Immediately Chinua Achebe’s third novel, Arrow Of God, appeared in London in the early 1960s, a critical voice rang out from Lagos, in the journal, Nigeria Magazine, with the poser: “Achebe: Now A Sociologist or Novelist?” That question awakened a lot of interests and opened new vistas in the criticism of the works of Achebe who by then had become acknowledged as the best writer to come out of Africa. I.N.C. ANIEBO, the owner of that voice, and internationally known Nigerian writer, has been described as “the master-craftsman of the Nigerian Short Story.” Although he has published three collections of short stories, his novels, Anonymity of Sacrifice (AWS 148) and The Journey Within (AWS 206), both published by Heinemann, London, in 1974 and 1978 respectively, have attracted critical acclaim and established him as a significant African writer. His first collection of short stories, Of Wives, Talismans and the Dead (AWS 253) has been reprinted a number of times. The other two collections, Man of the Market and the award-winning Rearguard Action, has helped to consolidate his reputation as a skilled writer. Since 1979, Aniebo has taught Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Port Harcourt. A former officer in the Nigerian Army, he was trained at cadet schools in England and Ghana, and at the Command and General Staff College at Leavenworth, Kansas. He equally served in the UN Peace-keeping Force in the Congo(now DRC) as an officer. During the Biafra-Nigeria War, he fought on the Biafran side and was discharged in 1971. He later went to the University of California in Los Angeles(UCLA) where he took degrees in English and History. Aniebo’s several reviews and short stories are scattered in many magazines and journals around the world. As a prelude to a critical appraisal of Aniebo’s works to be soon published, UGOCHUKWU EJINKEONYE who was Aniebo’s student at the University of Port Harcourt shares an encounter with Aniebo in July 1995 in the don’s office. Aniebo was then Head, Department of English, University of Port Harcourt.
At a recent forum in Owerri, your work as a significant writer was acclaimed. Also, critics have continued to applaud what they view as your exceptional talent. Charles Nnolim, for instance, insists that in your first novel, The Anonymity of Sacrifice, all the usual flaws that normally attend first novels are “refreshingly” absent; can we deduce from these developments that there has equally been a tremendous financial success?
No, no … there has been very little financial reward, because … let’s see … The Anonymity of Sacrifice was published abroad and I was in the USA at the time it was published. Since I was a new writer, the sales didn’t begin to pick up; it was very, very gradual. Then, four years later, I published my The Journey Within which I thought would really make it better, but, somehow or the other, not too many people discovered The Journey Within, even though the critics loved it. When I came back here in 1979 and started teaching, I saw some reviews of that my book in French, which I had one of my colleagues translate into English. I couldn’t believe that this was being said about the novel I wrote. They praised it so much … but up till now, I can’t say I’ve gotten a lot of money out of it. So, even though people acknowledge that … yes … one critic did say something. He said that if this novel had been published in the early sixties, it would have been as famous as Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. So, probably, I wrote mine too late.
Despite the significant progress made in the definition and consolidation of what is today known as African Literature, doubts still linger in some quarters about its existence; do you think African Literature really exists? If yes, what is your definition of it?
