Post-centenary Nigeria: New literatures, new leaders, new nation by Pius Adesanmi

Pius Adesanmi

Pius Adesanmi

I guess it’s the water. Something must be in the water that members of Ni­geria’s literary fraternity and soror­ity drink which makes them see a direct connection between prosperity Pentecostalism – as we experience it in Nigeria today – and their own calling in the Republic of Letters. I do not need to tell anybody that Pentecostalism of the prosperity ilk owns the copyright to the narrative and actuality of miracles in the lives of the citizens of this country. Indeed, so gripping is the national pre­occupation with miracles and portions as the immediate dividend of democracy, sorry, of faith, that our Muslim brethren are determined not to be left out of the scramble of each Nigerian to claim his portion and possess his possession. A video recently went viral on social media of a Muslim cleric in full public perfor­mance of the stage rituals of a prosperity Pentecostal pastor delivering miracles of healing and material reward. Miracle workers are the new cool and I am start­ing to have a nagging suspicion that folks believe that literature, like prosperity Pentecostalism, is a miracle worker.

Today, I am asked to address the theme of newness. As if this wasn’t challenging enough as a theme, I’ve been saddled with the baggage of newness raised to power three: new literatures, new leaders, new nation in post-centenary Nigeria. In essence, I am asked to examine the possible ways in which our new literatures – however, defined and imagined – impact on leadership and nationhood. Let’s just hope that the organizers of the Garden City Literary Festival will not ask me to come one day and address the linkages between literature and the provision of good roads, hospitals, and sundry infrastructure!

Now, the adjective “new” has been used to qualify three nouns in our topic, but we can only confidently bear witness to the truthfulness of one as far as Nigeria is concerned. New literatures? That is true, very much true in this country. New leaders? That’s a lie, for we do not even have old leaders let alone new ones. New nation? That also is a lie, for we are more remarkable for our violations of every definition of nationhood than for a will to the emergence of a nation, new or old. These, of course, are contentious considerations that we shall return to in due course.

In essence, I am saying that those who, at the Uyo ANA Convention, in 2012, dreamed of the ability of literature to open up and probe new imaginaries of national security and those who in Minna have asked me to interrogate the ability of our new literatures to map new narratives of nationhood and leadership are writers who understand that the word and the story have been at the foundation of every human enterprise from the beginning of time. If we are inclined to go back as far as Ancient Greece and Rome, we will remind ourselves that the content, shape, nature, character, and identity of those two political expressions of civilization and human organization took their inchoate foundational steps in the narratives of the storyteller. Ancient Greece and Rome were not just imaginaries that became political realities, they were imagined and narrativized in epics, myths, legends, and even dramaturgy of the tragic ilk. Subscription to the interpellative power of these narratives is what confers on them legitimacy and hegemony. They acquire an amniotic essence of national histories and identity. The national epic is the most powerful source of identity for the modern nation and the nation-state.

Think of what Homer’s Iliad means for Ancient Greece. Think of what Virgil’s Aeneid means for Ancient Rome. Think of The Tale of Genji for Japan; of La Chanson de Roland for France; of the Epic of Gilgameshfor Iraq; of Ramayana for India; Beowulf to Anglo-Saxons and Britain; think of all these national epics and you come to an understanding of the fact that literature, indeed, has the miraculous power to forge the essence and the spirit of a nation – and of a nation-state depending on the level of legitimacy and hegemony it acquires across time. From Ernest Renan to Benedict Anderson, no scholar of nation, nation-state, and nationalism has ever made short shrift of the centrality of the creative imagination, of stories, of myths and legends to the emergence and enabling of the lineage of nation and nation-state.

That is why Benedict Anderson defined nation as an imagined community. “Literature is Fire”, screams the Peruvian Nobel Laureate, Mario Vargas Llosa, in a 1967 lecture he presented on being awarded the Romulo Gallegos Literary Prize in Venezuela. Vargas Llosa agrees on the centrality of literature to the soul of nation and nation state in the said essay. Literature is fire! If literature is fire, what does this mean for those of us who are writers and workers in the field of creativity and imagination? It reminds us that literature is promethean. You will recall that the first time man is said to have stolen from the Gods – I would have called it man’s first act of corruption but, luckily for us, stealing is not corruption in this country – what he stole was fire! Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave man the miracle of creation and creativity. Literature is fire! Literature is miracle. Literature makes miracles!

