BY MCPHILIPS NWACHUKWU
Dr Chris Anyokwu teaches African Poetry, African literature and literary theory at the Department of English, University of Lagos. He is the author of A Parade of Madmen, Homecoming, Ufuoma, Termites and Ol’Soja and Other stories. In this interview, the seminal scholar and writer speaks about a number of disturbing trends in contemporary Nigerian literature. He talks about the function of literature in an environmentally changing and cyber redefined world, Niger delta and about the state of criticism in Nigeria. Excerpt:
As a Writer and scholar of literature, how would you explain the role of literature in this cyber and globally changing age?
Literature is a major aspect of cultural production. And of course, culture is the sum total of a peoples way of life. To say that literature will not have a say in the digital age might not be correct. The thing is that the producers and consumers of literature have the duty to the phenomenon called literature. I feel that the onus lies on the producers and consumers of literature to ensure that literature enjoys longevity in the digital era. Having said that, I believe that the timeless relevance of the written word will always make literature stand in excellent place no matter the challenge posed by digitilisation.
One should think that the canonisation of particular form of imaginative works as environmental literature has become a new template for drawing attention of creative writers to the new defining roles of writers in the present era. How popular is this new trend in the country’s literary academy?
Well, there was something that I read in England in a book shop, where one man alleged that the black man is incapable of an original idea. That whatever the white man says or does is usually reactive or reflective of the western imagination. I don’t think that is completely true.
But to some extent, the term you just used, environmental literature is not a theoretic construct minted or coined here on the African homeland. Usually, people seem to wait for western scholars to come up with something before they begin to think about how to adopt it into their own local environments.
Having said that, I still do not think what you might call environmental literature being taught or referred to in the African academy or the African literary establishment as it is. Yes, we are aware of what you might call eco criticism or eco poetics and of course other things like that. But these things are still at their incipient stages. They are not yet enjoying mainstream attention from university faculties so to speak.
But at individual level, you find scholars researching into these areas based upon what they read online. And when they travel abroad, they meet scholars, where they exchange ideas bothering on some of these emerging trends. And when they come back they try to establish such ideas at home. But for now, I must say, that the phenomenon is still quite rudimentary.
How can one divorce the whole of this argument from the corpus of works being written in Nigeria and studied as Niger Delta literature. Is there anything like Niger Delta literature?
There is nothing like Niger Delta literature. We might say that Niger Delta crises has spawned and created a whole body of writing. I have contributed to that. I wrote a play , which is an adaptation, or a generic transposition of JP Clark’s, Night Rain. The title of the play is Night Rain. It is on the Niger Delta.
I know that Tanure Ojaide, Ahmed Yerima,Ibiwari, Ikriko, Nimmo Bassey, Tess Onwueme, and a whole lot of other writers have written on the Niger Delta. But to say that we have what is called Niger Delta literature, may be a new fangled literary term that people want to catch up with so that people will begin to band it about hoping that with time it will begin to enjoy intellectual respectability. But to the best of my knowledge, I do no think that we have anything called ,Niger Delta literature.
For a term to enjoy respectability and to get into the critical lexicon of scholarship, it has to be discussed at fora, symposia and be published in reputable local and international journals. So, I really do not think that such has been done for us to say that we have Niger Delta literature. But like I said , we have a growing body of works in prose fiction , drama and poetry dedicated to the Niger Delta crises.
Geographically speaking, who are the writers that should be classified as Niger Delta writers given that such a trend exists?
Let us assume that it is reductive and very parochial and provincial for one to say that there is a Niger Delta literature. Otherwise, you will be cutting yourself away from the larger Nigerian environment to just maroon yourself into your Niger Delta cocoon. What is important is that you are writing Nigerian literature and that you are from the Niger Delta and that this literature focuses specifically on this aspect of Nigeria’s social life. I think that is okay in that regard.
From your position as a scholar and writer, what is your assessment of the state of Nigerian contemporary criticism?
Well, we all know that right now , everything seem to be in abeyance. The country seems to be going down hill not only in the realm of research, but also both politically, sports etc. there is a global collapse of intellectual riguor and culture of excellence in Nigeria.
But I must say that the past is better than the present. And that is true. When you look at the writings of Wole Soyinka, Achebe and members of their generation, when you pick up their works to read , you find out that their works are better than what is produced now.
A number of reasons can be adduced for this: a culture of excellence was there. They had better teachers, who were expatriates. They had better environment. Even when they started writing, they had reverence for the written word. They also had mentors, people they looked up to as their role models, particularly from abroad and they wanted to write like them.
But these days, people are not taking time to learn their craft. For you to be a great writer, you must be an amalgam of the historian and the philosopher. If you have not taken time to reflect, and I tell you what, because of the age in which we live: the age of being on the go, people are always moving and they don’t indulge in reflection. They don’t enjoy the culture of reflection, of sitting down to reflect about their idea streams and try to understand human psychology. How then can they as writers function effectively as the spokes men and women of their generation?
When you look at all of these, you find out that people have not really gone to the best schools, have not learnt their craft well and do not have role models to look up to and that the structures of publishing are not there. The effect of all these is poor works. If for instance, you place Achebe’s Things Fall Apart side by side with any of the new works of today, you will find out that it is many light years ahead.
If you also talk about criticism, for you to be a good critic, you must also have learnt your craft by studying the masters. If you read Longinus and Horace, they will tell you that for you to be a great critic, you must learn from the masters.
How much of the works of Nigerian masters: Ernest Emenyonu, Abiola Irele, Biodun Jeyifo, Charles Nnolim, Donatus Nwoga, Izabaye, Emmanuel Obiechina , have you read? Also how much of the expatriate critics like T.S.Eliot, Matthew Arnold, Shirley etc, have you read?
You as a critic must have read all of these critics and be mimicking them so that over time you would have achieved your own individual voice. So, as it is in the creative terrain, so it is in the critical clime that one can rarely have critics, who have the cutting age intelligence to do thorough work that can stand the same ground with the works of the masters.