Twenty-Five kilometres south of Abakiliki, the Ebonyi State capital, lies the university town of Ikwo, away from the city’s hustle and bustle, amid lush greenery and somnolent air. Here, crops bloomed and literature blossomed, as the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), in collaboration with the Alex Ekwueme Federal University, Ikwo, retreated to expand the frontiers of Nigerian literature for two days.
Now in its sixth year, the federal university welcomed the writers from all parts of the country with open arms. At the end, budding writers sprayed their arms in joy as they won the creative writing and art prizes. Above all, scholars, writers and members of the university community charted a new course for Nigerian literature. Themed “Expanding Frontiers: Nigeria’s Creative Writing in the 21ST, it was an international conference and writing workshop rolled into one.
Day 1 of the conference started on Sunday, June 18, 2018, with a courtesy visit to the Office of the Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Prof. Sunday Eloh, who stood in for the Vice-Chancellor, Prof. Nwajiuba, away on an official assignment to France.
The delegation was led by ANA President, Mallam Denja Abdullahi and his deputy, Camillus Ukah. Also present was the association’s Secretary, Ofonime Inyang. The ANA delegation included scholars, such as Professor Isidore Diala, the keynote speaker; Professors J.O.J. Nwachukwu Agbada, Sam Ukala and Joe Ushie, as well as members of the national exco and state chairmen of ANA.
Welcoming the delegation, the Vice-Chancellor thanked the association for granting the university the hosting right, despite its relative young age. The theme of the conference, he noted, was apt, especially considering today’s reality when university undergraduates could barely communicate fluently in English, which wasn’t the case before.
“As undergraduates, we read novels. This is a generation of students who don’t read anything. You can attribute it to the ICT, which shouldn’t be,” said, just as he urged ANA to assist in boosting the reading culture in the country. The university, he said. had introduced an English Language Compulsory Programme for all its courses. He suggested that mentorship should be emphasised in the academia, while hoping that the conference would proffer solutions to some of the pressing issues bedeviling the sector.
Moments later, the conference was declared open by Mallam Abdullahi with an address at the university auditorium. He described the gathering as historic, delighted to address such a commune of people in the citadel of learning with the “Home of the Soaring Eagles.”
Since its foundation in 1981 by the doyen of African literature, Chinua Achebe, he said ANA “has been associated with rigorous intellectual and developmental pursuits alongside its regular duty of the promotion of Nigerian writers and writings.”
The unique thing about the gathering, he noted, was the realisation of the vision of unbundling the ANA annual convention, which had hitherto accommodated the seminar series and “the crystallisation of our dream of putting in place a focused annual conference that will be dedicated to the robust criticism of contemporary Nigerian literature.”
The president explained further that the idea to start the conference and establish it as an annual venture arose out of the persistent and unceasing lamentation among the literary and critical communities of the absence of robust criticism of our contemporary literature.
“It is also widely perceived that significant literary criticism has receded to circulating mainly within institutionally restricted academic journals or spaces and, therefore, the larger reading society and the writers who should benefit from such critical labour are unaware of such.
“The conference is being proposed to remedy the critical gaps in our literary firmament and to by extension repopularise the critical enterprise in the larger society. This conference is also conceived to focus on new works and young scholars within and outside the academia and one of the major objectives is to divert critical engagement to authors and works who may not be receiving the required critical attention,” he said.
Subsequently, he presented an award to the vice-chancellor and a donation of 200 books on behalf of the association to the university library, hoping that the students would find them very useful. An overwhelmed DVC, who received the donation on behalf of Prof. Nwajiuba, was optimistic that they would be a big boost to its English language programme.
Professor Isidore Diala, in his keynote speech, x-rayed the trajectory of Nigerian literature from the first generation to the present, citing that new writers had been responding to emerging sociopolitical realities like war, Boko Haram insurgency, herdsmen menace, sexuality, among others.
His keynote speech was preceded with Critics/Writers Forum moderated by Dr. John Otu (who described Professor Diala “as a treasure to African literature”) and Prof. G.M.T. Emezuo, featuring the panelists: Professors J.O.J. Nwachukwu-Agbada and Sam Ukala, Dr. Ogaga Okuyade, Ikeogu Oke and Dr. Ismaila Bala.
In his response to the keynote speech, Prof. Nwachukwu-Agbada emphasised that Nigeria had a literary tradition. However, he cautioned against being in a hurry to establish a canon, “Our approach is let the flower flourish. My worry is that we are very ready to accept anything that comes from outside.”
As long as we allow sexual related issues to flood Nigerian literature, he was afraid it would encourage a literary culture of “anything goes”. He asserted, therefore, that “we should stick to our interest on what literature is. We may appear conservative, but that’s what literature is. We shouldn’t be promoting some things our laws are against.”
