Udenta O. Udenta: I Am Back From Literary Hibernation With 21 Books
When Comrade Udenta O Udenta was forced to abandon his career at Abia State University Uturu in 1998 as a senior research fellow with the Centre for Igbo Studies and a senior lecturer in the School of Humanities on account of his fifth detention by the late General Sani Abacha’s military junta, little did he realise that his divorce from his beloved literature will last for over two decades. He had published Revolutionary Aesthetics and the African Literary Process in 1993, to global acclaim as the work was to steadily grow in stature to become one of the ground-breaking canons of African literary scholarship.
In the intervening years, he was actively involved with pro-democracy and human rights activism with the Eastern Mandate Union (EMU) and the National Democratic Coalition (NADECO), as well as the founding National Secretary of Alliance for Democracy (AD) and an influential public intellectual and public space advocate.
Now, he has staged an intellectual comeback with the release of 21 books he either wrote or edited — products of intense and rigorous researches that had gone on undetected under the radar since 2006. Apart from a four-volume collected works written by his late father, Chief B I Udenta, which he edited and introduced, others include a fully refurbished and massively expanded second edition of Revolutionary Aesthetics and the African Literary Process: Art, Ideology and Social Commitment in African Poetry; and Heroism and Critical Consciousness in African Literature (originally published as Ideological Sanction and Social Action in African Literature).
There are also his heavily revised late 1990s manuscript, a highly stimulating philosophical text, a collection of essays on democratic process, governance, peace practice and culture, his intellectual biography, collected poems, two standout theoretical works on Nigerian literature, and his intriguing six-volume collected boyhood works comprising full length novels, short stories, poetry collections, drama sketches, philosophical musings and moral commentaries that he incredibly wrote between 13 and 15 years. He spoke to a select group of literary editors at his Stoneheart Lodge II residence, Kpaduma Hills, Abuja, on the ground-breaking release of 21 books.
GREGORY AUSTIN NWAKUNOR was there.
At last, you have completed the 21-book project of yours. What went into this project and how relieved are you?
This kind of questions provokes a flow of thought and its cessation as well. Each question is comprised within a certain history, and in that history, a genealogical structure. Did I set out to write and publish 21 books as an organic intellectual and artistic endeavour? No! Did I end up publishing 21 books all of which will be publicly presented at the same time? Yes! Yet, it is in the history of the project that its essence and structure are unconcealed. In the Guide to the 21-Book Project , which I produced to situate my effort in the context of intellectual production and the genealogy of knowledge, I determined four streams of thought, and a fifth stream, which answers to the question of my being relieved by accomplishing what I did. Stream one defines my six-volume boyhood textual productions of aesthetic, moral and philosophical materials written between 1977 and 1979 when I was in high school. I wrote them between ages 13 and 14 plus. The texts are extant and are available for forensic examination in terms of the presence of editorial contamination of a boyhood imagination. Stream two contains my intellectual and scholarly productions written between 1986 and 2018. While a few, like Revolutionary Aesthetics and the African Literary Process and Art, Ideology and Social Commitment in African Poetry, had been previously published in the 1990s — though now extensively revised —there are fresh fruits like Art, Society and Identity in African Literature, Autonomy of Values and Crisis of Theory in Contemporary Nigerian Literature that are available for plucking. Stream three is all about democracy, peace practice, cultural studies and the linear temporality but sometimes ruptured flow of my movement from the site of intellectual conscience to the domain of social practice. The fourth stream contains my father’s works written from the late 1950s to the early 1990s. This, in essence, speaks to what went into the project but a fuller picture will emerge if you add a well staffed office, five secretaries working at various times, a complete V-Sat internet connection that functioned non-stop for many years and downloads that yielded over one hundred book length research materials over an eight-year research period and several trips to Blackwell’s and Foyles bookstores.
Well, regarding the question of my being relieved with the completion of the 21-book project; sure I am, especially in the sense of making an intellectual, creative and cultural statement. However, the historic import of this endeavour will be determined over time. Let me hasten to add that as ground-breaking as the project is, not in terms of sheer output over staggered time but in comprising the effort in a three year publishing cycle, it is but the first phase in the evolution of my lifework. The fifth stream of works in the guide to the project is actually devoted to ongoing researches that will culminate in the production of five books. For example, Crisis of Theory in Contemporary Nigerian Literature is premised on the construction of not only a new materialist thesis adequate for the interrogation of Nigerian aesthetic ontology but also in the theoretical production of ideological and cultural structures that undergird the concrete universal relationship between materialist dialectics and material transcendence. By violently yoking and subordinating the latter to the former, I intend to specify a periodising movement from the radicalisation of the spirit of Nigerian postcoloniality to the emergence of a national counterhegemonic consciousness in the spheres of culture, aesthetics, political production and social practice. While contemporary Nigerian literature and select Nollywood films, like The Figurine, Iyore and Ernest Obi’s Idemili, Seven Rivers and Storm, will provide the aesthetic sites of testing out this theory in volumes two and three of the study, its philosophical and intellectual inheritance is underpinned by the Hegelian influences in the works of such neo-Marxist scholars as, Slavoj Zizek, Gianni Vattimo, Santiago Zabala and Adrain Johnson as well as a deconstructive reading of the postcolonial scholarship of Edward Said, Homi Bhabha, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Aijaz Ahmed and E Juan San. Not to be forgotten too are volumes two and three of Democratic Transformation and Social Change in Nigeria; a historical account that pushes right into the inauguration of a new bourgeois political order in 1999. In this regard, my sense of being relieved can only be a momentary one, because there is still so much out there to accomplish.
