Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Poesondra: Stylistic Innovation at JosANA

The last JosANA meeting on the 5th of April proved a memorable one.

Quite atypically, it started a behind schedule due to the lateness of our chairman and the little problem with our venue being locked. But of course, the informal workshop had already commenced in the corridor with the arrival of Mr. Nnamonu, the educationist, and Richard Ugbede Ali. In time, other members joined in and the Chairman arrived with his apologies.

The meeting proper began with Richard Ali’s report on the British Council sponsored Radiophonics program at Kano which he had attended with three other members of JosANA; Abubakar Adam, Redzie Jugo and Alpha ‘Meka. The house was very interested in hearing about the experience and asked questions regarding it. Questions were also put to Abubakar Adam and later to Redzie and Alpha when they arrived. Aunty B Tsevende, who had arrived with a crate of chilled soft drinks, asked about specifics of radio writing and discourse followed. Abubakar Adam replied that the trick was to keep the audience’s attention. Repeating the words of our facilitator, Mike Harris of the University of Sheffield, he said that when you’ve written a book, if the reader gets bored, he could close the book and maybe give you another chance later; with radio on the other hand, he simply reaches out and “OFF”, and that ends the whole thing. So, good radio writing must be like a drug, given in small doses, and spaced out with highly dramatic reversal points. Sound effects are also a very important aspect of radio writing.

Next was talk on the at hand Achebe Colloquium. The Chairman updated the house on how far the arrangements were going and generally, what the latest news was.

The activities held in honor of Prof. G. G. Darah’s 60th birthday anniversary had culminated the week before at Abraka and Mr. Dooga of the University of Jos, who attended, gave us a rundown of the whole event. He made everyone feel the heat of the intellection that had gone on there and yet, each person felt a bit sad that they had not been there in person to see the likes of Tanure Ojaide and other highly esteemed literary icons. Mr. Dooga showed us pictures taken at the event, which was well attended, and a clip of the “ovedje {sic}” dance. He also brought us up to speed on the intellectual pulse of the Niger Delta. It would seem that the same anger we up north feel for the Niger Delta intelligentsia who we see as having been railroaded by thugs like Ateke and Dokubo, is replicated with their own anger directed at particular northern academics. From the foregoing, there is the necessity for greater interaction between the north and the delta, especially amongst the academics; there are obvious differences, resource control et al, but they should not be insurmountable ones.

The Northern Writers Conference scheduled for Minna from the 4th to 6th of May was announced and all who wished to be delegates from JosANA were asked to get their names across to the Chairman.

Aunty B Tsevende would be touring the United States this week with a production of Queen Idia, which she has choreographed.

Richard Ugbede Ali read “Seesaw Selection”, the fruit of his one-week stay in Kano to the critical acclaim of the house which included Paul Ugbede, noted Jos based playwright.

But the high point of the meeting came with the rendition of piece by a new member, Ejiofor Okolo; he called his style “poesondra”, a fluid style incorporating the character of poetry, song and drama. Needless to say, it was an interesting performance, and a definitive experience. Ejiofor rendered his piece, really rendered it, with action, gesticulation and voice modulation. One was put to mind immediately of the griots of Mali and Senegal and our own Yoruba drummer boys from the 1970’s Lagos, with their little talking drums who seem to improvise their poetry as they moved along the streets. But then, you wonder, such deep poetry cannot have been improvised there and then, the complexity of meaning in them betrayed the true skill of a poet as gifted as any. We at JosANA have witnessed the birth of what may turn out to be a new thrust in Nigerian literature, which has been long dormant since Niyi Osundare swept up a storm with his highly lyrical “oral” poetry in the 80’s. If that movement acquires a stable form, its most visible representative would be Ejoifor Okolo, an Igbo griot and very importantly, a member of JosANA.

Following this, the meeting broke up once again into informal groups, some clustering around the Radiophonics people, others around Ejoifor and yet others around the chairman.

