Why I Disagree with Prof. Ojaide’s labeling of New Poets as Copycats (2)

Why I Disagree with Prof. Ojaide’s labeling of New Poets as Copycats (2)

Writing of the type I know is different from other school subjects. In math, physics, chemistry, and biology, every student is supposed to study the same things and come up with the same answers. But in writing, if everyone writes exactly the same thing, that’s not good — that’s copying, not writing.

Everyone’s writing needs to be different from everyone else’s. And the only way that happens is if writers make different choices when they write, choices about the topics they pick, the words they use, the details they include, different beginning and ending strategies, and so on. The set of all the different choices a writer’s makes determines, and the collective effect they have on the reader, is what is often called the “voice” in a piece of writing. This is my understanding of the word ‘Voice’. Because each of us has a unique personality, each of us has a unique voice in writing, and that is what makes our writing unique. The trick is in letting that voice come through. And the only way that happens is if we make different choices in our writing than other writers make in theirs, choices that reflect who we are inside — our original thoughts and personal feelings, our particular way of seeing things and interpreting them — and writing it all down.

When I read something by one of my favorite writers, say Ben Okri, Chinua Achebe, V.C Andrews, Salman Rushdie, John Grisham, Toni Morrison, Sidney Sheldon or Agatha Christie, I often have the feeling that no one else could have written it. In most good writing, the individuality of the writer comes through. When we sense this individuality, we’re picking up on the writer’s voice. The writer’s voice casts a spell. The right voice makes the work accessible; it gives us the tone and point of view that best illuminate the material and makes it shine. For instance, the magic of Hemingway’s prose is that it describes events the way the human eye sees them. We were told in our literary class that he taught himself this technique as a journalist and he used it very consciously and deliberately. Every serious writer must develop his style. Ben Okri is a clear case of a writer who has largely abandoned the social and historical themes of Chinua Achebe, and brought together modernist narrative strategies and Nigerian oral and literary tradition. Like Ojaide, Ben Okri is a member of the Urhobo people and since he published his first novel, Flowers and Shadows, Okri has risen to an international acclaim, and he is often described as one of Africa’s leading writers. His best known work, The Famished Road, which was awarded the 1991 Booker Prize, has been called the classic magical realist novel of West Africa.

Indeed, Ojaide seemed to disregard the significance of thematic preoccupation in his emphasis of a writer’s voice. Even at that, Ojaide cannot and should not claim to be the originator of a particular ‘voice’. As a trumpet has a different voice from a tuba or a violin has a different voice from a cello, so the words of one author have a different sound from the words of another. One author may have a voice that is radiant and swift paced while another may have a dark voice. This is why when classifying the generations of African writers, I think it should be done having the specific time and period the individual started writing in mind instead of using a writer’s voice or literary techniques which cannot be completely attributed to anybody. It reminds me of what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie did. Although, she was born in the later parts of the 70s, but in her book ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’, it was clear she investigated and wrote a most exciting and riveting story on events that happened about a decade before she was born. When those who thought they were congratulating her by telling her that her works mirrored that of Achebe, she quickly shrugged that tagged. But why would she not? Does the events described in Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun or Purple Hibiscus the same with Achebe’s Magnus Opus, Things Fall Apart or No longer at Ease, Man of the People or Arrow of God? Or are works of fiction now research works where plagiarism and illegal use are the order of the day?

Now, where will Ojaide place Adichie using his generation gap theory? Where will he also place me if I decide to write a poem that has abiku as its theme? Where will he place Odia Ofeimun in his poetic response to the recent British snobbery entitled, “I am a Writer…?” And where would Ojaide place Buchi Emecheta who set the events in “The Joys of Motherhood” in the colonial era i.e decades before her birth? Where will Ojaide also place Ogaga Ifowodo who addressed Lord Lugard in some of his poems? Where would Ojaide place himself with his recent works like “The Activist, Water Passion and Oil Remedies or House of Words?” the reality of it all is that, Ojaide, at one point in his literary journey dealt with issues that happened before he was born and, at another time, he treated other new happenings such as the Niger Delta imbroglio. This has being the trend in Ojaide’s so-called first generation up till now. So, it is rather wrong for Ojaide to think that their generation still continues; meanwhile, nothing has changed. What actually continues is Soyinka’s, Achebe, Clark and Okigbo’s generation. It has all being storytelling from an African perspective. What separates all African writers is the era or period in which they wrote. If Ojaide thinks otherwise, then he must tell us his criteria for classifying his generations.

The so-called first generation of African writers should not claim to have a separate voice of their own just because they wrote at an earlier time. As a young writer, I can decide to breathe and live in the same time and share in the experience of the so-called writers of the first generations by creating stories that would depict the events of their times or earlier (literary setting). Any writer can decide to tell the stories of centuries ago meanwhile he might be less than two decades. Such a writer can also decide to appear simple or complex. This is why I usually tell some of my upcoming writer friends that in creative writing, they should experiment with different literary styles and techniques in order to help them better develop their “voice”. This aspect varies with the individual author but the question begging for answer is, who were the first, second and third set of people to begin the literary journey in Nigeria or Africa? This appears to be the sense in the classification of the generations of African writers. I may not even imitate anybody but my work could read like or mirror a particular author. Does that make me a copycat? I don’t think so.