Yes, of course, [African Literature exists]. There has been a lot of controversy about it. But you see, it’s like somebody looking at the sun and asking, “Do you believe in the sun?” But the sun is there. You are an African, I’m an African, okay. There is an African thought system. So, naturally there must be an African literature. It’s automatic. I mean, arguing whether it’s there or not is, to me, one of those stupid things the white people use … it’s like the white people saying that we don’t have African history. But we know we have history. After all, how did we get from there to here? That is history; not some stupid thing which they would rather make us believe in Nigeria that, until Mungo Park saw the River Niger, the Niger never existed, which is stupidity. We know that River Niger was there long before the great ancestors of Mungo Park ever thought of coming to Africa. So, how can you say that Mungo Park discovered the River Niger? That is a very stupid thing to say; he gave it a name and the stupid black people — I don’t know what is wrong with them — accepted that thing. Why should we call it River Niger? I’m sure that if you talked to the people who live on the banks of that river, that is, if you asked them, “What’s the name of this river?”, they will certainly give you about 1500 different names it has borne or still bears. So why don’t we pick one of these names or even take one letter from each one and form a word. No, we will accept the name River Niger, just as we have accepted Nigeria … Why should we be even called Nigeria? People keep mistaking us for Niger or Liberia. I mean, look at all the confusion, when you know that there are about two hundred and fifty different (groups of) people in this place. And they wish to bring the same confusion in African Literature. But there is African Literature. I believe in it, and to me, African Literature is that literature that contains African thought system and African life, period. Whether it is by a Mungoro or a Russian or a Jew, it’s relevant, because for the Jew to be able to write African literature, he must have lived in Africa before he can do it. Otherwise, he would be writing Jewish literatu
re about Africa. Take Mister Johnson by Joyce Cary for instance, that is not African literature. We know it because, as Chinua Achebe said, Mr. Johnson might have appeared stupid to the white man, but when he gets to his home, he is a big boss and he tells them what to do. And yet Joyce Cary was never able to capture that other life of Mr. Johnson; the only one he could capture was the one he saw from his white man’s point of view. He didn’t know that the blackman was playing games with him; you know that when he is with the white man, he behaves in a particular way, but when he goes home, he behaves like the real person he is. Just like a chameleon, if you are near, it takes your colour, as soon as you move away, it changes its colour to (match) its normal surroundings. That’s the way we are. Yeah, we have African Literature.
Thank you. Now, let’s look again at this very old debate that has become stale even before it has been successfully resolved. I’ll just use one example to illustrate what I mean. In 1964, John Knappert writing in the journal, Transition declared, “I do not think there can be any other African Literature but literature in African Language”; do you agree with him?
No, I don’t agree with that. Again, that’s another area we have argued and argued about. The problem as I see it is that very few, as of now, very few African writers can write in African language, because they never studied the African language. The language you use in literature is the language you know very well. I used to ask some of my Igbo friends, “when you think, do you think in Igbo or in English?” And sometimes, they can’t even tell me … they say, “well, well, you know, sometimes I think in Igbo.” For me, most of the time, I think in English. I have to consciously change it to think in Igbo. So, English, because I have practiced it, studied it virtually all my life except maybe from the first five years before I started going to school, I think I know that language as well as I can know any other language. Some to tell me that unless I write in Igbo, I’m not writing African literature is bullshit; unless you are now saying that I am not an African; then that’s a totally different matter. If they say I’m not an African, fine; then your definition is right, but I feel that with time, many more African languages will be used in creative writing, and when that happens, I also think that those Africans — this is in the future — will look for the works that were written in either English or French or Portuguese and translate them into the required language.
After all, think of the British; when did they start talking English? — in the 12th century; what were they doing for twelve hundred years? Didn’t they have a literature? They did. But at that time, they were either using French, because, the French had conquered them and stayed there. William the Conqueror in the 10th century, 1066 AD to be exact, conquered them and French was the official language in the palace of English Kings. Yes, for two centuries! That’s why when Chaucer started his English revolution, everybody hailed him. That’s why they call him the beginning of English Literature. So, the same thing is apparently happening to us. Some idiot came over here and forced us to now use English. We will continue to use it until we find something else to take its place. But that does not mean that all the things that were written or that were regarded as literature before Chaucer started are still not regarded as literature. They are. Beowulf, for instance, antedates Chaucer. But it is regarded as one of the top English things. So can you imagine what language it must have been written in? Where did the English people come from anyway? You have the Welsh, the Scotch, the Irish and the Anglo-Saxons; where is this English we keep talking about? Let’s not bother ourselves; create whatever you can in whatever language as long as you will invest it with your sensibilities and your African feelings; because there is a way we look at the world which nobody else does and I can tell you why: the fact that every morning you wake up and you look up and see the sun shinning makes your life go in a particular way from the person who will wake up and for six months he will not see the sun. Both of you will never think alike. Because that kind of person, if you bring him out where the sun shines everyday, he will go mad out of joy. You know, he might remove all his clothes and say he’s sunning himself. You see them lying on the beaches and so on. Have you seen a black man who has stayed in the sun all these years, going out there to strip himself and lie under the sun and saying, “I’m sunning myself?” When you are even running away from the sun? So, your life-style is different. That’s what we call ‘African’. Take somebody, say from New York, then put him in a jungle, he will go mad. He will tell you all those insects will harm him. But take a small baby, an African child, put him in the forest, he won’t make any noise. He will even be going round looking for things to play with. Whatever, he sees, be it a little worm, he will ask, “what is this?” He might even pick it up. Whereas a white man will run off and exclaim, “No! There are too many things crawling in this place!” So, it’s all a matter of life-style.
