Tanure Ojaide's Expose Infects Abuja Writers

Source: TUNJI AJIBADE - thewillnigeria.com
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The May edition of the regular Guest Writer Session of Abuja writers’ Forum (AWF) that featured Professor Tanure Ojaide was one event where the brotherhood of writers came to the fore as they struck an emphatic tone about the challenges confronting them as people of the pen. In this report, TUNJI AJIBADE, a Consultant Writer, posits that, with increasing consensus among this breed on the need to continue to push until the rich potentials of the Nigerian writer is fully realized, the nation’s literature has a bright future.

The intensity of the discussions had the organizers nodding with satisfaction. It was because the event had writers and enthusiasts dissecting issues that would move them forward in the only trade they know - writing. The venue was the popular Pen and Pages Bookstores, Adetokunbo Ademola Street, Wuse II, Abuja. And the date was May 29, 2010. Having people that arrived the venue long before the 4 pm time was good enough, seeing the new-look Pen and Pages Bookstores was an exciting addition. The management had turned the place upside down, and right side up, since the April edition of the Guest Writer Session took place.

The venue makes the event, they say, but the man who drew many to himself was worth more than both, on that occasion. He was Professor Tanure Ojaide (Frank Porter Graham Distinguished Professor of Africana Studies at The University of North Carolina at Charlotte, USA), a prolific poet with over fifteen poetry collections. The participants would later make their own assessment of him when he stepped on stage. But before he did, the event showcased its accompaniments. Ms Judith Rapu, a lawyer and writer, played the role of the Master of Ceremony. Her first guest was a sax man, Sunny Sax, who played soulful tunes that included 'Ojumo Ti mo' and 'Baba Yee.' An artist, Mefo Emuejeraye, took the audience through a mini-exhibition with works such as 'Royal Dancer', Pleasant Path, and The Nomads. Mefo, who has a studio at Arts and CraftVillage, Abuja, specializes in oil, acrylic, water colour and mix media mostly on canvass. His painting, The Nomads, elicited question on why paintings that reflect rural Africa tend to have husbands in front while the wives come behind them. Many reasons were given but Elnathan John, a poet, offered one that got everyone reeling with laughter. He had asked a man, knowledgeable in the matter, the same question in the past. And the response? The wife of a nomad walks behind her husband in case wind troubles her wrapper unnecessarily, to the latter’s discomfiture.

The performance poet sensation, Dekmankind, did 'Fresh Causalities', a poem from Ojaide’s collection, 'Delta Blues and Home Songs.' And it was at that point Ojaide was invited to take the ‘hot seat.’ But he wouldn’t sit. His books did, and after he lay them on his chair, he stood erect to address his audience, among whom were his former students, colleagues and other acquaintances from across the nation, including some from the University of Maiduguri where he was once a lecturer. "I will try to read something from each of my books," he announced, taking one from his pile of poetry collections. That first book was Hatching of a Cockerel, and the first poem he read was also the first in the book – Invocation. The invoked was Aridon, Urhobo people’s god of memory and performance.

He read 'A Question of wholeness' from the book titled, In The Kingdom of Songs. 'After visiting the Alhambra' came from the same book, and it was followed by 'American wonder' from the book titled, In the House of Words. This poem had the audience singing the refrain of the same title as the author read through the lines that talked of the stages in a magician’s performance in some local setting. ‘Remembering’ (for Ezekiel) was taken from the book, The Tale of the Harmattan. The author wrote it after he returned from Jerusalem where he had premonition that something was wrong back at home. He returned to discover that his close friend was dead. 'Tale of the Harmattan' was from the book with the same title. Other poems the guest writer read included, 'Kaima bridge', 'I no go sidon look' which ended on a note of: "I go do something o." He also read 'In Durban, Kwazulu, Natal'; and 'Waiting' – all of which were from an upcoming collection.

Notable was the poem, 'Where everybody is king' (from The Fate of Vultures). It was a satire about, Agbahra, the author’s paternal grandmother’s hometown.  The saying among Uhrobo is that every indigene of Agbahra is a king. "My grandmother had always encouraged me to go and visit the town for the simple reason of my being a prince from there. I visited some years ago, and you can assess what my view of the place was from this poem," he said before he intoned: "Come to Agbahra where everybody is king and no one bows to the other…In Agbarha nobody wakes to work; everybody washes his mouth with gin and sits at home on a floor-mat of a throne. Are you surprised at Kwashiorkor princes and princesses, prostitute queens and beggar kings?"  The author then added, to loud laughter from his audience: "The people of Agharha have been looking for me ever since I wrote the poem."  

