Dr. Chris Anyokwu, a lecturer in the Department of English, University of Lagos, is a playwright, poet and short story writer. His works include the plays, A Parade of Madmen, Homecoming, Ufuoma, Termites, Bloodlines and other Plays, Beyond the Wall and other Plays; the short story collection, OI’Soja and other Stories; and the poetry volume, Naked Truth. Damiete Braide interviewed him in Lagos recently on his writings, and the literary scholar takes us on a voyage on his works as a writer, his assessment of contemporary Nigerian literary criticism, use of Pidgin English in his works, the advantages and disadvantages of self publishing, among others.
You have been in the university system for a long time; can you tell us what your assessment is on the state of Nigerian contemporary criticism?
The state of the Nigerian contemporary criticism, compared to what it used to be is poor, just as creativity itself. I will say our old writers are better that the new writers, and the same thing obtains with criticism. The question is: who are the critics that we have today? Do we still have the likes of Dan Izevbaye, Emmanuel Obiechina, Benedict Ibitokun, Oyin Ogunba, Theo Vincent, Wole Soyinka, the late Chinua Achebe, among others. We don’t have people like them anymore, rather, we have people who are intellectual jobbers. They scribble things down just to gain promotions in the universities. For them to really learn their trade and sit down to do a lot of research before they can say that they are writing something that will last the distance, which is very difficult. This is not to condemn everybody; of course, we might have some few voices still trying to hold brief for their own generation and trying to write but I do not think that we can really put them at par with their predecessors.
With the shift from the Achebian stream of writers to new breed of younger ones, do you think the latter is up to par in the literary space?
The taste of the budding is in the eating. It is there for everybody to see. Take any of the late Chinua Achebe’s works and put is side-by-side with the new generation of writers, you will notice the difference. Take Professor Wole Soyinka’s plays and productions and the ones that we have now, the difference is clear. If you take books written in the 1950s like Things Fall Apart and books written recently, you would realise that books written by the first or second generation of writers are miles ahead of those being written now in terms of quality, aesthetics or finesse.
Some writers do say they are just retelling a story as it were. How did you come to write Bloodline and other Plays?
In this age of crass materialism, you will realise that some people will take undue advantage of those who are not wealthy to look after their own family which can lead to some negative things. Some people will call it ‘accidental discharge’ and the child is given birth to and you will realise that the child is not the biological father. If you read Desire under the Elms by Eugene O’neill, an American playwright, in that novel, his son impregnates his wife but the man celebrates the birth of the child as if the child is his. Although, some of his neighbours know that the child in question belongs to his son, which he had from another man which was not his. So you can see that, it is as old as time, this idea of unfaithfulness on women.
I am not gender biased but it is a sensitive partisanship. The idea is, you have good women and bad men or vice versa. I wrote the play because of the prevalence of unfaithfulness and the problem of impotency or infertility which I dramatised and create awareness to the problem. Bloodline and Other Stories are tributes to an ailing nation and a dramatisation of the steps needed for the nation’s recovery. What led you to write happenings in the nation?
Bloodlines and Other Plays was dedicated to Nigeria at 100. It is a political allergy on the country, where you look at a family where a man marries three wives and he is not the biological father of all the children. If you take a look at Nigeria as well, you realise that: Who are the productive forces of this nation? They are the unsung members of the informal sector, that is, the common people whose efforts are never mentioned in history books.
Why the use of Pidgin English in your works?
Pidgin English of course is a leveler. You will realise that it is a language spoken by the educated and the uneducated in the society. The language is no respecter of any social class. For the dramatic effect, it is quite humorous to use when you speak the language and those listening to you are entertained. The use of Pidgin English has its own drama or poetry peculiar to it, and that is why I make use of it. I also use it as an index of class differentiation and as a marker of ideological commitment.
How is it that you weave a realistic setting and capture the ambivalence on the dynamics of a vibrant rural community?
I am a Nigerian who grew up in my village in Edo State. Writing about rural folks comes to me naturally. I observed both the elderly and young people in the way and manner they talk or behave. For me, if you really want to talk about authentic African work, it is important that you situate it with an African environment. To an extent, you want to say that what really shows a high degree of authenticity when it comes to Africanism is the rural environment. I write about them with so much pride and I don’t think, it is something to be ashamed of.
In what ways would you explain how the environment influences your writings?
Every writer is a product of his/her political milieu. They are influenced by what happens everyday around them. When you look at the post colonial environment defined by inequality, deprivation, discrimination, problems of bigotry, prejudice, ethnicity, tribalism, political corruption, poverty, infrastructural decay, lack of opportunities for the teeming youths, these are things that engage me. I get frustrated at a personal level, and, in order to get out of this angst in me, I put them into writing which makes writing a therapy for me. While writing, I get a measure of release of peace in me and I also feel that am adding my voice to the chorus of people who are agitating for a better life in Nigeria.
