By TUNJI AJIBADE
The February edition of Guest Writer Session organized by Abuja Writers’ Forum (AWF) hosted Toyin Adewale Gabriel. In this report, TUNJI AJIBADE explores the canvass of the mind of the guest writer, whose creative spirit flows down the spine of her captivated audience.
To say that Toyin Adewale cast a calm ambience on both her hearers and the venue when she took the stage would be an understatement. Surely, she was as much the joy of being in a literary setting for those who attended, as the mood the audience themselves came to the venue with. “I decided to come and have a wonderful time here, when I read about the guest writer for today,” an attendee had quipped when he got to the door of the venue. He was referring to Toyin Adewale-Gabriel, the poet, short story writer, critic, and literary activist, and AWF’s guest writer for the month of February. “Toyin was already a known name in poetry circle, and I had looked up to her way back early 1990s when I was still trying to settle into poetry writing,” another attendee and award winning poet had added -in recognition of the stature of the guest writer in the nation’s literary circle-and one who had won several awards, as well as read to audiences in Nigeria, South Africa, Germany, Austria, Sweden, Italy, The Netherlands, Luxemburg and the United States of America from her published works that included ‘Naked Testimonies’; ‘Breaking The Silence’, and ‘Bitter chocolate’.
While Adewale-Gabriel’s name is linked intimately with poetry over the years, it turned out that Bitter Chocolate, a collection of short stories, and from which she read, would throw up the central issues that were underscored in the course of the session. The guest writer also read from her poetry collections, and while she obviously did not come with the intention to talk about the female folk, the stories in Bitter Chocolate raised issues that centred around the female folk in Nigerian literature; it was a banner her audience rallied round _ bringing it out in bolder relief. She would later say, “As a writer, you need to find your own voice,” and that to a question about one of the stories in Bitter Chocolate; but that was during the Question and Answer Session, which other matters preceded.
The event of February 26 kicked off at the Pen and Pages, Wuse, Abuja venue with light entertainment anchored by Billy Ngasa, a musician whose fingers on the guitar, and vocal power were attested to as commendable by fellow artists present in the audience. David Awotodunbo, a painter based in Ile Ife, Osun State, put up a mini exhibition with works that included ‘Jubilation’, ‘Traditional Dancers’ and ‘Hawking’, the last two of which drew excited comments from the audience. They liked Awotodunbo’s painting, and many thought him a “happy person” considering his choice of colour, which were mostly bright. But his two girl-dancers in ‘Traditional dancers’ were shy, and a look at their closed eyelids that made them appear like a girl on her first date left this audience impression on the audience. This only came to the fore however, when a member of the audience asked the painter why his two dancers had their eyes closed though the fact that they gyrated to a scintillating rythm was so obvious in the painting. “These dancers close their eyes because they are like me,” Awotodunbo said, a reference to the fact that he, the painter, hardly looked into the eyes of his listeners while he spoke about his works, an obvious sign that he was shy, and a pointer to how his personality impacted his painting. Awotodunbo’s response to the question led to laugher, that time, and he attracted a loud round of applause in the hall.
But a female voice was raised in the hall just before Adewale-Gabriel came on stage. It was that of Sandra Chinoyen Nwozu. This lawyer and budding poet saw what happened in the Jos crisis, she lost a relation and even, caught the facts in two commendable poems.
“I was inspired to write ‘Bitter Chocolate’ by Chris Anyanwu, a female journalist who was incarcerated for her views,” was part of Adewale-Gabriel’s introductory comments when she mounted the podium. There was something in the way she said it that could bring tears to the eyes. Anyanwu is currently a Senator of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. But there was a time she was a journalist, a full time journalist, plying the trade she knew best. This beautiful and amiable lady was picked up by the Sanni Abacha military administration in the early 1990s. She barely escaped the experience with her life. “It was the first time a woman was incarcerated for her activities,” Adewale-Gabriel stated. One could practically grasp the note in the author’s voice; the note of what was unsaid: “How could anyone do that to a woman?”
But she would go ahead to say, “I was thinking about the woman (Anyanwu) in prison, and what it was like.” Nothing ignites passion in a creative artist more than this; nothing more than the pain, the ache, both powerful emotion of what a fellow human being goes through.” These were obviously in Adewale-Gabriel’s mind when she wrote ‘Bitter Chocolate’ in a short story collection with the same time.
“It is lonely at the end of the world. The dust on the floor was quiet,” she wrote. If those two opening lines in the story ‘Bitter Chocolate’ does not conjure the image of what it must have been like for a lonely woman in a dungeon, nothing else will. And that was how the author followed up by reading lines after lines of imagery and metaphors that got her audience glued to her lips, her voice through the pages of the book in their hands. Adewale-Gabriel caught her kind in the most bizarre and uncommon setting to find one in this part of the world.
When it was time for the Question and Answer Session, Adewale-Gabriel’s short stories drew a barrage of remarks, though of her poems, Dr Kabura Zakama, an award winning poet, had remarked that she had a way of saying “very difficult things in a very simple way.” “Your work is full of metaphors, and you used them in such varieties that I like so much,” a member of the audience said of her short stories. A question about what to do in order to write so well unveiled the thematic issue of the day. Adewale-Gabriel would recommend the Russian and the Latin American writers to anyone who wants to write well. But then as an African, it is important to realize one comes from a cultural context, and a cultural context with a literary tradition, and so, that makes every African writer an ambassador of the continent to the world.