Ojaide must be tutored to know that literary voice has never being used in the classification of writers rather, literary movements and periods. In other climes, there are literary movements that metamorphosed into Metaphysical poems, Romantic poems, Lake Poems, Transcendental poems, magical Realism, modernism, postmodernism, Beat poems, Hungryalist Poems as well as literary periods like Middle English literature, Renaissance literature, Elizabethan Era literature, Jacobean literature, Caroline and Cromwellian literature, Restoration literature, Augustan literature, Romanticism, Victorian literature, Modernism, Post-modern literature etc. from the time of William Shakespeare,  Dylan Thomas,  James Joyce , Joseph Conrad ,  Robert Burns, V.S. Naipaul to the time of modernist and postmodernist writers like  Henry Miller, William S. Burroughs, Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut, Hunter S. Thompson, Truman Capote, Thomas Pynchon, George Orwell, Agatha Christie, Clive Staples Lewis, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, Anthony Burgess etc Period and literary movements has being the standard/norm for classification.

I would have given it a thought if Ojaide had used language in his categorization of African poets. But no! Soyinka’s has since been criticized for his use of compressed and complex language as against J.P Clark’s use of simple language despite their being writers of the same generation. But since poetry often uses particular forms and conventions to suggest alternative meanings in the words or to evoke emotional or sensual responses, both poets have been acclaimed for their respective literary style. When both poets treated abiku (a wanderer child who dies and returns again and again to plague the mother), they did so having their individual cultural experiences in mind regardless of their used of devices such as assonance, alliteration, onomatopoeia, and rhythm to achieve musical or incantatory effects. Soyinka’s use of ambiguity, symbolism, irony, and other stylistic elements of poetic diction often leaves his poems open to multiple interpretations. Similarly, this is also true of his use of metaphor, simile, and metonymy to create a resonance between otherwise disparate images—a layering of meanings, forming connections previously not perceived. Kindred forms of resonance often exist in Soyinka’s works, between individual verses, in their patterns of rhyme or rhythm. But not so with J.P Clark. And so in our school days we praised Clark for his simplicity and criticized Soyinka for his complexity. Not until later, do we begin to realize that Soyinka’s poems have substance which appeals to great minds. In this way, I called him oligar-poet i.e a poet who writes for few. The Abiku myth, in a nutshell, encapsulates the notion of a child that is born to die but would take pleasure in torturing his unfortunate parents. While the Abiku persona in J.P.Clark’s poem demands entreaty from his parents, the one in Soyinka’s poem boasts of his mischievous presence. This was so, due largely to the different cultural backgrounds they came from before the mythical virus of their africanness forced them to source for materials for poetic expressions.

In today’s globalized world poets often borrow styles, techniques and forms from diverse cultures and languages. This is why the average upcoming African writer/poet is not only a fundamentalist in his poetic presentation but a modernist. Because he is not confined, he no longer tell his stories to his people alone, rather he package it in such a way that it meet the reading pleasure of the whole world. Any African writer who is worth his salt must try to strike a balance between fundamentalism and modernism because such issues like terrorism, internet, kidnapping/hostage-taking, lesbianism/homosexualism, drug-trafficking, child-trafficking, indecent exposure, prostitution, organized crime etc., which are hitherto part of western culture, are now part of his every day experience. The integration of national economies into the international economy through trade, foreign direct investment, capital flows, migration, the spread of technology, and military presence as well as transnational circulation of ideas, languages, or popular culture through acculturation were in miniature scale as at the time when the Soyinka and Ojaide generation started writing. There is need to redefine African values in the midst of western culture. This is one of the major preoccupations of new Africa writers. If previous generations of African writers were trying to tell the rest of the world that we have a culture, from the colonial times, to neocolonialism and now, globalization, then I think the greenhorns are still trying to do that up till now. So from Achebe, Soyinka, Okigbo, Clark, up till now nothing has really change.

8 thoughts on “Why I Disagree with Prof. Ojaide’s labeling of New Poets as Copycats (2)” by Ochuko Tonukari (@ochuko)

  1. Even more interesting….still need to read again but I can’t help but feel like this is the same point over again…

  2. I agree with you on the uniqueness of a writer’s voice. That is what Ojaide would love to see. When todays writers write with their own voice. I don’t want to read Achebe in Adichie’s works. I will prefer to here from the master himself. After reading Grisham, other writers writing law fiction couldn’t hold me.
    After Ludlum, Patterson became tepid. Etc.
    Why are South Africans no longer writing about apartheid?
    Why are Africans no longer writing about slavery?
    Why are Americans no longer writing about their civil war or cold war and CIA….?
    There are trends. Writers tend to follow trends. Soyinka and Achebe’s trends are over. Now, there is nothing wrong with one or two persons writing about previous trends. But when every writer writes on a particular trend over and over again, then something isn’t right.
    There are other trends.
    No need to over hash. The new crop of Naija writers should explore other trends, especially the current trend.
    As for Rushdie and Okri, I swear I don’t know why they won any award at all.
    I really enjoyed your article….
    Who is that Ojaide guy seff?

    1. U’ve got some points, @kaycee.

      1. Kaycee…NICE!!!!!!!

  3. Very insightful article. I particularly like the point you made of a writer having to develop his style in consonance with his inner man. I have always believed style and ‘voice to be things that should come naturally as one reads and criticizes the works of others in an attempt to develop one’s art.

    Beautiful comment @kaycee

  4. I enjoyed reading your article.

  5. Interesting analysis. I really would love to read the responses of this Ojaide someday.

  6. Fred Nwonwu (@Fredrick-chiagozie-Nwonwu)

    Very thoughtful article. Liked the fact that your arguments were backed with clear-cut examples. Kudus!

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