Ebedi International Writers' Residency, the first of its kind in Nigeria, was officially opened in Iseyin, Oyo State, earlier this week, Wednesday 1st September. The first beneficiaries of the programme, Abiodun Adebiyi and Lola Okusami (pictured left, by Akintayo Abodunrin) were there, as were the town's king and the chairman of the occasion, Femi Osofisan.The next session of the residency starts in October. Interested writers can send their applications by email to Alkasim Abdulkadir: firstname.lastname@example.org or Below is Femi Osofisan's speech delivered at Iseyin. FORMAL OPENING OF THE EBEDI INTERNATIONAL WRITERS’ RESIDENCY
CHAIRMAN’S OPENING SPEECH
By FEMI OSOFISAN
I cannot begin to tell you how delighted, and honoured, I am to have been invited to preside over this ceremony today. Delighted, because what we are celebrating is the birth of a dream, an uncommon dream, a vision of one man’s generosity and benevolence, and of enviable insight.
Writers, as you all know, are dreamers. But the significance of that will only be appreciated when you come to remember that much of the world we live in today is the outcome of dreams. As history teaches us, the movements which eventually shake the human race, the actions which become so momentous that they re-map and redefine the destiny of a whole community, or a nation, or even of an individual life, all commence from the spark, at first so little, of one person’s dream. Then the dream grows and expands, and transforms into a consuming conflagration.
All the same, we must acknowledge that it is seldom the case that a dream is able to come to a concrete fulfilment in the life of the person that gives birth to it. That is why our host today, Dr Wale Okediran, deserves the warmest congratulation for this occasion today, which formally marks the establishment of one of his babies, the Ebedi International Writers’ Residency programme in Iseyin, Oyo State. I make bold to surmise that, of all the milestones in Okediran’s glittering career, this will prove to be the most significant.
Okediran, as you all know, has been many things, driven no doubt by a compulsorily restless spirit. Here is a successful medical doctor whose competence I at least can attest to, having been one of his former patients. Then he ventured into the writing vocation, and established himself there as one of our well published and popular writers. He even rose to become the President of the Association of Nigerian Authors. Then, not satisfied with all that, Okediran decided to take a daring plunge into politics, that dangerous field of activity in our country in which many hitherto promising men and women constantly meet their waterloo, as they get sucked into the prevalent mire of corruption and sleaze that is now so sadly characteristic of our legislature all over the place.
Most of our politicians—the late, inimitable Bola Ige informed us—only go into the government “to eat”. They eat and eat, giving nothing back to the community they claim to represent. The astonishing thing therefore is that, out of this crop of self-serving parasites, our friend, Wale Okediran, has been able to emerge unsullied, with his reputation as solid and upright as before. Indeed, out of that experience in politics, he has just given us a most instructive book of faction, the award-winning Tenants of the House, in which he courageously bares in the open some of the sorry shenanigans going on in the caverns of our “respectable” parliament.
Now, instead of sitting back and basking in the glories of his achievements, and quietly enjoying the fruits of service as many of his fellow politicians are doing, Okediran chose instead to embark on another public-spirited venture, this writers’ residency programme, funded entirely from his own personal resources! I cannot thank him enough on behalf of all of us in the writing community.
As you are aware, such intense ventures of private sponsorship for the arts are very rare in our country. Our rich folks have other means of spending their wealth than “wasting” it on artists. I mean, what’s the value of a poem or a sculpture or a painting beside a cold bottle of beer?
As far as literature is concerned, I can only remember one similar gesture as Okediran’s in our literary calendar—and that was the late Bode Osanyin’s Writers’ Resort at Ijoko-Ota, which unfortunately ceased with his demise. Some other individuals have tried to help with hefty prizes, people like Dr Pat Utomi, who created the now-moribund one million naira (N1m) Utomi Prize; and the intrepid young woman writer, Promise Ogochukwu (formerly Okekwe), whose Lumina Foundation runs the one thousand dollars ($1,000) prize named after Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka. Wale Okediran is the newest addition to this thin list of benefactors. I salute you all.
But of course you may wish to ask me at this point—why do writers need such sponsorship anyway? The answer is simple—we need help because the business of writing, though arduous, is not yet in our country a lucrative affair. Writing does not sell because the bulk of the populace is still illiterate; and the majority of those that are literate consume only such books as offer instruction on how to make money and become instant millionaires, or how to make it to heaven. Business counselling tracts and religious pamphlets proliferate in the market; but works of fiction or of drama or poetry attract only the few addicted devotees.
Thus creative writing is not an attractive area of investment, even for publishers, who put their money instead on school books. Writers nowadays, or those who are determined to be writers, have little choice but to publish their own books themselves. As a result most of our books suffer from the absence of editing and come out immature and shoddily produced, sabotaged so to speak by all kinds of typos and avoidable grammatical errors.
Even so, how many of the young aspiring writers can find the funds for such self-service in our present economy, especially where almost all the equipment needed in the publishing industry is imported and expensive? This is why the budding creative talents among us live in anguish.
But this dearth of publishing outlets is not the only obstacle our writers have to surmount. It is not even, in my opinion, as serious as the one I will define here as the problem of space. Space—by which I am referring to time and location—can be a tearing agony. Where to do your writing, and when to do it, are the first and the most formidable questions that we all have to face all the time. Our society is the problem.
