Distinguished Nigerian poet Niyi Osundare lectures at the University of New Orleans in America. He suffered painful losses following the devastating Hurricane Katrina in the US in 2005, but has risen like a phoenix from the ashes. Osundare, who is set to publish the first in a planned series of books on the experience, speaks with Ademola Adesola
What is your assessment of the state of Literature in our country today?
(Laughs)I could almost guess that we were going to begin from there! What we have is a platter of contradictions. On the one hand we have a lot of enthusiasm, especially from the younger writers or those coming to the literary scene for the first time. Quite a lot of them and that itself is commendable. Books are being published, especially those on poetry. And I think the stakes are disproportionately in favour of poetry. The way things are at the moment it appears that for every five books of poetry you publish, you probably get a book of prose. And for every 10 books of poetry published, there is one book of drama. That is not healthy enough. I have been wondering why poetry is so popular, although publishers often say that poetry doesn’t sell. Again, that is part of the contradiction of the Nigerian literary situation. Poetry is the most practised genre in this country today. But books of poetry don’t sell or are not made to sell. How do we resolve that contradiction? I think the problem is that poetry is being published but it is not being promoted. I have so many publishers and I tell them this all the time. It is not enough to publish books of poetry; you also have to promote them. Last year, between January and May, I received about 15 requests from Nigeria. Students in different Nigerian universities were asking me to help them out because they were working on my poems and they did not know how and Where to obtain the books. The terrible irony again, I was in the US, these students were in Nigeria, these books were published in Nigeria, and the students were writing to me across the ocean asking me to help them out. I had to tell them to go to Heinemann, Spectrum, Evans, University Press PLC, Kraft Books, Agbo Areo, etc. And I would described where these publishers were located. On one or two occasions I had to personally contact staff of the publishing houses here in Ibadan with requests passed over to and through me in the US. Nothing could be more eloquent about the situation of book distribution and promotion in the country. Most Nigerian publishers believe that if they publish the books, the best place for the books to stay is their warehouse.
And if you want to read you have to come there to buy the books, no matter where you are in the country. Many of the established publishers have depots in different parts of the country, but these have done little to make books available to readers nationwide.
Shortly before the recent convention of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), I had to send a kind of advice to one or two of my publishers; ‘before heading for the convention, please get a catalogue of the books you have published and then do a flier containing information about the titles and short descriptions of your forthcoming titles. With the catalogue, the reading public will have an idea of what books you have already published. With the fliers of books in press, it will have an idea about what books to expect. And that in a way will generate an appetite for the books you are going to publish.’ This is what happens almost automatically and almost instinctively abroad. I think the Nigerian publishers’ mentality has been conditioned by text-book publishing, particularly textbooks published for primary and higher schools. You don’t need to promote those books because there is already a captive readership
for them. In fact, book sellers and book dealers often come to the publishers for supplies. There is something wrong in that. If you don’t promote the books there is no way those of us who write for the tertiary levels will be able to sell or reach the public. What I’m saying is, you don’t promote all books, and you don’t disseminate all books the same way. Some books by their very nature do promote themselves, but for the majority, a consistent and reasonable advertisement is necessary. But in saying all this, I’m not oblivious of the gigantic challenges confronting Nigerian publishers and the effort many of them have been making.
But a lot more needs to be done. One of my publishers brought about five books to me a couple of days ago. Just before I left in August he also visited and he gave me about 12 books. Clearly, 98% of the books he gave to me are poetry. You would say ‘oh yes, that should make you happy.’ Yes, it does make me happy in a way because poetry is the genre that I practise, and it appears to be flourishing. But the unevenness in the quality of these books also makes me cringe. Some of the poems are good, no doubt. But many, many others ‘need work’, as they say in the US. These books are dazzlingly and attractively produced, but many of them suffer from errors of the rendering. This leads me to another aspect of the literary situation in Nigeria, self-publishing. A lot of self-publishing is going on in the country.
What is your assessment of the state of Literature in our country today?
