A lecturer in the Department of Psychology, University of Jos, Plateau State, Obu Udeozo is the winner of 2006 Pat Utomi Award for Poetry. He is the author of 10 books of literary criticism in the historic Gardeners of Dreams Series on “The Third Wave of Nigerian Poets”. He has taught in the Department of English, University of Jos. Also a professional painter, he completed the acclaimed Portraits of all Nigerian Heads of State and Presidents in 1996, special commission by the Federal Government of Nigeria. He has published many poetry volumes. Living Dreams is his first published novel. In this interview with HENRY AKUBUIRO, Obu Udeozo, who is better known as a poet, responds to questions on his new work of fiction.
You completed your first novel as a primary 6 student in 1970, and, five decades later, you have published Living Dreams. At what point did you veer off from fiction, and why did it take you so long to return to prose?
Ronald Reagan, the American Presidential candidate in 1980 elections, said, “It is my Democratic Party that left me, and not the other way round.” Reagan actually won the United States election to The White House on the ticket of the Republican Party. So he was explaining what Nigerians may consider his “carpet crossing adventures …” I bring it up here because of your question. You said, “At what point did you veer off from fiction and why did it take you so long to return.”? I have never ever really left fiction in all my waking days in life. My mum, dad and siblings can testify that every daybreak, in one way or the other, they will hear me talk about “The Novel, The Novel …” The novel is a concept that comes within my wakeful speech and conversation – all the days of my life –as long as I can remember. So there was actually, no veering off, or leaving fiction as people may suppose.
What really happened is that other genres you mentioned also occurred simultaneously. I wrote my first novel in 1970; my first accurate poems, which were published in the Nile House Sphinx Magazine, in December, 1972. And my first splendid portrait of Reverend Robert Fisher, the first Principal and Founder of Government College, Umuahia, was done as a Class 2 student, also in 1972. The portrait fetched the attention of the College Principal, Mr.S.O. Ogazi. He made me stand up, in the college morning assembly, and was given an ovation for that work of art. It was eerie. A great motivation and reinforcement within that kind of environment and academic heritage! So, there was every reason, for me to take myself seriously – on all those frontiers –the novel, poetry and painting.
You are widely known as a lyrical bard with imagistic bent which is also evident in Living Dreams. Do you think prose demands similar diction as poetry?
Across the centuries, experts agree that verse is the highest form of language. From Homer, Virgil, Lucien, Rabelais, through Gustave Flaubert to T.S. Eliot. In time, I shall fully disclose why Shakespeare’s near ontological dominance over the province of drama is an attribute of his lyrical profundity. In my forthcoming text, Looking at Shakespeare, my incursion into theatre as a comparative discourse of the major dramatists of the world, these issues will be more fully enunciated. But let’s return to the point. Poetry is the highest expression of the sublime as far as language resources are concerned. And I believe that it is a profit in the service of any medium to make use of their most exalted resources. I have taken time to horn my expressions in that realm. And I therefore, freely let it rain in my communication. Note the word rain, not reign.
But I admit that there are problems. Certain persons prefer to keep their communication uncluttered and simple. They do not fancy any mix up, or pretenses, between poetry and prose. In fact, a friend of mine is extremely vexed whenever, he has to deal with passages in novels that dare to aspire to poetry or the lyric tone. Ismaila Abdulkassim, a writer of The Third Wave of Nigeria Poets in The Gardeners of Dreams Series, said: “However, bad a poem may be, you do not have to shoot it with a gun …” But this friend of mine is different. He can be so angry that he could have tossed a bomb on Living Dreams if he had the window to do so!
But something of a serious irony or paradox sneaked into the situation. The passages where my friend highlighted that gave him the greatest irritation and displeasure in the novel happen to be the very sites and zones that I will always return to read and read, and re-read, because they offer me improbable delight. When Chinua Achebe was asked which book of his he admired the most? After obvious reservations, he stated that: “… if you ever have to catch me reading any of my novels (which I seldom do), it will be The Arrow of God.”
So, my friend was actually quarrelling with my own Joseph as The Prime Minister in Egypt. Odia Ofeimun says that it is “insulting and a letdown for poetry to speak in pedestrian language. “ We have to allow people their own choices and predilections. But such individuals will actually miss out when they do not completely welcome what T.S. Eliot calls “The superior amusement …”, which is what poetry is. And the very office, creed, objective, and constitution of poetry; is to refresh the language of the society and civilisation.
How did the idea of Living Dreams come to you, and why did you wish to make it a work of fiction?
As I said earlier, I have always nourished the idea of the novel in my head, as far as I can remember, and have always marvelled at the extreme efforts, and even desperation, which certain human beings make towards wealth and comfort. However, there are persons whose very lives are ingredients of Dreams: Living Dreams! It has always amazed and fascinated me.
