By HENRY AKUBUIRO
On Sunday September 4, the candlelight flickered and a beacon of light was extinguished. Africa lost one of its most cerebral literary minds, Professor Isidore Okpewho, in Binghampton, USA. Last Saturday, September 17, the prolific author of over a dozen books and scores of academic articles, was buried at Gate of Heaven Cemetery, East Hanover, New Jersey, USA. The scholar-writer, who retired not long ago as a Distinguished Professor from State University of New York, Binghamton, was a diasporic academic, who lived with his wife and four children in the U.S for 25 years.
Late Okpewho was adept in African and comparative literatures, with a specialist emphasis on comparative oral traditions. In 2004, he was named a distinguished professor. Born in Agbor, Delta State, Nigeria, Okpewho’s first degree was a B.A. in Classics from the University of London. He was to earn a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of Denver, and a D.Lit. in the Humanities from the University of London. His academic career was consummated at the State University of New York at Buffalo (1974-76), University of Ibadan (1976-90), Harvard University (1990-91), and Binghamton University.
His major publications in this field include The Epic in Africa: Toward a Poetics of the Oral Performance (1979), Myth in Africa: A Study of Its Aesthetic and Cultural Relevance (1983), African Oral Literature: Backgrounds, Character, and Continuity (1992), and Once Upon a Kingdom: Myth, Hegemony, and Identity (1998).
His edited scholarly volumes immensely reveal an expansion of his academic interests from oral literature (The Oral Performance in Africa, 1990), to modern African literature (The Heritage of African Poetry, 1985; Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart: A Casebook, 2003) and diaspora studies (The African Diaspora: African Origins and New World Identities, 1999). He also had a book on an African epic, Blood on the Delta: Art, Culture, and Society in The Ozidi Saga, as well as African Mythology in the New World. He also published some four dozen journal and book articles in these areas.
An accomplished creative writer, his novels include The Victims (1970), The Last Duty (winner of the African Arts Prize for Literature, 1976), Tides (winner of the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Africa, 1993), Call Me by My Rightful Name (2004), and the manuscript of the fifth novel, Fish Scales.
Professor Okpewho was a recipient of some of the most prestigious fellowships in the humanities: from the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars (1982), Alexander von Humboldt Foundation (1982), Centre for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford (1988), the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard (1990), National Humanities Centre in North Carolina (1997), and the Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation (2003). He was also elected Folklore Fellow International by the Finnish Academy of the Sciences in Helsinki (1993).
In nominating Okpewho a Guggenheim Fellow, President Lois B. DeFleur declared, “His prolific writing demonstrates great diversity ranging from African oral literature, to literary criticism and finally, to creative writing. One is struck by the overwhelmingly positive assessment of his contributions by distinguished national and international scholars.”
According Okpewho, “When you examine a tale from Africa, you must look at the society from which it comes and study the background of a tale’s transformation. Away from Africa, these people have a way of fashioning their own identity and it’s reflected in the tales they tell.”
The Sun Literary Review spoke to a select group of literary scholars on what the late scholar-writer meant to the world of letters. All affirmed his robust contributions to the understanding of the oral performance in Africa and the gem in his experimental fiction.
“Okpewho internationalised agenda of African oral literature” –Denja Abdullahi, ANA President
Professor Okpewho means many things to different people within the global literary universe. An astute orature and diasporan scholar, writer, poet, novelist and teacher for many years in different universities in Nigeria and other parts of the world, Prof Okpewho is notably recognised as one of the pioneer of research and scholarship in indigenous literature, oral performance and its comparative context in the global environment. Isidore Okpewho brought unusual energy into creativity, comparative and multidisciplinary scholarship, Diaspora studies and literary production that defies easy categorisation. A scholar, ideologue, activist and active campaigner for many causes including cultural preservation, literary finesse and environmental exploitation and despoliation of the Delta region of Nigeria where he comes from, Prof Okpewho remains on the pedestal of ingenious commitment to the promotion of Nigerian literature and the proper canonisation of the African experience in literature and scholarship. His strides in the advancement of the internationalisation agenda of African oral literature produced amazing results and scholars at home and abroad. Not one to lose touch with his roots, Prof Okpewho initiated programmes in literary development for emerging writers, hosted training sessions for up-and-coming writers and collaborated with his home government in Delta State to groom the younger generation into future writers and culture advocates.
The Executive Council of ANA, therefore, enjoins all creative writers and members of ANA to seek various innovative avenues of immortalising our professor through dedicated special readings, festival of life and other monuments of remembrance in honour of a true man of letters. As the fresh waters of the delta set sail with yet another boat loaded with the esteemed remains of the son of the creeks, let the drumbeat of life sound louder than the hostile shenanigans from here that those above may send another tide with the welcome blossom of another life.
