In this enquiry, I am interested in demonstrating some tendencies that seem to characterize developments in Nigerian Literature in English in the period after Wole Soyinka’s winning of the Nobel Prize. For convenience, the presentation is divided into six main parts. These include the present segment which constitutes the preamble; The Pyramid: Monument, Milestone and Metaphor; Ferment and Harvest; Bazaar; Carnival; and Conclusion.
THE PYRAMID: MONUMENT, MILESTONE AND METAPHOR
And the pyramid is our icon
Venerable symbol of Black civilization
Visit the pyramids, gaze on the sphinx,
Inspect the temples and monuments
Feast your eyes on uplifting wonders
– Chinweizu “Admonition to the Black World” (46)
The idea of the pyramid as monument, milestone and metaphor is highly significant because of the reverberating implications and indices the pyramid represents.. Beyond the sublime and neo-spiritual essence which the quintessential Egyptian pyramid as inscrutable and indescribable wonder suggests, the Pyramid has come to be associated with some measure of overall peak and excellence in creativity. In essence, such areas of artistic pursuits as fine and Applied Arts (Sculpture and Architecture) venerate the projection of excellence realized through the pyramid. Similarly, in the literary arts, the pyramids would refer to those canonical structures that seemingly parallel the marble and related constituents which mark the sculptural pyramids.
However, the metaphor of the pyramid when applied to the literary artist can also be conceived in a comparatist and contrastive sense. It could be such where the work of a major literary artist would be described in pyramid – oriented constructs. This is the sense in which Victor Hugo is said to have described the reception of William Shakespeare’s accomplishment. How the celebrated writers and literary works of our clime can be considered as not only pyramids and pyramidal but also structures more sublime in profile than pyramids and similar constructions is what Elbert Hubbard, in paraphrasing Hugo, has articulated for mankind. As stated by Hubbard, Shakespeare has no need of a pyramid; he has his work. What can bronze or marble do for him? … What is as indestructible as these “The Tempest”, “The Winter’s Tale” “Julius Caesar”, “Coriolanus”? what monument is sublimer than “Lear”, sterner than “The Merchant of Venice”, more dazzling than “Rome and Juliet”, more amazing than “Richard lll”? What moon could shed about the pile a light more mystic than that of “a Midsummer Night’s Dream”? What capital, where it even in London, could rumble around it as tumultuously as Macbeth’s perturbed soul? What framework of cedar or oak will last as long as “Othello”? What bronze can equal the bronze of “Hamlet”? (317).
Of course without meaning to denigrate accomplishments in visual and plastic arts, Elbert Hubbard, in spite of his supposed bias for the creative writer is merely privileging thought over physical edifices. He is continuing with the Shakespearean tradition of emphasizing the immortality of art. Even when books can be burnt and destroyed, Hubbard like Shakespeare and P. B. Shelley of “Ozymandias” is reflecting on the rapid ruination of man-made physical structures. It is within this context that Elbert Hubbard makes the following assertions:
No construction of lime, or rock, of Iron and of cement is worth the deep breath of genius, which is the respiration of God through man. What edifice can equal thought? Babel is less lofty than Isaiah; Cheops is smaller than Homer; the Colosseum is inferior to Juvenal, the Giralda of Seville is dwarfish by the side of Cervantes; Saint Peter’s of Rome does not reach to the ankle of Dante (317).
In the passage above, Elbert Hubbard is reminding us that the book of Isaiah which has survived centuries and millennia is greater than the Tower of Babel. In the same breath, Hubbard informs us that both Cheops and the Colosseum are smaller than Homer, the venerated ancient Greek bard and Juvenal, a celebrated Roman poet. The same reverential recognition which Hubbard and the rest of humanity accord Dante can also be extended to other kinsmen of his who were celebrated poets.
Nearer home, Elbert Hubbard’s rhetorical question “what architect has the skill to build a tower so high as the name of Shakespeare?” (318) is very relevant to our discussion today. When properly domesticated and re-contextualized, we shall be asking the same about Wole Soyinka and the tribe of African writers in general and Nigerian writers in particular. In addressing the state and development of literature in Nigeria in the period succeeding Soyinka’s winning of the Nobel Prize, it is important to briefly reflect on Soyinka’s heritage and legacy. Of course in order to appreciate how and what Soyinka means to us, it is important to state that Soyinka’s winning of the 1986 Nobel Prize for literature is just a defining phase in a distinguished career that dates back to the preceding three decades and half. It can be argued that Wole Soyinka started his career as a short story writer. Apart from having a short story “Keffi’s Birthday Treat” broadcast on the Nigerian Broadcasting Service in 1951 and being featured in the July 1954 issue of Nigerian Radio Times, Soyinka’s first major international literary prize was for a short story. As Bernth Lindfors documents for us, what is not generally known is that Soyinka also wrote a good deal of fiction in his late undergraduate years. In 1956, for example, he was awarded second prize in the Margaret Wrong Memorial Fund writing competition for a fiction entry entitled “Oji River” (“The Early Writings” 180)..
In other words, Soyinka’s road to the Nobel Prize can be traced to the milieu that produced his winning entry in 1956. In retrospect, the Margaret Wrong Prize was part of an institutionalizing process that announced what would later blossom as a multi-generic talent. Thus, long before the Nobel, Wole Soyinka had attained the type of reputation which approximates “literary pharaohdom”, a term John Fowles recalls was once used in describing Naguib Mahfouz, Africa’s second Nobel laureate for literature.
Nonetheless, the idea of a post-Soyinka Nobel Prize period is a very important phase and marker in the development and reception of literature in Nigeria. As someone who has been very much around with us and our literature consistently for roughly 56 years now, Wole Soyinka has become a metaphor for situating trends and periods in Nigerian literature. Thus, even when such dramatists as Chijioke Abagwe, Hubert Ogunde, James Ene Henshaw, Ogali A Ogali and so on were the toast of the performance circuit in Nigeria in the period between 1940 and 1960, it is often taken for granted that the major periods in Nigerian drama should be constructed around the looming figure of Wole Soyinka. Hence, we often find major periods in Nigerian drama described loosely as pre-Soyinka, Soyinka and post-Soyinka. As with his contemporaries, Chinua Achebe Christopher Okigbo and J.P Clark, Soyinka’s works fit into the lofty terrain that represents or approximates the pyramids. Such explains the reason why, often, commentators begin and end with this generation. However, our preoccupation here is to gaze beyond the pyramids that their works represent.
FERMENT AND HARVEST The creative ferment and literary harvest that came in the wake of Wole Soyinka’s winning of the Nobel Prize can be said to represent the major attempt to gaze beyond the pyramids. Niyi Osundare has described the first decade of Nigerian Literature after the Nobel Prize as a very exciting era. Apart from highlighting the coincidence in the winning of “two other international prizes by ‘two other Nigerians” (see Enekwe 1) in the same year as Soyinka’s Nobel, Osundare talks about the ascendancy of poetry and the creation of an enabling environment to produce future award-winning creative writers. In describing this intellectually exciting and arresting period, Osundare notes that
this also coincided with the beginning and blossoming of creative writing courses in our universities and colleges. At the University of Ibadan, Professor Isidore Okpewho and I started a creative writing programme. While he handled prose, I was handling poetry (Enekwe 2).
Of course, beyond the creative writing courses, there were several informal literary gatherings and poetry clubs in Nigerian Universities, especially in the period between 1986 and 1990. One of such is the Anthill, co-ordinated at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, by people like Olu Oguibe, Esiaba Irobi, Emman Shehu and so on.
What Niyi Osundare in the interview with Ossie Enekwe says about the ensuing literary harvest of the period immediately after 1986 is representative of the focus of the present study. According to Osundare, “so many of the poets who emerged in (the) early nineteen nineties were products of these creative writing classes in many of the Universities” (Enekwe 2). But then from the late 1980s when Harry Garuba (ed) Voices From the Fringe and the works of the six update poets appeared, Nigerian literature would enter another very interesting phase of worthwhile harvests which issue would form the last part of the present study.
Since most studies of post – 1986 Nigerian Literature are usually silent on the contributions of our dramatists to the national pool, it would be necessary to highlight the leading dramatists of this era outside the more celebrated ones. It is salutary that in a three – part essay entitled “Recent Nigerian Dramatists: Contexts, Attitudes and Patterns” in the then very popular Guardian Literary Series, Reuben Abati would talk about new Nigerian Dramatists including those who as students won important laurels. Among some of the not-so well-known names listed by Abati are Debo Sotuminu, Segun Ashade, Biyi Bandele-Thomas, Isi Agboaye, Sesan Folorunso and Sesan Ogunledun. Concerning the commendation earned by these once identified student dramatists, Abati observes as follows:
Bandele – Thomas’ Rain, for example, won the thirteenth International Student Play Script competition in 1989, Folasayo Ogunrinde’s The Woman with a Past was one of the winners of the British Council/ANA Drama Prize for 1989 and is already in press in a collection entitled Five plays by Heinemann. Olawale Ajayi’s Breaking the Wall won the 1990 drama prize of the Kollaj Literary Festival at Ogun State University (18).
Sola Osofisan who is a major product of this period is known to have harvested a lot of drama prizes which eventually peaked with his winning of two ANA Prizes in 1990. That same year, Osofisan’s drama submission earned him a special commendation at the ANA Drama Prize contest. Beyond such relatively better known dramatists as Tess Onwueme, Bode Osanyin, and Tunde Fatunde, Reuben Abati also draws attention to the emergence of such newer dramatists as Ben Tomoloju, Fred Agbeyegbe, Rotimi Johnson, Sonny Samson – Akpan, Uzor Maxim Uzoatu, Stella Oyedepo, Hyginus Ekwuazi, Dipo Kalejaiye, Olu Obafemi and so on. Today, sixteen years after Abati’s essay, majority of the dramatists mentioned above are no longer fledgling but rather celebrated and to a great extent, accomplished dramatists.
The harvest hinted above, especially in the area of drama would be incomplete if we decided to exclude Wole Soyinka, Ola Rotimi and Femi Osofisan from the list. Nigeria’s landscape of drama in the period under focus would also include Soyinka’s The Beatification of Area Boy, From Zia with Love and King Baabu. Ola Rotimi’s Akassa You Mi and Man Talk, Women Talk among others and Osofisan’s numerous drama texts, and especially the political epics, Nkrumah-ni … Africa-ni! and A Nightingale for Dr. Dubois. Notwithstanding that Femi Osofisan started writing and performing his plays in the late 1960s and was already becoming very visible by 1986 especially with his having won the maiden edition of the ANA Drama Prize with his Morountodun in 1983, it was in the period between 1986 and 2006 that Osofisan was at his most prolific. Today, he is not only the proud author of about fifty plays but reckoned as probably the best well-known Nigerian if not African dramatist after Soyinka. Of course, with names like Ahmed Yerimah, Sam Ukala, Emeka Nwabueze, Bakare Rasaki, Effiong Johnson Ebereonwu and so on, Soyinka is well represented in Nigerian drama after 1986.
