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Works from a country in progress; Nigerian literature



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    Nigerian literature in English has witnessed an impressive expansion in the past decade and a half. The award of the Nobel Prize for Literature to Wole Soyinka (arguably black Africa's foremost literary artist) in 1986 confirmed the eminence of this literature. Of late, Ben Okri and Niyi Osundare have helped to consolidate this eminence.

Nigerian literature manifests the struggles of a people whose country is undergoing the painful process of transformation from colonial through neo-colonial to wholly self-determining nation. After a bloody fratricidal war (1967-70), immediately followed by an ill-managed oil boom that, in turn, created social and political dislocations that the nation has yet to overcome, it was inevitable that Nigeria's artists would fulfill the pre-colonial definition of the artist as "town crier," to borrow that fine expression from the late poet Christopher Okigbo. They have made Nigerian literature, in its many forms, a social act against the wantonness of the new society.

The tradition of protest poetry in Nigeria began with Okigbo's "Path of Thunder," which marked the first significant step by any Nigerian literary poet to transcend the usual "quarrel with the self" of poetry and the bemoaning, in personal terms, of the griefs and failures of the commonwealth. This poem was a forewarning of the cataclysm that was to envelop Nigeria in the mid-1960s, culminating in the civil war that tragically claimed the life of Okigbo himself.

There are now three living generations of poets in Nigeria, and none has been able to walk away from the protest tradition. In Soyinka (first generation), this protest has a continental reach, especially in his Ogun Abibiman and Mandela's Earth and Other Poems. Both are dedicated to the struggle for liberation in Southern Africa--the first on Mozambique's 1975 declaration of war against the apartheid regime of South Africa and the second on the South African struggle itself as epitomized by the indomitable Nelson Mandela, then chained, like Prometheus, to the rocks of Robben island. Among the other poems of this highly lyrical collection are those focused on the brutal and cannibalistic leadership that Africa has had to suffer in the past three decades.

The character of the protest of the second-generation poets is perhaps typified in the poetry of Odia Ofeimun and Niyi Osundare. Both are self-avowed Marxists whose artistic credo is an unwavering commitment to the cause of the proletariat and emancipation of the masses. Yet theirs is a sensuous and well-accomplished poetic evocation. Harry Garuba, a sometime self-effacing, sometime confessional poet, leads the third generation of Nigerian poets. The voices of Garuba, the poet-journalist Afam Akeh, and the young university teacher Sesan Ajayi offer some promises of a brighter future.

In prose, Chinua Achebe's Anthills of the Savannah and Kole Omotoso's Just Before Dawn are in the forefront of homespun experimental novels by Nigerians in the last two decades. Achebe's novel contends with the recession of humanism caused by several years of military intervention in the nation's politics. Omotoso's work, on the other hand, intertwines actual historical and fictional elements to reveal a disturbing picture of how the modern Nigerian nation was cobbled together not only by British officials but also by squabbling politicians who saw in independence an opportunity to carve a niche for themselves.

The efforts of Achebe and Omotoso have been overshadowed by the emergence of Ben Okri, who wrote his first novel at the age of 19. Okri is a child of the 1970s, and his first three novels show the frustration and alienation of members of this generation. Okri is a powerful modern novelist in the tradition of the Colombian Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Indian-born Salman Rushdie. A local critic recently called Okri "the first example of the imagination's commitment to its own power first and foremost" in contemporary Nigerian literature.

Another Nigerian whom the world is bound to hear from is young Biyi Bandele-Thomas, whose first two works are The Man Who Came from Back of Beyond and Sympathetic Undertaker and Other Stories. Thomas' stories are presented in a surrealistic style combined with humor and a fertile imagination.

One of the literary phenomena of the past two decades is the rise of female writers. Flora Nwapa was joined by Buchi Emecheta and Adaora Ulasi in the mid-1970s and in the 1980s by Ifeoma Okoye and Zaynab Alkali. Going by Western definitions, these writers are not likely to qualify as standard-bearers of feminism. However, all but Ulasi present a realistic picture of the hegemonic order of a patriarchal society and its cultures.
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The combination of forms (folk art and literary art) characterizing theater in modern Africa is nowhere as overwhelming as in Nigeria. The Olympian presence of Wole Soyinka is recognizable in the theater. And while he has written plays that are strictly literary-The Jero Plays, Opera Wonyosi, A Play of Giants--Soyinka's oeuvre is clearly in those plays in which the pre-literate elements dominate the literary. J. P. Clark is Soyinka's contemporary, and he, too, has remained faithful to drama in which this combination of forms dominates.

The work of two dramatists, Femi Osofisan and Bode Sowande, represents the mood of the new Nigerian drama. The two believe in committed art, especially Osofisan, who has published some 12 plays at the last count, resorting to the Marxian theory of reflection as a means of dissecting society. Both playwrights are concerned with history and myths but believe, passionately, that history is an ongoing spectacle in which units of experience can be isolated.

Nigerian literature is constantly drawing from the realities of the country's social processes in the finest tradition of protest art.

GRAPHIC: Photograph

Reviewed by Femi Folorunso in World Press Review, January 1993.

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