‘…Garuba is the generational bridge, update spirit’
‘…Africa produces some of the most under-studied texts in the world’
By Godwin Okondo
IN honour of the late Nigerian scholar and poet, Prof. Harry Garuba, and in celebration of his posthumous birthday, scholars and poets from across the world came together to present a book to him: Chants, Dreams, and Other Grammars of Love. The book is a collection essays and poems written by different scholars and poets who knew him intimately. Until his last days, Garuba taught at the University of Cape Town (UCT), South Africa.
The programme, which held virtually and was curated by Prof. Remi Raji-Oyelade of the University of Ibadan, was graced by scholars and poets who shared fond memories of the late poet. Some of them included Prof. Toyin Falola, Prof. Tanure Ojaide, Prof. Niyi Osundare, Dr. Nduka Otiono, Prof. K. M. Masemola, Dr. Wale Okediran, Dr. Ifowodo Ogaga, as well as writers and poets like Lukman Sanusi and Eriata Oribhabor, Uche Nduka, Jahman Anikulapo, among many others. His family was also in attendance. The programme also featured readings from the book by writers who contributed to the collection.
The idea of the book came from Mrs. Josephine Alexander, who said while giving the opening remarks, “Harry was our mentor. I am happy that we are here to present this book on this day, and I hope you will enjoy what we have to share with you.”
But it was Professors Toyin Falola and Niyi Osundare who gave both historical and canonical underpinnings to the celebration. While Falola dwelt on the historicisation of the country’s literary tradition that Garuba exemplifies, Osundare lamented the absence of critical, intelligent voices to respond to the literature being produced in the country, and that a vacuum has thus been created.
Falola first recounted his association with Garuba when he said, “I met Garuba at various occasions, particularly at the University of Cape Town and University of Johannesburg where we spoke about transforming higher education in South Africa. But my best interaction with him was here in Austin, Texas, U.S.. So when I came, one of the first things Garuba did was to put me in that network, and that network brought a stream of speakers. I don’t think there was any major literary person we did not bring to Austin. We brought Soyinka, Ngugi, name them; then we began bringing people for fellowship, depending on time available to them. We brought Prof. Dapo Adelugba, an unpredictable and erratic man; I would drive for three hours just to get him cola nuts, otherwise I would be in trouble. I loved the man of blessed memory. So that interaction was very memorable.”
“Garuba was a very brilliant mind, a first rate academics,” Falola continued before dwelling on how he approaches literature through his understanding of history. “I only do ideology and epistemology; that’s the only thing I do for literature. I convert literature into an archive and turn that archive into what historians do. My book on (Wole) Soyinka just came out; it’s enjoying reviews. I didn’t ask myself to write it; I was asked. I’m writing a book on (Chinua) Achebe. It was Bloomsbury that asked me to write it. So when I said, ‘why don’t you ask (Niyi) Osundare or Remi Raji to write it’, they said that’s not the kind of book they are looking for; that the book they are looking for is the one that speaks to history.
“So the way you write a book like that is not the way I write it; I use each book to map a historical era. I use Achebe’s books to write the history of Nigeria, and that has been my interest.”
Falola said his interest in literature is in its interaction with history, how it maps a historically given moment in the life of a nation.
“I’m one of you, but in being one of you, I don’t do what you do; I don’t compete with you,” he said. “And I must thank Prof. Remi Raji, because he did one thing when he asked me to give the keynote address in Akure during ANA Convention. Prof. (Femi) Osofisan and Odia Ofeimun were there. And I turned the lecture into a book that Remi Raji wrote the blurb. I titled it Literary Imagination and the Nigerian Nation in which I took all the (literary) books that have been written and turned them into Nigerian history. That’s my only intervention. That’s what I do; I don’t do critical interpretation; that’s not my talent. I don’t do the meanings of poems; that’s not my talent. I don’t have that talent.
