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We should not talk about our earliest critics as if their time is over — Nwachukwu-Agbada

By EZECHI ONYERIONWU

One of the public faces of contemporary literary scholarship in Africa, the reasons why Professor Nwachukwu-Agbada maintains an exulted status in African literary criticism range from his awesome prolificity to his  incisive and indepth consideration of the most germane issues in African literature. In this interview, he handles in characteristic manner some of those issues.

You are one of Nigeria’s most important literary scholars and critics of the post-Izevbaye, Irele, Obumselu etc phase. How can you describe the challenge of having to wear the big shoes left by these literary titans?

Have they really left? I am not aware that they have left. All the three people you mentioned are still alive and well. Professor Irele still writes. Obumselu wrote an essay in a book published in 2006 meant for the festschrift to him! In Nigeria we are too hasty to dispense with anybody who is seventy and above. Elsewhere it’s not so.  These days American CV/resumes requests hardly demands one’s age; those requesting for such things are rather keen to establish evidence of productivity. We should not talk about our earliest critics as if their time is past. That is uncharitable. We need them still because they are our link with the past and what happened, some of which experiences they had first hand knowledge of.

Having said that, the shoes of these literary giants are too big to be won by us who are their children and younger brothers. Luckily, as I’ve just said, they are still around to wear these shoes of theirs. I would subscribe to every generation of critics wearing its own shoes, shoes produced by the same factory but polished by different cobblers.

The headache of our senior brothers in the art of criticism was the founding of the literature itself which they ably achieved at the end; our own has been to water the plant of criticism so that it can really flourish. Whereas these elder scholars had optimum support as they jostled about wanting to authenticate African literature, these days nobody is looking in our direction. The much we have achieved, if we have achieved anything is purely out of personal commitment to the discipline of African literature.

For instance, the governments we have had since the military have only a limited view of governance and development. They have only been keen to service the interests of the bureaucrats and the politician or those in the rulership stratum like the traditional rulers. For them, no other centre of social power is worth promoting. Because many of those who have run our governments in the last thirty-five years did not enjoy any pride of place as learners when they went to school, and finding themselves in positions of social trust, have come to hate or anything that suggests it to them. Many examples in real life as well as recorded in African fiction and drama abound.

Brother, our challenges are many. First we grew up as intellectuals when the west had decided that it was no business of theirs to promote African literature or any African episteme as such. Ditto the sudden withdrawal of the owners of all the major publishing houses in Africa then, including the publishers of the famous African Writers Series, then run by Heinemann of England. Second, our elders in the field held sway at the time when everyone harboured so much faith in education. At that time parcels of land were sold in order to send people to school. These days who cares? These days who reads when African Magic and Nollywood are there? Thirdly, which of our universities are properly funded, and which of the lot –they are almost five scores now-encourage their staff to attend conferences, even locally? Yet in the time of our senior critics, they were amply encouraged in a number of ways. As a result, they wrote robustly and got the prominence they deserved. These days what is written by the way of critiques is hardly published, and if published are hardly read. Put in another way, within the limits of the tradition of criticism alive and kicking.

In terms of paremiology and proverb scholarship in Nigeria and Africa, your contributions are now near-legendary. Can you comment on the motivation of this infectious devotion to the study of the proverb art?
I don’t know if my contributions are “near-legendary” because am I’m all too aware that much still needs to be done in the area of Nigerian proverb studies. What some of us have so far done is to scratch the subject at its surface. What you may praise some of us for is devoting our doctorate studies in this hitherto unknown and uncharted area. Some of us did this in spite of the fact that we are fully trained critics in written African literature. With respect to one’s motivation for devoting a lot of one’s energy to the proverb text, it is quite simple: if we don’t do it, who will do it?

No foreigner can completely talk about your oral forms except he/she has competence in the understanding of your language. Many foreign critics cannot delve into this area because of the obstacle of language and cultural nuances. Secondly, a study of our proverb tradition shows that as a people, we had always lived our lives fully; it does not seem that we lack in human wisdom and knowledge. So what is our problem as a developing nation? Thirdly, proverbs are sites for the deposition of history and norms as practiced in the past.

Some of the proverbs one came upon during the various field works showed that they could no longer be used because the dominant referents of  these sayings are no longer in vogue. In other words, why such proverbs can fit into contexts of usage, the surface meaning are lost to antiquity. Fourth, proverbs in spite of their ancientness are the best ornaments of remarkable speeches. This fact in itself makes it imperative that we study them in order to establish where the power is derived from and how they continue maintain the relevance even in contemporary times.

What is your opinion about the viability of oral literary scholarship in the context of the wave of modernity sweeping through Africa? Does it not spell doom for African oral forms?

