Sir Onuora Nzekwu may be no more, physically, but his footprints in the sands of time would live on. Some of Nigeria’s celebrated writers have poured out their hearts on the late Nzekwu, whom they regretted was not given a well deserved accolade as one of the greatest in the ancient art of story-telling while he was alive.
According to the writer, Dillibe Onyeama, who is also a publishing executive, “I owe a belated apology to Onuora Nzekwu, who has just passed on at the age of 89. For some years now, our company, Delta Publications (Nigeria) Limited, has been celebrating the birthday of our still-active author, Anezi Okoro, yearly, as Africa’s eldest surviving first-generation novelist, in ignorance of the fact that Onuora Nzekwu was even still alive, let alone that he surpassed Anezi Okoro by one year.
“But such ignorance also served to lay bare the tragic truism that Nzekwu had long been sidelined by time – such as to close one’s eyes to the reality of his mere existence both as a flesh-and-blood mortal and a novelist whose pen, globally celebrated in the early 1960s, had long dried of its once golden ink.”
Onyeama said Nzekwu’s talent as a gifted story-teller seemed to be consecrated by the very fact that his first novel, Wand of Noble Blood, a solid 208-page read, released in 1961 by Britain’s book-publishing outfit Hutchinson. “That literary debut delivered a knock-out punch in the world public gaze, elevating Nzekwu to rank shoulder-to-shoulder with his established comrades-of-the-pen at that time – Cyprian Ekwensi and Chinua Achebe, although he was a newcomer to novels. But with that first novel he did help to pioneer a new path in modern Nigerian literature.
“By a quirk of coincidence, these ‘trio’ addressed the same general theme; conflict between traditional community and modern city life, which comes to the boil when matters of love and marriage are involved.
Nzekwu attracted the major criticism of interrupting creative story telling with excessive use of anthropological analysis, and needed to imply more, rather than to state. He became perceived as a sociological novelist, fired by a desire to satisfy a foreign audience by attempting to explain his culture. This came across in his 1962 novel Blade Among the Boys, and was criticized as stultifying the narratives,” he said.
Despite all these, according to Onyeama, Nzekwu weathered the storm of criticisms and pressed ahead, and in 1963, hit the bull’s eye with the children’s novel Eze Goes to School, which he co-authored with celebrated historian Michael Crowder, adding, “It became a reverberating classic for both pupils and teachers. He followed it up in 1965 with a serious contemporary novel, Highlife for Lizards, which examined the effects of polygamy in the painful throes of transition.
“Nzekwu rounded off his literary career in 1988, which was rather prematurely, as some would say, with a sequel to Eze Goes to School entitled Eze Goes to College, which made no less an impact than its predecessor.
Onyeama noted that though Nzekwu might have thrown in the literary towel rather too early, “his departure has elicited a national gasp of shock that reminded us, to our chagrin, that he was still breathing unannounced in our midst all this while, and we failed to remember him, let alone give him the accolade that he well deserved as one of the last of our great pioneers in that ancient art of story-telling.
“His resigned silence was no less a tribute to a quintessence in self-discipline and meekness. Somehow, we stand to be shamed. Maybe we can be forgiven with a posthumous award from the Federal Government for this great man?
Also, Professor of English, Federal University, Ndufu-Alike, Ikwo, Ebonyi State, Akachi Ezeigbo said the death of Nzekwu, whom she described as the distinguished Nigerian writer, reached her last Saturday, April, 22, while in London attending a conference.
“I was saddened by the loss of another prominent Nigerian writer this year after we lost the renowned female writer Buchi Emecheta in January. Nzekwu distinguished himself as a children’s author with the publication of the famous children’s classic, Eze Goes to school, and as a novelist by publishing notable works such as Blade Among the Boys, Wand of Noble Wood, Highlife for Lizards and Troubled Dust, his latest novel based on the events of the Nigeria-Biafra War.
“I recall vividly what could be regarded as his last public literary event a few years ago – the launching of his war novel, Troubled Dust. I had heard recently of his ailing health, but little did I know that the end was near. However, he paid his dues as a seasoned editor and an original and remarkable writer. He will be remembered as one of the writers that built the solid foundation of and established a positive reputation for both the Nigerian and the African literary traditions. May his soul rest in peace,” she concluded.