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Karin Barber on the Nigerian Press and the making of the first Yoruba novel

By Rotimi Fasan
ALL literature is ideological, so says Karin Barber in one of her ever cerebral and insightful works on Yoruba literature.

In the article in question, Professor Barber compares the conventions framing the writings of the two best known Yoruba novelists, the inimitable Daniel Olorunfemi Fagunwa, writer of the most famous Yoruba novel, Ogboju Ode Ninu Igbo Irunmale, and Oladejo Okediji, who wrote the equally famous Aja L’o L’eru, among other works.

Consideration and care for others, personal modesty and virtuous living are some of the humanitarian ethics Barber identifies as forming the ideological bedrock of the writings of these two authors.

Karin Barber

These same ethics, to a greater or lesser degree, frame the works of other pioneer writers of indigenous Nigerian literature namely, Pita Nwana and Abubakar Imam, whose Omenuko and Magana Jari Ce are respectively considered the first novels in Igbo and Hausa.

The moral underpinnings of Isaac Babalola Thomas’ Itan Igbesi-Aiye Emi Segilola, Eleyin’ju Ege, Elegberun Oko L’aiye which came a few years before the other two pioneer novels in Nigeria’s indigenous languages rest squarely within these same humanitarian ethics.

Thomas’ Itan Igbesi-Aiye Emi Segilola is the first novel in Yoruba and arguably in any Nigerian language.

And if we agree with the likes of Obi Wali, Ernest Emenyonu and Ropo Sekoni, among other theorists of African/Nigerian literature, that any authentic study of African, indeed, Nigerian literature must begin with literatures in the indigenous languages, then I. B. Thomas’ Itan Igbesi-Aiye Emi Segilola is arguably the first Nigerian novel.

Well then does Barber make the point in her introduction to her modern translation of this 1930 work, that any Yoruba literary history that omits this fascinating work is incomplete nor can any account of African fiction in English that elides the resonant parallels between Thomas’ eponymous hero and the unforgettable prostitutes in Cyprian Ekwensi and Wole Soyinka works be considered full.

Itan Igbesi-Aiye Emi Segilola, Eleyin’ju Ege, Elegberun Oko L’aiye, translated by Barber as (The Life of Me, ’Segilola of the Fascinating eyes’, she who had a thousand lovers in her life) is a chronicle or more appropriately, a confessional of the sexual adventures of a dying and retired prostitute who looks back on her lascivious life in shame and seeks to warn posterity against such life of debauched excess.

Barber’s translation, based on the third of the three extant versions of Thomas’ original, goes beyond a mere reprint of an exhumed text. It explores the culture of the Lagos press, the background of its founders against the backdrop of colonial rule and the struggle for self-determination; its mode of address and the manner it convened its audience.

Print Culture and the First Yoruba Novel I. B. Thomas’s ‘Life of Me, Segilola’ and Other Texts,’ the full title of the book, is an exploration of the elements that foregrounded the emergence of the novel genre within a larger urban culture that was seen as depraved and predatory, one full of sexual excesses and unconscionable rush for money and wealth.

The identical ideological frames of the three indigenous novels mentioned here might get hawkers of evolutionary theories sniffing for possible influences and models; for hasn’t it been asserted often and again that the novel genre was an original European export, the very manifestation of the eighteenth century culture of the nascent bourgeoisie.

But such evolutionary enterprise will in this context smack of intellectual laziness and in such cheap wares Barber does not deal nor would she recommend to her readers.

This she makes clear with varying emphases in her assertion that the elements that gave birth to the new genre in Lagos were already in circulation, indeed part of the indigenous print culture of the early 1920s and perhaps the period preceding it. Not many would associate the Nigerian press with the beginning of modern literature in Nigeria or at all with literature.

The pervasive conceit in the Nigerian academe that warns aspiring academics against ‘journalistic writing’ gives not only the impression that there is no link between the two but also that there can never be. Yet some of the country’s pioneer writers of the modern era had connections with the press either before, during or after their literary careers.

Isaac Babalola Thomas, Editor-Proprietor of the bilingual newspaper, Akede Eko, which first published Itan Igbesi-Aiye Emi Segilola in serial form between July 1929 and March 1930 was one such person.

If Pita Nwana was ‘the father of the Igbo novel’ and Abubakar Imam ‘the earliest and most famous modern Hausa writer’, I. B. Thomas can be rightfully called the creator of the Nigerian novel.

While Barber sees the rise of the novel in Nigeria as emanating from the colonial interface, she does not downplay the possibility of independent invention. Some of the elements in the creation of the genre include the epistolary style, the ‘default’ mode of address in the Lagos press, the straining for verisimilitude or what Barber calls ‘reality-effect’, sermons, pious Christian homily and urban folklore; the serial mode and use of the informal first-person.

More than any other factor, the emergence of the novel as part of the print culture of the Depression Years was an experiment that at once owed much to the constitution of and increase in the reading public.

Thus Barber explodes the notion that the novel was a result of evangelism or cultural nationalism. This is not a review- that task is for another day and belongs elsewhere- just a short take on an important work and scholar.

This British-born scholar who earned her Ph.D in Yoruba at the University of Ife where she lived for many years, rising to the headship of the Department of African Languages, is one of the most clear-headed and gifted interpreters of African, especially, Yoruba culture, arts and literature.

One of her specialty is Yoruba verbal arts, namely, oriki, praise poetry on which she wrote her doctoral dissertation. The work of a translator is not only a difficult task but often a thankless one.

There must be few people as qualified to do the job of producing a truly academic, by which I mean, rigorous translation of this pioneer novel as Karin Barber, Fellow of the British Academy and Professor of African Cultural Anthropology at Birmingham University. What stands her work out is often the rigour and careful attention to detail, qualities which make her conclusions both magisterial and difficult to contradict.

These qualities she brings to her translation of the first Yoruba novel which will be presented to the public at the University of Lagos on Tuesday December 11.

The reviewer is no less a qualified scholar of Yoruba than Professor Akinwunmi Isola, playwright, screen actor and creator of Efunsetan Aniwura, another great in the Yoruba pantheon of literature.


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