Prof. Chimalum Nwankwo, poet and scholar, was educated in Nigeria and the United States of America. He holds a Ph.D in English from the University of Texas, Austin, and rose to the Chair of English Department at North Carolina A & T State University, Greensboro, before returning to Nigeria. A revered literary critic, widely published in leading global journals but perceived as controversial in some quarters, he belongs to the alternative generation of Nigerian poets. His poetry volume include Feet of the limping Dancers, Toward the Aerial Zone, Voices from Deep Water (1997), The Womb in the Heart Of the Deepest Shadows and the Prisons of Fire, and Love Song for Julian Assange. Also, a playwright, he is the author of The Trumpet Parable. Some of his most quoted critical studies are Toward the Kingdom of Woman and Man: The Works of Ngugi wa Thiong’o. In 1988 and 2002, Professor Nwankwo won the ANA Poetry Prize and, in 2001, he was awarded the senior Fulbright Fellowship for scholarly research and teaching in Nigeria. In this interview with HENRY AKUBUIRO at The Lodge of the Spirits, Ndikelionwu, he revisits his sojourn in America, the state of Nigerian literature and some recent controversial decisions made by Nigerian literary judges.
Your travel to America in the 1970s at a time racism and civil rights activism were on a high. You went on to spend almost four decades studying and teaching before returning to Nigeria. How did you overcome the complex associated with being black in your early years?
I went to the US as an ignorant young graduate from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, in 1975, and, like most Africans of my age, I went there with all the myths about Christianity and Western civilisation. I was shocked and psychologically horrified by what I had to face in terms of race. I believed in all the Christian teachings and the world was most beautiful in the White Man’s country, but I was shocked that it wasn’t like that, that the Western world was full of pretenses and hypocrisies, with social and political mind games which baffled me that I had to try my best to begin to learn the ropes, and it took me a long time. It took me up to four years to begin to understand what was going on. I realised that I didn’t know the White Man.
How did that cultural straddling shape your perspective on African literature?
First of all, I was lucky to be a student of the pioneer scholar, Professor Bernth Lindfors. University of Texas at Austin was really a great place for me, because all the big writers at the time, from the Caribbean to Africa, were visiting professors or at speaking engagements at Austin. I had the privilege to meet celebrity writers like Kofi Awoonor, James Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Okot p’Bitek, who became my very good friend; George Lamin, Wilson Harris, among others. Gradually, I knew what my mission was and what I was going to be in life: I was going to be a writer and a university teacher. There could be no better exposure than meeting with those writers. Very powerful influence on me.
Working with Lindfors for your PhD must have been fun. How was the encounter like?
It was my very first kind of brutal induction into the ways of the West, because there were all kinds of traps to derail me. I realised that Lindfors was his own man in terms of his politics. I believe he was glad to be my supervisor, but, at the same time, I don’t think he was very fond of me. It is not easy to be fond of me, because I am a very brash person intellectually. That doesn’t stop those who know my critical writing to understand that, when I know what am talking about, I am very rough. So he had to deal with that crazy student from Africa who did not know how to control himself in a civil manner. I believe he was looking at me probably as a Chinweizu-kind of African who was going to be troublesome down the road, and I don’t think he was wrong (laughs). But I survived all that and went on with this trajectory from a student to being a professor and Chair, Department of English at Greensboro, before I came back to Nigeria.
You have taught abroad at the highest level and has been a visiting professor in Nigerian universities, too. Tell us the difference in both worlds.
I have made this point always about the hunger in the African student (I don’t know how it is nowadays) at least, in our days, there was a certain passion, especially in the humanities; you wanted to be a player in the system and you prepared yourself relentlessly by mimicry, being sure you were close to the guys who were doing the big stuff, so to speak. You taught in the US and you saw different groups of students. The students were just there to become graduates and get into the society, and the jobs were already there waiting for them. There was no passion as such. In a class of thirty in America, you probably would have about five students who know what is going on. The rest are just there to make their grades and go away. The worst part of it as a teacher is that the teacher-student relationship was not there. You finish teaching and you run into a student, and he says, “Chima, that’s a very good lecture. I enjoyed it”. That’s all. But, in Nigeria, students who really appreciate their teachers labour to cultivate a relationship. Today, some of my students visit me when they have the opportunity. Sometimes we are families and friends. I had that relationship with my teachers also, like the late Professor Donatus Nwoga and Emmanuel Obiechina, and so forth. They were very good friends and mentors, even though they taught me.
