BEVERLY HILLS, December 15, (THEWILL) – The year 2020 began on a mournful note for those in the literary community in Nigeria. On February 28, news came from South Africa that Professor Harry Oludare Garuba had died of leukemia. He was a poet, renowned scholar on African Literature and professor of English and African Studies at the University of Cape Town South Africa where he taught for more than a decade.
With a confirmed place among the intellectual superstars ,the African continent can boast of (for his self-effacing nature, Harry would have politely declined such ranking) news of Harry’s untimely death was numbingly shocking, eliciting something of a horrible déjà vu when, on March 10, the previous year, another well respected professor and scholar, Pius Adebola Adesanmi, of the Institute of African Studies Carlton University Ottawa in Canada, died in an Ethiopian Airline which blew up shortly after take-off in Addis Ababa. Harry was only 61 while Adesanmi was not even 50.
I was in Benin City doing research work for a client when I heard of Garuba’s death, prompting me to immediately call his fellow poet and brother, Odia Ofeimun, in whose house, 20, Sanyaolu Street, Oregun, Harry lived for much of his time in Lagos before relocating to South Africa in 1998.
At the time I called in early March, Ofeimun’s 70thbirthday was just about two weeks away, March 16, which his family, friends and colleagues had been planning to celebrate. Ofeimun didn’t dwell on his own forthcoming anniversary. Instead, what I heard was that, on my return from Benin, I should endeavor to see him as soon as possible, for he was, along with some of his and Harry’s friends, planning a special tribute for Garuba in the coming days and weeks.
But then, the outbreak of Covid-19 and the resultant oxymoronic-sounding social-distancing would put all of that in abeyance – no grand celebration of the late poet as planned, nor for the living one on his landmark birthday. (It must be said however there was a reading or two for Garuba somewhere in Lagos and Ibadan in his remembrance during the period and the Committee for Relevant Arts (CORA) celebrated Ofeimun last month on his 70th. But at both events, writers and those, who would have compulsorily attended, were denied the opportunity of meeting one-on-one, as they were wont to, pre-pandemic.
Even so, for professionals, who long for the kind of solitude imposed during the lockdown, some of them probably benefitted more from the pandemic. At least, the restrictions made sure you would be pretty much left alone. If family or friends were necessary hindrances you couldn’t do without, here was a chance – thanks to a virus – to be by yourself for as long as you want, supplicate your muse for even longer and then write that elusive masterpiece.
In his response to the effect of the pandemic on writers during the lockdown, James Eze, Chief Press Secretary to Governor Willie Obiano of Anambra state and a poet whose first ever collection, dispossessed, won ANA Poetry Prize at the Association of Nigerian Authors International Convention in Ilorin last month, said the lockdown is a blessing for writers.
“2020 is a gift to workers of the imagination,” Eze wrote recently in a WhatsApp message. “The Covid-19 pandemic forced many writers across the world to return to their desks and re-imagine the world. We shall soon begin to see the work sired by the lockdown. Most of them are still going through the various stages of production process and might take years to come out. I think that Covid-19 2020 may yet turn out to be a special year for Nigerian literature.”
One Nigerian writer, a senior one with a Nobel to boot, benefitted immensely from the lockdown, using the period to triangulate from his desk to the dining and bedroom wherever Professor Wole Soyinka found himself – in Ghana, Nigeria or Senegal. The result is a second novel, Chronicles of the Happiest People on Earth, after his first, The Interpreters, published more than half a century ago.
Already, Chronicles is receiving rave reviews from enthusiastic readers/ critics. One of them, a self-confessed Soyinka disciple and avid reader of his works, Onyeka Nwelue, reconfirmed the Nobel laureate’s mastery as a storyteller.
“What comes across is the fact that you cannot deny that Soyinka is a master when it comes to telling stories,” Nwelue wrote of Chronicles in The Lagos Review recently.
“In real life, he is not boring and on a sheet of paper, the mastery shows,” Nwelue wrote. “He writes with the fury of someone angry but relaxed and sitting on his throne…I have never seen anyone write about the political/ religious class with so much dexterity…his wealth of experience from different strata of life reflects fully in this masterpiece. His mindscape is broad and it shows here…Only the intellectual elite will have the pleasure of sitting through this bundle of wisdom and humour.”
It is just possible that most other writers, old and young, men and women, spent their time pretty much the same way Soyinka did in the hope of starting, continuing or finishing that longed-for publication – essays, short stories, novels, poetry or even drama. An Anthology on Covid-19 has already been published. More are expected –all of them results of months and months of incubation, processing and re-processing, writing and re-writing down to the last word.
The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Mezis was published in August 2020. It is now a New York Timesbestseller. There are others not as famous as the transgender author’s with an Igbo father and a Tamil mother. Still, Nigerian writers wrote and got published, those who could anyway.
One of the most important publications in the country was publicly presented on November 27 in Abuja, a compendium of Sixty Eminent Nigerians @ Sixty by Spezaturra publishers. Although long in the making, the six-hundred page book is the result of a collaborative effort spearheaded by Mohammed Abubakar, himself a writer, to document for posterity the achievements of outstanding Nigerian professionals who were born on the same year Nigeria got independence from British colonial rule in 1960.
Like Eze, Mallam Denja Abdullahi, erstwhile president of the Association of Nigerian Authors, insists the pandemic period afforded writers to look inwards, “a kind of introspection to Nigerian literature. Nigerian writers retreated to their forge and were able to churn out new works focusing on the pandemic and other themes. Literary events that had hitherto held physically went virtual and a new vista of reflections took hold with a flourish of literary soirees dominating zoomdom and on YouTube.”
How true! One of the must-attend literary festivals, Lagos Books and Arts Film Festivals aka LABAFF, held virtually for the first time in years. LABAFF’s traditional venue at Freedom Park on Broad Street Lagos was without the carnival-like atmosphere this year – for obvious reasons.
On that, Eze allows it was expedient but insisting at the same time that “nothing compares to the physical gatherings of writers. Writers are reclusive by nature and not easily understood by other members of the society. So, when you take away physical meetings, they feel cut off from their occasional air supply.”
One important area Nigerian writers also felt shortchanged was the postponement of the Nigeria Prize for Literature by its sponsor Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas to next year because of Covid-19. As is their practice, the multinational gas company had called for and received entries for its annual prize in February. But then, again, Covid-19 interrupted. NLNG can be forgiven, the CPS has said, noting that “NLNG has done so much for Nigerian literature that it is difficult to fault any decision they take in a country where big corporations are more interested in promoting cheap entertainment than initiatives that ignite a more challenging use of the imagination. NLNG deserves our gratitude. I think we should be patient with them.”
Of course, the second most unexpected death was that of poet, dramatist and one of the founding fathers of modern Nigerian literature, Professor John Pepper Bekederemo-Clark on October 13 in the heat of the ENDSARS youth protests across the country. To many in the literary community, it came as a numbing shock, much like Garuba’s early in the year and Adesanmi’s the year before. Still, life must go on. So did ANA, after the body representing writers in Nigerian had a botched election in Enugu the year before, but now a reunited family.
Former ANA president Abdullahi was only too delighted to let on that the year ended with a crescendo with the holding of the 39th International Convention of ANA in Ilorin in the first week in December. It was very successful, Abdullahi said, drawing some parallels to “resilience of the literary arts in Nigeria. It is also a pointer to the future that Nigerian Literature will continue to flourish and break new grounds with the plethora of stories yet to be told and the numbers of Nigerian writers at home and abroad.”