Onitsha Market Literature
Around the time Ogunde’s theatre was being founded, a literary revolution was taking place in Onitsha. It was the burgeoning period of pamphleteering in the later 1940s, which went on to dominate the reading taste of the 1950s and 1960s. It was a revolution of a kind because those who had become newly educated wanted to show off their newly acquired skill of writing by writing short essays, stories and letters centred on ethics, love, biography and politics. The writers themselves were largely the not-so highly educated news reporters, traders, booksellers, printers and secondary school students. Just as Onitsha traders financed the early Nollywood films and turned it into an instant money spinner, Onitsha was the home of this breath of writing. By the nature of the town, Onitsha was (and still is) “a self-confident place where a man would not be deterred even by insufficient learning from aspiring to teach and improve his fellows – and making a little profit as well”.
Onitsha market literature was a literary epoch which lasted some three decades (1940s to 1960s). Of all its writers, only Cyprian Ekwensi went on to be known as a novelist. An established Nigerian story-teller, “he pioneered this species of writing”. A pharmacist by training, his two booklets – When Love Whispers and Ikolo the Wrestler and Other Igbo Tales – were published by Tabansi Bookshop, Onitsha in 1947. Most narratives of the early development of Nigerian literature point to Ekwensi’s When Love Whispers, a novella which the author used to ‘get back at’, the father of the girl who discouraged his daughter from befriending him (Ekwensi), who at the time was not materially well-off, and so was an unwanted son-in-law. The famous Onitsha market literature writers who could not rise to the stature of Ekwensi in Nigerian literature, even though they wrote amply, were Chika Okonyia, Ogali A. Ogali, Orlando Iguh, O. Olisa, F.N. Stephen, etc.
The independence that was coming yielded its euphoria which extended to Nigerian writing. A little earlier, writers like Cyprian Ekwensi, Amos Tutuola, Chinua Achebe, James Ene Henshaw and even Gabriel Okara (who published his first set of poems in Black Orpheus in 1957), started to emerge. Soyinka’s earliest play productions were about the independence euphoria period. According to G. G. Darah, “By 1959, there were three performing groups that treated the Ibadan audience to plays taken from Greek, English and Nigerian repertories. Soyinka’s The Swamp Dwellers and The Lion and the Jewel were among these.”
Just as the University College, Ibadan trained writers were coming of age, the pioneer poets such as Dennis Osadebay, K. Epelle, Enitan Brown, Adeboye Babalola etc held the forte. Osadebay’s full volume of poetry, his first and the first in Nigeria entitled Africa Sings was published in 1952. The Ibadan University coterie of writers, using Black Orpheus and The Horn published alluring poetry. Most of the earliest contributors to The Horn were Aig Higo, Okigbo, Pius Oleghe, Abiola Irele, J.P. Clark, and Wole Soyinka. Only Okigbo, Soyinka and Clark flourished as creative writers. Into the 1960s there were Nelson Olawaiye, Dapo Adelugba, Omolara Ogundipe-Leslie, Mabel Segun (then Mabel Imoukhuede) etc. Only the women Mabel Segun and Ogundipe-Leslie made some impact in literary writing. The same euphoria encouraged the founding of the Mbari Club whose founding members included Wole Soyinka, J.P. Clark, Amos Tutuola, Daniel Fagunwa, Ulli Beier (a German) Ezekiel Mphahlele (a South African on exile), Demas Nwoko etc.
Literature arising from the Nigerian Civil War
Every war yields its literature; the Nigerian civil war of 1967-1970 could not be different. Nwahunanya remarks that “the five hundred and twelve novels produced by the American civil war indicate how fertile wars can be as material for creative literature.” Both the Biafran voices and the Federal voices in the Nigerian war novel are quite appreciable, not to include the drama and poetry it generated. Novelists on the Biafran side who readily come to mind are S. Okechukwu Mezu (Behind the Rising Sun, 1971); John Munonye (A Wreath for the Maidens, 1973); I.N.C Aniebo (Anonymity of Sacrifice, 1974); Chukwuemeka Ike (Sunset at Dawn, 1976); Ekwensi (Survive the Peace, 1976); Eddie Iroh (Toads of War, 1979); Ekwensi (Divided We Stand, 1980); Chimamanda Adichie (Half of a Yellow Sun, 2006); Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo (Roses and Bullets, 2011) etc.