Prison Literature is another area that Nigerians publishing after 1986 have done remarkably well. Apparently because the period in question coincides with the most repressive era in Nigerian history (1986-1998), we have a good number of texts extending the frontier of Soyinka’s A Shuttle in the Crypt. Under poetry we have Nnimmo Bassey’s Intercepted, Austine Amanze Akpuda’s Not Yet the Guillotined Mind and parts of Ogaga Ifowodo’s Madiba. In the prose genre we have in the continuation of the heritage of Soyinka’s The Man Died, such narratives as Ken Saro-Wiwa’s A Month and A Day: A Detention Diary (1995), Tunji Abayomi’s Cell 26: Detention Memoir of a Political Detainee (1999) and Kunle Ajibade’s Jailed for Life: A Reporter’s Prison Notes (2003).. In recognition of the distinction achieved by Nigerians in this area of writing, detention and prison recollections by such celebrated political detainees as Ken Saro-Wiwa, Kunle Ajibade, Chris Anyanwu and Ogaga
Ifowodo are among the texts anthologized in Jack Mapanje (ed) Gathering Seaweed: African Prison Writing.
Having hinted the terrain of drama and prison narratives, we shall briefly talk about the short story and poetry here. These are the other departments of creative writing through which Nigeria’s flag has been hoisted in the global consciousness.
Just as the pioneer modern Nigerian writers such as Cyprian Ekwensi, T.M Aluko, Phebean Itayemi and later Wole Soyinka drew international attention to the Nigerian short story in the early 1940s and 1950s, the post 1986 – period in Nigerian literature has become one easily associated with the removal of the genre from what was considered as a literary orphanage into a realm of filial foster parentage. Here is a milieu that has seen the flowering of important short stories and book length collections of same. Some of the engaging practitioners of the short story genre publishing after Soyinka’s Nobel Prize include Ken Saro – Wiwa, the author of the enchanting A Forest of Flowers (1987) and Adaku and Other Stories, Femi Olugbile, the author of The Lonely Men and who brings a psychiatric dimension to his characters; Ben Okri, the creator of highly engaging and memorable characters in such collections as Stars of the New Curfew and Incidents at the Shrine.
Of course, none can forget Helon Habila, the author of the award-winning “Love Poems”, one of the most engaging short stories about prison in recent history. Today, there are so many interesting anthologies of short stories by Nigerians. Some of the important names are Festus Iyayi, Zaynab Alkali, Nduka Otiono, Ossie Enekwe, Akachi Ezeigbo, J.O.J Nwachukwu-Agbada, Karen King-Aribisala and so on. Recently, writers from the Northern part of the country have distinguished themselves by the number and diversity of individual short story collections they have published. Some of the significant names include Ibrahim Sheme, Maria Ajima, Auwalu Yusufu Hamza, and E.E. Sule
No study of the outburst of poetry in Nigeria in the period after 1986 can dispense with the labour of love initiated by Kraft books. Whoever are behind Kraft deserve praise for publishing poetry at a time it was considered anathema so to do in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Kraft has not only given us some of the award-winning poetry collections and best poets but also is probably the most available place for the publication and promotion of poetry. As such, virtually every fledgling and even established Nigerian poet would like to have a Kraft imprint on their work. In other words, once we are celebrating the writers of the 1986-2006 era who are mainly poetry inclined, we owe Kraft a very important commendation. More than any other Nigerian publisher, Kraft has demonstrated that poetry can hold its own in the market place of ideas.
Outside the anthologies of poetry published in the period between 1988 and 2005, Nduka Otiono and Odoh Diego Okenyodo have no doubt done their generation some service with the recent publication of Camouflage: Best of Contemporary Writing from Nigeria. However, rather than ‘Best of’, it is a mere sample of contemporary writing from Nigeria. This requires a qualification. Outside stating that this anthology caters for a decidedly generational interest for which reason it has excluded the works of members of other generations of Nigerian writers, it does not even in its compilational manner mine important works from the writings of such leading members as Elias Dunu of the Naked Landscapes, Isidore Diala of The Lure of Ash,and Sola Osofisan, the first member of the generation to win way back in 1990 two ANA Prizes for poetry and prose at the same time. Similarly, Camouflage does not feature the impressive output of the major Northern Nigerian female writers justifiably celebrated by Remi Raji in the well publicized essay “Season of Desert Flowers: Contemporary women’s poetry from Northern Nigeria”.
Nor does Camouflage as a promotional anthology provide us adequate information about the accomplishments of the writers whose works and profile it desires to advertise. For instance, no one reading Camouflage would learn that Amanda Adichie published a civil-war based drama, For Love of Biafra, in Nigeria in 1998 before “Half of a Yellow Sun” her much celebrated Biafran short story now turned into a novel. Surely, critics need to have this information.
Although majority of the Nigerian writers born in the 1960s are imagined to be outside the construction of the critical canon of Nigerian Literature, they are paradoxically, winning as many literary prizes as their predecessor modern first generation colleagues. Furthermore, it is with this generation of writers that many commentators are beginning to state that Nigerian literature is now abroad, in exile. In other words, more than any other generation of Nigerian writers, it is with the often denigrated “stillborn”, ‘CNN’, ‘post-IMF’, ‘internet’ or ‘yahoo’ generation that we see the ambassadorial profile of the promotional phase and face of Nigerian literature. Thus, even when some observers imagine that nothing has happened in Nigerian Literature since Achebe’s time, the western media and the special forum of the internet have given the new Nigerian Literature an advertisement identity and profile that can be considered unprecedented.
The apocalyptic tenor and content of such essays as Sanya Osha “The End of Nigerian Literature?”, and Frank Uche Mowah “Indigenous Language Literature as Subaltern Discourse (II)” where Osha while lamenting about the hopeless condition of publishing in Nigeria, talks about how many talented young writers have embraced self-publishing and Mowah’s advertised lamentation that “in an examination of over hundred poetry texts twenty are worth their efforts” (10) are intimidating enough to create the impression that Nigerian Literature must have been experiencing a living in death condition. The above pronouncements justify our resolve to give prominence to those Nigerian writers who emerged when the publishing industry collapsed and which ironically coincided with the period Sanya Osha in the paper already cited refers to, namely the intellectually debilitating atmosphere that the writers of this generation suffered within the first decade following Soyinka’s Nobel Prize. Writing in 1997, Osha talks of a milieu where up coming authors face great editorial difficulties as they have to do virtually everything on their own. As it is now, most of those own books merely circulate within literary circles instead of the larger public where they are probably more needed and where ultimately the writer is able to judge her full worth. For the moment, many of those books continue to revolve within restricted circles due to crippling economic conditions (10). It is the scenario that Osha and Mowah paint above that brings us to our next sub topic, the bazaar temperament in Nigerian Literature in the period after 1986.
BAZAAR Whether a bazaar is conceived of as “an area with many small shops and stall, especially in the middle East and India” (BBC English Dictionary 90) or “a sale that is held to raise money for charity” (90), the fact remains that there is a certain level of mercantilism that is associated with the idea of a bazaar. Thus, for whatever purpose, bazaar which in the second context approximates a cash-and-carry essence that on the surface may look philanthropic is not necessarily so. The idea of an oriental market place which a bazaar also suggests is a metaphor that is suitable in the description of some literary prizes won by a number of Nigerian writers and other practices within the literary circle. Despite the politics involved in the management of literary prizes, there are some that have evoked the impression of the typical oriental market place. Thus, even when some of the prize winners may not always have money to throw around in order to appropriate such prizes, the high scale lobbying that goes into the management of such prizes has affected the credibility of same.
Among the most controversial of the literary prizes in Nigeria are those awarded for proficiency in poetry. Esiaba Irobi has made some valid statements about the bazaar temperament that sees writers winning prizes because they have big names or their friends are the organizers, administrators, or jury of such prizes. Thus, in his provocative essay “Politics of Literary Awards”, Esiaba Irobi for instance implicates some former Judges of an ANA Prize, namely Theo Vincent, Wale Ogunyemi and Labo Yari for seemingly giving the ANA Poetry Prize to Okinba Launko’s Minted Coins. After affirming that there is no way the Judges cannot remember the name of the man behind the pseudonym and why it would have been proper for Okinba Launko to go for the Okigbo prize that required a stiffer competition, Esiaba Irobi goes down memory lane in order to go for the jugular. According to him,
ANA itself should realize that laurels are not the ultimate determinants of the validity or value of a work of art and so stop the intellectual fornication frothed each year around the prizes. After all, in the 60s, Michael Echeruo won the Mbari prize for poetry above Christopher Okigbo and Dennis Brutus. Today, where is Echeruo in the echelons of African poetry? Robert Hayden won the first prize repeatedly over Derek Walcott at the Negro Art festivals held in the 60s. In 1987, Derek Walcott won the American Literary Genius Award and missed the Nobel by the skin of his pen, who is Robert Hayden? (16).
In his protest against what he describes as “recreative sodomy” over the tendency to move the ANA Prize as baton and “a relay instrument between members of the Chinweizu Osofisan – Omotoso – Osundare – Ofeimun-Jeyifo- Ogunyemi- Iyayi-Fatunde age group”, Esiaba Irobi in his essay reproduced in the ANA Review of 1988 talks about the “politics of acceptance” of literary laurels (18). As he argues, “there is, almost always a measure of emotional flavouring that spices every panel of judges’ choice especially where the works submitted are of equal strength” (18). How some names have intimidated some judges to award prizes is part of the bazaar spirit that has constituted a blight on the reception of recent (post – 1986) Nigerian literature. It is a sensibility that has made the wrong people to win the right prizes.
Some of Tanure Ojaide’s pronouncements on being in a hurry and the rating conferred on writers because of prizes can help us understand the issue at stake here. Before Ojaide’s recent so-called bombshell about the impatience of younger writers and their copycat mentality, an issue he had raised earlier via an interview whose story is recorded in an unsigned Saturday, December 3, 1988 Punch essay, “Tanure Ojaide: Two Times a Winner”, he also demonstrated an irritating display of impatience with publishers that must have put a question mark on his creativity. For instance, when asked the why he prefers publishing his works abroad, Ojaide, in the Punch article already mentioned, answers that “Nigerian publishers delay a lot” (19). It is instructive that Ojaide also gave a similar response in an interview he had with John Agetua about twelve years earlier.
