance lecture captures the emerging fire precisely: “Our inheritance is an affront. You want us to have your old, blank eyes and see only cruelty and mediocrity. Do you think we are stupid enough to perjure ourselves again and again with the fiction of nationhood? How dare you talk to us of duty when we stand waist deep in the toxin of your past?”
Much of the continued authority of prevailing literary standards is devoted to upping the threshold of what is terrible. The 2004 maiden edition of the NLNG prize could not be awarded because the judges discovered that all their shortlist was complete with errors. The shortlist is included in the matrix of fiction Nnolim’s essay chastises for lacking ideological focus et al. Though the judges still noted that the plagues of the previous year were active, Gabriel Okara’s The Dreamer, His Vision emerged as a co-winner. It was praised for having “a moral and spiritual meaning,” and “does not shy away from making political statements on the civil war and the devastation in the [Niger] delta” [my emphasis]. With its extant engaged standards, neither Shakespeare, nor Kafka nor Garcia Marquez’s Love in Time of Cholera, nor Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, nor Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Compliant (a story strong on some details of masturbation and other sexual adventures) nor any book with anything homosexual no matter how splendid it is treated can win the NLNG Prize. And we wish to have a respectable literary tradition?
The Pat Utomi Prize states that no work that has won any award elsewhere should be tabled in order to help other writers – financially of course. If a book has won £1000 commonwealth prize, or a N30, 000 ANA third place prize, or won a non-cash Farafina Online award, it cannot win the Pat Utomi N1million prize. By saying that, the prize has little or nothing to do with fostering literary excellence enhanced by comparative evaluations that is the purpose of judges. All things being equal, even if all judges are geniuses, they are prone to subjectivities. That a French book wins the Goncourt does not imply the Prix Novembre is its. More if the intention is to make easy room for younger writers, it is ruinous. Every distinguished writing career started as a personal quest to beat the status quo. In the UK, Zadie Smith’s On Beauty (2005) trounced established writers like Nobel Laureate J. Coetzee and Salman Rushdie to the shortlist. Adichie’s trounced heavyweights like Margaret Atwood to the 2004 Orange Prize shortlist. If a book is really great, it deserves to garner all the prizes available. This enriches standards. Other writers should submit themselves to self-punishing tutelage and harder work. The architects of the Pat Utomi prize can create grants, sponsor advances and fund writers’ resorts instead of the current magun (don’t climb) practice. It spells a greater peril. A prize should be designed chiefly to boost the readership of a book rather than enhance the financial station of the author.
Deola Bello, an emerging voice of the Yahoo generation continues the narrativization of this new sensibility in her poem The Quest (Farafina Online, January 2006) which is not expressly an endorsement of an ideological vision or the valences of cultural exocentricity but of the quest for irreligion, creative autonomy, free education, and liberation from the seductive shackles of prizes. She is worth full quote:
If it is true that I am a weed without roots
Flowing on the river with the whims of the wind
If to the beat of Bata I won’t dance
But instead sit at the sides and observe
Then let me be
In peace leave me.
The bat that refuses to fly except at night
Must have a reason for keeping malice with Sunlight
Tarry with me a little longer in a little madness
And I will show you the wisdom of folly.
If it is true that I refuse to make a sacrifice
Of three wraps of pap sprinkled with palm-oil
And placed in a calabash made of mire
To gods I know not who tarry at crossroads.
I will rather eat my food late at night
And go to bed with a full belly
After sacrificing to my stomach
But what about that calabash and the pap
That I saw at crossroads
It is most disgusting, I refuse to touch it
This is the reason why I sit in your midst
Telling you a parable, the story of my life
Like a sword, I assure you its sides are
For come nightfall the little dancer will surely dance
To the fine rhythm of a choice Samba by night
Gather round folks, let’s make merry
For here, behold the quest ends.