A culture critic’s verdict: Nigerian, African literature is dead!

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  • ‘What is wrong with Nigerian literature is what is wrong with Nigeria’

By Ozoro Opute

ORIS Aigbokhaevbolo is not your regular run-of-the-mill culture critic. He has steadily grown his critical voice in the last 10 years or so, having courted some friends and many enemies as a critic – from music to film (Nollywood and beyond) to theatre and literature. So when he makes critical pronouncements on a work of art, many listen, because Aigbokhaevbolo has taken time to watch your film or performance, listen to your music or read your book. His voice carries a lot of critical weight not a few are in awe of him. On social media where the great intellectual debates now take place in the absence of journals (who reads journals, newspapers these days, anyway?), Aigbokhaevbolo is at his magisterial best.

Ironically, he chose a day (February 20, 2022) professor emeritus at the University of New Orleans, U.S., Niyi Osundare, regaled his literary fans to three hours of readings and Q&A from his old and new offerings at Roving Heights Bookstore in Victoria Island, Lagos. Aigbokhaevbolo lives in Lagos, but he didn’t attend the event. But he was busy on Facebook Avenue dishing out his verdicts on the dire fate of Nigeria literature, declaring that it urgently needs oxygen else its inevitable death is assured. Of course, many denizens of Facebook Avenue could not allow such a juicy moment pass without lending their own thoughts, either advancing Aigbokhaevbolo’s declaration, moderating it somewhat in milder terms, or negating it entirely.

However, why a lack of heated exchange and debate between and among writers is reason enough to believe a nation or a continent’s literature is dead is somewhat a mystery, considering the avalanche of creative output coming out of the country and continent:

“On my earlier post, the (Ali) Mazrui vs (Wole) Soyinka thing spawned a mini thread on its own. And when it was related to how we go about things these days, my response was, do we have literary feuds anymore?” he stated in his post. “It used to be that entire feuds take place on social media, these days. (I made a comment on our avian-sized feuds in Chimurenga (literary magazine), years ago.) Now even that hardly happens. (Chimamanda Ngozi) Adichie elevated the (Akwaeke) Emezi thing by actually doing what writers do, which is take out their grievances (and their enemies) in prose. That was perhaps the only time since the Brittle Paper controversy that we had anything like a feud. What has happened to these feuds, whether they be tweets, posts, or essays?

Wole Soyinka

“I think people just don’t care anymore. Country Hard and Other Stories. The Naija literary scene is dead. It is what you believe in that you would try arguing for. Young people are rightly unconcerned with a field that gets you neither fame nor fortune, not even in avian-sized quantities. The only subject that arises (arouses) interest is the same ol’ (Chinua) Achebe vs Soyinka subject. Nobody is interested in, say, (Ayobami) Adebayo vs (Onyikan) Braithwaite. Only a few years ago, you could go to Freedom Park and see how the literati were carrying on and yearn to be in their midst; covid ensured that what was dying has stayed dead. Ake Festival, which used to bring up some debates and was how you gauged trendy relevance (either via presence or absence) has gone online and too few people are interested in its invitations or its significance.

“LABAF has remained cramped with the same faces. If your essay is not published overseas, nobody cares what you have to say even if it’s in glorious prose. And, to be fair, the people with glorious prose are hardly writing or publishing literary stuff. They are not even interested in teaching younger ones because who’s paying? Our publishers are not interested in talents if the person hasn’t garnered an audience online (maybe through skits since essays go unremarked on) or hasn’t arrived with an oyinbo MFA or an oyinbo publisher’s insignia. NOBODY BLOODY CARES. So, of course, Mazrui vs Soyinka vs Achebe is the past and present and foreseeable future.”

Then Aigbokhaevbolo delivers the coup de grace:

“Then for the past couple years, I have been working on a collection of essays that covers my writing from when I first got published 10 years ago (which now seems an incredibly vigorous time) to date. I am adding 6 to 8 new, unpublished pieces covering pop music, Nollywood, and literary matters that nobody has read. One of these pieces is about the dwindling interest in all things literary. The title, unless I change my mind or a publisher suggests something different, is “The Death of Nigerian Writing”. It is likely to be the last piece in the literary matters section.

“Its position at the back of the book is, of course, symbolic.”

And then a number of literary heavyweights jump in, among them Ikhide R. Ikheloa, Aj. Dagga Tolar, Isaac Ogezi and Bwari Bwari Nwilo II. For Ikheloa it’s a simple survival maths: Nigeria is no place to get the best out of anyone. Then there is the unending matter of white prop for African and a continent’s inability to grow its own structures, be they cultural or technological.

“Thanks for sharing, Oris,” he said, “I thoroughly enjoyed this, and as you know, I have been saying these things, albeit with a more direct and aggressive tone. People don’t like hearing the truth, including you. Why are things the way they are? Just imagine the music industry still stuck on vinyl or even the cassette as a medium of output in the age of social media – and complaining that folks only want to listen to beats on TikTok. That is where we are.

“Worldwide, it is obvious that there is a gentrification of narrative as we know it. But powerful keepers of the status quo’s gates insist that readers are lazy and we must wait them out to come out of gyms so they can read our stuff gathering moss in books and dying journals that will die in 6 months and be reborn with great fanfare using the white man’s pennies. Rinse, repeat, rinse, lol! Here is the truth: There has never been a truly independent African literature that we respect. None. When something organic comes up without the white man’s imprint, we ridicule it until it goes underground or dies off (“Onitsha” Market literature, etc.).

