Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Questions to ask the Nigerian writer

I went to the grand Wole Soyinka affair at the Musa Yar'adua Centre last night. Duke was in the house etc. As the event unfolded, some critical questions to ask of Soyinka, and the Nigerian/African writer in general, came to the surface:

What have you done to support and encourage up and coming Nigerian/African writers?
When did you last hold any kind of workshop in Nigeria?
Could you ever live (full-time, always-here) as a writer in Nigeria?
Why don't you teach (at least part-time) in a Nigerian University?
Do you think its ok that you are teaching African literature mostly to privileged Americans?
If you had/have the money, what would you/are you going to do to support literature in Nigeria?
How important is it to you to pass the baton of literature on to the next generation here in Nigeria?
Do you think its ok for African writers to give the global publishing rights to their books to Western publishing companies? or, would you ever give such rights to an African publishing company?
Are you happy about the state of the Nigerian/African publishing industry?
What have you actually done to support the African publishing industry?

Just questions, mulling around in my head as various people spoke. One could dismiss all these questions by saying that the burden of the African writer is already too great: why can I not just write, like a man from Barcelona or Gerona? Duke was unctuous and performative by the way..


bibi 9:11 am  

1st to post a
About him teaching in a naija university..dont think it would ever be

Chxta 9:44 am  

Could you ask the questions and tell us if they are satisfactorily answered?

olajide,  10:10 am  

I don't think we can expect writers/artist or anybody to live full-time in Nigeria. People should have the choice to live where ever they want.

However, I do think it would be great if writers such as Soyinka hold masters workshop in Nigeria and in different parts of Africa so that Africans can also benefit from their skills and experience. A while ago, british council organised a playwrighting workshop in Nigeria, it would have been nice if a writer like Soyinka did a master workshop.

As for publishing rights to African publishers. I guess you can understand why writers might not want to give global rights to African publishers. Publishing as we know it is only just starting in Nigeria with your Cassava republic, Bookcraft, New Gong etc. I am sure from you perspective,it would be nice if big names like Soyinka allow African publishers like Bookcraft (his local publisher)to have world right and then they sell international rights to the big named publishers who will readily pay hefty sum anyway. New writers could do the same thing - so long as they can be assured that the African publisher will look for reputable agents in the west for them who will sell them appropriately. I think the African (especially Nigerian) publishing is still in its infancy and needs to be supported. However, if writers don't want to sell global rights to them it is understandable. Although many writers would like to pretend they are not in it for the money or the fame, in fact that is exactly what they are after. Writers are egotistical creatures and they need their ego massaged by the international publishing machinery. So they always want to go the best bidder. Who can blame them! I am sure with time,writers will eschew big name international publishers and go for African ones. A similar thing is already taken place in the west where big name writers in some genres are settling with smaller independent publishers and they are still bestsellers.

I too have often wonder who take over from all these great literary giants. We shall wait and see. Why don't your cassava republic invite people like Soyinka to lead workshop?

Anonymous,  11:02 am  

I think the man has done his bit as far as Nigeria is concerned. He did teach in 3 different nigerian universities. he's been there and done that, been an activist, been to prison , been to exile. He got the nobel prize more about 20? years ago. Now is hardly his peak. He is 70+ and if he decides now to wind down in some sort of way or 'reap' rather than 'sow'. I think that's OK.
By the way: In this day and age (of 'world is a global village' and with all the technology) does living outside of nigeria make you less patriotic or less able to contribute?

Araceli Aipoh 11:38 am  

Hey bibi,

Whatcha doing in my country? (Just like what am I doing in Nigeria, huh?)

I click on your name and what do I see: my Mayon Volcano...I'd say this is one good moment of "cyberdiction" (addiction to that thing) --- you'll never know what you will encounter next.

I'm not originally from Albay, but I visited it once as a student.

St Antonym 2:52 pm  

Uncle Wole doesn't need to answer any damn questions. He's proved himself a hundred times over.

