By Uduma Kalu
TRIBUTES from writers and scholars across the globe have started to pour in for the author of DisPlace, a collection of poems on the weight of exile on the poet in the western world. The tributes are not just from Nigeria but across the world, and from people far-flung from literary circles.
Otiono left Nigeria to pursue a PhD degree at the University of Alberta in Canada about a decade and a half ago. Otiono has won several literary prizes in Canada while being honoured with membership of the board of some the leading literary and cultural groups in that country such as Canadian Authors Association (CAA). He was recently conferred a Fellow of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) for his outstanding contributions to the association which he served as secretary general for two uninterrupted tenures of four years.
Otiono, a visible presence in most literary networks, one of which was the recent remembrance of Chinua Achebe’s 10th year posthumous anniversary, has also hurled Nigerian literary prizes for his books, short stories, anthologies and poems in Nigeria and abroad. The ALA, in awarding the Best Book Award to Otiono, said DisPlace clinched the prize “for an outstanding book of literature by an African writer published last year.”
The ALA annual conference ended last Saturday with award ceremony in Tennessee, US. Otiono won the Best Book of the Year Award – Creative Writing 2023 of the African Literature Association (ALA) for his book, DisPlace.
Otiono, a professor, has been a visiting scholar and academic in some African and American universities. One of the brains that helped to midwife the new generation of Nigerian writers through his newspaper columns and journals, Otiono has continued in this drive in the diaspora, this time expanding the horizon to include projecting African literature.
In his acceptance speech, Otiono said: “DisPlace is a testament of these tributaries of the self, as well as a verbal collage of the flow of the river from my hometown Ogwashi-Uku in the Anioma area of Delta State, Nigeria, to the wide expanse of Obodo Oyibo.” Obodo oyibo is Igbo word for the western world. It was first meant for Europe before the western hemisphere of Europe and Canada was added to it. Otiono said DisPlace is a “witness to the acclamation that poetry, in the words of the prolific American-Canadian poet, A. F. Moritz, ‘can become the world we actually live in, not just in verse, but on both sides of our front door’.”
“’Both sides of our front door’ is a metaphor for what has been termed ‘The Dualities of Nduka Otiono.’ These dualities extend to my identity as an African-Canadian and the various lives that I have lived and continue to live. As I affirm elsewhere, the elements of my dualities are ‘the branches of a river, flowing into one mainstream,’ which ‘reflect the work that I do as a creative writer, as a scholar, as an educator’.”
Otiono expressed his gratefulness to the African Literature Association (ALA) for the award, his publisher, Wilfrid Laurier University Press, publishers of Canada’s foremost poetry series, and Carleton University, his employer, for providing him with the platform to thrive as an instructor, interdisciplinary scholar and creative artist. He noted that the book was completed against the storm of the Covid-19 pandemic that snuffed out millions of lives across the globe.
The former general secretary of the Association of Nigerian Authors further added: “It is a testimony to the human capacity for resilience and a creative and robust response to tragedies embodied in the triumph over the pandemic, that life has returned to its pre-pandemic socialisation status. Such, too, is the power of poetry as a healing balm that uses words and sounds. The earliest, casual, comment I made about the book has now been resounded by not only revered critics of African literature but has received the badge of more incredible honour by ALA!”
In felicitating with Otiono, a lecturer and publisher based in Nigeria, Ndubisi Martins, said, “Now on DisPlace, the pressure to publish my essay, which I want to improve upon, receives its fiery urgency! Delightful! Congratulations, Prof. Nduka Otiono; the book fits the remit of stuff I like to give critical attention to.”
And it’s gratifying that other commentators said the prize is heart-warming “news coming at a great time like this.”
A professor and writer, James Tsaaior, while congratulating Otiono, said he too joined in his joy to greater heights. This was the same message from other Nigerian writers and scholars such as Nengi Ilagha and Nnimmo Bassey while foreign friends such as Amanda Coffiee, Pam Osborne, Jema Butler, in culture magazine, Brittle Papers and on Twitter by many writers, etc, noted the importance of the continental prize to the growing gaze Nigerian, nay African writing and writers, continue to deservedly receive globally.
* Kalu, journalist and writer, resides in Umuahia