In the essay entitled “Tanure Ojaide: Two Times a Winner” probably written by Abiola Olagbemi, we encounter two sides of Ojaide. One paints the picture of a writer in a hurry and another that of a sober poet who has not allowed laurels to mismanage him. Regarding the much denounced and demonized rashness in the printing of one’s works, we find that Tanure Ojaide of the late 1980s was of the same frame of mind and temperament as some of the new Nigerian poets dismissed as copycats. In justifying his reasons to publish abroad, Ojaide argues that “A year before I gave The Eagle’s vision to the publishers, I gave a volume to the Nigerian publishers, I am yet to see it published” (19). After ‘growing’ to a level where, as some would say, names intimidate publishers, Ojaide confesses that “Right now, I have received assurance that anything I give them will be published in good time” (19). However, in a typical doublespeak manner, Ojaide in his characteristic tradition dismisses J.P Clark Bekederemo and the younger generation Nigerian writers. In the case of J.P. Clark-Bekederemo, Ojaide remarks that Nigerian publishers are not adverturous . They stick to the big names. Take for instance J.P. Clark Bekederemo’s Mandela’s poems. This collection is not great by any standard but it got published because of the name (Okome and Ifowodo 14 emphasis mine). Furthermore, when referring to those he would dismiss roughly twenty years after, Ojaide insists that young people seem to be very impatient, writing takes long time to master. You need time to mature. I think they should be patient, spend more time on the craft and seek opinions. It does not matter if they publish only one volume like Okigbo ( “Two Times” 19).
Concerning his winning of the Okigbo prize for poetry in Africa, a more sober Ojaide remembers that those who submitted entries may not necessarily be the best poets in Africa. The win doesn’t mean that I am the best poet. I have friends who are very good – Niyi Osundare, Harry Garuba, Odia Ofeimun and Kofi Anyidoho are some of them. Every year, there are submissions and someone has to win ( “Ttwo Times” 19 emphasis mine). Thus, the realization that “someone has to win” sometimes contrary to the better judgment of the jury is an issue that has made some people win prizes they are not qualified for. Just like in the period before 1988 already referred to, there are many aspects of the bazaar syndrome in the reception of new Nigerian literature. Some of them include sectionalism, prize fixing, undeserved media projection, bar-room chat canonization and so on.
Sectionalism, whether conceived in an ethnic – predicated orientation or ‘paddy paddy’ sentiments, has ruined the study of new Nigerian Literature. Beyond what is visible to literary enthusiasts we have a situation where so-called studies on the new generation are only a statistical inventory list and the pattern of listing is done to privilege only writers from a particular ethnic group or place of residence. Thus, with such a parochial orientation it becomes easy to appraise why the existing dimensions of recent writing are not showcased.
Allied to the above is what we discern as underserved media projection. Several commentators have reacted to such practice especially as it relates to the presentation of poems in our national newspapers. Odia Ofeimun captures this aptly when he notes as follows: “the newspapers have poetry columns where every piece of junk that comes in the name of poetry can get published in a way that short stories don’t get published” (see Anyamele 17).
As with some negative Nigerian actions, the adverse football politics called match-fixing is also seen in the arena of literary contests. Here, we have what can be described as prize fixing. This entails desperately struggling through phone calls, personal visits, gifts and related mechanisms to lobby and influence members of a literary jury to announce an often unmerited writer as winner of a given contest. Should some protest such abuse, they are usually told that having not read the work in question (which would usually not be in circulation) or those in the long and short lists as the case may be, that such a complainant is not qualified to make a judgment. As would be expected, some Nigerian writers and critics have queried this tendency. Uduma Kalu’s report of the year 2000 edition of ANA Prize contests is a good example of the reactions to the problems of controversial prize awards. Kalu records his experience of the ANA Convention in Jos in an essay appropriately entitled “Prizes and Queries at Writers Meet” featured in The Guardian on Sunday, December 3, 2000. At the beginning of the essay that has as many typographical and grammatical problems as some of the “poorly published” books that he took exception to, Kalu notes as follows:
Just as was predicted and, traditional the latest Association of Nigeria Authors (ANA) literary prizes awarded in Jos at the recently (ANA) [sic] did not go without complaints. Some of the writers who were angered by the way Lagos State writers seemed to cleared (sic) most of the prizes accused the judges of partisanship (39).
Furthermore, based on his interactions with literary journalists and critics, Uduma Kalu remarks that “most people who had read or reviewed some of the books said some of the winning entries lacked depth, and are marked by poor craftsmanship” (39). In a letter he wrote me in connection with the apparent politicization of the prizes for the year 2000, one of the Judges, the late professor Aderemi Bamikunle noted that sometimes the media clout of some people had tended to affect how regularly they received literary prizes. In fact he stated that the more one appeared visible and known in media and literary circles, the higher one’s prospects of winning some literary awards. It is the tendency to do privileged reviews of some books sent for literary contests that may have given them the prominence they do not deserve. For instance, on at last two occasions, a popular literary journalist with the defunct Post Express boasted openly that the books he reviewed are good enough for ANA Poetry Prizes. Similarly, one can also recall the boastfulness of a consultant to the NLNG Prize who was certain that his relation would win the supposedly botched NLNG Prize for the year 2004. But thank God for people like Charles E. Nnolim whose judgement can be trusted in more than eighty percent of cases handled. For instance, the poor packaging that his team complained about in 2004 was a major issue noted in Uduma Kalu’s report of December 3, 2000 in The Guardian on Sunday. The bazaar temperament can be as bizarre as contenders besieging the hotel rooms of some judges during the 2004 NLNG Prize. Similarly, some extra-literary lobbying went into the co-ordination of the first Pat Utomi Prize. Also during the 2005 edition of the NLNG Prize some lobbyists tried to intimidate at least one member of the jury to bend the rules to accommodate their ‘candidate’.
No doubt, the problem of canonization has been a contentious issue right from the period of Plato and Aristotle. But then when a text is said to have made the distinguished list in a classification of classics such a work should be the type that would appeal to several generations of literary enthusiasts and critics. The Nigerian literary scene has not been particularly lucky in all seasons in this respect. Such explains why queries are usually raised concerning the judgments of our literary contests in the past twenty years.
As with those raised by Esiaba Irobi, Maik Nwosu’s objection has to do with issues relating to criteria for literary canonization. Thus, in one of his several important essays entitled “Rethinking our Canons” and published in the Daily Times of Saturday, May 1, 1993, and strangely without a by-line , Maik Nwosu takes a swipe at the administration of literary prizes in Nigeria and abroad. According to him, Books of dubious quality are sometimes awarded literary prizes on the basis of the pervasive wave of favourable reception they are accorded and are, thereafter, elevated to the status of classics on the basis of these prizes (21). Even when Nwosu claims that he is “not consigning literary prizes to the garbage dump”, he argues that “it is very uncritical for any commentator or critic to ascribe greatness to any book because it has won a prize” (21).
Maik Nwosu goes to specifics by frowning at the award of the Commonwealth Prize to Festus Iyayi’s Heroes in 1986 and the 1991 ANA Poetry Prize to Ada Ugah’s Colours of the Rainbow. Confronting the elevation that the duo of Iyayi and Ugah assumed as a result of these prizes which he believes were undeserved, Nwosu in terms that evoke V.S.Naipaul’s thesis (that there must be no first and second prizes where no text is qualified for same) condemns the ritualistic tradition of awarding Annual prizes, whether there are deserving texts or not. With such a premise, one can then understand why Nwosu would fault the discrepancy between “the quality of the book and the status of the prize” so conferred (21). Against such a background, he queries the award of the 1992 edition of the All-Africa Okigbo Prize. In Nwosu’s estimation, the award of the All-Africa Okigbo Prize for Literature to Olu Oguibe’s A Gathering Fear last year [1992} is a case in point. Beyond “ I am bound to this land by blood” and some other instances of ascension, Oguibe’s poetry hovers dangerously between poetry as flat but vibrant statements and poetry as an imagistic engagement. So why was it awarded any laurel beyond the ANA Poetry Prize? (21).
Surprisingly, when Uduma Kalu queries issues of craft in contemporary Nigerian Poetry, Maik Nwosu in his essay entitled “The Mapping of a Generation” takes exception to same even while conceding some points to Kalu’s findings. Herein lies part of the problems of literary criticism, what Bernth Lindfors has characterized as the ‘Blind men and the elephant’ syndrome. It is instructive that John Otu takes exception to the craft in Nwosu’s 1995 ANA/Cadbury Poetry Prize winning collection, The Suns of Kush. Weighed against Otu’s essay (which essence is contained in Jimoh’s report on a July 1, 1998 PEN CIRCLE meeting), the value of the blurb statements on The Suns of Kush commending Nwosu for winning the ANA Cadbury and coming close to winning the 1996 All-Africa Christopher Okigbo Prize for Literature leaves much to be desired.
Similarly, beyond the fact of one laureate-to- be appearing to attack another laureate, it would be interesting to reflect on Chiedu Ezeanah’s praise for Oguibe and his A Gathering Fear. Just as Frank Mowah, Onookome Okome and Wale Okediran who wrote before him, Ezeanah commends Oguibe as not only “the more stridently political out of the poets of his generation that include Afam Akeh, Uche Nduka, Sola Osofisan, Esiaba Irobi, Sanya Osha and others” (35) but also one of the most accomplished of his generation. Like Ike Okonta who also discerned Oguibe’s donning of what Ezeanah describes as “the toga of a griot” (35), Ezeanah sees Oguibe accentuating “his subject matter in images that bespeak the epic ambitions of the book” (35). Furthermore, Ezeanah describes Oguibe’s text as “an impressive” text by “a promising craftsman” (35). For Ezeanah, there is no “other evidence (that) could be adduced for this than the fact that it was adjudged last year’s winner of the …Okigbo Prize for Literature” (35). No doubt, it is a puzzle that some leading members of the same generation cannot really agree on matters of aesthetics affecting their generation. A related issue to the problem raised by Nwosu is the idea of juggling the All Africa Okigbo Prize from its original poetry slot to other genres. When without proper clarification the Okigbo Prize was given to writers of prose, Maik Nwosu was one of those who made their protests known. The opposition reasoned that apparently because of the juicy prize involved, rules had to be readjusted to accommodate prose, may be because some ‘big’ people were involved.
Another dimension of the bazaar sensibility in contemporary Nigerian poetry has to do with the tendency to seek validity and relevance by asking known and established critics to write blurbs for these writers. Thus, in what approximates an intellectual incest, some of the well-known names struggle to dignify the works of those which blurbs they write. Once some of these usually airy and often esoteric comments grace the back and sometimes front covers of the books in question, the authors assume that they have arrived. This is especially the case when some of the critics compare without strong reasons the works of relatively fledgling writers with those by the supposedly canonized ones.
