Continued from last edition
Established in 1981 with Chinua Achebe as the founding president, the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) has aims and objectives rooted in the promotion of Nigerian literature, written and oral; the enhancement of the wellbeing of Nigerian writers and protection of their rights; the stimulation and development of indigenous talents, skill and intellectual powers; and the promotion and development of the book culture. So passionate indeed was the promotion and development of the book culture in Africa to the founding father of ANA, Achebe, that he thought it pivotal for the development of African literature. Conceding that such foundational texts of Nigerian literature like The Palm-wine Drinkard and Things Fall Apart would probably never have been published but for Western publishers, Achebe thought of that as only the first stage in the history of African publishing and envisaged a pattern of development in which Africa would be central in its cultural production needs. He contended:
If you are going to have a genuine literary tradition, then the entire book business should have an indigenous base. Not just writers being here, but their publishers, editors, bookshops, printers…[Y]ou can’t really talk about African literature unless you have all these other aspects of the book trade in Africa. This is my stand.” (3)
Achebe had, of course, famously noted—virtually as an inviolable law of nature—that the African writer and his/her audience live in the same place! Achebe certainly understood that the subtle but fierce contest to control the institutions of production and canonization of texts is in reality a struggle for the power to determine and sanction authorised representations of both the self and the Other; it is thus an endeavour consistent with the struggle for economic and ideological dominance. He was aware that by placing itself uniquely to project and reward its preferred concept of African excellence by publication, distribution and award of prestigious prizes, the West exercises powers that have implications that go beyond the artistic. Derek Attridge contends that canonization means so much more than the recognition of an author’s invaluable contribution to literature by publishers and scholars of literature. He draws attention to the cultural and historical contingency of the canon and links it with wider processes of legitimation within the body of culturally recognized narratives. But this form of cultural validation neutralises and absorbs oppositionality: “All canons rest on exclusion; the voice they give to some can be heard only by virtue of the silence they impose on others. But it is just not a silencing by exclusion; it is a silencing by inclusion as well: any voice we can hear is by that very fact purged of its uniqueness and alterity” (226).
Commenting on Achebe’s location of the African writer and his/her audience in the same environment, Biodun Jeyifo notes the deterritorialisation of the relationship between the African writer and his/her audience. Tracing this process paradoxically to the two decades since 1986, Jeyifo contends that given this “phenomenon of worldwide dimensions, a seismic, tectonic migration of persons, projects, ideas and movements around the globe” overwhelmingly detrimental to the developing world, “the production, dissemination and teaching of African literature have suffered unprecedented reversals” (7). Tanure Ojaide equally notes the growing number of African writers involved in the world-wide phenomena of migration and globalisation, and remarked on the impact of that experience on their writings: “Migration, globalisation, and the related phenomena of exile, transnationality, and multilocality have their bearing on the cultural identity, aesthetics, content, and form of literary production of Africans abroad” (43). In Ojaide’s own later poetry as in Irobi’s and his drama Cemetery Road just as in Chimamanda Adiche’s Americanah, the experience of exile itself becomes the focal preoccupation. The virtually suicidal adventure of many talented young Nigerians across perilous border posts indeed has in itself become a recurring concern of current Nigeria fiction. Such novels create the powerful image of Nigeria as a veritable hell in which escape is the only rational option.
Writing on the mass migration of senior Nigerian scholars and writers to the West in their later years, Adebayo Williams is deeply elegiac about the impact of this “autumnal exile,” given the loss of the institutional validation which their presence could have lent to the Nigerian university system (5). But Nigeria currently faces the critical crises of having most of the prominent members of even its younger generation of writers and critics already ensconced in institutions in the West. With the most important journals devoted to African literature based in the West, with the migration of most renowned African (especially Nigerian) scholars of that literature to Western institutions, with the consequent impoverishment of the teaching and discourse of that literature in Nigerian/African universities and newspapers, Nigerian writers and scholars, much like Nigerian sportsmen and women, meditate on their careers in the country as a preparation for the international market. This is especially so given the many outlets for error-free productions in the West, the fortune-transforming literary prizes and the inspiring conditions and incentives for productive and responsible scholarship.
