Literature concerns itself with the imaginative vision of the writer and his or her effective use of language to create a multitude of patterns and feelings that captivates with renewed beauty and endless transformation. The peculiarity of creative language that appeals the most to readers is achieved when an author bequeaths to a story the transcendent emotions that propel it beyond its local setting, towards a global audience that becomes a legitimate heir to the imaginary world of the said author. Aesthetics, which is the stylistic reconstruction of the familiar, and the imagination, which offers limitless and innovative ways of apprehending life, give literature its complexity and brilliance. So, the writer, in directing the specificity of events and the frame of private experience onto a universal reality, is greatly indebted to the imagination, for it provides insights that transcend the limits of knowledge.
Children’s literature has come of age in Nigeria, and it is crucial to comment on the inadequate projection of aesthetics and gender by most of its writers. Despite deriving materials from the rich African oral heritage—embodied in songs, idioms, riddles, proverbs, myths and fables—most Nigerian writers of children’s literature focus only on its moral function in their books. The banality of this fixation is that they do not sufficiently exploit their creative potential, which was one of the core talents of the traditional African artist, whose oral narrative recreated histories and yielded itself to the impulse of art, expressed through poetic diction and dramatic intensity. Donatus Nwoga’s contention that “In African traditional culture, hearing a well-told story was a more satisfying aesthetic experience than hearing a new story badly told” is significant in our knowledge of the pre-eminence of art in children’s literature. Zohar Shavit’s observation of the lack of literariness in this genre informs our understanding of its moralization in Nigeria, and Banke’s criticism of gender imbalance in the characterization of Nigerian’s Children literature confirms our view of the deficient imagination of most Nigerian writers in that field. This poorly imagined literature, Banke writes, “implicitly gives children messages of what their gender roles are, and gives limitation to what they are capable of.” It is the menace of this disturbing practice that Adichie addresses in her important and pioneering TEDx talk, “We Should All Be Feminist.” Adichie’s words that, “we teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls ‘you can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful, otherwise you will threaten the man” capture the intentions of most Nigerian writers of Children’s literature, who still daily calcify gender prejudice.
As the first generation of writers of Nigerian Children’s literature joined their African counterparts in refuting the backward and dark image of Africa in the eyes of the West, writers of this generation not only write about the place of the African child in the global world but also about the kind of poverty and disease peculiar to our age and about the misconceptions of gender and identity. Achebe’s statement in his Leeds Lecture, “The Novelist as a Teacher,” that his responsibility as a novelist was “to help my society regain belief in itself and to put away the complexes of the years of denigration and self-abasement” not only explains why he took to writing for children when he realized the alarming racist content of the books his daughter was reading at school but it also aptly captures the temperament of his generation. Although the generation that Achebe wrote within paid little attention to the female gender, this present, more aware generation confronts the status quos by creating gender inclusive literature.
Contemporary Nigerian writers of Children’s literature have manifested tremendous creativity in their exploration of the human experience. By inventing new literary modes and recreating old ones in their search for a veritable literary style that expresses their genius, they accentuate Barthes’ opinion that “writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin” and in treating their literary material as unique, balancing commendably the heaviness and urgency of subject matter with the nuances of aesthetics, they seem to agree with Barthes that “writing is that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the identity of the body writing.”
Chimee Adioha’s emergence on the Nigerian Children’s literary scene demonstrates the inevitable balance between the aesthetic impetus and the ideological one. A departure from the didacticism of African folk narrative, his writing, in this genre, explores the apprehensions of a changing world and its ethos. For him, the interrogation of canons and the reinterpretation of traditions are vital. With the publication of Amara, he marries his well-remarked gender activism to the ideological aesthetics of literature, opening up conversations about the need for gender equality in Nigerian Children’s literature and, in extension, the Nigerian society.
Written in English language with an eye for children readers as well as adults, Amara is the story of the eponymous character whose liking for aeroplanes grows deeper and leads her to the path of becoming a pilot. Rendered in short, brittle sentences, with colourful illustrations by Ijeoma Ossi, the story enjoys a seamless narrative, proclaiming at last the triumph of aesthetics in Nigerian Children’s literature. These deftly crafted sentences command attention: “Amara lived on Cooker Street, and from their house, she could see the aeroplane running on the tarmac, ready to fly. They lived on the ground floor in a two storey building, but whenever the planes would want to take off or land, she would run to Mr. Samuel’s open veranda, throwing her eyes across a large area full of bush and hiking up her feet, like spring, to see the aeroplane.”
Beyond aesthetics, Adioha’s writing is a passionate engagement with social reality, encapsulating the strivings of the genders for the ideals that authenticate their identities. It validates Forna’s statement that “If you want to know a country, read its writers.” She does not suggest that the writer must be a politician keen on making an impact on his or her community; rather she draws our attention to the relationship between art and society. She reminds us that literature is an embodiment of shared human experiences and that human beings, as the poet Itiola Jones envisions, are capable of crafting their own reality. Emelia Oko observes, “[even] when the artist is not consciously teaching, he still explores the world in its complex relationships. His vision shows the potential of man building and creating himself. He shows the areas of strength and the areas limiting the realization of his full humanity.” Since the life of a nation is shaped by its social arrangement, the writer’s involvement in reality is inevitable.
