AiW Guests: Tọ́pẹ́-ẸniỌbańkẹ́ Adégòkè and NLNG Prize for Literary Criticism winner 2020/2021, Uchechukwu Peter Umezurike.
AiW note: We are very pleased to be able to share this conversation between writers and literary journalists, particularly for Adégòkè’s focus in on some of Umezurike’s recent scholarly writing, namely the literary criticism which won him the Nigeria LNG Prize 2020/21, awarded at a ceremony in Lagos, which Umezurike attended via Zoom, on October 30, 2021.
Committed to the support of a critically informed reading culture, each year of the Nigeria Prize for Literary Criticism competition calls for contestants to enter three or more critical essays published in a major literary/scholarly journal. Umezurike’s winning entries are:
- ’Self-Publishing in the era of military rule in Nigeria, 1985 – 1999′, Journal of African Cultural Studies (Volume 32, Issue 2, 2020)
- ‘Postcolonial Ogres in Ngugi Wa Thiong’o’s Wizard of the Crow’, Postcolonial Text (Vol 13, No 2 – 2018) – available to read online here
- ‘Land of cemetery: funereal images in the poetry of Musa Idris Okpanachi’, Tydskrif vir Letterkunde (55, 2 – 2018) – available to read online here
Entries for the 2022 competition are currently open, closing on the 8th April. (See below the interview for more details.) The Nigerian Prize for Literary Criticism currently has a cash value of N1 million.
Literary criticism aims to deepen interpretations, outlook and the craft of creative writing. It also places emphasis on a particular milieu, be it literary, historical or imaginary. Therefore literary criticism must be supported and encouraged for robust development and growth of creative writing.
Tọ́pẹ́-ẸniỌbańkẹ́ Adégòkè: Let me say my congratulatory ritual to you first before we begin. Please accept my handshake. It must feel fabulous winning the 2021 NLNG Prize for Literary Criticism – did / does it?
Uchechukwu Peter Umezurike: Thanks, Tọ́pẹ́. Yeah, it does feel good. It feels good having a literary jury recognize your work. One of my mentors, Dr. Isidore Diala, has won the award twice, and I have looked up to him ever since he became interested in my creative writing in 2004.
Adégòkè: To your articles and papers now that won you the award. Let’s start with ‘Postcolonial Ogres in Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s Wizard of the Crow‘. I like the critical theory – grotesque realism – you applied that enables a better understanding of Ngũgĩ’s text. Can you speak more on this critical theory and briefly explain how it is distinct from magical realism?
Umezurike: The grotesque motifs in Ngũgĩ’s Wizard of the Crow fascinated me, and so I thought it would be more generative to examine the use of grotesque aesthetics in the novel. I doubt magical realism is a critical theory, but it is a genre that fuses the magical or fantastical with realism. The African grotesque does contain elements of fantasy or magic, though, in my understanding, these elements are used to ridicule state power. The thing about the grotesque is that it satirizes the excesses of the political elite, or what Achille Mbembe aptly refers to as “the banality of power”. I think the grotesque aesthetic shares similar motifs with magical realism. Interestingly, many Western readers easily associate magical realism with South American writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Isabel Allende, Jorge Luis Borges, Carlos Fuentes, and Laura Esquivel. However, a work like The Famished Road by Ben Okri blurs the line between the grotesque and magical realism. Another example would be Dreams and Assorted Nightmares by Abubakar Adam Ibrahim (Masobe Books, 2021).
Adégòkè: One of the ways this plays out in Ngugi’s text, you demonstrate, is in the grotesque transformation of Titus Tajirika. On Tajirika’s daemons of whiteness and lust for the mirror – you show his malady is connected to wealth. I see this as a sickness of the African elite, no? Perhaps their self-alienation from people from the lower class is borne out of their self-loathing, their desperation to be accepted ‘as’ a white person. Does this ring true in your critical exploration?
Umezurike: Interestingly, Ngũgĩ presents whiteness as sickness and wealth as sickness. I agree with you that the African elite in the main is afflicted with the illness of avarice and self-loathing, and these are examples of what Ngũgĩ criticizes regarding postcolonial leadership. Titus Tajirika is a tragic example of the postcolonial bourgeoisie who, having internalized a perverse mindset, perpetuates colonial legacy on his country. Recall that part in the novel when Titus takes over power from the Ruler? The first thing he does is to rename and transform himself into Emperor Titus Flavius Vespasianus Whitehead. By renaming himself Whitehead, he shows that his obsession with whiteness is total. This, to me, is the condition of some postcolonial citizens. I think that’s what Franz Fanon called the psychopathology of the Black man.
