Monday, 24 March 2014

How Nigerians have domesticated The Caine Prize for African Writing

By Anote Ajeluorou

Perhaps, one of the most fully realised sessions of the packed Lagos Book and Art Festival (LABAF 2013) held at Freedom Park was the one on The Caine Prize for African Writing. Mischievously but aptly tagged The Caine Prize for Nigerian Writing?, organisers sought to draw attention to the dominant status of Nigerian writers in winning the prize five times already in its 14 years’ history. This, indeed, is a feat given that all the five shortlisted writers this year alone were all Nigerians, with U.S.-based Tope Folarin eventually winning it with his story, ‘Miracle’.
  LABAF organisers sought to know what the prize meant to Nigerian writers, whether they consider it a desirable Western validation of African writing and whether it sets polico-cultural agenda for Africa writing. Although Abubakar A.Ibrahim (2013 shortlisted author with his piece, ‘Whispering Trees’) and Elnathan John (???) were to have joined 2012 winner of the prize, Rotimi Babatunde (he won with ‘Bombay Republic’), Ibrahim couldn’t make it from Abuja for flight-related problems. But the duo of John and Babatunde made a fine moment of the session, with dexterous moderation coming from poet and teacher, Dr. Ogaga Ifowodo.
  Ifowodo sought to find out the two writers’ philosophical views on the prize, the role of Western cultural hegemony in its organisation and the institutional framework that sustains it as against what is obtainable on the African continent. John maintained that from an idealistic point of view, he wished there were no prizes to reward writing or writers, arguing that prizes tended to diminish writers and needlessly put up one writing against another. However, on the grounds of serving as a tool for promoting writing and writers, John conceded to prizes as being inevitable.
  But he was clearly not in favour of prizes being turned into some sort of celebrity circus, with the story or writing relegated to the background, “There’s too much of the celebrity factor in the prizes; we’re more concerned with what’s on the faces of writers and not what’s on their shelves. For some, prizes stop their career as writers. Some prizes do not help writers in their administration; they exclude other writers. I wish there were no prizes”.
  However, Babatunde stressed how important prizes were fast becoming a factor in the lives of writers, and added that prizes had come to stay and that they couldn’t just be wished away any more. “The real prize is the one which, 100 years from now, people will still be reading you”, he said. “Prizes can distract you and they can also spur you on to write more”.
  On why or how African writers look to Europe for validation, and so fall into the dangerous trap of writing to conform to Western expectation of the kinds of stories that should come from Africa, Babatunde took a swipe at the continent for lack of structures that support writing and writers. According to the 2012 prize-winner, “We should also ask, ‘what platform have we established (in Africa) to counter The Caine Prize? If there’s one platform in Africa, the Caine prize will just be one of those prizes”.
  Babatunde then went on to commend the Caine prize for what it has done for African writing, “The Caine Prize for African Writing has done a wonderful job of spotlighting African writing. The only way its influence can be reduced is to counter it. Another prize of equal prestige will help. There are not so many organisations doing something similar in Africa for African writers”.
  John also expressed similar view, and argued that it would be wrong to pick on the Caine prize since there were no alternatives available for African writers to promote their writing on the world stage. Yet, he regretted that the best of African short storytellers are celebrated outside the continent in a manner not dissimilar to Africa’s prized artefacts adorning foreign museums, “I don’t think it will be right for anyone to throw stones at the Caine prize.
  “But it was sad to see that five Africans are taken to London to decide African writing and not in Accra or Abuja or Yaounde. These guys who endow prizes abroad are not the best of people. It’s an inexpensive but effective media machine for them. The Caine prize is run on a very small budget compared to The Nigeria Prize for Literature (sponsored by Nigeria Liquified Natural Gas -NLNG) company.
  “What can we do to counter this intrusion into our space? To fight it, you have to do the cultural invasion; you must be doing something to discourage invaders from encroaching into your cultural space. Nothing is happening in Africa; no one is doing anything. There’s a cultural effect, imperialism to the Caine prize sponsorship; the West seeks to extend their culture here. What we are seeing at the Caine prize is just the glitz, and they are getting the kind of literature they want from us”.
  Some observers are critical of types of stories coming from the continent, saying they are designed to titillate Western literary tastes, especially with wars, hunger, child-soldiers, diseases, HIV/AIDS and so on (something John referred to as the poverty pun), as forming the predominant staple themes. Many see this as the cultural and institutional power the West wields in setting the pace or agenda for African writing through its prizes.
  But Babatunde somewhat disagreed, saying that no one tells a writer what to write nor do prize organisers know before hand what a writer intends to write while entering for a prize race. According to him, “Who are those who value literature and those who do not? Even the Booker Prize has been accused of story type. I don’t know if this argument is because the Caine prize promotes African writing; I don’t think that is the case because you can’t know what a writer wants to write. The only conflict in literature is that between good and bad. So, the problem is not in the theme but in the writing. Is it really deep? How are you writing about anything you’re writing about?”
  On the other hand, John stated that poverty pun as theme is injurious term and also very dangerous to a body of writing. He argued that all the judges of the Caine prize are usually Africans even though they might be residing overseas. He queried, “Is there a problem with people patterning their stories after a certain way? Why are writers people for whom trying to win a prize is a sin? Prizes are given in other areas but no one asks why or why not.
  “Prize endowers are setting their own ideal, their own agenda. What good is this to us? How does it affect us? Isn’t what is happening in Maidugiri (with Boko Haram killing, maiming and bombing) mean that the Kanuri man faces extinction? If a writer writes about it, does that mean he’s conforming to Western stereotype? The fact is that we’re not investing in publishing in Nigeria, in Africa, in our cultural production. That is another way to look at it”.
  In summing up, Ifowodo noted that it was impossible to be prescriptive about what to write, but that what mattered most was the perspective from which a writer might be looking at the crucible of Africa issues. He asked, “Is the angle of writing possibly slanted if you’re writing about war, hunger, genocide?”
  And, Babtunde also agreed, “It’s the how, the skill of writing that matters; the intellectual skill, empathy invested in the writing that does it!”