This raises again the issue of how we regard the aged in contemporary Nigeria. We always think that anything that is aged will either die sooner or later or that nobody should talk about it anymore. I have been miffed by young writers who claimed that older writers are responsible for their not striking prominence so early in life and as such the later should be banned or retired! That’s what the mediocrities among the young writers  would like to happen. Unfortunately for such people, there are really no new or older writers; there are only good and bad writers. Period.

Addressing the issue of the viability of oral literary scholarship directly, its relevance and applicability will remain except human beings no longer verbalize their artistry. You must bear in mind that in spite of modernity, a lot of oral outpourings in the various forms of artistic enterprise are still daily confronting our consciousness. All artistic performances, whether in the time of Methuselah or the post-scientific times can only be fully realized in action, while it is actually being performed. Even if you ask the machine to do it, listening to it or watching or both will be done by human beings with the relevant body parts. So the notion that there will be a time when oral literary scholarship will no longer be possible is misplaced as long as humankind exists and verbalizes its artistic endeavours, oral literary scholarship will continue to be relevant. Rather than be a hindrance to orature, modernity will even help to capture and preserve it for the future generation to appreciate.

You have done considerable work on post Civil War Nigerian literature. Can you describe the continued influence of the Civil War on Nigerian literature, about forty years on?
The civil war or indeed a civil war constitutes any country’s most harrowing times. At such times reasoning must have taken flight, enabling unreason, illogicality, hate and bitterness to take over. How can a country hurriedly forget such an experience? That is precisely why the Nigerian Civil War is a favourite site in the Nigerian literature, several years after. Secondly, the lessons of that war have not yet been absorbed by Nigerian leaders at all levels, which is why they act the way they do. For the writer, this fact is painful, and is responsible for his returning to the events of the horrible experience. Thirdly, war is a universal phenomenon and as a consequence a favourite subject of literature. Fourthly, war is the opposite of peace, and peace is a sine qua non for human existence. Nothing threatens life and living as much as war.

Fifthly, if we return again and again to the subject of the Nigerian Civil War, it is because its scars are still everywhere. Unrelentingly rights-whether of groups or individuals-are still not assured, including right to life. Statism, for example, has replaced tribalism, and viciously too. Religious bigotry is on the ascendancy while corruption is at an all-time high. How then can anybody stop writers from returning to warn artistically with the events of that war? Who can stop writers from reminding us that we are still where we have always been?

By way of advice, I’d like to encourage younger critics to relate to what had been done on any topic they want to delve into. I saw a recent essay on Nigerian poems set on the civil war in which the writer-a-female-made no reference at all to what had been done in that area since the 1970s. A long line of critics had looked at this starting with Omotoso, Osofisan, Aiyejina, jeyifo etc before even some of us who were taught by these men. My master’s essay of 1986 for the department of English, University of Ibadan (268 pages long) centered squarely on the post-war Nigerian poetry. Out of the ideas I toiled with in that masters dissertation a number of essays have emerged. The late Ezenwa-Ohaeto did a lot of work in this area too, including a full scale book on its poetics.

Now for a critic in 2006/2007 to discuss the poetry based on the civil war without applying a sense of history or precedence smacks of academic dishonesty or downright laziness of the first order. It is typical carelessness in scholarship, the type I’m yet to encounter. The impression her essay creates is that she is probably the first person after almost forty years since the end of the civil war that has done something in such an area; she had met nothing and saw nothing in that area. This is not right. It makes a mockery of scholarship which is about research, and what is on ground first cannot be ignored in research reports.

You, your generation and the generation before have given Chinua Achebe voracious attention. Do you think any writer can emerge in contemporary Nigeria that can attract that kind of critical response?
Why not? Good writing has its own followers, no matter when such a work is written. Achebe combined his pioneer status with perfect rendering of art . I have written ten published essays and books chapter on him, and I am not going to be tired of talking about his works.  This is because his works are usually fecund and protean.  Any of his stories is the Henry James’ ‘house of fiction’ with a ‘million windows’ and multiple points of entry.  This feature enables all manner of critics to swoop on his work because each always take a bite out of his dish and get the requisite satisfaction. Secondly, nothing succeeds like success. Having made the initial impact as a writer of immense artistic endowments, critics are often returning to him. Thirdly, his interviews, which he readily grants is as alluring as his books, as tasteful as his works.

Fourthly, Achebe is a humble person, as clear as his stories. Because he is approachable, one tends to cling to him and talk about him. You may say that this reason is not cogent, but you need to realize that the personality of a writer encourages you to want to know more about him/her and what he/she is doing or has done. Fifthly, western scholarship tends to concentrate on the quintessential at one time. Once western scholars bring in Achebe or Soyinka into whatever they are saying, something tells them that they have said what they need to say about African writing. If you like, that is the luck of pioneers in any field of knowledge.