Adégòkè: At the end of the paper, you cite more texts, basically fiction, where grotesque aesthetics is present. Are you planning or willing to write more on this? I see A. Igoni Barrett’s Blackass as one of the most important texts in the last two decades in Nigerian literature that has not been critically engaged with enough. Would this be a text that could be included in an extension of your discussion of the grotesque as you see it through Wizard of the Crow and others?
Umezurike: Precisely, Blackass is a grotesque text, and it would be interesting to see how other scholars read this humorous text on whiteness. I wouldn’t hesitate to include Barrett’s book in my research if I were to further explore more examples of grotesque aesthetic in African literary fiction.
Adégòkè: Also, I see you limited this theory in your study to prose fiction. Do you think it can be applied to the reading of poetry too? Or even plays and theatre? What would be the different challenges or benefits of moving the theory across genres?
Umezurike: Yes, the grotesque aesthetic can be applied to poetry, after all, poetry is part of the cultural production of any society. That is an angle I would like to see other scholars explore, that is, how to read poetry through the framework of the grotesque. For example, one could read Musa Idris Okpanachi’s poetry collections, namely Music of the Dead and The Eaters of the Living through a grotesque aesthetic.
Adégòkè: In ‘Self-publishing in the Era of Military Rule in Nigeria, 1985-1991’, you chart the conditions that collapsed the Nigerian publishing industry and necessitated self-publishing. Why these particular parameters? I wonder what the first military interregnum of 1966-1979 or the Civil War of 1967-1970 can tell us about the publishing industry then?
Umezurike: I think every researcher has to delimit their area of research and what precisely they are looking for. There’s this quote by Rosi Braidotti in her talk on “Posthuman Knowledge” – it is available on YouTube (Harvard GSD). She talks about her method of surveying her field and describes it as a “cartographic rendering.” She encourages us to appreciate how our perspective on a research field is limited and partial, yet this limitation or partiality does not invalidate our viewpoint. What she is balking at is this idea of one claiming that their research is comprehensive. So the periods I surveyed were pertinent to the questions I was trying to answer in book history, print culture, and literary activism in Nigeria. It would be interesting to read about publishing before and shortly after the Nigeria-Biafra civil war.
Adégòkè: I think one of the hangovers from this period that you look at is the belief or expectation that a work of literature must be politically charged or committed. What is your take on this?
Umezurike: I don’t know whose belief or expectation that is, but I know that every form of writing is an art of politics, a political act, a refusal to remain silent in the dominant culture, an assertion of one’s voice in the noise of politics. The fact that one has written something about an aspect of society or humanity is political, especially if we conceive of politics beyond power struggle. We know that authoritarian society treats literature with suspicion and censure. So why do we think that literature is never political? In Nigeria, we have had instances of book banning and burning. I recall the furore over the book censorship in Kano sometime ago, in 2008. Even as we speak in some Western countries, they are hellbent on banning some novels and poetry that remind us of colonial violence and the legacy of slavery. So literature will always remain political, even if it is popular literature.
Adégòkè: There is a passage where you summarised our national classics I want to point your attention to. Probably I should just quote it: “In terms of national classics, Nigeria has few novelists to declare and fewer still that have earned universal recognition, excluding Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Helon Habila, and Teju Cole.” I think you missed out some important names, one of which is Ben Okri. And, in your opinion, what really makes a national classic?
Umezurike: I did not set out to present a list of Nigerian classics but to explain that Nigerian classics are fewer compared to their Western or Asian counterparts. I would be presumptuous to say that I know what makes a national classic. However, I reckon any work that transcends its epoch, resonates with a wide variety of people through generations, and still has an enduring appeal years after its initial publication among critics and readers alike would likely become a classic.
Adégòkè: Let’s talk allohistory. Do you think we’d have had a more vibrant publishing industry had there been no military interruptions? Most of the publishers in the country before 1985 were British publishers. In any case, another possibility is that these houses might have been nationalised. And I think we can imagine the way that would go using precedents.
Umezurike: We can only speculate to the best of our ken, given that we are thinking of what could be or might be, as that is the stuff of alternate history. So whatever we come up with is just speculatory. Anyhow, military rule sets the nation and its culture decades back. Perhaps, the Nigerian book industry would have grown more robust and vibrant had the military remained in the barracks and not ventured to turn the country upside down. Military rule decimated much of the path to progress in Africa.
Adégòkè: I can see Achille Mbembe’s influence in your work. Tell me more and which other African scholars’ work have been focal to your critical practice?