(Hey, I'm enjoying the Phillipine-Nigerian alliance. What an interesting world.)

uknaija 3:26 pm  

Jeremy, the answers to a lot of these questions are in the public domain- do your research. Start perhaps by reading You Must Set Forth and you'll find some of your answers there

Jeremy 4:34 pm  

Just about to buy the book UK naija (its not cheap). But the reality is that as Olajide implies, writers can often be quite selfish/ego-centric in motivation, even if that doesnt materialise at the surface of their words.

Nigerian writers in the diaspora need to see beyond the rim of their egos and realise that the education system has utterly collapsed in Nigeria and nothing until now has been done by anyone to even begin to start thinking about what a response might be. Of course, extracting oneself from the joys of a comfortable existence, huge libraries and endless MFA Summer School teaching opportunities is tough, especially when Nigeria is the alternative.. But sacrifices always have to be made for the sake of development.

Students emerging out of University in Nigeria have little knowledge about anything even in their own specialist subject - many of them cannot spell, let alone think, problem solve or take initiative. Example: a student of Computer Science (in her 3rd year) went to NIIT in Abuja to do a computer class recently. She didnt know what a monitor was, nor how to operate a mouse! It's that serious..

If Nigerian writers continue to define as their ideal life a cosy existence teaching the over-privileged in leafy Arts Colleges in the US, they are doing their little bit to ensure that nothing changes back home.

Writers, whether they are aware of it or not, write into a political context. If only African writing had a similar history of understanding the importance of resistance as say Latin American writers. Its a huge generalisation, but is there a comparable example to say Marquez' relation to Simon Bolivar in African writing? There's precious little baton-passing going on in Nigeria by anyone.

Of course, the burden shouldnt be placed on Soyinka alone, but relying on the British Council or continuing to rely on self-interest will not change anything..

Interestingly, Zimbabwean authors are an exception on the rights front: they have shown support to local publishers by granting them global rights, resulting in Zimbabwe having one of the strongest publishing industries on the continent..

Anonymous,  5:27 pm  

prof soyinka may not need to answer any questions and as St A has rightly noted, he has proved himself over. But these questions are important and we need to always raise them.

You are right in citing the Zim example. But unfortunately, Mugabe is slowly destroying that legacy. Here in south africa we are slowly trying to build an independent publishing industry that will publish many of the new voices from the continent and will challenge some of the big named publishers that authors will have no choice but to start with us.

Global rights is part and parcel of the deal any self-respecting publisher will demand for unless the writer was discovered by a foreign publishing house. Soyinka has every right to stick with major international publisher. However, I do see your point.

Maybe what you people in Nigeria should do more of is regular workshops. Here, there is a glut in the writing market. but it seems to me that it is desperately needed in your region. I am sure if you call on these writers to lead workshop they will oblige.

So what writers are egocentric? they should be allowed to, so long as they don't misbehave too badly.


St Antonym 8:03 pm  

"There's precious little baton-passing going on in Nigeria by anyone."

We had a bad patch in the 80s and 90s. But that's changing, right? With Cassava Republic, Farafina, etc, new conditions are being created for a literary culture. No need to be so glum.

"If Nigerian writers continue to define as their ideal life a cosy existence teaching the over-privileged in leafy Arts Colleges in the US, they are doing their little bit to ensure that nothing changes back home."

Ol' boy, what does this have to do with Wole Soyinka? He lives in Naija, he's politically active (has been for ages)...I'm certain you're talking about someone else, not him...

And even this hypothetical Nigerian writer of yours living in America and teaching at an arts college, surely she (or he) is doing a great deal for her country, by writing as best as she is able, by bringing stories to the fore that would otherwise not be known.

You put an unfair burden on creatives. Nigeria needs its writers, first and foremost, to write. Not to run for elections, not to organize protests. To write. Because that's what they can do that no one else can, and it's one way of paying respect to their formative culture.

I don't give a damn if that writing happens in Iceland. Don't begrudge individuals what little comforts they might find in life.

The most important thing for a writer is to make powerful work, and I think it's safe to say such work will continue to emerge from Nigeria.

