Book Talk, Thoughts on Things

Soyinka, Achebe and the Irreverent Generation

2016 is the year Nigeria’s “irreverent generation” have taken on literary giants. Wole Soyinka has been infuriated and heckled by social media critics over his vow to tear up his American Green Card should Donald Trump with the US elections. Chinua Achebe has had his place in the literary temple questioned and the year is closing with debates about who is a better writer between Achebe and Adichie.

Soyinka, Achebe. In the Nigerian and African literary arenas, these names have been sacrosanct, revered and ascribed the status of demigods. This is no doubt as a result of their hardwork which has placed Nigeria and Africa in global literary reckoning. One is a Nobel laureate. The other should have been. (After all, Bob Dylan did get it)

But in the last few weeks of 2016, there has been an increasing irreverence, if one may use that word, in the veneration of these literary deities. It started with Soyinka, not for his literature but for something as banal as comments he made vowing to tear up his American Green Card should Donald Trump win the US elections. Mr. Trump won and young Nigerians on social media were eager to see Soyinka keep his words. He dallied. The consequence was that Soyinka has been heckled by hordes of what he himself, in his characteristic candour, described as “imbecile and morons.”

What was shocking about this episode was that some of these Nigerians on social media, mostly young people, some not even born when Soyinka won his Nobel in 1986, questioned Soyinka’s literary credentials. They queried if he won the Nobel for his literary prowess or for his political activism. It goes without saying that Soyinka isn’t as widely read amongst this generation, and perhaps among many Nigerians who have come to revere the myth that Soyinka has become but have been in awe of his political heroism. And when that one thing they have venerated him for, if they ever have, is questioned by his refusal to tear up his Green Card, the issue of his literary merit will come up naturally.

“I should not be exiting the United States but Nigeria because the people on behalf of whom one has struggled all one’s life can be so slavish in mentality as to start querying the right of their champion to free speech,” an angry Soyinka said.

The fact that these young people managed to infuriate a man in his 80s, who has played a huge role in shaping the history and perception of Nigeria in the world is to say the least unfortunate, that they have managed to drag him to the public arena to showcase this infuriation is something that takes some guts, not of the good kind.

And if Achebe thought by dying he had escaped the clawing fingers of this irreverent generation, he might have another think coming. Since he is not as celebrated for his activism as Soyinka has been, the one thing that has given him credit across generations (since ‘Things Fall Apart’ was published in 1958), his literary integrity has been splayed by the road side and the mortals of social media have taken pot shots at it.

Most people think ‘Things Fall Apart’ is the next best thing after the holy books, and questioning the ‘masterpieceness’ of the work is akin to blasphemy in the literary realm, those with contrary opinion about the work have been forced underground, to launch isolated verbal attacks in small private conversations amongst trusted friends, where they can express their bafflement at the greatness of the book. Any public discourse claiming that TFA is not as great a book as is being projected is met with a virtual mob justice, as the writer Onyeka Nwelue, discovered. In an interview with Premium Times he had said, “I think ‘Things Fall Apart’ should be buried and never made to resurrect.

“If you’ve read ‘Things Fall Apart’ and have read what young people write these days… you would know that Achebe’s writing of Things Fall Apart at that age was not intelligent; he was not exposed.”

Naturally, for questioning the merits of a literary deity, Onyeka unwittingly submitted himself to a barrage of insults and his own credentials as a writer were questioned in return. Not to mention the many unprintables he was called.

Of recent, social media has been awash with discussions over comparisons being made between Achebe and the writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The bases for this comparison are as baffling as the comparison itself. That Adichie might be a better writer than Achebe should not even be the subject of intellectual engagements (this does not preclude readers’ rights to preferences). It is almost as if saying mayonnaise is better than butter. The two are infinitely not the same. The parameters for comparison between Achebe and Adichie simply do not exist. It was Plato after all who said that the bases for any disagreement and comparison should be the parameters.

There are, of course, no bases to say that Achebe’s literary credentials should not be weighed and measured, (that is what critics are devoted to doing and something readers are entitled to do) but weighing it against the works of another writer like Adichie is inherently unfair on both writers.

Is Achebe the greatest writer ever? Is ‘Things Fall Apart’ the best book ever written by an African? These questions are inherently faulty because there is no universal parameter to adjudicate and determine an answer to them.

Incidentally, Achebe himself did not necessarily think that ‘Things Fall Apart’ was his best work. He is on record as favouring ‘Arrow of God’. If Achebe wrote ‘Things Fall Apart’ in 2016, I hardly think he would find a publisher. There are issues of literary aesthetics, among others, to be considered. This is in no way questioning the greatness of the book (which has almost been made sacrosanct by African and other intellectuals). But he wrote the book in the 1950s, with scant exposure, in a period where there are no precedence to fall back on.