“Okpewho’s passing brought me bitter news” – Prof Ruth Finnegan, pioneer scholar of African oral literature & emeritus professor, The Open University, U.K
There is a beautiful ancient Greek poem, beautifully translated too, which I have found comforting –and true. I share it with you: They told me Heraclitus, they told me you were dead/ They brought me bitter news to hear and bitter tears to shed/ I wept as I remembered how often you and I /Had tired the sun with talking and sent him down the sky./And now that you are lying my dear old Carian guest/ A handful of dry ashes long long ago at rest. Still are thy pleasant voices, thy nightingales awake/For death he taketh all away, but them he cannot take.”
“His novels keep us in his presence” –Dr Amatoritsero Ede, Publisher & Managing Editor, Maple Tree Literary Supplement, Canada, www.mtls.ca
I first vaguely knew of the late Professor Isidore Okpewho from my days as an Editorial Assistant at Spectrum Books LTD, Ibadan. It struck me then, as well, that I had read and was very impressed by the depth of his novel, The Victims, in high school. At Spectrum Books, I was directly involved in the production of one of his early scholarly works, The Oral Performance in Africa. I think Mr. Nobis Ogueri was the editor assigned the manuscript, while I was involved in proofreading the galleys. Professor Okpewho came into clearer view later when I began studying at the University of Ibadan in 1990s. I never took any classes with him. Even though I did study English alongside German, my focus was not in his area of scholarship – Oral Literature. So I was not close to him but usually observed him walking along the corridors of the English Department. He was sometimes in a blue suit, sometimes in a turtle neck sweater. He cut a dapper, quiet and dignified air and always had an expression of peaceful introspection. Even though we never spoke and he was not aware of me, there was a silent and intuitive communication because I could identify with that uniquely civilized, urbane aura about this gentleman and scholar.
I felt he was my friend, even though we never spoke, such was the familiarity in our lack of familiarity. Over the years, field-shaping academic critique after critique, he went on to become the foremost scholar of Oral literature in Nigeria, if not in Africa and ranked amongst one of the most original thinkers in the field within the global academy – he had moved to the USA while I was still at UI. My next encounter with him was at the African Literature Association conference in the USA in 2009 or 2010. By that time, he had been teaching in New York for decades. Again I saw him from a distance and he still had that special dignified and calm air around him. I do now regret not simply ever going up to him to strike up a conversation. Perhaps this never happened because I saw in him a reverence that I felt speech would sully. Perhaps unconsciously, I felt that it was better to have that wordless relationship I had struck with this kindred spirit back in Ibadan, than disturb greatness with the crudeness of human speech. Although he has gone to better realms, he will always be present in his academic writings, which have charted new paths in the discipline of African Studies and enriched global intellection. His literary works – novels – also keep him fresh in our presence with their entertaining value, inspirational depth and humanistic insights. I can still see him walking around the corridors at UI’s English Department, deep in thought.
“His fame announced him before meeting him” –Professor James Tsaaior, Pan-African University, Lagos
I first met Professor Isidore Okpewho at the Kairaba, a five-star beach hotel in Banjul, The Gambia. That was in 2014. We had congregated in Banjul for the biennial International Society for Oral Literatures in Africa, ISOLA conference. Professor Okpewho was then the president of the body. But, prior to this auspicious event, I had encountered the erudite scholar on the open pages of his seminal book offerings. The first was The Victims, a novel which benefits generously from African oral narrative traditions and is richly structured by co-wife rivalry which was compulsory reading for JAMB. Then came African Oral Literature and, soon, in quick succession, The Oral Performance in Africa, Epic in Africa and Myth in Africa I, which I read most avidly.
So Professor Okpewho’s fame announced him much earlier than our formal face-to- face meeting. I found Okpewho unassuming, almost self-effacing, much against the colossal image I had sculpted for him in my startled, restless imagination. Okpewho immediately adopted me as an intellectual son. I would send some of my scholarly materials to him for review and comments and he always obliged me with his incisive and compelling interventions. Then I was to hear about his failing health and now his unfortunate passing. This gathering of the great Okpewho to the ancestral domain certainly diminishes us, impoverishes scholarship in Africa and the world. But Professor Okpewho has just become a revered ancestor and his immortal legacies will speak most eloquently for him now and in future history.
“Okpewho touched many lives” –Nduka Otiono, University of Otawa, Canada
It is not surprising that the sad news of the demise of Prof Isidore Okpewho has sparked reactions from the literati, a broad range of friends, associates, admirers, and public officials in Nigeria and abroad that include President Muhammadu Buhari and Governor Ifeanyi Okowa of his home state, Delta State. This is because Prof Okpewho touched many lives
intellectually and personally. His death is an earthquake in the world of Oral Literature in Africa. The community mourns, and I personally mourn, because he mentored me with so much consideration as the supervisor for my Honours and Masters theses at the University of Ibadan, and right till he died. It is time we sped up work on the collection of
essays in his honour, which Chiji Akoma, another student of his and a friend of mine, are co-editing.