Isidore Okpewho (1941-2016)
(“Omnia muntantur, nihil interit”–everything changes, nothing perishes”) – Ovid
By Obi Nwakanma
What more appropriate way isthere to remember Isidore Okpewho – scholar, classicist, and novelist, than to invoke Ovid, the exiled Augustan poet, who was banished from Rome by Augustus, and whose melancholic longing for Rome inspired some of the most vivid poetry ever crafted by man?
Isidore Okpewho – one of the most brilliant men of his generation and one of Nigeria’s most iconic literary figures died two weeks ago in exile, and has been buried today among strangers, in a cemetery in East Hanover, New Jersey – the “Gates of Heaven” cemetery – appropriate enough gesture to the poet of Labyrinths, Okpewho’s favorite poet. But their situation was different – Ovid and Okpewho – even though exile took their land from them.
Ovid was banished, scholars have said, for his Ars Armatoria, a “scandalous guide to seduction,” which was felt to undermine Caesar Augustus’ moral reforms. Ovid himself confesses to something more deadly and personal as the cause of his exile: “Two crimes, a poem and a blunder have brought me ruin” he wrote.
There are hints of his adultery with Julia, the Emperor’s cousin, wife of. Lucius Emilius Paulus, and prominent member of the Julian faction intent on overthrowing Augustus. In the steamy intrigue of Roman politics, the poet placed the wrong bets and was driven from Rome.
But Okpewho was a moral purist. The Emperor did not drive him to exile, he chose exile because he could no longer stand the Emperor, or the collapse and decay of the ideas and institutions that his generation had inherited at the end of colonialism. In reaction to news of Okpewho’s death, President Buhari in appropriately worded tribute praised Okpewho for “bringing pride and glory to Nigeria.” I doubt that Buhari has ever read any of Okpewho’s works, or met him, or knew him enough to distil his mind.
Those who govern Nigeria do not read, nor do they understand the value of Nigeria’s intellectual and cultural capital. Nigeria’s scholars and artists are never on the honored guest lists of presidents, an irony in itself given that the foundational leaders of Nigeria at its birth were great intellectuals: Nnamdi Azikiwe and Denis Osadebe were great poets and intellectuals; Tafawa Balewa was a prize-winning novelist, and even Shehu Shagari himself wrote a well-received novel in Hausa. Men like Azikiwe and Balewa could read Okigbo, or discern the nuanced subversions of a Soyinka play, or comprehend the “Catholic mind” of an Isidore Okpewho. But they left the scene, and then came the likes of Buhari in their jackboots.
It was the things they carried with them to nation-building that drove people like Isidore Okpewho into exile, who could no longer tolerate the failures, nor thrive within a rapidly disconcerting social order. Isidore Okpewho was born in Abraka of an Urhobo father and an Igbo mother from Asaba. After high school at St. Patrick’s College, Asaba, Okpewho arrived in the then University College, Ibadan at nineteen to study for honours in the Classics in 1960.
It was still the University College, Ibadan – but two years down the line in 1962, it became the University of Ibadan, and thus Okpewho graduated with a first class degree in Classics of the University of Ibadan in 1964, leading his class and taking the faculty and University prizes. He was recruited by Longman publishers as the Western Regional Manager in Ibadan, in the heady years of the Mbari renaissance in that city, and Okpewho was active in that circle of the literati of Okigbo, Soyinka, Clark, and the rest: and he was the “young and golden boy” of that lot, whose promise was already very clear, as one of his dearest friends, the now late Torch Taire once said.
The civil war ruptured that renaissance, and Okpewho once told me the story of how he escaped with his life just in whiskers on returning from London on Longman’s business on July 29, 1966, and was nearly shot at the airport, mistaken for Igbo.
It was an experience that engraved itself in his psyche much of his life. By 1970, at the end of the war, Isidore Okpewho left publishing and went to graduate school at the University of Denver, Colorado, where he earned his PhD in 1974. After the Alastair Thompson interregnum as Chair of the Ibadan English Department, MJC Echeruo, himself a distinguished Ibadan alumni was recruited from his position at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka to return to Ibadan in 1974 and be the first African Head of the University of Ibadan English department, and reposition it. Isidore Okpewho was among the younger scholars Echeruo recruited to Ibadan to reposition it.
After his PhD in English from Denver, Okpewho taught from 1974 to 1976 at the State University of New York, Buffalo. From SUNY, Buffalo he returned and joined the Department of English of the University of Ibadan in 1976 until he left in 1990, at the head of that great emigration or “brain drain” that eventually hobbled the Nigerian University system.
But in his years at Ibadan, Okpewho made and left his marks, becoming the Head of the Ibadan English department from 1987 to 1990. Ibadan became, as a result of Isidore Okpewho’s work, the leading place for the study of African Oral literature and performance. Okpewho’s interdisciplinary scholarship sought to integrate African indigenous knowledge systems from an anthropological and historical standpoint with its modern literary production.
Okpewho’s background in the Classics, steeped as he was in Latin, Greek, and Ancient History, opened up grounds to the exploration of mythology and mythic expressions as modes of cultural memory that he applied very effectively in his study of African literature. His groundbreaking works, The Epic in Africa (1979) and Myth in Africa, (1983) forcefully challenged the work of Eurocentric cultural theorists like Ruth Finnegan who claimed that myth, the source of the epic, was absent in Africa’s cultural and imaginative systems. Okpewho took this challenge even further in his African Oral Literature: Background, Character and Continuity.
In clear furtherance of his approach, Okpewho produced what I personally think is one of his finest contributions to modern African literary scholarship and nationalist discourse, Once upon a Kingdom, which reconstructs and reimagines the imperial narrative of the ancient Benin Kingdom in its formations, interactions, and implications with its, especially Igbo neighbours whose influence on that kingdom has often oddly been underplayed for some reason.
A man of incredible intellectual energy, Isidore Okpewho was one of those rare people who moved easily between the hard abstraction and aridity of scholastic life and the perceptive and sometimes numinous cosmos of the imaginative life. He was a novelist of no mean weight, and won prestigious prizes for his output: the 1976 African Arts Prize for Literature, the Commonwealth Prize for fiction in 1993, and the Guggenheim in 2003.
He was honored, even if belatedly, with the Nigerian National Order of Merit. Okpewho’s early novels, Victims, one of the more sophisticated explorations of domestic conflict in contemporary Africa literature, The Last Duty, set in the backdrop of the Nigeria civil war, and whose literary style Okpewho himself described as “the collective evidence technique,” have yet to acquire the attention deserving of their accomplishments.
But there is little doubt these works accrete an increasing patina of craftsmanship and vision that assures Okpewho an honorable place in the pantheon of modern African letters, as would his novel, Call me by my rightful name, about the recovery of racial memory set in the African Diaspora in the United States.
In his last years, Okpewho devoted his work to such forms of recovery and regeneration, and of rebuilding the bridge between Africa and its Diaspora. His work as one of the leading theorists of the Diaspora can be measured in the collection, The African Diaspora: African Origins and the New World, which he co-edited with the late Ali Mazrui, his colleague at Binghamton, Carol Boyce Davies, his graduate student at Ibadan now a Professor at Cornel, and the New African Diaspora, with Nkiru Nzegwu.
Only just under three months ago, Okpewho called me to tell me, and to get an address to send to me his last book on J.P. Clarks Oziddi saga published by the University of Rochester press. I could not have known that it would be our last conversation. He was one of the most urbane, generous, and kindest men I knew. With Okpewho as Ovid says, everything changes, but nothing perishes. Not Okpewho.