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Scarcast… Dibie’s poetry of promise

By Anote Ajeluorou

If poetry is the shorthand for emotional outpouring, especially of a famished soul seeking healing, then Jenim Dibie’s Scarcast (WRITE Ideas Services, Lagos; 2013) is one outpouring so profuse and deep in its cathartic rendering. It’s the poetry of a soul reaching for the stars, for fellow man and for God in search of the hidden beauty in these entities to heal a world and a soul that fall easy victim to corrupting influences of love for all manners of things.
  Scarcast is at once personal and universal. Ostensibly from personal (and female sensibility) searing experiences with an unnamed male persona, the essence of love, pain, hurt and human relationships are explored to the fullest. There’s the poetic exploration of the dark, interior being of the female persona, whose encounter with the outside world, represented by the male in incurable love tangle, is one of immense hurt and pain from which she struggles for healing. Starting from the innocence of love and human contact with the opposite sex, this female persona finds to her dismay that not all that glitters is gold, that there’s a slim line between love and hate and a broken heart.
  More than anything, the theme of love runs through this book in all its shades. And then hurt and pain and love found again in a faith in God whose love is so immense and always reaching out to erring man, who, in his darkest moment, shuns this embracing love from God.
  Scarcast is also an examination of the human race and the things man yearn for, how he seeks after his heart’s desire and hurt and what the whole essence of existence is all about. The poet, having seen through all of man’s seemingly empty struggles on earth to literally own everything in it, indulgently laughs at man for his folly in the piece ‘Culture’, where man is required to do things because it’s ‘The way of the people/The way of mindless conformity/The way of being loved by everyone…’.
  But before the universal, the poet goes through acute moments of personal searing pain for giving in to love. Of course, it’s ‘The way of the people…’ But she finds to her shock that the love that everyone craves is strewn with unseen barbs of pain she finds so hard to pull from her wounded, bleeding heart. She refers to herself as the child of love, as she has lost her mind to love, as in ‘A Stitch in Time Saves Mine’: ‘A few have lost their minds to love/I am one of them/I’ve lost my mind to my heart/I’ve loved in summer/And cried in the rain/I’ve always felt I’d die young/Forget not this humble poet/ Who made words dance like none other…/She lived and loved richly/A love creature/Born of love for love to love…/My life’s been the third world war/A war that’s promised to leave the world a rose/Keep forever Jenim, the lass scared by life’s trimming…”
  And so Dibie’s poetry takes sublime linguistic flight, as she paints words on pages like an artist deftly applies her brush strokes to the canvas of poetic imageries. The lyrical beauty of Dibie’s poetry is such that one poem melds into yet another one in one continuum of extreme pleasure. Take ‘Sublime’, for instance, ‘Volatile/the distance between the metal and my chest/Sublime/The moment I realise a blink will open eternity/Sorry/Five letters that slipped when I knew I was wrong/Why/The question that lingered as my memory faded to dust…/Rewind/A pause in time… I race to my past…/Love/Life’s too short to let hurt linger…/If/All my days were just one breath, what would I do?...”
  The title poem ‘Scarcast’ is visual beauty in its end rhymes and leaping visual imageries. But it’s the poem of hope and affirmation of the poet persona’s belief in God and what she is capable of doing with her vast talents and her free spirit of openness in embracing the whole world: ‘I am Scarcast…/Born of God’s graces/A spirit that amazes/Eyes revealing a soul of deep gazes/Never deterred by hazes…’
  Dibie ‘s Scarcast is poetry of free verses and end rhymes. ‘The Picture’ is one poem that chronicles man’s often convoluted life’s journey from birth to adulthood till he breathe his last. It’s both conversational and descriptive and packs all the emotions of pain, joy, anger, happiness and those things that make man what he is, what he is not and what he yearns to be.
  But it’s in the last poem that the poet comes to a final understanding of the purpose of man – his need to have God close to her heart, as the only sensible thing to do in a world filled with so much pain from even loving someone who loves you back. Here, God’s love is in overflow and any man who neglects this abundant love of God is lost: ‘From Him Who loves us more/than anything/Remember this one thing For us He’ll do/anything/Even shed the blood of His son/Even make still the sun’.
  Dibie’s lyricism is incredible balm to the soul. She writes with such lambent clarity. Her poetic vision and visual imagery are so sure and absolute they lull one to sleep. From deep emotive outpouring, Dibie shows a firm grasp of her material world and deploys her poetic power to explain it as best she could. Dibie’s Scarcast is suffused with haunting beauty and pleasantly disquieting; it’s a work of fine poetic sensibility. Dibie deserves praise for this debut volume.