Long before ANA National thought of the prophylactic powers of literary imagination, long before the conveners of this edition of the MBA International Literary Colloquium thought of a theme which connects literature to imaginaries of leadership and nationhood, generations of writers before us have imagined the connections between literature and project nationhood. It could not have been otherwise. At the political level, Nigeria may have been a product of colonial will, violence, and desire. She may have been an economic contraption cobbled together by Lord Lugard and named by Flora Shaw for the benefit of Great Britain. Nigeria’s first generation of writers in the English language – the producers of what we now conventionally call modern African literatures – were not going to allow the original injury of our foundation – colonial dehumanization – to become the basis of postcolonial project nationhood.

Two factors aided the task of this generation in terms of imagining a postcolonial becoming for Nigeria. First is the fact that they were coming from an oral tradition in which art was indissociable from politics. The verbal arts, all our oral genres, served a utilitarian function in traditional society. Thus, the transition to a modern aesthetic of protest and resistance was not such a huge leap for our foundational writers in English. Second is the fact that these writers came of age in the climate of 20thcentury grand narratives of freedom. This was the age of Negritude, of pan-Africanism, of the African nationalist struggle, of decolonization. This was the age of the radical liberator which gave us such figures as Frantz Fanon, Walter Rodney, Amilcar Cabral, Eduardo Mondlane, Patrice Lumumba, Agostinho Neto. This was the age of the grand dreams and ambitions of Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, Nnamdi Azikiwe, and all their contemporaries for the continent. Literature slipped into a predictable role as the cultural wing of this struggle.

Achebe served what I consider to be the most direct notice of his generation’s mission to deploy art in the service of society and nation in his essayistic career. You are certainly familiar with essays such as “The Novelist as Teacher”, and “The African Writer and His Society”. You will recall his clear and oft-reiterated point in some of these essays that the writer cannot be expected to be excused from the task of nation building and other socio-political debts to his society. More than any transcendental commonality of themes, motifs, and textual strategies in their creative enterprise, I believe that this sense of a socio-political mission, of the need to press art into the service of new imaginaries of nationhood in which a culturally-empowered and psychologically-decolonized citizenry shall embrace the possibilities of postcolonial nationhood is what came to give these writers the first sense of a generational identity in the annals of Nigerian writing.

Wole Soyinka, for instance, often alludes to a “foundational quartet” of Nigerian letters comprising himself, Chinua Achebe, J.P.Clark, and Christopher Okigbo. We must bear it in mind that the imagination of this foundational quartet was present at the birthing of Nigeria’s postcolonial moment. Their creative contribution to emergence of a new nation in those heady years came in the shape of visions and intimations of the roads to be taken, of roads to avoid, of pitfalls that could lead to anomie and errors of the rendering. Indeed, Soyinka heralded the birth of his new nation with a prophetic play, A Dance of the Forests; Achebe predicted corruption and coups in A Man of the People; Okigbo foretold wars and rumbles of war in Limits. By the time we arrive at J.P. Clark’s lamentations of inertia, corruption, and the myriad dysfunctions of Nigerian statehood in his 1980s poetry collection, State of the Union, it was clear that Nigeria had made Cassandra of this generation of writers at prohibitive national costs.

Perhaps this is why Soyinka looked at his generation in the arts and beyond and famously or infamously described her as a wasted generation? He is not alone. The next set of writers to gain a loose collective consciousness as a generation also had a grandiose ambition and belief in the ability of literature to imagine and will into being a Nigerian nation that would work for a Nigerian people. These writers shook off post-independence disillusionment and disappointment to embark on a radical journey to regain the personal and the national selves. They had no patience with the eclectic theoretical and aesthetic sensibilities of the Soyinkas and the Achebes of this world. Theirs was going to  be hotheaded and fire-spitting Marxism or Marx-influenced discursive and aesthetic radicalism. Think of Zaynab Alkali, Tanure Ojaide, Femi Osofisan, Bode Sowande, Niyi Osundare, Festus Iyayi, Tunde Fatunde, Kole Omotoso, Odia Ofeimun, Wale Okediran, Olu Obafemi, Ken Saro- Wiwa, Abubakar Gimba, Chidi Amuta, Stanley Macebuh, Chinweizu, Biodun Jeyifo and how they fired up the Nigerian literary scene in the 1970s and 1980s. be hotheaded and fire-spitting Marxism or Marx-influenced