(Laughs)I could almost guess that we today. I don’t blame those who are self-publishing. The established publishers have their own limit, prejudices and limitations as it were. When your manuscript has been withheld for 10 years
without getting an outlet, what do you do? You look for someone who can get it out with minimum delay. So, people are self-publishing because they are anxious to get out their ideas. They are anxious to join the literary league. They
are anxious to be called published writers. Fine! But the problem is many of these books have not gone through the normal institutional processes: submission of manuscript, acceptance, the consideration of the manuscript by an inhouse editorial group, which would decide whether this manuscript is worth considering at all, and whether to send it to outside assessors. The assessors are usually experts and veterans whose judgement and recommendation are considered valid and imp artial. By the time the manuscript passes through all those stages, and it’s made to respond to different kinds of suggestions and recommendations by the different assessors, it would have appreciated and
improved considerably. So that by the time it’s at publication stage, it’s a fairly different kind of manuscript from the one that the author submitted a couple of months, or as the case may be, a couple of years before.
But that kind of process has been short-circuited by self-publishing. So what you have today is the cash-and-carry or carry-go syndrome. Submit a book on Friday and about Saturday the following week the book is in your hand. And you become an author. Genuine authors, authors who stay long in the literary tradition are hardly ever made that way. Book publishing takes a long time. It also takes a long time to become an author, especially an enduring author. The situation in Nigeria today is that most of our books are self-published and therefore have not been able to go through the processes I mentioned. The result is the proliferation of emergency versifiers and instant authors. Be that as it may, things are happening. We also have to look at Nigerian writers that have made it. Sefi Atta, who deserves to be better known, no doubt about it. She’s won the Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature and just last year she won the NOMA award. The NOMA award remains Africa’s most prestigious book award (though Nigerian critics and commentators hardly recognize it as such as many of them frequently ignore this important continental award). And this is being talked about abroad. But she is not getting the kind of audience she deserves to get right here in Nigeria. There is also Tracy Nwabuani, author of I Do not Come to You by Chance. Very good book, no doubt. Helon Habila is measuring time in quantums of dynamic prose; Bimbo Adelakun who spices up her narrative with the kind of functional ribaldry and gnomic wisdom we last saw in Achebe and Amadi; Akeem Lasisi is busy making poetry so devilishly danceable; Hyginus Ekwuasi has been telling us some profound things about loving and dawning; Wale Okediran has been taking his story to virtually every corner of the country in a way few authors have done before.
'Too much spotlight bad for Chimamanda'
Of course, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the indisputable phenomenon in the current literary landscape. Chimamanda surely deserves a special mention here. A writer with a remarkable maturity and insight. Humorous, engaging, self-assured. Some people see her as picking up the narrative baton where Chinua Achebe left it, but I have always counselled that we grant her the full measure of her own talent without finding her a literary father. Achebe’s prodigy is, in many respects, inimitable; Adichie’s own is inalienably hers. Those who call her rise meteoric cannot be far from the truth, but her meteor is the type that generates light without crashing from the firmament. She has a lot going for her. I think our literary scene is lucky that a figure like her has emerged. However, her kind of phenomenal rise hardly comes without its own perils. Adichie has to watch out for the dangers of over-packaging and over-exposure. With these two come the twin incubi of exploitation and commoditization. I cringe whenever I see Chimamanda on bill boards planted by
disingenuous bureaucrats from the REBRAND NIGERIA section of the Ministry of Information. I sense something profoundly foul when I see vote-rigging, treasury-looting politicians whose acts have tarnished Nigeria’s image now
touting a new literary messiah whose global renown will wash away the mess they have created and keep creating. I have a sense of unease when I flip over to the back page of a glossy magazine and I see the image of a literary figure being used to promote the fortunes of a commercial bank. This is Hollywoodization, the type of which we have never seen in the Nigerian literary scene. Nor is this razzmatazz restricted to the social and political scene: our literary critics and media commentators must also take care so as not to praise Adichie to death – in a manner of speaking. This is hardly the time to do full-length literary books on an author still on the rise, still in the making. Two novels and a book of short stories are not enough yet. Let Adichie write more, produce more books, contradict (yes) and complicate herself in her own oeuvre; for it’s from such contradictions and complications that images give birth to ideas, ideas to visions, visions to wisdom; wisdom to cognition. Let us discover the multitude in Adichie before we commence on a census of her fictive/imaginative world. Let us give this writer a place to stand and stare. Too much spotlight is not good for the writing eye. Let’s grant her the privacy she needs for continuous creativity. Leave Chimamanda to, for,
Do Nigerian writers based abroad have more advantages over their local counterparts in the production of good literature?