Jeremy 8:20 pm  

In fact we are not really seeing ANY quality work emerge from Nigeria just yet. You'll note that Cassava Republic, Farafina, Bookcraft tend to publish diasporic writers. As WS admitted yesterday, the quality of manuscripts he receives from Nigerians writers here is generally awful. We've yet to receive a locally-produce manuscript that we would like to take forward to publish..

Is that any surprise, given the meltdown of education standards? Of course, WS is a hero, but the question still needs to be asked: what has he done for Nigerian writers in Nigeria? Why has he not taught in Nigeria in recent years - when he continues with appointments elsewhere? Let us not let our praise for this septuagenarian colossus blind us to any form of critique.

Of course, we want to put on workshops, masterclasses etc in the coming years (watch this space). But its going to take a lot more than all we can do to raise the bar of creative writing standards here - its too complex and difficult for anyone organisation to begin to challenge.

That is why Nigerian writing that takes place solely in America, the UK (or even Iceland), can only be half of an untold story. And yes, it is why African writers do have to continually face the difficult question of how long their exile should last..

St Antonym 8:31 pm  

You don't seem to permit Nigerian writers the flexibility you give yourself.

You are at home in Abuja. In the same way, Chris Abani is at home in California. Ben Okri is at home in London. They are not on "exile." Their debt is not to the political entity known as Nigeria. Their debt is to their talent. Don't go all socialist on me, Jeremy.

It's true, they cannot tell the "whole story" on Nigeria. But no one person can.

Everything good will come.

Jeremy 8:36 pm  

And don't go all Thatcherite/Reaganite on me SA! Without institution-building here in Nigeria, all we will continue to have is a Chris Abani in California, a Ben Okri in London. And an empty space where those writers living in Nigeria should be.

Don't get me wrong - I don't see how a writer COULD live here at the moment unless they have independent income. Its not a problem that is going to be solved any time soon.. The talent is here of course, but the means to nurture it do not yet exist.

St Antonym 8:40 pm  

"I don't see how a writer COULD live here at the moment unless they have independent income. Its not a problem that is going to be solved any time soon..."

Eh hen! Ose o.

Thatcherite? God forbid bad thing. I cast it out in Jesus name.

As for the home-grown talent, it'll have to be just that: homegrown. And, gloomy as you are today, you and I know that the conditions are starting to emerge for it.

Expecting the diasporics to return en masse is a pipe dream. Doctors are escaping, and you want poets to return?

Jeremy 9:01 pm  

Passions on this topic arise for me from long-standing experience. I cultivated an interest in African philosophy a few years ago, only to find that African philosophy is alive and kicking in the US, but almost nonexistent in most parts of Africa. That level of expropriation must be regarded as a form of intellectual crime (even if no one can be held to blame).

In the same way, unless there is a collective decision to do something to encourage a culture of letters and nurture talent, nothing much will change here. We're all scratching the surface with chicken feet at the moment..

The wider issue: how to get academics & researches to return to Nigeria, the Great Unresearched, is not one I have a clue about resolving. The intellectual expropriation can only but continue.

But the desire to return en masse (doctors and others) grows stronger. The best case scenario after the elections will transfer some of that desire into action - many motivated by a first-to-market approach. Beyond the tide of returnee economic migrants, perhaps an intelligentsia can emerge? But everything depends on rebuilding a solid tertiary education sector - not simply selling university licenses to pastors who made it big.. the current administration have yet to achieve any meaningful steps in that direction.

eshuneutics 11:04 pm  
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Shango,  11:13 pm  

I'd have been exceedingly proud to have been accused of Thatcherism and even more so of Reaganism. But I'm sure you already knew that.

Nigeria's problems will not be resolved by dispersed Nigerians (aka Lucky Bastards) returning "home", Jeremy, contrary to your fervid wet dream. First, because it is unrealistic. Second, because the system is so horribly corrupt that even the best intentions, like the proverb, will only lead to Hell. In fact, I'm beginning to think nothing will help.

We continue to hope for the Second Coming, alas.

Anonymous,  11:40 pm  

Jeremy is completely correct here. nigeria is characterized by individual success and collective failure and without institutions to foster the population we will always fail.

soyinka needs to aid in building someof these institutions to allow more nigerian writers to find success.