For Professor Sam Ukala, authentic African literary canon was one based on research on African artistic heritage. If what you are writing doesn’t originate from our history and culture, the 2014 winner of the LNG Nigeria Prize for Literature said it meant a digression. “African canon must be rooted in African artistic heritage; the style must be African,” he noted.
Dr. Ogaga Okuyade was dissatisfied that Nigerian writers writing from abroad no longer considered audience. As a result of the importance attached to winning western prizes, he said this set of writers only “writes what will interest the west”. Hence, he cautioned that writers “should be mindful of western prizes”.
He also scrutinised what he called “politics of blurbing” in Nigerian literature whereby the blurb is more expressive than the work itself. Unfortunately, he said the standard being used to measure Nigerian writing these days seemed to be Chiamamanda Adichie, Helon Habila, Chris Abani and Sefi Atta, and if you weren’t any of the aforementioned, it tended to suggest you were not writing.
Lending his voice to the discussion on the canon, Ikeogu Oke said we should draw a line on what we accept, especially from alien sources. This is because “these prizes are not meant to benefit them (writers) but those who give them the prizes”. He cautioned against young Nigerian writers being anxious for prizes with questionable implications.
Prof. Joe Ushie suggested that we should, rather, be canonising ourselves. The gem of African literature should be derived from African sources, he added. For instance, “We have our African science fiction based not on western culture. We don’t need to go to the west to get it.”
Professor Egya Sule lamented that “we show an emasculated tradition of our writing, and we don’t key into a conversation. He echoed, “As scholars, we need to look at each work for its styles and weaknesses. There is so much we are not bringing on board.” A young writer, Obinna Udenwe, remarked that the world was growing so fast and things were changing, too. He lamented that old scholars were still marooned in the writings of the Achebe and the Soyinkas, lamenting that “the reason NLNG Prize for Literature has not grown is because it is still managed by old professors.” He suggested that young scholars and writers should be included in the judging panels of literary prizes in the country.
In a similar vein, ANA General Secretary, Inyang, who is also a university scholar, advised that the space for debates must increase in Nigerian literature and criticism, even as he condemned ethnicising the literary enterprise. “Literary engagement must cross borders,” he affirmed. The opening confab was preceded with writing workshops, with writing competitions in poetry and drama, as well as an art drawing competition. Camillus Ukah gave a vote of thanks.
Day 2 began with a lecture by Prof Egya Sule on “Diaspora Positioning, Identity, Politics and the Crisis of Contemporary Nigerian Literature”. He reiterated that ours “seems to be a group of prize-mongering writers”. He emphasised on building institutions more than any other thing.
He lamented that, once a book was published in Nigeria, it would be error-ridden. He condemned the craze for travelling abroad, which had become the sing-song of young Nigerian writers today. “It’s better establishing yourself here before they invite you, so that you will be respected,” he submitted.
Professor Niyi Okunoye’s paper on “Towards Anthologising Third Generation Nigerian Poetry” was presented Dr. Osita Izulora in which he stressed that “more than any other time in history, Nigerian poetry seems fertilised”. Dr. Anthony Duruaku spoke on
“Dramatic Literature for the Young Adults in Nigeria: The Playwrigth’s Burden”, in which he encouraged young writers to also write for children. There were other papers presented by other scholars.
Mallam Denja Abdullahi announced that, as a result of the paper presented by Professors Sule and Okunoye, ANA would be publishing an anthology of poetry tending towards the canonical. He hinted that the association and other stakeholders in the book industry were embarking on an advocacy to convince JAMB and other curriculum drivers to choose better written texts for students.
The Vice-Chancellor, Professor Nwajiuba, was warmly welcomed, at this juncture, to the venue with a round of applause. He apologised for not attending before now due to his overseas engagements. He enthused that he, naturally, belonged to the literary community as a writer himself, though his parents forced him into the sciences as an undergrad. He also praised writers for developing people’s capacity for logic, declaring that the university had become a permanent venue for ANA, to which Mallam Adullahi commended him for hosting the association.
Prizes were presented to the winners of the writing and drawing competitions conducted during the workshop sessions facilitated by Professor Ukah and Ushie. While Obinna Ibezim won the poetry competition, Deborah Uzoma won the drama competition. They were promptly rewarded by the vice-chancellor. Ikeogu Oke rounded the conference with excerpts from his award-winning Heresiad performed with varying modulations.
But that wasn’t the climax of the day. Accompanied by the vice-chancellor, theANAdelegation moved to the permanent site of the campus nearby to plant trees. The swansong of the two-day conference/workshop was downtown Abakiliki later in the day where poetry and palm wine struck a medley for the soiree.