They have more ‘advantages’ because any time they go to their computer it works. More ‘advantages’ because any time they want to write, one o’clock, three o’clock in the morning, they don’t have to confront Nepatitis. More advantages because they are at the ‘Centre’ of the world where everything happens. More advantages because if they want a book on Monday and they don’t have it and they go on Amazon.com, in another week or so the book has reported on their desk. Yes, all these advantages are there. But it appears to me that that is where the ‘advantages’ end. The benefits just listed by themselves will not make a writer. What makes a writer is the nitty-gritty of experience, the flavour of the local flower, the smell of the soil, the rustle of harmattan leaves in the dry season, the rustling of the river in its valley, the cry of the hoi polloi, the smell of the armpits of people in over-crowded buses, the jarring ring of the la la su laila of the beggar, the flatulence of the African politician, his or her lies, the enduring wisdom in indigenous idioms and proverbs. These are the areas that really constitute the subjects that we write about. But that’s not all; the beauty of the local festival, the jiggling of the well-shaped hips of the dancer, the tingling in the biceps of the drummer, the beauty of the songs, the history that they tell and the memory they evoke, and the way they define us as human beings who live in culture, not just outside it, who live within a certain grid of values, of morals, of perceptions, of philosophy, the things we know and how we come to know them. These are things that constantly impinge on literature. The food we eat, the flavour of the food, the way the food is prepared, the smell, the water we drink, good water is supposed to be colourless, but in Nigeria our water has colour. Why does it happen that way? When a writer is too far away from these things, problems arise. The imagination may strain and die.
To put it euphemistically, exile has not been kind to many budding Nigerian writers. I know it firsthand. I knew the dreams and aspirations that flowered in this country in the 1970s, 1980s and up to the beginning of the 1990s. Who can forget the UP TO DATE POETS in a hurry, poets who came into tremendous limelight through the agency of the irrepressible and ever supportive Odia Ofeimun during his tenure as ANA Secretary? Esiaba Irobi, Afam Akeh, Atanda Ilori, Uche Nduka, Usman Shehu, poets full of promise. They started so well. I used to tease the late Esiaba Irobi each time I saw him: ‘Cotyledon, when will the flowering begin? (Cotyledon is the title of one of his early collections). Then he would explode into one of those impish laughters and say na trouble make fish bend o! Nobody knew what he could have achieved if Esiaba Irobi hadn’t moved abroad. Afam Akeh, one of my most memorable, most gifted students/friends at the University of Ibadan, in the proud group of people like Sesan Ajayi, Chiedu Ezeanah, Remi Raji, Akin Adesokan, Olakunle Abimbola, Kunle George, Yebo Adamolekun, Frank Ikhimwin, Osama Ighile, the Cameroonians Cheng, Formuyan and Emman Fru Doh, Funmi Adewole, Saidat Odofin, Dayo Olumide, and, of course, the Metaphor Woman Nike Adesuyi. It was a wonderful group we had in the 80s. Yes, indeed, I owe a lot to the inspiration I got from these students. Because each time I told them, ‘inspiration is not a one-way thing. I’m here to teach you and I want to teach as much as I’m ready to learn from you’. And I learnt a lot from them. It’s not possible to teach people like Remi Raji, like Afam Akeh, etc, without learning something from them. A teacher that is arrogant is a dead teacher. A writer that is arrogant is a dying or a dead writer. All of a sudden these people scattered. I wonder where the Nigerian literary scene would have been today if Afam Akeh, Esiaba Irobi, Godwin (now Amatoritsero) Ede, Pius Adesanmi, Dapo Adeniyi were still around. You know what it means for a lot of writers to be around. We used to meet every Thursday with people like Emevwo Biakolo, and Harry Garuba moderating the events. We would argue and argue until two in the morning. All of a sudden that group scattered. The songbirds flew away, and a sad nest began to swing in the wind. A writer cannot really function, make a mark, all alone. No! This is why in the history of philosophy, the history of literature, literary and philosophical movements, it has taken groups with similar and/or dissonant inclinations to create a revolution of images and ideas. The way exile plays on memory and consciousness comes in three stages. First, there is the bleeding stage, when you’ve just left your country and your culture. Virtually every other night something from that culture comes to your memory. Everything you see in the new place carries the veneer of the country you left behind.