From Magic Wand come Toxic Eucharist, exciting publishing options

By Anote Ajeluorou

THESE are exciting times for publishing in Nigeria. In spite of perceived poor reading culture and sheer apathy for the book and lack of patronage among the populace, many Nigerians are not deterred. Realising how important books are to personal and national development in a world built on knowledge economic indices, they have kept faith and are expanding various frontiers to make the book accessible to those keen on not being left behind fast-moving 21st century train.
  And while the reputable publishing companies are busy chasing recommended texts from ministries of education to be in business, innovative ones like Magic Wand Publishing are not only focused on creative, fictional books, but are taking advantages of the internet to launch into realms already commonplace in other parts of the world. For Magic Wand, Print-on-Demand (PoD) is the future of books in Nigerian and West Africa’ it claims first to venture into the platform in the region. Toxic Eucharist by Uzor Ngoladi is one of its major works, although it has been in the shadows in the past three years after publishing Myne Whiteman’s A Heart to Mend.
  Magic Wand’s Lead Account Manager, Mr. Adewumi Fabarabe, stated in Lagos last week that it was going public with its exciting new publishing offers with Toxic Eucharist because the book breaks new frontiers, as it boldly takes on the explosive issue of religion often seen as a taboo, with its dose of unquestioning dogma. Print-on-Demand, he explained, works on a lean publishing framework that sheds wastes on all fronts. First, you print as many or as few as you have need of so as to avoid stockpiling unsold books in stores or warehouses. In other words, printing is done based on demand at a given time.
  Although Fabarebo agrees it’s an elevated form of self-publishing, he, however, noted that Magic Wand goes further than merely pushing a book into an author’s hands to do with them as he wished. His company, he assured, goes the extra mile to provide book editing, promotion and marketing support for its authors. Although he does not pay royalties to authors, he only collects a small percentage from the printing cost, and allows an author a wide margin so his book becomes profitable. But he promotes his authors on reading tours.
  From March 21 when Toxic Eucharist will be presented at Terra Kulture, Victoria Island, Lagos, Magic Wand would launch its 1000 books on its web portal - By this scheme authors are being invited to send in or bring the first three chapters of their fictional manuscripts to Terra Kulture for instant assessment. Accepted manuscripts would be properly edited and uploaded into the web portal and made available on Amazon and other web-based bookstores available to readers worldwide for the Print-on-Demand marketing format.
  On Toxic Eucharist, Fabarebo said working on the book had been a journey on account of the controversial nature of its subject, as “It’s a great deal of religious stuff. What can be said is that it’s a great, awesome read”.

