AiW Guest: Tọ́pẹ́ Salaudeen-Adégòkè
Tọ́pẹ́ Salaudeen-Adégòkè continues his in-depth discussion of the Ake Review 2015. Read Part I, which discusses poetry, here.
Ten Questions: African writers discuss their work
The Ten Questions section of the Ake Review features festival guests answering questions about their work amongst other things. This section pries into the writers’ life, work, influences, and especially their opinion about reviews. In today’s literary landscape where there is a dearth of respectable learned critics, constructive criticism and reviewers, it is important that writers should be asked about reviews, as it enables them to raise concerns about contemporary African literary criticism. To the question, ‘What are your views on reviews and whether authors should read them?’ Abubakar Adam Ibrahim responds, ‘Reviews are good. They help sell books and create discussion platforms…’ Ekow Duker says, ‘Read them by all means.’ He stresses further, ‘A thoughtful review— good or bad— can help make one a better writer’. Toni Kan, ‘I love reading reviews whether good or bad. I marvel at writers who say they don’t read them. We are writers and our relevance, as Heinrich Boll said, comes from meddling.’ Dami Ajayi affirms the importance of reviews when he says, ‘They nourish the body of literature and books themselves’.
But some of the authors interviewed in the Ake Review hold an intolerant stance to reviews, especially negative reviews. Inua Ellams’ view is: ‘Avoid like the plague, unless they are positive, then stich a cloak with them and wear into future interviews’. Chiagozie Fred Nwonwu has this to say: ‘Reviews to me are largely the personal views of the reviewer, and since they say one man’s meat could be another poison, I think no review can honestly be said to represent a standard truth’. But he admits, ‘Reviews are very important for the industry’. Nnedi Okorafor adds her own opinion: ‘Don’t read them, but you know you will. And when you do, don’t take them too seriously’. These writers surely submit their works for awards and literary prizes; they must realise that in doing so, they are inviting the judges’ critique.
Other questions are asked also. For example, the subtle satirical jibe of Niran Okewole to the question: ‘You’ve been entered for the Ake Festival Karaoke, what song will you sing?’ He responds, ‘None. Have you heard those frogs croaking at the Bamboo, at the Obasanjo Presidential Library in Abeokuta? They sing better.’ Zukiswa Wanner has her own say, ‘What if God Smoked Cannabis (it’s a bastardised version of Joan Osborne’s What if God Was One of Us). This would save me from me from cringing at the fact that Joan’s songwriter entitled the original ‘What if God Was’ instead of ‘What if God Were’. Eghosa Imasuen shares his hip-hop favourite, ‘Music and Me- Nate Dogg’. For Efe-Paul Azino, it is ‘Passenger’s All Little Lights and Whiz Kid’s Ojuelegba…’ Dami Ajayi choose, ‘Fela’s Power Show’ and Howard French, ‘Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense, by Fela’.
To the question ‘What’s your Africa?’, Ayodele Morocco Clarke declares, ‘My Africa is ME.’ Rachel Zadok’s replies: ‘My Africa? Anywhere one can dance with abandon, laugh with abandon, discuss the West with ridicule for the way they view Africa’. Uzor Maxim Uzoatu says, ‘My Africa throbs by way of the village cockcrow’. Maaza Mengiste is more familial, ‘My Africa is my family, scattered everywhere but still connected’. For Veronique Tadjo her Africa ‘is made up of all the places I lived in on the continent.’ Chris Abani’s Africa is ‘Power, possibility, transformation and heart.’
Interviews with Niyi Osundare and Namwali Serpell
The two long interviews in the journal are conducted by Kola Tubosun. The first is titled ‘Ours is not yet a Humane Society’ with the festival’s headliner Prof Niyi Osundare, a literary luminary, internationally acclaimed, decorated and honoured, an authority in the Nigerian poetry scene. Prof Osundare talks amongst many other issues about the university system in Nigeria and the falling standard of education in the country. He gets nostalgic with ASUU, talks about his Yoruba background, which he confessed ‘as abundant blessing’ to his poetry, the performative element of poetry (he says ‘some poems are written for the eye, some for the ear, and others for both’), the functionality of poetry, Yoruba as a language.
There is a surprising gaffe in this piece when Tubosun, the interviewer, fails to recall Osundare’s two publications after Tender Moments, both published in 2011. Who does not know about Osundare’s ordeal during Hurricane Katrina, which resulted in his Katrina collection? In fact, Tubosun mentioned later in the interview that Osundare was ‘notably affected by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005, and you’ve given a number of interviews about that sad event.’ An error like that should not be overlooked when it involves writers and critics of learning of the calibre of Kola Tubosun. It swells the debate about our reading and critical culture to a dreadful magnitude.
