…Stories connect and negotiate between past and present realities
By Kelechi Agoha
NARRATIVES of any genre convey messages that are aimed at understanding the realities of the writer’s environment, needs, and aspirations for a better society. This was the subject of the extraordinary edition of the Mbari Series that had themes ‘The Story as a Donkey’ which was held at the conference room of the newly commissioned Femi Osofisan Secretariat Complex of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), Mamman Vatsa Writers Village, Mpape, Abuja, on May 21, 2022. It was a gathering of creative writers across Nigeria and the public to brainstorm on the syllogism of the writer and the creative work as carriers of the burden of society. The discussants used the analogy of the donkey to describe the attitude of the writer and the message in traversing through the challenging moments of today’s reality.
Prof. Razinat Mohammed, a co-moderator of the event, noted in her opening remarks that the donkey is a beast of burden which is sometimes assumed to be a foolish animal that is overburdened by load without complaining. Relating the unique nature of the donkey as a burden bearer to that of the creative writer and the story, she observed that “all of us here have our own donkey, because we all have stories to tell.”
She went on to note that as storytellers, “Our reason for writing is usually to deliver messages that will help change our society,” and expressed confidence that the desired change could only be realised when the stories being told are powerful enough to influence society. However, she is worried about the quality of messages, the service delivery of the stories to the intended recipients, and the consequent attacks against creative works, especially when they have the potency to challenge the ills in society.
As she put it, “Is your donkey delivering what you intend to deliver? I have a donkey, too. My donkey delivers and when it delivers after serving the purpose, sometimes it is attacked, in other words, to kill it.”
In a swift response, Prof. Mallam Al-Bishak, a co-moderator, averred that the function of a story is to covey experiences. To him, therefore, “a story as a narrative carries a burden, the burden of society, because the writer who carries the burden, who writes the story, has the responsibility to connect with the society by carrying and dislodging that burden.” He therefore argued that the writer must carry this burden to the reader engagingly to inform, educate and entertain him or her.
Al-Bishak further related the writer’s kinetic spirit to the wandering nature of the donkey and noted that “the story or narrative is like a wanderer, and a writer has the imagination that carries him far and wide or far and near” the way a donkey carries his burden to different locations. Also emulating the rebellious disposition of the donkey Al-Bishak advised that the writer has the responsibility to kick against the injustices, and political recklessness of leaders in society and, in turn, provide comfort for the reader the way a donkey offers comfort to the rider.
On his part, Amirul Musulumi of Idomaland and royal father of the event, Prof. Shamsudeen Amali, took a transcendental angle in examining the source of the creative ability of the writer. He argued that the inspiration and energy to create comes from Almighty Allah, noting that, “in the literary world, yes, we create, but it is the Almighty Allah that makes it possible.”
In response to Amali’s position, Prof. Udenta Udenta affirmed that “we only create because we are permitted to create by God.” However, Udenta is of the view that in the realm of humanity, the burden of the story can be interpreted from three perspectives: the timelessness of a story, the story as connections and negotiations between the past and the present, and the tension between the work and the creator. He explained that a story is timeless and defines the boundary of history, time, and change. Therefore, he sees the metaphor of the story as a donkey and the burden that the donkey carries as a process of memory-making and remembrances which are some of the functions of storytelling.
Hence, “the story carries the burden of a nation, remembers what had gone before, what is going on now and what possibly will go on in the future,” said Udenta. Furthermore, the story as connections between the past and the present shows the difference in time and space, ideas and events, with Udenta further asserting that “stories that are told today are not stories that will be told tomorrow” as such, the onus lies on the creative writer to take advantage of the challenges of his or her time to connect and negotiate between the past and present realities.
Finally, Udenta noted also that “there is a big tension between the work and the creator of the work that is almost at a willing suspension of disbelief”. Basing his argument on the theoretical postulations of Roland Barthes and other proponents of the death of the author, Udenta observed that the displacement of the writer from the work has created a conflict between the subject and the object, the subject being the creator and the object being the created burden which the donkey is carrying. He therefore inferred that understanding the intriguing nature of the story as a donkey requires the reconciliation of the differences that exist between the writer and the created work, and the renegotiation between the past and present.
On the other hand, Dr. Joan Oji sees the story as an all-comers affair where everybody is welcome to write. Like Mohammed who spoke earlier, Oji affirmed that the writer has the liberty to write but that most times writers are challenged by the bottleneck in the value chain that inhibits creative works from reaching the target readers/audience.
In her words, “The question is, how many of us are riding the donkey to the desired destination? Are the stories carrying the donkey like my published books that nobody has read and are sitting there?”
As a consequence of the inability of the target market to get creative works, most writers do not get the return on investment, Oji said this could lead to an author starving in the midst of plenty.
Prof. Mabel Evwierhoma of the University of Abuja advised the importance of recognising and appreciating the effort of the donkey, either as the message or the messenger. She observed with dismay that despite the pivotal role of creative writers and the burden their works carry in society, writers are unfortunately at the centre of hardship, cruelty, and peripheral glory. Moreover, Evwierhoma noted that the mobility of the story is important if it must have any direct effect on society.
In her own words, “The story is expected to be mobile and not static, as the donkey does not fix itself to a particular spot. It therefore means that the story needs to leave the storyteller to ride on the donkey to get to the various destinations in society.”
Therefore, the professor of Dramatic Theory and Criticism enjoined that whatever donkey writers choose to mount, “The most important thing is to ensure that the story communicates and makes meaning in the end regardless of the channel it passes through.”
Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Federal University, Lafia, Prof. Idris Amali, challenged young writers to exhibit the courage, strength, and resilience of the donkey in documenting the problems of society.
According to Amali, “You must have the courage to stand the deterioration of the Nigerian nation. No other person can document this more than you,” and further admonished writers to protect themselves and the works they create, because a fruitful writer lives by what he or she says. He noted also that the donkey goes with time, and as such young writers should learn to tell people the time, especially the time for a change.
Meanwhile, other participants who spoke at the event examined the borderline between the sociological impact and aesthetic relevance of literature in conveying messages. Prof. Moses Tsemongu of the Department of English, Benue State University, Markudi, who raised this contentious issue, questioned the point at which literature is allowed to perform its function to society without losing its literariness and aestheticism. The chairman of ANA Bayelsa chapter, Mr. T. M Biriabebe noted that the writer’s mind is the first place a story is conceived, and as such the writer must discharge the message, so he or she could be free from its burden.
The second session of the event featured a special poetry session that celebrated Dr. Obari Gomba and his work, The Lilt Of The Rebel, winner of Pan-African Writers Association’s Poetry Prize 2022.
Earlier, there was a tour of the ANA Secretariat Library and the commissioning of the secretariat complex by Prof. Amali, named after Prof. Femi Osofisan, in honour and recognition of his resilient effort towards the growth and development of creative writing in Nigeria. Other notable dignitaries at the event were Profs Olu Obafemi, Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo, Maria Ajima and Tanure Ojuade. Colonel K. K Shaw was also there.
Ojaide and Shaw were inducted as ANA Fellows.