“There is self-loathing, and we are all guilty of it (the white man and his products as the asymptote, etc.), there is rank corruption (imagine a Jewish writer collecting money from a Holocaust enabler just to put up a literary forum, wow, shame on all of you that attend these horrid things!). Nigerian intellectuals and writers of stature were exposed by the (President Muhammadu) Buhari regime as carpetbaggers and opportunists using literature to enjoy a middle class existence. More importantly, there is the global gentrification of narrative thanks to the muscular force of technology. Traditional writers no longer hold the influence that they used to have, readers have become writers and writers must become readers in the new dispensation that blurs boundaries. Today it is called social media.

“Readership of traditional media has crashed in the past two decades but folks are still in denial. Hundreds of millions of readers today read the equivalent of whole chapters daily but they don’t read books. There is an opportunity there, except that there is a failure of intellectual leadership. In the vacuum, shallow purveyors of tales aka blue-ticked influencers have inflicted influenza on us with their vacuous takes on things. But they are cackling all the way to the bank, when they are not assuring us that Buhari will turn Nigeria into Switzerland. It is bad, things are very bad, but we are in denial. Many of us buy books and subscribe to journals out of habit but we don’t read these things anymore, we just don’t have the time to read them. Social media has taken over our precious time.

“I read social media religiously; I do not have time for long form. Besides much of what obtains in long form is at best mediocre anyway, silly odes to the white man’s anxieties. On Twitter, I read things that have the pungency of the amala I eat at Amala University; it is not fusion cooking, lol. I am not coming back, who cares whether the Caine Prize people don’t recognize what we enjoy as literature? Am I not happy? LOL. The other day, someone tagged me on yet another “Achebe vs Soyinka, who better pass”. At first, I whined, “una nor dey tire? We have new writers?” But do we, though? Where are they? In MFA (Masters of Fine Arts for Creative Writing) halls, and online cafes begging middle aged white folks to accept their writing in obscure literary journals.”

Ikheloa would not end without delivering his own jabs even at the man whose critical writing he says he admires:

“In any case, Achebe and Soyinka would be nowhere today without the white man’s largesse. And you know that. Nigeria had the opportunity when it was a rich country to anchor the trajectory of Nigerian literature in authentic, well-funded structures. That train don pass us. Thank God for social media. I for hear am! Oris, I will likely buy your book, but like the many before it, will not read it, because I have already read your thoughts on social media, and because, as brilliant as you are, (you are), you are a victim of orthodoxy. You have often struggled between putting food on the table and being innovative. It is not your fault. It is our fault and it is our loss.

“What to do? What is wrong with Nigerian literature is what is wrong with Nigeria, period. You cannot step away from the mess and insist that somehow literature will be alright. You can dream of going to the moon but you are most probably not getting there with a rickety bicycle! Mba (No)! Be well!”

For Nwilo II, “People want to survive first and then argue later. Or whatever.” But Ogezi does not buy the idea of the death of Nigerian literature, saying that many people still produce a great amount of literature that seems stifled by the sheer economics of survival and a lack of critical engagement outside the university system. He suggests a better title for Aigbokhaevbolo’s forthcoming book of critical essays.

“I think ‘The Death of Literary Criticism in Nigeria’ will make a better title (for Aigbokhaevbolo’s book),” Ogezi says. “Nigerian writing is flourishing in this generation; writers are writing, breaking new grounds such that if you throw a stone into a market, it’ll likely bounce off on the head of a writer. Our literature is flourishing in the area of creative productivity but suffers in criticism. This is partly because of the neglect critics outside the ivory tower suffer, as they don’t write to get promotion like their academic counterparts.”

Amede Isaac agrees with Aigbokhaevbolo, echoing, “Or Wole Soyinka vs Femi Osofisan or Wole Soyinka vs Chiwenzu et al. I agree. They are the past, the present and the future. Lol.”

Like Ogezi, however, Okiri Christopher Raphael believes Aigbokhaevbolo could do with a better title rather than declare Nigerian writing dead: “To (my) mind that title doesn’t work with death in it,” he appealed. “What if it sounds something like: Nigerian Writing In The Covid Economy? Just saying to make a comment because I don’t want to pass up the chance to drop a thought on this Thought-provoking post.”

Aj. Tolar sees the Marxist, everyday struggle of working class people in the argument, saying the economics of living in Nigeria is a disability from start. Aj Tolar also argues that writers and other creatives believing they live in their own bubble and therefore insulated from the everyday struggles of struggling masses have since been proven delusional and urges creatives of all hues to come to knowledge, that injustice to one is injustice to all, as the current socio-economic and political reality has foisted untold but needless hardship on all.

“This (Aigbokhaevbolo’s post) is bold and commendable,” Aj. Tolar said. “But beyond the lamentation is that writers are humans, and in this clime they are first and foremost Nigerians, and like other Nigerians, suffer from all of the failure of how our society has been shipwrecked. We have made the error for too long believing that writers are superheroes and they can go on tripping inside their head, and write, write and write. But no… there can be nothing than the “Death of Nigerian’ Writing” to awake us to the reality that we have long preferred (being) delusional than be concrete. The imagination is not a world of its own. It is dependent on the self of the being to be able to imagine. But imagine the mind needs a body to stand it to life. And this is the very life too many of us in our millions practically do not have.

“The shock that literature is way far beyond its death’s agony is truly cold dead seems impossible to accept. But how many ever draws the conclusion that the very dynamics that lay the oil industry and other sectors of the economy prostrate is the same philosophy and greed for profits first. Okigbo abandoned the pen for the gun. Literature cannot be revived back to life by the pen; it demands sweat, iron and blood of the working masses (to) come into the arena of struggle to take on the ruling elites & overthrow them. Writers have also long thought they are not one with the working masses. The earlier writers so wake up and join in the ranks of the working masses in their struggle…

“Do otherwise and the idea of the existence of any other imagination other than this disorderliness must be forgotten. Was that not where we were 1960, the same I960 till date?”

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