But, at a point in 2015, propitious circumstances came together “working for good for me …” No single individual can be an all sufficient model or paragon for a character in a novel, at least in my own experience and judgment. In fact, after the novel, Madam Bovary, was published in 1857 in France, more than 20 women across villages and cities in Paris claimed that Gustave Flaubert, based his heroine, Emma Bovary, on their specific lives and circumstances. These women were so convinced over their claims that some of them contemplated law suits against the author. My point is that a good work of art must transcend ordinary life, however exalted the living personality is.
Yet, in March of 2015, favourable circumstances conduced to offer me the entry point into Her Majesty, Lady Nkiruka Abigail Offodile, the ambassador plenipotentiary and senior special assistant to The President and Commander-in –Chief, in The Federal Republic of Bozrah. After that encounter, the moment clicked, and it became a sort of “you go kill me today …” experience. I could not leave the novel, and the novel could not leave me, and it got written.
On the aspect of making it a work of fiction, only that genre of literature could handle the heavy freight of the themes involved in the Kingdom of Bozrah. I enjoyed the same familiarity which The Nobel Laureate, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, expressed in writing A Hundred Years of Solitude. Marquez admitted that, though people considered the events and characters in that novel surreal and almost unbelievable, that several incidents and personae in the book were so real that they appeared like pebbles in the landscapes of Argentina; and that all he had to do was picking them, as he fancied, while working on his book. It was so for me in writing Living Dreams. I was dealing with decades of lived and deep experiences.
Corruption, coups, misrule and many woes are emblematic of Bozrah. How close to reality is Bozrah vis-à-vis today’s Africa? It is there any verisimilitude?
I simply recall Dim Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu’s usual refrain when asked when he will complete his autobiography on the Nigeria-Biafra Civil War. He would respond: “I still love where my head is located on my body. I cherish my head above my neck and my shoulder …” And after the usual banters, he would offer an extended period when his book will be completed and published. Living Dreams in relation to countries in Africa? I believe that’s an unfair question for the author to answer (laughs). But I know that I have become a citizen of Bozrah since writing that novel. I understand her citizens completely. I am baffled by their egregious excesses. I am shocked by their flagitious greed. I am bewildered by their psychiatric corruption and the speed of their official convoys and drivers. I am amazed by the humongous statistics of kidnapping, robbery and rape that flourish in that African nation South of The Sahara Desert, and I am relieved and glad about final outcome of the global intervention, leading to their ultimate redemption in the novel. So, you can see that it is The Kingdom of Bozrah that I know very well. The rest of your questions belong to comparative literature and cultural studies.
The youths of Bozrah are given contrasting depictions in the novel as both agents of despair and agents of redemption. What point are you making here?
I did a long work of literary criticism which took 16 years to complete. It is entitled Gardeners of Dreams – The Third Wave of Nigeria Poets. So, I think that I am very intimate with the topic of youth despair –the bewilderment and world weariness of young people in general. I have studied and empathised with their frustrations, anxieties and hopelessness. I am a witness to their incomprehensible, if not inconsolable pain. I am aware of their sense of loss and waste. I am completely familiar with the suicidal mindset of the present age. It is a horrendous script. Yet the youths of Bozrah are on another scale of the bizarre. As for their also being agents of change, it must be noted that, before the military intervention, by The 4 Elite Governments of The Globe (EGG), the youths of Bozrah underwent 4 years of re-orientation and military training. These were all inspired by America’s National Security Adviser, Mr. Leonard Chukwudebelu. That successful mission in Bozrah only proves that any mass of humanity can swing either East or West, depending on their ethos, value-system and mindset.
Professor Charles Nnolim once said that “your global knowledge of contemporary art is intimidating.” In this fiction, there are copious references to artists and intellectuals. Does your fiction go beyond telling a story?”
I feel lucky to answer this question. We have a problem at the moment in our general conception and understanding of the term novel. I believe it means freshness and entertainment, more than anything else, and it does not promote or celebrate ignorance! The novelists of the past ages were masters, not only in their crafts, but in their knowledge of the world of men, and their various trades and occupations. They were “rounded” artists communicating to the world, and delivering freshness and relief to various communities –when there were no radios, cinemas, televisions, YouTube, Instagrams or whatsapp. In those days, when one read a novel, he or she was at once at grip and par with what were the freshest trends in the circumstances and vocations of that age.
The Igbo used to have that kind of fanfare, in the Mbari art festivals whereby every form or motif of the people’s sociology of knowledge is depicted in artistic media like paintings, wood carvings, and sculptures in order to document the total received culture of the people at that specific season. We may need an extended discourse on this. But that is the main thrust.
Today, it is no longer so. The novel appears to be retreating to be surrendering her primary office and tools of investigation. The novel is sacrificing her services and engagements to the streets. The novel appears afraid and intimidated from beholding newness, innovations and explorations. All the breakthroughs in the frontiers of postmodern scientific research appear to be out of bounds to the literary imagination. It looks as if writers have censored themselves away from and against treating challenging topics or ideas, and it has not always been so.