WHILE the inclination to defer to some higher being seems ingrained in man’s genetics in his quest to understand himself and humanity at large, the extent to which he has inflicted injury on his fellow man on account of religion seems incalculable. Boko Haram’s self-appointed mission of destruction is a case in point, not to mention other subtle ways by which innocent worshippers are daily being defrauded and degraded by those who purport to lead them in various places of worship.
  These are some of the issues Ngoladi tackles in his new and controversial fiction, Toxic Eucharist, set in Eastern Nigeria. Although Ngoladi did not set out to attack on a particular religious faith and its adherents, he has merely brought his creative vision to bear on some of the common vices plaguing modern-day religious practices. Such issues range from fleecing the flock in the guise of revelations or prophecies, priests molesting minors, sex abuse, greed for money, stealing in the church and other such vices that crucify Christ anew in the sheer brazenness of atrocities in various houses of God.
  While presenting the novel to the media last week at O’Jez Restaurant, National Stadium, Surulere, Lagos, Ngoladi said although the works is pure fiction, he was forced to take up religion, as a way of urging critical self-examination on all, as society’s wellbeing is linked to its religious health. He noted with alarm the high level of moral bankruptcy and hypocrisy evident in places of worship in the country, saying a moral regeneration was needed to steer back the cause of religious faith for the healing Nigeria needs.
  Anchored against the backdrop of Catholicism, the faith the author grew up in, which acts as springboard for Toxic Eucharist, Ngoladi stated that his work is nowhere near Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses even though he’d had angry reactions to it. Some had even gone as far as referring to the work as blasphemous. But he said there was nothing new under the sun that hadn’t been written before and that the work must not be construed as castigating all priests as immoral, but that some were upright men and women working out a salvation for themselves and their followers.
  “Religion has brought a lot of good and bad,” the author stated, “but there’s the crisis of identity; we have discarded our African religion for the Hebrew God. What are the tenets of Christianity or Islam? Now, there are a lot of religious clashes. It’s time we do self-examination in the name of religion. Why do the clergy scam the flock? Expectation from the clergy should be high; it’s not for the morally bankrupt, as the priest character in Toxic Eucharist is portrayed.”

Friday, 14 March 2014

I walked on the same Fiditi grounds as Okigbo, says poet laureate, Ipadeola

By Anote Ajeluorou

Nigeria’s poet laureate for 2013, Mr. Tade Ipadeola, received his award last Friday in Lagos from sponsor of The Nigeria Prize for Literature, Nigeria Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) Ltd. It was a full house at Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA), Victoria Island, where students from some highbrow secondary schools in Lagos were in attendance.
  That, on its own, was a sharp contrast. Winner of the prize, Ipadeola, attended Fiditi Grammar School, Oyo State, certainly not a highbrow secondary school. As a result, no student from Mushin, Isolo, Makoko, Oshodi, Ajamgbadi, Badagry or Epe had a chance to meet and take photographs with the poet laureate or even own copies of the winning book, The Sahara Testament, that was given free, as a means of stimulating their creative imagination the way Ipadeola’s was fired for walking the same hallowed grounds as pioneer modernist poet, Christopher Okigbo, who once taught at Fiditi Grammar School long before Ipadeola was born.
  In a documentary profile on him mostly set in Fiditi Grammar School premises, Ipadeola relived his past and the influences he had while growing up. His father, Chief Ayantade Ipadeola, who taught English and Literature, he said, was unrelenting in directing his attention to literary texts and personalities. Today, he is the better for that overbearing filial encumbrance, as he took home the US$100,000 prize worth.
  Later at Federal Palace Hotel, Ipadeola had lunch with fellow poet, Dr. Ogaga Ifowodo and his guests from Spain, Irene Lopez  de Castro, an artist (whose painting adorns the cover of the winning book, The Sahara Testament), her husband, Dr. John Damanti, and a budding poet, Femi Morgan. After lunch, Ifowodo read two poems in honour of the laureate for winning the prestigious prize. He read ‘Rather than burn’, a piece that condemns banning of gay and ‘Sixty Lines by the Lagoon’, written to celebrate notable poet, Mr. Odia Ofeimun, when he turned 60 back in 2009.

