‘...Future of Nigerian literature is not Nollywood
…Sterling Bank Plc lifts future of Nigerian literature
‘…Anthology does not reflect effort women have put into Nigerian writing’
By Godwin Okondo
THE book A Possible Future: An Anthology of the Best Nigerian Writing (1789 – 2018) published by Farafina was unveiled recently in Lagos. A Possible Future spans 200 years and multiple genres, using excerpts from over 80 literary works to showcase the inventiveness of Nigeria’s literary ecosystem. Some of the writers whose works are represented in this unique anthology include Olaudah Equiano, DO Fagunwa Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, JP Clark, Gabriel Okara, Christopher Okigbo, Duro Ladipo, Niyi Osundare, Odia Ofeimun, Femi Osofisan, A. Igoni Barrett, Eghosa Imasuen, Temilade Aina, Taiye Salesi, Gbenga Adesina, Helen Oyeyemi, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, and many others.
A Possible Future: An Anthology of the Best Nigerian Writing (1789 – 2018), which had the support of Sterling Bank Plc, featured a panel discussion about the future of Nigerian literature and the possibilities that abound in it, and had as theme ‘The Future of Nigerian Literature: What is Possible?’ The panel session featured some of the writers who have excerpts of their works in the book. They included Osundare, who joined virtually from his U.S. base, Barrett, Temilade Aina, and Eghosa. They shared their views about the current state of Nigeria’s literary space, and what is possible.
“I want to say thank you to the organizers of this event, as well as the individuals who came together to compile this book,” Osundare said. “This looks like the first time we are doing something that tells our own stories. Africa has never been in this position because the stories of Africa have been at the advantages of the storytellers. I am fascinated by the use of the word ‘possible.’ I like the static variation of the word which is used attributively. ‘Possible’ is used predictively. I am letting you know how happy I am about this and I’m so grateful to those behind this.
While Osundare expressed excitement at the production of the anthology, he was, however, pessimistic that Nigeria has kept sliding downhill, as she fumbles from one degenerating policy to yet another that does not give room for cheer in the nearest future, with the educational bar always being lowered.
“This is a step in the right direction. How will our country’s literature take our future? The vision of the writer has to be different from the politician’s. It’s not possible to talk about the future of literature without talking about politics. I am looking at how our literature is now projecting, and how it will be in the future. I took a look at the JAMB scores, and I notice that schools have reduced their cut-off marks to 160, which was formerly 200, for students to be admitted. Judging by the present, we don’t have a country. Right now, our present is worse than our past. Would Prof. Wole Soyinka have produced these books we read at this present time in our country?”
Speaking on the issue of language barrier in literacy, Osundare said, “we are in a situation we didn’t place ourselves. The colonialists took our language and religion and left us with theirs. A lot of people don’t know that most of our problems are linguistic. How many Nigerians are competent in English? We must not forget that anomaly that we think in one language and we apply that thought in another language we are not competent in. Language is an expression of your pride. Our independence can’t be complete if we have no language of our own. For you to be able to make a mark as a writer, you must know a language.”
The distinguished language stylistician also spoke about the film industry that is creating adaptions of Nigerian stories, when he said, “I do not think the future of Nigerian literature is Nollywood. There is so much in Nollywood that reminds me of old Indian movies, though there is a lot of energy in Nollywood. We have to give Nollywood credit for pushing something out of nothing. We want Nollywood to be popular in an elevating kind of way. The two can exist side by side.”
Osundare tasked leaders to purchase the book for use in high schools and higher institutions, adding, “This is the first anthology with this kind of national coverage in Nigeria. This is Nigerian unity in artistic terms. It would be good to get governors to buy copies to distribute to schools in their states, as well as for them also making out time to read the book.”
Aina spoke about the benefits the book brings to readers, and said, “One of the challenges of a bookstore is finding books published a long time ago. We need to reawaken the search for previous writing, and we can keep copies which our children will enjoy. I hope there will be another anthology to cover more books and introduce people into writing. There’s still something in a writer’s mind which he hasn’t put down, and that’s why I say that a book is never complete.”