My favourite writer among the ancients is Virgil. That man was a total artist and voice in whatever form or experience that he wanted to communicate. If he spoke on ship building, he discussed like a craftsman and an engineer. If he wrote on wrestling, he mirrored the intrigues and morbedezzia in athletics and sports. Essentially, my aim is to communicate the total experience of what is available to the mind of and curiosity of the adventurous reader in our 21st century global society.
At the end of the fiction, the golden LIONS of Bozrah got a Guantanamo Bay treatment reserved for hardened criminals. Why did the citizens of Bozrah see this as a welcome development rather than resorting to a home grown solution?
That solution was not an easy or straight forward decision. In the novel, you will notice that the foreign military coalition, led by America’s Navy Seals, considered several options. Among which are The China Card, which would have involved executing every ruling politician or soldier in Bozrah found guilty of stealing or corruption on the spot. At all times, and in all places, as happens in The Peoples Republic of China. The Rajiv Gandhi solution of castrating the treasure looters of Bozrah was also contemplated. The Jerry Rawlings’ treatment of terminating all offenders in Bozrah was also mooted, but dropped. The one which drew laughter and lightness was the suggestion to drop all leaders, and treasure looters of Bozrah into the boiling Atlantic Ocean!
As for welcoming foreign intervention, we learn from the wisdom of our folk culture, imagination and language. Our people have a proverb that says “Ife ka nte, ba kwu ta nte na onu!”, which means that the harmless termite is beholding a yellow monster at the gate of his ant hole …” So, the Africa Regime Transfer Operations (ARTs) against Bozrah, launched by the combined aircraft carriers from France, Charles de Gaulle, which conducts over 30 navalized Rafale multi-role fighters, plus the E-2C Hawkeye airborne early warning aircrafts; China’s loaning of her most advanced warship Liaoning; Russia’s Kuznetsov, and America’s USS Gerald Ford, for the final onslaught against The Federal Republic of Bozrah was not merely welcome, but a divine remedy.
This novel runs in an 8-book, 2-part format. Why did you choose that structure?
I have spent over 5 decades meditating the novel, and, of course, I have resorted to the algorithm that can convey my message. The cauldron of ideas, which were issuing over the subject, could only have been managed with the format I chose. Therefore, I opted for that structure, and it has served me well.
What is the reception like for Living Dreams, especially for readers who know you as a poet?
The reception and experience over Living Dreams is equivalent to what they call Divine breakthrough in Christian circles. Within just one month of the first publication of the novel, the books have sold out completely, and we are in the process of ordering reprints for the 2nd edition. I shall give details of a few feedbacks because there are so many. From Abuja, a former manager in Diamond Bank, Pastor Kezie Onuorah and current Chancellor and Founder of JC Best College, FCT, phoned in with updates on the text. He related the exaltation with which their students were relishing the novel, with lots of assignments. After handing over to the classroom teacher, Lynda Okagbue, I said to myself that any set of students in Africa, that are set upon digesting Living Dreams, with their current prepossession can only become like the World Chess Champion, Bobby Fisher, to their contemporaries in the time ahead.
On an ultra private level, when Chike Uwechia called me up, to give his opinions after reading Living Dreams in Jos, he could hardly contain himself at the other end of the line. He kept saying, “Obu Udeozo, e gbue nmadu na oyibo” (Obu Udeozo’s mastery of English is phenomenal). All my efforts to calm him down, and hear my gratitude and opinion were like waving to a trailer, speeding on a one-way express road. I had to give up, with solemnity and gratitude, to GOD.
Are we expecting new works of fiction from you, or is this just a one-off thing?
At the moment, I am focused on Government College Umuahia, a personal biography from me as a solemn reverence and gratitude for what that great institution has done for Africa and for mankind. We are having the 100th anniversary of the college on the 29 July, 2021; and I am prepared to sacrifice all in my power to see that the college would put in a noble narrative when that day comes. So, this non-fiction series of works have pushed my immediate titles of the novel a bit further in time. After the Umuahia Biography is delivered –because I have had it on my head and table for several years now –I shall return to fiction. As they say, if Christ tarries, you will be reading afriCAN gods, a novel, by Obu Udeozo; you will read a children’s novel with an incredibly delicious title from me.
I hope and pray to complete my epic work in Drama –Looking at Shakespeare –which was mentioned earlier. This will be before releasing my two works in theatre – The Birthday of the EARTH and Affia Attack. I do not say what I cannot do. But I am very much aware of the bible injunction that we must never boast about tomorrow. I have decided to just intimate you with these propositions so that they can be a kind of cybernetic loop in my creative process. So, it is ultimately, a continual prayer request made public.