Apart from being one of Nigeria’s most prolific literary scholars, you are also a well-trained educationist. Is there a meeting point between education and literature for you?
lack of concentration in academicism, non-formulation of the intention of wanting to hit the top by constantly publishing one’s researches.

If you ask me, I’d say that there are more journals now than say ten years ago, particularly with the coming of ICT, ditto online journals. What our younger colleagues need is re-focusing themselves, controlling their wishes, curbing the tendency to be everything at the same time competing with the Joneses.
Apart from literature, you have shown sufficient interest in the criticism of other art forms. Do you see a connection between literary criticism and the criticism of these other art varieties?
Of course yes. There is a connection. All arts have a nodal meeting point-harmony and beauty. Each of them requires some kind of facility with voice, finger, hand, leg or mouth or general body movement. The raw materials for achieving the various kinds of artistic impact may differ but the ultimate impression is harmony, then beauty. I have shown interest in art forms because the literary is a composite of art and artifacts. Don’t forget that prevalent archetype of figures in literature over the ages is the artist-hero; he is constantly there. This is because literature is an idealist projection of reality while the artist – whether a musician, actor writer, chorography, singer, painter, sculptor or carver- is an idealist who is always presenting an alternative vision to the society. We need to make our input into these other art forms and vice-versa, particularly now that they are still settling down so to speak. No art form in Africa as of this moment can boast of a complete complement of critics in its area. Not even in Europe are non-specialists in any particular area discouraged from making an input. That is part of why their journals and periodicals are easily sustained. Those who patronize these publications are not necessarily those who are specialists in such areas. We should encourage the multi- disciplinary approach, which is the way the world of scholarship is currently moving.

Your alma mater, the University of Ibadan is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year. What are the reasons for which you think this prestigious citadel of learning deserves a pride of place as far as Nigerian literature is concerned?

The place of U.I. in the propagation of education and enlightenment cannot really be over-emphasized. No institution has given to another what U.I. has given to Nigerian universities as a whole. For instance, the impress of U.I. and U.I. products and syllabuses are virtually in every Nigerian university and beyond. As I talk to you, no Nigerian university is really in a position to compete with it in terms of its range of achievement in the last sixty years. This is how it should be, U.I. being the very first institution of that caliber in the country.

With respect to Nigerian literature, anybody who is somebody in Nigerian literature today owes something to U.I., either directly or indirectly. The earliest and best practitioners of the literary, whether as writers or critics, passed through the University of Ibadan, and or taught there. I don’t need to name such people since the facts are too glaring to contest. What I am saying is not the same thing as insisting that U.I. is the only source of blossoming of Nigerian literature. Other centers of literature in Nigeria exist. University of Nigeria, Nsukka cannot be shoved aside in this matter. The same thing with A.B.U., Zaria though with lesser impact. We cannot forget Ife, Port-Harcourt, Calabar or Jos universities. But the original point of dispersal as in the Biblical dispersal of the apostles after the death of Christ is the University of Ibadan. I think some people want to prove that point by documenting the fact in a book format soon to be published, tentatively entitled The U.I. Directory of writers. The project is on as we talk.

What future do you see for the scholarship of African literature?

A bright one if you ask me, provided we really claim Nigerian literature by actually patronizing it. I’ll feel proud the day I see a Nigerian President or Governor or Senator place a Nigerian book beside him or her even if he /she is not reading it. We need to promote the reading culture by reading our own books because the solutions to our poverty and moral decay in society which are in fact our greatest challenge are all in    these books. But because we would not read them, the social change which their content promises to propagate would not come, try what we may. This is the simple truth. We need to demonstrate these artistically projected solutions to societal problems, talk about them and raise consciousness to draw attention to them. Our leaders are privileged to do this for these ‘book’ solutions to be imbibed by the larger public.
We need to establish prizes at all levels to promote writing of good books in all areas, including literature. Senators and other legislators can come into this, and immortalize their names.

They should bring out a lump sum, fix it and from the proceeds a business man or woman or anyone handy can establish prizes in literature. It is not a big deal after all, people waste their resources in non-productive things. We need writers’ villages in all states where individuals who want to write may retire into for sometime in order for their intellect to gestate better. But they need to be fed and looked after health-wise while they are there.

Let it be known that if we fail to take steps to encourage local writing, no foreign body or power will intervene, and the rot will continue. Literature is part of culture. No country goes out of its way to promote the culture of other people. So we cannot think, for instance, that foreign publishing houses will one day return to Nigeria to publish books written by her nationals. This would be a false expectation. Government should encourage local publishers and task them to make their impact on the kind and variety of books they are prepared to publish. Right now the local publisher routes for primary and secondary school texts. We can’t go far with the prevalent arrangement of bread-and-butter publishing.


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