CARNIVAL Despite the relationships that link the Bazaar and the Carnival in the religious sphere, the use to which they are put here is contrastive. The idea of the carnival as “a public festival with music, processions, and dancing” (BBC English Dictionary 169) is crucial in understanding the celebrative character of the reception of Nigerian literature since 1986. However, the concept of a carnival as “unrestrained merrymaking” which perhaps accords with a bazaar atmosphere and temperament is not our concern here. In rejecting the character of the imbecilic carnival that attended Soyinka’s winning of the Nobel Prize, Femi Osofisan in “Soyinka in the Forest of a Thousand Revellers” notes as follows, I am grieved because I know that most of the celebrants as sincere as they are, do not know what the celebration is about. If by some error, an acknowledged idiot is given the prize tomorrow, our revelers will drink just as heartily, and just as patriotically (187). This frowning at indiscriminate celebrations is as it should be. For Abiola Irele who recognizes that “even before Soyinka was awarded the Nobel Prize, his work was large and important enough for us to see it in its proper light and to grasp its significance for ourselves” (168), there is something very eventful about the Nobel Prize. According to Irele, It comes as a consecration for a career that has been in all respect remarkable, and for a work that is distinguished by its abundance, variety, exceptional power of expression, and above all, profound import (164). No doubt, the variables isolated by Abiola Irele as constitutive of the Soyinka canon and mystique are carried over to the younger generation of Nigerian writers performing in all genres that Wole Soyinka distinguished himself. And happily enough, contrary to the noise making that is current today, the type of critical consciousness that midwifed what is considered Soyinka’s genius is also around in Nigeria today.
The present study will be considered incomplete if it does not address some of the leading issues in the reception of new Nigerian poetry and especially as raised by Tanure Ojaide in a recent interview with the Nigerian daily, The Sun. In the said interview report in The Sun, Ojaide makes the controversial statements that there is nothing like new Nigerian poetry and that the writers so identified are essentially copycat authors always desperate to search for the next available printer to ‘publish’ their works. Unlike Ojaide, Emevwo Biakolo in an essay entitled “Explorations in New Nigerian Poetry” believes that there is a big demarcation between Odia Ofeimun’s generation and “the group which, for the sake of convenience we shall call the update poets” (12). In articulating how both groups representing “two strands of (a) growing tradition” differ, Biakolo notes as follows:
… this differentiation begins from a generational point, but ends on a stylistic and ideologico-thematic note. Thus the gap beween such poets as Odia Ofeimun, Tanure Ojaide, Niyi Osundare and Molara Ogundipe – Leslie, and others such as Afam Akeh, Uche Nduka, Emman Shehu, Idzia Ahmad and Esiaba Irobi, is not merely one of age, but more significantly one of sensibility (12).
These update poets named after the publishing house that brought them to national prominence when assessed by focusing on Harry Garuba’s edited anthology, Voices from the Fringe and the six collections jointly published by Update and the defunct Concord Press of Nigeria can be said to have registered a major impression in the eyes of poetry enthusiasts and critics. Eddie Ojo reports that at the public presentation of the six books of poetry by Nigeria’s first update poets, Odia Ofeimun, one of the initiators of the project described them as “the best available anywhere in the world” (3). The fact that one of these poets, Afam Akeh, won the second prize in the first BBC contest for African poetry and another, Esiaba Irobi got represented in the BBC anthology The Fate of Vultures is very significant in many ways. In a review of the six volumes of poetry by Afam Akeh (Stolen Moments), Esiaba Irobi (Cotyledons) , Kemi Atanda – Ilori (Amnesty), Uche Nduka (Flower Child), Izzia Ahmad (A Shout Across the Wall) and Usman Shehu (Questions for Big Brother), Ben Tomoloju remarks that on a phenomenological basis, these voices are a clearly demystified and demystifying lot. They make no pretensions to the occidental gait of some who wrote before them. These are the poets born into the confusion of colonial, independence or post-independence crises of nationalism. They are charged by its harrowing consequences and in its political hallucinations, are set to confront the incubus that tears through their rights (9).
It is against such a context that I situate my study of the poetry by Ogaga Ifowodo and David Odinaka Nwamadi as a case where they are dreaming against thunder*1. Of course this sensibility can also be seen in this generation’s constructions of memorial poems for Dele Giwa and Ken Saro-Wiwa. Despite the stridency with which he makes his pronouncement, there is certainly nothing new or original about Tanure Ojaide’s lamentation concerning the problems associated with creative writing in contemporary Nigeria, and especially in the poetry by those who were born in the 1960s. This is mainly because at least ten prominent watchers of the writings produced by people of the 1960s generation have dwelt on this sore point in the period between 1987 and 2000. Among such critics who have broached the problems of poeticity or its absence in new Nigerian poetry are Olu Oguibe, Chinweizu, Frank Uche Mowah, John Otu, Femi Osofisan, Obi Nwakanma, Uduma Kalu, Maik Nwosu, Remi Raji and Nduka Otiono. Olu Oguibe is probably the first major Nigerian literary critic to voice his distaste for the low quality work produced by writers of his generation. In his introduction to Poets in their Youth, an anthology co-edited by Osita Ike and Uche Nduka, Olu Oguibe made a comment that has resonated in literary academies in the past eighteen years. According to the informed practitioner and critic, Olu Oguibe, the poets presented in this anthology reveal the depth to which poetry in Nigeria has sunk in recent years: a low level of accomplishment in the art and craft, no critical attention whatever, and hardly any encouragement… . And this is the fate of the generation presented here: that no publisher wants to touch their work.. Yet they write …the young people continue to produce huge piles of verse to record their fate…Yet, in this deluge of verse that verges on the beautiful, there is little poetry (qtd in Chinweizu “Feast and Famine” (5).
Considering Oguibe’s position as a prominent voice and promoter of poetry from his generation one may ask why he not only put our worse feet forward but also told the whole world that we cannot possibly be better. But written in a book produced in 1988, the situation may no longer be the same today. For instance, while during the January, 1989 public presentation of Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah and Chinelo Achebe’s collection of short stories, The Last Laugh and Other Stories at the Hotel Presidential, Enugu, Oguibe struggled to compel distinguished guests to buy the anthology in question, today Oguibe does not need someone else’s ceremony to present anything literary that he is associated with. Today, no sense of fellow-feeling will make Olu Oguibe package an unpackageable anthology and present same to the world. Times have really changed. Besides, those initial faltering steps characteristic of learners of any trade are no longer a permanent feature of this poetry category. But it should also be noted that Oguibe’s presentation was only a partial picture since it was in 1988 that the Association of Nigerian Authors midwifed the production of the popular Update Poetry collections by Esiabi Irobi, Izzia Ahmad, Emman Usman Shehu, Afam Akeh, Kemi Atanda Ilori and Uche Nduka.
However, since we are engaged in a literary history, it is important to comment on Chinweizu’s statement about Oguibe’s findings. Although writing when he did roughly fifteen years ago, he reflected on the glaring incompetence among writers from the 1960s age grade in Nigeria, Chinweizu was quick to note that although “this decline in quality, despite a great increase in quantity, is evident, not only in poetry, but also in all the genres of Nigerian literature … I can testify that the decline is not confined to Nigeria” (5). Earlier, in the essay entitled “20th Century African Literature: Feast and Famine” and republished in ANA Review of November, 1993, Chinweizu notes as follows about ‘generations’ of African writers in Europhone literature:
…the 1930s age grade has contributed the most to the big names and major works of 20th century African literature; the 1940s age grade has contributed not as many; and the 1950s age grade has contributed hardly any. As if to continue this pattern of diminishing contribution, the 1960s age grade, which is now embarking on its literary career, is complaining about not getting published! If, through a continuation of whatever brought on this decline, the trend should continue into the 1970s age grade, then the wastage in the Europhone section will become pronounced (4). The next major critic to denounce the style of new Nigerian writers, especially the poets, was the late Frank Uche Mowah. At a time he was at an advanced stage of research in his book on Nigerian poetry, Mowah granted an interview to Nduka Otiono on this matter. In that interview published in The Post Express of Saturday July 11, 1998, and appropriately entitled “The Tragedy of New Nigerian Poetry”, Mowah remarks as follows:
every year, we have over one hundred volumes of poetry. But out of them you cannot recommend more than five or six for your students to study and that is a tragedy. Now, people know that the new writers are not thinking in terms of technique. This may mean that they are not setting their minds right (18).
What Mowah did not seem to address in his interview answers is the fact that although we are studying Odia Ofeimun, Niyi Osundare, Femi Oyebode and a handful of others, this does not in any way mean that members of the Osundare generation are not publishing collections in their scores and hundreds. Similarly, it does not mean that there may not be accomplished writers among the new generation of Nigerian poets. Rather, the point was/is that not every versifier qualifies to be called a poet. Moreover, he was dealing with a generation that feels that her destiny lies in the genre of poetry.
However, more importantly, Mowah was probably reflecting on a situation where it was impossible to “recommend more than five or six”poetry collections despite the deluge. Today, it would even be a miracle if the students are encouraged to study up to three individual collections.
A major way out of the problem Mowah encountered is to use the seminar approach and assign as many topics as there are available reasonable quality texts and have students in groups of two or a maximum of three present the distinct issues raised thematically and stylistically in the collections. It was through this means that I introduced many of my students to the new Nigerian authors and texts that they are familiar with today.
In an interview session he had with Onookome Okome and Ogaga Ifowodo and published in Nigeria’s The Guardian of Saturday, January 26, 1991, Ojaide seems to provide an explanation for Mowah’s source of worry. He addresses issues dealing with the recognition and reception of the so-called fourth generation of Nigerian writers. According to Ojaide, From my experience, I have noticed that in every generation of writers, critical attention is focused on few writers. In America, although there are many young writers, only few are mentioned –especially the female writers. Therefore, the 4th generation writer in Nigeria should not feel handicapped (Okome and Ifowodo 14). John Otu was at his critical and acerbic best when he railed at the style of new Nigerian poets. Even when in an earlier relatively public relations oriented review he commends Nduka Otiono’s Voices in the Rainbow, John Otu takes exception to the accomplishment of Otiono, Maik Nwosu, Obi Nwakanma and Ogaga Ifowodo. In his report and summary of John Otu’s presentation during a July 1, 1998 PEN Circle meeting, Mike Jimoh records as follows:
While he acknowledged the “Iyrical Sweep and Feeling” in some of the works by the new generation of Nigerian writers, Otu objected to their lack of recourse to tradition. Maik Nwosu’s poems, he remarked, are barren of a particular perspective: “it is like an overflowing agbada that lacks hem.” Obi Nwakanma’s talent as a poet faces the danger of being swamped by the pervasive presence of Christopher Okigbo if the Vanguard arts editor “fails to grow out of his master’s shadow”, while Ogaga Ifowodo “allows politics to drown out the style and craft in his works” (“New Generation” 18).
Even when one does not have an idea of the specific texts that he had seen and was interpreting, it is not exactly clear if John Otu will still say the same thing about these writers today.
