AiW Guest: Kalapi Sen
It is a truism in today’s world that ‘African literature’ covers a major portion of literary scholarship, included now on high-school syllabi as well as at undergraduate and postgraduate levels. And one name that has become synonymous with the phrase ‘African literature’ is Chinua Achebe. His thin, classic volume Things Fall Apart (1958) re-defined and re-located the continent’s literature on the global level, propelling him to an almost overnight fame. But in fact, Achebe’s “literary cornerstone” is by no means the first novel written by an African. Rather, it was preceded by many novels written by Achebe’s contemporaries and predecessors.
One such rarely known novel is Pita Nwana’s Omenuko: the first Igbo novel to be written by an Igbo. It was published in London in 1933 when Chinua Achebe, the “founding father of modern African literature” was barely three years of age. While attending the 41st Annual Conference of African Literature Association in 2015, at Bayreuth, I was fortunate enough to get an autographed copy of a new English-language translation of Omenuko by its translator, Professor Ernest N. Emenyonu. In this follow-up interview, Prof. Emenyonu answers some of the major questions pertaining to this particular novel. He was kind enough to grant me the opportunity of conducting this interview for Africa in Words through e-mail.
Kalapi Sen for Africa in Words: In his memoir, There was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra, Chinua Achebe mentions Pita Nwana. In fact, it was during my reading of the book in 2014 that I first came across the name of the first Igbo novelist, who is somewhat unknown to most of the world. There are a number of books on African Literature and its history, but why is it that Pita Nwana’s name rarely exists in the extant surveys?
Ernest Emenyonu: This is mainly because there is scanty (if any) criticism or serious attention paid to creative works in African languages in general by literary scholars. Critics from the African continent have done the least in bringing awareness to this very important but most neglected body of African Literature. Scholars elsewhere are limited in what they can do because they are not proficient in the African languages in which the works are written. They cannot do much until the works are translated into languages with global access. This is the case of the novel, Omenuko, and its author, Pita Nwana.
KS: In your extensive discussion on Omenuko in The Rise of the Igbo Novel (1978), you have mentioned that the ‘first Igbo to publish fiction in Igbo was Pita Nwana’ and that Omenuko has been ‘reprinted several times in various Igbo orthographies and is still a classic in Igbo literature.’ But what took you so long to translate it from your mother-tongue, Igbo, to English whereas the other two African classics, Thomas Mofolo’s Chaka (translated by Prof. Daniel P. Kunene of the University of Wisconsin, Madison) and D. O. Fagunwa’s Ogboju Ode ninu Igbo Irunmale (translated by Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka) were translated during the mid-twentieth century?
EE: The book you refer to, The Rise of the Igbo Novel, was published by Oxford University Press in 1978. I had translated Omenuko into English six years earlier but its original publishers in England would not give permission for the translation to be published, arguing that its publication would hurt sales of the novel in Igbo language (which I dare say was not correct), so I had to wait till the copyright limitation expired.You will see that my translation of Omenuko preceded Dan Kunene’s translation of Chaka in 1983 by a decade, and was only four years after Wole Soyinka’s translation of Ogboju Ode in 1968. But their respective original publishers at the time had different (better) understanding and attitude.
KS: How much do you think the later Igbo writers have been influenced and inspired by Pita Nwana’s style where he uses ‘mixed literary forms,’ which include the ‘traditional and missionary’?
EE: Inspired? Yes. Influenced by Pita Nwana’s style, probably none!
KS: As you have claimed in the ‘Preface’ that Omenuko is an ‘Igbo classic,’ so how much relevance does Nwana’s novel have today for students of African Literature?
EE: Now that Omenuko can be read in Igbo by those who are proficient in Igbo language and others can read its translation in English, it is the responsibility of ‘students of African Literature’ to assess ‘how much relevance Omenuko has today.’
KS: Whenever Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is taught in classrooms, Achebe’s essay ‘An Image of Africa’ and at times, even Things Fall Apart is recommended, as background readings. Now that Omenuko is available in English, do you think that Omenuko should be suggested as a ‘must-read text’ prior to the study of Achebe’s Things Fall Apart? Why?
EE: Definitely, yes. The two novels were the first in history to depict in fiction Igbo life, culture and worldview in pre-colonial Africa. Nwana did it first in Igbo language then Achebe, in English. What do they have in common? Consider their respective portraits of the early Whiteman – his attitudes to the indigenous cultures, and customs, law and order. What do the two novels have in common in the depiction of communal life, crime and punishment and, yes, democratic principles and leadership? What do the novels tell us about Igbo concepts of heroism, success, family, kinship, patriarchy, womanhood and the big issue of human rights? In what ways are they different in their treatment of crime and punishment, and the resolution of conflicts in the respective novels? Omenuko was published a quarter of a century before Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. What if anything, had changed in the period between them? How and why? In so many ways, the perceptive reader would understand better the Igbo life, culture and social attitudes in Things Fall Apart by reading Omenuko first.