Sometime in the early 1990s, Femi Osofisan presented a lecture at the University of Leeds which contained the report card of his generation in Nigeria – and elsewhere in Africa – as far as their lofty dreams of literature and nation, literature and society, were concerned. Soyinka spoke of a wasted generation, right? Well, Femi Osofisan’s lecture is entitled “Warriors of a Failed Utopia”. A certain Nigeria of a certain dream is, of course, the failed utopia captured in Osofisan’s lamentation. By the time Osofisan was presenting his lecture, Nigeria had endured the military dictatorships of Buhari/Idiagbon, Ibrahim Babangida, and Sani Abacha. SAP had drained the soul of the Nigerian people and emptied the content of Nigerian nationhood. Corruption was eating up the crumbs left by SAP. The embrace of Marxism and poverty no longer appealed to this generation. Many moved abroad. Those who did not move abroad went in pursuit of capitalism and prosperity.

Wasted generation. Warriors of a failed utopia. Two writers, two generations, two successive grim report cards on Nigeria’s stubborn resistance to the Aesculapian functions of literature. My generation should have taken a hint. We should have remembered the tale of the wise tortoise. The tortoise arrived at the entrance of the lion’s cave, noticed that all the paw prints of the animals who had gone to pay a condolence visit to the sick king of the jungle were going inside and none was coming out, and took a life-saving hint. The tortoise did not enter the cave. My generation did. We entered the cave of national envisioning because that is what literature commands. I mentioned Mari Vargas Llosa’s essay earlier. The crux of his submission in that essay comes down to this statement: “nobody who is satisfied can write.” That is Vargas Llosa’s one-sentence definition of the creative vocation. Literature is a permanent dissatisfaction with one’s condition, one’s environment, one’s society, one’s community. It is out of the cauldron of that dissatisfaction that literature dares to imagine differently. Art imagines out of a deontology of dissatisfaction. Ask John Lennon.

My generation entered that cave, because we were dissatisfied. Just as Soyinka and his foundational quartet were dissatisfied. Just as Femi Osofisan and his warriors of a failed utopia were dissatisfied. To my knowledge, no member of my generation has ever announced our report card the way Soyinka and Osofisan made definitive pronouncements on their respective generations. It could be because our story, our entanglements or lack thereof with project nationhood, is still unfolding. If we won’t make that call, if we won’t make that pronouncement, there are new kids on Nigeria’s literary block. They have been rocking the Nigerian, African, and global literary worlds. These new kids on the block – more on them later – would make the call for my generation. They are that irreverent because they are good at what they do. They would announce the report card of generation in terms of literary accomplishment and in terms of what we did or did not do with the task of literature and nation.

The novelist and poet, Richard Ali, is a one of the new kids on the block. I love Richard Ali. Not in a way that will guarantee me a14-year prison term in Kirikiri. Richard Ali is what you would call my protégé. That is the sense in which I love him. But I am not afraid to say this: God soda Richard Ali’s mouth! It was on Richard Ali’s Facebook Wall that I first chanced upon a thread in which his generation was passing judgment on mine! Their judgment was harsh and unforgiving. Whereas Soyinka and Osofisan had described two generations of wasted or failed warriors in search of a failed Nigerian utopia, Richard Ali and his fellow coroners did a post-mortem on my generation and simply placed a question mark to indicate absence and emptiness where we had been or ought to be. Where are they? What happened to this generation, Richard Ali queried. I dare not tell you the discussion that ensued among members of Richard’s generation as they took their koboko and went after us. Trust Deji Toye not to carry last in such a venture.