IN his response, Ipadeola paid tribute to astrologers and architects for the path they thread, particularly J.K. Obatala, in his untiring efforts to expose the field of astrology, as “Keepers of knowledge and true believers in a world drowning in ignorance, poverty and doubt. They see farther than us all, probe deeper and reach further into reality. All the while, the best of them keep the sense of wonder and faith alive in themselves and in the world they keep discovering. They move us beyond rhetoric into a realm we do well to dip into from time to time”.
  He expressed gratitude to prize sponsor, Nigeria LNG Ltd, for humouring him and his ilk to be part of the prize in spite of their initial skepticism 10 years ago when it was instituted.
  Governing board chairman for the prize, Prof. Ayo Banjo, also praised prize sponsor for their consistency in growing the prize in worth and prestige and for choosing to invest in the area of creativity in Nigeria. He said the effect of such sponsorship was already redounding in similar prizes (Etisalat Prize for African Literature, for instance, that was instituted last year), saying the prize was already fulfilling the purpose for which it was established 10 years ago.
  Also Managing Director of Nigeria LNG Ltd, Mr. Babs Omotowa paid tribute to Lagos as city of the poets even though Ipadeola is from Ibadan. But he said awarding the prize to Ipadeola in Lagos seemed fitting enough, adding, “I am happy to say - Lagos is the city of poets. Ofeimun’s famous anthology, Lagos of the Poets, brings together a diverse immensity of poets writing on Lagos, poets ranging from this country’s first president, Nnamdi Azikiwe, through the heavyweights - Wole Soyinka, JP Clark, Gabriel Okara, Niyi Osundare, Femi Osofisan and Ben Okri to the younger generation poets like Esiaba Irobi, Ogaga Ifowodo, Maik Nwosu, Obi Nwakanma, Lola Shoneyin, Akeem Lasisis and Unoma Azuah, among others”.
  After cataloguing the immense contributions his company was making to Nigeria’s economy, Omotewa said, “But, of course, today is about Tade Ipadeola. It’s about The Sahara Testament. It’s about poetry and the poets who write them. It’s about writers and the books they write. It’s about recognizing and celebrating excellence that the young ones with us today may see the way and follow it to their individual successes”.
  He said seeing the students in the hall nudged in him a feeling of nostalgia, which might prompt him to go back to the classroom where it all started for him.
  Goodwill messages from Prof. Clark, Ofeimun and Chief Elechi Amadi completed a fine afternoon in honour of poetry. Clark stated bluntly that he wasn’t “a fan of LNG establishing a prize for literature. When I see what is coming out of Nigeria, I get more than goose pimples, even from university teachers. The kind of poetry I see, I’m not encouraged. But Tade’s poetry makes me say poetry has come out of this exercise. It’s not imagination alone, but the discipline of practicing the quatrain style in a sustained manner. I read the whole book in one night; I couldn’t go to bed. At last something has come out of it, and I hope more will come”.
  Clark said prizes were given by people who wanted something out of prizes, as “nothing is for free; they know what they are promoting. But we will tell them what to promote, in confidence”.
  Amadi praised the prize, saying it was wonderful and a milestone in the progress of Nigerian literature. He tasked other companies to emulate Nigeria LNG Ltd to do the same for literature, saying, “I value local prizes because we can access them based on local, cultural sensibilities. Foreign prizes don’t always coincide with local tastes; foreign prizes have done so much for us, too. Young writers should aspire to write for prizes but they should write what they feel, as the prizes will come”.
  Although he was one of the biggest critics of The Nigeria Prize for Literature at inception 10 years ago, Ofeimun (publisher of The Sahara Testament, with his Hornbill African Poets, Lagos; 2013) commended the sponsors for the initiative. He also said he was happy Ipadeola abandoned his law to write the winning book, adding, “I’m lucky to be able to identify with young writers before they break out!
  “In this year of conference, it’s important we have a great book. Tade has written a great book. When great literature begins to be created in a particular environment, it forces people to notice literature, especially those who would not ordinarily bother about it”.
  Also paying tribute to Ipadeola’s poetic ingenuity was Spanish painter, de Castro, whose painting is on the book’s cover. She said, “We come with our heart full of love for Africa, for Tade and to be with you. It’s magical that you (Tade) won the prize with a book with my painting; this is after our meeting five years ago in South Korea. I discovered Africa in my last trip to Mali, with the River Niger as my inspiration. Many people in Europe only know about wars, hunger and problems in Africa. They don’t know about its beauty. This is the real gold (artistic talent) that Nigeria, Africa has and I hope the smart phone doesn’t destroy it”.
  Prof. Idowu Bamitale, Vice Chancellor of Obafemi Awolowo University, where Ipadeola studied law, was also in attendance to support an illustrious alumnus for making the university proud.