The fundamental element of Adioha’s writing is the feminist vision upon which it is built. Through the characters’ lives, Amara demonstrates the multiplicity and distinctiveness of identities and interrogates the traditional approach to gender. The characters, who embody an immense consciousness of the changing times, explore the fullness of their identities without the restraining weight of patriarchy. Adioha’s rewriting of the Cinderella portrayal of the girl child in Nigerian Children’s literature is consistent with Achebe’s portrayal of Ezinma in Things Fall Apart. Nonconforming and precocious, Okonkwo’s favourite daughter, Ezinma, inherits her mother’s courage and her father’s renegade spirit, refuting the single narrative of female docility. Also through her healthy life into adulthood, Achebe consciously re-imagines the labyrinth of reincarnation central to the ogbanje myth.
Fisayo, Amara’s brother, reminds us of Nwoye, Okonkwo’s eldest son, especially in his incarnation of non-traditional masculinity. Although Nwoye appreciates the ideal of physical strength, his deepest desire reaches towards the ineffable and the poetic. “The poetry of the new religion,” the narrator tells us, makes him abandon the faith of his people. Significantly, Ikemefuna’s arrival to Okonkwo’s household lessens Nwoye’s anxiety, as Nwoye finds an emotional anchor in the ill-fated lad. Relying totally on Ikemefuna for direction and comfort, his death heralds a turning point in Nwoye’s life. The nature of Ikemefuna’s death, its irredeemable aspect, its absurdity forces him to re-evaluate the Igbo custom of killing twins, which he sees as unjust. In the wake of this tragic reality, he embraces his individuality and the implications of its variance with Umuofia’s tradition. Nwoye’s life, in essence, denounces the practicality of life in Umuofia. It is a life lived in feelings, in the observation of the manifest diversities of fate and the hope for survival and freedom. “The hymn about brothers who sat in darkness and in fear,” the narrator reveals further, “seemed to answer a vague and persistent question that haunted [Nwoye’s] young soul—the question of the twins crying in the bush and the question of Ikemefuna who was killed.”
Through Fisayo, Adioha underscores the progress of gender education in our time and consolidates the cultural revival that feminist activism propagates. Fisayo’s situation, evidently, is considerably different from Nwoye’s, for while Okonkwo attempts to beat effeminacy out of Nwoye, Fisayo’s parents nurture his culinary skill and help him achieve his dream of becoming a chef. Achebe and Adioha, through Nwoye and Fisayo, oppose the tradition of representing physical strength as the hegemonic symbol of masculinity. The weakness of this prejudiced approach to gender is that the emotions of male characters and the intellect of female characters in Nigerian children’s literature are underexplored and erroneously projected as a true representation of reality onto the consciousness of unsuspecting young readers.
The failure of Okonkwo’s conditioned imagination to rise above his flagrant misogyny, his refusal to accept the natural complementary arrangement of the male and female genders, responsible for his betrayal of Ikemefuna, contributed significantly to his tragic end. Achebe’s indictment of Okonkwo’s flaws in his 1999 Odenigbo Lecture buttresses our opinion. Diala’s translation of Achebe’s words, rigorous and creative, deserves a place in our analysis. “Okonkwo,” he translates, “is strong, devoted, hardworking, honest and wealthy, and has taken titles. All these are ideals affirmed by the Igbo. And not only did they affirm these, they affirmed them clamorously. Okonkwo heard and heeded. But there was another thing that the Igbo whispered into our ears. They said that if something stands, another stands beside it to hold it firm; that we should de-emphasise the gun and the match; that we should not despise the flute and iron gong, the frivolity of women’s talk and the soft-hearted. Okonkwo did not hear this message delivered in a mellow voice. Umuofia abandoned him the day he broke his waist and dived into the fire.” Diala is right that Okonkwo’s celebration of male bravery, his open repulsion of femininity contributing to his tragic fall “points to the Igbo ideal as a complex balance of masculine and feminine attributes.”
We are told in the story that, “Fisayo was very good at home, he could do a lot of domestic chores with ease. He enjoys helping his mother in the kitchen. Amara was different. She would like to climb trees or play games than going to help in the kitchen. Both Amara and Fisayo were loved by their parents.”Amara and Fisayo may well be Adioha’s response to Adichie’s appeal for “a fairer world, a world of happier men and women who are truer to themselves.”They remind us of our younger selves, with all the attendant ambitions and quiet obstinacy of childhood. But in making the dream of becoming a pilot a reality for a girl child, Adioha goes beyond the scope of the vision we often see in our children’s literature. Amara will continue to be relevant because its material is excavated from reality, so we will always find particles of our lives in it. We will always be moved by how much of our younger selves is located in it.
For the first time in Nigerian children’s literature, we see a child with dreadlocks. She is not only the ambitious and hardworking heroine of the novel, but also the good daughter of her parents. She is not demonized because of her hair; she does not explain to anybody why she has dreadlocks; she is not sent away from school because of an inappropriate hairstyle and she does not go through deliverance sessions in churches to be free from demons living in her hair. Amara lives like every other child, and although her dream of becoming a pilot seems at the onset to be too big for a girl, she enjoys the support of her family and in the end fulfils her dream.
It takes courage to pick up a book, great patience to read it and greater commitment to ask: what is this book really saying to me? But it requires honesty to interpret a text. And by honesty, I mean the modesty to focus on the realities that are immediately ours, the ones we have access to, while striving to be admitted to places and emotions that are not very nuclear to us. Childhood is one of those realities that we may no longer speak of without stutter and doubt. Time takes away, slowly but surely, all the gifts of childhood, all the playthings, all the wonder, all the magic. It is, therefore, refreshing to find a writer with a large heart and a powerful imagination, one willing and indeed able to return to us, in flesh and blood, those fascinating memories of our childhood that we are incapable of capturing as adults today.
Darlington Chibueze Anuonye is a Correspondent for Praxis Magazine Online.