Of all the grand masters of Nigerian literature Cyprian Odiatu Ekwensi takes the flag in my roll of colours. I do respect the Achebes, Soyinkas, Nwapas, etc. but this man did something for me the others never could literarily.
Ekwensi died on November 4, 2007 at the age of 86. In his honour I sent this essay to ‘Sunday Sun’ which published it in its ‘Literati column, Nov.18, 2007, pp.44-45. Four years on I am presenting it on Naijastories to help us young writers drink from the gourd of a master. Enjoy it. )
In the pantheon of 20th century African literary deities, ‘serious’ writers like Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka and Ngugi wa Thiongo, stand head and shoulders over Cyprian Ekwensi. Many of those who claim control over the so-called canons for evaluating book craft have made this evaluation, some that were made before my parents shared a bed.
The death of Chief Cyprian Odiatu Ekwensi is not a platform for me to agree or disagree with them. Let these dwellers on Mount Olympus have their fill of ambrosia and nectar. However, for me, Cyprian Ekwensi represents something so essential in literature, which many of our gray beards and even contemporary biro-wielders do not have or have forgotten. The corpus of Ekwensi’s output right from the 1940s tell us, if they told us nothing else, that the book will live; not because of glorious prizes it won; not because it bashed the heads of colonialists and neocolonialists in; not because it wielded satirical axes against society’s misdeeds; not because it elevated our cultures to celestial realms, or critics and scholars rode on its back or belly to become professors; or that readers developed migraine in their bid to penetrate it; but because it captured the essence of the human heart. It plucked the strings of the heart in accessible, tasty words, in a language the world could hear, understand and recollect. In short, it entertained.
From juvenilia like ‘Samankwe and the Highway Robbers’, ‘The Drummer Boy’, ‘An African Night Entertainment’, ‘Juju Rock’ to more serious tales like ‘People of the City’, ‘Motherless Baby’, ‘Burning Grass’, ‘Jagua Nana’ and ‘Divided We Stand’, Ekwensi told stories that, like well cooked onugbu (bitter leaf) soup, left a pleasant after-meal tang on the palate. Through his works Ekwensi told us that a work of fiction does not deserve that honourable name if it does not at first sight-oops, reading-arrest the reader like a cop’s handcuffs. I speak with some authority. I read many of Ekwensi’s books, and save for ‘The Drummer Boy’, which was a recommended text when I was in junior secondary school in Plateau State, the others were read because they are what a book-hungry soul needs for sustenance. Who can, having been initiated into the cult of Ekwensi, forget the revenge-driven Mallam Iliya, the sokugo-stricken Mai Sunsaye, the skirt-besotted Amusa Sango, the raunchy belle, Jagua Nana (they don’t create women like that any more, whether in fiction, on the telly, and probably in real life); and the heart-rending Ngozi and heroic Pedro? They are my friends for life.
In an era when popular fiction and accessibility of the written word have been derided as a sign of unscholarly penmanship in Nigeria, there are questions the great (yes, great) Ekwensi pose to members of the quill-wielding tribe, especially those whose ink pots were carved between 1980 to date: who do we write for? The critics who tug at their goatee wisps as they lacerate our works with canons derived from dreary years of studying (not reading) Faulkner, A. E. Houseman, Ernest Hemingway, Toni Morrison, etc.? The plebeians who desire tales of their joys, sorrows, foibles, fears, loves and hate, ups and downs? I do not disparage the critics – the literary enterprise needs them-but if our business is not creating journals where we can contemplate our navels in private, then let us write for the world like Ekwensi did.
Ekwensi’s ‘People of the City’ was published in 1954, four years before ‘Things Fall Apart’. This racy depiction of Lagos in the late 1940s and early 1950s is the first modern novel out of Nigeria, written in Standard English. But it has never been given its due regard, probably because of its themes and its popularist approach. But is that a literary sin? I ask this question (and, to paraphrase Mark Anthony in ‘Julius Caesar’, my e-mail pauses for reply): how many of our writers who scorn accessible fiction because they lack dense themes, texture and tones, can boast of works that made the kind of impact ‘People of the City’ made when it graced the defunct African Writers Series of Heinemann?
Ekwensi, to the best of my knowledge, was not much of a prize-gatherer. I wonder if the Association of Nigerian Authors even gave him a patronship (I stand to be corrected). But it matters little. ‘Outsiders’ who do not dwell on ‘mighty’ fictive engagements are routinely ignored in these climes. e.g. how many of our literary denizens classify Kalu Okpi, Dilibe Onyeama, Dan Fulani and Mohammed Sule among the tribe? But there is always a place for what Helen Habila called ‘airport thrillers’. Tom Clancy, Barbara Cartland, Frederick Forsyth, to name a few, are some of the maestros through whose eyes some of these denizens first saw the literary world. While we need not copy them we should not consign them to garbage dumps, either.
Ekwensi did much more than create ‘airport thrillers’. He told great stories that live on in the hearts of all who encountered them. As this great drummer stops drumming on this side of the divide, let us never forget that in the fictive craft, two things are of essence: the story and the audience. If the story cannot turn the audience on like Ekwensi’s women, then the intercourse is sheer rape.