The federal novelists on the war would include Isidore Okpewho (The Last Duty, 1976); Buchi Emecheta (Destination Biafra,1982); Ken Saro-Wiwa (Sozaboy, 1985); Elechi Amadi (Estrangement, 1986); Festus Iyayi (Heroes, 1986) etc. There is also a rich tradition of poetry and drama inspired by the war. As it still is, no Nigerian experience has equalled in influence or has elicited the response of the Nigerian writer as much as the Civil War of 1967-1970.
Post-war era: Poetry of a different tenor
In 1962, and at different interviews with Lewis Nkosi, the South African critic and writer, both Christopher Okigbo and Wole Soyinka showed by their utterances that they cared little about their audience. Okigbo is known to have said: “Somehow, I believe I am writing for other poets all over the world to read and see whether they can share in my experience…. Nowadays everything is done for the study and on few occasions it steals out, I think it is to please, but not a large public.” Hear Soyinka: “… I don’t think I need to bother about the audience, whether Nigerian or European.” Except the later Okigbo where he began to ‘care’, their not caring for their audience showed in much of their poetic output. Usually obscure and recondite, their poetry was difficult to follow, at least for the average educated Nigerian. It was a repelling type of verse much as they were respected abroad for writing like Pound, Eliot, Mallarme or Tagore. At home, their poetry could not be ‘touched’ by the local critic, let alone the ordinary lover of literature.
Whereas the leisure of pre-war Nigeria could contend with the draconian poetry of that era, post-war Nigerian versification was earnest and urgent, and called for audience consciousness and communicative impulse. The poets of post-war Nigeria seemed to have agreed with Gabriel Pearson who said in 1962 that “poetry undirected towards its audience must be sick.” Poets like Niyi Osundare, Chinweizu, Femi Osofisan, Femi Fatoba, Odia Ofeimun, Tanure Ojaide, Funso Aiyejina, Olu Obafemi, Obiora Udechukwu, Ossie Enekwe, Ken Saro-Wiwa, Ben Okri etc sprang up. A whole coterie of poets has since come alive as a result of the courage of their precursors in the post-war vintage who were largely their university teachers: Ezenwa-Ohaeto, Olu Oguibe, Esiaba Irobi, Usman Shehu, Remi Raji, Toyin Adewale-Gabriel, Promise Okekwe, Lola Shoneyin, Funmi Adewole, Angela Agali, Hannatu Abdullahi, Nike Adesuyi, Hope Eghagha, Idris Amali, Uche Umez, Obiwu, Unoma Azua, Lynn Chukura, Hauwa Sambo etc just to mention these few. It is not my intention to want to exhaust the list or classify who belongs where in atomized terms; I am convinced that all post-war Nigerian poets were bitten by the same bug! The meeting point of these poets – whether ‘father’ or ‘son’/’daughter’ – is accessibility. There is in their vintage clarity of feeling rather than an aridity of it, which could lead a poet to be impassive and detached.
Since 1914, Nigeria’s female writers have had to make an impact too. Between that year and 1966 when Flora Nwapa wrote Efuru, the females as writers were hardly heard. Before 1966, only men were heard. It was not just that there were no female writers of sufficient significance, women characters were poorly represented in writing by men. In spite of Achebe’s ‘nneka’ (mother is supreme) Igbo creed of female superiority, espoused by Uchendu in Things Fall Apart, female critics, exemplified by Chikwenye Ogunyemi, saw Achebe’s literary effort as rather disrespecting the female. As she put it, “Achebe’s macho spirit with its disdain for women robs him of the symbolic insight into the nurturant possibilities of women’s vital role. Things fall apart also because of the misogyny or contempt for the female.”
The women had complained that male writers generally presented the female in bad light. Male writers, they claim, had regaled their readers with the presentation of the female as witch, the faithless woman, the prostitute, femme fatale, the virago etc. while male writers who had a romantic inclination painted female characters as goddesses or helpless victims.
Apart from Flora Nwapa who tried to correct this impression in her works, there were also Adaora Ulasi (novelist), Buchi Emecheta (novelist), Zulu Sofola (dramatist), Mabel Segun (poet), Tess Onwueme (dramatist), Zaynab Alkali (novelist), Ifeoma Okoye (novelist), Omolara Ogundipe-Leslie (poet), Catherine Acholonu (poet), Ifi Amadiume (poet), Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo (novelist), Chimamanda Adichie (novelist) etc. Working in close cooperation with these female writers are the female critics such as Mrs. C.O.Ogunyemi, Omolara Ogundipe-Leslie, Juliet Okonkwo, Rose and Catherine Acholonu, Ebun Clark, Ebele Eko, Helen Chukwuma, Emelia Oko, Virginia Ola etc.