The second interview by Tubosun is titled ‘Home is Always a Slippery Word’, with the 2015 winner of the Caine Prize, Prof Namwali Serpell. Serpell bares open her opinion about literary awards and prizes ‘framing writing as a competition’. She is of the opinion that prizes should rather foster mutual encouragement among writers: an interesting remark, as literary prizes have been the cause of Nigerian literary feuds. However, Tubosun does not engage Serpell properly on her works or her story, ‘The Sack’ that won the Caine Prize. Rather he asks questions that do not follow and asks about people’s comments online. For example, one of such questions goes like this: ‘I also read the “The Guardian is My Hero” blog post you wrote to call people to attention to The Guardian snipping your thoughts in half for a reason I couldn’t understand at the time. A friend of mine, and critic, Aaron Bady said it was “patronising shittiness”, which I think captures it. Or did you see it any differently?’ Ah, yes. Now, isn’t that patronising shittiness? He failed to intellectually engage the writer. There is no subtler way of saying that.
Contemporary directions in African short fiction
The Ake Review also makes room for short fiction. There are interesting stories from Dilman Dila, Bura-Bari Nwilo, Hymar David, Edafioka Eguono Lucia, Jumoke Verissimo, Mariam Sule and others. Differing in pattern, but all agreeing to the theme of the journal, the short stories adopt psychological realism in engaging the theme except Lucia’s piece which is a combination of both realism and surrealism. It is also interesting to note that Nwilo and David’s stories wear the trademark of Nigerian short fiction: humour.
Dilman Dila’s ‘The Woman in Yellow’ is an excerpt from a novel in progress, This Trouble Started Long Ago. The plot is woven around a young man, Tabu, who is an utter introvert and has an irrational fear of being touched: chiraptophobia. He suffers from Recovered Memory Syndrome, the fear of remembering, something to do with a childhood experience he can’t remember. He lives alone in his muzigo in a neighbourhood full of people trying to concern themselves with his business. On weekends, when he does not go to work, he savours the aloneness in his room. But on a certain weekend, everything about his fear diminishes when he chances upon a woman he desires to touch.
‘How to Say Goodbye’ by Bura-Bari Nwilo is about a lady, Zasi, going to a casket shop to buy a casket for herself to fulfil her wish of making her own funeral arrangement as a way of dealing with the cancer she is diagnosed with. It is a good story but the author gets carried away in the narration, as the shop attendant asks, casually, if the shopping the protagonist is making is for herself. What kind of attendant would ask that? As if it is natural for anybody to walk in and decide to buy a casket for herself, just like buying cloth. In fact, we realise it is just in a bid to fix the flow of the plot; the question forestalls the protagonist’s thoughts: ‘it is not like if I lay in it I would find healing or wake up somewhere finer, she thought’ in reply to the attendant’s question. The writer makes the attendant omniscient, privy to the ailment of the woman, her thoughts and the fact that she’s a twin, despite the fact she never reveals anything of the sort in the dialogue.
Hymar David’s ‘Brown-Eyed Devil’ is written in that style of prose that can only be described as Chuma Nwokolo-esque: comic, satiric, down-to-earth in narrative description. David also shares a peculiar attribute with this remarkable writer: the effective use of Pidgin in dialogue. This short story tells about parental conflict and marital separation. It is a narration of two children, and their father, being deserted by their mother at an early age. Their father occasionally muses in the children’s presence and refers to their mother as a devil. This absence of their mother forms questions in their mind. And, suddenly, when this devil, ‘very yellow and large breasted’, shows up one day, the narrator, Mary, must either acknowledge or denial her maternal link.
Edafioka Eguono Lucia’s flash fiction ‘The Lord Takes’ is a short narrative about a child who dreams about her father only to wake up to the scene of mourning that crowds their living room. In this piece, about 300 words, the author weaves together the intersection of the physical world and abstract world, showing how our dreams presage the real-world happenings around us. She is able to make a tangible conclusion in this short piece; the brevity is remarkable.
‘Yarn’ by Mariam Sule opens up a reality of queerness and deviants. It is about an intimate friendship between two little girls that share a fetish for each other. Separation comes between them at that time, but they meet again in Benin City where they are individually posted for the NYSC programme. After experiencing heartaches and break-ups with their boyfriends, they open up on old memories and rediscover their secret passion. The author’s minor error in this piece is when she writes ‘The trip from Benin City to Lagos’ when the she had wanted to imply ‘the trip from Lagos to Benin City’. Also, there is a minor grammar oversight in this sentence ‘soon we are giggling as we look at old pictures of Anjola in her laptop’. Singling out the prepositional phrase ‘in her laptop’ from the adverbial in the sentence it seems wrong in the context of its usage.
‘Ferrying Alaba’ by Jumoke Verissimo is a compassionate story about special people, about discrimination against them, about motherhood, about parental negligence. The story focuses on the plight of a special child, Taiwo, who is the only survivor of a set of triplets. Abandoned by her mother because of her deformity, she is loved and raised by her grandmother. But after her grandmother dies, everything about Taiwo’s life changes. Her mother takes her away from the street where she is loved by everybody to her mother’s village to prove the potency of her womb, believing the superstition that caring for a child makes the womb of a woman fruitful. But at the village Taiwo experiences a tragedy. Her mother’s sorrow being the superstition ‘I wish I didn’t walk in the night when I was pregnant… Iwin always enter the womb and take the children’s place’—seeing her as a demon or malevolent spirit, and not a child.
