By Anote Ajeluorou
LAST Sunday at Eko Hotel and Suites, Victoria Island, Lagos, the best of Nigerian writers (poets) gathered to give insight into their creative works. There were eager book enthusiasts too, who had come to partake of the literary feast on offer. 11 of the best Nigerian poets both in Nigeria and those residing outside the shores of the country were present, thanks to technology.
Seven of the home-based poets (except Okinba Launko – pen name for Femi Osofisan, who was absent - Seven Steps up the Stairways) were in attendance. They included Tade Ipadeola (The Sahara Testaments), Remi Raji (Sea of My Mind), Amu Nnadi (Through the Window of a Sandcastle), Ogochukwu Promise (Wild Letters), Iquo Eke (Symphony of Becoming), Obari Gomba (Length of Eyes) and G’ebinyo Egbowei (Marsh Boy and Other Poems).
Unlike the previous two years when Diaspora writers were unable to make the Book Party, Committee for Relevant Art (CORA), organisers on behalf of sponsor of The Nigeria Prize for Literature, Nigeria Liquified Natural Gas (NLNG) company, made efforts to bridge the distance by technology. As a result, all three Diaspora writers, U.K.-based Afam Ake (Letter Home and Biafran Nights), Canada-based Amatoritsero Ede (Globetrotters and Hitler’s Children) and U.S.-based Obi Nwakanma (Birthcry) took part in the literary conversation through Skype.
Former Permanent Secretary and art patron, Chief Francesca Immanuel, notable poet, Odia Ofeimun, culture landscapist, Jahman Anikulapo, Maxim Uzoatu and Dede Mabiaku included culture producers in attendance.
Big as Eko Hotel is, it could not provide reliable internet service on the evening; it’s internet service was down beside the fact that its customers are charged, a small luxury that other smaller hotels render for free. But the duo of Aderemi Adegbite and Ayo Arigbabu managed to pull of a miracle of sorts, as they were able to bring Nwakanma, Ake and Ede to be part of the literary evening, with voices resonating through the Atlantic void.
With Deji Toye moderating, the Book Party turned out an evening of fun and creative engagement even if for a sparse but quality audience. In his opening, CORA General Secretary, Mr. Toyin Akinosho drew attention to the third generation of Nigerian writers, whose voices had become ever strident. He drew attention to the writers who were weaned during Nigeria’s brutal military era and how the poetic idiom became their vehicle of narrating a country’s crushing experiences, as most of them were snatched from their beds at nights to answer for daring to challenge the military authority.
Akinosho also noted, “The presence of that set (Ake, Ede and Nwakanma) in this contest confirms that rumours of the silence of the Third Generation are indeed exaggerated.
“You see, the Third Generation showed up at the time of the steep fall in the fortunes of Nigerian publishing. The independence generation, and the postwar generation had the advantages of critical and popular engagement.
“Much of the early writings of the Third Generation, between the mid 80s and mid 90s, did not get the attention of the public in the way the previous generations did. It was one reason why members of this generation found themselves in the Vanguard of consciousness-raising. They used the media as bully pulpit in pursuit of a literature-conscious public; they set up award systems; they involved themselves deeply in the politics of literature…
“It was also the era of the worst excesses of military rule. Which perhaps explains why the adopted genre of the Third Generation is poetry.
“For most of the 90s, Nigerian literature was almost equated with poetry. Poetry was almost the Nigerian writer’s preferred tool of interrogating the human condition in the darkest days of the military era.
“Then Nigeria turned from pariah nation to a democratic state and the world opened to us.
“For one, the idea for us, at CORA, is always to expand the membership of the community of culture patrons. And this book party fits in. We have invited you to a light evening of entertainment of a different kind.
Everyone knows that we produce remarkably good books in our country. But we also know that we don’t discuss them enough, we are not made aware of them enough. The soft infrastructure of the book reading culture is not aggressively under construction.
“We at CORA have always felt that books that make it to this level in such a major award system as the Nigeria Literature Prize, ought to be known about in every community in the country. Our ambition is to help that to happen; to extend the star attraction of the award winner beyond the Gala Nite of the award. We have always maintained that the award is an opportunity for a series of events to really make books look cool; series of book readings and discussions in as many crannies of the country as possible as well as on TV discussions and radio shows. Most book readings in the country happen with the effort of the writers themselves. Our country should get past that; we should develop a community of book readership enablers; organisations that exist just to share in the joy of reading.
