Nigerian Literature on Regional Pedestal by Abubakar Adam Ibrahim
There is no doubt Nigerian literature is enjoying a resurgence of sort. More books are being published both locally and internationally and a lot is being read and digested. But what is becoming clear is that Nigerian national sentiments with divisive tendencies, prevalent within the political amphitheatre, are creeping into literature. Worse is that certain novels are approached with sectional mindset, which ultimately determines in what light they are perceived, digested and reviewed. The instance that readily comes to mind is the debate sparked by Ikhide Ikheloa’s review of Ahmed Maiwada’s Musdoki, “Musdoki: Literature and the Distortion of History” (published recently in Next Newspaper).
It is true Maiwada made a passing reference to the Nigerian Civil War through some of his characters who expressed their opinions on the causes of the war; he however paid more attention to the June 12 debacle and the consequent tension that griped the nation following the annulment of that election. If truth be told, Ikheloa approached Maiwada’s novel with the mindset of a Southerner tackling a novel from a Northerner attempting to distort history in favour of the north.
Naturally, his review drew the ire from literary enthusiasts in the north and some of them did a critique of Ikheloa’s critigue – Gimba Kakanda’s being the most obvious. Whatever the case, this debate brings to the fore the fact that Nigeria’s regional sentiments are very much present within the literary circle. In certain circle, the opinion now is that every literature, or at least most, written by Nigerians of Northern extraction has to be a response to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun. That was the mindset the Next columnist had when he read Maiwada’s novel. Several people have asked Helon Habila if his second novel, Measuring Time, was a reaction to Adichie’s. Habila wrote his novel before Adichie’s was published.
Talking about Adichie, she is a great writer no doubt and has done Nigeria proud with the accolades she has won. Which is where the irony lies – someone asked, on a social networking site, if Adichie is actually Nigerian. Some of her writings are, in certain context overtly and covertly, championing the cause of Biafra (one of her earliest work is “For the love of Biafra”, which later morphed into Half of a Yellow Sun). Assessing her work, it is easy, for a northerner particularly, to conclude that Adichie is in the habit of vilifying northerners, constantly portraying as bloodthirsty and ignorant lots. That may be her opinion but it is also clear in her writing that her experiences of the north are handed down. She is ignorant of northerners and their ways and it is disturbing that a writer of her repute will not make an effort to research these people before vilifying them. She seems to have a “single story” of the north, disregarding her own warning.
This brings me to Franz Kafka who says that the artist should have nothing to say by which he means the artist should be a mirror, reflecting history without trying to colour it with his sentiments. It is certainly, a challenge because it is difficult for humans to completely detach themselves from their emotions because of the fact that we are simply emotional beings, quite distinct from animals. But the writer must not be judgmental. You simply cannot pass down stereotypes and clichés as truths – the Yoruba are a loquacious, cowardly lot, the Hausa man is the kola nut chewing, ignorant, bloodthirsty zealot and the Igbo man is the money-obsessed, spare parts dealer who could sell his mother for the extra change. It is the duty of the writer to rise above generalizations, and present an objective view of reality, and then sit back and allow the readers to judge.
Chinua Achebe while writing on “The Role of the Writer in a New Nation” noted that: “After all the novelist’s duty is not to beat this morning’s headlines in topicality, it is to explore in depth the human condition. In Africa he cannot perform this task unless he has a proper sense of history.”
Though novels are works of fiction, it should not be neglected that they are reflections of reality and they are the means by which future generations would assess this generation, as much as Dicken’s novels today give us a picture of London in his days. The attempts to distort history by cleverly disguising facts as fiction are, at the best, fraudulent.
The insensibilities of some Nigerian novelists to the reality of Nigeria’s existence and their readers’ feelings is worthy of note. Nigeria as a country has had difficult periods that have affected all sections of the country. Nigerian writers must not resort to tribal or regional forts and hurl out fiction-distorted-facts as novels. After all, the writer is an intellectual and should ideally be objective. Where others call for blood, the writer should call for reason. By virtue of the ability the writer has to write and be believed, to speak and be heard, he is duty bound to be socially responsible.
Did Achebe not take side during the Civil War? He, after all, is human and understandably supported the Biafran course as did Okigbo. Having lived through the war, being an eyewitness, Achebe could have tried to use his literary prowess to poison the healing process of the nation. Instead, he wrote Anthills of the Savannah in 1988 and some say it was his acceptance of Nigeria after the gruesome war.
This, by no means, implies that the writer should turn a blind eye to things happening in his society, he should, on the contrary, explore the “human condition” without necessarily vilifying a particular race, tribe or faith. It is absolutely unnecessary to stand on the pedestal of regional sentiments to triumph in literature. Even war novels must not vilify to be considered successful. Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient (1992) readily comes to mind. In the Nigerian context, Isidore Okpewho’s The Last Duty (1976) is a fine example as well as Biyi Bandele’s Burma Boy (2009).
The need for writers to exercise caution in their work is aptly captured by American writer Frankk Norris in his essay, “The Responsibility of the Novelist”. He writes:
“How necessary it becomes, then, for those who, by the simple art of writing can invade the hearts of thousands, whose novels are received with such earnestness how necessary it becomes for those who wield such power to use it rightly. Is it not expedient to act fairly? Is it not in Heaven’s name essential that the people hear, bot a lie, but the Truth?”
Crossing the Niger
The practice now in contemporary Nigerian literature is for writers to sit in their own corners of the country and pen the ideas that strike them, plucking from their experiences, to garnish their works. Whereby it is important, nay critical, that the writer should write what he knows, what then stops the writer from knowing more, instead of being content with an incomplete picture?
Few Nigerian writers have ventured to write outside their region by undertaking detailed research to explore the “human condition” outside their geographical armchair. It is therefore necessary to recognize the commendable works of Cyprian Ekwensi, an Igbo man who wrote convincingly about the human condition of northern Nigerians as well as the western block. His novels such as The Burning Grass, An African Night Entertainment and The Passport of Malam Ilia display an astonishing grasp of a culture other than his. Biyi Bandele also deserves commendation for The Man who Came in from the Back of Beyond and recently Burma Boy.
Most significantly perhaps is Helon Habila’s latest novel, Oil on Water. It explores the Niger Delta struggle. What is impressive about this is that Habila is not remotely connected to the Niger Delta, he could have sat down in his Washington home and dream up the story – but he actually went down to the region, saw things for himself and interacted with the people before writing his story.
If American writer Arthur Golden could research the Japanese Geisha practices, a culture that perished half a century before, and then produce the masterpiece Memoirs of a Geisha which reads so convincingly, then Nigerian writers should take a cue and look beyond detonating sectional bombs in defense of the blunders of our leaders. Writers should know better, perhaps this must be Frank Norris’ thoughts when he wrote:
On the contrary, I believe it can be proved that the successful novelist should be more than all others limited in the nature and character of his work more than all others he should be careful of what he says; more than all others he should defer to his audience; more than all others more even than the minister and editor he should feel “his public” and watch his every word, testing carefully his every utterances, weighing with the most relentless precision his every statement; in a word, possess a sense of his responsibilities.
Nigerian Literature on Regional Pedestal by Abubakar Adam Ibrahim was originally published in ANA REVIEW. It is published here in partnership with the Association of Nigerian Authors.