Nigeria happened to my generation. Incidentally, a poem I wrote about haemorrhage, about Nigeria bleeding us to Euro-America, included in my collection, The Wayfarer and Other Poems, was what prompted Richard Ali’s reflection on my generation. We did not set out to be exiles. We did not set out to be the Andrew generation whose space is now occupied by Richard Ali’s question mark. In 1988, Harry Garuba edited a volume of poetry whose significance remains unsurpassed in the annals of Nigerian letters as far as I am concerned. Voices from the Fringe did for Nigerian letters what Leopold Sedar Senghor’s An Anthology of New Negro and Malagasy Poetry did for Negritude poetry back in 1948. Senghor’s anthology announced the birth of Negritude poetry, Garuba’s screamed the arrival of a new generation of Nigerian writers. The critic, Chris Dunton, and yours truly spent much of the 1990s and early 2000s theorizing these new creative effervescence as the handiwork of those we labelled Nigeria’s third generation writers.

This generation did not remain long on the fringe. By the early 1990s, they were the only news in Nigerian literature. Today, those of us who move in Euro-American circuitries of knowledge production on African literatures often marvel at the sort of literary history that is always constructed for Nigeria abroad. You’d think that Nigerian literature went to sleep after the Osofisan generation concluded that they were warriors of a failed utopia and roared back to life only in the 2000s when Helon Habila, Chimamanda Adichie, Chris Abani, Helen Oyeyemi, Sefi Atta, Chika Unigwe, E.C Osondu, Uwem Akpan, Biyi Bandele, and Teju Cole came to global attention. Viewed from the global north, it is as if the literary effervescence of the late 1980s to the 1990s never happened.

Yet, the foundation of whatever is happening today in Nigerian letters can be traced to the renewal of creative juices and energies by the generation of Remi Raji, Wumi Raji, Sola Osofisan, Uche Nduka, Olu Oguibe, Obi Nwakanma, Okey Ndibe, Obi Iwuanyanwu, Obu Udeozor, Uzor Maxim Uzoatu, Maik Nwosu, Chiedu Ezeanah, Esiaba Irobi, Ogaga Ifowodo, Toyin Adewale, Omowumi Segun, Nike Adesuyi, Lola Shoneyin, Unoma Azuah, Promise Okekwe, Angela Nwosu, Nduka Otiono, Akin Adesokan, Ike Okonta, Nehru Odeh, Ebereonwu, Eddie Ayo Ojo, Carlos Idzia Ahmed, Emman Shehu, Okome Onookome, and Toni Kan. Obviously, you know that this is a ridiculously short list. I cannot possibly mention all the writers who transformed the Lagos-Ibadan axis and the Nsukka axis into the two dominant literary hubs in Africa in those heady days.

The haemorrhage did happen. Afam Akeh, Olu Oguibe, Uche Nduka, Sola Osofisan, Godwin Amatoritsero Ede, Okey DSCF4261Ndibe, Biyi Bandele started the early trickle towards Europe. Drip, drip, drip and a generational exodus towards Euro-America had become the defining feature of the generation by the end of the 1990s. Is it really true that exile and flight are the only legacy of this generation? I think that exile, flight, absence, and Richard Ali’s question mark tell less than half the story of this generation. We must remember that majority of the members of a generation that has come to be defined by flight and departure did not in fact leave Nigeria.

Toni Kan has always been here. Remi Raji, Uzor Maxim Uzoatu, Chiedu Ezeanah, Denja Abdullahi, Emman Shehu, David Diai, Henry Akubuiro, Omowumi Segun, Toyin Adewale, Nike Adesuyi, Chux Ohai, Jude Dibia, Ike Oguine, Dulue Mbachu, and many prominent members of the third generation never left. Lola Shoneyin, Ogaga Ifowodo, Chuma Nwokolo, and Victor Ehikhamenor (many don’t know that he authored Sordid Rituals, a volume of poetry) are all back. Ebereonwu and Austyn Njoku never left till they left. To the extent that it is possible to speak of a renewal of literary modes imagining a new Nigeria beyond the ruination of military rape; to the extent that it is possible to speak of an aesthetic split with previous generations, one has to credit the third generation with such spectres of literary renaissance. My generation produced the first truly new literature which imagined the Nigerian nation in a new way – marking a rupture with the practices and antecedents of previous generation.