The second stage is the stage of incipient denial and incipient rationalization. You begin to rationalize. Instead of seeing the images of your indigenous culture in the foreign aspects before you, you begin to use those foreign images as substitutes for the images of your indigenous culture. The third stage is the stage of complete denial and complete rationalization. You are still not completely cut off from the indigenous culture, but you no longer blame yourself for being absent, for being away from it. You remember those home images faintly, faintly. Before you know it, you become an apostate. You might even begin to praise those things you mocked, those things you rejected initially, because the human mind cannot afford a vacuum. You have now reached the stage of acceptance. This is how the exiled mind or the mind in exile works. Every minute of your life you are trying to cope. And to make matters worse, there are certain things in exile, particularly in the West, that tell you, ‘you do not belong, you do not belong.’ The butterfly may fly as it wills, but it can never become an eagle. Such silent intimations become loud, even strident, when the rejection slips start poring in from establishments which know little and care less for the culture which propels your thought and the mother tongue which undergirds your idioms. As I said in a keynote address in Harare
in 2002, it takes a lot of courage to be an African in our present world. It takes double that amount of courage to be an African writer. Of course, this is not to say that exile does not have its own good sides, for there are times the writer needs to step away from their native culture in order to comprehend and appreciate that culture better and write more effectively about it. But permanent exile never happens without its scars.
In the last few years, the Nobel Prize for Literature has favoured novelists more than poets. What do you think is the state of poetry in the world today?
First of all, the Nobel Prize - This is a world prize which comes with its own controversies. There are so many authors that should have won it that haven’t won it or never won it. Chinua Achebe is one of them. There are others
who won it and people are wondering, ‘but who is this person?’ It is an award by human beings. It has its own characteristics too. I think many times the prize has gone to poets, really. I think it has been won by more poets than those from other genres. Look at people like Derek Walcot, Tagore, Octavio Paz and of course my favourite poet, Pablo Neruda, the poet of Chile, certainly one of the greatest poets the world has ever produced. These are reputable
poets who have won the award. In fact, there was a time people were complaining that the prize was going distinctively and restrictively to poets. But the prize just travels, it travels across genres, it travels across different parts of the world and it travels across different personalities. But as to generic purity, it doesn’t really matter. It also often happens that people are poets but they are not solely poets – they write other things. Pablo Neruda was basically
a poet but he also wrote memoirs. Octavio Paz wrote poetry mostly but he was also an aficionado of the Essay genre. Derek Walcot is a dramatist but you know that he is also a poet. Wole Soyinka won it for his drama but we know that
Soyinka is also a poet. We are dealing with a multi-generic phenomenon. It’s difficult to restrict yourself just to one genre if you are a really committed and gifted writer. I would need an elephant’s mouth to talk about the state of poetry in the world because the world is a large place. Poetry in the world is doing well. It’s actually going through a kind of resurgence. A couple of years before the turn of the millennium and the turn of the century, people were already writing the obituary of poetry. Incidentally I taught a graduate class on poetics this last semester at the University of New Orleans and one of the issues we considered is the ‘rumour’ that poetry is a dying genre.