Femi Osofisan in a response to A Volcano of Voices (1999), an anthology of poems edited by Steve Shaba and presented to the public during the 1999 edition of ANA convention in Ilesa complained about the collection not being reflective enough of a Nigerian idiom and style nor comparable to the level of accomplishment attained by Ghanaian poets of the same generation. He cautioned that we should be mindful about presenting to the world what is not representative of the current practice of poetry in Nigeria. In a related manner, critics such as Uduma Kalu, Remi Raji, Obi Nwakanma and so on have reflected on the same problem. Even when the above anticipate the report of the NLNG Literature Prize judges for which Nnolim and his group have been attacked, the intervention by Tanure Ojaide has a colouration that is not altogether justifiable. The present contribution addresses why Ojaide is not really qualified to dismiss new Nigerian poets as ‘copycats’. Granted his media profile and position, Ojaide’s dismissal is too sweeping to be ignored. In the absence of an appropriate space in Nigeria’s The Sun, the leading members of the denigrated generation have reacted on the online forum, Krazitivity, and Obi Nwakanma, one of the most informed and influential critics in his generation has written a reasonable response in his column in the Sunday Vanguard of 23 July, 2006. However, the present discourse extends the province of the debate broached by Tanure Ojaide.
For us to fully appreciate Tanure Ojaide’s supposed ‘bombshell’, it is important to first contextualize his idea or understanding of new in ‘New Nigerian Poets’. In order to do this, I shall refer to some of the key statements he made in two of his essays namely “The New African Poetry in English: Content and Form” which appears in his co-authored book, Culture, Society, and Politics in Modern African Literature: Texts and Contexts (2002) and “Anxieties and Hopes: Recent African Poetry”, a paper he presented at the International Conference on the Arts at the Delta State University, Abraka, November 10-14, 2004. Both papers address problems associated with the recognition and reception of new African poetry.
In the first paragraph of each of the two aforementioned essays, Ojaide broaches the insensitivity of critics of African poetry to what constitutes new. As with his friend and collaborator, Tijan Sallah, whose (belatedly published?) anthology, New Poets of West Africa (Malthouse, 1995), identifies members of the Ojaide generation as constituting the new poets of West Africa as late in the day as 1995, Ojaide identifies his new poets as “those poets who started to write from about the mid-1970s “(Texts and Contexts 139). Although he encases his idea of new in inverted commas and remarks that: we want to emphasize that we use the term “new” here not because the poets whose works are to be discussed are all young, but because their poetry has for too long remained in the shadows of the preeminence of the preceding generation’s works. In fact many of these poets are no longer young as such, some already in their fifties and others forties. Kofi Anyidoho, Syl Chency-Coker, Jack Mapanje, Odia Ofeimun, Tanure Ojaide, Niyi Osundare, and Mongane Wally Serote, among others, have for almost two decades established themselves as powerful poetic voices (139), Ojaide goes ahead to discuss the works of writers who have been receiving a lot of critical attention in the past two decades. Even when in a reference to Soyinka’s “Koko Oforo” and Christopher Okigbo’s Ijala-oriented panegyric to W.B. Yeats he grudgingly acknowledges that the Soyinka – Okigbo generation had also been engaged in experimentation (Texts and Contexts 144) and for which reason Aderemi Bamikunle has argued that there is certainly nothing that the Osundare generation has accomplished which was not attempted and even displayed proficiently by the Soyinka-Okigbo generation (see Bamikunle “New Trends” 75), Ojaide still insists that his generation of poets was marginalized in scholarship on African poetry.
Although Ojaide’s “The New African Poetry in English: Content and Form” is not a very recent essay, some of the issues Ojaide raises therein can be used as a yardstick in assessing his own reluctance to accommodate the works of those Nigerian poets whose poetry has been appearing consistently in various forms in the past twenty years. In addressing what he refers to as “under-exposure of those poets who started to write from about the mid-1970s”, Tanure Ojaide in the opening sentences of “The New African Poetry in English” notes as follows:
Either as a result of laziness or the fear of charting new courses, many critics of modern African literature tend to bypass recent African poetry for the familiar and over-exposed works of the Peters-Awoonor – Soyinka – Okigbo-Clark- Brutus generation. This often gives the impression that modern African poetry worth studying had been written in the heydays of these poets in the 1960s and early 1970s (139). Unlike Stewart Brown and Ezenwa Ohaeto whom Tanure Ojaide singles out as among the exceptional critics who have given critical exposure to those he identifies as the third generation of modern African poets, Ojaide is also as guilty as others in creating the impression that new Nigerian poets are copycats and as such do not deserve critical exposure. Similarly, just as he felt and still feels agitated that contemporary critics of African Poetry often ignore his generation of poets, he should also appreciate why the generation after should also feel bad that their poetry is denigrated.
Before addressing how Ojaide contradicts himself and how unreliable he can be in matters affecting critical discernment in Nigerian poetry produced by mainly those born in the 1960s, it is necessary to remark that at the July 2005, International conference organized in his honour at least two participants reminded him that his ideas of new and recent were quite faulty. For instance, when Tom Inyabri accused him of not studying the works of the Nigerian poets who have been publishing since the mid-1980s it was an uncomfortable Ojaide who struggled to respond to Tom.
Ojaide without doubt is as guilty as those he has dismissed as being infatuated with the Soyinka generation. As a staunch defender of his generation of poets, he believes that there is something unprofessional and, who knows, criminal with limiting one’s scholarship to the Soyinka generation. This is notwithstanding the fact that his Ph.D. was on Soyinka’s poetry and that outside the poetry of his friend, Syl Cheney-Coker, he does not seem to have any professional knowledge of poetry done by members of his own generation let alone that produced by those born in the 1960s or 1970s for that matter.
Although Ojaide has done a number of essays on different aspects and phases of African Poetry, his proficiency is in question. His may be like a comparable case Bernth Lindfors laments about as one where practice does not make perfect. For instance, by refusing to acknowledge important essays and books done on Wole Soyinka’s poetry before his Ph.D. dissertation was published in book form as The Poetry of Wole Soyinka (1994), Ojaide’s criticism remains flawed (and this is the central thesis of my contribution to the Ojaide International Conference in an essay entitled “Tanure Ojaide as a Critic of African Poetry”, the only meta-critical presentation at the conference). Similarly, there is nothing new about Ojaide’s presentation or argument in “The Troubadour: The Poet’s Persona in the Poetry of Dennis Brutus.” Moreover, when Ojaide discusses new and recent African poetry, he adopts an essentially survey approach which does not and cannot allow him to demonstrate his so much vaunted knowledge. As is characteristic with the lachrymal tenor of Ojaide’s essays when discussing the poetry of his generation, the opening sentences of “Anxieties and Hopes: Recent African Poetry”, start as follows:
Critics are so used to African poetry written in the 1960s and early 1970s by such poets as Lenrie Peters, Kofi Awoonor, Wole Soyinka, Christopher Okigbo, J.P. Clark, and Dennis Brutus that they have held back on the poetry written after the mid-1970s to date. Understandably, many scholars would prefer to explore the same turf they are familiar with (1).
After recognizing that “this attitude sometimes creates a perception that African poetry is either static or dead after that generation of poets” (1), it is rather unfortunate that Ojaide would allow himself get entrapped within the same conundrum. Any acquaintance with the reference page of Ojaide’s “Anxieties and Hopes: Recent African poetry” would show a listing of works by three members of Ojaide’s copycat generation of Nigerian poets. These are Chris Abani, Ogaga Ifowodo and Uche Nduka whose collections are Kalakuta Republic (2000), Madiba (2003) and If only the Night (2002) respectively. Uche Nduka’s collection is denigrated as an example of “the damage that exile could wreak on a promising African poet whose earlier Chiaroscuro was strongly anchored on African experience”. Based on this supposed transformation or movement in the Uche Nduka canon, Ojaide notes as follows:
“many African poets abroad menopause early and become a shadow of their once prolific and vibrant selves. But others, if they visit home and reconnect with their roots, are able to maintain their writing”.
For Ojaide, the loss of “Africanity” in Uche Nduka’s poetry is a lamentable experience. In other words, once one stops writing about ‘Africanity’, one ceases to be an African poet and the corollary would be that one also ceases to be accomplished. Similarly, if one does not visit home, one cannot possibly reconnect with one’s roots. Chris Abani is a mere statistics in Ojaide’s survey. This is apart from the fact that Ojaide remembers that Abani’s Kalakuta Republic “has positive reviews”. Of course we are neither allowed to sample the comments in the reviews nor to appraise Ojaide’s own comment on Abani’s poetry. As with Uche Nduka, Ogaga Ifowodo’s Madiba is pilloried for adopting (or is it appropriating? ) the sonnet form long abandoned by the English poetry establishment. Rather than assess Ifowodo’s mastery of, or dilletantism in the sonnet form, Tanure Ojaide restrains Ifowodo to “be yourself wherever you live”. For Ojaide, since the impact of Ogaga Ifowodo’s experiment is “yet to be felt … one could argue that there are many African poetic forms to choose from rather than an outdated English form even abandoned by western poets”
Thus, as is typical with a substantial part of Ojaide’s scholarship on written African poetry, there is no specific engagement with the poetry discussed. Instead matters of ideology, what form to adopt, the acceptable themes and vision are made to displace issues of craft. Similarly, Ojaide pays lip service to his understanding of the craft of poetry produced by his copycat generation. For instance, while Ogaga Ifowodo is sent to the cleaners for resurrecting a fairly more recent Italian-European poetic form, Ojaide beats his chest for an artistic accomplishment realized through the resurrection of a more ancient, some would insist European art form, the epic. Hence, in self-adulatory manner, Ojaide proclaims that his “recent poetry also follows formal considerations. Welcoming the Dead is a neo-epic poem in twenty-four segments and written in three-line stanzas”. Praising himself further, Ojaide announces with relish that based on what he does in Welcoming the Dead and another collection, In the House of Words, which “for the most part, is based on two-line stanzas”, he is now the toast of recent African poetry practice. In the pseudo-intellectual masturbatory manner he has mastered, Ojaide states of his efforts: one could say of this trend that a balance seems to be struck in African poetry at last between content and form. This resolves the debate that the Second Generation of African poets emphasized form at the expense of content and that the Third Generation over-emphasized content and ignored form. In other words, until Ojaide arrived at the scene, form was absent in the poetry of such accomplished members of his generation as Niyi Osundare and the inimitable Femi Oyebode. It also means that experimentation with language as mastered by Ezenwa Ohaeto in his Pidgin English poetry (which Tony Afejuku insists is not standard pidgin) is not a reflection of sensitivity to form in the poetry of the Ojaide generation. More unfortunate is the fact that the experimentation wrought by the Uche Ndukas and Ogaga Ifowodos are dismissed as unAfrican while those by Ojaide are autochthonously African and therefore constitute a masterpiece.
