Dr Ugorji Okechukwu Ugorji is a prolific Nigerian author of 10 books, publisher and scholar-activist based in the United States. Also, an editor of over 100 African books, he won several literary prizes at The College of New Jersey (formerly, Trenton State College), including the Langston Hughes Award, the Owen Dodson Award, and the Wole Soyinka Prize. His poem “The Chief Priest” , in 1985, won the First Prize at the US National Council for Black Studies creative writing contest. Considered as a leading authority on Nigerian Diaspora, Ugorji is the author of the new poetry volume, She is Eternal. Henry Akubuiro interviewed him on his scribal accomplishments.
You are a writer, publisher, and scholar-activist. How do you marry all these engagements?
The three aspects of my life actually align perfectly. I started off as a writer. The writer is essentially a storyteller, and my abiding interest is in the telling of the story of African peoples. Later, it occurred to me that I can also serve as a conductor of an orchestra of writers and creative artists in the arena of storytelling, which is what a publisher does. The additional roles of a publisher being a gatekeeper to the propagation of important cultural phenomena and a player in nation building also appeal to me. The role of a scholar is to contribute to the body of knowledge in a given field. And, for me, it is not enough to have knowledge; a scholar must also act based on the knowledge, hence, the activist thrust of my works.
You have 10 books to your name. Was your study at the Trenton State College (now The College of New Jersey) a catalyst to your literary development?
Every level of education (formal and informal) contributes to one’s skill sets. So, yes, my days at the then Trenton State College was monumentally instrumental to my literary development. The most significant aspect of that college experience at Trenton State College was my interaction and learning from fellow students, African and European (that is, Black and White students). It was on that campus that I became aware of the impact of literature in man’s inhumanity to man, as well as the role of literature in the emancipation struggles throughout the world to correct or, at least, arrest that legacy of inhumanity. And it was there, believe it or not (far away from mother Africa), that I began to develop my Africa-centered consciousness.
As a publisher based in America, who has published over 100 books, how’s the reception of African books like?
Publishing is not for the faint-hearted. In certain fields of study, there is great hunger and thirst for knowledge from Africa. The challenge is in putting together the financial resources to publish and market African books. I personally have never been motivated by money in publishing. I have just cherished and invested heavily in the production and documentation of knowledge in book form. My role model in this venture has been an Eritrean brother named Kassahun Checole, the publisher of Africa World Press and the Red Sea Press. His AWP imprint was the first to publish my work.
Given the importance of publishing in the building of the mind, I do think that African governments and African business people should invest more in legitimate publishers, including even foreign-based and black controlled publishing houses. We cannot leave the telling of our stories to others and we cannot stifle that duty by allowing the exigencies of the capitalist marketplace to be determinant of what gets published and consumed.
You are the first son of a traditional ruler in Igboland. How has that shaped your worldview, for I noticed in your latest book, She is Eternal, there is an Igbo background to the poems?
The Igbo upbringing itself (not so much the royal family aspect) is the anchor of my worldview. And that worldview in general is Africa-centered. Freedom (in all ramifications) and the dignity of the human being (every human being) are very important to me and are present in my works. So, yes, I draw heavily on my consciousness.
Interestingly, this is your first published poetry collection. The title suggests a feminist echo. Having been brought up in a patriarchal society, what informed the basis of this poem?
I am in awe of womanhood in general. But I am particularly drawn to Black womanhood because of the tremendous triumph of African women in the face of centuries of denigration, abuse and disrespect on a global scale. So each time I get a chance, I pay tribute to the women who look like my mother. In She is Eternal, I globalise the presence of African women in history and celebrate their historic life-giving and life sustaining roles in our collective struggles. Even in our politics, I believe we will be well served to open the space and make it more conducive for our sisters and mothers to compete and serve. My own mother was a Nigerian military officer (now retired) and served as an elected Supervising Councillor in Health for my local government area in Imo State. So I have always had a strong female model in my life.
One of the poems that catches the eye in the collection is “Laureate of the Savannah.” What’s the connection between you and the persona laureate, as the poem seems to echo a reverence borne out of familiarity?
“Laureate of the Savannah” is part of the Jamike collection. I wrote it as a birthday present in 2019. It is a tribute to one of the most gifted and competent citizens of the world, who happens to be a Nigerian. In my efforts to celebrate African peoples and tell their stories, I have found in him a role model, an ally, a friend, and a delightfully decent, senior brother for over 25 years — dating to our years in the New York/New Jersey axis while he served Nigeria as Permanent Representative and Ambassador to the United Nations. In his company, you get no sense of his global stature and storied career except in the intellect with which he converses. I am confident that his recent appointment as President Buhari’s Chief of Staff will have positive and lasting consequences for the PMB administration, for the nation, and for Africa. I am an incurable optimist regarding the most consequential Black nation in the world, and I became even more hopeful for our multi-ethnic and multi-religious nation-state when I read about his most recent national duty in 2020.
You have a forthcoming collection of over 2,500 Igbo proverbs, ILU: African Proverbs in Igbo, with English translations.” How long did it take you for the research, and do proverbs still matter in today’s African society that tends to be western oriented?
The major credit for that work goes to Dr. Chigozie B. Nnabuihe, who is an Associate Professor of Igbo Language Studies at the University of Lagos. I am tremendously honoured to collaborate with his brilliant mind.
Yes, proverbs still matter. Even for those of us who have studied overseas, removed as it were from the daily rituals of African languages, when we gather we still measure and judge each other by how versatile and comfortable we are with our numerous proverbs. It is a thing of great joy to remain immersed in that aspect of our culture. The book is written with the global village in view, because even European and American personalities in politics, religion, and speech making are finding great value in quoting African proverbs. The book is a contextualised generous serving of these gems from the ancients.
You are considered a leading authority on the Nigerian Diaspora. Does the “Black Lives Matter” agitation reflect the experiences of black Africans like you, too?
You bet it does! I share solidarity with African Americans, and I am grateful for the impact of their over 400 years of struggle on my life and the lives of African peoples in general. Every privilege or right or success I have enjoyed in America has been because African Americans paid for and paved the way for me with their sweat, tears, and blood. Every aspect of the “Black Lives Matter” movement reflects my experiences. Black life is the tide that lifts all boats. I have written in support of the movement and I have donated to some groups within the movement.