The next meeting is for Saturday 19th of April at the Nigerian Film Institue, Jos.

Monday, April 14, 2008

biyi bandele's things fall apart

egbe belu, ugo belu

When this gem of a phrase first struck me a year ago, I asked a literary friend of mine what it meant and she told me that translated from the Ibo tongue, it meant "let the eagle perch, let the hawk perch also". The counterpart English aphorism would be "live and let live". Subsequently, I remembered having come across it in one of Chinua Achebe’s novels, either Things Fall Apart or Arrow of God.

The reason for this recall is that yesterday I happened to be at the Jos Repertory Theatre where I watched the thespians rehearse Biyi Bandele’s adaptation of Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, perhaps the finest sociological novel Africa has produced. Its main character, Okonkwo, has engaged over the decades as the most tragic of humanist heroes and a fitting metaphor of Africa as a whole, both in terms of the tragic and the heroic.

It being 50 years since the book was first published, Nigeria is right held in celebrations of this golden milestone. Generally called the "Achebe Colloquium", amongst its details is the staging of this aforementioned adaptation by the Patrick Jude Oteh directed Jos Repertory Theatre on the 19th and 20th of April 2008 at the Cultural Center, Ibadan and Abeokuta respectively. The staging of the play is sponsored by the Ogun State Government and the Association for Nigerian Authors.

I watched the rehearsals in company of the ANA PRO, Alkasim Abdulkadir, the ANA Plateau Chairman, Allen Abduljabbar Omale, his wife and the up and coming Jos based writer, Barrister Redzie Jugo. By the end of the two-hour long production, the phrase "egbe belu, ugo belu" kept repeating itself in my mind. A complex but flawlessly controlled play told from the perspective of Obierika, Okonkwo’s friend, I found in it worthy obeisance to Achebe himself and to the emerging spirit in the Nigerian stage and literature.

Perhaps, being an Ibo phrase, it would lend itself to further construction? If the eagle perches and the hawk perches, it means that everyman comes into his own time, let no one hold the rest to ransom by snatching the trappings of forever. Perhaps we can say that no matter how long ugo {hawk} has slumbered, when it arises, its place is still there in the scheme of things, waiting to be claimed? Shall we not say that the generations of writers following in the trail blazed by Achebe and his contemporaries are coming into their own? Both Biyi Bandele’s generation who have adapted this novel and my generation, the players of Jos Repertory, who have brought it to life?

Among the most haunting passages in the drama adaptation, made if possible even more surreal than in the novel itself, is the point when Okonkwo finds that the cancer of the white man has spread so deep into the tribe that it cannot hold anymore, that the tribe, which gave him accolades through his life for his strength, had become attributed with the blemish of Nnoka his father, that of "effeminate" weakness. In Biyi Bandele’s adaptation, I still see Okonkwo looking to his fellows to follow his action and finding their backs turned to him, I see the deconstruction of truth work its way across his face and his heart, the superstructure of a broken tribe’s soul. I still see him, his face haunts me even now, taking off the cap of his title, the ozo, the toga, his machete once trusty now sterile, his life, placing all on the impotent earth of Umuofia. And Obierika’s ringing indictment, "That man was the greatest man in Umuofia; now he will be buried like a dog!"

Though I have been honored greatly to watch the rehearsals of the Jos Repertory, as it were, from the vantage of a private box, I am not merely a trifle sad that I shall not be in Ibadan to watch the premier from the public stands. I can only say that the shimmer of my sadness would be tempered only in the knowledge that my high regard for this production might draw even one more lover of literature to be there with his own eyes, to see and hear Nigerian progress for himself.

My musings end with the thought that every generation hears its own drummer, its own sound and it betrays or acquits itself by the sincerity of its dance to that thrumming. It has been our blight, this long period of time reversing itself. But we have overcome that blight, we have overcome the differences of an Igbo novelist adapted by a Yoruba playwright and played by a Northern Repertory because we realize that all these, all this, is uniquely and authentically Nigerian. We have come of age and have come to our own.