Bella Naija 8:19 am  

I am edging towards Jeremy's arguement. I am a literature junkie from bios to fiction to chick lit..I love an interesting and engaging. All the Nigerian authors whose books I have read over the last 3 years have been authors in diaspora - Chimamanda, Helen Osiyemi, Iweala etc...
Its unfortunate that no home grown author has really captured our imagination recently.
I look forward to being able to read a well written book from a Nigerian based author soon. It doesnt even have to be grossly this point...some chick lit will do

by the way, araceli...I enjoyed your book

Jeremy 8:21 am  

the fact that there isn't consensus on the need for serious institution-building in the education sector in Nigeria among the commentors - some believing writers can do as they please, others believing the internet solves everything, others picking holes in a teaching methodology I haven't even stated - shows how dire the problem is.

Right now, the budget for next year is at its final stages of preparation. The fact that there isn't a concerted collective demand for a higher percentage to be spent on education is yet another indicator that Nigeria/ns has yet to fully grasp the enormity of the education and skills gap at work.. A laissez-faire Darwinian-Reaganite approach will simply see Nigeria falling further behind..

uknaija 9:37 am  

Jeremy, not too long ago, you blogged on how impressive you felt Oby Ezekwesili was? Dare I remind you that only a few months ago she was appointed to the Ministry of Education?

In the news yesterday I saw the furore around her redeploying 8 of the directors perhaps there may be some hope in terms of the system and it won't be as bleak as you put forward.

The National Universities Commission advertised a while back for researchers abroad interested in fellowships/sabbaticals to get in touch- pity was the advert was only in the paper edition of a Nigerian newspaper and not on the web and they required something like 24 paper copies of CVs, etc, etc. Maybe Oby can address some of these issues and thus create the environment for some of these links that you dream of

And yes, the situation of the universities is dire but SOME good work in spite of all the odds and SOME good graduates continue to be produced. There have been some writing workshops as well and some new Nigerian writing I hear IS in the pipeline-

And finally, I'd rather African philosophy blossomed in the US and remained alive there until such a time that it could be transplanted home (if possible) rather than it dying out completely- my two kobo, but then I'd say that wouldn't I?

Anonymous,  1:12 pm  

Damn right UKNaija!! Jeremy has this view on Nigerians that is a bit condescending: those who live abroad are either economic migrants or they generally prefer the 'comforts' (yeah right! comforts like rising crime and rubbish schools and expensive childcare) of living abroad. Dipersion and movement are facts of life Jeremy. People can live whereever they want. Everyone moves for one reason or the other. Just because your reason for living in Nigeria is not economic or seemingly you have swapped the 'comforts' of England to live in 'blighted' Africa (lucky us) does not make you better than any other migrant. Migration enriches everyone, one way or the other.
On your comments on Nigerian universities. Dare I say that UK varsities also produce computer science graduates that are not up to scratch. I have a few working with me. They might have had the priviledge (thanks to loans they will spend years paying back) of seeing a computer, but that's just about it.
I am a product of a Nigerian university and like soooo many others, I was taught by brilliant and dedicated tutors and able to make a lot out of my education thank you very much!
Granted, a lot of effort needs to be put into education in Nigeria (as in the UK). Your comments are uninformed and far from constructive.........

Anonymous,  5:14 pm  

Two more questions .
If intelligence and culture is important to the survival of a race how important is it that your works and the ideas they contain reach Africans in their languages?

When will Yoruba translations of your works appear?

We can run but we can't hide . Anymore that is.

The questions you ask could be posed to Fela Kuti, KSA, and most of the celebrated Nigerian Musicians. Even the current heavyweights like Femi and Lagbaja do not see the need in educating younger musicians or even discussing with them or sharing ideas.
I remember reading a biography on Miles Davis and marvelling at the amount of influential and great musicians who went through his bands.

This is what i think:

The system which choses champions in Nigeria is flawed somewhat.That is of our making. We have yet to show the world or even ourselves that we love culture or art for it's sake. That i feel is important.

