“Being an intellectual doesn’t mean knowing about intellectual issues. It means taking pleasure in them” –Chinua Achebe
Professor Isidore Diala reminds us of that remarkable wit, who, according to the doyen of African literature, Prof. Chinua Achebe, takes more pleasure in intellectual things. Little wonder, in less than three decades, the self-effacing Diala has gradually become a scholar-writer with latitude.
Like the proverbial silent achiever wedded to his craft with industry but with strong distaste for the din of trumpet, he has earned his spurs in both creative writing and literary criticism, winning distinctive awards and accolades in the wake.
On Thursday, May 23, 2019, the two-time winner, NLNG Literary Criticism Prize, will present his inaugural lecture entitled “Dionysos, Christ, Agwu and the African Writer” at the University Auditorium, IMSU, Owerri.
Educated at the former Imo State University, Etiti, Nigeria (now Abia State University, Uturu, Nigeria) Diala obtained his masters degree in African Literature and the University of Ibadan, Ibadan, Nigeria. His teaching career began at Abia State University, Uturu, in 1989, where he taught till 1994 before relocating to Imo State University, Owerri.
Now, a Professor of African literature in the Department of English and Literary Studies at the aforementioned university, he has spent varying periods of research fellowships at The Nordic Africa Institute in Uppsala, Sweden, the University of Cambridge and the University of London both in the United Kingdom, and in Germany.
What has been considered as a definitive work on late dramatist, Prof. Esiaba Irobi, Esiaba Irobi’s Drama and the Postcolony: Theory and Practice of Postcolonial Performance (Kraftbook, 2013) was done by Diala as a Humboldt Research Fellow and Visiting Professor in the Department of English, Westfälische Wilhelms University in Münster, Germany.
Diala’s scholarly work has been published in some of the best journals in the field, such as Research in African Literature, African Literature Today, ARIEL, Studies in the Novel, Journal of South African Studies, Contemporary Literature, and many others. His winning entry for the NLNG Literary Criticism Award “Colonial Mimicry and Postcolonial Re-membering in Isidore Okpewho’s Call Me by My Rightful Name” was published in Journal of Modern Literature (36.4 (2013): 77-95).
In creative writing, his two published works have won rave reviews and gained currency in the hearts of many readers nationally and internationally. While the play, The Pyre, was joint winner of the 1992 ANA Prize for Drama, his first poetry volume, The Lure of Ash, won the 1998 ANA/Cadbury Prize Poetry Prize.
Interestingly, Diala’s earliest attempts at literary creation were responses to his mother’s (Bernadette) exhortations to appropriate the stories he learnt from her as models for his own original tales. Diala admits in an interview with The Sun on November 1, 2014, that, in his published plays and poems, where folk song as recur, echoes of her tales and songs abound.
For Diala, Literature is a medium through which we can lay claims to immortality as the discerning listener or reader can recognise the spectre of our beloved dead flirting through the columns of the verbal artefact.
A firm canvasser of African traditions being in dialogue with other cultures, Diala believes that the best of our literature will remain a creative appropriation of techniques deriving from both the indigenous tradition and the international tradition practice.
Diala’s The Pyre, among others, is a work that explores Igbo ontology. In it, the writer asks himself fundamental questions about how a culture that had a metaphysical attitude in its interpretation of natural phenomenon would respond to the scientific and how a culture that espouses communal values responds to a modern philosophy of personal freedom.
Diala has always been fascinated by the hegemonic imperative in mythmaking and the ritual enactments that seek to entrench and even perpetuate beliefs and visions of life that particular myths privileges, which is why, in The Pyre, the falability of the human condition, as well as the necessity of communal expiation, expresses itself in the concept of messianic myth –his, a little variation from Soyinka’s Death and King’s Horseman.
In The Lure of Ash, ash achieves palimpsest metaphors, as Diala embarks on a social-political pilgrimage in time and space. Ash, to him, epitomises the paradox of the human condition, signifying, first and foremost, the modest element from which humankind was created and returns inevitably.
His first NLNG Award-winning essay, an essay on Isidore Okpewho’s Call me by Rightful Name, is an examination of the novelist’s realisation of magical realism as characteristic of both the African worldview and artistic productions.
Described by the legendary Professor Ben Obumselu as one of his best students ever and Professor Ernest Emenyonu as one of the promising lights of the emerging African critical establishment, Diala is hardly swayed by encomiums, even when they are mostly from the deans of African literary scholarship.
Always champing at the bits, Diala’s Syncretic Arenas, a book of essays with knowledgeable contributors from many countries from round the world, is being issued by Radopi publishers, Amsterdam, Holland.