Egbe belu, Ugo belu.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

A Review of Landscapes of Realities

Poet Alert: Dr Yusuf Adamu

Not being a cricket, this piece should not be considered a work of cricketism; it is rather a sanarwa, news, a review, and an acclamation of a newly published poet. Once every few years a collection of poems comes along that so definitive it can only be reviewed on its own terms. Dr Yusuf Adamu has provided us with just such a collection with the publication of his 2008 Poems, Landscapes of Realities. This review is meant to offer lovers of verse everywhere a studied opinion of this latest offering from the generally considered literary-arid northern Nigeria.

The poet is a football aficionado and geographer, he lectures at the Department of Geography, Bayero University, Kano. This background proves important in considering his poems. His literary grounding is in the Hausa language where he has published three novels; Idan So Cuta Ne {If Love Is a Crime}, Ummul Khairi and Maza Gumabr Dutse. He is also a blogger of note; {http://www.africanpublicpoet.blogspot.com/}, {http://www.tagarduniniya.blogspot.com/}.

Landscapes of Realities is a very slim volume of fifty six pages comprising forty three poems written entirely in free verse. The poet has conveniently divided them into three thematic hubs; “Innocence”, “Places” and “Realities”, comprising five, seven and thirty-one poems respectively. The poems included in Landscapes were written during the years 1997 and 2000 and perhaps their being published in 2008 is an acknowledgement by the writer that the content and context of his poems have remained relevant over the last decade.

The arresting individual characteristic of each poem in Landscapes is leanness – an almost anorexic control of diction such that each poem renders a chosen reality starkly, without the confusion of ambiguous words or an obscurantist style. The collection, taken as a whole, betrays an acute social conscience that is prescient but not overly sentimental in its comment, exhortation and, more often, denunciation. The bareness of geography, where a hill is a hill and a plain is a plain, have been transposed successfully into the poems of Dr. Yusuf Adamu, where Nigerian realities – the motorcyclist, eclipsed dreams, the corruptions of power and time – are rendered in severe relief.

The five poems comprising “Innocence” – “The Child”, “Truth”, “Childhood Dreams”, “Almajiri” and “Happiness” adequately reflect the bare template of each Nigerian, before experience ups and happens to them. The innocence of childhood and truth, the beauty of a child’s dreams are captured in their fragile ephemeralty. This nostalgia is punctured by the poem “Almajiri”, about the agonizingly human fodder, child-scholar-beggars, that have become an embarrassing fixture in the cities of Northern Nigeria. The blight of Innocence, occurring in “Childhood Dreams” –
. . .they wake up growing
into a world full of malice
diminishing glory and shame
. . .guilt replaces innocence
ancient dreams
barely materialized
-is given a context in the lines from “Almajiri” below –
he is very young an frail
the economy is biting hard
the Mallam cannot sustain him
. . .he must hunt for himself.

The second part of the collection, “Places”, comprising seven poems, are poetic descriptions of Kano City, Jos City, the Plateau, Kura falls, Wembley Stadium and the town of Sussex. They are simple poems. However, a poignant question is sneaked in which forms the prelude to the next part of Dr. Adamu’s poems, the poet asks –
Where shall we be
If there is no geography?

“Realities”, comprising thirty-one poems, provides a rich mine for critical exploration. The poet-persona in these poems is above the fray of the realities being described yet we can feel the organic, umbilical relationship between the two. “Realities” probes maternal mortality and poverty, germane issues in the North, with the poems “Child Birth” and “Malnourished Child”. “Fuel Scarcity” and “Motor Cyclist” critique the nature of government insensitivity vis a vis the devious and oftentimes, dangerous, “survival” activities of the Nigerian citizen. Beggary, another social problem in Northern Nigeria is given the treatment of clinical satire in “Professional Beggars”; “Career Beggars” on the other hand denounces the beggars for their ignorance, however, it doesn’t stop there, the poem ends –
their minds are enslaved
by false beliefs and ignorance
chained by laziness
their minds may never be free
until the society decides to set them free.