ANA self-consciously strives to enhance the prospects of creative writing in Nigeria. With branches in nearly the thirty-six states of the country and Abuja, its constant presence is felt by writers in the country through monthly readings and workshops, various publications, and state chapter annual conventions. It also introduces especially young writers to a large audience through the publication of anthologies, the work of individual writers, and the annual journal, ANA Review. ANA equally meditates on its administration of a handful of prizes as a crucial aspect of its formalization of a literary culture. And certainly quiet apart from the ANA conventions and occasional conferences, some international in scope, in which the state of writing and the political and social environment in which that writing is done are discussed, ANA’s position on the quality of writing in the country is made through its prizes. In 1998, at the peak of the decline in the publishing industry already in a crisis in the 1980s, the ANA judges’ report is for example remarkable in its thorough appreciation of the situation of the contemporary Nigerian writer publishing in the country and its recommendation of additional talents and responsibilities to Nigerian writers:
Because of the limited number of publishing outlets, most of the texts submitted in the various categories this year, excluding most of those published abroad, would more accurately be called printed rather than published works. Although one understands the authors’ determination to reach the public, even when self-publishing seems necessary, this places responsibilities on the writer which are normally the duty of publishers. These responsibilities include critical reading and editing, and quality presentation. Authors must make it their responsibility to monitor every aspect in producing their book, from layout, to the cover design, to editing and proof-reading, bringing in expertise from other sources when necessary.
The judges were certainly being euphemistic in reporting on the aberrations of “cash and carry” publishing. Jeyifo’s focus on a critical aspect of this heritage, the inherent linguistic and cultural crisis in the normalisation of pervasive misuse and abuse of language which is itself a reflection and reproduction of social contradictions and alienations, is more explicitly articulated. He draws attention to “a gross misuse of language that is part and parcel of a catastrophic decline in the quality of spoken and written language that itself is a product of system-wide malfunctioning of primary, secondary and tertiary education. All forms of writing today confront this grim fact, or rather interlocking sets of facts. And perhaps no modes of language use are more threatened by these facts of pervasive linguistic malaise than those associated with creative writing and critical discourse” (9). The scrutiny of editors and careful attention of the many other professionals of the book industry ensure the emergence of a more attractive and therefore acceptable and marketable product capable of enhancing the book trade. Self-publishing dispenses with all these facilities. Graham Huggan has cited Bourdieu to identify literary prizes as legitimising mechanisms that set in relief both the symbolic and material effects of the process of literary evaluation:
As Bourdieu suggests, prizes reflect as much upon the donors as their recipients; part of a wider struggle over the authority to consecrate particular works or writers, they are powerful indicators of the social forces underlying what we might call the politics of literary recognition. Far from offering tributes to an untrammeled literary excellence, prizes bring the ideological character of evaluation to the fore. (118).
With Western institutions of interpretation bent on privileging their own pronouncements on Nigerian/African literature, the ANA Prizes are indispensable measures of literary value in Nigeria. Thus, the diminishing number of these Prizes for what the current President of the Association refers to euphemistically as “sponsor’s fatigue” is worrisome.
In his ANA inauguration speech, Achebe intriguingly, but certainly not gratuitously, begins his address with a meditation on the mortality of a writer: Abubakar Imam. He returns to that theme at the close of his address and accounts for the reference by remarking on the significance of Imam as a “powerful and venerable indication of a new emphasis on, or even awareness of, literature in indigenous Nigerian languages”. But the invocation of Imam’s memory is of greater importance than just that because Achebe also acknowledges the presence of other writers with equal significance. Achebe’s presiding theme in all of that speech is the corporeality of the artist, his mortality, as contrasted with the potential immortality of his work. It is Achebe’s contention that the responsible writer lives in diametrical opposition to the state and that this invariably is hazardous to the writer. He regards writers’ scepticism of government, even when government brings gifts, “healthy and appropriate”. Achebe observes that writers constitute “a countervailing tradition of enlightened criticism and dissent”. His apprehension of the precariousness of the lone artist pitted in a mortal battle with the state is sobering.
To be continued