The most surprising thing is the publication of the boyhood works, which consist of essays, novels, poems, drama sketches, short stories and reflections written as a schoolboy with a sense of maturity even at that age. What inspired these writings at the time you put pen to paper?
In answering your question, it may not be out of place if I speak of magical moments that defy logical reasoning being at the base of the creative process whether you are a child or an adult aesthetic producer. In this sense, it will be difficult for me to account for something that seemed to exist outside of Self, outside the control of my inner impulses; of something you create but cannot explain the meaning and context of your creation. Aesthetic productions differ from intellectual compositions in that the former is resistant to logical detachment not in terms of the ends and the means to them but in the nature of the universe under which such creations occur. In the latter, the production process is better controlled, more mastered and deliberate. So, in this context, I cannot explain every particular moment or context of inspiration, even as the works are dense with dangerous echoes of African and English writers, as well as open, unabashed borrowings from Greek mythology and the universe of African magical realism. In more material, historical, cultural and family environmental circumstances, the sources of my inspiration are fully laid out in the general introduction to the Boyhood series which appears at the beginning of each volume. I encourage readers to examine what I believe to be a stimulating account of my formative years, aesthetic influences and modes and patterns of creative productions.
Aside the boyhood works, you also reissued your father’s oeuvre comprising religious, historical and sociological books. What kind of man was your late father, and why did you decide to reissue his books?
My late father, Chief B I Udenta, was an incredible man who was born ‘posthumously’. His intellectual power was profound, scorching and deeply infectious. He tapped and sold palm wine with his elder brothers during school holidays, completed his teacher’s training programme at the famous St. Charles College, Onitsha, went on to earn his Teacher’s Grade One certificate in record time, sat and graduated with a B.Sc degree from the University of London School of Economics as an external candidate, contested for the Greater Awgu Federal House of Representatives constituency under the DPNC; the Dr K O Mbadiwe- led breakaway faction of the NCNC in 1959, wrote and published over 10 books before 1962, constructed a 12-bedroom storey building in 1963 and bought a new Volkswagen Beetle convertible same year. All these before he was 33 years of age. He was an intellectual in the purest sense of the term with an astonishing liberal disposition that defied categorisation. He was a community historiographer, wrote on African and West African history, Ancient History and English Economic and Social History, the 8th Century BC prophets, the Synoptic Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke, on physical education and English and Igbo languages. I think his inspiring history and body of intellectual productions more than justify my decision to reissue his work for appreciation by a wider, contemporary audience and readership.
In boyhood novels, like Before They Came and The Wrath of the Gods, among others, you presented bucolic narratives favoured by Achebe and Elechi Amadi. Is there a cultural explanation?
I freely admitted to have read virtually all the novels and short story collections published under the African Writers Series imprint, with Achebe’s novels top on the list of the four or five books I was to be found reading simultaneously from when I was in form three in 1977. Richer details of the influences that conditioned my boyhood creations are to be found in the general introduction to the collection, as I have already stated. But to evaluate the degree of my coherent absorption and logical rendition of the cultural, especially pre-colonial cultural, universe constructed by Achebe, John Munonye and Elechi Amadi in their novels, as a 13 year old, will be a task beyond me. I no doubt read far beyond my age –African and English novels and poetry collections, Greek mythology, philosophical texts and works on political thought and Marxist ideology, even a whole volume of Encyclopaedia Britannica, not to mention the Nick Carter series, James Hadley Chase novels, novels by Barbara Cartland, Enid Blyton, particularly the Famous Five series, Denise Robbins novels, the Macmillan Pacesetters, and the whole works of Tuesday Lobsang Rampa. However, the overabundance of the interpenetration of cultural density in those works speaks not only to my familiarity with the works of Achebe and Amadi but also my attentiveness to the fabular tales that our mother used to regale us with.
The second edition of Revolutionary Aesthetics and the African Literary Process looks bulky, compared to the first edition. Has the discourse dovetailed into the 21st Century?
