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Fairness, clarity, my greatest challenge in writing Okigbo’s biography, says Nwakanma

Dr Obi Nwakanma, poet, journalist and scholar is an award winning writer, whose literary creations and journalistic writings are well received by connoisseurs of good writing. Nwakanma, whose collection of poetry, The Roped Urn won the Association of Nigerian Authors poetry prize some years ego has also published The Horsemen and other Poems.

An Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Truman State University, Kirksville, Missouri, United States of America, Nwakanma came out with his land mark biographical account of the fiery and dramatic poet, late Christopher Okigbo.

The biography titled, Christopher Okigbo (1930-67): Thirsting for Sunlight is a major literary history on the dramatic life of the late poet, whose own very complex life is written into  his own poetic canvass. In the course of detailing this engaging life, Nwakanma also opened up a whole lot of questions, which he alone, obsessed by the Okigboan instinct can answer. In this exclusive interview, Nwakanma talked to arts on Sunday about some of the issues raised in his new book. It is as always, engaging and sizzling.

Congratulations on the publication of TFS. How was the whole experience?

Thank you. This experience – I think many, more than I, have heaved a sigh of relief about the publication of the biography. At some point it began to seem like a lot of myth, this biography of Okigbo by Obi Nwakanma. I think, I felt finally, a sense of relief. A weight lifted from my conscience.

You were really very obsessed about writing the biography. What was giving you the kick?

It was the quest after an extraordinary life. But I’d rather not call it an obsession. It was a fascination. I like to think that the life of the poet mirrors the great drama of a generation. I’ve been fascinated both as a poet and as an intellectual with the compelling moments that have shaped the life and times of that generation.

There is a certain kind of lost narrative – a missing link that I think could never quite be fully captured either in fiction or in poetry or even in drama. It required a more historical, non-fictive narrative. I think that part of the cultural history of any self-aware nation must begin by a true examination of the lives of its artists and poets. My compelling obsession – if you choose to call it that – was principally to cast a steady gaze at that moment and recover it before it got lost in the strange alchemy of Nigerian history.

The biographical account details very deeply all aspects of Okigbo’s restless life. Which of the late poet’s side of life fascinated you most?

Every part.

You appear to write out your own admiration for Okigbo’s uncontrollable libido. Don’t you think that your own passionate involvement in this aspect of the narrative writes out your own psycho viral infection?

I do not know what you mean by “psycho viral infection” but I suspect you’re suggesting that in detailing Okigbo’s sexual life I might be mirroring my own psycho-sexual situation. Possibly. But the story is only one aspect. Okigbo lived fully. He had a great sense of drama. He was drawn to the lovely drama of pursuit. He was fascinated by the age of decadence – the European modernist crossroads between Enlightenment and Romanticism. He was both an aesthete and a symbolist.

He was also drawn to the so-called American lost generation. The 1950s and the ‘60s were in many ways a sort of “moveable feast” in decolonizing and postcolonial Nigeria, and Okigbo was central to it. So, it was a generational thing – an age before all the concerns about risky sex and the repressed libido of religious fundamentalism and the squeamish but fake morality of the current era. It was quite normal to be passionate and libidinous.

What did you find most challenging about writing this great book?

The greatest was the challenge of fairness and clarity. I needed to verify and test every statement purely to make certain that I did not misrepresent an absent subject. The poet was dead. There was also a certain caginess in many instances about people who knew him, who were too close to the circumstance of his death, and were too traumatized by it. A man like Okigbo who lived a very complex and dramatic life had too many parts. It was a very significant challenge to track all those parts.

Can you share your experiences about sourcing for publisher for the work? The work basically sold itself. Once the publishers became aware of it they indicated interest. So, I have no interesting story about sourcing publishers for the book.

How did you settle for James Currey?

James Currey settled for me. But I guess I was convinced more or less by the necessity to publish a Nigerian edition. I did not simply just want to publish internationally. I wanted the work to be available to a Nigerian audience. James Currey happens to have a publishing partnership with Heinemann Nigeria and that sort of settled it.

In the course of landscaping Okigbo, you opened up what one would consider classified secrets. I mean the areas relating to roles some living individuals played in the course of Nigerian history. Don’t you think, the book would have exposed such individuals to security risk?

I think not. There is nothing in the book that is still classified. Besides, the basic timeline for classified documents is thirty years. Okigbo died forty-three years ago. The books about that era are just slowly coming out, and I just hope more may be cast to light to situate the true architecture of Nigeria cultural, political, and economic history.

While your account details Christopher Okigbo’s involvement with the Biafran war effort, not much is detailed about his alleged involvement with the coup of the 5 majors?

I think I did to the extent that it was valid.

Did you purposely skip this aspect of the poet’s engagement with the course of history?

No. As I said, I have given account of Okigbo’s involvements with the leader of that coup – Emmanuel Ifeajuna. I have also attempted to trace the genetic seeds of that event to the ideas and cluster of individuals around Chike Obi at the University College Ibadan in the 1950s, and the group of very radical students in Kuti Hall in the University when it was opened in 1954 and people like Okigbo were sent down from Mellanby to begin its pioneer residency.

In any case, I think more will be written about that event, and it is not in the scope of my task. Perhaps when someone writes the biography, say, of J.P. Clark, as  should happen, who was actually Emmanuel Ifeajuna’s best friend, and part of a formidable triumvirate of ideas in the 1960s with Okigbo, further insight might emerge.  Taken this biography is your own trial of Okigbo, what is your own poetic judgment on him.

Read my poem, “The Horsemen.” It is not a poetic judgment, but an excursus; a journey with Okigbo and co, from the afterlife. Behind the ambivalence of those strange figures hooded in their dark garments; riding anonymously into town, and seeking some place to rest, is a search for closure. But closure is impossible.


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