The New Gong Magazine

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Nigerian Literature at 50: A Coat of
Many Colours


Henry Chukwuemeka Onyema

Nigerian literature predates Nigeria’s independence. As far back as 1789,
Olaudah Equiano, a former Igbo slave, published an account of his life in
bondage and in freedom. There were many other literary offerings right into the
twentieth century, including those inspired by competitions organized by the
colonial government. Then in 1952 Amos Tutola’s fantastic magical tale,
Palm Wine Drinkard
, which was written in an equally fantastic brand of English,
put Nigeria on the literary map. The world began to see that the pen was being
well wielded in Nigeria.

Although Cyprian Ekwensi’s
People of the City, which was published in 1954, has
the honour of being the first Nigerian novel written in Standard English, it was not
given due recognition, perhaps because it did not dwell on the exotic, the
macabre and the unusual -which many Western literary connoisseurs assume to
be a canon for assessing African literature. In my opinion, that novel gave the
world the heart of Lagos in the 1940s and 1950s like no other literary work has
done since. It is much more than a vignette; it is a portrait of a young man’s pull
from and immersion into the never-ending contradictions of Lagos.

Two years before independence, Chinua Achebe seized the throat of Nigerian,
nay African, literature with
Things Fall Apart. This article is not the forum to extol
a novel that can never be sufficiently eulogized; a novel that turned the black man’
s condition into a powerful weapon against the European-dominated colonialist
structure. Achebe’s pioneer novel is both subtle and radical in confronting the
‘heart of darkness’ depicted by Joseph Conrad and other Western writers. But
the novel’s singular achievement at a time the anticolonialist movement was
straining and striving in Nigeria was that it told us about ourselves through our
own eyes.

The 1960s was a period of great literary ferment. With the imprimatur of the
Heinemann African Writers Series, Nigerian writers shone like a million stars.
Though subjects and themes were diverse, engagement with the colonial
condition defined literary intercourse. This was an era when Nigerian, indeed
most sub-Saharan African, writers - many of whom had been in the trenches
against colonialism and all its works - grappled with the quest for an identity. Who
was the black man vis-à-vis centuries of cultural emasculation by a supposedly
superior culture? In the words of Bode Emmanuel Esquire at the seventh
Macmillan Literary Night on 24 November 2009: ‘… African literature in general
and Nigerian literature in particular has been dominated by one major theme: an
assessment of Africa’s contact with the West. The spiritual and social implications
of this contact have been the concern of most writers worldwide.
Characteristically, the meeting of Africa and Europe has been presented as a
conflict. The lesser writers have been content with a general presentation of
typical incompatibilities, but the more perceptive writers have dug deeper and
attempted to determine the specific implications of this conflict for a particular
African community like Nigeria.’

Though they had been writing before the 1960s, the decade gave Achebe, Wole
Soyinka, T.M. Aluko, Christoher Okigbo, Elechi Amadi, John Munonye, Gabriel
Okara, John Pepper Clark and many other writers of that era a well fertilized soil
in which to sprout. It was only natural: the heady quest for independence had
given way to the even more robust search for nationhood. What was Nigeria?
(Fifty years on, that question remains unanswered.) How was the Nigerian writer
to engage with this sprawling land bursting with apparently different peoples
yoked together by a self-seeking colonial power? How could one make literary
sense of the contradictions of groups living in such a land? Through plays,
poems and prose our writers tried. They rang their bells in the ears of both the
leaders and the led. Their works were, to quote Emmanuel again, ‘directed
towards analytical assessment of the Nigerian socio-political situation in the
desperate bid to analogically project the country’s multifaceted precarious
situation and thereby proffer solutions.’

But the falcon could no longer hear the falconer. The literary prophets had a
hard time of it as their seeds were eaten by the birds of corruption, tribalism,
winner-takes-all politics, social inequality and military incursion into politics. In
1967 the civil war erupted and a new chapter of blood was opened in the annals
of Nigerian literature. Forty years after the guns ceased booming the blood-
soaked chapter is still being turned by an impressive population of Nigerian
writers. Mostly - but by no means exclusively - from the former Biafran enclave,
they continue to grapple with the historical tragedy. The gamut runs across all
generations of Nigerian writers. From Sebastian Okechukwu Mezu, whose
the Rising Sun
is the first Biafran war novel, to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half
of a Yellow Sun
and Dulue Mbachu’s War Games, the story of the Nigerian civil
war continues to resonate.

A new but far from brave world beckoned. The 1970s to the mid-1990s took
Nigerian literature into the realm of protest, often coloured by Marxist-Leninist
pretensions. This was the era of ‘us’ against ‘them’. In truth, Nigerian writers had
always railed against the ruling elite’s real and imagined excesses. But the period
mentioned was one when Nigerian pens were filled with gall instead of ink. Kole
Omotosho, Bode Sowande, Femi Osofisan and Niyi Osundare were some of the
masters of this new universe. In a systematic manner quite unlike before, those
afflicted by the writers’ scourge deployed their arsenal. Given that the military
called the shots it was a grim situation. The tribe of quill-wielders witnessed much
more than political persecution; socio-economic maladjustments also shook the
very core of the writers’ trade.