And of course, our answer pointed in the positive direction. Poetry suffered some kind of lull in the 1990s up to about 2000. But it bounced back. Now we have poetry slams, Spoken Word fests, Call and Response, etc. Rap is also helping in the spread of poetry whether you like it or not. And poetry festivals are back again. I attended one in Medellin, Columbia, in July this year (Odia Ofeimun has also been there). This year marked the celebration of the 20th anniversary of the poetry festival. I was one of the 100 poets that were invited from all over the world. It was quite an experience talking about poetry and where it lives. Everybody in that City of Medellin breathes poetry. The moment I landed in Bogota, capital of Colombia, and about one and a half hours by air from Medellin, people recognized me and started calling me Poeta. Of course, they had seen my picture in their local newspaper and I was also featured in the in-flight magazine of the national airline. Our first reading was to an audience of between 3000 and 5000. It took place in an amphitheatre. Thirty minutes before the reading began, it started raining and I said, ‘Ah we’ve been rained out.’ And my interpreter said, ‘No. This will encourage more people to come.’ And lo and behold, people started trooping in from all kinds of directions, vivacious and spirited like communicants in an all-embracing ritual. They had brought large umbrellas and rain coats. They sat in the terraces, listening and clapping and singing with the poets. The following day we had our reading in the city centre. People left whatever they were doing and came to listen to us. A very large crowd. The day after we went to a university auditorium. The audience was equally large. Everywhere we went people knew there was poetry in the air. There was a lot of diversity in that city and I also saw a lot of commitment in the poets who came there. Today, there are similar poetry festivals in Brazil, Nicaragua, in Cuba, in Holland, and different parts of Europe. There is also one in Durban, South Africa. It is called ‘Poetry Africa’. It started in 1996, and has been waxing stronger ever since. The rumour about the death of poetry has been grossly exaggerated. Poetry is alive.
As long as the human being sings, eats, puts on clothes, walks, talks, smells, tastes, touches, makes love, makes war, there will always be poetry. As long as the sky is over our heads and the earth is beneath our soles, and the rivers
flow and the lakes are there, poetry will always be there. What about the sound the rain makes every time it falls, the surge of the sea in the belly of the ocean, the elegant leap of the gazelle, the colour of the leaves, and the way our universe responds to the change of seasons? All these are aspects of poetry. The different dance steps that human beings invent, the language of the drum – poetry is made out of the rust and dust of human experience. So, it is very much there. Poetry is not restricted to putting lines in verse, and setting them on the page. No. The pages in the book of poetry are as wide as the sky. The ink that lends it permanence is bluer than the sea. In the hands of the practiced writer, prose is never far from poetry. Good prose at times is good poetry. In fact, most times good prose is poetic. Drama cannot do without poetry.
You said Chinua Achebe should have won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Tell me more about this and what you think of Achebe as a writer.
This is a feeling that has been in the air for many, many years now, especially during those months of the year called the Nobel season. That feeling has garnered greater urgency since the tumultuous celebration of Things Fall apart
@ 50. I think the very first in the series of activities, symposia, conferences, literary meets, etc., marking the 50th anniversary of Things Fall Apart took place in Lisbon in March 2008, organized by Innocentia Matta and the merican
poet and academic Don Burness . I was invited to give the keynote. It was an important experience for me because I said I was going to write about TFA in a way no other person had ever done. And I was not bragging. What I was
saying is that I was going to write about TFA from a very personal perspective. And that was what I did – what TFA meant to the people of my generation. I encountered that book for the first time in 1965. It was put on our reading list.
I think our set was the first to encounter it on the school certificate syllabus. TFA changed so many things about us. It helped in decolonizing us. People in areas where there had been colonialism find a special resonance in colonialism.