In concluding his essay on “Anxieties and Hopes: Recent African Poetry”, Tanure Ojaide notes as follows: On the general poetic landscape there is diversification of themes as never before. The times of racial / cultural conflicts have passed. The ideological edge of the 1980s seems to have waned and poets express an array of themes as seen in works as diverse as Uche Nduka, Reesom Haile, Lupenga Mphande, Chimalum Nwankwo, and Ogaga Ifowodo. There is a combination of public and private/individual experiences and taken from different perspectives that reflect the complexity of modern African experience. Yet two years after the above proclamation, Ojaide does not find anything definitive about the poetry of the generation after, hence their dismissal as copycats. One wonders whether this copycat culture really includes the same Uche Nduka and Ogaga Ifowodo that he extols in forum after forum. Where Ojaide rejects the form of Ifowodo’s experimentation with Madiba, critics such as Bridget Meeds and Toni Kan whose comments appear on the blurb of The Oil Lamp (2005) think differently. For Bridget Meeds writing in Ithaca Times, “with (Madiba), which centres on an impressive sonnet sequence dedicated to Nelson Mandela, Ifowodo has created a weighty and compelling contribution to world literature” (emphasis mine). Writing in The Guardian and This Day, Toni Kan who is among the army of talented and accomplished critics of Nigeria’s new writing (a group that some members of the same generation refuse to recognize by shouting themselves hoarse about a generation in search of critics) notes as follows: “Ogaga Ifowodo captures the angst, the failed hopes and the glaring despair of his generation. His voice is firm and confident and his facility with the language is a testament not just to talent, but to a well-honed craft” (my emphasis).
Before going further in presenting to Ojaide ruptures created by new Nigerian poets, which include Mabel Tobrise Evwierhoma, the only female poet he remembers to list in his “Anxieties and Hopes”, it is very important to reflect on his qualification and rating as a poet. Prizes apart, would Ojaide’s poetry rate as high as those by Ossie Enekwe, Niyi Osundare, Femi Oyebode, Odia Ofeimun, Funso Aiyejina, Obiora Udechukwu, Chimalum Nwankwo, Ifi Amadiume and so on? The answer to our question has been partly provided by Tayo Olafioye in his The Poetry of Tanure Ojaide: A Critical Appraisal (2000). In reacting to those who have dismissed Ojaide’s poetry as one without craft or sufficient craft, Olafioye reminds one of some theologians who have had cause to do battle with the Bertrand Russell of Why I am Not a Christian fame. Even when there may be occasional flashes of brilliance in Ojaide’s poetry, Olafioye finds it very difficult to do battle with the armada raised by the trio of Stewart Brown, Ode S. Ogede and Idowu Omoyele. For those who have not studied Ojaide’s poetry, the statements made by Brown, Ogede and Omoyele are at least 75 percent reflective of his actual performance and rating. We shall let these informed critics speak for themselves. For Stewart Brown, with few exceptions … Ojaide’s poems are mostly ‘blunt messages from the front’, imagistically flat but loud with rhetorical outrage. While there can be no doubting the poet’s sincerity or the depth of his anguish, the unending self-righteousness of the narrative voice, the artless predictability of the sentiments and the clichéd language of protest undermine the force of these poems (qtd in Olafioye 73, emphasis mine). Ode S. Ogede’s assessment of Tanure Ojaide reads as follows: a crucial undoing element in Ojaide’s verse is that, against his own better judgement, he adopted the school of modern African poetry which Nwoga describes above – again in Nwoga’s words – a practice of ‘versified intelligibilities’ which cannot make exciting poetry” (qtd in Olafioye 73.
The Idowu Omoyele comment reproduced by Olafioye is an assessment that concerns Ojaide and another Nigerian poet who is not our concern here. So we shall retain the ellipsis present in Olafioye’s presentation of same. According to Omoyele,
Both … and Ojaide, however, need to be more cautious in the way they deploy imagery in their poetry. They should endeavour to make sure that their descriptive denotative images and literal symbols are properly harnessed in the texture of their verse. They should avoid fixation on certain stylistic choices, particularly imperative sentences, and rhetorical questions, for the somewhat over wrought purpose of rhetorical effect as this will hamper the possibilities of their artistic vision. They should be wary in their use of alliteration which sometimes appears contrived and over- laboured. They should be more disciplined in their attitude to craftsmanship (qtd in Olafioye 73-74 emphasis mine).
This certainly in retrospect is a case of ‘physician heal thyself’. Before he became carried away as one of the greatest promoters of Ojaide’s poetry as seen in the specific reviews he published in the early 1990s, an interview with Ojaide he collaborated with Ogaga Ifowodo, the publication of one of Ojaide’s poetry collections When it No Longer Matters Where You Live through the University of Calabar Press, the compilation of a book in honour of Tanure Ojaide, Writing the Homeland: The Poetry and Politics of Tanure Ojaide (2002), and the co-ordination in 2005 of a highly successful international conference on Ojaide’s writings, Onookome Okome numbered among the dispassionate critics of Ojaide’s poetry. Writing about the same time as Stewart Brown, Ode S. Ogede and Idowu Omoyele, Onookome Okome in an essay serialized on the pages of Nigeria’s the Daily Times in 1990 gave the same verdict about Ojaide’s craft as the better known Critics of Nigerian Poetry. Thus, in the second part of his essay “Recent Nigerian Poetry: Objectification and Distanciation” , which he published on Saturday, March 31, 1990, Okome notes as follows: “some striking features of Ojaide’s poetry is [sic] its verbosity and occasional lack of poetic abruptness, a tedious expansion of meaning and economy of metaphor” (11). Here, Okome seems to be reacting to some of the language and style related issues Tanure Ojaide raised in a 1989 essay. In that essay “The Changing Voice of History: Contemporary African Poetry”, Ojaide in situating why and how his generation is different from the Soyinka-Okigbo generation identifies the use of what he calls “unpretentious, clear and simple expression” (qtd in Okome II). Of course without getting into the controversy between Charles E. Nnolim and the Chinweizu group in the early 1990s, it is easy to appreciate how a poet whose choice of words approximates the prosaic can through an essay legitimize same as a hallmark of his generation’s accomplishment.
Those familiar with discussions on Krazitivity will recall that the issues of craftsmanship raised there for which some new generation poets are regularly dismissed can also be seen in Tanure Ojaide’s poetry from the earliest beginnings to the present. But for critics like Ezenwa Ohaeto and Aderemi Bamikunle of blessed memory who elevated Ojaide’s poetry in their scholarship, one can state without fear that Ojaide’s prominence today seems to rest squarely on some of the so-called poetry prizes he has won. No doubt, despite the issue raised in Niyi Osundare’s essay “Of Prizes and Literary Messiahism”, some Nigerians who have won Prizes in Literature, and especially poetry, tend to imagine that they are better than those who have not. Only humble and talented achievers like Niyi Osundare appreciate that some Prizes are more political than aesthetic. I recall accusing Osundare in 1994 shortly before the ANA Poetry Prizes of that year were announced of not giving the succeeding generation a breathing space in the jostle for literary prizes. When eventually the prizes were announced and the issue of our star-struck syndrome resurfaced, a little drama ensued.
However, although Niyi Osundare was too tongue-tied to respond adequately to what a supposedly unknown Austine Amanze Akpuda was saying, he did state almost immediately and somewhat guiltily that it was his publishers who sent his work for the ANA contest. I cannot be certain that the Osundare collection that won that year’s ANA Poetry Prize is as distinguished as the others. Thus, just as Esiaba Irobi noted roughly twenty years ago, and Maik Nwosu a decade later, some of the ANA Prize givers have had occasion where they were merely intimidated by the media profile of some members of the Ojaide – Osundare generation into denying the Esiaba Irobis, Obu Udeozos and so on of the prizes they should have won.
Let it be noted here that some of the poetry dismissed on Krazitivity are as good and bad as those published by Ojaide and some members of his generation. Thus, Afam Akeh and Obododinma Oha are right in their earlier statements on this matter. At the appropriate time, I will reveal what the late Prof. Aderemi Bamikunle told me in a letter about the politics of awarding ANA poetry prizes in the year 2000. Although it was John Agetua who brought Tanure Ojaide to national limelight through his Interviews with six Nigerian writers (1976), Agetua was also the first to provide a forum for Ojaide to expose himself as a poetaster exhibiting what a John Otu would describe as sophomoric orientations. In response to Agetua’s question about the African poet’s attitude to form, especially as it affects Ojaide’s poetry, Ojaide notes that,
when I first started I didn’t take form seriously but at the present I think I’m paying as much attention to form as to subject matter. But you’d find that what the writer has to say affects the form. The two are interwoven (7).
Notwithstanding that Ojaide believes that there is an intricate relationship between form and content, he has not fully demonstrated what his content has done in the development of form in Nigerian or African Poetry. When asked how he shapes his stanzas, Ojaide responds confessionally “I write in paragraph forms. They could be of regular lengths but in most cases, they are not” (Agetua 7). Unfortunately, even when Ojaide perhaps never knew the implications of what he said about constructing paragraph-shaped stanzas some thirty years ago, he still writes in that manner some thirty years later. Yet he claims in that interview and the recent one he granted a correspondent with The Sun that he takes matters of form seriously. He would want us to believe that he is greater than Chinweizu of Energy Crisis and Invocations and Admonitions or Obiora Udechukwu of What the Madman Said. It is a marvel how someone whose stanzaic arrangement is essentially paragraph-driven and paragraph-deformed can consider himself a better poet or better critic of poetry than others. However, Ojaide was humble enough to recall that his then advertised new volume of unpublished poetry, “Urhoro”, contains poems that “are tighter and much more intense than those in my first volume, Children of Iroko and Other Poems” (Agetua 8). In other words, he realized early enough that he never mastered the poetic form with his first publication. Thus, notwithstanding the lavish praise from his blurb writers, Lenard D. Moore and Joseph Bruchac, who were too excited that ‘a new voice’ had apparently emerged to break the Soyinka-Okigbo- Clark hegemony, whatever that means, Ojaide does concede that Children of Iroko does not have the tightness and intensity that characterize great poetry.
Concerning his grouse with his idea of the so-called new Nigerian poetry being impatient with publishers, it should be pointed out that roughly three decades ago, Tanure Ojaide displayed the same sensibility. In response to Agetua’s pregnant question, “Have you had any problems so far with your publishers?”, Ojaide answers in a manner that displays the same passion with which some new Nigerian poets respond to such matters. According to him, some publishers are very slow. They do not deal promptly with manuscripts. A young writer who’s keen on getting published would always want to know within the shortest possible time whether his manuscript has been accepted or not. Besides some publishers are just too sensitive and this explains why very few radical works are published in this country (8).
The issue raised in the first three sentences above does not warrant any comment. Rather, dismissing those who are writing after him, Ojaide should always remember the above statements he made about the seeming impatience of the young writer. At the same time he should also realize that his idea of publishers being “too sensitive” may be different from his idea of “radical works” that are not being published.. In terms of vision and aesthetics, Ojaide should be sensitive to the fact that he has not written anything that was not attempted before. His realization that “I have gained nothing from my books because I’m relatively an unknown writer and my books don’t sell as a result” (8) is something Ojaide should always remember when he is talking down on new Nigerian poets.
