By Obi Nwakanma
Writing is an intensely political act. From immemorial time, the foundation of all civilisation has always rested all the memory of the land preserved by those who constitute the moral imagination of the world. It is the power of the script over the ephemeral. Why do we write? This is the question that many of us have struggled to answer over the years. The questions come in moments of despair, when we feel that gnawing futility of our words, and the limits of our writerly convictions.
Despair, certainly, is the fuel for the kind of anguish that keeps all imaginative acts at the edge between light and darkness. So, perhaps, it is good to suffer despair as the other side of Epicurean ataraxis. Despair sometimes yields to clarity, and to something utterly memorable. But my despair with contemporary Nigeria writing stems largely from a deeper, more desperate sense of the limits of its current state. So much writing is going on, yet there seems so little of it that is of real value, and of a sustained quality.
The tradition of literature we in this generation have inherited seems now far too rested merely on the notion of the task rather than on the task itself.
As most people now probably know, the emergence of a literary culture in Nigeria was first, an act of resistance in the anti-colonial nationalist phase of our history. It was an era defined by the poetry of Nnamdi Azikiwe and Dennis Osadebe, and deployed to the public spirit of the era: the call towards a unifying spirit of a nation.
We feel that call in the rhetoric of the poetry that said, “Africa Sings” or that sang an ode to the “land of the rising sun.” As the famous Nigerian poet, critic and scholar MJC Echeruo has noted, Azikiwe’s poetry particularly rested at a most intriguing nexus that harmonised the airs of late Victorian manners and early 20th century resistance imagination. It was at the edge of the Harlem renaissance, and the power in that poetry is not so much in its letters as in its spirit – the spirit of the age of African and global black restoration: a highly modernist moment.
The power of that poetry was in its public voice that uttered clarion calls. It is the example of the poet as the voice of an era. That phase gave momentum to the more significant, and perhaps, in fact, more dramatic explosion of Nigerian literature in the 20th century. That era that also nested between two worlds and two zones of time: the age of late colonialism and its end. As everybody now accepts, two seminal events mark this era: the return of Nigerian soldiers from the global wars of 1938-1945 and the wider access to the technology of printing. The small presses in Aba and Onitsha were churning out short stories and novellas and political propaganda in pamphlets that sold for pennies.
This penny press was Nigeria’s closest equivalent of a mass literary revolution which again spoke to a great public spirit; the mythic foundation of the nation and a profound resistance aesthetics that gave access, perhaps for the first time, to a wider, newly literate audience hungry for the bread and sustenance of words.
What the writers of that penny press lacked in literary sophistication they more than compensated with the fecund texture of their imagination. Out of that tradition that Obiechina has helped us to call the “Onitsha Market Literature” came the first early writings of Cyprian Ekwensi, soon to be counted among the more important of Nigeria’s modernists, whose writing defined that hermetic age that is also at its very core Janus-faced; whose beginnings and transitions now, in fact, endows with the kind of anxiety that has also been described by certain theorists as the “double-gaze” – the view by Lacan of the loss of autonomy as a result of visibility.
Now, that is both an ironic and an awkward place to be – the visibility of the “double-gaze.” But the writing of Christopher Okigbo, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, J.P. Clark, Gabriel Okara, Cyprian Ekwensi, Amos Tutuola, V.C. Ike – all these, arguably, the seminal figures of their age of writers in Nigeria seem now to provide us an uncompromising moment whose visibility also stirs in us the tendency to make subject, the value of Nigerian writing based on our almost inevitable addiction to these writers. But is it addiction really that compels us towards these writers or the inexorability of these men as public figures who not only wrote as writers but also did real work besides making scriptural hay? Every writer is his or her own story.
There, then, is the trouble with my own age of writers. We have no story; no drama, simply because we have lived in diapers all our lives, secluded from the messier details of real power; sheltered by the romantic view that writers are isolate figures, shielded from the rest of society by their moral sensibilities.
This is, of course, false and self-serving. There is not a single memorable and vivid character among my generation of writers because they have not lived vividly and memorably. There is not a powerful experiential detail that undergirds the vision of our art as writers in this generation.
This accounts for the real fragility or shallowness of contemporary Nigerian imagination. Compare our lives to the past and we seem absolutely boring. Okigbo went off to war. Soyinka held a radio station at gun-point. Achebe, Clark, Okara were emissaries of war. Indeed, in that generation, one of the more intriguing lives would certainly be the life of Cyprian Ekwensi – Pharmacist, journalist, and woodsman.
As Chief of Nigeria’s Information Services, Cyprian Ekwensi, very few people knew, was at the head of Nigeria’s national information gathering- or intelligence system. And, that is how it should be: writers are not isolate personas from history – they are great statesmen; spies; diplomats; war correspondents; propagandists; teachers; librarians of great public libraries, and so on. They are at the great epicentre of nation-making because they provide, sustain, and propagate the great raison d’etre of nations. Here, again, is the great failing of contemporary Nigerian writing. There is nothing that I have discerned within its soul in the last decade that seems grounded on ideas that connect to the myth of the land as an embodied spirit of its letters.
There is great anguish certainly about the failures of the land, yes, and a great, stirring of despair; a high regard for the act itself of writing, rather than its highest purpose. The high purpose of writing seems to me to be, to preserve the myth of the nation – the spirit of the land on which every imagination springs. There is scant spirit in contemporary Nigerian writing, and I have seen only a few in the last decade worth but a passing glance. Yet, everywhere, we hear about contemporary Nigerian writing. But where is this writing? Who embodies it?
Where are the memorable figures who infuse into the great scriptural act, the higher art of living the truth, and the experience of that truth as spies, administrators, librarians, political propagandists, and indeed, those who build the spirit of the nation as the fundamental basis of their imagination? Does this absence constitute the reason for the sheer tepidity also of the critics of this writing, for today, in all the great newspapers and journals of the land, there is no coherent debate about contemporary Nigerian writing.
I hear always about ANA? But what really is ANA these days but a group of weightless writers very busy talking about writing rather than doing the writing itself. It is pure sham.