Writings of the general word's body

Monday, December 24, 2007

Holiday Reading

[O]n January 5, 2008 – Ngugi turns 70. The lived years, in this case, do not signify the mere passage of time, but mark the process of the making of a colossus. Such an anniversary does not simply have to be observed; it ought to be celebrated. It is only appropriate then to take brief stock of what it is in particular we are celebrating.
- So begins a tribute to Ngugi wa Thiong'o at 70 (by Emilia Ilieva) in the new, 'Holiday' issue of African Writing, now online. There's acres and acres of content, and I am beginning to pick my way through. Poetry, Tributes, Profiles, Fiction (lots of fiction), Photo Galleries, Reviews... The theme is Southern Africa.

Might as well introduce a 'New Read' here... and here's the intro to a lovely short story in the issue, Eddie Fisher Won't Be Comin' In Today...

Viva McVee arrived that day at the tail end of a dust storm, and as the empty Simba chip packets settled back in the branches of the leafless hedge at the school gate, out of the grey dust appeared a woman. I sat on the lid of the dustbin outside of the airless staff room smoking a cigarette and as she emerged I felt my heart jump and knew, from the look of her, that we were in for something.


There is a gallery of Bibi Bakare-Yusuf (publisher at Cassava Republic) looking fierce at a talk she gave in South Africa last month. Contributed by Ntone Edjabe, editor of Chimurenga.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Books of 2007

My compilation of Writers' Books of 2007 has been published in the new 'Holiday' issue of African Writing. Biyi Bandele's Burma Boy and Helon Habila's Measuring Time - are 2 of the hot picks this year.

Here's how E.C. Osondu introduces his chosen books:
"It was a cruel, gray, typical upstate New York winter. I was teaching in a small college in the outskirts of the city. It was a long forty-five minutes’ commute and the only thing of interest en route was the burial place of a female missionary Laura Maria Sheldon who had tried to convert the Seneca Indians. And of course there was the sprawling Onondaga cemetery where I once counted ten tombstones with the name Muldoon as the bus crawled past."

Already a story there, no? Other contributors include: Brian Chikwava, Blessing Musariri, Wadzanai Mhute, Aminatta Forna, and Akin Adesokan.

~ ~ ~

I have also contributed images from the PEN Women's Conference in Dakar to the new issue of Ponal.

Reading Lessing

We are in a fragmenting culture, where our certainties of even a few decades ago are questioned and where it is common for young men and women who have had years of education, to know nothing about the world, to have read nothing, knowing only some speciality or other, for instance, computers.

I was brought up in what was virtually a mud hut, thatched. This house has been built always, everywhere, where there are reeds or grass, suitable mud, poles for walls. Saxon England for example. The one I was brought up in had four rooms, one beside another, not one, and, the point is, it was full of books. Not only did my parents take books from England to Africa, but my mother ordered books from England for her children, books in great brown paper parcels which were the joy of my young life. A mud hut, but full of books.

And sometimes I get letters from people living in a village that might not have electricity or running water (just like our family in our elongated mud hut), "I shall be a writer too, because I've the same kind of house you were in."
But here is the difficulty. No.

Writing, writers, do not come out of houses without books.

There is the gap. There is the difficulty.

I have been looking at the speeches by some of your recent prizewinners. Take the magnificent Pamuk. He said his father had 1 500 books. His talent did not come out of the air, he was connected with the great tradition.

Take V.S. Naipaul. He mentions that the Indian Vedas were close behind the memory of his family. His father encouraged him to write. And when he got to England by right he used the British Library. So he was close to the great tradition.

Let us take John Coetzee. He was not only close to the great tradition, he was the tradition: he taught literature in Cape Town. And how sorry I am that I was never in one of his classes: taught by that wonderfully brave bold mind.

In order to write, in order to make literature, there must be a close connection with libraries, books, the Tradition.

Writers are often asked, How do you write? With a processor? an electric typewriter? a quill? longhand? But the essential question is, "Have you found a space, that empty space, which should surround you when you write? Into that space, which is like a form of listening, of attention, will come the words, the words your characters will speak, ideas – inspiration.

If this writer cannot find this space, then poems and stories may be stillborn.

