Thursday, May 8, 2008

The Fluorescence of JosANA

The Fluorescence of JosANA

For some reason, the word “ferment” has always fascinated me with its ambivalent Marxist undertone. For a long time, I heard it used in speech by campus demagogues and find myself checking up its meaning again for this article. Oxfords assures me that it still means “a state of social or political excitement . . .” Very fittingly, this word can best describe Jos ANA as it is now, something heading for its full bloom, a crescendo.

The last meeting of JosANA was held on Saturday 3rd, April 2008 at the Nigerian Film Institute, Jos and it began at exactly 1 p.m. with the arrival of the Ag. Secretary General, Richard Ali. The Chairman had made it known he would be unavoidable late but that the meeting should go on without him. {So Ali was Chairman for the day!} Already in the hall waiting eagerly were three members – Esther Chinke, winner of the 2007 Uyi Efeovbokan/ANA Plateau Prize for Poetry, our youngest member, Hamaya Frama Abraham and a new member, Patience Eguwrube who is an actress, a television producer/scriptwriter and is currently working on a book, fiction but one that concerns the Railways, a trip across Nigeria by rail. Pragmatic fiction? The retired but untired educationist, Silas Nnamonu, came in next with yet another new member, Amaka Dike, who seemed rather shy but soon enough the intellection of the house warmed her up. Gradually the hall filled up.

Everyone had had a more or less very busy fortnight and they shared the highlights of the preceding two weeks with the house; basically meetings, deadlines and preparing for exams.

The first reading was by Hamaya Abraham, {our youngest member at a little under seventeen years old}, who read the prolog from her unpublished first novel, “A Chest Of Letters”. It was a most fascinating piece of prose, especially from one so young; it suggested kinship with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s American classic, “The Celestial Railroad”. Mr. Jerome Dooga of the University of Jos claimed the honor of primus criticus {sic] and he first of all praised Hamaya for her effort – then he noted that she had trouble with her point of view which kept vacillating from an “omniscient” to a “third-person” voice and that, of course, is a critical no no. He suggested she try the “omniscient” narrative voice, as the “third person” did not seem to be working very well for her. Richard Ali, adding to Mr Dooga’s comments, said she had sometimes fallen into the error of breaking sentence syntax in a manner, which while might be acceptable in schoolgirl speech, did not work while writing of serious content, a novel no less. He also mentioned that while sometimes writing was didactic, it must not be “preachy {Dooga’s word}”; Ali said it is the novel, taken as a whole that should be didactic and not the authors voice within it. There were plenty of kind comments for Hamaya’s novel.

Next was read the first chapter of Michael Emeka’s draft novel, “The Divine Will”. The first chapter was the background of the story and an introduction of the major characters, a father and his son. The father was a ”soft spoken giant of a man who would only push back when he was forced to the wall” while the son “did not even need to be pushed a little” before unleashing the fury of a storm. The story is set in Eastern Nigeria, precisely in Abia State somewhere near Isialangwa. Michael Emeka’s reading was one of those that because of their sheer perfection, the admirable control of diction and story flow, there were no comments save those of praise. One can easily imagine that Chinua Achebe, if he were younger and still writing, would have approved of Michael’s work. Michael is the younger brother of noted Jos City novelist, Alpha Emeka.

During the reading of Michael’s work, the Chairman, Allen A. Omale, arrived with his pretty wife, Rahmah. The Chairman had attended the Achebe Colloquium held at Nsukka and he proceeded to give the gist of all that had happened. He also distributed the Nsukka program of events. He told us that Odia Ofeimun was there as well as other high priests of Nigerian writing. He told us about a certain Dr. Dennash from India whose paper advanced the thesis that the ruin of Okonkwo lay squarely with Nnoka, his father. It was in the desire not to be like Nnoka that the seed of Okonkwo’s tragedy is firmly planted. Considering that Nnoka has erstwhile been considered a ‘minor’ character in “Things Fall Apart”, this thesis was well received by the house. Strangely, the Jos based playwright, Paul Ugbede had advanced the very same thesis to this writer privately three weeks before. This reinterpretation of Nnoka’s role seems to be largely beholden on the psychoanalysis of Okonkwo and it is tribute much to the credit of our own bard, Chinua Achebe.

But Chinua Achebe was not around for his own colloquium.

The Chairman however informed us that ANA Lagos had come with a larger-than-life painting of the bard by which those aspiring to “bard-hood” {including our lucky Chairman!} could have their picture taken. The Chairman also showed us a clip he made of Nigerian writers during their pilgrimage to Chinua Achebe’s old house at the University of Nigeria Staff Quarters. Our lucky chairman also had his picture taken touching the brick of the house reverentially. Our own Professor of Creative Writing, Kanchana Ugbabe, presented a paper at Nsukka that was very well received. The Chairman however expressed sadness with the dilapidated state of infrastructure at the University of Nigeria and indeed the generally deplorable state of the roads in Southeastern Nigeria, Nsukka particularly. Mr. Nnamonu, whose village is just twenty kilometers from Nsukka, lamented this and wondered why things were still so bad in the Southeast so many decades after the Civil War. Some of those roads are federal roads and the University is a federal University. He said that in one country, no one area should be put at a disadvantage. JosANA members generally concurred and we hope that the FGN would do something about UNN, which is a national university and without which, together with Ibadan, Ife and Zaria, the history of Nigeria cannot be properly told.