Umezurike: I have found the works of Chielozona Eze, such as Ethics and Human Rights in Anglophone African Women’s Literature and Justice and Human Rights in the African Imagination, instrumental in deepening my understanding of ethics and relationality in African literary and cultural productions. I have also found Cajetan Iheka’s Naturalizing Africa: Ecological Violence, Agency, and Postcolonial Resistance in African Literature and his African Ecomedia: Network Forms, Planetary Politics helpful in thinking about planetary relationality; Chigbo Arthur Anyaduba’s The African Postcolonial Genocide Novel insightful in challenging the prevailing discourse of genocide; and Shola Adenekan’s African Literature in the Digital Age relevant in rethinking the politics of class and sexuality in African literature.
Adégòkè: Permit me to echo this particular question Aderemi Raji-Oyelade and Oyeniyi Okunoye asked Dan Izevbaye in an interview: Europe and America have come to be seen as privileged sites for the study of African literature. What do you think are the challenges this poses for the sustenance of the study of African literature in Africa? And, also, can you foresee the impact a prize like the NLNG Prize will have on Nigerian literature and criticism in the long run?
Umezurike: Tọ́pẹ́, I think the challenge is fundamental and dates back to some of the local difficulties dogging higher education in Africa. Universities and colleges in Nigeria remain mainly underfunded, and there is still a dearth of investment in research and development in public education. Moreover, we don’t have established endowment and grant systems, as they do in Europe and North America, that can offer scholars, researchers, and students the needed resources to sustain the production of African literary criticism. In Canada, for instance, you have the tri-council funding agency for arts, science, engineering, medicine, etc. The agency makes regular funding available to scholars in Canada. Nevertheless, I commend our counterparts on the continent who, despite such daunting challenges, still manage to remain productive. But until we have significant corporate and institutional support for the humanities, African universities and scholars would continue to struggle to produce substantial work in an environment that is anything but thriving and viable.
Adégòkè: And, finally, in addition to the NLNG Prize for Literary Criticism, there are now other book review competitions and prizes in Nigeria. This shows we are taking critical outputs more seriously, literary criticism is coming mainstream and I imagine it can only get better and better. Do you share this optimism with me?
Umezurike: I hope, as you said, we are taking literary criticism more seriously. Optimism is something I like to indulge in whenever I can. But, unfortunately, there’s already enough cynicism in the world, too much ugliness and violence, so I am a stickler for optimism. Some would say optimism is a luxury, but life is intractable, random, and mysterious. So, I try to find something to delight in because we have no control over what fate might decide to throw along our way, but what we seem to have some control over is how we choose to react to what life has hauled at us: our perspective, our attitude, and what we decide to do with our lives. Those are the particulars we can control. The rest is out of our hands. Life is, that’s life. Thanks, Tọ́pẹ́, for this conversation.
Uchechukwu Peter Umezurike holds a PhD in English and Film Studies from the University of Alberta, and is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Calgary, Canada, where he is working with Dr. Clara Joseph on his research project on African Canadian fiction and film. His critical writing has appeared in NORMA: International Journal for Masculinity Studies, Journal of African Cultural Studies, Cambridge Journal of Postcolonial Literary Inquiry, Canadian Journal of African Studies, Tydskrif vir Letterkunde, Postcolonial Text, and Cultural Studies. For the variety of ways he has contributed to African literary culture, Umezurike was awarded Brittle Paper’s Academic of the Year for 2021.
As well as an award-winning scholar, Umezurike is also an award-winning poet, fiction writer and children’s novelist. His most recent books are Double Wahala, Double Trouble (Griot Lounge, 2021), a collection of eleven short stories that provide glimpses into everyday Nigerian life; and Wish Maker (Masobe Books, 2021), a children’s book that teaches kids that there is more to Christmas than presents. He is a co-editor of Wreaths for a Wayfarer, an anthology of poems in memory of Pius Adesanme.
Umezurike is also a generous and lively literary journalist. He has interviewed several writers for Brittle Paper, Read Alberta, and Prism International, and has been a long-time friend and contributor to AiW. For more of his AiW posts, including his Words on the Times – a Q&A set intended to connect our communities up as the challenges of the pandemic first began to hit – please click through to his AiW Guest posts here (including interviews with Professors Chielozona Eze and Cajetan Iheka; and with writer Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, and poet Musa Idris Okpanachi, each mentioned above as part of this Q&A).
Tọ́pẹ́-ẸniỌbańkẹ́ Adégòkè is a traveller, literary critic and writer from Ibadan, Nigeria. Tọ́pẹ́ is the co-publisher of Fortunate Traveller, a travel journal. He writes for Wawa Book Review, Abuja, and Africa in Words. He enjoys travelling and cooking. @LiteraryGansta is his alter ego on Twitter.
Find more reviews, Q&As and AiW posts from Tọ́pẹ́ here.