When writers talk to each other, what they ask each other is always to do with this space, this other time. "Have you found it? Are you holding it fast?"

Let us jump to an apparently very different scene. We are in London, one of the big cities. There is a new writer. We, cynically enquire, How are her boobs? Is she good-looking? If this is a man, Charismatic? Handsome? We joke but it is not a joke.

This new find is acclaimed, possibly given a lot of money. The buzzing of paparazzi begins in their poor ears. They are feted, lauded, whisked about the world. Us old ones, who have seen it all, are sorry for this neophyte, who has no idea of what is really happening.

He, she is flattered, pleased.

But ask in a year's time what he or she is thinking: I've heard them: "This is the worst thing that could have happened to me.

Some much publicised new writers haven't written again, or haven't written what they wanted to, meant to.

And we, the old ones, want to whisper into those innocent ears. "Have you still got your space? Your sole, your own and necessary place where your own voices may speak to you, you alone, where you may dream. Oh, hold onto it, don't let it go."

Friday, December 21, 2007

CBA Awards Night

The Commonwealth Broadcasting Association (CBA) held a reception for UK-based winners of the 2007 Commonwealth Short Story Competition on 10 December. The event was held in the sumptuous Blenheim Saloon of historic Marlborough House.
Going to the venue, I had to walk through Trafalgar Square. It was evening and the throngs of tourists had gone back to their hotel rooms. Still it was poignant for me, walking through here, as Trafalgar Square is the major set-piece in ‘Trial By Water’ the short story I had come to collect a Highly Commended Award for.

The first person I encountered in the Blenheim Saloon C.J Onyia, who was Highly Commended in the 2006 competition for her story, ‘Anywhere But Here’. Our first meeting, and we had much to talk about, so we stuck together most of the evening. A greater surprise perhaps, was the realisation that the Nigerian Television Authority had come to film the event. What were the chances of that! The delightful Hauwa Yusuf was the only television correspondent for that matter. She also interviewed a some people, including myself and Indian Manasi Subramaniam.

Award winners, guests, wine, nibbles and discussions floated about in the pleasant atmosphere. Elizabeth Smith OBE of CBA and Mark Collins of the Commonwealth Foundation gave brief speeches ahead of the award presentations. Emily Pedder (Regional winner –Europe- for ‘Days Are Long’) could not make it and sent a friend, Monique Roffey to collect on her behalf. Fran Hunnisett won the same award last year but hadn’t been able to collect; better late than never, as she finally bagged it in the Blenheim Saloon.

Highly Commended winners on the night: Juliet O’Callaghan (UK; for ‘In Arms’); Faye Davies (UK; for ‘The Flying Carpet’); Manasi Subramaniam (India; for ‘Arranged Marriage’). I collected a copy of the 2007 Short Story CD, the prize cheque and a certificate I’m tempted to frame... Australian Ash Rehn prevented the night being an all female affair. Read his award winning story, The Hook Up, online.

The CBA’s own photos of the evening are online.

Wasafiri Reading

Biyi Bandele...
the long
and the short
of it

Seeing a shaven headed Biyi Bandele at Wasafiri’s reading event of 22 November wasn’t all that shocking, as I’d run into him days before, on the 17th, at an Imperial War Museum event about African Soldiers who fought in the World Wars. One has gotten used to Bandele with flowing dreadlocks and seeing him without, takes some getting used to. The author doesn’t know what the fuss is about. He grew the locks while writing his last book, Burma Boy, and now that it’s finished... (a new book in the works? Hmn...)

Wasafiri Magazine launched its 52nd edition with an evening of readings and wine, and the venue was Foyles Bookshop on Charing Cross Road, London. The Magazine asked: “Why do some books make a particular impact on our reading and writing lives? In what ways do they return to us? When, why and how did we first encounter them?” These are the questions posed in the new issue, in which writers and publishers talk about the book that made them. Chaired by Robert Fraser, readers on the night grappled with the same questions after reading from the books that ‘made’ them.