However, one observes that although both the female writers and critics do what feminists do, they do not want to associate themselves with feminism, and rather prefer milder categorisations such as womanists, accommodationists, motherists and “feminist with a small ‘f’” – whatever this means.
Nigerian Pidgin-English writing in the 1980s
It is safe to say that Pidgin-English as a medium for literature in Nigeria was to a great extent a characteristic of the 1980s. Before the ‘80s, Nigerian writers appeared timid about its use. They deployed Pidgin as if they were afraid of something, probably the fall-out of Tutuola’s castigation for having made use of poorly brewed English. In poetry, Dennis Osadebay and Aig-Imoukhuede respectively wrote lone Pidgin poems. Chinua Achebe, Cyprian Ekwensi, Wole Soyinka, T.M. Aluko etc, all Nigerian novelists, gave Pidgin to some of their characters. In the dramatic genre, Ola Rotimi and Wole Soyinka did the same.
Commentators had wondered why Pidgin could not replace English or at the worst flourish side by side with the English language as a medium for the articulation of experience. Okeke-Ezeigbo thinks it is viable to use Pidgin while Femi Osofisan opposes such a suggestion.Yet there had been a long drawn-out argument as to which language best suited the African writer and African writer. Obi Wali, Chinua Achebe, Austin Shelton, Gerald Moore, Ezekiel Mphahlele etc. spent a lot of energy on this subject in the 1960s.
Dennis Osadebay wrote the first Pidgin poem, published in his Africa Sings (1952) volume. Frank Aig-Imoukhuede published ‘One Wife for One Man’ in 1963 in Gerald Moore edited poetry anthology. However, it was not until the 1980s that Nigerians returned to the use of Pidgin to write poems, stories and even drama. Aig-Imoukhuede in 1982 published a largely Pidgin collection of poems in Pidgin Stew and Sufferhead, which includes his ‘One Wife for One Man’.
Mamman Vatsa’s Tori for Geti Bow Leg and Other Pidgin Poems came out in 1985. Ezenwa-Ohaeto published a few poems in Pidgin in his first collection of poetry, Songs of a Traveller (1986) and reaped a bumper harvest of Pidgin-English poems in I Wan Bi President (1988). Oyekunle published his Pidgin play, Kataka for Sufferhead in 1983. Tunde Fatunde has published some Pidgin poems in journals, all these in the 1980s. In the novel genre, Ken Saro-Wiwa published Sozaboy (1985) which surprisingly has not been emulated by any other Nigerian writer. It seems that Nigerian writers are comfortable with Standard English and would not want the applecart to be upturned. Thus the Nigerian writers who have engaged Pidgin-English have done so as experimentations, and as it is, we await in the near future those who may return to this iconic mode of writing with the same fervour.
Literature and the Niger Delta impasse
An emerging literature in Nigeria is the writing which focuses squarely on the contemporary happenings in the Niger Delta. By Niger Delta, one is referring to those parts of Nigeria (officially nine states) where there has been intense oil exploration, starting at Oloibiri in 1956. The people of this area laboured in pain to eke out a living from their devastated land and environment over many years of the search for oil by oil prospecting companies.
They had made their grievances known over time but their leaders worked at cross-purposes with them and instead aligned themselves with the interest of the Federal Government and those of the oil conglomerates.
The creation of states in 1967 during which Rivers and Cross-Rivers States were carved out of the former Eastern region seemed to have assuaged the people temporarily while oil exploration went on, even more heedlessly. By the time the people, led by Saro-Wiwa, returned to talk about the devastation of their environment in the early 1990s, they met a stiff opposition in Sanni Abacha who at the time was not just a maximum leader but tolerated no opposition of any kind.
Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Ogoni environmental activist who could have probably written the first Niger Delta novel or drama was busy physically engaged eyeball-to-eyeball with the Establishment monsters who were responsible for the poor social and psychological conditions of his people. In what looked like an extra-judicial killing, Saro-Wiwa and eight other activists were hastily executed so that they could give way for the exploitation of the material resources of the land to continue unhindered.