Not even Niyi Osundare who is a better poet craftwise and a deeper scholar in terms of his highly informative stylistic studies can dismiss the supposedly fourth generation Nigerian poets the way Ojaide does. Rather, despite the controversy raised by Osundare’s use of the term ‘CNN generation’ to describe the outside-looking tendency of those born in the 1960s writing and publishing since the beginning of the 1980s, Osundare is one of the greatest promoters of poetry published by this generation. Apart from teaching and publishing essays on texts produced by this generation, Niyi Osundare has, like Harry Garuba before him in Voices from the Fringe (1988), discerned quite definitive stylistic peculiarities with which the readily publicized poets of this generation can be associated with. From what he has done so far and by virtue of his professional orientation, diligence, honesty and informed familiarity with the poets and texts in question, Osundare is one of the few scholars in Nigeria today that one should read or listen to in matters like the correct assessment of Nigerian poetry produced by the 1960s people.
However, because of the near encyclopedic thrust of his presentations, it is pertinent to highlight Osundare’s detailed contribution to the critical reception of this group of poets. In a paper reproduced as “Healing Voices. Alternative Visions” in This Day of Sunday, August 15, 1991, Osundare apart from situating the historical basis and slot of these writers he imagines as being third generation, goes a step further to capture the configurations of the personal idioms that characterize their poetry. We shall briefly highlight his reasons for considering this group as fitting into a separate generation. Using Olu Oguibe’s autobiographical statement “I am a child of war” rendered in his A Gathering Fear as a starting point, Niyi Osundare appropriates a metaphor popularized by Salman Rushdie when he notes as follows: “This is a generation born around Nigerian independence (1960), Nigeria’s midnight children” (32). Incidentally, in their different ways and fora, Maik Nwosu and Ogaga Ifowodo have given sufficient projection to the metaphor of ‘midnight children’.
Before identifying the individual voices that characterize the works of a generation whose “writing career coincided with the virtual collapse of the publishing industry in Nigeria” some of who have “many good manuscripts ageing and gathering dust in their writers drawers”, Niyi Osundare asserts that “the generation under review can aptly be described as the poets’ generation” (33). In order to justify his claim, he reveals that “close to three quarters of its publication belong to the poetic genre” (32). After a generous listing of some of the names that became dominant roughly eight years ago among whom are Olu Oguibe, Afam Akeh, Ogaga Ifowodo, Esiaba Irobi, Onookome Okome, Uche Nduka, Chiedu Ezeanah, Usman Shehu, Kemi Atanda-Ilori, Izzia Ahmad, Sesan Ajayi, Remi Raji, Sola Osofisan among others, Osundare ventures into a definitive categorization of the styles of these poets. According to him, a large, many-tenored clan, but individual voices are becoming discernible, the learned, allusive style of Oyebode, Irobi; the bardic, orature-powered flamboyance of Oguibe, Nwosu, Babajide; the wry epigrammatism of Akeh; the clamourous satiricality of Bassey, Ushie, Olusunle; the soft, feminine affirmativeness of Adewale-Nduka. A pageant of voices less ideologically conscious than the second generation, but busy devising their own means of confronting the Nigerian monster (32).
It is rather unfortunate that even after those who shout themselves hoarse about the idea of a generation in search of critics (and who do not bother to take note of existing studies on the poetry of the Irobi-Oguibe- Ifowodo generation) have proclaimed the number of poetry collections, prizes, projection of performance poetry and so on, the Tanure Ojaides of this world are yet to recognize that a ‘new’ generation has actually arrived.
Based on a major study of Nigerian poetry (from Nnamdi Azikiwe to the present) which I have done, I would like to state that some of the very definitive strands of Nigerian poetry have been championed by the much denigrated 1960s generation rejected by Chinweizu in “Feast and Famine”, ridiculed by Odia Ofeimun in his idea of “the claptrap generation” and now by Tanure Ojaide of the “copycat generation” tag.
At this stage I will leave Tanure Ojaide with some posers and related statements. First a reflection on one of Ojaide’s recent poems “The Minstrel Wails” done in memory of Ezenwa Ohaeto. As someone who was privileged to moderate the poems performed at the literary night preceding Ezenwa Ohaeto’s burial as co-ordinated by the Association of Nigerian Authors, Imo State branch, I can testify that several of the young poets, some without any identifiable generational tag, gave a good account of themselves. As soon as the necessary logistics are completed, the state branch of ANA would make these poems public through an anthology and then we would like to know who has copied who since I am aware that these poets performed their poems at least a month before privileged people like this writer got a copy of Ojaide’s poem.
Similarly, going down memory lane, back to the late 1980s BBC Africa Arts Poetry contest anthology, The Fate of Vultures and Other Poems, it would be interesting for Ojaide to tell us who the new Nigerian poets who appeared with him copied. If Ojaide never read Afam Akeh in the said anthology, did he not read Esiaba Irobi’s “Judy” and the very haunting, beautiful and memorable “Caskets” which Irobi sculptured as a tribute to Dele Giwa? Is there any possibility that the memorial poems Irobi does in honour of Judy and Dele Giwa are actually copied from any previous poems by Ojaide or any member of his generation he can remember? Talking about memorial poems, especially those done to immortalize Dele Giwa and Ken Saro-Wiwa, let it be on record that some of the most exciting ones are written by those in Ojaide’s copycat generation. Ojaide has written tribute poems to Chinua Achebe, Ken Saro-Wiwa, Fela and Gani Fawehinmi among others. Let him compare what he has done with poems written in honour of these four important personalities in Nigeria by members of his copycat generation. Among those who have written poems to Fela, let him read Obi Nwakanma and Tolu Ogunlesi. Within the ranks of those who have done tribute poems to Gani, let him consider those by Ogaga Ifowodo, Eze Chi Chiazo, Akeem Lasisi, Austine Amanze Akpuda, Nengi Ilagha and so on. Happily enough, the diverse accomplishment of this generation with the panegyric ethos they represent has been studied by this writer in Celebrating God’s own Robot: Nigerian Poets and the Gani Fawehinmi Phenomenon. The Tribute Poems to Ken Saro-Wiwa in E.C. Osondu (ed) For Ken, for Nigeria are among the most engaging of poems in contemporary Nigerian literature. Incidentally, majority of them are written by a new generation of Nigerian poets mostly born
in the 1960s.
Similarly, Ojaide has done a number of ‘city’ poems. Let him match any of his Lagos or Abuja – centred poems with what prominent Nigerian writers of his copycat generation have done. He should read Lagos poems by such writers as Uche Nduka, Nengi Ilagha, Chiedu Ezeanah, Austyn Njoku, Tunde Olusunle, among others. These poets have given Lagos a prominence comparable to that given London by William Blake and Charles Dickens or Dublin by James Joyce. Here are some more examples. There is a tendency to denigrate poets born from the 1960s to the 1970s as not being socially committed, whatever that means. However, observers of the Nigerian poetry scene may realize to their surprise that some of the best and most engaging poems about the sacking of Maroko, the annulment of June 12 election,the murder of Kudirat Abiola etc., are written by these poets born in the 1960s and even the 1970s.
Those who have made the experience of Maroko read like alternative national anthems include: Ogaga Ifowodo, Niyi Okunoye, Olu Oguibe, Eugene Ibli, David Odinaka Nwamadi, and Ehidiame Iyayi. Without doubt, their works can compare favourably with the Maroko poems by J.P. Clark, Ifi Amadiume, Seghoime Omole and Odia Ofeimun. Similarly, the exciting June 12 poets include Chiedu Ezeanah, Chukwu Eke, Isidore Diala, Promise Okekwe and Austyn Njoku.
In the area of Niger Delta concerns, our recent Nigerian poets have distinguished themselves by producing their own individual idioms. Thus, notwithstanding the issues raised about this volatile, because exploited, region in the early works of J.P. Clark – Bekederemo and Gabriel Okara or even Tanure Ojaide’s Labyrinths of the Delta and his Delta Blues and Home Songs, we discern an engaging encounter that accentuates the Aristotelian notion of catharsis after experiencing such texts as Ibiwari Ikiriko’s Oily Tears of the Delta, Nnimmo Bassey’s We Thought it was Oil but it was blood and Ogaga Ifowodo’s The Oil Lamp which is a very distinguished collection. As with the previous poetry collections deliberating on the ‘open sore’ of a nation that is the neglect of the Niger Delta area since the 19th Century emasculation by the British overlords, Ogaga Ifowodo’s The Oil Lamp unearths and recreates phases and faces of agony that this region has experienced in the past fifty years. It is a collection that bristles with anger, the type of righteous anger one also encounters in Ikiriko and Bassey. However, even when Ifowodo’s work may distantly recall these previous texts, The Oil Lamp comes with a freshness and vigour that one would associate with the best attributes of Ifowodo’s earlier collections, Homeland and Madiba.
Where earlier collections such as the highly polemical and engaging Oily Tears of the Delta and We Thought it was oil but it was blood may sound a bit allegorical, and somewhat distant, Ifowodo’s The Oil lamp is invested with a measure of empathy relatively difficult to achieve in poetry, and especially poetry of political and socio-economic struggle. Just as a novelist or dramatist leaves us with memorable characters, Ifowodo in his most recent poetry collection generates passion in the persons whose real life stories are presented in The Oil lamp. Here, we are within the realm of the same ideological and intellectual train that gave birth to the popular Kaiama declaration, Ike Okonta and Oronto Douglas Where Vultures Feast: 40 years of Shell in the Niger Delta, among other related documents. The character, Madam Edoja in Ifowodo’s “Jese” evokes impressions that are quite vivid and verisimilitude- oriented. We meet fresh and blood characters like her in Ifowodo’s The Oil Lamp.
Feminism as a contemporary trend in global literature has been enhanced through the works of the generation dismissed as copycat. Three Nigerian female poets, namely Chi-Chi Layor, Lola Shoneyin and Cecilia Kato have brought wonderful perspectives to feminist poetry in Nigeria. No reader who encounters Chichi Layor’s Break Every Rule (1989), Lola Shoneyin’s So all the while I was sitting on an Egg (1998) and Cecilia Kato’s Victims of Love (1999) can remain insensitive about issues affecting women. For instance, Cecilia Kato’s “Amina”, “Uloma”, “Obong” and “Love Fruit” are highly imaginative poems that extend the frontiers of feminism. They reinvent the language of poetry and feminism in a way that is unmistakably original and unique.
In an interview session he had with Onookome Okome and Ogaga Ifowodo and published in Nigeria’s The Guardian of Saturday, January 26, 1991, Ojaide addresses issues dealing with the recognition and reception of the so called fourth generation of Nigerian writers. According to Ojaide,
From my experience, I have noticed that in every generation of writers, crucial attention is focused on few writers. In America, although there are many young writers, only few are mentioned – especially the female writers. Therefore, the 4th generation writers in Nigeria should not feel handicapped (Okome and Ifowodo 14).