The readers were Maggie Gee (who on learning that Lily Allen is to be a judge of the 2008 Orange Prize, has asked: “Where is the seriousness here?”); Rana Das Gupta (whose talk centred around the fact that he actually doesn’t read novels, though of course he writes them!); Biyi Bandele and Pauline Melville (author of The Ventriloquist’s Tale). Melville started her reading with the line that lured her into writing, the opening of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. I patted myself on the back for recognising it, even before Melville reveal the book and author from whence it was taken.

In the audience: Linton Kwesi-Johnson, Bernadine Evaristo and many more.
Images © MW

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Taiwo Ajai-Lycett

“As a young man, Joseph is taunted by the cooler British-Caribbean kids for his accent and his humility. Ditching his Ghanaian heritage, Joseph becomes Joe, an icon of urban Black identity. Premier league clubs, venal agents and one-night women all want a piece, but one night in a hotel room with the lovely Lauren and it all gets out of control. As the abyss opens, Joe discovers how much he has lost and how little of him remains.”

So goes the intro to Roy Williams’ Joe Guy, a play about African and Caribbean tensions in the UK, which played at the Soho Theatre, London, from 23 October to 24 November. The play rang too uncomfortably true in places, as Joseph suffers vicious taunting for being African. He takes the easy way out and ‘loses’ himself, transforming into the fast talking and very ‘urban’ Joe. He is played by the actor Abdul Salis, and we caught up briefly with him after the performance of 2nd November. By ‘we’ I mean myself, dancer Bolaji Badejo, actress Taiwo Ajai-Lycett and the Nigerian Guardian’s chief correspondent in London, Tunde Oyedoyin.

Let’s start with Bolaji Badejo (wife of choreographer Peter Badejo), who features as one of a trio of dancers on the cover of the book of Odia Ofeimun’s ‘Under African Skies’. As a member of the Pan African Dance Ensemble, Bolaji Badejo toured 14 UK venues (including the Queen Elizabeth Hall and Sadlers Wells) from May to November 1990.

It was great running into grand dame Taiwo Ajai-Lycett again at the Joe Guy performance (we first met at the 2005 Lagos Book and Art Festival at the Onikan Museum in Lagos). An actress on British television since the 70s - many will remember her as the thread-wrap-hairstyled beauty in the YouTube clip of ‘Some Mothers Do Have ‘Em’ – she’s back in the UK. Fresh from her role in Streetwise Opera’s production of ‘Critical Mass’, which played at the Almeida Theatre earlier this year, Ajai Lycett talked about about her plans for more acting roles this side of the world as Tunde Oyedoyin and I walked her to Oxford Circus Station at the end of the evening. Suffice to say, you’ll be seeing more and more of the lady in 2008.

  • Images by MW

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

New Reads

Chika Unigwe is currently on a book tour of Nigeria with her first novel, The Phoenix. We draw from her tireless pen for this instalment of 'New Reads', with excerpts from 2 recently published stories.

In Per Contra we have 'The Day Independence Came' - set around 1960 as a young girl and her family eagerly await Nigeria's independence. Independence comes all right, but not quite as the girl narrator imagines. Excerpt...

Three days later, when Mama Boy, the woman who lived in the apartment below ours saw me in my tight braids, she smiled and said I was ready for Independence.

I did not know who Independence was, but I was sure that Independence was more important than a chief because my mother took me down to the market to have my hair braided. And Father bought me a new dress that same day. A pink dress with a satin bow. And matching red shoes with white stripes. The dress looked like something out of my mother’s magazines. “For Independence,” he said. I wanted to try them on immediately, but my mother tied them up in a Kingsway plastic bag and stowed the bag at the bottom of the cupboard in the bathroom. “When Independence comes, you can wear them.”

- Read The Day Independence Came


In Alek (published in the Sentinel Literary Quarterly), societal upheaval devastates a young woman's family - in Sudan. Excerpt...

The SPLA, Sudan People’s Liberation Army, which had been guarding the predominantly Dinka town, was withdrawing. There was a rumour that the janjaweed militia were making their way to Daru. To sniff out the SPLA members. And to cleanse the city of its Dinka population. People were disappearing. They would have to travel light, Nyok said. They might not be able to hitch a ride. Not with four of them: Alek, Ater - her younger brother- Nyok and Apiu, the parents. I liked going to Khartoum. It was a different world. High rise buildings. Lots of cars. And women with henna on their feet and hands. The elaborate designs intrigued her. They seemed to have their own lives. To move. Alek often wondered what it would be like to be hennaed all over (but she would be careful not to get the henna around her cuticles. Henna around the cuticles spoilt the entire beauty of it. It made the cuticles look dirty. As if the women had spent hours digging up crops and had not bothered to wash their hands.) But this was not a shopping trip. Or a sightseeing trip to the museum. This was a fleeing from home.