“Book readership promotion should go beyond big showpieces as Bring Back the Book campaign. It should be about how we as citizens engage the organs of book development in our communities”.
With that opening the conversation started, with Wura Samba doing a solo piece on his samba drum. Radio presenter, Tokunbo Ojekunle read excerpts from the works of the three Diaspora writers, when it wasn’t certain Skype would work for audio and visual presence of the poets. Although in fits and starts, it eventually worked to the delight of all. All the poets read excerpts from their works to give a taste of their creative muse to the audience.
OGBOWEI took the first shot. His collection in the race for the US$100,000 prize, Marsh Boy and Other Poems, resonates with violence and militancy in the Niger Delta as a result of oil mining by government and oil companies that have refused over time to address issues of oil spillage, environmental degradation and lack of human and physical development in the area.
On the role of poetry in the context of militancy and the destructive armed struggle, Ogbowei responded that though a tricky issue, “If I say no to militancy, I will be a liar; if I agree to a call to arms, I’ll be accused of treason. But what is the view of the people in those areas due to environmental degradation, destruction of farmlands, diseases and poverty? Even Ken Saro-Wiwa realized he had to abandon writing in favour of serious campaigns against the injustices; he was dealing with a kangaroo system. If you think you’re dealing with a humane society, you’re wrong.
“If the issue of the Niger Delta is not treated seriously, we’re likely to have full-blown war! Militancy is still very real”.
Tade Ipadeola’s The Sahara Testament collection is poetry that traverses geographical borders in scope and treatment and goes beyond traditional norms. For him, it’s like “taking knowledge everywhere and not just a representation of any tradition” and employing tropes and images from anywhere, although he noted, “I’m not sure any writer can totally depart from past traditions. Ogbowei’s concern is with truth and beautify; it’s correct to say that all knowledge is interconnected”.
For Gomba, “We live in world of connectedness” noting, “if you think the world ends within a national space, you’re wrong”.
In responding to the theme of exile from London, Ake said, “The theme of exile is a necessary theme of my generation. However, all of us have been exposed to the internet, the global community and so more aware and in tune with it than the older writers. Exile isn’t something one chooses to write about but it comes out of our experience. It resolves around the theme of experiences I’ve had, of having traveled and of home. It’s easy for critics to locate writers within one space because it’s easier. There’s that sense of distance in us because you do reflect on it and your locale where you reside. It’s just happens; it’s not all you write about”.
Also responding to the exile theme, Ede stated, “While exile is relevant is because such writers growing up in the 1980s became scattered and pushed out of the Nigeria; they have now have different, complex ways of thinking…”
In interjecting, Ake lashed out, “There was already internal exile before we left Nigeria and the feeling of not being wanted before we left”.
At this lamentation by the two Diaspora writers about the material condition in Nigeria in the 1980s and 90s that pushed them to go abroad to seek greener pastures, Promise turned the tide of the argument and called on them to return home and help in the building of the country of their birth from which they ran away.
She said, “At some point, I thought about leaving, but I said, ‘who will do it?’ Do you run away from the problem or stay to fix it? I choose to stay. In spite of the problems, there are beautiful things in Nigeria. If we put our resources and potentials together we can fix Nigeria. In the face of all the problems, do you abandon ship? Is that the way out? We should try to get people to see that we can make Nigeria better. If we develop our community and families, we can overcome”.
Ambivalence was what better summed up Raji’s position on the matter of living abroad or staying at home. A much traveled writer, who has experienced so much and abroad and who writes so beautifully about home and places he’d been, Raji said he strode both divides effortlessly and was at home here and there, stating, “It’s important for me to connect with Ake and Ede”, and expressed his joy at being on the initial shortlist of 11 poets alongside his two teachers – Ogbowei and Osofisan, who taught him in secondary school and university respectively.
