By HENRY AKUBUIRO
Entrenching the culture of reading requires many hands on deck. For the university community, it is imperative to restore the love for reading, even in a season of recession. The teeming crowd that converged on the boardroom of the Faculty of Arts, University of Lagos, recently didn’t come to watch an Afrobeat idol perform on stage or take selfies for the delight of Facebook friends –they had come to listen to Sam Omatseye read from his latest novel, My Name is Okoro.
Enthusiasm commingled with anxiety as the students, most of who were seeing Omatseye for the first time, became sticklers to schedule. They were joined by bibliophiles from within the campus and outside. Joining Omateseye on the elite table was the HOD of the Department of English, Professor Hope Eghagha; Professor Karen-King Aribisala and Professor Muyiwa Falaiye, Dean, Faculty of Arts. Mr. Wale Edun of The Nation’s Editorial Board was among the guests.
Professor Eghagha, a writer himself, noted in his address, that the idea behind the Reading Cafe was to entrench the culture of reading by encouraging town-gown relationship. “Creative writing is one of the strongest arms of the English Department,” he echoed.
Lest you forget, the department has had a long tradition of having celebrated writers in its employ, including Professors Wole Soyinka and J.P. Clark. “It is our hope we are going to produce another Soyinka, J.P. Clark and others in the English Department.”
He was excited with the number of reporters at the event, optimistic that, with positive coverage of the readings of the department, it would reinforce the quality of the programme. He pointed out that Okoro, a major character in the Omatseye’s novel, should not be mistaken for the Igbo Okoro as it was also an authentic Urhobo name.
Omatseye, while explaining the effort it took to write the novel, said it was a labour of love, as well as a labour of work and surrender, explaining that, in the course of writing the book in 2015, he had to stop momentarily to concentrate on the journalistic demands of the heat of Nigeria’s electioneering. He restated that the name Okoro could be pronounced different ways in Igbo, Urhobo and Benin, meaning different things. He subsequently regaled the audience with cliffhanging excerpts from the novel.
It wasn’t all about Omatseye. The Reading Café had side attractions. A student from the university, Onome Enakerakpor, rendered a spoken word poem that made the audience clap unend. Then Dr, Chris Anyokwu, a lecturer in the Department of English, upped the ante with a scholarly review of My Name is Okoro. What’s in a name echoed in his discourse. While “in America, colour determines perspective”, he observed that “in Nigeria, sound is a death sentence”.
His remarks found expression in what transpired in the Omateseye’s novel when the Urhobo Okoro was almost killed in the north during the Nigerian civil war because of the similarity of his name to the Igbo, yet when he travelled to the defunct Eastern Region in search of his Igbo wife before the start of the civil, his mispronunciation of Umunze saw him marooned in another Igbo town called Umueze all through the war.
A lively interactive session ensued afterwards. Sam responded to questions bothering on his work as it related to contemporary Nigerian reality. He told the audience that his novel was inspired by the need to balance the narrative of the civil war. Previous works of fiction, he said, he had read hitherto, were Igbo accounts, and “nobody has told the minority story.”
He informed that much of the battles during the civil war took place in the minority towns of Warri, Port Harcourt, Asaba, Akwa Ibom. “Yet, if you read the civil war account of Chinua Achebe, Chimamanda Adichie, Chukwuemeka Ike, they are all Igbo stories,” he said, adding, “there were still gaps in the narrative,” he said.
Thus, he created a minority character domiciling in an Igbo society to realise the plot of the novel. In reaction to the question on the validity of his novel to the current restructuring question in Nigeria, the journalist said the call for restructuring in Nigeria today was as a result of unsolved puzzles of the Nigerian civil war, leading to agitations by IPOB, Avengers, among other groups.
While rejecting the notion that the civil war narrative was being overflogged in the country, he said, in America, civil war narratives were still being churned out every year, and the subject was still reverberating in the ongoing American presidential election campaigns.
“The resurgence of civil war writings in Nigeria,” he said, “is a metaphor for recurring decimal in our nationalism,” stressing that Nigeria was yet to solve the problem of One Nigeria. “Even marriages are negotiable. It will continue to be an issue of national engagement until we answer the question,” he said. The novelist, who said there was no such thing as objectivity in writing, disclosed that a writer’s sentiment would always colour his writing.
Prof Eghagha, who said he experienced the civil war as a child, said he was shocked at how the war changed social relationships, for “Igbos, who were your next-door neighbours, suddenly became enemies”. He condemned the animalistic behaviour of slaughtering people during the war.
In his concluding remarks, the Dean, Faculty of Arts, Prof. Falaiye, expressed his admiration for writers who possessed the ability of turning nothing into something. Needless to say, the Reading Café was an outing that saw My Name is Okoro winning new hearts as Mr. Edun promised to buy a copy each for all the students present.