- Read Alek

What the- Kwani?

Excerpt from a review of Kwani? 4 - in Artmatters

For its liberal use of not-so-polite four-letter words, the first editorial by Billy Kahora—why was it necessary to have two editorials, anyway?—is one of the Achilles’ heels in Kwani?4. And now that we have mentioned obscenity, what is a naked man doing running across the pages of Kwani? 4 with his accentuated private parts leading the way in Running by Jackie Lebo?

Why does Kwani? relish the use of four-letter words in its articles, editor Binyavanga Wainaina and your assistant Billy Kahora? To paraphrase Shailja Patel’s poem, An Open Letter to Certain Male Performance Poets, we may pose: “…Show me how: aesthetically, stylistically, morally, metrically, rhythmically” four letter words are crucial to your writing.

- Read full review here.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Like Whoa!

And why is this a photo moment, you ask? Well, because you don't see this in London every day, that's why. Feet were the only things that could get you through this side of the Neasden Underpass, just off the A406, on Saturday 1st December. The truck had overturned, blocking this direction of the road. Traffic was murder. Standstill. But that wasn't the half of it. The truck was carrying tons of rubbish and tipped the stinker-load onto the road. They had to bring in a couple more vehicles to clear the rubbish off the road. Like a dirty scene in 'Bob the Builder'. Such an unusual sight, I wasn't the only one who stopped to take photographs. When I passed by some three hours later, everything had been cleared away. Like it never happened. If Nigeria were this efficient, I allowed myself to think, for a moment.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Chika Unigwe Reads in Lagos

Chika Unigwe's second novel, Fata Morgana, has just been published in Dutch. Readers in English have been waiting patiently to read her debut novel, The Phoenix (published in Dutch in 2005 as 'De Feniks'). Well, wait no more. The Phoenix is now out in English, in a West African edition published by Kachifo. And Unigwe hits Lagos from next weekend for a trio of Readings.

  • Saturday December 8 - The Jazzhole, 168 Awolowo Road, Ikoyi, Lagos @ 4pm
  • Friday December 14 - Quintessence, Falomo Shopping Centre, Ikoyi @ 5pm
  • Saturday December 15 - Bookworm, Eko Hotel Shopping Complex, Ajose Adeogun Street, Victoria Island, Lagos @ 2pm.

Dibia & Nukoya in Ife

O.A.U Hosts Jude Dibia and El Nukoya
Words & Images by Adedotun Eyinade

Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, is fast becoming every author’s delight. Only last August it hosted the Orange Broadband Prize winner, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and the Kenyan winner of the 2002 Caine Prize for African writing, Binyavanga Wainaina, for a reading, the first in a Nigerian university after the former won ‘the Bessie’. The campus, on Saturday November 24th 2007 lived up to its literary tradition when it hosted yet another award winning duo - El Nukoya and Jude Dibia.

The literary event aptly captioned ‘3-2-1’ three books, two award winning authors, one afternoon was the brain child of the Association of Campus Journalists (ACJ), Obafemi Awolowo University. The event which took place at the auditorium 1 of the faculty of Arts was graced by a motley crowd of book lovers and the literati who turned out to celebrate the works of the writing duo.

Jude Dibia, author of the ground-breaking Walking with Shadows and Unbridled (ANA/NDDC Ken Saro-Wiwa prize for prose), accompanied by Dr Chijioke Uwazonmba of the Department of English and Literature, sauntered into the venue clad in a navy blue short sleeve shirt at about 2.30pm. The programme commenced with a book signing session as students armed with copies of the author’s works took their turn to get the books autographed by the writer. In what could pass as an attempt to fill the seats of the auditorium, the students did not allow the moment to slip past them as they trooped out to get copies. Twenty minutes into the book signing the winner of the 2007 ANA/Jacaranda prize for prose, El Nukoya, arrived. The author of Nine Lives, in blazer and denim jeans, breezed into the venue to resounding applause from members of the audience eager to see the face behind the award winning thriller. He joined Dibia on the dais and the programme soon commenced.