KS: In one of my informal conversations with my research supervisor, Dr. Debasish Chattopadhyay, about Omenuko, he referred to it as a ‘novella,’ perhaps because of the apparent size, whereas you term it a ‘novel.’ My reading however, has urged me to call it a ‘long-short-story.’ Do you think that Omenuko, like Conrad’s Heart of Darkness or The Secret Sharer, can also be referred to as a ‘novella,’ a ‘long-short-story’ as well as a ‘novel’? Why?
EE: Both of you are wrong. We have moved away for long, from E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel! Pita Nwana’s Omenuko is a novel, PERIOD!
KS: A very textual question, I would like to ask you. In the novel, one sees that Omenuko, being a black man, if you may pardon my calling him so, it is he who sells off his apprentices into slavery. Do you think that much of the malpractices of Africa, slavery being one of them, were actually initiated by the natives that take terrible faces in the hands of the white masters?
EE: How about taking things in the context of the story in the novel – how individuals act and make decisions in desperate situations. How is the protagonist’s character in the novel defined by his choices and actions? What are his flaws? What drives him – materialism or reason or conscience? What was the Community’s response to the protagonist’s singular criminal action? In spite of the Whiteman’s provocative words and actions in Things Fall Apart, what was the Community’s response to beheading of the Whiteman’s messenger by the irrepressible Okonkwo?
KS: Moving away from Omenuko, tell me something about your upcoming big project: A Literary History of the Novel in African Languages: Focus on the Igbo Novel, 1933 – Present?
EE: The Igbo have a proverb: Ngwugwu aga ato ato, odighi mma imi ya mbo – ‘It is not wise to try to peep into a package that in due course you will have the right and privilege to open without hindrance!’
KS: One last question, there are many other unknown Igbo texts which are still unavailable in English, hence unknown to most of the world, do you think of translating them for universal reading. Which texts would you like to begin with and why?
EE: I am already doing this. Wait and see!
KS: Thank you so much Prof. Emenyonu for your precious answers on a text, mostly unknown, but quite relevant for students of postcolonial literature in general and African Literature in particular.
EE: Thank you.
Prof. Ernest Nneji Emenyonu is a prominent literary critic of African Literature and Research Professor at the University of Michigan-Flint. He has to his credit biographies on such notable African writers as Chinua Achebe and Cyprian Ekwensi. He is presently, the Editor of the oldest journal of African Literature, African Literature Today. He is a Chief in his hometown of Imo State, Nigeria and has been honoured with the title “Ugwu Mba 1 of Mbari” which means “Pride of his people.” Among his literary pursuits, The Rise of the Igbo Novel; Studies on the Nigerian Novel; Goatskin Bags and Wisdom: New Critical Perspectives on African Literature and Literature and Society: Selected Essays on African Literature are quite notable for their ample research on African literature and culture for both student and scholars. His recent book written in collaboration with Charles E Nnolim, commemorating the occasion of Chinua Achebe’s demise, Remembering a Legend: Chinua Achebe (2014) gives a fresh insight to the life and the works of Achebe. He has to his credit a number of articles and editorials in various prominent journals and books published over the years. Emenyonu also excels as a short story writer. His collection of creative writing includes Bed-Time Stories for African Children (1989), Uzo Remembers his Father (1992), Uzo and his Father (1999), Uzoechi: A Story of African Childhood (2012), A Feast in the Sky (2014), Princess Mmaeyen and Other Stories (2015). Presently, he is working on his upcoming book, A Literary History of the Novel in African Languages: Focus on the Igbo Novel, 1933 – Present.
Kalapi Sen teaches in the Department of English, Raja Peary Mohan College, as a Part-Time Lecturer. Her PhD dissertation, entitled “From the Margins to the Centre: A Study of the Subordinate Figures in the Novels of Chinua Achebe” has been submitted in May 2016 at Netaji Subhas Open University, Kolkata. She is a member of the editorial board of an international peer-reviewed journal, Perspectives published by Raja Peary Mohan College, Hooghly, West Bengal, India. She also has to her credit some articles on African Literature published in reputed, peer-reviewed international and national journals and books. She has also presented papers at national level seminars as well as at international conferences. Her recent talk, ‘Ekwefi to Beatrice: A Journey of the African Women from Subordination to Emancipation through the Eyes of Chinua Achebe’ at the 41st Annual Conference of the African Literature Association received appreciation from pioneer critics of African Literature. Her areas of interests are African Literature with special interests in Nigerian literature and the African short story, Postcolonialism, Feminism, Rabindranath Tagore and the short stories of Bengal.