The Question and Answer (Q&A) time brought to the fore something about Ojaide. To an observation, later on, by a participant that the issues raised were intense, and that the session left a note of optimism on the mind of everyone present, another participant observed that "the guest writer himself had ably engaged, as well as carried both the discussion and the discussants along. But it was not only at the reading that Ojaide demonstrated this. He did earlier on during the writing workshop where he had focused on poetry, and had taught six areas he said a poet should take note of when he writes. These are: the poetic experience; the metaphor; Imagery, figurative language and figures of speech. Others were, Rhythm, musicality and figures of sounds, as well as, architecture of poetry.

He also enumerated some poetry writing tips which he stated as: Let the poem lead you, don’t lead the poem; Capture and write about a specific or single poetic experience (write about your slice of life, and avoid writing on things such as life, death etc on a general note); Avoid tired words or antiquated language; Use concise language and obey the rule of internal logic; Let the content condition the form; Allow for aesthetic pleasure i.e. entertain the reader even as your theme has intellectual bent to it; Look for varieties in themes and forms; Be aware of the poetic tradition in which you write.  The last tip generated debate as some among the workshop participants wondered why Ojaide’s generation talked so much about a tradition left by the likes of Wole Soyinka and other poets of African origin. The matter went further than this, but the manner Ojaide engaged the participants, responded and treated the issues raised both at the workshop and at the reading later in the day made an attendee stand up to say to him: "You are a lecturer." And that, to a round of clapping.

Jide Zubeiru Attah, a theater practitioner, was the first to comment during the Q&A time. "A large body of your works is poetry, why did you go into prose?" he asked, referring to Ojaide’s latest and widely acclaimed prose friction - "The Activist." This book is about the Niger-Delta, and of it the author said, "many people have been looking for copies of the book, and they couldn’t get it." His response to Attah’s question was short and straight: "There are some things one can better express in prose than in poetry. In fiction, I was able to make characters say certain things that may be difficult to express in poetry." Another participant pointed out that the classical poetry (meaning essentially works of English poets) tend to endure more that the current free flow style, and as such asked the guest writer:  "Why do you follow the current trend, and write in free flow style?"

This was the kind of question that generated intense discussion, and it was in such that Ojaide fully showed himself a lecturer, educating as well as sensitizing the participants on diverse issues ranging from style of writing, to publishing. To the unattended comment that older writers wanted to limit new writers to a tradition made earlier on, Ojaide’s response, only a bit of his engaging reasoning, was: "You may not agree with your father, but you have to respect your father. Our own generation of poets respect those ahead of us such as the Soyinkas, yet we follow our own paths, (but) with the consciousness of an African tradition in which we are rooted." Ojaide insisted that even when a poet from Africa denies that there is an African tradition in poetry writing, he still cannot lay claim to a European or American poetry tradition because he is none of those. "Tell me, will an European writer denies he is one, or will an American poet claim he is an African poet?" Where one comes from as a writer, he further stated, places a tag on him. And that, in spite of whatever style or tradition he says he writes in. "In Africa, the issues we grapple with are not the same with those of the Europeans or the Americans. I am a proud African. And what we celebrate about Africa is the cultural tradition," he said, adding that the cultural environment of a writer is a reality he can never successfully deny. Many in the audience agreed with him. But there was more discussion, and without surprise, much of it was about publishing.

"What have been your challenges when you publish your books?" That question caught the most interest; it got every writer in the house on the edge of their seats as they spoke with passion about an aspect of writing that is so crucial to their survival as a breed. The issue here was about getting publishers in Nigeria interested in their work. Even the few publishers that still do some serious publishing the traditional way received knocks. "They don’t take raw talents here," a participant argued, "they mostly take successful works that were already published overseas, and do the Nigerian edition." Ojaide was not comfortable about vanity or self-publishing though. Part of his recommended solution was: "Write, and when your work wins a few of the writing contests that are there across the nation, publishers (in Nigeria) will be forced to come after you." That might have sounded good to writers who have won or hope to win writing contests. But the truth is: it’s not everyone who will win major literary contests within a given generation. Ojaide had words for those in this category. On being prompted by Dr Emman Usman Shehu, AWF president, Ojaide admitted that he intended to do more in the field of writing, especially where it concerns creating opportunities for Nigerian writers in the area of publishing. In the meantime, he promised to direct attention of intending authors to some good publishers even on the African continent. A loud round of clapping greeted that. More of this discussion went on and in the end, there was that air of satisfaction among writers present that something was being done about a perennial problem that is much talked about, but is yet to be fully resolved.

"When will African produce another Nobel laureate in literature?" was a question that took everyone by surprise. But not Ojaide, the lecturer. And the confidence, as well as the optimism with which he answered it and some other questions, was infectious too – making everyone’s day.  In response to the question, first, he mentioned names of Nigerian writers who are doing well at the moment, and then others across the continent. "I foresee another Nobel laureate in three to five years from his time," he predicted, concluding a day that began with a writing workshop, and ended with reading and book signing. The June edition of AWF’s Guest Writer Session will take place on June 26.

Ajibade, a Consultant Writer, lives in Abuja. email: [email protected]