As a writer and literary scholar, when do you find time to write?
Everything is about time management. During the day, I am in school to teach students or supervise their works, conduct research and, when am at home, I look after my family. The best time for me to write is usually in the night. I wake up early in the morning to write when the environment is quiet. If there is no power supply, I put on my generating set to continue my writing. Sometimes, I also write during the day with my children clambering all over me and with so much noise around, it stimulates my creativity which makes me to actually write in a quiet or noisy environment.
In a world overtaken and driven by signs and symbols of technological advancement, what is the role of literature in this era of social media?
Literature is man’s greatest achievement through time. In spite of the march towards civilisation, the importance of literature cannot be diminished. Social media is part of the scientific mentality or method; it is another frontier for the promotion of literature. When you talk about social media, you are talking about Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Whatsapp, etc. What you put there also constitutes literature, but the point is: is it now popular culture or high arts? That, of course, brings to the fore the question of the different dimensions of literature. You have popular culture or high arts. Social media is very important to literature and it helps literature to reach a wider audience.
As far as self publishing goes, what is your resolve?
Self publishing is both good and bad. It is good in the sense that there might not be established publishing houses that might want to publish your work if you are not a big name in the industry because they are in it to make profit. You can write a masterpiece and because you don’t have a big name, your masterpiece might just perish with you. In that regards, if you are able to show your work to people who can acknowledge that this is a masterpiece, then you can raise sufficient money to give it to a decent publishing firm to publish your work.
You should not stay in your house, use your laptop to write a story, then take it to Shomolu for printing then. I don’t think that should be done. No matter what, you really need to give it to a publishing firm that has the structure in place for good publishing of works.
Are you of the opinion that the future of the younger generation has been stolen by members of the older generation, which made you to write Stolen Future?
Stolen Future is about a young graduate who is unable to get a job after years of searching. He runs into a prostitute who tells him she went into prostitution due to her inability of getting a job after graduation. She is disappointed by some men who promised to give her a job. After sleeping with them, they didn’t give her the job. The young man in question lives with his uncle, who is a renowned politician and top government official in his boys quarters. His uncle tells him, “We are not ready to give the younger ones jobs, because they will mess it up”. At the end of the day, the young man and lady become close, and the lady promises to leave her job as a prostitute because she has saved a lot of money for both of them to operate a business together.
The play examines the faith of the younger generation with regards to job opportunities and possibilities for social mobility that forward movement is made difficult by members of the older generation who refuse to quit the stage when the ovation is loudest, saying that experience counts but they are not ready to give opportunity to younger ones coming today. They should be given the opportunity to work, when they make mistakes on the job, they will learn and make amends. The popular saying that young people are the leaders of tomorrow, some people will tell you that right from the 1960s, they have been hearing that phrase, but those who have been ruling this country since then; they keep recycling themselves till date. The future of the younger generation has been stolen by members of the older generation.
How did you feel writing your second book, A Parade of Madmen, which you wrote when you were in tertiary institution?
I wrote the book when I was in my second year in the university, which is all about war. That was during the early 1990s when there were a lot of wars in Africa such as the Liberian war. I tried to look at the social state in Africa viz-a-viz the septre and the scourge of internecine and fracticidal conflicts and leading to massive loss of lives and properties. Those who are in power may argue at a higher level through diplomacy. When diplomacy fails, they mobilise people who know nothing about the war to go and die in the battle field. These wars lead to social dislocation and all kinds of problems for society leading to massive and humanitarian disasters, refugees’ problems, among others. The play takes a look at these crises pleading for dialogue rather than trying to resolve differences through the barrel of the gun.
After the publication of your plays and fiction, why did it take you a long time to write your first collection of poems, Naked Truth. Is it that you had to struggle with coming up with the poems?
I believe that poetry has a higher degree of discipline. Recently, I wrote an article in one of the papers entitled “Nigerian Poetry and the Loss/Careless Generation,” I tried to explain that some people rush into poetry thinking that they just string words together, classify it and call it poetry; that is not poetry. For one to write a good poem, the individual must be a little bit of a philosopher and historian in you. Tt requires a higher degree of discipline, emotional intelligence and deep thoughts must be involved. That is why, I have taken time, trying to hold my art, trying to wet my craft, trying to improve before I was able to publish my collection of poems two years ago.
I am tempted again to inquire about the play Ufuoma; what prompted you to write Ufuoma, and how does it reflect the things going on in the society?
Ufuoma takes a satirical phemerous look at the Ivory Tower in Nigeria. The issue of politics there, the relationship between lecturers and students, and the whole idea of the glorification of vulgarity and mediocrity in the running of tertiary institutions in the country and, by extension, our educational sector. Ufuoma tries to diagnose and point the way forward to the solutions of the myriads of problems bedeviling the educational sector in the country.