Creative writing, publishingand the future
of Nigerian Literature


USAfrica The Newspaper, Houston

As I wondered what to say on this memorable occasion, my thoughtsflashed back to the words of the English poet, Thomas Gray(1716-1771) in his 'Elegy written in a Country Church - Yard', one ofthe poems we learnt at Government College, Umuahia;

Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
The dark unfathom'd caves of ocean bear;
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

Pondering over the unrealised potentials of some of the personslaid to rest in the cemetery, Gray speculated that "some muteinglorious Milton here may rest."

Chike Momah's two published novels, Friends and Dreams (1997) andTiti: Biafran Maid in Geneva (1999) have brought to light what someof us who have known the author from his days at Government College,Umuahia, have always known: that he is a literary gem of purest rayserene. Over the years, over the decades, we used various strategiesto prevail on him to stretch out his wings and fly, to allow theworld to enjoy his literary sweetness. I thank God that he did notdie to be mourned as a "mute inglorious Milton."

Friends and Dreams, Chike Momah's first novel, was published in1997. Aged about 67 at the time, the author had already retired fromUnited Nations service. In Nigeria, a country whose militarydictators had an allergy for age and experience, he would long havebeen declared unproductive, unwanted old cargo, and booted out. Hisemergence as a creative writer of note at that age, and the speedwith which Titi: Biafran Maid in Geneva, followed in 1999, brings outone of the important characteristics of creative writing. Mgbeonye jiri tete, o buru ututu ya, as the Igbo say: 'It is from thehour you wake up that your own morning dawns.' There is no statutoryage range for creative writing. It is my prayer that other seniorcitizens with bottled up literary gems reading about the Momahsuccess will follow suit.

In the 1980s it was fashionable for young Nigerian writers whofelt marginalised by the established writers to call on the latter toretire, to clear the stage for the young ones. The budding writerssaw that as the only chance they had to shine. As long as the old,celebrated writers remained in the glare of national andinternational publicity, the young writers would never receiveattention and, consequently, stood no chance of becoming famousthemselves, nationally and internationally.

One can appreciate the consternation of the young Nigerian writer,pitted against the Nobel Laureate for literature Wole Soyinka, andone of the most decorated novelists of the 20th century, ChinuaAchebe. My quarrel is with their diagnosis of the cause of theirdilemma. They see a creative writer's career through the jaundicedeyes of a society allergic to age and experience, a societywhich celebrates massive public service "purges" as the key to anefficient civil service, a society which dumps as unproductive anypeson above 60, or any person who has served his country for up tothirty-five years.

Chike Momah's two brilliant novels in two years, with more in thepipeline, demonstrate eloquently that there is no retirement age increative writing. Dr. T.M. Aluko, now in his 80's and battling with astroke, has demonstrated that literary creativity has no agelimitations. I am outdooring my next novel, Conspiracy of Silence, tobe published by Longman Nigeria, on the occasion of my 70th birthdaynext month. My short stories will appear in a collection titled TheAccra Riviera published by Oyster St. Iyke (Ltd.). Only death cansilence the creative writer.

I said a little earlier that my disagreement with our youngwriters is over their diagnosis of the cause of their dilemma, adiagnosis which reminds me of the Igbo proverb about the chicken in asoup pot blaming its tragic circumstances on the soup pot rather thanon the person who slit its throat. The present day Nigerian writer isunable to receive appropriate attention not because the establishedwriters stand in his way but because the environment whichpitchforked Nigeria's celebrated writers into internationalprominence does not exist in Nigeria of the late 20th century andearly 21st century.

Nigerian writers who made their debut in the 1950s and 1960s wereinvariably published in Europe, by foreign publishers who used theirmultinational networks to promote their books. You receivedinternational attention with your first book, more or less. Themultinational publishers also took extra pains to promote promisingauthors. Alan Hill brought Achebe to the literary world. Rex Collingsdid the same for Wole Soyinka.

The major literary awards which serve as parameters for evaluatingthe greatness of a Nigerian creative writer are also foreign basedand controlled. It was the British Booker Award which automaticallyconferred greatness on Ben Okri. As for the Nobel Prize inLiterature, that is considered the highest crown of glory on earth(by the Western World) for any writer. It is a well known fact thatno Nigerian writer, however brilliant, can hope to win the prizeunless he has a powerful lobby in Europe or the USA. The worldacclaimed scholars of African literature whose verdicts determinewhich Nigerian writer is worthy of international attention are alsoforeigners who have been joined in their foreign countries by manyNigerian literary scholars.

We rejoiced that a new era had dawned when the Obasanjoadministration conferred a one million Naira literary award onvisiting Prof. Chinua Achebe. It soon became obvious that theadministration was more concerned with making a fitting cashpresentation to Prof. Achebe than with instituting a major literaryaward to promote Nigerian literature.

Where does all this leave the Nigerian writer? And Nigerianliterature? The once famous Heineman African writers series whichbrought Achebe, Aluko, Ekwensi, Amadi, Nwapa, Munonye and many othersto prominence ran aground decades ago. Fontana Books which broughtIke, Soyinka, Obi Egbuna, Adaora Ulasi and others into the limelightdied in the early 1980s. The economic downturn which began in the1980s and has since continued, dealt the knockout blow on foreignpublishing. The abysmal value of the naira meant that a foreignpublisher could not market the published books in Nigeria, which hasconstituted a major deterrent.

The Nigerian publisher is too apathetic and preoccupied withcompeting for textbook adoptions to fill the vacuum. The Nigeriangovernment has remained indifferent. Its shocking lack ofappreciation of the centrality of culture to national development isclearly written in the fortunes of our ministry of culture.

Within two years of its creation as a separate ministry, in theeuphoria of a still born 1988 national policy on culture, it had fourministers.

Within the less than two years of the Obasanjo administration,culture has had two bedfellows - firstly, information, currentlytourism; worse still, the ministry has had three different ministersin less than the two years, and President Obasanjo appears moreconcerned with zoning headship of the ministry to a section of thecountry than the relevance of the credentials of the minister ofculture.

God has blessed Nigeria with Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka,brilliant writers any country can justifiably be proud of. But theIgbo say that one pair of feet alone cannot keep a homestead clean.The works of two writers cannot make a national literature.Unfortunately Nigerian literature is fast becoming an endangeredspecies, and urgent remedial action is imperative if 21st centuryNigeria is to produce its own crop of brilliant writers. One crucialstep in this direction is for the appropriate organ of the federalministry of culture and tourism to organise a national conference onNigerian Literature in the 21st century to diagnose the majorproblems and chart the way forward.
•Prof. Ike, former registrar of the WAEC and author ofseveral books and novels, made this presentation at the launch ofChike Momah's book, 'Titi: Biafran Maid in Geneva and Friends andDreams' co-hosted by the Nigerian Chartered Institute of Bankers, in2001.

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