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Writing is not like riding a bicycle–Prof Niyi Osundare

By Damiete Braide

The last edition of Literary Crossroads Nigeria, organised by Goethe Institut, Nigeria, was an explosive one, as Africa’s renowned poet, scholar, Prof Niyi Osundare, took the audience memory lane on his writings, views about literature in Africa and his comparison between the first generation of writers and the second generation of Nigerian writers.

The conversation was moderated by Kunle Ajibade, with Prof Niyi reading excerpts from his latest poetry collection, I Wake Up This Morning, which is about his travels in Africa. He recalled, “The essence of art is to connect, and literature makes it possible for all minds to link up.”

He disclosed that his poem, “I think of Change” was one of his most anthologised poems. “It has been on the London Tube twice, it run for six weeks during the London 2012 Olympics and it has been translated in different languages in the world. I got a letter from an individual who wrote that he thought that I am a pastor and I responded, I am not far from it,” he said.

The moderator, who began by describing Osundare as one of the most accomplished and famous members of the progressive and radical generation of writers after Chinua Achebe and Soyinka’s, together with Femi Osofisan, Odia Ofeimum, Tanure Ojaide, Osi Enekwe, Chimalum Nwankwo, among others, usually referred to as “the altar-nate” generation, sought to know the context of their radicalisation.

Responding, Osundare said, “I think every generation has to look at what it has inherited, and then think of what it has to do with it –as Frank Fanon would say, you either betray it or fulfil it. Our relationship with the first generation of African writers is a long love relationship. It looks like a Freudian thing. For every new generation of writers or artistes, the first thing that they want to do is some desk-clearing. They want to say a few words about those who preceded them so that they can create some space for themselves.

“Ours was not so deliberately, maybe it was deliberate; but it wasn’t similar. I have so much respect for  late Prof Chinua Achebe, because he had influenced many, and I told him before his death, ‘Thank you for writing Things Fall Apart, or I would not have been a poet or probably would have been a different poet.’ He would say that his work was a novel, and I would say, “Yes, I am looking at the style in it.”

Osundare admitted theirs was a rebellious generation. He recalled, “When I was in secondary school, some of my class mates and I went to meet our principal and told him, ‘We have been studying British Empire’s history, literature etc., what about something African?’ Our principal told us, ‘well, the books had already been allocated to us, and we have bought them’, and we told him that we wanted to study African history and literature. The first question he asked us was, ‘Who is going to teach the subject?’ And it was not an idle question at all. African literature, as we know it, did not exist at that time. African history was even more absent.

“After one week, we went back to meet our principal, and he said, ‘Take it, you are on your own.’ And we were on our own, and we literary studied African literature on our own. We went into poaching books from different places, going to other schools to look at their notes, and we discovered things like the empires of Ghana, Mali, Songai, Benin, Yoruba kingdoms, Zulu Kingdom etc. And we said, ‘You mean all these existed, yet some people said there was no African history?’ That was how the radicalisation began.”

The poet was miffed that Africans always left “what is ours, disdained it, and dispossess it of all value, and, then, hunger for something that is out there.” He explained, “Among our people, a poem is not a poem until it is shared, and the hard and fact mechanical distinction between song and poetry does not exist in most African languages that I know. Our generation saw this, and there was revolution in two ways: revolution in the subject that we had to deal with, and we have to move really closer to the people who suffered. Secondly, we cannot do this unless we speak in the language that our people will understand.”

Interrogating Osundare further, Ajibade recalled Osundare’s preface to Midlife,  (1989), where he echoed that “The world I see is bent…”, and asked him to react  to the world that of today and how writers, philosophers and other humanists could strengthen a world now contemptuous of the elite, to which Osundare responded, “If I were to write now, I don’t know if I can really write the same way. I was about 40 years, and the sun was right above my head; there was something heady, something almost over confident about the statement and also something visionary.

“I asked myself, who are you that you think that you are going to do this? Who are you that you think that you are going to change the world? I think it is human to ask those questions, but we must never leave them there because of the truth of possibility. It is possible. Societies don’t change in one day. I am a student of history, and I know that it has always taken a vanguard of a few who think and are able to project their ideas and sell these ideas to the people to allow the society to change.

“Each time I refer to the French Revolution, I often tell people, when did the French revolution begin, and they will say, 1789. But I will say no; it began 300 years before then, when people suffered because of the ideas they were projecting; when monarchy was absolute and one word from the king could lead people to cut your head even if you were in London.”

He reminded all that the world saw in 1789 was “an outburst into the world”, adding, “everything had boiled over and the boil had ripened, and was about to burst. If a revolution is not prepared for, it will claim its own children; it wouldn’t succeed. It takes a vanguard of people, and this is why writing is so important. Education makes people easy to lead but impossible to enslave. When I was working on it, I was asking myself, now I am 40, how old is our world? What have I done in these 40 years? Am I looking forward to the next 40 years?

“I looked around me, particularly our country Nigeria and Africa, and I see suffering all the time and, at times, we managed to smile even as we suffered. And asked again, is it not possible to live differently? What about the injustice in our world? All these things were in my mind when I wrote it. I made a solemn pledge to myself that the people would find solace in my songs. That was about the time that I started my poetry column in a newspaper, and some people would, ‘What are they writing? Nobody will read them.’ It is a lie; people read in this country. Our world would have been different if we had not been writing and shouting.

“So many things are happening in our world today that I never knew would ever happen. The coming of President Trump should be taken seriously by every human being in this world. Hitler did not happen by accident; Idi Amin did not happen by accident; Abacha did not happen by accident. Each time, I go to the Holocaust Museum, I ask myself, ‘One man did all these?’ One man cannot make an army! One man cannot lead people to the gas chambers. One man cannot constitute a death squad like Abacha did and put people in prison. I used to despair, what can we do? Now, I am beyond despair; I have come to the state of challenge. If this world is right and just, it is we who know we are responsible for it. If this world is crooked and wicked, it is also our responsibility. It doesn’t matter our gender, ethnic or race, religion; we have to take our fate in our hands.” 

Asked to assess Nigerian literature now and his advice to young writers, Osundare responded, “It is a mixed bag. I think a lot is happening; our people are writing. It is more difficult to write, and the circumstances under which we find ourselves. The most difficult thing to do in this country is to think. Our country makes it difficult for people to think, stand and stare. Writing is difficult; it’s never gets easier. Some people would say, when you have done it for so many years, you get used to it. Writing is not like learning to ride a bicycle, after some time, it becomes a reflex action. Every work you have to create, create its own problem.

“There is noise pollution in the environment from churches and mosques, we haven’t achieved the status of a country that encourages creativity or reflectiveness and meditation. We are too loud and too perfunctory in this country. Our environment is hostile to thinking. Africa is a dangerous place to think and act, but, then, should we then leave it at that? No! People are still thinking and acting at the same time.

“Nigerian literature is buoyant. In terms of equation, I think so much poetry is been written. In certain years, the number of poetry produced will equal the number of books written in other genres. Nigerian writers are working hard, but quality is an issue. So many books are pushed out when they are not really ripe yet.  It takes time to write a good poem, story or play. They need patience and wisdom as writers. When you have read a good work of art, you can never be the same person. It takes humility, and writers should be the first critic of themselves before other people will see their work. Writers should not be envious of themselves, because the sky is enough for a thousand birds to fly. They should wait for their time, and they will make it.”


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June 2018
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