The Managing Director of Sterling Bank Plc, Mr. Abubakar Sulaimon who opened the nascent relationship his bank was forging with writers, as part of the bank’s support for education, which he said could only be grounded with the complementarity writing brings into the mix. He expressed the hope that both parties would mutually benefit from the collaboration going into the future.
“We (at Sterling Bank Plc) are many things, but we are neither writers nor publishers, Sulaimon told his audience of writers and publishers. “All we can do is provide better opportunities and avenues for those who do their jobs to do their jobs. As an institution, one of the things we committed to doing is to support education, and that is as a business. We felt that for us to educate Nigerians and Africans, we had to put a business strength to it. We had to look at it like any other business. In the course of this, we realized that it’s not just enough to educate people: what they read is also important, and so we found ourselves collaborating with writers and publishers across the country, and we started to support events.
“A lot of people still think of Africa as a young continent, and by that they think everything in Africa is young – out culture, our art, and in fact, they believe nothing much existed until the white man came along. What we want to do with this book is to remind all of us and everyone out there that Africa has been in civilization for far longer than Western civilization is willing to acknowledge. More importantly, we want to remind the young ones by putting this book in print, so that those looking to read the writings of Nigerians that predated colonialism will have something to read.
“And so, we took an extensive amount of time and work, and the first experience I had was, ‘who told you this was the best writings in Africa from this period?’, and almost everyone who has looked at the anthology has asked why some people were left out and some were included, and that is part of the conversation that was to be expected. I would be surprised if we had published something with such a claim, and nobody had nothing to say about it.
“So, let the debate continue, and hopefully it will force us to publish another book that will force us to add those that we left out. I really acknowledge and thank those of you that made it here on time. The objective here is to bring this book to your attention, with the hope that we would start something from this that would lead to so many other collaborations between us and the writers’ community.”
Suleiman read an excerpt from Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.
Also for Eghosa, the anthology is something of pride to a writer like himself who crossed over from medicine to take up writing and its allied business of publishing as fulfilling careers. He called the anthology both fulfillment and celebration of Nigerian writing.
“The kind of pride I felt seeing an MD of a bank come on stage to read alone,” Eghosa said, “it brings joy to see the things that made us geeks and nerds while we were growing up to studying medicine and coming back to what we love, and understanding that the beauty behind our people is unacknowledged. There are many ways to create this. There is this certain anger to tell people that we are (exist), and we’ve existed before. As I’ve gotten older, I’m able to speak with confidence; I don’t bother, and I don’t care anymore. I’m just joyful that this anthology on Nigerian writing exists on its own terms. It’s an acknowledgement that the Nigerian identity exists despite the origins in the colonial construct. For me, that’s where my joy comes from; simple, light and paradoxical, relative joy, despite the anger in the world. There is still joy in speaking the truth to your people.
“I cannot analyze my happiness that this has been done. It is a celebration of Nigerian writing. I am a Nigerian and I speak two languages. We are the missing story they are talking about. Someone could say we have lost our mother tongues because we don’t understand (them). What language do I write in that others would understand?”
Barrett was concerned with the range of the anthology in capturing the entirety of what constitutes Nigerian writing, when he said, “The thing with anthologies is that it’s always subjective, it’s someone’s impression of what is the best in Nigerian literature, it’s always someone’s impression of what’s important, what speaks to them or what is artistic, and I’ve seen a few anthologies. For me, this is just another one. I actually feel biased, because I’m here to speak about this one, and also, when the work was being done, and the editors were reading to compile this, some of the books they read came from my bookshelves, because I would send books. I’m sure if we put every Nigerian writer who deserves to be in A Possible Future: An Anthology of the Best Nigerian Writing (1789 – 2018), it will be five times bigger than this. I got it when it was ready, and I glanced through it, and something that struck me was that it did not reflect the effort that women have put into Nigerian writing. This is a good work that tries to capture the history of Nigerian (literary) history. There will be more anthologies, book launches, and more people sitting here talking about what they feel is the best of Nigerian writing.”