July 19, 2024
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Odili Ujubuonu: 60 Years of Magic and Memorable Aesthetics

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  • June 24, 2024
  • 9 min read
Odili Ujubuonu: 60 Years of Magic and Memorable Aesthetics

Uzor Maxim Uzoatu

ODILI Ujubuonu is a Renaissance man; that is, he is among those rare beings who have their hands and grey matter in diverse pies. I guess I am only qualified to talk about his delivery in the field of literature since I am mightily unqualified to talk about those other fields where Ujubuonu excels such writing the Anambra State anthem, corporate governance, management wizardry, monetary wealth or even sartorial elegance!

I do know that it was the former United States President Bill Clinton who said: “It’s the economy, stupid!” For me, the economy is out of the door: It is literature, finis!

To get to grips with Ujubuonu’s grounding in learning, one needs to read the book he edited entitled Sons of a Priest which dwells on his grooming together with the esteemed old boys of Christ the King College (CKC), Onitsha, he attended under the tutelage of the lionized Reverend Father Nicholas Tagbo as the Principal. Ujubuonu grew up in Lagos but was taken back to his Igbo roots as per education in CKC Onitsha and university studies at University of Nigeria (UNN) Nsukka. Ujubuonu’s endowments as per the lore of the roots of is native Ukpor hometown and the wider outreaches of Igboland are indeed marvels to behold in his works.

Ujubuonu began his novelistic forays on a prize-winning note with his debut novel, Pregnancy of the Gods, which I was privileged to read in manuscript. The novel won the coveted ANA/Jacaranda Prize for Prose in 2006.

There is this old jinx that it is a tough act to follow a successful first novel with an equally successful second novel. Ujubuonu broke the jinx with his critically acclaimed 2008 second coming entitled Treasure in the Winds that became a nominee for the 2008 Nigerian Prize for Literature and the winner of the 2008 ANA/Chevron Environmental Prize. Ujubuonu third novel, Pride of the Spider Clan, continued the winning streak as it was nominated for the 2012 Wole Soyinka Prize for Africa and won the 2012 ANA Prose Prize.

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Uzor Maxim Uzoatu

The three prize-winning novels form a trilogy of in-depth narratives into the profundity of the storehouse of the past.

Ujubuonu latest novel, Crows of the Yellow Stream, is a riveting tale set in the pre-colonial time when man was at one with the environment, nature and animals of the forest.

The cosmopolitan upbringing of Ujubuonu somewhat offered him zestful eyes to look deep into his natal culture. He explores the Igbo cosmology with all his being, daring to farm in the hinterland of magic and mystery. A gifted craftsman, Ujubuonu is charmed by the bucolic environment and offers no apologies whatsoever for adding muster to the grounding fieldwork undertaken by the old master Chinua Achebe who authored Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God.

Ujubuonu said this much to Henry Akubuiro of The Sun: “As far as I am concerned, Achebe was an inventor and I am a consumer of his invention. He invented a style and a diction, and we consumed it. Sometimes we consumed it well; sometimes we consumed it badly; and sometimes we tried to consume it as much as we would have wanted it consumed. We are just consumers. We are not at par with him. We continue from where he stopped.”

The dichotomy of Nigerian writers at home and the ones in the Diaspora is neither here nor there for Ujubuonu who insists he is not writing for the wonted recognition of the white man. In the words of Ujubuonu in the aforementioned interview with Akubuiro, “I don’t think about the white man; I don’t remember the West when I write. So, if you are not within my target audience, why would I expect them to find my work interesting? I think it’s for those you are writing for. I am an advertising man. My target audience is very key for every brand you are creating. My target audience is my people, and, if my people are fine with my work, I think I have greater success than anything else.”

It is not as though he doesn’t want his works to travel, but the focus must not be compromised, as he stresses thusly: “My prayer for every work is that it should grow wings and touch the four ends of the earth, but you can’t force your work on people. First of all, you must look for your target audience and write for them. It’s very uncharitable for me to determine for a writer whom to write for. There are people who want to write because they want to appear on CNN. I am not one of them. If I want to do that, I have to touch on certain issues CNN or New York Times will be interested in. But, if I am writing for my people – Nigerians and Africans – I have to write on issues that concern them. So I won’t criticise a writer’s style because of what he wants to achieve. Maybe some people look at ambition in terms of global reach. It doesn’t work that way for me. Sometimes some successes can be transcendental in terms of space and time. Some could be linear – you write here, it runs to the end of the world. But, if it’s transcendental, this generation or the next might go and the next will come back to your work. That’s how it works.”