“I have never left and I have never stayed,” Raji noted, “I take all that is good and bad and have actually straddled the global community. I never left because the oral intelligence is so much with me, but I also never stayed because of the existential issues around us. I’ve had opportunities to teach or be in residence outside the country. I never allowed myself to be limited by my environment. I have sustained a constant dialogue with my generation and older ones even as a teacher who can easily be seduced by influences. I find joy in the writings of my predecessors and ancestors. It’s a very beautiful thing to stand at a point of synthesis. I started writing in Yoruba.”
To counter Promise’s assertion that Diaspora writers ran away from the problem and weren’t contributing to Nigeria’s development and her call that they should return back home, Ake said although they were abroad, “Wherever we go, Nigerian is never far away from our mind”. For Ede, “Exile is not a condition one chooses, but there’s cross-fertilisation of ideas. I moderate the online art discourse, Creazitivity; we’ve moved around and it has enriched our experiences. I just obtained a Ph.D; if I come back home, will I find the tools to teach with?”
To which Promise responded, “Ake, Ede, please come home and we will find the materials you need together!”
Eke, who is a folklore performance poet, said she drew a lot of materials from her Ibibio people, whose language is rich in proverbs and local idioms with which she embellishes her poetry. She noted, “It’s not only traditional or foreign influence can take us there, but we need to be true to what our realities are, otherwise we’ll be filled with disillusionment. Making Nigeria work for our people can be done; it’s not nuclear physics. It can be done”.
Amu Nnadi noted that writing is usually a product of a person’s “society, our learning, our experiences and you can’t takes politics away from my writing. My poetry is politics, really; I do not restrain myself. Sometimes, subtlety works”.
AT this point, there were interventions from the floor of the house, as the audience sort to make meaning of the writings of the poets and how they mediated in their writing. On the issue of exiled and home writers, Immanuel said whatever the status, “whether internally displaced or not, we are all Nigerians”. She went on to task the poets to define what the role of a poet should be in society, whether to write the truth as he or she sees it or mediate it by being neutral in the presentation of his views and letting the readers make a decision based on their own understanding and background.
Uzoatu also sort to know if the poets hadn’t in fact become too nice in their poetry and tailored it to fit the prize? Why hadn’t they been as combative and abrasive as they ought to be and indeed call ‘fuck a fuck’?
Ofeimun expressed “happiness that this contest is defining Nigerian in a good way. The best is coming out of Nigerian writing”.
In responding to Uzoatu’s charge, Ede noted, “If a writer wins a prize, that’s an extra, but I don’t think you write for a prize, even if you can target a prize. Certain prizes should honour the craft of writing. It will be wonderful if a totally unknown writer won the prize. There’s a time to encourage a young writer; this is it!”
Ipadeola also noted that he’d read a substantial number of the collections in the race for the prize and he felt sure that they were not tailored for any prize; that it just happened that they were in the race, adding, “Nobody writes simply to win a prize”.
Raji said Sea of My Mind was his sixth collection of poetry and he hadn’t intended them for any prize, noting, “Nobody writes for prizes”.
Nnadi also stated that there was a tendency to think that writers were defined by prizes, but argued that this was not so. Although it was impossible to generalise on why writers write, Promise said the reason was “basically for self-expression; to be able to hold up a mirror to see what society holds. Poets let you see through the images and brings that consciousness for you to reason and it depends on the mood of the poet”.
On the role of the poet, Eke said as “products of the environment and education, poets shared common experiences, which can be coloured by it”.
Gomba said he was worried by a certain level of tyranny, which critics impose on writers and thereby take away their latitude to write freely on how and what they felt, adding, “Institutions of prize has helped writing. But creativity still thrives when there are no prizes and then when there are prizes. Writers need money and time. If we find more institutions like LNG to support writing, it’s a great thing.
“The jury has seen the merit of writing across generations. Poetry is thriving across generations”.
For Ogbowei, the issue boils down to “truth-telling and also the problem of engagement. I’m engaged because I can’t stand aloof from the problem of the Niger Delta. The problem of minority is not peculiar to Nigeria alone; it’s all over the world. We’re all engaged in the problems of the marginalised Nigerians and to say we’re endangered. I’m a Nigerian engaged in telling the truth, but I don’t have to ask people to go and shoot Jonathan or anybody else”.
There was also intervention from Lukman Sanusi of Bubble FM from London, who praised the organisers for a wonderful job in bringing together the best of Nigerian writers to dialogue and expressed the online buzz the conversation was generating.