Dr Nwazonmba in his opening remark welcomed the authors to the campus. He applauded the Association of Campus Journalists for taking the initiative of bringing the authors closer to the readers, as it would strengthen discourse and revive interest in the reading of literary works. Three budding poets: Oni Afolabi, (A4), Ima Iduma and Pheabian Alao set the tone for the event as they performed their poems.

El-Nukoya was the first to read. The bespectacled management consultant cum writer read excerpts from Nine Lives, the 490-page story of how Olupitan Ogunrinu confronts the vicissitudes of life. A few members of the audience who could not resist the reading raced out of the auditorium to get copies of the book. The reading was interspersed with a performance by O.A.U’s leading cultural troupe Ajankoro Dugbe who thrilled the audience with a graceful dance drama.

Jude Dibia thereafter read from his two works: the controversial Walking with Shadows and Unbridled. The NASELS drama troupe delivered a short satirical play titled ‘Justice Justus’ that threw both the guest writers and the audience into girth-racking bouts of laughter. The audience was literally screaming ‘encore!’ when the troupe left the stage for an engaging question and answer session where the audience took the authors to task on the themes addressed in their works. Expectedly, the first salvo for Jude Dibia was his seeming fascination with taboo subjects like homosexuality and incest. El Nukoya was not spared either as he was asked the plausibility of Olupitan keeping a chance picture for years only to use it as an object of blackmail. The questions ran the whole gamut from what informed the choice of the name ‘El Nukoya’ to what writers and intellectuals could do to engage issues in the body politic. In his response, the author of Nine Lives contended that the name El Nukoya was a pseudonym that gave him a distinct identity without intruding into his other professional engagements. “I would not like a situation where I would be in the board room and a fan would identify me and be discussing fiction when we are talking business,” he added.

Jude Dibia in his reaction to issues raised on his obsession with sexuality said he noticed that the issues were deliberated avoided as people only talk about them in hushed tones. “I am not gay but I feel everyone has a right to his/her own sexuality,” he retorted, when the question of his stance on homosexuality was posed.

The event was graced by Professor Adebayo Lamikanra (poet, pharmacist and convener of the Ife festival of Poetry) - and Dr Chima Anyadike who was instrumental in the hosting of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie earlier in the year. The two authors evidently had a great time as they promised to return to the campus in the future.

“I thoroughly enjoyed myself. I loved the professors that came and their comments,” Jude Dibia enthused after the event. “I loved the performances as well as all the students who came to personally meet us, take our autographs and then snap pictures with us... everything was good” he added, beaming smiles.

  • Words & Images © Adedotun Eyinade

Undressing Empire - 6 December

Undressing Empire: Black British Perspectives at Museum in Docklands
Panel discussion exploring issues of empire, art and liberation. On the panel are SABLE Litmag's writers including poet Dorothea Smartt, writer and playwright Michael McMillan and Susan Yearwood, SABLE Essay editor. Chaired by Toyin Agbetu.
The Museum in Docklands hosts London, Sugar and Slavery, the only permanent exhibition examining the involvement of the city of London in Transatlantic Slave Trade.
Date:06 December 2007
Time: 19:00 - 20:30
Venue:Museum in Docklands
West India Quay Canary Wharf London E14 4AL
Museum entrance is two minutes walk from West India Quay DLR Station.
For more information please call 0870 444 3856

Sunday, November 25, 2007


That would be me. As well as 20 other writers across the Commonwealth, that is. I got a Highly Commended Award in the 2007 Commonwealth Short Story Competition for my short story, "Trial by Water".

My thanks to readers who have left congratulatory messages for me on several Wordsbody posts over the last week...

The big news of course is that of the competition's overall winner, Zambian Ellen Banda-Aaku, who cleaned the board for her short story, (read Sozi's Box). You can also listen to Sozi's Box online. This also makes Ms Banda-Aaku the Regional winner for Africa. She received her £2000 prize from none other than Terry Waite on Wednesday 21 November in a ceremony held at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda. "Winning the competition means a lot to me," Ellen Banda-Aaku reportedly said. "I hope my win inspires other African writers, to enter the competition."

