One thing I realized lately is that the future of African writing is in the hands of writers who are not only ardent readers but those who are in touch with their African root. There is no better way for the new African writer to hone his writing skills than reading the works of established writers as well as gaining mastery or digging into the folkloric environment where he finds himself. Doing just that could go a long way to offering the upcoming African writer a veritable vista that would enable him to decide on how and where he wants to go. There is something unique about the African storytelling tradition and majority of the African writers of the so-called first and second generation category have tried to weave the African narrative technique along the existential realities of their individual cultural backgrounds and national experiences. Although, they were able to establish the fact that Africans indeed, have a voice, but I think the upcoming writers too have not done otherwise.
This is why I didn’t agree with Prof. Tanure Ojaide when he submitted that new African writers do not have a voice of their own and for that, they are copycats. I do not want to engage Ojaide in a literary debate as I admire his writerly skills and the radiant promise in his works, but I think he also need to be told that it is a Freudian slip to classify writers in terms of their ‘voice’ instead of time, literary movements and periods. Soyinka, Aluko, Okigbo, Ekwensi, Okara, Clark, Rotimi, Nwapa and Achebe were born before me and they started writing before most of us, and so, they belong to the same period. But this does not give them a separate voice from new Nigerian writers and it does not follow that the old writers are better off than the new ones. Even among these so-called first and second generation of writers, there are a lot of noticeable discrepancies in their works in terms of their writing styles, use of language and thematic preoccupation. Ojaide must come out this day to educate us more on the exact meaning of ‘a writer’s voice’ without mingling the works of one generation with another.
During my youth service days in Northern Nigeria, I ran into a young corp member who was a very skilful poet. Though, he was not a published poet at the time, but from my own estimation, his poems were more or less Okigbo’s. When I asked him if he had ever heard of the late Bard, the answer was an emphatic NO! It was me who told him the snippets of information I know of Okigbo and how that his poems reminded me of his. Now, where will Ojaide place that young man who writes like Okigbo? Copycat? Plagiarist? imitator or what?
Since age is not always a mark of wisdom, I believe the old is not always better than the new. If we are to define Ojaide’s use of the word ‘copycat’ to mean someone that closely imitates or mimics another, or one who acts as an imitator, then it connotes that Ojaide’s statement was a prickly, acerbic insult on the creative energies and endeavours of new African writers. He failed to realize the concept of individuality, a poet’s cultural background, beliefs, thought patterns, ideologies, value system, religious affiliation, education and training, and the significance of ‘Muse’ or inspiration in a creative enterprise. In his own words, Ojaide posited as follow:
“I still believe” he said “there is no new generation of African writers yet…when you look at Wumi Raji, he’s basically Niyi Osundare. When you look at Akeem Lasisi, he’s basically Niyi Osundare. There are some poets I read they write after my poems. This is to say they haven’t got a voice of their own. We shouldn’t deceive ourselves. There is still no new generation you can identify in Nigerian poetry now.”
Can someone tell me what Ojaide meant by “they write after my poems and they haven’t got a voice of their own?” So, is having a voice of one’s own now use in separating one generation of writers from another?
Ojaide further says: “if you place my latest collections, maybe, Water Passion and Oil Remedies or House of Words, side by side with what the new poets are writing, you can hardly see any generation gap as you can see between us and the Soyinka generation. So, I think our generation continues – what I call the New African Poetry. It’s too late for anybody to separate them. I’ve read Maik Nwosu, Ogaga Ifowodo and others, and I haven’t seen any difference yet.”
Again, can Ojaide explain what he meant by the generation gap between him and the Soyinka generation that is lacking in the works of the young writers? Or was it that their so-called generation created, invented or introduced themes by which they are famous or recognized? Or could it be in their use of certain poetic devices/styles or figures of speech? Why is it too late for anybody to separate them? Granted that the Soyinka-Achebe generation began or established a story-telling literary movement which has continues even till now, was Ojaide saying that he and his generation began another?