“So what I did in this Harry Garuba’s book (the essay I did is very long – 42 pages) is to put him in the context of history. The way you (in the literary profession) do it is to say Osundare is second generation and Harry is third generation; that’s not me. That is you in the profession (of literary delineation). I began by mapping out his poetry and poetics.”
Falola also gave context to what he does with literature with quotes from two writers.
“And I will just read what (late Pius) Adesanmi said of Harry: ‘Harry Garuba’s contention in his contribution is in defining and delimiting the boundaries of a literary generation which cannot escape our late friend the problem of ideological indeterminacy factors such as thematic fluidity, temporal overlaps, and boundary cutting define his work.’
“And my last will be Remi Raji (I hope this doesn’t embarrass him) who said, ‘there’s a sense in which it can be said that the most symbolic gesture to encourage and to establish the emergence of new Nigerian writers, new voices who will later be referred to as members of the third generation occurred in the year 1988. The place was Ibadan, and its silent visionary was the scholar and poet, Harry Garuba, then teaching at the Department of English. The Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) initiated the publication of six collections of poetry by some of the emerging and promising writers at the time…’ and he mentioned Harry Garuba as one of them.”
The eminent historian stressed the chronological relationship between literature and history, and stated, “Even if you do not believe in the chronology, there’s a lot of agreement, and there’s a lot of disagreement to be made. But one of the critiques is the overlap; so sometimes we have to do this chronology to make sense of what we do. I did this essay on Ofeimun, and sometimes when themes are repetitive, when the trope is repetitive, when the context refuses to change, when the problematic of the nation keeps regressing and corruption is multiplying, what we’re addressing is the same thing. We map the chronology and what we map is consistency and continuity. So we agree with the chronology, and at the same time, we have to say that the generations, irrespective of how time has divided them, are dealing with situations that have refused to change.”
He cited the instance of “this angst about lack of electricity is the angst Acheba has addressed, Odia has addressed, Osundare addressed and Harry Garuba addressed.”
According to Prof. Masemola, he said, “its lovely we’re keeping his memory alive. He is a brother to us all. We first met at work in Natal, and we had very long conversations. My growth was quite phenomenal because I hung around him. He was a scholar of African literature.”
For Okediran, “We shared so many things together. I want to appreciate his work and his mentees. Thank you for putting this together. We hope to do something like this, here in Ghana, someday, to honour African poets.”
According to Mr. Ogaga, he said, “I wasn’t a student of Ibadan, but I became an inducted member because of my presence in Ibadan as a student activist. From the gate, I would make a beeline to get to Harry’s place and meet everybody, and the time I was in Ibadan was always a happy time. We last met in Texas, when he came to visit me. I have been trying to write a poem dedicated to him. It’s amazing that even when he’s gone, he’s still able to bring us all together like this.”
Otiono said, “I want to acknowledge the sacrifices of the editors for making the publishing of this book possible. I watched from the sidelines, but this is a project that is close to the heart. There couldn’t be, for me, a better time to show gratitude for people who have impacted our lives, and there could never be a better opportunity than this. I was closely drawn by the sacrifice and dedication. Funmi has a strong tenacity for what she’s dedicated to. There was no sponsorship or grant. Members of the community put in their personal cash to put this book out.”
Otiono recalled their days together at The Post Express newspaper, the bukka joint as meeting point, and how it became a beehive of literary activities, with Garuba as the moving spirit attracting everyone together.
Lukman Sanusi said, “Garuba has been described as the king of boys, but I see him as someone who has produced giants. I last saw him in London with some other giants. It was very inspiring to be in his company. It is a pleasure to be a part of this occasion. May his soul rest in perfect peace.”
Harry’s sisters and children also graced the occasion. According to one of his sisters, Mrs. Blossom Garuba, said, “I want to thank you on behalf of Harry’s family, Zazi, Ruona and Zukina for this book lunch in Harry’s memory. Harry would have been so touched that his friends got together to do this for him.
