Reimagining literature for a developing society… writers, critics, politicians’ view
By Anote Ajeluorou
While many thinkers are yet to agree on one single role that can be assigned to literature, many believe, however, that literature in a developing society like Nigeria cannot afford the luxury of being romantic or art for art’s sake. Indeed, literature should be accorded greater role in sharpening sensibilities to failings in society and thereby providing roadmaps to resolving those failures. And quite early, Nigerian writers recognised this role and began to play it well.
In the same vein, many still argue that the role has been played in a one-sided manner and that the body of literature produced in the 1960s and in recent years has not provided the needed road map to foster development.
Also, there is evidence to the effect that the literature has shown a tendency towards the negative rather than the positive; that it has been more condemnatory and castigatory than constructive; and that it has merely highlighted the sundry ills in society ostensibly perpetuated by politicians rather than providing the way forward. That indeed, the literature produced in a society like Nigeria has not charted a new vision, the sort of utopia that the people aspire to and; that it has more or less remained stagnant in merely highlighting what the people already know.
Those who hold this view further argue that literature ought to construct alternative vision for those saddled with engineering the direction the society should follow. They say that the condemnatory literature so far produced would continue to cause schism between writers and politicians rather than make them co-builders of a desirable nation-state.
LITERARY critic and don, Dr. Sunny Awhefeada of Delta State University, Abraka, used J.P. Clark’s earliest masterpiece, Ozidi as case in point, where a grim quest for revenge obliterated every possibility of forging a new, better society in Orua society, where it is set. Clark had the failure of Nigeria’s first Republic in mind as Awhefeada writes in Songs of Gold: Fresh Perspectives on Clark, “The Play Ozidi yields itself as an allegorical dramatisation of the Nigerian condition in the first six years of independence…”
But Awhefeada goes further to assert that “Clark accurately mirrors the Nigerian condition of the 1960s in Ozidi as many of his contemporaries did in their works… Nevertheless, a recurring motif in the works of that epoch has been the tragic surrender or hopelessness exhibited by all the writers in the face of the misfortune assailing the polity. It is true that there were tell-tale signs of a nation bound for the precipice, but could not the writers have imagined or charted different routes leading from the programmed chaos of the nation’s socio-political reality?
“Wole Soyinka in A Dance of the Forest and Kongi’s Harvest, Chinua Achebe’sA Man of the People, Clark’s Song of a Goat and The Raft, all exhibited a sense of tragic helplessness in configuring the Nigerian experience of the 1960s”.
Awhefeada concludes by submitting that “In a nation that has been so fractured by misrule, every field of human endeavour, especially literature, should be seen as helping to facilitate change progressively. The tragic stasis demonstrated by the cited works read like an endorsement of a cycle of destructive violence… Literature’s protean quality enables it to invent alternative socio-political praxis that can humanise an enthralled polity. Literature can provide a soothing view of the world, a therapeutic conditioning necessary for the balancing of dystopia with utopia”.
Awhefeada’s submission is much in tune with Prof. Charles Nnolim’s position of advancing a literature of utopia away from the negative one that is so common amongst writers.
PERHAPS, one of the few writers that have boldly depart from the norms is Dr. Eghosa Imasuen in his first work, To Saint Patrick. It is a work that is inventive in its grand vision of a Nigeria where social infrastructure are working, from supersonic railways, well-paved roads, and everything that makes life meaningful working as they should in what he calls ‘alternate history’ narrative.
However, Imasuen has since returned to the literature of the tragic vision or harsh reality that characterises the polity in his latest work, Fine Boys. He did not sustain the optimistic note in his first work, obviously arising from the continuing grim conditions that still prevail. But even at that, To Saint Patrick is a refreshing view, a pointer to what could come out of the grimness that is so pervasive.
Lending his voice to the alternative vision literature is capable of engendering in society was American civil rights activist and former Democratic Party presidential candidate, Rev. Jesse Jackson. He made his submission while a guest at Garden City Literary Festival (GCLF) in Port Harcourt last year, when he said, while taking a hard look at the desperate conditions in the Niger Delta, “Literature makes us imagine... imagine if the streets of the Niger Delta are paved, and there is no hunger, and the hospitals are working for the benefits of the poor…
“The idea of human rights has been unleashed on the world. You can’t suppress it like a balloon in water. We measure human rights by one yardstick. The oppressor ultimately loses. We must develop the hearts, minds and soul of the people by continuing to develop the arts. We’re part of an on-going revolution”.
Prof. Akachi Ezeigbo, of the University of Lagos, had stated that literature ultimately “brings peace, and it makes things happen; creativity is important as it collapses boundaries and reaches out to everyone everywhere”. Ghana-based critic and writer, Prof. Molara Ogundipe also argued that literature helps in adding value to memory in sifting through time and taking what is best in past societies and grafting them into the modern.
She continued, “Literature is very important; we have to value our memory, as part of Africa society in perpetuating continuity. If we cultivate literacy, we can negotiate how we can make it to the modern world and take the best practices of our culture that humanises us. I’m interested in inter-generational handing over of values. Various generations need to talk to each other to learn their anxieties, problems.
“I believe in Africanism. The Africa Diaspora has preserved a lot of things for us. We’re actually connecting. We try to keep literature to keep culture; literature carries cultures and it preserves values… We in Africa have to find our ways back to who we really are”.
In capping the power in storytelling, Imasuen had said, “The power of storytelling has in it the power to share our common humanity, how to judge dispassionately, that you’re not alone, and never to lose your voice. Letting my voice to be heard has been the greatest thing I’ve ever done”.