Are you satisfied with the extent of critical attention given to your works in Nigeria as one of the strongest voices of the alternative generation?
People complain about the availability of my works in Nigeria, especially the biggest books, The Womb in the Heart and Prisons of Fire. But those who are serious really find ways of getting them. When I was a visiting professor to Unizik, the students compelled me to order the books from New York, so I ordered a few copies. I have been trying to see if I can have Nigerian editions. But, you know, in Nigeria, everything is expensive to sponsor yourself. But, eventually, I will do it. The last book, the famous poetry, which was ignored by the NLNG judges, Love Song for Julian Assange, was published in Nigeria deliberately. Now, I am trying to get a foreign edition. That one is readily available here. Most departments of English use my books, so I don’t have problem with that. Some of the teachers also call to find how they will have access. As I said, books market themselves. If you have good poetry, which is a difficult genre, people will look for them. Anywhere I have a reading, people will always ask me where to find my books. I only have to find a way of making the books more available.
The Nsukka scholar, Greg Mbajiorgu, not too long ago, lambasted the judges of the Nigeria Prize for Literature for ignoring your entry, which was well received in the US and Britain. What’s your take?
I do not like doing critiques of prizes, especially the ones my works compete in, because the Nigerian critical culture or tradition remains consistently askew. If you say something negative, be certain that people will say he is jealous and angry because he did not win. Quite a sad tradition! I think the 2017 NLNG award was a horror and, culturally, a tragedy and a national embarrassment. The winning volume, The Heresiad, by Ikeogu Oke was 16th century British poetry, and not modern African poetry. As an African, I found the volume unreadable!
The aesthetic or artistic pedigree from Iliad through Dunsiad to Heresiad is quite disgraceful. It’s like saying that royal families in Africa have relationships with the children of Princess Diana and that the relationship makes us also relatives of Queen Elizabeth I and King Henry VIII and that, ultimately, we are Tudors! One blab Helon Habila praised the work for its iambic pentameter, while most critics know that epics are written in hexameters! The poet defined his work as an “epic”! When I speak of young writers about African destiny and creative writing, my warning is consistently truculent, and without compromise. We are a maligned race. You do not help our human tradition by aping the traditions of the races who malign you. Ikeogu was my friend. May his soul rest in peace. Watch what people are going to say about my critique. It is going to be like the Okigbo controversy. I expect irrational insults. Nigerian readers do not know that works of art are public property. Once you release your work, the work becomes an entity, a being (!) to be judged. That the writer died today or yesterday must be a nonsense to be religiously avoided.
So, what did you expect from Ikeogu’s winning poetry?
I expected the plumbing of the beautiful tradition of chants from Ohafia, great tradition of Ndigbo in the Ohafia/Abriba/Bende Arochukwu axis. Rather, he went to Britain and the West for inspiration.
How do you think Nigerian literary prizes should be organised?
It should be secretive! With greater reliance on active scholars and critics in the specific art or genre, and indeed practitioners who understand the creative and critical tradition very deeply. Do not appoint critics of fiction to judge poetry, vice versa. They should be given clear criteria for the judgements and assessments.
What’s your assessment of the generation writers after yours?
The present generation is in a hurry. They don’t even understand the greatness of Achebe and, indeed, of Wole Soyinka, whose plumping of the Yoruba world in his plays, in all its depth and beauty, cannot be surpassed. They should, in fact, watch young musicians, especially the very careful ones like Flavour and Tiwa Savage. They don’t know how to play with our great African culture to dignify it. They should also watch our carvers and sculpture and all visual productions.
One of the Nigerian writers making waves worldwide now is Chimamanda Adichie. What do you think of her art vis-à-vis her feminist activism?
I respect Chimamanda’s works. She is quite gifted, but she should be much more careful when she steps on the intellectual and cultural gas pedal on feminism. The West has a different historical, cultural and philosophical pedigree in feminism; from the cult of the Virgin Mary, through chivalry, and the 19th century when women were supposed to be seen and not heard. She should contemplate more carefully why her foremothers, like Buchi Emecheta and Flora Nwapa, emphasised they were feminists with a small “f”. She should also watch scholars like Professor Obioma Nnemeka and Professor Nneka Osakwe. These women had the opportunity to interview my late mother, Olanwa Ike, a royal daughter of the founder of Ndikelionwu, who, in my heart, remains an Igbo feminist giant!