There are 2 other 'Highly Commended writers from Africa - Wame Molefhe of Botwana for her story, "Six Pack" & South African Linda C Saunders for "Never Put Your Hands in a Dog's Mouth" [good advice!].

The competition is administered by the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association and has been running annually since 1996.

This year's judges were: writer Donna Daley-Clarke, writer and broadcaster Lucy Hannah, and Nathan Hamilton of the New Writing Partnership.

Hamilton said of the 2007 competition, "In general, the issues that cropped up most often were to do with terrorism or war; childhood; cultural tensions in the family across generations and racial boundaries; emigration and immigration. Environmental concerns were also prevalent. And sometimes entries seemed too preoccupied with portraying elements that may have been assumed to be what a judging panel in London wanted to read. However, each of the winners went beyond a self-consciously chosen issue or theme. They listened instead to the needs of the story and let that guide them."

The 26 winning stories were selected from over 2000 entries. All 26 have been professionally recorded on CD and will be broadcast on radio all over the Commonwealth.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Afam Akeh Workshop

Afam Akeh (front, in white) with members of the Oxford University Poetry Society - at Lincoln College, Oxford, on 29 October 2007. Akeh (author of poetry collections 'Stolen Moments' and the forthcoming 'Letter From Home') led a creative writing workshop with the group. He is the editor of African Writing.

  • Image courtesy of the Oxford University Poetry Society

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Norman Mailer - 1923-2007

"We're meaner and more competitive than athletes... No one understands that writers have personalities quite as ugly as the ugliest athlete."

In January, I began a post about Muhammad Ali with the then very much alive Norman Mailer who, when asked by Vanity Fair which living person he most admired, named 'The Greatest'. It should not have surprised, since Ali had been a hero of Mailer's since ever.

The Observer of Sunday 11 November was chock full of Norman Mailer, and I delighted in reading every word. They rehashed every glory, every failing: he drunkenly stabbed his second wife, almost fatally - she refused to press charges, angering the women's liberation movement; he bit off part of the ear of the actor Rip Torn, which brought to my mind all sorts of dark wordplays concerning the thespian's name - and which, bizarrely, made think: 'Oh, at least Mike Tyson wasn't the only one that did that, and I ought to stop feeling shamed on the uncouth boxer's account'. Who'd have thought Mailer and Tyson would have a meeting ground?

The 'ear-ripping', happily, was the only thing perhaps that Mailer shared in common with Tyson. The great writer's boxer of choice as previously noted, was Muhammad Ali. Mailer said of Ali: "There is always the shock of seeing him again. Women draw an audible breath. Men look down. They are reminded again of their lack of worth."

With all the extraordinary Mailer high-jinks recounted after his death, you felt the obituarists were almost urging you to hate the man. If you dare. But I read with awe, as I expect many people did. Norman Mailer once threw a punch at his great rival, Gore Vidal - and missed - whereupon the latter quipped: "Lost for words again, Norman?"

Nice one. But even Vidal would concede, ultimately, that words never failed the literary pugilist. My enduring image of Mailer is from the Oscar winning documentary of Ali's legendary 'Rumble in the Jungle' boxing match against George Foreman in Zaire (DR Congo). Mailer's anecdotes about his hero and the bout, delivered to the camera by an old man who beamed with the excitement of a young boy at the memory - are a joy to watch. One of the many things that make the documentary, 'When We Were Kings', special.

When all is said and done, Norman Mailer lived exactly the way he wanted. How many people live such a wildly varied life, marry 6 wives and sire 9 children and still write 'The Naked and the Dead'? What the hell, he's saying somewhere up above, now.

Cyprian Ekwensi - 1921-2007

Ekwensi in the City

Tributes to the great Nigerian novelist, Cyprian Ekwensi, who died on November 4, 2007, aged 86

Ekwensi’s life is marked by many border crossings: his voyages within the space of the nation speaks totally of a transcendent spirit and a freed imagination whose plural encounters with the cultures that inhabit the space of what is known as Nigeria, gave ,him the courage to speak the truth of fiction. As he once told an interviewer, Basil Okafor, “You can call it social consciousness. You have to be conscious of the people you are living amongst, their likes and dislikes and you respect them and still extract their culture and all that.”

