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The writers of distinction 1

By Chimdi Maduagwu

I was at the celebration that ushered Prof. JP Clark into the Octogenarian circle. I was told, and so many in my generation also, that JP was a lecturer in the Department of English, University of Lagos, where I later came to study and teach. I have imaginative (text) knowledge of JP but a visual knowledge of Ebun Clark. Not long after was another, similar celebration: Soyinka at eighty. I quickly want to make few comments on JP Clark’s, of course, which is belated.

So before the later, let me address its past, albeit, its immediate past. I was at the very animated lecture delivered by Prof. Wole Soyinka at the main auditorium of University of Lagos, which formed a kind of climax of Clark’s celebration. I tried very hard to get the title of the Lecture before it was delivered but the announcement had it just as “The Soyinka Lecture,” which sounded more like a lecture in honour of, rather than to be delivered by Wole Soyinka. I believed that I would get the title or topic of the lecture when it would begin, so I decided to go ahead of time.

I was present when virtually everybody came in: Prof. Wole Soyinka, then Profs JP and Ebun Clark and then the Deputy Vice Chancellor (M & S) of the University of Lagos, Prof. Duro Oni, who also is a theatre persona, and the chief host, Prof. R. A. Bello, Vice Chancellor, University of Lagos. I was lucky that one of my younger colleagues was seated near me and he started introducing to me some personae I needed to recognize (oh, just for my own personal edification): Prof Tamuno, Elechi Amadi and then Gabriel Okara. I was excited and carried away. It was already hilarious for me, though the lecture had not started yet. Then I realized that my colleagues were looking in my direction in the middle of the auditorium and I read their minds… “Why are you there, you should be with the microphone at the dais.” Well thank God I was not.

Another gentleman had the microphone and was not going to do what we (I mean the typical MC in that kind of occasion) would do. I believe he must have had a clue as to what would happen. He was simple and straight to the point. In a matter of minutes, items on the agenda were actualized and then the main course of the menu came. Prof. Wole Soyinka literally hopped up the podium and started, as expected, with some preliminaries. I confess I still didn’t get the title of the lecture and may not, until the lecture is published. However, I heard the word “Censorship” so I assumed and maintained that as the title. Prof. Soyinka talks well, I mean, convincingly. He gives the impression that he never would be able to complete preparations for the delivery of lectures, for delivery time, so while he delivers, he still writes. It is a very confident way of expressing authority over “subject.” I respect him for that.

This lecture would be controversial, so I thought when he started with invectives on individuals. Well, my career reveals to me that great men do not attack other men, though they may war against “ideas.” Prof. Soyinka practically descended on few individuals, even identifying them by names: Adewale Meja-Pearse, Femi Osofisan (Akimbo Launko), then JP Clark, amongst others and then the professions. Those he set on the beam are those who have ventured into criticism of either other persons or institutions. He doesn’t seem to be at home with, or literally he does not like criticism. As he lashes at them, I became quite uncomfortable.

My impression was that he came out to sympathize with the “criticized,” but before I could draw my conclusion, I was forced to rethink; he actually had ascended to a higher level of criticism. I was carried away by the sheer grace of that presentation: CENSORSHIP. But I too was placed on an edge, indeed, quite uncomfortably. I do not consider myself a public speaker, an orator or an impresario, but I do make a lot of appearances at public gatherings as “Protocol MC,” whatever anyone wants to make out of that. One thing I know is that I handle the microphone to provide direction for a smooth realization of the items on the agenda of very serious occasions. By so, I fall into the category of those that the ire of the critical Professor and laureate visited.

He was literally adorned with the spirit of Alexander Pope (Essay of Criticism) and the Prophet Isaiah. The amalgamation of the Isaiah and Pope Spirits resulted in a thunderous explosion and many who serve humanity through acts of expressions were not spared: the journalists, the photographers, the MCs, the essayist, the biographers and more importantly, “the trained historians.”

This was why Adewale Meja Pearse was subjected to a near mortal wound as a result of the erudite Professor’s missiles. Prof. Soyinka perhaps, regarded JP Clark’s lecture as part of his recent contributions that he proudly refers to as INTERVENTIONS. In Interventions IV: Power, Hydropus and Other Toxic Mutations, he is described (I do not know by who) as involved in “a new career of retiring from public life.” This could be an awesome irony. Everyone who knows him will agree with me that he has been restless, right from childhood and the major problem now is how to get him to retire “indeed.” Well if he is retiring, it is taking a long time and I suppose that scholarship would rather accept that Soyinka attempted retirement, but had to retire from retirement almost immediately after. He rebelled against retirement so that his eclectic eccentricities will continue. For instance, the new terms he comes up with, I mean terms that are essentially Soyinkan like Leftocracy and Hydropus will continue to adorn our literary garden.

Soyinka has never really accepted that he operates within a defined ideology. He even asserted once (I suppose in Drum magazine, now defunct) that all ideologies enslave whether they are benevolent or malevolent. This is why he believes he can identify and make statements about Leftocracy, that is those who operate from the left and also about the grey zone, that is according to my own very etching of some writers, those who operate in-between definitions.

Globacom, a major indigenous telecommunication organization honoured the erudite Professor recently and I was there again. I remember the other writers who also came: Seffi Ata, EC Osondu and Tope Folarin.

All have, at one point or the other won a literary prize. They owned up to working under the influence of Soyinka. At that event, Soyinka hinted that a new edition of INTERVENTIONS is awaited. That justifies my position that he has not retired or more appropriately, he has rebelled against retirement. He proposes that the text will come under the title: REPUBLIC OF LIARS. A hint is that former President Obasanjo will be a character in the book. There have been a running battle of words between the General turned politician and the writer. While Obasanjo regards Soyinka as a bad politician, Soyinka dismisses that as self-opinionated and indeed, announces that he would not respect Obasanjo’s opinion. It is interesting why he would not. He declares Obasanjo a liar. Soyinka is still full of the stuff he is known for – playing with words.

That impressive Globam night with him revealed that more will yet come from him for instance, my friend Dr. Adeyemi Daramola asked a question on his poem “The Telephone Conversation” and as Prof. Soyinka responded, he wondered how young people would cope with images that existed before their time, for instance the buttons, and the colours. Interpretive skills are required for a good grasp of such a poem. But that once more provided him an opportunity to touch on words and meanings, especially homophones.

A mock theatrical presentation on construction and distortion of meanings enhanced the entire business of the night. Alapata, a word that would mean a quarry or a slaughterhouse, depending on the tone and the context, was used to show how simple things can lead to great misunderstanding. He summed up with the misuse of the word “severally” which rightly means inclusive as against occurrence that many assume it means. Soyinka scholars are waiting for the next Intervention and Bookcraft will do them a favour by publishing it quickly.


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