Let’s revisit the paper you presented at the Third Okigbo conference in Awka, “Icons, Canons and Iconogroupies”, where you noted that the “closer a writer is to the emotional epicenter of an agon, the closer the writer to the producer-consumer symphony of acceptance.” Can you come down to the specific?
You can’t talk things you don’t know deeply. Even in science fiction, you have to be informed by the technology available, whether you are advancing your thoughts or dredging into the present circumstance. My point is that, if you should understand your world, you are able to become more authoritative on how you relate to that world. That authoritativeness, which you extends to your readers, makes them understand what is going on. I remember reading long ago at the British Council, and one of the guys, who reacted, expressed the amazement that I was writing as if I was living in Nigeria. It was because I interact and watch Nigeria very closely and carefully, its politics; its culture –the human condition in general. I try my best to make sure that I understand what is going on. That’s what has given rise to some kind of insights which some readers see in my works.
What do you consider the herculean task in the movement from oration to literature in the African scribal art?
The whole thing is that the movement from oration to literature should accommodate the baggage of experience and cultural exposure. They should be closely wedded. For instance, in my new book, Love Song for Julian Assange, you can see how folklore combines with history and politics to bring the work to where it stands out as a kind of testament of the human condition. Everything is wedded and melded to form what we have in that book. It is an advance of all my previous works in terms of that of complex synergy of circumstances and cultural forces.
Do you subscribe to the affirmation by Andre Malraux that the function of the artist is to shake the universe?
Of course, that’s one of my most favourite quotes. There should be some kind of political truth or political meaning and cultural truth in all our productions to the extent that nobody escapes in terms of feeling of guilt or responsibility, and things like that. You have to shake things and people up so that they know that there are some people watching, even though they are powerless. The writer is powerless, but he has the advantage of bringing certain things to the notice of the public. The readers, who are not even reflected, constitute a critical part of the cultural production, because you are writing about them, and, even if they don’t know what you are writing about them, there are people who are transmitting what you are writing. We should be brave and courageous in facing the politicians or whoever is responsible for governance.
Over time, you have avoided a deliberate genuflection to our compromised critical enterprise. In fact, you have disparaged “the faceless surrender into faceless bandwagon by African critics” or what you call “cultural dissidence”. Who will bell the cat?
The critics are supposed to speak out. Charles Nnolim was brave about speaking about that deliberate hymn singing, of cowardly writers and critics praising one another. If you want to praise your friends, you praise them in private. Academics is business. If I catch you on the track, just as if you catch me, say what you like. My books are there for you to talk about. In public, I deal with your work like a public property. People harass me about my elder brother, Peter Nwankwo, and why I don’t write about him, as well as my first cousin, Chukwuemeka Ike. There is a reason: if you praise him, they will say because they are your relatives; if you are critiquing roughly, they will say because you don’t like them. So I stay away from things like that. I just keep the business as professional as possible. All my friends and colleagues know that. I am very professional when it comes to my works or my life as a literary critic.
You criticised Okigbo years back, which drew a slur of insults from Okigbo fans. It appears many do not buy into your standpoint that an error in creative writing is not a tragedy…
People make mistakes; nobody is perfect. I was saying it with reference to Okigbo’s writings. I made it clear that, even geniuses make mistakes in their leanings, crafts, and political dispositions. You should correct those mistakes; you don’t let them get away with that because they are geniuses or whatever they are. And when you critique a writer, the writer kind of sits up in the next attempt. Somebody would say elsewhere that mistakes should be opportunities for a better intelligent decision next time. Our critics don’t see it that way. If you say somebody has not done it right, they start shouting and insulting you. But, of course, with Chimalum Nwankwo, they are wasting their time; I will still take my stand. In fact, most of the sensible people who were insulting me over my comments on Okigbo have written to apologise that they were wrong and my observations were right. That settles it. I am a very fair person, both socially and professionally.
What happened to your fiction project?
It got lost in Philadelphia while I was traveling to Abuja. The laptop was stolen at the airport, I believe, by the American authorities, because of its strong political contents. I assumed that it got lost in America because the immigrations saw the Love Song for Julian Assange who was a wanted man. I reconstructed the Love Song because I had scraps, but I couldn’t reconstruct the novel.