However, this was not to be as Niger Deltans responded through the intellect (literature and writing) and an abrasive militancy, which seemed to have been unexpected at the time. The people with an obvious loud voice woke up to ask why “in spite of the huge revenue accruing from the exploitation of the oil under their feet, their region had been overly ignored in developmental terms while the resources realized from the sale of their crude oil had been used to develop certain cities in the other parts of the country as well as feathered the nests of certain individuals of a particular class in both the Niger Delta and elsewhere.”(Nwachukwu-Agbada 2009).
In 1993, Isidore Okpewho published his ‘prophetic’ novel entitled Tides in which he deployed the Saro-Wiwa figure named Bickerbug to fight the oil companies and the Nigerian government. Bina Nengi-Ilagha brought out her Condolences in 2002; Kaine Agary (Yellow-Yellow 2006), Tanure Ojaide (The Activist 2006), Vincent Egbuson (Love My Planet 2008) etc. In drama, J.P.Clark as always is a pioneer (All for Oil, 2000); Ahmed Yerima (Hard Ground 2006) etc. In poetry, the collections are quite ample: Tanure Ojaide (Labyrinths of the Delta 1986;Delta Blues and Home Songs 1998); Ibiwari Ikiriko (Oily Tears of the Delta 1999); Nnimmo Bassey (We Thought it was Oil but it was Blood 2002); Nengi Ilagha (Mantids 2007 and Apples and Serpents 2007); Tanure Ojaide (The Tale of the Harmattan 2008, Waiting for the Hatching of a Cockerel 2008 etc); etc. G’ Ebinyo Ogbowei has over three collections of poetry, each of them centred on an aspect of the Niger Delta eco-activism etc.
Nigerian literature in the last hundred years has been very vibrant, and will – I believe – continue to be so. It is not just that writers based at home wrote as often as they could, Nigerians resident abroad are beginning to create their own genre of Nigerian writing. Chimamanda Adichie’s 2013 title, ‘Americana’, succinctly bears the onus of this genre. A number of Nigerians living outside the country have started to put their experiences in fictive formats for the consideration of the Nigerian audience at home. They are using the medium of both poetry and narrative to unburden themselves. Before long this could constitute a sub-genre since these writers no matter how long they live in the West cannot be absorbed as European or American poets or novelists.
Asked if Nigerian literature has fared well since 1914, I would say ‘yes’. But this is not to say that this wellness is a perfect one. In terms of production, the Nigerian writer is fecund, producing more than what comes out from all the other African countries put together. The yearly submission to the annual NLNG literary contest, for instance, proves me right. As a consequence of the large output, there has been as well a diversity of themes, language, style and technique. The Nigerian writer continues to visit the oral traditions for strength and healthy/refreshed yield.
However, Nigeria has not yet stood up to establishing dependable publishing outfits. Publishing continues to be left for a few daring local publishers who receive no encouragement in any way from the governments. Again, as of today, only one or two Nigerian writers could live off their writings. May be Achebe when he was alive, and Soyinka after retiring as a professor. I have my doubts if we could point to any other writer in Nigeria as one whose source of livelihood is his/her writing.
That is how pitiable the situation is. Those who could have contributed to the writers’ well-being by buying and reading their literary works, prefer watching Nollywood films which do not require so much intellection to follow. Nollywood attracts governmental attention, but book publishing receives no impetus. Yet book publishing is a carrier of culture as it will in the future tell the story of today.
Another worry about Nigerian writing is the hunger for prizes. There seems to be a new doctrine about how significant prize-chasing is vis-a-vis the worth of a literary work. Rather than ventilate his/her mind by continuous writing, some Nigerian writers write for prizes. As a result when they do not win they get frustrated and get their writing impeded. There have similarly sprung up publishing outfits that only promote writings that stand to win accolades. In some cases, these outfits organize such ‘prizes’ themselves and bring only a few copies of these ‘award-winning’ stuffs to the prize grounds, show off the copies that day, and close the chapter about such books. Personally, I have heard about some ‘magnificent’ works which won prizes about ten years ago, and as I speak I have not seen copies, let alone buy them. If people like us cannot obtain copies of these ‘wonderful’ writings, who gets them and where are such people?
• Nwachukwu-Agbada, distinguished critic, is a professor of literature at the Abia State University, Uturu