Many people are surprised to hear this; TFA has affected the way I write poetry.
It’s in prose and I write poetry. But there is something about the stylistic elegance and stylistic inventiveness of Achebe in TFA that I find extremely
useful. My friends in Korea read TFA and were thrilled by it. It’s a great book; one of the most important books of the last century. It was also called one of the most important books of the millennium. It deserves everything we could give to it. It is not Achebe’s most complex book. If you want his most complex book, get Arrow of God.- But there is a certain elegant simplicity about TFA, a degree of unforced narrativity that reminds you of so many things. But one book is not enough to give somebody the Nobel Prize. TFA has made Achebe very famous. If Achebe is to win the prize, it would have to be based upon the consideration of all his works. Yes, there are writers that are not as famous as Achebe that have won the Nobel Prize. There are writers that are not as influential as Achebe that have won the prize. But let us look at it; Achebe is still very much with us. So I don’t want us to talk about him as if his time has passed. He is still very much with us. I look forward to his winning the prize someday soon. But I know you are aware he’s won so many other prizes, the last being the Gish award. So, I will echo him by saying, ‘It is morning yet on creation day.’
The Yoruba oral tradition clearly influences both your technique and ideological bent. But there is a problem today with many budding Nigerian writers who are incompetent not only in the use of English but in the use of their mother tongue as well. How do you see that?
This is the tragedy of our contemporary Nigeria, Africa and the world! As I said earlier about the Africans in exile, they are neither this nor that. We have fallen between the existential cracks of modern living. It is a very important
point you’ve made because I’m also an applied linguist. This is something so crucial to the sociolinguistics of contemporary Africa. My Ph.D. work was in the area of bilingualism and biculturalism. There is nothing wrong with bilingualism if by that we mean the ability to know, use and master at least two languages with equal competence. That is I think what we call co-ordinate bilingualism. But problems arise because what we have in Africa is a situation of scrambled bilingualism. The indigenous language has been discouraged in the school system and the social system. We are in the age of ‘Hey Junior, come and say hello to Uncle.’ People think that is chic, trendy, it’s the in-thing.
An African has a son and names him Junior. You are not an American. The typical contemporary Nigerian idea about culture is a kind of amnesia; you have to forget what you have, throw it away, discard it, stigmatize it and then labour, crave for something that is abroad, which your hand can never reach. So, many of us have thrown Igbo, Hausa, Yoruba, Edo, Urhobo, Efik away. But we’ve not been able to grasp English. Many of our people have fallen into a kind of cultural and linguistic crack. It’s a terrible chasm; they know neither English nor the indigenous language. If you don’t have the mastery of a language, how can you write in it? I used to tell students in my Creative Writing class in UI (I used to restrict the class to 10 students) that Creative Writing is not open to everybody.
I’m not being elitist or dictatorial. No, if you don’t come to this world with a sense of smell, nobody can teach you how to smell. If you don’t know how to respond to music, nobody can teach you. It has to be somewhere in your DNA. To write effectively and memorably in a language, you have to know (I mean know in the very primal sense of the word) that language jinle jinle. You have to know it in its depth. Poetry is the exploration and the exploitation of language beyond itself.
The standard of education in Nigeria has collapsed. I’m not being an alarmist here. I have been saying this for many years now. I know it. I’m a teacher. This is all I’ve devoted my whole life to; I’m a writer and public intellectual. Nigerian youths can no longer communicate. It is as simple as that. You are a journalist, invite holders of Master’s degrees who are job applicants. Tell them to go to Oshodi for one day and come back to your newsroom and write an essay about what they experienced. You would be surprised.
Many Ph.D. holders in English cannot write two paragraphs of errorless English. It is not that their brains are smaller than those of their predecessors. It is simply that today, even teachers know less. And you can’t give what you don’t
have. It is the ones we are teaching now that will become teachers tomorrow.