On the late General Mamman Vatsa, he says –
His sprit shall forever be
Nourishment for his memory never ceases
As the living drink from his lines
In the same spirit of the Ecclesiasticus, of paying respect to “great men and their fathers who begat them”, he honors the “Ancient Revolutionary”, Akhenaten {1338-1358 BC} and a “Brave Captian”, Sultan Attahiru of Sokoto who defeated by the British, was subsequently killed at Burmi, on his way to join forces with El-Kanemi or Rabih in the Sudan –
Maxim gun he hasn’t got
Can he remain on the throne?
. . .our glory has fallen and broken.

Perhaps in correcting the conservative and reactionary stereotype of Northern Nigeria, Dr Adamu has in a series of poems affirmed that the radical, revolutionary streak has been in the north long before the south knew of cause and anti-cause, I speak of men like Muhammad Rumfa, Shehu dan Fodio, Sa’ad Zungur, Aminu kano, Hamza Abubakar. In the poems “Strike”, “Rebellion”, “Smash Them” and “Speak Out”, he idolizes revolt in the face of malevolent power. Says he –
But if they are unjust
If they oppress you
Day and night
If they mismanage your funds
If they deny your rights

Then rebel
Fight in the open
And in the close
Do not fear their might
For God is not on their side.

However, even judging this collection by its standard, there are shortcomings. On the ground of “leanness”, there are poems laden with prosaic fat so much so that the poetry of the poem is lost. Examples of this are the poems “Problem” and “Kindness” which read too much like penny motivational tracts. Secondly, the poet’s style involves the breaking of sentence syntax and while this stylistic preference has in the main worked superbly, it has not so worked all though. An example of the jarring and unaesthetic effect of this is the line “His colleagues he betrayed” from “Driver’s View”, “For, truth they represent” from “Kayan Sarki” and the first stanza of the poem “Frankenstein”.

Another critical charge, this time of complacency may be laid against the poet. Instances abound where the non-printing of a single letter, “s” or “’s”, have discontextualised poems and hurt the flow of their line. One inevitably pauses at such a point. An example is the first stanza of the otherwise correct “The Sun”. On another limb, “The Poet Died” is rendered unwieldy for its sheer and abrupt vacillation between past and present, sample –
The power of the gun
He knew quite well
Yet it is the power
Of the written word
He believes in

I have no doubt that General Vatsa for whom this poem is in memoriam “believed”; but he cannot “believe” {L4 excerpt above} because that would imply living contemporaneity and Vatsa, we know, has been dead for decades.

These shortcomings can easily be overcome during the expected reprint of this Poems. They do not much hurt the beauty of the collection or derogate the sincerity of the poet behind the lines. Among the emerging voices in Nigerian poetry, Dr. Yusuf Adamu’s Landscapes of Realities would definitely find a niche for itself.

Kano Memoirs: Creative Writer’s Forum

Among The Brothers

During my recent literary sojourn to Kano City in Northern Nigeria, I had the unanticipated pleasure of meeting the crème of that city’s young writers and thinkers. The accusation variously laid against the northern part of the country has been that, vis a vis the south, it has largely been unable to tell its story. Not on one occasion, in salons across the length of this country, the question, axiomatic, has been – the south has produced Wole Soyinka, Eastern Nigeria has produced Chinua Achebe, who, of that stature, has the north produced? I was well aware of that typecast even as I attended the Forum, as the meeting is called. I merely reminded myself that stereotypes must be held in abeyance until real evidence can prove its truth or falsity.

