‘Nobody measures a literary tradition by the decibel of quarrels, acrimony between and amongst writers’
By Anote Ajeluorou
Obari Gomba (PhD) teaches creative writing at the University of Port Harcourt, Rivers State, Nigeria. He was a recent Visiting Professor at Oxford University, U.K., and just won the Pan-African Writers Association (PAWA) Poetry Prize 2022 with his collection The Lilt of the Rebel, besides being a winner of many prizes in the past. Gomba speaks about his recent prize and the ferment of writing in the country in spite of the poor politics that is way behind the current cultural renaissance
You have not only won prizes at home (Association of Nigerian Authors – ANA), but now you have just conquered Africa’s poetic landscape as well. What does this mean to you especially at a time you were on a global Fellowship in a global university?
It is a great time for me. I am excited that The Lilt of the Rebel has been recognized as a collection of good poetry. It has 108 poems on diverse aspects of the human experience. It is a book that will speak to people across generations and cultures. The book was ready before I arrived at the University of Oxford in late 2021. While in Oxford, I shared a few of the poems on various social media platforms. I must note that I read somewhat lavishly from it on December 2, 2021 at an event organized by The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH) to commemorate my Visiting Professorship. So, I can say that Oxford gave me the opportunity to further share my poetry with the world. But nothing equals the verdict of PAWA’s jury; history has been made.
And then five Nigerian poets were on the shortlist of five best poets out of Africa from which you won. What does this say about poetry and writing coming out of Nigeria?
Nigerian writers, as I have said elsewhere, are amongst the bravest in the world. No one can deny the creativity of Nigerians. Since the 1950s, there has never been a generation of Nigerians who have not contributed to modern literature. Our literary tradition keeps getting better. Diverse tones and textures. Diverse threads in the cloth. Continuities and departures. Yet, there is remarkable unity of purpose to produce great art against the odds.
So Nigeria may be blooming poetically and culturally, but it still has one of the most worst politics and economy on the continent. What explains this lacuna of cultural advance and a slow political space to match it?
Politics has been Nigeria’s bane. You are right to note the gap between our creative excellence and the idiocy of our politics. It is one of those ironies that mock us all. Part of the problem is that our political culture excludes our best minds from participation. Nigerian politicians are afraid of intellect. The few public intellectuals who go into government are already traumatized by poverty or lack of confidence, and they pursue self-preservation. Others are overcome by megalomania, and they begin to perceive their new statuses as some sort of apotheosis. The rest become cynical and are unmotivated to embark on social action.
Indeed, why has culture blossomed in spite of the country’s lack of political advancement?
No matter how toxic the political culture is, hope has remained a Nigerian (to paraphrase Efe Azino). We must transform hope into action. It is obvious that our present crop of politicians does not mean well for the country. It is time for fresh hands to get involved. It will not be easy to take power from the political class and to shape a new culture of governance, but it is the only positive option left for us. If we have exercised resilience thus far in the face of dysfunction, we must develop the capacity to persistently engage or resist the system until we reshape the country.
A culture critic recently declared that Nigerian and African literature dead, largely because of lack of quarrel among its leading lights and that what’s being produced doesn’t generate much interest. Was he right? Was he wrong?
How do you want me to respond to someone who measures a literary tradition by the decibel of quarrels and/or acrimony between and amongst writers? I understand that people court conflict as self-promotional stunt, but that is never a measure of literary excellence. Excellence or the lack of it can only be seen in the quality of our writings, not in animus. In recent times, we have seen upstarts who denigrate the works of Chinua Achebe, insult Wole Soyinka for the fun of it, declare Femi Osofisan and Odia Ofeimun as persona non grata in certain literary communes, and generally disrespect the elders of our literary heritage. Those upstarts believe they can only attain importance by pulling down the older folks. That is nonsense. Greatness is a road; it is open to each one of us. To walk to destiny, I do not have to pick a fight with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie or Tade Ipadeola.
In fact, we need more collaborations to build enduring platforms for creativity in a country that is insupportable and in a world where Nigerians are fated to work very hard to earn respect. If there must be conflict, there must be genuine grounds for it. A writer who employs conflict for self-promotion has no confidence in his or her creativity.
Someone has argued that poetry is being produced more in Nigeria than prose and other genres. This is in spite of complaints about Nigeria’s poor educational output. So who are poets like you writing for, knowing that poetry is harder to understand? What explains this large output by poets?
It is not a new trend. We can also hazard a guess and say that it is a global situation. In every generation, we have always produced more poetry than prose and drama. Perhaps, the form of poetry lends itself to creative possibilities in a manner that other genres do not.
African women seem to be doing well more in prose than poetry as remarked by the jury chair for English poetry category Maureen Isaacson (she said women and their work were virtually absent). Why is this so?
I cannot say that African women are better at prose than poetry. Maybe we are paying more attention to female novelists than we are paying attention to female poets. Maybe it is simply a question of visibility, not competence.