Using mainly the poetry of Emman Shehu, Harry Garuba has described the aesthetic departure of the third generation from the practices of preceding generations in terms of a decentering of the mytho-ritualistic bases from which the first two generations imagined project nationhood. Here, nobody is going to make Ogun or any of the weird characters in A Dance of the Forests the organizing principle of an imagined nationhood; nobody is going to invoke the matricial or nativist essence of mother Idoto as a pathway to personal and national becoming; nobody is going to expect a new Nigerian nation to say yes so that her Chi may echo yes in return.

Even in the context of SAP and military despotism, the evacuation of the mytho-ritualistic centre as the basis of engaging and imagining project nationhood led to textual adventurism and thematic daring on a scale previously absent from the Nigerian imagination. Nigeria could now be imagined as a postmodern force-field of play in which other emotions, other psychologies, other realities beyond the admonitions of history and culture could be summoned to feed the psychic will and desire of the patriotic self for anchorage in a hostile national space. Consider the difference in the use of laughter as a motif in the poetry of Niyi Osundare and Remi Raji. Osundare’s laughter is bitter, the sort of ironic laughter which is said to be worse than crying in Yoruba lore. The reality of the homeland that Osundare is engaging calls precisely for such a deployment of laughter. Laughter in Remi Raji’s poetry does not serve the purpose of lamentation. It is indicative of the poet’s ability to find spaces of love for a scorched and scorching homeland.

But Remi Raji is not alone. Freedom from the mytho-ritualistic imperative is what accounts for one of the most powerful enactments of patriotic attachment to fatherland in Nigerian poetry. Who could have thought that this could happen outside of a cultural-nationalist praxis involving the salute of a mytho-ritualistic source? But Olu Oguibe pulled it off. “I am bound to this land by blood” announces the poet persona of his great poem of the same title with considerable gusto. And with this anthem-poem – arguably the most famous poem of my generation – inaugurated what you could call a poetics of love as the predominant ritual of relating to fatherland in Nigerian letters. In previous traditions, love took the indirect route of admonition, reproach, and chastisement for the errors of the rendering; chastisement for the roads not taken. With my generation, a poetics of boundless love was unleashed.

In fact, if you take a look at their collections in the 1990s, there is hardly any that doesn’t contain a section of love poems. We know, since Pablo Neruda and Leopold Sedar Senghor, that love poems addressed to named or unnamed women aren’t always what they seem to be on the surface. We know that the body of the named woman or unnamed woman is often a double entendre unto which is grafted an idea of the fatherland, Chile in the case of Neruda, Senegal in the case of Senghor. Study the love poems of Ogaga Ifowodo, Remi Raji, Nduka Otiono, Toyin Adewale, Unoma Azuah, and you will see Nigeria the fatherland grinning at you beyond the silhouette of the male or female partner who is the ostensible addressee of each poem. Those who still pay attention to the poetry of the 1990s at all – remember I told you that they have been silenced as a corpus; Lola Shoneyin is remembered today as the author of Baba Segi, nobody remembers So All the Time I was Sitting on an Egg; most people will tell you the title of Unoma Azuah’s novels, few will remember the title of her poetry collection – focus all their critical energies on the naked denunciation of military rule.

There is one more thing that Nigeria did in terms of imagining Nigeria which I believe has come to characterize the textualities and identity politics of the young writers I believe have been referred to as post-centenary writers by the conveners of this conference. I have obviously taken the liberty to expand the brief of our discussion so that we do not reduce newness to any generation. Every generation had ways of imagining Nigerian newness, of imagining Nigeria newly. My generation screamed that Nigeria can be loved beyond reproach because we a rebound to her by blood. But we also screamed that love for her must never imply limiting our creative energies and imagination to chronicling and narrativizing her. We found ways to extend her into the world in a postmodern actuation of the transnational imperative. believe have been referred to as post-centenary writers by

Harry Garuba opines that the extension of Nigeria as a self into the self of the global and the transnational begins in the poetry of Emman Shehu. I think a similar claim can be made for Uche Nduka. After the chronicle of the life of my generation that he offered in the cinematic clip strategy ofChiaroscuro, it is safe to say that Uche went on to embrace the world, fashioning a poetics unmoored in immediately localizable national anchors. The embrace of the world. The transnational imagination. The Afropolitan persona. If you move beyond what Uche Nduka has been writing and publishing after Chiaroscuro – consider his poem, “Aquacade in Amsterdam”; if you move beyond the Toronto peregrinations of the poet persona in Amatoritsero Ede’s “Globetrotter”, if you move beyond the imaginative transnational crossings of Chris Abani’s Elvis in Graceland, if you move beyond Sarah Ladipo Manyika’s attempt to reproduce the London errantry of earlier generations in In Dependence, you encounter a new generation that must grapple with the identity politics of Afropolitanism and the attendant contradictions of trying to imagine a new Nigeria in an existential context which daily reminds them that the world is now their playground.