It is cool by me to spell out here that my first encounter with Ujubuonu’s fiction was stranger than fiction. It happened way back as I was minding my poor poetic means while walking on James Robertson Street, Surulere, Lagos only for Ujubuonu to take me into his office and hand over to me the manuscript of what later became his first novel entitled Pregnancy of the Gods.

The manuscript, strange as it was, so magnetized me that I read and edited it in one fell swoop all through the weekend. When I handed back the stuff to him I made my complaint to his face thusly: “Young man, who gave you the power to ruin the weekend of the poet with unstoppable magical prose?”

Ujubuonu may look innocent to the ordinary eye but he is truly guilty of having mystical powers deep inside that churns the mind and leaves his readers gasping for breath.

Pregnancy of the Gods is the thrilling story of the good lady Ekemma whose husband Udo dies quite suddenly and the widow must perforce prove to a distrustful and taunting community that her pregnancy actually belongs to her late husband. Amid her immense loneliness, she must answer to the Ezeani council and the suspicions of the wider society. There is the impossible figure of Eze Ochendo. There is Udemba. There is the cliff-hanger that the unborn child can unhinge the cosmos. The battle is end-of-the-world-like. Pregnancy of the Gods is a modern classic set in the old world like Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.

Treasure in the Winds, the second novel in the trilogy, lends magical power to the flute with which Obuita kidnaps Adaego as payback to his stingy master, Ikechukwu. The search for the flute becomes a life-defining force as some daring Aro men are drawn into the do-or-die crusade. “Where is the flute?” Who finds the flute keeps the treasure! Treasure in the Winds is an accomplished masterpiece and I daresay Ujubuonu’s favourite novel.

Pride of the Spider Clan, the final leg of the jigsaw puzzle of the trilogy, is the double-edged story of two protagonists, Isikamdi and Odidika. A prodigy of destiny, Isikamdi leads the charge as a descendant of Aro men destined to rule the turf upon finding the sacred magic flute carved from the hallowed ofo wood. The course of Odidika is to be the chief priest of the god of the delta, Isi-Ani. The denouement entails interminable intrigues and struggle. Pride of the Spider Clan is an astonishing rendition of heroism in ornate prose.

The trilogy of novels made up of Pregnancy of the Gods, Treasure in the Winds and Pride of the Spider Clan are woven around the sacred flute, the magical musical instrument lost and sought after in communities around the lower Niger.

Ujubuonu’s fourth novel, Crows of the Yellow Stream, is a saga delving into the vast past, not unlike Ayi Kwei Armah’s Two Thousand Seasons and The Healers. A sweeping narrative spanning more than two hundred years, the tale intervolves the heady antagonism of Umuisiani and Nekuhu warriors over the earliest settlers in Odoro land. Ikpeama bears the brunt of the accusation of stealing kola-nuts, a crime against the gods in the land. The return of the spirit-lady Okwudo to Odoro ends up with her transmutation to the sacred pot uncovering the land’s timeless secrets, thus revealing the coveted treasure guarded by the crows of the yellow stream. In the mystical blend of humanistic and animistic verities, Ujubuonu explores what life could have been in a pristine community by blending the lives of the humans and the animals with the environment. The novel teems with mystical characters and divine histories. The dreamscape is hallucinatory beyond what we tag magical realism. Crows of the Yellow Stream is a tour de force of storytelling, a master craftsman’s offering at the top of his game. It is incumbent on the perceptive reader to make the cognition of the incarnation or reincarnation of the revelation at the end of Crows of the Yellow Stream as Ikebugwu calls Ikpeama “Okonkwo!”

Who can place a bet against Achebe’s Okonkwo reincarnating as Ujubuonu’s Ikpeama? The Igbo strongman never dies in the masterful verbs and magical nouns of master storytellers.

Let’s end on this note: Ujubuonu is a modern master gifted with the magical eloquence of ancient lore.

* Uzoatu, a writer and journalist, delivered this address at the 60th birthday celebration of Odili Ujubuonu at Prof. Kenneth Dike Library, Awka, Anambra State

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