In the case of the fourth generation writer in Nigeria we have an exception to the rule that Ojaide is familiar with. Here is a generation that can boast of at least ten important novelists viz Maik Nwosu, Amanda Adiche, Chika Unigwe, Chris Abani, Promise Okekwe, Seffi Attah, Helen Oyeyemi, Ike Oguine, Sanya Osha, Unoma Azuah, Biyi Bandele Thomas etc and no less than twenty significant poets, including but not restricted to Esiaba Irobi, Afam Akeh, Olu Oguibe , Ogaga Ifowodo, Obi Nwakanma, Chiedu Ezeanah, Sola Osofisan, Ademola Babajide, Toyin Adewale – Nduka, Toni Kan, Maik Nwosu, E.C. Osondu, Lola Shoneyin, Chi Chi Layor, Chijioke Amu -Nnadi, Onookome Okome, Austine Amanze Akpuda and so on.
That there is a new generation of Nigerian poets is not in doubt. However, this coming into being is not necessarily one predicated on a puff-adder logic that would entail Obi Nwakanma’s idea of “the inexorable passing of the old” (see blurb on Nwosu’s Invisible Chapters). As Maik Nwosu, the subject of Nwakanma’s passionate reading (and over-praise) counters,
inexorable? In the world of the imagination, which is the forum of literature, the old (writers/works) are always with us. Thus, Dante is still with us, Shakespeare is still with us, Okigbo is still with us. The new arrive, but the old never depart (“Mapping” 28).
It is this type of sensibility that has informed this writer’s approach to the teaching of authors and texts in the courses on Nigerian Literature he has handled. Thus, while never losing sight of the masters, those who constitute the pyramids, he has allowed his students to take a peep beyond the pyramids. And happily enough, some of the products of my experimentation with new Nigerian writers are doing important essay on their works. For instance, a product of the seminar classes I moderated on Nigerian poetry where I introduced the poetry of Femi Oyebode in the 2001 session has done a readable essay comparing Oyebode and Mcphilips Nwachukwu which appears in the 3rd Quarter, 2006 edition of The Lumina. Ezechi Onyerionwu, the former student in question, has developed a passion for the works of recent Nigerian Poetry which he has been reviewing in some of Nigerian’s national dailies. Similarly, earlier than now, one of the two students who did a seminar paper on “The major trend in E.C. Osondu (ed) For Ken For Nigeria” wrote a final year research entitled “Tribute Poetry to Ken Saro-Wiwa: A Study of E.C. Osondu(ed) For Ken, For Nigeria” which she submitted to the Department of English, Abia State University, Uturu in 2004.
Mine is a department and an institution where the study of new Nigerian authors is encouraged. I have encouraged those writing long essays since I joined the university in 1997 to emphasize this slant or a comparative slant such as seen in two researches I supervised in 2003 and 2005, one comparing Ola Rotimi’s Ovonramwen Nogbasi with Ahmed Yerimah’s The Trials of Oba Ovonramwen and another investigating intertextual relationships between Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Chimamanda Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus. Emeka Nwabueze has been studied from at least two angles under my supervision. While one study examines his adaptation of Achebe’s Arrow of God in a play entitled When the Arrow Rebounds, another attempts a comparative assessment of the idea of a Comedy of Manners as seen in Henri Beque’s The Vulture and Emeka Nwabueze’s A Parliament of Vultures. Recent Nigerian novelists such as Maik Nwosu, Iheanyi Duruoha’s, the author of Eaters of Dust, and Akachi Ezeigbo have been studied by our first degree students. On a personal level I have had the privilege of supervising a first degree essay on Akachi Ezeigbo’s Trilogy that can be exhibited anywhere as a major study just as Okot P Bitek’s 1964 first degree research is still being quoted. Similarly, I have encouraged and supervised a research that examines the presentation of children in Nigeria-Biafra Civil war Literature as seen in Iheanyi Duruoha’s Eaters of Dust and Amanda Adichie’s For Love for Biafra. One of our former students who defended his long essay on Toni Kan’s poetry in December, 2005 was so impressive in his oral performance that he had to be upgraded by the external examiner.
No doubt, what the foregoing point at is that there is hope for the critical reception of new Nigerian literature, especially that produced in the period between 1986 and 2006. Considering the exciting content and style of presentation in the newer works produced within this period under investigation and the varied responses to same whether through incisive newspaper reviews and essays, journal articles, conference papers presented at the annual international conference on Africa Literature and the English Language at the University of Calabar, and the recent African Literature Association Conference in Accra, Ghana in May, 2006 or even the more recently held international Proverb Conference at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife in August 2006 where McAnthony Oha presented an illuminating paper on Proverb use in Ezenwa Ohaeto’s poetry, the problem of this generation is not the absence of critics, or that they are not contributing to generational discourses in rarefied but ultimately unavailable journals. Rather, the problem is that a little group has decided to pontificate on this output by privileging only their friends and bar room mates. Often the wrong texts are canonized, hence the bazaar temperament rejected by this writer.. Granted the number and quality of supervised researches at undergraduate and postgraduate levels in Nigerian Universities, and essays presented at conferences, in journals and books one can state without contradiction that our dream beyond the pyramids is a rewarding gaze. In other words, Obododinma Oha’s “The Rhetoric of Cross-Cultural Engagement and the Topology of Memory in Remi Raji’s “Travel Poetry” in Wole Ogundele and Gbemisola Adeoti (ed) IBA: Essays on African Literature in Honour of Oyin Ogunba (2003), Ebele Eko’s “Nigerian Literature of the 21st Century: New Voices, New Challenges” in Currents in African Literature and the English Language, Volume IV, May 2006, and
Remi Raji’s exciting canonization of poetry by Northern Nigerian female writers circulated in Nigerian dailies, Position and later African Literature Today volume 24 “Season of Desert Flowers: Contemporary Women’s Poetry from Northern Nigeria” are indications that the substantial works by members of the recent generation of Nigerian writers are being well received by the critical establishment. When carnivals are interpreted correctly through well deserved critical reception and sometimes laurels, we would discover that there is no doubt that the Nigeria which produced a Soyinka has in its bosom several other Soyinkas-in- the-making. Within this reality inheres the relevance of examining the state of literature in Africa in the period after Soyinka’s winning of the Nobel Prize for Literature.
NOTES AND REFERENCES
1See “Dreaming Amidst Thunder: The Poetry of the Tribunes (Ogaga Ifowodo and David Odinaka Nwamadi)”, paper presented at the June, 1993 edition of the annual conference of the Wet African Association of Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies, Alvan Ikoku College of Education, Owerri.
Abati, Reuben. “Recent Nigerian dramatists: Context, attitudes and patterns” The Guardian Sat. Nov. 10, 1990. 18.
Agetua, John. Interviews with six Nigerian writers Benin: Bendel Newspapers, 1976.
Anyamele, Uche. “Some People Become Poets because they find it Easier” The Post Express Sun. May 20, 2001. 17.
Bamikunle, Aderemi. “New Trends in Nigerian Poetry” African Literature Comes of Age Ed. Ernest N. Emenyonu. 68-87.
Biakolo, Emevwo. “Explorations in New Nigerian Poetry (1)” The Guardian Sat. Jan. 20, 1990. 12..
Chinweizu “20th Century African Literature: Feast and Famine” ANA Review Nov. 1993. 4-5.
Chinweizu. Invocations and Admonitions Lagos: Pero, 1986.
Enekwe, Onuora Ossie. “Interview with Niyi Osundare” Okike 34 (Oct. 1996): 1-11.
Ezeanah, Chiedu. “Howling the Anxieties of a Generation” Tell. Jan. 25, 1993. 35.
Hubbard, Elbert. “William Shakespeare” Little Journeys to the Home of the Great. New York: Pearson Hill, 1924. 299-318.
Ifowodo, Ogaga. The Oil Lamp. New Jersey: Africa World P, 2005.
Irele, Abiola. “The Significance of Wole Soyinka” Perspectives on Nigerian Literature: 1900 to the Present Volume One Ed. Yemi Ogunbiyi. Lagos: Guardian, 1988. 164-168.
Irobi, Esiaba. “Politics of Literary Awards” ANA Review 1988. 16.
Kalu, Uduma. “Prizes and Queries at Writers Meet” The Guardian on Sunday. Dec 3, 2000. 39.
Kalu, Uduma. “Poetry and the Rites of Life: Talking to Nwankwo” The Guardian on Sunday Feb. 13, 2000. 38.
Lindfors, Bernth. “The Early Writings of Wole Soyinka” Critical Perspectives on Nigerian Literature. Ed. Bernth Lindfors. London: Heinemann, 1979. 165-190.
Mowah, Frank Uche. “Indigenous Language Literature as Subaltern Discourse” The Post Express Sat. June 14, 1997. 10.
Nwosu, Maik “Rethinking Our Canons” Daily Times Sat. May 1, 1993.
Nwosu, Maik. “The Mapping of a generation” Sunday Vanguard May 7, 2000. 28.
Ojaide, Tanure. “Anxieties and Hopes: Recent African Poetry”, Paper presented at the International Conference on the Arts, Delta State University, Abraka, Nov. 10-14, 2004.
Ojaide, Tanure. “New Trends in Modern African Poetry” Research in Africa Literatures. 26. 1 (Spring 1995): 4-19.
Ojo, Eddie, “Writers are Coming” National Concord. Sat. Jan. 14, 1989. 3.
Okome, Onookome. “Recent Nigeria Poetry: Objectification and Distanciation” Daily Times. Sat. March 31, 1990. 11.
Okome, Onookome and Ogaga Ifowodo. “Talking with Tanure: Poet and Nationalist”. The Guardian Sat. Jan. 26, 1991. 14.
Olafioye, Tayo. The Poetry of Tanure Ojaide: a critical Appraisal. Lagos: Malthouse, 2000.
Osha. Sanya. “The End of Nigerian Literature” The Post Express. Sat. July 5, 1997. 10.
Osofisan, Femi. “Soyinka in the Forest of a Thousand Revellers” Ogunbiyi 186-189.
Osundare, Niyi, “Healing Voices, Alternative Vision” This Day. Aug. 15, 1999. 32.
Otiono, Nduka and Odoh Diego Okenyedo (ed) Camouflage: Best of Contemporary Writing for Nigeria. Yenagoa: Treasure, 2006.
Otiono, Tony Nduka. “Christopher Okigbo: The Judgment of Time” The Guardian Sat. August 25, 1990. 6
Otiono, Nduka “The Tragedy of New Nigeria Poetry” Interview with Frank Mowah. The Post Express Sat. July 11, 1998. 18.
“Tanure Ojaide: Two Times A Winner” The Punch Sat. Dec. 3, 1988, 9.
Tomoloju, Ben. “Virgin voices, voices of the times” The Guardian Wed. Dec. 21, 1988. 9.