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It was no garden-variety literary festival by any standard. The 2012 Garden City Literary Festival, which ended on Saturday, October 20, once again, rekindled hope for the Nigerian book industry and reading culture with a series of weeklong activities featuring symposium and seminars on women literature, creative writing workshops, children events, interactions and book signings with authors, book fair, open-mic session, and a poetry soiree at the end.
As usual, the festival attracted prominent names in African literature. Though the focus of this year’s festival was on “Women in Literature”, it wasn’t restricted to female writers. Literary icons like Professor Wole Soyinka, Elechi Amadi and Gabriel Okara attended the festival, and their presence added verve to the annual festival. The guest writers for this year’s festival came from across the African continent: Veronique Tadjo (Ivory Coast), Doreen Baingana (Uganda), Chibundu Onuzo (Nigerian residing in UK). Noo Saro-Wiwa (Nigerian), initially billed for the festival, couldn’t make it due to unavoidable circumstances. The book fair, which began on Monday October 15, kick-started the festival, which took place at the Hotel Presidential, Port Harcourt, and it was open throughout the festival.
The day also featured creative writing workshops for children and adults, as well as open-mic session organised by the English Department, University of Port Harcourt. At a welcome cocktail later in the evening, the festival director, Mrs. Koko Kalango, introduced the guest writers— Chibundu Onuzo, Polly Alakija, Doreen Baingana and Veronique Tadjo –to the press, informing them of the activities lined up for the festival. She said the idea for the literary festival was to create a platform for everybody in the book industry to network, partner and exchange ideas for societal literary development. Each of the guest authors for the festival was featured in the Meet-the-Author programme, where they explained their works to the audience.
The Ugandan writer, Doreen Baingana, was the first to be featured on Day 2. It was moderated by the writer, Igoni Barret. Baingana read excerpts from her award-winning book, Tropical Fish. Asked whether there were peculiar challenges she faced as a female writer, the Ugandan said getting published was a real challenge for all writers of all sexes, but, for her, it was more of taking care of her baby. Baingana explained that, in Africa, a female writer, like her, is often constrained from writing certain things, which a man is free to say in his work. She also was dismayed that publishers see women works as writings for women, while they see male writers as writings for the world. She refused to buy into the argument that female writers must portray females in their books in a positive light, saying that would not be a reflection of societal reality. “We have to portray the reality; not all women are positive in life; it (every individual) is a mixture of good and bad attributes. Writing is about quality,” she stressed.
The writer, who was in Nigeria for the fourth time, expressed her love for the country, which she said is not as bad as being depicted in world media. “It is such a vibrant, energetic country we don’t get to read about outside,” she noted. A writer, she said, should satisfy himself before getting the work out. One of the major attractions of the festival was the symposium on the theme of the festival, “Women in African Literature” on Day 3. The Ivorian scholar-writer, Tadjo, presented the keynote entitled “African Women and Literature.” It was attended by the Governor of Rivers State, Chibuike Amaechi, who enjoyed the brainstorming session involving panelists drawn from writing and academia: Dr. Onyemukwu Udumukwu, Doreen Baingana, Chibundu Onuzo and Professor Chioma Opara (moderator). Tadjo, in her speech, pointed out the richness of African female writings.
She said: “Women writers come from different backgrounds, not only in terms of their cultural and national identities but also regarding their education, social class, religious affiliation or political inclination.” In the 1990s, she informed, there was a concerted effort by African women writers and scholars to theorise feminism in Africa, thus leading to the coining of several expressions such as “African feminism”, “Black feminism” or “Womanism” and even “Africana Womanism”. There was also “motherism”, or “Afrofemcentrism” and more recently terminologies like “Stiwanism” or “negofeminism”. She said also:
“The struggle of women to take their lives into their own hands and to be independent-minded, is part and parcel of our literary history. It is also one of the defining qualities of women writing,” she said. “It seems to me the characteristic of “female” writing lies primarily in history. Not so much in the themes and styles of the works –as those are changing as we speak –but in the particular way women authors entered African literature.” For African literature to be part of world literature while retaining a distinctive identity, the Ivorian said: “It is necessary to nurture the African readership which is growing too slowly. It is a matter of urgency for everybody including African writers to get involved in the development of a reading culture instead of lamenting its absence.” Tadjo also affirmed that women writers are continuing the path opened by their male and female predecessors and that “our expectation is that their increased visibility and scope will allow for new readings of history and the elaboration of new thinking about Africa today.” Speaking on commitment in African writing, Onuzo said it was hard to engage in African literature without getting involved, but “what makes it an entertainment is characterization in plot.” Voting for a blend of art and message in fiction, she said, if a writer focuses only on the message, the art will suffer; and if a writer starts with the art, the message will suffer. In her response, Baingana said: “It is hard to separate art and message”. In identifying yourself as female writer, she said the writer has to identify with the problems women face. Lending his voice to the discourse, Professor Udumukwu noted: “Commitment is simply what a writer is answerable to.”