Ask any of our students graduating in English questions about Shakespeare, they don’t know. Ask them about the important literary periods in literary history, they do not know, because they have not been taught. Today, the gap between teaching and cheating is narrower than Professor PAI Obanya divined about two decades ago. Compare what we call teaching here and the way it is done in saner parts of the world, and you’d be in for a big surprise. In the US, you just cannot think about coming late to class, even by one minute. And you cannot afford to miss a single class. Your students could take you to court for not fulfilling your own part of the teaching/professional contract. They’ve paid their money, they’ve paid their time. They want the best. At the end of the class you will be evaluated. If your evaluation is poor, you get sacked. There is accountability. There is equity. There is no accountability in the Nigerian system. Take UI, our ‘First and Best’. This is not the UI I used to know. This is why I am so angry that things have changed so terribly. The students we are producing now are half-baked not because they lack potential, but because those potentials are never actualized. It’s high time we began to examine those that are teaching in our university system. Mediocre teachers will always produce mediocre students. It is a logical process. Unless those students are lucky or they are extraordinary
and so decide to learn beyond their teachers. Effective, conscientious teaching is vanishing from our universities. This is a country where the Ministry of Education will supervise the excision of History from the school curriculum. What else is there to say? You need History, whether you are a scientist or whatever. You need to know what happened in the past. So, our new generation of students has been short-changed. I’m not demonizing them, not at all. My heart aches for their welfare. I’m not scaring them. I’m only telling them the truth. They will have to go beyond what they are being taught in the school for them to be able to measure up outside this country. There is no university in Nigeria that is standard, including my darling UI. I know it; forget all the glossy things you see around. It’s not glossy paint and tar that make a university. It is not things you can see from an ostentatious distance. We’re talking about the state of the laboratories; we’re talking about the state of the libraries. We’re talking about the state of the university bookstores. Before I left in August I went to the PR and PL shelves of the UI library where I used to sleep, literally, as a student. Many of the fundamental books are gone. Some of them that are still there have been cannibalized – with some chapters ripped off. Many of the Encyclopaedias have fallen apart. Why you don’t rebind, I asked. Put these vital books together again. Make them whole. Make knowledge whole. Make the human mind whole.
Make the nation whole…
I was brought up to love and respect books. And to howl and holler when I see them abused. I’m passionate about books. I don’t like to see them suffer. Books are suffering in our libraries, that is, the few that are there. And the bookstore? It has long been taken over by religious pamphlets, elementary/secondary school textbooks and superannuated spiders and their brittle web. Needless to say, the poverty of our libraries and bookstores is affecting the competence of our writers. We certainly could do better. What pains me about Nigeria is that this country is destroying the talents of the future. There are very many capable Nigerians. This is a blessed country. I’ve travelled the length and breadth of this country and I’m amazed at our energy, at our resilience, at our ability to suffer even when we go through the greatest agony. That capacity for suffering in silence is itself the principal cause of our problem. I’m also disturbed at our complacency and the way we surrender to defeat and the way we follow thieving politicians without asking questions. Our younger people must ask questions. If you have come to the university to learn, insist on learning. If your teachers don’t come to class, ask them, ‘excuse sir, we were in class yesterday we didn’t see you?’ If he is a habitual late-comer, ask him why. Our students should know that asking the right (and, at times, wrong) questions and insisting on being answered is a very important part of their education. The culture of learning has to replace the present culture of materialism and mediocrity. Many of our writers have been disabled by the illiterate Nigerian society.