The greatness of ‘Things Fall Apart’ therefore rests in the period it was written and in response to what it was written. Achebe might not have been exposed when he wrote that book but that is not a minus but a plus, that with the scarce exposure he had he was able to churn out something with this much staying power, a book that has influenced generations of writers and intellectuals worldwide is a testament to its glory, whether earned or ascribed (debates about the originality of the work will not be a focus of this piece).

Whereas a critical mind should never shy away from questioning the essence of the literary deities, that is after all what it means to be discerning and not be bound by dogma. We must not forget that they have suffered to earn their place in the sun, among the oracles. There are ways to critically engage with them and their works with some decorum. Some comparisons have no place in the arena of the discerning.

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‘Why I deliberately worked violence into my novel’

EE Sule, also known in the academic circles as Sule Emmanuel Egya is the award winning author of Sterile Sky, (Heinemann African Writers Series, 2012) his debut novel which centres around a boy Murtala and his family as the city of Kano descends into religious violence in the early 1990s. The book won the 2013 Commonwealth Book Prize for Africa Region, in the last year the prize was awarded. In this engaging interview, the academic, short story writer and poet took time off his duties at IBB University Lapai where he teaches to talk about what influenced his literary choices, reality and fiction in first novels, the place of creative writing in the academia, style, art and causes and the state of literature in Nigeria. A must read. Enjoy!

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Your book ‘Sterile Sky’ is about religious violence. In portraying violence in your novel, did you debate about just how much of this violence you wanted to portray? Were you conscious of the impact this would have on readers?

Violence is one thing that powerfully grips my imagination. I have been, all my life, awed or scandalised by human capacity to unleash violence. Imagine if humans would divert all the energies, all the time, all the facilities, they put into making and sustaining violence into something more constructive, how the world would have been much better. My perception of violence has been there from childhood, from the point of innocence, having witnessed a lot of it as a child. You can imagine the impact that would have.

‘Sterile Sky’ is a token, so to say, of that perception. In the novel, I wanted a quantity of violence that would sting the reader, challenge her complacency, cause her nausea. So I consciously worked violence into the novel at different level: personal, familial, societal, national, even international. But I had hoped, and still hope, that the impact it would have on the reader would be such that it would not undermine the force of my thesis, namely that humans on earth are chained by violence and would remain so until there is the courage and the will to change the world order. Most of our traditions, religions, ideologies, education, etc are founded on systems of violence. And we will continue to live with it for a long time.

Speaking about religion, it is important in the novel, as we see through the life of Murtala’s mother and in the sectarian violence it unleashes, but there are always points of convergence between the faiths. Was Imatum’s relation with her Muslim lover an attempt to portray the other side to the conflagration?

That is the point. Imatum is the kind of character I would refer to as an improviser, someone willing to embark on mobility out of the enclosure of the tradition; that is, the will, the agency, to want to break out of the box, to fulfil a dissident desire. It is only with such characters that religion could be properly put in place. Perhaps one of the points I try to make in the novel is that staging religion is one of the problems we have. Religion, in my view, is not to be staged, not to be thingified, not to be made so ostentatious that it overwhelms simple reasoning. I am also interested in pointing out the contradiction that a society that is the most religious (something that should suggest peaceful co-existence) is the most violent.

Interesting. Murtala dreams of the people he knows who have been killed like his brother and his classmates, who were also the closest persons to him. Was this a ploy to explore the issues of trauma in your novel? Do you think trauma has not been addressed enough in literature?

Trauma is there, is always there, in creative works or artistic production. In point of fact, imaginative expression, for quite many people, is a way of expending traumatic feelings, what Jeffrey Alexander, a social trauma theorist, calls a “trauma process”. Writing Sterile Sky was a way of working myself through a trauma process, purging myself, as it were, of the nightmarish trauma bottled up in me. I think every writer, in each imaginative piece, goes through a similar experience. What is grossly insufficient, in my thinking, is literary scholarship that focuses on analyses shaped by theories of trauma. As literary scholars, we need to construct theoretical frameworks based on the possibilities of not just representing trauma in literature but also seeing trauma as an instrument of resistance.

By representing my trauma in writing, for instance, I could be constructing resistance against the very condition of possibility for that trauma. Trauma theories in literature are relatively new; it is an area we expect African literary scholars to explore given the traumatic conditions backgrounding most of our imaginative writings.

Talking about a writer investing himself in his work, Sterile Sky is somewhat autobiographical because you and your family have lived through sectarian violence in Kano. How difficult was it for you to document these things?

On the one hand, it was not really difficult for me because I seemed to have had something like a ready-made material for fiction; on the other hand, I had to struggle to strike a balance between fiction and autobiography. That is to say, I had to constantly remind myself that I was writing a novel, not an autobiography. This, itself, is difficult. And I can’t say what I have made of it; I think the readers would give a better opinion.

It is your first novel. Do you think that the common assumption that first novels tend to be autobiographical holds true?