  • Obi Nwakanma, writing in Sunday Vanguard, November 11, 2007.

Ekwensi’s works are set in rural as well as urban centres. These bipolar environments enable him to show up the ugliness and monstrosity of the city beside the idyllic and pristine beauty of rural life. In the rural countryside values such as honesty, industry, and respect for the elders, ancestors and God are held in high regard. But in the cold, foreign, alien and barren wasteland which is the city, people are dishonest, politicians are corrupt and neighbors are at hostilities. It is such a hostile world that the emigres from the rural area are thrust into as prey. In contrast to the beauty and innocence of the country, here they are “daily confronted by wretched filth, decadence, hopelessness, and prevarication.” Thus despite the superficial lustre they might see in the city their hopes of self-fulfillment are always beset with stifling setbacks, For the city has a formidable influence, a magnetic force that brandishes from a distance only its excitement, gaiety, and transient glitter, luring people to either destruction or downfall.


I am deeply saddened by this news of the death of the pioneer Nigerian novelist Cyprian Ekwensi this week. He was 86. Ekwensi, the author of arguably the earliest major novel in Nigeria (People of the City, 1954) and other vastly popular novels--Passport of Mallam Illya, African Night's Entertainment, Lokotown, Jagua Nana, The Drummer Boy, etc--that, as secondary students in Nigeria in the 1980s, captured, intrigued, and liberated our fertile imaginations and youthful fantasies. His simple, uncomplicated plots, while a subject of longstanding critique by literary scholars, was the very reason we read, and re-read his incomparably entertaining works. He was the people's novelist!

While many regarded Chinua Achebe as the father of modern African novel, Ekwensi's first novel, People of the City, published four years before Achebe's Things Fall Apart, was the first work by a Nigerian author to gain international acclaim, and the first modern novel to be published in Britain.

He could sometimes be rather blunt if not brutal, as on an occasion when a student wanted to know what he had in mind when he wrote certain lines in one of his novels, he took an exception to the question and retorted, ‘Have you ever asked Shakespeare what he wrote in Macbeth or Henry?’

Indeed, he encouraged me to put my pen to paper and write The Last Flight To Enugu, a short story that chronicled my experiences as an international election observer in 2003. Chief Ekwensi was a patient teacher and consistently demonstrated a willingness to explain the complexities of this remarkable country, Nigeria to me.

I think it would only be fair to admit that Ekwensi’s books were part of my growing up process, and that I would be the poorer if I had not read them. I don’t know if I have the right to say that I would miss him - not that I had thought so much about him until I heard he died - but reading about his death reminds of my childhood, and of how further I have moved away from those times. And I find myself wondering whether the fact that I am not upset about his death reveals how far away I have moved from the days when I used to stay in my grandfathers library and race to finish two African Writers Series books in a day. I wonder if I should be worried about this. I don’t think I need to add that Cyprian Ekwensi will be missed, most of all by his family, but also by the people he touched through his writing.

Habila on tour

Here's the author of Measuring Time Helon Habila talking at the NuMetro Bookshop, Victoria Island, Lagos, on Saturday 17 November. It was the first date of his book tour of Nigeria, organised by, Cassava Republic Press. Some 80 people turned up to hear Habila apparently, which is a healthy audience for a literary event, even by UK standards.

Habila is touring 5 Nigerian states, appearing in both Nassarawa & Abuja today, Wednesday 21 November. He moves on to Jos tomorrow Thursday 22nd; with 2 events in his home state of Gombe on Friday 22nd (see details on flyer).

The Dilemma of a Ghost

Ama Ata Aidoo 's play, 'The Dilemma of a Ghost' has been touring the UK since 26th October - and is currently at The Africa Centre, Covent Garden, London.

Directed by Michael Walling of
Border Crossings, the production marks 50 years of Ghana's independence as well as the bicentennary of the Slave Trade's abolition. In the play, Americanised Ato returns to his people in Ghana with an African-American wife in too; and ghost from the slavery era wonders whether he should go to Elmina or Cape Coast... amongst other things.