As you all know, creativity, artistic creativity, requires deep reflection and meditation, both of which require isolation and time. It takes time to work out a story; but even when you have a story, it takes time to shape it into a script. Particularly, as we all know, the story mysteriously takes over somewhere during the process of composition, and writes itself, in its own time. A poem may begin pleasantly—from a word heard in a book or a conversation, a sound snatched from the air, an idea that flashes suddenly through the mind, and so on—but it does not finish except after a prolonged and sometimes tortuous period of labour, of writing and erasing and re-writing, shaping and re-shaping again and again. A play must have a script, and the script must undergo an “outdooring” in the rites of rehearsals and production.
This is why the banal routine of everyday life is like a conspiracy against the artist. No artist can be fully productive when he or she has to cope at the same time with the domestic and social responsibilities that we all are required to satisfy as ordinary citizens. Going to work every morning in order to earn a living; going to different markets; coping with traffic, especially in a city like Lagos; caring for family and friends; all these routine functions we all go daily through can be frustrating for an artist anxious to get to grips with an idea swirling in his or her mind.
Add to these distractions the innumerable ceremonies that Nigerian life is replete with, in the form of wedding, burial, child naming, house warming events and so on, then you can begin to imagine the frustrations that could kill the artistic talent among us.
That is why the writer needs a refuge from these things; why it is vital to have a place of retreat, however temporary, that will provide a space to hide, and reflect. Okediran’s initiative is such a place: it will be immeasurably beneficial to all of us.
In the past, such a patronage was provided by the royalty and the rich. Thus the palaces of Ife and of Benin, for instance, were the haven of artists who have left us these spectacular terra cotta and bronze head pieces. Similarly the astounding works of Michaelangelo were made possible by catholic church, just as the spell-binding architecture of the Arab world came from the commission of Muslim clerics. In modern times in the civilized countries, it is the state that has taken over these functions. That is why you have state-funded organizations like the Arts Councils or the National Endowment for the Arts, or positions for Poet Laureates, which are established to render assistance to creative artists.
In Nigeria however, as we all know, such official organs are scant. As far as the state is concerned, art is no significance except where it serves the purpose of entertainment at public gatherings. When our rulers and policy makers think of art at all, they think only of dancers, and preferably bare-chested, scantily-dressed maidens with gyrating bosoms. Writers, except they become notorious by winning well-publicised international prizes are not known or recognized by community, least of all our legislators. And even when their names come to be known, such as that of Chimamanda Adichie, you can bet your card that our leaders would not know a single one of her works, not to talk of reading them! It is a sad truth for us that to look to the National Assembly for help and support for literary creativity is to indulge in self-deluding futility.
All this sufficiently underlines, I hope, the import of the ceremony we are carrying out today. Okediran has initiated a laudable programme whereby aspiring writers can take time off their daily routines and seclude themselves for a while in a serene environment, sheltered from the noise and bustle outside, in order to fully devote themselves to the tussle with their creative imagination. Here they will have all the infrastructural support they require; without distraction from family or friends, distant from the endless ritual of weddings and funerals and other ceremonies; and well provided against NEPA and water shortages. Here they will find all the equipment and atmosphere needed to encourage an imaginative faculty to infinite horizons; no writer can come here and leave without a bountiful harvest. Perhaps here, in this resort, will be nurtured the next Nobel Prize in literature!
Still, that is not all that is commendable about this programme. Okediran has also factored in the needs of his community. The writers who come here will be required to give up a fraction of their time, and spend some two hours every week talking to students from the surrounding schools. This will undoubtedly lead to a process of cross-fertilization which, in my opinion, is vital to the fundamental purpose of writing itself. The children will no doubt gain from this interaction with creative minds; but so will the writers themselves benefit from the collision with fresh and bubbling minds.
I am also struck by the fact that the first beneficiaries of the programme are both female. This is a good augury I think. Women, as we all know, are the ones who suffer most from the social and domestic pressures that I spoke of above. They are the ones usually expected to marry early, to bear and take care of the children, to be primarily in charge of the home front, including the kinsmen, and so on. Most often, those of them who show early promise are forced to surrender their talents quickly and give up their ambitions to be creative artists as they assume their roles as wives and mothers. A retreat like this is thus an ideal asset undoubtedly for such women. With their husbands or boyfriends permitting, they can come to hide here for a while to realize their literary dreams. We cannot thanks Okediran enough for this idea.
But finally, a word of advice. From experience, the maintenance of an initiative like this is a powerful burden to any individual purse. This is why such places eventually collapse and turn to unwitting casualties. My advice to Okediran therefore is that, in order to avoid this ominous possibility, he should try to seek the assistance of international bodies, such as the UNESCO, set up precisely this purpose. Some local bodies can also be approached, such for instance as the local government council.
I will stop here. Thank you, once again, Wale Okediran, for this positive contribution to the progress of our country. Thank you too, the Board of Management, that have helped to make the dream a reality. And thank you, the people of Iseyin, for readily identifying with a venture that is bound to launch your community unto the map of international community. I hope this initiative will inspire other politicians as well as the wealthy of our society to also make their own affirmative contributions.FEMI OSOFISAN.