Not so long ago, when I was cutting my poetic teeth and doing the usual runs in the writing confraternities of Ibadan and Lagos, I had to rely on the good offices of the British Council or the Alliance Française to encounter the world infrequently. I had a Nigeria that could be symbolically sealed off and made exclusively amenable to my imagination and that of my contemporaries. This is not possible for Richard Ali, Tolu Ogunlesi, Paul Liam, Olisakwe Ukamaka Evelyn, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, Okwui Obu, A. Igoni Barrett, Ifedigbo Nze Sylva, Jumoke Verissimo, Chinyere Obi-Obasi, Egbosa Imasuen, Uche Peter Umez, Su’eddie Vershima Agema, Onyekachi Peter Onuoha, Rosemary Ede, Saddiq M. Dzukogi and so many other members of the new generation now animating and rocking the Nigerian literary scene.

If a hermetic national locale is not available to them, it is not because they must contend with the deracination of some of their contemporaries who have found their way into Nigeria’s literary consciousness while being basically of the global north – Helen Oyeyemi, Tope Folarin, Chibundu Onuzor, etc; it is not because any of them is carried away by the delusions of Teju Cole and Taiye Selasie whose idea of cosmopolitanism is a disavowal of the tag, African or Nigerian writer; it is not because they cannot write creative works set in Nigerian realities – kaine Agary’s Yellow Yellow, Richard Ali’s City of Memories, Sylva Ifedigbo’s The Funeral Did Not End, Isaac Attah Ogezi’s Under a Darkling Sky, it is mainly because new modes of transnational alterity prevent exclusive claims to national conversations.

The impossibility of national exclusiveness is played out daily on social media. This is not just the generation of flash fiction and what I have called twitterature elsewhere, they are a generation whose Nigerian literary conversations must engage the “Nigerianness” of Binyavanga Wainaina, Barbara Mhangami, NoViolet Bulawayo, and Christie Watson. Wole Soyinka and co had for raw material a Nigeria that was brutalized by colonialism and handed over to them; Femi Osofisan and co. had for raw material in which the lofty dreams of independence had collapsed and they went in search of utopia wielding fiery Marxism; my generation had for raw material a Nigeria sapped beyond recognition by SAP and military rape and we tried out a poetics of love on her; Pa Ikhide’s children have for raw material a borderless Nigeria whose literary axes are located not just in Ake and Port Harcourt but also in Kenya, Uganda, and other funny places from which we read the tweets and Facebook their Facebook updates.

This new reality gives them an advantage though. Never mind the complexities and fault lines of Nigeria that we love to retail, all preceding generations had a rough national referent that we could call the single story that is Nigeria, for want of a better expression. Today, the story has been atomised and scattered all over the place like broken China in the sun. That is why Chimamanda writes Half of a Yellow Sun and we encounter subtle counter stories in Musdoki and City of Memories. Those looking at Nigeria and Africa from the outside may still threaten her with the danger of a single story. The new writers imagining her from within do not run such risks. They have at their disposal not a single story or referent but multiple and fragmented stories. The dilemma we face with a generation in possession of multiple narratives of a single nation in the age of social media is this: will their stories become a thousand flowers armed with the inalienable right to bloom under the sun or will their stories be Babel?

African Literary Babel. Courtesy: Su'eddie Vershima Agema and Servio Gbadamosi

Nigerian Literary Babel. Courtesy: Su’eddie Vershima Agema and Servio Gbadamosi

Being keynote speech presented by Professor Pius Adesanmi on November 13 at the 2014 MBA International Literary Colloquium in Minna, Niger State.

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