“Harry had a generous heart. He was passionate about his work and loved his family dearly. From a young age, Harry always wanted to be a writer and while the rest of us were playing he was always reading and writing poems. Harry was a very loyal person and loved being part of the literary community.”
Ibukun Garuba Osenmota, also said, “I am touched by all the accolades showered on my brother. Thank you for this book launch in Harry’s memory. He would have been so touched to see his friends come together to do this. Thank you for organizing this.”
AT the other extreme was Osundare, who, after recalling the memorable years he had with Garuba as his student and colleague at Ibadan, also lamented the absence of critical response to the literature being written at the moment, as Garuba would have wanted. Osundare began by commenting on Otiono’s April birthday, saying TS Eliot lied about April being ‘the cruellest month’.
“It’s very difficult for me to talk about Harry,” he said. “I think it was Prof. Soyinka who expressed similar sentiments in his short tribute to Prof. Tejumola Olaniyan. I mean, it’s a cruel reversal of order when an older person has to do this (pay tribute) for a younger person. And this younger person is not any person; he was my student, he was my colleague, and he was my collaborator. It’s really difficult, but there’s happiness in it; that we’re doing this means that Harry is very much with us. And I think this is one of the most important things about art: even when people believe that life is short, art is long.
“Harry, (sighs) where do we begin? This makes me so nostalgic, too. Nostalgic and pained; I’m looking at all the faces: the two Ndukas: Otiono and Uche; Gabriel, Sola Olorunyomi, Ama, and so on. And of course, Remi Raji, our curator; they are all here. I’m forcibly taken back to the University of Ibadan in the 1980s and 1990s, and this again is where Harry Garuba kicks in. I used to call him the generational bridge or the update spirit, because what he did to Nigeria poetry with the encouragement and in fact facilitation of Odia Ofeimun and ANA is really, really phenomenal…
For Osundare, the Garuba personality was phenomenal, noting, “This is one of the ways Harry Garuba has warmed his way into our imagination, into our memory and into history. I never met anybody more generous, so generous and humble that he became self-effacing. My Yoruba name for him is Oludare; and when I say the name, he would look at me and both of us would laugh… I never saw him get angry.”
Osundare was immensely appreciative of the event, saying writers needed to celebrate themselves as no one else would do it for them.
“The group that put this together did a lot for us,” he said. “Odia Ofeimun said sometime ago that we in the creative writing community have to do this for ourselves. If we don’t, no other person will do it for us. Is it the government, our misbegotten governments that we have all over Africa that will do this for us? Or is it the thieving politicians? So, it’s us, because we understand and we celebrate the work that we really have.”
Of worry to the Distinguished Professor of English is the problem of Africa’s under-studied texts, arguing that there’s a lack of informed literary critics to respond to the literature being produced.
“Finally, the point made by Prof. Falola is so crucial: historicising literature without really getting to the exegetical core of the literature itself, really looking at what I will call the glorification of the context. I’m looking forward to the two books he talked about on Soyinka and Achebe. And I dare say that such a thing has happened before in history. But such a thing hadn’t happened in Africa. In Africa, we produce some of the most under-studied texts in the world. Harry and I used to talk about this all the time, because he was a theorist; he was practical.
“Time there was when Africa had strong theoretical background, very informed literary critics. The generation of literary critics seemed to have disappeared. And what is art when it gets no intelligent, critical response? These are the things that would have occupied the mind of Garuba if he was still with us; and these are the things I would like to occupy our minds as we are here today. The Nigeria that Nduka Otiono, Ogaga Ifowodo and Afam Ake and so on left behind in the 1990s is so phenomenally, so painfully different from the one that stares us in the face now. Who is going to read our books? Who is going listen to our poets? Harry would have asked these questions. I like Ifowodo’s poem he read.
“Again about Falola’s temporal fluidity and generational continuum; these are two important things Harry stood for and practised so well. That was why every time I saw him, I called him the update spirit and bridge phenomenon. He’s still very much that way.”