I think so. I also think that all novels, all imaginative works, are – forget authors’ pretences – autobiographical. There is an element of autobiography in everything a writer produces. As a matter of fact, there is just a thin demarcation, easily blurred, between fiction and non-fiction so that all narratives claiming to be non-fiction have something of fiction in them, and vice versa. Writing is writing, necessarily subjected to tropological figuration, and as such the language of any writing has a way of fictionalising the fact of the writing.

Incidentally, your novel ‘Sterile Sky’ was the last book to win the Commonwealth Writers’s Book Prize in 2013. How do you feel about that? Are you sorry to see that the prize is no longer being awarded?

Oh yes, Abubakar. I’m quite sorry about it. When I was told in Bristol, UK, that the prize was packing up, I felt really sad. It was such a prestigious prize that didn’t have to sink like that; it could have been rescued.

Did winning the prize feel like a validation, especially having had your work rejected by publishers in Nigeria?

Precisely. I had even told myself that if I didn’t get that kind of validation – I mean if no institution, no individuals recognised the book, I would give up writing fiction. Fiction, for me, is a very difficult thing to produce, and one shouldn’t take all that trouble only to produce what is not worthwhile.

It has been years since the publication of your debut novel. What has EE Sule been cooking in the intervening period?

Well, well, well. You know, it’s not easy being a scholar and a writer at the same time. Scholarship is as demanding as literary writing. So I often found myself jealously pulled at both ends. But I have made the best of that jealousy. For instance, any time scholarship takes me out of this country, I ensure that I use some of the time to concentrate on writing fiction, and vice versa. So, I have good news for you. There are three of my works with publishers now: my second novel, a literary biography of Niyi Osundare, and a critical book on Nigerian literature.  So, you see, a lot has been cooking.

That is good news indeed. When are these likely to be available to the public?

I hope three of them would be out in the first half of next year.

As an academic and a writer, should creative writing be offered as a degree course in Nigerian universities?

It should. It definitely should. And I am working on curriculums that I would present to my university for programmes leading to the award of postgraduate diploma and a master’s degree in creative writing. English departments in Nigerian academic system have been, hitherto, reluctant to grant what you might call a degree status to creative writing because some traditional scholars (traditional in their quaint way of thinking) have undermined the skills of creativity. Blessed with great writers and cultural artists, Nigeria needs to give creative writing a prime place in our education system.

As a writer and a critic, what would you say is behind the resurgence in Nigerian literature that we are witnessing?

A number of factors. The relative democratic freedom we are having, against the decades of military despotism that nearly deadened creativity in the past, is one factor that must be reckoned with. Related to that is the dispersal, exilic and migration phase necessitating what today you may see as the diasporisation of Nigerian literature. Not unrelated to that, of course, is the publishing and publicity capital, prizes and all, in the West that has triggered the resurgence.

The Caine Prize, for instance, has a powerful influence on emerging voices in Nigeria, nay African literature. But that is one part of the story. The other part is that the Western capital almost controls the dominant taste of our literary and cultural production in such a way that it seems to me our literature is being colonised, or recolonised, when it is supposed to be an instrument for fighting imperialism.  How else do you explain the phenomenon that most of our best writers are cuddled in the comfort of the West, calibrated as Western commodities that must satisfy the desire of the West?

In comparing the works of the present generation of writers and the previous generations, in what areas do you see a convergence and in which do you see a divergence? Is it in the deployment of language or thematic concerns?

In both language and thematic concerns. As a social practice, literature flows with the tides, interacting and inter-animating other social practices that are core to the chemistry of the society. The past generation had some dominant concerns that this generation does not have. Globalisation, for instance, has a huge impact on both the style and the thematics of the present generation. As I said earlier, the shape our literature takes today is mostly determined by forces from the West. Anyway, you could argue that literature in European languages in Africa has always been a thing of the West. But there was a time in the history of our literature that there was a conscious, collective effort to valorise African tradition-based aesthetics.

Do you sometimes feel that writers sacrifice language and aesthetic in order to champion a social cause in their works? Do you think this is a particular African concern that literature must champion social causes in order to have any relevance?

Championing a social cause, itself, does not imply that language and aesthetics have to be undermined, sacrificed. Most great writers (Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Nadine Godimer, Wole Soyinka, Salman Rushdie, Ben Okri) all have a social cause, are socially relevant, do actually pursue goals aimed at improving the condition of humanity in their works, in their lives. And yet their works are distinguished by the fire of their language and aesthetics. The point is that a piece of writing is not literature without a solid literary language. So, those who are incapable of literary language or enchanting aesthetics are simply not cut out for creative writing. Most times, such people explain away their incompetence by saying they are more concerned about the message, the cause, than the language. I believe that literature cannot escape championing a cause; that is to say, all literature is political, but the writer’s chief preoccupation is to use literary language to veil the politicalness of her writing. This is what makes a great writer.

 

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