Chimamanda Adichie’s family lived in the same house that Chinua Achebe lived in at Nssuka and it was wondered if they had slept in the same room. “Not at the same time,” Mr. Nanamonu wittily interjected. As we say up here, “da haka ne, da magana ya kare”. Were it otherwise, the issue {the genesis of her literary talent} would have been put to rest!

Another new member who came fully prepared was Babajide Agboola. He came with a poem and an excerpt from a play but was only able to read the poem. It was a poem about the sabotaging of the environment and it was the first poem read at JosANA on that theme for a very long time now. However, it came under critical fire from Mr. Dooga who commended the theme but nonetheless condemned the prosaic nature of the poem. Richard Ali said there was a little less poetry in the poem than the poem required. This unleashed another storm as a debate started, following Mr. Dooga’s assertion that there were ‘basics’ of poetry that cannot be deviated from. Patricia wanted to know whether these basics are those of technique or content. Though not unanimously, the house agreed that it was the basic of technique, a poem without a metaphor, or rhythm at least, cannot be a poem. The Dissenting Party held that if the content was profound and written in verse, it was poetry. Jide, whose reading had sparked the row, said “Art is best interpreted by the artist”, a platitude worthy of Oscar Wilde even when one {me} does not agree with it, especially in the context of that particular debate.

Somehow, the house got talking about short stories, how “short” {or longly short abi} they can be. Richard Ali came to this, corroborated by his British Council Radiophonics compadres, that indeed a short story could be as short as one line. He gave the example of Katherine Atkinson’s -

“It can’t be; I’m a virgin.”

- much to the enjoyment of the House.

The new member, Amaka Dike, who had by now overcome her shyness read an excerpt from her unpublished novel. The novel is also set in Southeastern Nigeria. It was a situation of Nwabuife and her suitors. Her use of language was so controlled that I can stake my last Bic Biro that she will be the next great Igbo female writer {watch out, Chimamanda!}. It was one of those reading that elicit only critical praise.

Richard Ali read two poems, “Lady Butterfly” and “Suite of Blue” and opened the floor to another round of critical appraisal. Steve Rwang Pam, the Country music crooner and radio personality, said the poem reminded him of another JosANA when he and Allen were still underdogs, that Ali’s poems reminded him of the things Allen used to write back then and which brought him {Allen] into the eye of philistinic storm. Most people loved the poems and Chairman Allen commented on Ali’s unusual use of simile. A new member and first timer, Ajih Gabriel, also a poet, asked Ali to explain the second stanza of “Suite of Blue” –

A lynched cat swings with dead eyes
Popping educated and too late knowing
The singularity of its day, I pass on
I pass on, leaving some of me behind.

Ali said that the dominant idea regarding cats is that of their ‘nine lives’; but “if I take a gun and shoot a cat, or take a rope and string it up, what happens? The cat dies. Imagine the cat who all the while thought it had nine lives. You grow old and things happen to you and you start wondering whether you are happy or not and what it mans to so be.” Mr. Nnamonu asked why Ali did not use or sparingly used commas and other sentence complements in his poems, to which Richard Ali replied that he heard a personal rhythm in the lines of his poems and that rhythm did not necessarily and indeed is more often than not outraged by the insertion of commas, full stops and the rest of that butting family.

Allen Omale, in a reminiscence brought about by Ali’s “Lady Butterfly”, read a poem from years back, before his marriage, “The Heart is an Organ of Fire”. It was a fine poem, love, but not profane love. It was deeply moving and well received. Allen Omale said sadly that he knew he was incapable of writing such a poem now after all the years, so many things had happened. The house contributed variously to this statement about the spontaneity of poetry and how when you do not write a poem at its own sacred time, you cannot write it again.

Poe3 is the most sacred of all the arts and the poet is something of a prophet in the service of an awesome god, arbitrary in its power and resolute in its finality.

Barrister Redzie Jugo, disciple of Prof. Victor Dugga, the playwright, read a short story, “The Divorce.” It was a court situation with a judge, who disliked drunks and drinking, faced with the case of a man who has beaten his wife to pulp and she was petitioning for divorce. The man, drunk as a lord, interrupts the proceeding with “Mr. Judge, my name is Chuwang Pam and nor ‘Mr. Man’ and you know my name is Chuwang Pam because you, father, gave me that name.” It was just under 600 words and was as punchy as they come.

Barrister Jugo also recently won the top prize, a laptop computer, in a reality TV show called “Shine Plateau Youth” put together by the Youngstars Foundation in collaboration with the British Council.

The meeting ended after that and everyone got together to take a group picture.

Back to ‘ferment’. JosANA is in a state of intense ferment right now and anyone who has been around for a while knows that ‘revolution’ is the next thing; in the case of Nigeria, there is an intellectual revolution afoot comprising foot soldiers {pun intended} who are here on the ground and are increasingly making themselves relevant within the national space. The early Christians in their catacombs were in ferment. The flower of Christianity and its still ongoing revolution of international politics and history is the result of that.

Bow your necks and spread at the fluorescence of JosANA.

Richard Ugbede Ali is Ag. Secretary General of JosANA.