Arts and photography: visual arts from the fringes
Under the arts and photography section, works by Tyna Adebowale, Andrew Esiebo and Victor Ehikhamenor grace this section, exploring the Ake theme in different artistic narratives. Several of the artists engage with the position of those on the fringes of Nigerian society. Andrew Esiebo’s photography exhibition is titled ‘Margins and Marginalisation’. Part of it is called ‘Resilience’. The photographer speaks through the lens the story of the internally displaced people feeling the insurgency of Boko Haram in refugee camps in Yola, Nigeria. ‘Living Queer’, as Andrew Esiebo calls his exhibition, brings the story behind the headlines in pixels. One photograph explores life in the camps. It shows, probably a family, excepting a father, lying in a bunker bed with their attention turned somewhere else. Another work of photography is a monochrome portrait of Wole Soyinka. It shows him as he concentrates on a laptop with blurred bushes as background. The picture is probably taken at his home country. The picture defies words and in the place of words just fills you with awe.
Tyna Adebowale, meanwhile, explores female sexuality and stereotypical sexuality of women’s bodies, female identity and gender discrimination. Adebowale’s series is called ‘Shadows and Dreams’. She celebrates the female body in her paintings to question and challenge the norm of a special model, a figure woman should be. She argues about the subjectivity of the beauty of corpulent women.
Victor Ehikhamenor comes up next and art enthusiasts surely know what to expect in his work. The art critic Emmanuel Iduma says of his art:
Victor Ehikhamenor’s images always work as a proliferation of forms. It’s the sort of proliferation that explodes in your face, making the shapes and objects something other than shapes and objects. Too much is happening, which is the imperative for this transaction—no space is left uncontained. These images and objects embody forms; to uncover any inherence or indwelling in the work, you look at the operations of the forms.
Exactly. In the art featured in the journal too much is happening all at the same time. You try to follow the brushstrokes only to be lost in its matrices and nuances. Out of these matrices of forms, intersecting lines, the form of a sombre woman can be discerned, with dilating pupils looking downward. There is something like tribal marks on the woman’s face. Her breasts are pointing downward. Her right hand droops down. In between the fingers, there are two forms that looks like a faces. There’s a form behind her; a male head. In its eyes there is a reflection, a lust maybe, of two female bodies. Riveted at their curves. Its hands wrapped around the form of the woman: one hand rest lazily on her chest, the other disappears behind her. Behind that form, there are also two heads peeping from behind. Beneath her, a profile view of another face is riveted on her. Should I title it, I will call it ‘Women are not Trophies’.
What is the place of drama?
And that is all that for the 2015 edition of the Ake Review. However, there is a hostility in our literary culture that the journal reflects. It is the systematic negligence of the dramatic genre. There are hardly any journals or magazines, print or online, that take submissions in the dramatic literature. Our literary tradition is systematically killing playwrights, before they are even born. That Ake Review should not feature even a playlet contributes to the silent abandon of the dramatic literature. Maybe the journal plays into that populist apathy that play is not meant for print. Well, it is a misconception and argument that is unfounded.
A book is an imagination. Whether prose, poetry or drama, the common feature of the genres is that they all appeal to the imagination of a reader. Concerning the argument about the printed play, Martin Meisel in How Plays Work: Reading and Performance gives a distinct and clear argument:
‘The situation of the printed play is not quite that parlous… the printed play, the play that we read, has proved itself adept at finding ways to perform its double role… In fact, not even making the play into a something inscribed on the page as an object of literary interest fit for private perusal is historically to be taken for granted.’ (p 16)
In fact, maybe, ‘a play read affects the mind like a play acted’ says Samuel Johnson. In highlighting the argument for printed play, it is important to mention George Bernard Shaw also. He is one of the playwrights that recognised the importance of printed play. Having been little produced in his time, he turned to reach more audience through print and specifically wrote for print rather for theatre production. More like Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound or Hardy in The Dynasts who, in a way, wrote for ‘a theatreless theatre of the mind’ as Miesel observes.
At the time of writing, the Ake Review 2016 was being edited by Molara Wood; as a writer, literary and art critic with a long and impeccable literary pedigree, readers might hope to read a playlet in the next edition of the Ake Review, ‘Beneath this Skin’.
Look out for Tọ́pẹ́ Salaudeen-Adégòkè continuing his in-depth discussion of the Ake Review in coming weeks with pieces on the Ake Review 2016.
The Favourite Son of Africa is the pseudonym of Tọ́pẹ́ Salaudeen-Adégòkè. He is an editor, literary critic and poet from Ibadan, Nigeria. Tọ́pẹ́ is the co-publisher of Fortunate Traveller, a travel journal. Also, he is the administrator of the Kofi Awoonor Memorial Library in Ibadan. He writes for Wawa Book Review, Abuja, and FilmsandCinemas, Lagos. He enjoys travelling and cooking. He is presently experimenting with poetic forms, including mathematical poetry, but does not know when his debut poetry collection will be ready. @LiteraryGansta is his alter ego on Twitter.