The writers of Kano meet monthly under the auspices of the ANA/EEL British Council Creative Writers Forum. It is a partnership between the local chapter of the Association of Nigerian Authors {ANA} and the English and European {French} Languages Department of the Bayero University, Kano with support from the British Council, Kano. The meetings are held on the last Wednesday of the month at the Council’s premises along Emir’s Palace Road, which is an exemplum of traditional arewa architecture with its thick mud walls and old style motifs printed on the exterior walls. Together with my friend, Abdulaziz Ahmad Abdulaziz, I entered the meeting hall at exactly 4:30 p.m. Were not for Abdulaziz’s foresightedness, we would have joined the others standing at the corners or on tables – the hall was full.

A young man was reading from a poem, his very words were –
Like a river cut away from its source
A day without sunshine, shrouded by envious clouds . .

- “a love poet”, I thought, “a poet in love” and wondered the fatal connexion betwixt the two. Muhammad Balarabe Sango who is the PRO of ANA/Kano State was chairing the meeting. He showed his courtesy by recognizing my work with ANA/Plateau State and inviting me to the dais where I declared myself delighted to be there. There were over sixty persons in the hall; six times more that Lenin said would have stopped the Bolsheviks coming to power in Russia. Indeed, the Muse of writing dwelled amongst the Kannawa.

About twenty writers read that day, the 26th of March 2008, mostly prose and poetry; Bakano 80, Muktar Ali Hikima, Terungwa Isaiah Itiav, Abdulaziz Ahmad Abdulaziz, Abdullahi Sufi, Muttaqa Yusha’u Abdulrauf and M.B. Sango amongst others. I read my short story “The Ravages of Dust.”

The health of a country’s letters can be ascertained by the themes its writers tackle, the literary is the thermometer of the social. The themes of the Kano writers are astonishingly varied, ranging from the everyday such as love within the society, love and lust between the sexes, the road as a vehicle to social harmony to the clearly metaphysical such as Ali Muktar Hikima’s “An Odd World” and Abdulaziz Fagge’s “The Untold”. Bakano 80, a writer, in answering a critical salvo from the floor viz the crime obsessed theme of his work replied that he felt crime had been marginalized in contemporary Nigerian prose, hence his desire to affect this discrimination in his work. Needless to say, I found Bakano’s reply highly perceptive and true.

However, while protean themes indicate literary virility, the general style of the Kano writers leaves much to be desired. Liberal construction, and inevitable the misconstruction, of grammar has taken its heavy toll on the work read during that meeting, perhaps indicative of the corpus itself. Without paying attention to the “personal” nature of a writers style and the miring myriad arguments on that, I venture to say grammar, as synthesized in that unit of sense, the sentence, is and must remain the building block of style. Grammar is organic and an at least rudimentary mastery of it is necessary in order to avail a writer the defense of “style” when accused of linguistic or grammatical miscarriage. The writers of Kano have either largely failed or been careless in their use of grammar and I do not think the defense of “style” avails them. The grammatical liberties taken in some of the work read, prose and poetry - the appropriateness of syntax, imagery, and diction – too many times, those liberties were over-taken.

The real workshop proved educative and insightful critiques were made. Among the gathered that day were Drs. Yusuf Adamu and Bala Garba of the Bayero University, Kano. The former lectures geography while the latter is from the English Department. I left the meeting with the appropriate words of Dr. Bala on my mind, he said, concerning creative writing – “it is not the creative we lack, it is the writing!” Dr Adamu stressed that one should not call oneself a writer before one becomes one and the fitting toga of a true writer can only be worn at the end of a long process of writing and rewriting, refining and editing, and critique.

I agree entirely with the dons. The trouble with up and coming Nigerian writing is the impatience to get the cattle to the market. But you only get a good price when the cow is fattened. And fattening a cow is not a day’s job. Yet, the abundant energy that brings about impatience is very important because it pointed out the reality, that those twenty writers that day were confident enough and willing to put their work on a pedestal, to be critiqued and to accept criticism. That is, of course, the beginning of improvement.

On leaving the meeting that day, I felt that the future was promising since even as far up north as Kano, there are writers passionate about writing. It would only be a matter of time before critical appraisal would nudge these fine young persons to even greater refinement of their language and ultimately, the good of Nigerian writing.