Some critics are of the opinion that your poems are marked by a very generous use of adjectives. And you once described yourself as a partisan writer in a published interview…
(Cuts in and laughs) Demola, there are two things here; partisanship and adjectivality. Yes, I hope you know that my major academic area is Stylistics. I’m trained to look very closely at the inner workings of language. We describe
writers by their linguistic predilections. For example there are those we call nominal writers, writers who use many nouns. There are those we call adjectival writers, writers who use many adjectives. There are those who belong in the hypotactic category owing to their complex syntax (for example, Soyinka), and those whose syntactic structure is largely paratactic (Achebe, Amadi, for instance). I have been described as an adjectival writer. And I have no reason for any objection. Adjectives are a very important part of speech. ‘Sky’ is different from ‘blue sky.’ ‘Person’ is different from ‘bad person.’ ‘Car’ is different from ‘new car.’ What makes the difference in these circumstances is the addition of the adjectives – ‘blue’,’ bad’ and ‘new’. They are not just adjectives, they are also modifiers. They are not just modifiers, they are attitudecarriers. If I say ‘I saw a man yesterday,’ that is what is called an unmarked statement. But if I say, ‘I saw a tall man yesterday,’ that has already narrowed my description to a particular kind of man. And it has also excluded other kinds of men. Adjectives typify. They also specify. They are evaluative. Adjectivality invites partisanship by helping to define it. I have always believed that literature has a role to play in society. If you are a committed writer, you must know how to call things by their proper names. A spade is a spade; it’s not just a tilling instrument. A politician is a politician, but there are good politicians and there are bad politicians. And I daresay there are more bad than good! It’s not possible to write about the Nigerian situation or the African situation in a neutral, anaemic way; without using modifiers, particularly descriptive and evaluative modifiers. To ba so fun agba osika, aa ni oun won lo ntun ‘lu se (if you don’t tell the wicked elder what exactly he is, he would pretend that he is one of those making the land prosper).
Adjectives help us to call things by their proper names. They invest our attitudes, our predilections, our views, even our visions and our ideology in language which we use. I can never be a neutral writer.
Adjectives help me to avoid the kind of complacent and disingenuous neutrality that I see in writers who are not sure about where they stand. As to partisanship, everybody is partisan. We used to say it in our socialist group in the 1980s. When a writer says I’m not political, that statement itself is a political statement. And as Ngugi Wa Thiong’o said in his book, Writers in Politics, ‘Every writer is a writer in politics. The question is who or what politics?’ Conservatives are partisan. But often, partisanship is ascribed to the progressive side. No, no.
To take the neutral ground actually is to pretend to close your eyes and to be silent. Every minute of my writing life, every minute of my participation in political intervention in the public forum is imbued with a view to rupture the negative silence which imprisons our tongue, the reactionary, destructive silence that ensnares our discourse. My fervent mission: to give voice to the word, and get the world to address the world as it really is and is capable of being. I’m a very passionate person. Passionate people can hardly do without adjectives.
What should readers expect in your coming book of poems on the Katrina disaster?
(Laughs) Yes, the first of the Katrina books is ready. I completed it just a couple of weeks ago. It has taken me five years to write. It’s been my most difficult work so far. While I was doing it I published two other books on the side, because each time I sat down to do write the poems, the agony of Katrina would come back. You can’t write unless you have the details. And to remember all the details was to bring back all the trauma of Katrina. So, at a point I thought I was going to put it off. But the stubbornness in me kept on saying, ‘No, no, no, go for it.’ The book is in about five sections. And one of the sections is actually titled ‘Katrina Will Not Have the Last Word’. The longest section there is an imaginary dialogue with my mother and it’s in an oriki dream sequence. It actually happened. Seven days after Katrina, we were still in the evacuation centre when my mother appeared to me in the dream. She was so worried. She told me she had heard what happened to me and started telling me my history, her life before
I was born and actually how it was Osun, the river goddess that gave me to her. And then she said, ‘Osun gave you to me. The fetid floods of another land will not take you away.’ I’m told it’s the most ‘African’ of the lot. So, it’s a unique book of poems because the poems are sandwiched between an author’s preface and an interview which put the poems in their proper context/perspective. My second forthcoming book is the first volume of ‘Random Blues’. Remember ‘Random Blues’ is subtitle of the poetry column, Lifelines, which I’ve been doing for The Sunday Tribune in the past couple of years. So I’ve decided to do the first volume. Again, this volume carries a preface which explores the phenomenality of the Blues and their African provenance . . .
Culled from The Nation On Sunday