Sure, the discourse has powerfully dovetailed into the 21st Century. I will not say much regarding the degree of reconstruction that went into the new, expanded text; readers will make their individual assessment about the text’s responsiveness to the contemporary aesthetic environment, as well as the discursive and narrative strategies that undergird the cultural and ideological logic and forces that drive the African literary process. What I can add, without hesitation, was the surprise that awaited me when I clicked on Google about 2006 to measure the degree of which the work was mentioned in scholarly articles — and that was over 13 years after its total abandonment and complete lack of promotion by the author after its publication — to witness an explosion of mostly positive comments about a work that was viciously attacked by conservative scholars when it initially came out. I detailed this journey to global recognition and acclaim in a long and, I believe, well researched author’s note in lieu of a preface to the second edition. That inspiring account is worth reading to ascertain its journey towards canonisation and, if anecdotal evidence is anything to go by, helped in influencing and shaping so many scholarly careers from MA and PhD researches to inspiration in writing peer reviewed and well regarded essays.
Another book with a second edition is Heroism and Critical Consciousness in African Literature, which is an offshoot of an earlier work, Ideological Sanction and Social Action in African Literature. Why the change of title?
In re-working the text for the purposes of its second edition, I felt that the original title did not fully and elegantly capture its textual spirit. The work is composed of two theoretical parts — The Positive Hero in African Literature and Critical Realism and the African Literary Process. Upon re-reading the text and incorporating new materials into it, I decided that, while the force of ideology and social action can adequately explain the sites of heroism and critical realism in African literature, the notion of heroism and critical consciousness is constructively more aligned to the progressive unfolding of the contours of historical, cultural and ideological density in the African literary process. And when I cannibalised parts of Crisis of Theory in Contemporary Nigerian Literature and incorporated it to serve as its part three, it saved me the enormous task of constructing a brand new part that responds to the aesthetic craft of the third generation writers in a work that deals extensively with the works of the first and second generation writers with the progressive evolution and dialectical development of global historical consciousness, heroic archetypes and critical practice as an awesome backdrop.
18 years have elapsed after the first edition of Art, Ideology and Social Commitment in African Poetry. How did it address the aesthetic and ideological formations of the years in between?
Art, Ideology and Social Commitment in African poetry was originally published in 1996 as a scholarly response to the socioaesthetic imperatives that undergirded the poetic constructions of African cultural producers from the colonial period to the intense historical contradictions and ideological disputations in the bi-polar universe of the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s. As in the case of Revolutionary Aesthetics and the African Literary Process, which examined prose fiction works and drama texts, the authorial ideological perspective in the work was consistently the domesticated variant of Marxist aesthetics that I conceived as revolutionary aesthetics. In preparing the work for a second edition outing, I noted three gaps that needed to be plugged: a well researched preface to the second edition that will provide more grounded insight into the work’s origin and affinity with my other scholarly works of that period, thereby giving the context of its production added breadth and perspicacity of vision; an encounter with and analysis of the poetic creations of the mid-1990s and the 21st Century in the Nigerian aesthetic domain; and addressing the postmodernist debate in South Africa’s postcolonial/postapartheid aesthetic landscape. I believe that a measure of effort went into plugging these gaps in such a way to have addressed your concern with regard to the aesthetic and ideological formations of the years in between.
Art, Society and Identity is a collection of essays on African literature presented in the 1980s and early 1990s as a scholar and afterwards. How relevant are the essays in present-day literary discourse?
Works of art are compositions that, in the words of Nietzsche, time tries its teeth in vain. I also believe that great intellectual endeavours defy their age of construction in a manner that they assume transcendent identity and force even when they are limited by the historical, cultural and ideological context of their production. This mode of reasoning explains the import of the text under query- in which I engaged in a sustained and, I dare say, intense metacritical examination of the history and circumstance of radical scholarship in African literature, and also provided textual commentary on a number of prose fiction, drama and poetry works. Of course, a new author’s note that I added to the text is nothing short of a pitiless exposition of its intellectual and historical limitations in view of broad aesthetic, historical, cultural and narrative shifts and transformations, not least being the rise of globalisation, border crossings and transmigratory and transnational paradigms, and the invasion of postmodernist and poststructuralist discursive formations in postcolonial African aesthetic sites. In recognition of these limitations and the need to ensure the relevance of the essays in present-day literary discourse, to use your term, I overhauled the entire text by utilising new, 21st Century scholarly materials in textual explication as well as recasting it in a manner that demonstrates great familiarity with and understanding of the narrative and discursive strategies of the scholarship in currency in the contemporary age. There are a few other surprises that await the reader in the text which though was originally written in the late 1980s and early 1990s, is being published for the first time now.