How can you assess our African critics of African Literature? Do you think that most of the things that are being churned out in journals, magazines and newspapers today can recommend themselves when juxtaposed with the criticisms emanating from other areas of the globe?
Well, as I told you at the beginning, I’m biased against critics, so you are really asking their enemy to kill them. But let me try and be fair, because I also tried to be a critic myself. The problem, I think, with our critics at the moment is that they are all afraid. They are afraid of putting their foot in the wrong place; which is understandable. According to the University regulation, you must publish to be promoted. Therefore, you cannot say things that will not be accepted by the editors of the journals. You have to try and say things that you think the editors will accept. So, because of that now, you will write about Chinua Achebe …you go to the library … and after you have produced so many footnotes, even up to fifty, and put them together, you come out … and in the end, you say nothing. Then you pick up Soyinka and you do the same. Nobody, for instance, will come out and say Chinua Achebe is the worst writer in Nigeria (assuming that is applicable). No African critic can do it. And the most unfortunate thing is that even
when they get to the stage where they can say these things, they have already lost the urge to say it…that is, when they become professors. In Nigeria, when you are a professor, it means, bye-bye to work, go to bed, sleep, cover your head, enjoy your house, your car; ‘no more work no more play’, as they say. Whereas, abroad, when you get to professorship, you will continue working. In fact, work starts when you have become a professor, because they have a different system; you will see a young man of thirty, and on the basis of a book, just one book that he has written, he is made a professor. It is the promise in that book that made him a professor, and not in the cumulative work he has done. They expect that now he is a professor, he can now sit down … there’s no more rush to publish. So he can sit down and really bring out his innermost thought so that when anybody sees it, the person will say, that is from Professor So and So, and will open it and read. In our own area, it’s different. By the time you get to the stage where you can write, you are already dry and have forgotten what is to be written. So, my thinking is that, unfortunately, our critics of African Literature have not reached that position that the critics of other world literatures have reached, particularly American, British, French and German. And I say this with unhappiness because the critic is supposed to be the midwife to the writer. The writer is pregnant, it is this midwife that will help the writer deliver. Without the midwife there might be either obstructions or the baby might die or it could be still-born, or even suffer from other kinds of complications.
Critics help writers to produce better materials in other places. And this is what the Nigerian or African critics should do for creative writers. But no, they will rather tear them apart … tell you this, and tell you that: it’s a useless book; or they may even over praise you. Can you believe that there is no writer in Nigeria or Africa that has been brought up and praised by an African critic? None! Think about it. We wait until Europeans say, “Hey, this is a fantastic one, and everybody will dive in. Why can’t any of our ‘established’ professor- critics just pick one writer here and really write and write about him that everybody comes to accept that this is a fantastic writer. I mean, sit down and pick any African writer and make the writer his own. To me, that’s what criticism is all about. So, that’s the distinctive mark of the African. Instead of because the oyibo men say, Chinua (Achebe) is the best, so he is the best. There’s no other better writer that can come up again.
But Professor Eldred Jones helped promote and spotlight Wole Soyinka?
Did he? Soyinka was fantastic already. He did quite well, yes, the problem there is that Soyinka, because of the way he wrote, also appealed to Europeans much more than to us. So the work of Eldred Jones there is not so obvious. What I’m thinking of is some writer Europeans dislike. Let an African critic popularize that writer. Okay, Ben Okri is now being popularized over there in Europe; you will see how he will take over this place soon. And all our little critics will now dive in to promote him, quoting this man of England who said this and that about him or this man of Massachusetts who said another thing about him, or this man of Russia or Greece.
(Interview conducted July 1995)