I went to the Africa Centre to watch the players in rehearsal at the Africa Centre in October, and interviewed one of the leading players, actress Dzifa Glikpoe, who is the Artistic Director of the National Drama Company of Ghana. My interview with her is now available online. Other players in the production include
Adeline Ama Buabeng, the leading Ghanaian actress of her generation. Trained by playwright Efua Sutherland, Buabeng is famed for the landmark roles she's played in Ghanaian theatre, including the title role in Sutherland's 'The Marriage of Anansewa.

Was at a performance of the play at the Africa Centre on 6 November. The night also saw the launch of the special edition Border Crossings book published to coincide with the production, 'Theatre and Slavery'. The book was launched by Buabeng (director Michael Walling had become 'Africanised' enough to call her "Aunty Ama"). Also there was the scholar James Gibbs. A specialist in African Theatre, Gibbs (who attended the performance with his wife, Patience) is one of the contributors to 'Theatre and Slavery.

  • The Dilemma of a Ghost is @ The Africa Centre, London, until 24 November.
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"Why Will you have 'Marriage of Anansewa and you go and do Shakespeare?" - Out-takes from my interview with DZIFA GLIKPOE

On the Mboguo (songs in-between stories in plays)
Dzifa Glikpoe: The Marriage of Anansewa for example has a story where Anansi sent photographs to four prominent chiefs promising to give his daughter to them in marriage and each one sent money and gifts, unaware of the existence of the others. Then when they were coming for the marriage ceremony, Anansi told his daughter to play dead. And one of the songs says: You are dead but you are alive; we will see how your funeral will be conducted! The Mboguo is there for a reasons, to advance the plot.

On Ama Ata Aidoo
Dzifa Glikpoe: I read one of Ama Ata Aidoo’s works, a novel, titled ‘Changes’ – centred on women’s issues. One woman - married, well educated, high position - and thinks she knows her rights. The husband says I want sex and she says, ‘I’m not ready’ – and it becomes a tug of war. And the other woman - uneducated, also married but she accepts her position as a wife. The uneducated woman looks at the educated one with envy. The educated woman leaves her marriage and acquires a boyfriend but he’s married – so when you need him, he’s not there. So you end up frustrated. But the way [Ama Ata Aidoo] handled the issue of marriage, and women’s rights... I fell in love with the book. So I asked her if we could adapt it into a screenplay so the film could reach more people who don’t normally read novels. And she agreed, although I’ve not found the time to do it yet.

Anything like the Nigerian Nollywood film phenomenon in Ghana?
Dzifa Glikpoe: Unfortunately, no. I was talking to a producer the other day who claimed Nigerians learnt the ropes from us (Ghana) and I said fine, but they’ve overtaken us! I came to Nigeria to do a production with Liz Benson and I saw the way they went about it. They were very particular, very meticulous. There was a house they wanted to use but had to wait 10 days for the owner to give permission. 10 days of waiting. Because the house was ideal – the character was to be a high class lady and must appear in a certain way, they would not compromise until they got the house. They went and bought costumes, rented some – all for production. But while you have a lot of money, we don’t... And no matter how much they sink into the production, they are able to recoup it. Someone asked if we do films every week in Ghana, I said: ask me if we do them every month! We don’t have that in Ghana, because our market is very small. But we patronise Nigerian films a lot in Ghana. The producers... it’s more economical for our producers to buy the rights from Nigeria and sell copies in Ghana – that way they don’t have the productions costs. And so, our own productions are suffering now.

But there are issues with the quality of a lot of Nollywood movies
Dzifa Glikpoe: Yes. Some are good. I particularly am always worried about the violence in many of the films. A Nigerian friend was saying: “I have been in Accra for seven months, and no one has offered to take me to their home, I don’t have accommodation.” But the films may have discouraged people in Ghana, because these are supposed to be a reflection of the society and so give a discouraging impression of Nigeria as a very violent society. But I’ve been to Nigeria before and I didn’t see that. We went to Enugu to shoot and everybody was nice. And so I want to think that there would be good stories where there is no violence, or the violence is very minimal – to give a more representative view. So there are very good Nollywood films, and there are very bad ones.