AiW Guest: Matthew Lecznar
To sum up the varied literary legacies of the Nigeria-Biafra War (1967-70) in a single volume is no easy task. The conflict, which ended in the deaths of an estimated 1-2 million people, has produced a vast array of biographical, historical and fictional texts by writers from diverse backgrounds and with myriad political proclivities.
This, however, is the impressive aim of Toyin Falola and Ogechukwu Ezekwem in Writing the Nigeria-Biafra War (James Currey 2016). While the editors frame the work as an intellectual history of the war rather than a complete critical compendium of textual responses, they still describe the book as “the first attempt at a comprehensive analysis of the civil war writings”. The volume certainly explores a large range of issues and texts: from Ogechi Anyanwu’s theoretically rich investigation into the causes of the war and Hugh Hodges’ fascinating reading of Chris Abani’s novel GraceLand (2004) through the lenses of the Nietzschean concepts of redemption and nihilism, to Fiona Bateman’s assessment of the theatrical reception of Biafra in the Irish imagination.
The ambition of the project is certainly to be commended, and a number of its chapters make important interventions in the field. Particularly compelling are the contributions from Austine Okwu and Biodun Jeyifo, who offer personal perspectives on aspects of the war literature. Okwu, who worked as a Biafran diplomat during the war, gives unique insight into the history of the notorious Ahiara Declaration, a document published by the Biafran regime in the dying months of the conflict. Okwu argues as the declaration tried to shore up support for the secession, it hastened Biafra’s downfall by alienating powerful interest groups within and outside the enclave. In addition, Biodun Jeyifo’s essay offers a thoughtful response to Chinua Achebe’s controversial final publication, his war memoir titled There Was A Country (2012). In it, Jeyifo finds a different Achebe to the one canonised in Africa literary studies: an alternative Achebe whom Jeyifo argues rejects subtlety for the purposes of ideological zealotry. However, despite these contradictions, Jeyifo ultimately asserts that There Was A Country offers a productive first step towards a fuller understanding of the war’s divisive legacies.
These chapters, and many others besides, effectively combine scholarly rigour and passion, producing contextually grounded and original insights. And yet, the success of these contributions is undermined by the volume’s broader structure. The book is split into four parts, with each section centering on a different paradigm: namely, the historiography of the war, the critical debates in Biafra scholarship, the war’s portrayal in fiction and memoir, and the position of gender in the corpus. While these subjects represent important critical concerns, they are so deeply interrelated that the use of such a general organising framework risks producing an incoherent narrative. Indeed, while essays by Akachi Odoemene and Meredith Coffey both explore the significance of ethnicity in historical and literary responses to the war, they are inserted in different sections despite their clear correspondence. This decision certainly demonstrates the difficulty involved in trying to distinguish between ‘history’ and ‘fiction’. The editors could, however, have created a clearer and more dynamic framework by rejecting narrow formalistic classifications and drawing out links between chapters that cut across disciplines and genres.
This confusion is also demonstrated by the uneven length of the four sections. Although the first and second parts, which set up the historiographical and theoretical debates around the war, both include four chapters, the fiction and memoir section is more than double that length, spanning nine essays. The final gender section, by contrast, comprises only three. Although this imbalance reflects the critical and commercial dominance of literary portrayals of Biafra, it makes the ‘gender’ section feel like an afterthought. It is as if the editors felt obliged to make a progressive gesture to the work of female writers even though the writings of renowned authors such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Buchi Emecheta are explored earlier in the volume. Why not break out of these narrow formal and identity divides, and offer a more radical interpretation of the war’s legacies by dedicating a section to queer and other marginal voices? This seemed particularly urgent given the work done in this area by several contributors. I felt the volume could have also benefited from bringing the visual arts and music into the discussion: a move which would offer new formulations that better reflect the diversity of Biafra’s intellectual and artistic impact.
These reservations notwithstanding, Writing the Nigeria-Biafra War provides an engaging and often enlightening exploration of the Biafran war’s cultural and intellectual history. While there is a tendency to re-enforce established approaches rather than forge new directions, many of the most striking contributions to this volume begin this urgent intellectual work. In so doing, they dare to pursue unfamiliar pathways in the effort of reinvigorating understanding of Biafra’s extraordinary creative influence.
Matthew Lecznar is a doctoral student at the University of Sussex, where he is researching the creative cultural legacy of the Nigeria-Biafra war. He is the co-convenor of Sussex’s annual African Popular Cultures Workshop.
Toyin Falola is the Jacob and Frances Sanger Mossiker Chair in the Humanities and University Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University of Texas at Austin;
Ogechukwu Ezekwem is a PhD student in the Department of History, University of Texas at Austin. (Source: Boydell & Brewer)
Categories: Reviews - Books