Speaking extempore on the occasion, Governor Amaechi disclosed that 60 per cent of women writers who are into feminism might have been hurt by the society, for instance, Buchi Emecheta. He noted that literature in itself cannot divorce itself from the society. Veteran writer, Gabriel Okara, reacting to the issues raised by the panelists, said any writer, whether male or female, must strive to be original. “When I am writing, I don’t think about myself as being a male writer; I just write. I don’t think a female writer, because she is a female writer, has to write about female issues,” he said. Elechi Amadi, in his contribution, said the best way to get into the psychology of women is to read works by female writers, who understand themselves better than male writers. “If we have only male writers, we may not have an insight into the female psychology,” he emphasized. Professor Phebian Ogundipe, making her contribution, was dissatisfied that many theories on feminism are not being talked about: “So, we cannot stay here in Nigeria and make general statements.”
Another highpoint of the festival was the presentation of Port Harcourt as the UNESCO World Book Capital City 2014 and a public presentation of the book written by Mrs. Koko Kalango, Nigerian Literature: A Coat of Many Colours. In his speech on the occasion, the festival director, Kalango, emphasized the imperative of a reading society. She also spoke on Port Harcourt dream: “The vision that I hope we all share for Port Harcourt is of a city where literary talent is nurtured and where reading and writing is the norm; a city where aspiring writers are encouraged to soar to new heights; a city where the writer is free.” Elechi Amadi’s master class on Day 5 was quite interesting.
The famous author of the classical novel, Concubines, advised budding writers present in the programme to employ standard techniques which help in achieving fictional success, including realism, suspense, humour and entertainment, irony, flashback, stream of consciousness, among others. Reacting to the question by students on the desirability of fetish in African literature, he said that we should not confuse religion with fetishness; hence, worshippers of ogun or amadioha should not be looked down upon. As a writer, Amadi said you should not condone bad moral behaviours, like lesbianism or gay practices.
Though you can describe it in your work, he stressed that it must be in an objective manner. In depicting horrible scenes in literature, Amadi advised the writers that it should be done in such a way that it would be entertaining to read. Reading goes a long way in developing writing abilities, he said, citing example with himself, who studied Physics and Maths but switched over to literature due to extensive reading. There was yet another seminar on women literature entitled “Women and Love in African Literature” facilitated by the Rainbow Book Club and moderated by Mazi Eze Ibekwe of the English Studies Department, University of Port Harcourt. The panelists included Professor Julie Okoh, Professor Charles Nnolim, Sophie Obi and Dr. Julie Umukoro. In the lead paper presented by Professor Nnolim “Women and Love in World Literature: An Overview”, he stated that, in African literature, excesses of romantic love are controlled by patriarchy, custom, bride price, taboo, ethnicity, and polygamy.
Yet the story of romantic love is not happy, citing writers like Buchi Emecheta, Flora Nwapa, Mariama Ba and Ifeoma Okoye, who “have not shown romantic love as having a happy ending.” Professor Nnolim contended that, while love in European literature is idealised, romanticised and depicted as “tragic madness”, love in Nigerian, nay African soil is more practical, more pragmatic and less chivalric. Continuing, he said: “It is more cautious, more mundane, more earth-bound, more fractional and less glamorised because it is controlled and stabilised by its fundamental unique existence.” In her response to Nnolim’s speech, Professor Okoh said women’s writings are geared towards making men to slow down in a bid to role with their women counterparts.
At this point in time, Dr. Umukoro, said we should be talking about African ideology, describing polygamy as an African way of life practised since the beginning but with established codes and conducts, but the coming of Christianity eroded it: “Our problem started with diluting polygamy whereby a man has one wife and ten mistresses.” If polygamy should be properly marshaled in our society, Dr. Umukoro would see no evil in it. On his love poems, Sophie Obi said love is a unifying factor and we cannot run away from it. In the past, polygamy, she said, did not go down well with women; and now that many women are educated, they cannot take it.
Try as the women want to have equal rights with men, Professor Nnolim emphasised that ours has been a patriarchal society from the beginning, which explained why even in those societies where women marry men, they still bear male surnames. He noted, too, that men are accommodating women more nowadays, advising more women to be educated in order to get their rights in society. The Meet-the-Author session involving the 21-year-old Nigerian rave of the moment, the author, Chibundu Onuzo, was also thrilling. It was moderated by Daniela Menezor of Rainbow Book Club. Adjudged the Best Black Student in the UK, 2012, Onuzo read from her debut novel,
The Spider King’s Daughter. Speaking on why she set the novel in Lagos and not in London where she is based, she said when she moved to London, she became nostalgic of home and, thus, nostalgia provided the subject matter for her novel. An evening of Poetry on Day 6 marked the climax of the literary festival. It was flagged off with a reading by Gabriel Okara, “Once Upon a Time”. Mrs Betty Abah, Humphrey Ogu, Samuel Ugbechie were among the over 20 poets that performed that evening. In his closing remarks, Gabriel Okara said it was gladdening that young people were gathering, not to drink and make merry, but in sober reflections of happenings in the society.
“A gathering like this makes me think there is hope for Nigeria,” he said. The festival director, Kalango, thanked the Governor of Rivers State, Chibuike Amaechi, for initiating the annual event, inviting all to converge on the city for next year’s festival, which will serve as a prelude to Port Harcourt as the World Book Capital 2014.