At this point, it will be proper to understand some things about the man Tanure Ojaide and what informed his poetic ideologies? The first time I met Ojaide was at a session of Urhobo Historical Society conference held at the Petroleum Training Institute, Effurun, Warri Delta State in 2004. At the conference, he was introduced as a Professor of African Literature in the Department of Africa-American and African Studies, University of North Carolina at Charlotte. But that is not all I know of the man. From a close range, I know him as an Urhobo man of Agbon extraction. Born of a humble parentage, it was said that his ancestry has a strong link with the Urhobo Traditional Religion. His grandmother, from whom Tanure learnt most of his values which helped to shape his worldview, was a strong advocate and a cognoscenti of Urhobo culture and he left no stone unturned in molding Tanure along that line. Those who are devoted students of Ojaide’s works or those who have Urhobo background would see how he tapped into the wellspring of Urhobo folklore and tries to depict her richness. Like Okigbo, it’s Ojaide’s technique to allude to certain aspects of Urhobo culture with the use of such words like Aridon, Olotu, Ominigbo etc. There is nothing unique about Ojaide’s works since he did not introduce a literary movement; he only transplanted an Urhobo art-form into English language. Most of Ojaide’s poems were Urhobo traditional songs of the time past that were translated or transliterated into English language with minor modifications here and there.
But I really would appreciate it in no small measure, if Ojaide could come out plainly to argue what differentiates his own voice from poets of the so-called first generation and what made him believe new poets do not have a voice yet. I doubt if he can argue beyond the realms of literary movements and periods which are the hallmarks for separating one generation of writers from another in the world over. This is another way of saying that all writers, whether poets, playwrights or novelists, are moved to write along the reality of the time in which they live or in some cases, they set the locale of their works in earlier times as is common in several literary works.
It has been established beyond doubt throughout the international community that Nigeria has some of the best minds in every fields of human endeavor, and the ovation is even louder in the literary circle due to the sundry laurels won by Nigerians in the past few years, but now it seemed Ojaide is making it appear like the new breeds who won these prizes are more or less mere imitators, impressionist, impersonators and mimics of Ojaide’s and his first and second generation categories of writers. So anyone who didn’t write poems in Soyinka, Achebe, J.P. Clark or Ojaide’s time is not good enough to merit originality? Waoh! Was Ojaide saying that literary originality rest with writers like Niyi Osundare, Femi Osofisan, Harry Garuba , Festus Iyayi, Abubakar Gimba, Zaynab Alkali, Odia Ofeimun, Tunde Fatunde, Bode Sowande, Wale Okediran and himself up to Soyinka’s generation and others? Has Ojaide read the works of Toni Kan, Uchechukwu Peter Umezurike, Uche Nduka, Obi Nwakanma, Epaphras Osondu, Afam Akeh, Amatoritsero Ede, Nike Adesuyi, Kemi Atanda Ilori, Chiedu Ezeanah, Remi Raji, Kunle George, Onookome Okome, Sanya Osha, Nduka Otiono, Sola Olorunyomi, Esiaba Irobi, Olu Oguibe, Emman Shehu, Chika Okeke and other of such poets recently? I believe if he had he would have known that Nigerian writers are on a forward-match into the fourth generation. To my mind, these were poets that emerged between1985-1995. In the wake of the 21st century, a fourth generation of Nigerian writers has sprung up.
Ojaide might be correct in his analysis, but I think I prefer Ogaga Ifowodo’s poems to his, and Wumi Raji to Osundare. And if there was anything like a writer’s voice, I think these two poets have their own unique voices. To my mind, Ogaga Ifowodo, Wumi Raji and even Toyin Adewale-Gabriel are some of the finest and the most gifted poets’ from continental Africa. The problem with our literary tradition is that, we seem to lay too much emphasis on the works of the so-called first and second generations of African writers that we have stopped to appreciate the efforts of the young writers. In Nigeria, it seemed, there is a certain reluctance to extend the academic curriculum beyond the canonical work of first and second generation writers. This is somewhat preposterous.
Perhaps, this was why Ojaide seemed to believe that Christopher Okigbo was the greatest poet that ever lived when he invites him in one of his poetic enterprise, to referee the works of upcoming poets. Okigbo was a good poet no doubt and he merits some level of posthumous accolades, but outside ‘Idoto’, Distances, and Elegy for Alto” which was the final poem in Path of Thunder, I see nothing extraordinary in his anthology. But Ogaga Ifowodo is a perfect definition of a poet with a distinct “voice”. ( To be continue….)
By Ochuko Tonukari