This system together with the western celebrity obsessed machine tends to create superstars and not team players.

The Nigerians they tend to champion seem to be controversial figures. It seems to be our way that people feel they have to be prius inter pares.

These figures end up being larger than life.

Their constituencies suffer from neglect. Also once they generate some global stardom we think they can never be wrong.

Add to this our obsession with age and the shocking inability of friendships in Nigeria to transcend age and gender.
How many men form friendships with those younger in age ?

What Nigeria should be doing is as follows:

Revamp the Educational and Internal Affairs secretariats.

The country should have a sovereign linguistics conference where our languages ( both nigerian and colonail)and the role they play in our lives should be charted. This confrence will be in charge of incorporating modern vocabulary into our languages.

All schooling from primary school upwards should be done in local languages.

From secondary school English is introduced as also are French and Arabic . These languages should be taught by native speakers .

No tax on books and other educational materials.

Music is compulsory in primary and an elective in secondary school.

If we start at the grassroots then it wouldn't matter whether Nigerian writers live in Nigeria or not . The system which produced them will always deliver. And then that system can modernise.
Actually most of the writers in the Diapora can still claim to have spent their formative years in Nigeria.

eshuneutics 6:39 pm  
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
the flying monkeys 8:38 pm  

Nice post and interesting comments

Anonymous,  1:40 am  

At the Daily General Meeting (DGM) of the daily readers of Jeremy Weate's blog; we resolved that we would like to see you blog about the ongoing fight btw your neighbours at Aso Rock.

Enough of Soyinka and culture! Pls give us the updates about this war in Abuja. We believe you will be a more authentic source than Thisday, Guardian, Vanguard and Sun put together.

Anonymous,  2:01 am  

i'm surprised nigerians are attacking jeremy on this issue. fact is soyinka never shies away from holding those with power to very high standards. i think the same should be done to him. not out of spite, but because he has so much to offer. can you imagine the revolution if he was to grant world publishing rights to a nigerian publishing house? it'd be hugh. wole needs o do more, and the saying goes 'who much is given.......'

Anonymous,  9:06 am  

Has it occured to anyone that perhaps today's writers and musicians are not too keen on to make themselves avalable for 'schooling'. In this culture of make it quick and get rich quick and a lack of respect for older generations

the flying monkeys 10:54 am  

I would agree with anon, with some objectivity, please give us some fresh insight into the ongoing fight btw your neighbours at Aso Rock...

Anonymous,  11:42 am  

@anon "nigerians are attacking Jeremy..." you must love your drama! that would make a catchy the sun! LOL

Olawunmi 1:09 pm  

i agree with jeremy on a number of points. if the organic way of producing local writers, which worked in the case of okri, soyinka et al isn't working, then why is a concerted effort to develop our local writers not a viable option? all it would take is a soyinka-led movement which organised workshops, competitions etc for the younger generation. i think even the chimamanda adachies of this world would still have a lot to learn from the older generation of achebes and co, some of whom still teach in nigerian universities.

the Wole Soyinka Foundation for Literary development has a nice ring to it, and it could be the umbrella that brings even influential foreign writers into the country to teach and influence a new generation of writers. i am almost certain that there would be no shortage of corporate and human persons willing to contribute the financial and logistical means to make this possible, if ws was only willing to set the wheels in motion. but then, academics rarely make good administrators, caught up as they are in their intellectual bubble.

Ws benefitted from the days when the educational system was better, and he should be willing/able to contribute to the perpetuation of art in his time. you do not always need political clout to make changes in your society, and i daresay he has the means, nobel prize and all, to make a difference.

Anonymous,  2:39 pm  

@Jez:Are cassava repulic books available outside Nigeria
or to put it directly. I'm interested in some of the books and i live in the UK. How can i get some (of the books, that is) by post maybe?

Bayuze 2:01 am  

J.,I totally agree with your Q's. Altho Kongi has indeed contributed to the upliftment of the Literati in Naija, i believe a lot more can be done. Passing on his knowledge and great wealth of experience to the youth back home will be of immense help in contributing to our development.

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