Literature? What Literature? By Azu Ishiekwene

Literature, like other art forms, is a reflection of society. It is from the society that creative writers get their ideas. Society is the subject matter of literary expression. This is one of the reasons why literature is viewed in relation to the era or age it reflects. 

For instance, we have literature of the various centuries across the world. Here, we have the precolonial, colonial, postcolonial and contemporary Nigerian literature. Literary works could reflect pieces in a puzzle of political, social, religious and scientific changes of a particular age.

The choice of this theme to mark one year of the passing of our good friend, Ikeogu Oke, who quit the stage at a time he was beginning to make his mark in the field of literature, is apt. We may all agree that literature is not quite in the scheme of things when it comes to reactions to developments in the society. It is understandable that there are now several other channels of expression including motion pictures (Nollywood), but they should still complement and enrich literature.

Literature has been an integral part of our culture beginning from the oral tradition which, in turn, informs the greater part of what we know as our history. We should all work to restore the centrality of literature to our cultural narrative. 

What better documentation of the Yoruba cultural landscape would have been greater than the works of D.O. Fagunwa, especially in The Forest of a Thousand Demons(1938) – as translated by Wole Soyinka; or the commercial exceptionalism of the Igbos more than Pita Nwanna in his pioneering work, Omenuko; or Muhammadu Bello Kagara’s Gandoki (1933) which captures the protagonist’s struggles against the colonial regime – a theme also explored in greater measure in Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-wine Drinkard (1952).

We must work to develop a body of literature that is reflective of this age. It was done during the colonial and post-colonial times in various countries in Africa. All our first-generation writers did it here in Nigeria; Mariama Ba, Sembene Ousmane and Cheikh Hamidou Kane did it in Senegal; Amadou Korouma did it in Cote d’Ivoire; Ferdinand Oyono and Mongo Beti in Cameroon; Kofi Awoonor in Ghana; Camara Laye in Guinea; and Ngugi Wa Thiong’o in Kenya, to mention a few. 

The political gladiators themselves were not left out. Jomo Kenyata of Kenya; Leopold Senghor of Senegal; Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia, and anti-apartheid icons like Nelson Mandela and Steve Biko adequately expressed themselves in literary works.

No event in Africa, apart from colonialism, has inspired more literary works than the Apartheid regime in South and the Nigerian Civil War. The civil war in Nigeria in particular has continued to inspire works by writers who were not even born during the time of the conflict. A prominent example is Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. 

Our creative writers should rise to the occasion and begin to reflect contemporary events including those of the past few decades and further enrich our body of literature and develop an aesthetics that provides the latitude for literature to serve society.

We all know the works of Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, J.P. Clark and several of their other contemporaries. The societal ills and contradictions that informed the body of literature of their generation pale into insignificance when juxtaposed with what is happening today in Nigeria. 

How can the demagoguery reflected in Achebe’s A Man of the People be compared to what happens in today’s political landscape or the theatrical religiosity in Soyinka’s The Trials of Brother Jero and today’s schizophrenic expression of religiosity?

While recognising the tremendous sacrifice of our contemporary creative writers, we cannot shy away from the fact that there is quite a lot happening today to spark creativity than there has ever been in Nigeria. 

Nigeria has passed through full-blown military dictatorships and bloody struggles for the restoration of democracy. Our country has seen democracy undergoing remarkable redefinition, characterised by egregious impunity, a loss of premium on human life, and an utter lack of decorum and empathy in the civic space. Our literature should reflect and document all these.

In his essay, “The Novelist as a Teacher”, Chinua Achebe describes the writer as an organic part of society. In this essay he expresses concern about the social responsibilities and obligations of the writer noting that the writer in Africa is one who is looked up to as a teacher and is in a position to inspire societal reawakening and rediscovery. For Achebe, art is essentially instructive and propagandist. In other words, the writer should engage society even when he doesn’t aim to beat the media to the headlines.

It would be remiss of me to conclude this address without saying a word about the corpus of Ikeogu Oke, who passed a year ago (on November 24).

Whether in Where I was born, Salutes without guns, Songs of success and other poems for children, or Heresiad (which won him the NLNG prize for literature); or indeed in his numerous published journalistic articles, Ikeogu reflected in his works of poetry, as in his life, the agonies, hopes and aspirations of the Nigerian and challenged society to celebrate its better self; to recognise its diversity, yet to nourish and harvest its utilitarian values; to live and let live.

While we grapple with free speech and its ramifications today, Ikeogu tells us in Heresiad that free speech is a canon of democracy, but he reminds us also that this canon carries responsibility for the modern writer. 

We sometimes grieve that younger people today have lost their way. Perhaps that’s a subject for another day. But is there something literature can do, if not to help them find what we think is the way to, at least, engage them in a discussion on why they think we left them stranded on a crooked path?

If they are running away from books in printed forms can literature do more to meet them in films, videos, skits and in the netherworld of augmented and virtual reality (AR)? I ask because I know that these were a few of the issues that engaged Ikeogu in his last days. Can we carry them forward?

The creative writer in Nigeria should step forward and assume his rightful place as the conscience of society and agenda-setter. Wider literary exploration and enrichment of content and how and where content is distributed/delivered might as well be, if not the panacea, at least the catalyst, to the renewal of sagging reading culture and societal dormancy. 

Ishiekwene, MD/Editor-In-Chief of The Interview,presented this paper at the first memorial of the passing of Ikeogu Oke organised by the Association of Nigerian Authors and the Abuja Literary Society on Tuesday, November 26, 2019 at the Savannah Suites, Abuja