Your first choice is Ken Saro-Wiwa, A Month and a Day.
This is an account of Ken Saro-Wiwa’s time in prison. He spent a month and a day in prison in 1993. He recorded the daily occurrences during that time.
Why was he in prison?
Well, he was arrested by the military government for what they called his part in electoral disturbances. But the beauty of the book is that after the opening section, the introductory moment where he was arrested, the book takes you back into the history of his involvement with the pro democracy movement and with his role in setting up the movement for the survival of the Ogoni people (MOSOP). The Ogoni people were fighting, and still are fighting, against the destruction of the environment in their land. So that is the real reason why he was arrested.
Can you explain why he is such an important figure in Nigeria?
He was a writer, an essayist and a dramatist – he was so prolific. And during the 1980s there was his popular TV programme called Bassey and Company – everybody watched it. This was mainly light-hearted comedy. Then gradually he became more political. I guess with the formation of the movement for the survival of the Ogoni people he began to confront the government more directly. We had a military dictatorship in the 1990s.
So for me what makes him important is that he didn’t just talk about things in his writing, he also exemplified what he believed. He accepted the consequences and he spoke out without fear. You can’t help but respect that kind of commitment; and in the end he was killed for his beliefs. He was hanged by the military government. When you take into account that he could have kept quiet, or even joined the status quo, or gone into exile, you realise how courageous he must have been. You realise how important the land must have been to him and how seriously he took his duty to give back something after all his success. This kind of thing, this exemplary courage, still goes on, so this is a very interesting example of what some African writers go through.
Your next choice is Aké: The Years of Childhood by Wole Soyinka.
This is one of Wole Soyinka’s earlier memoirs. He chose a moment in his childhood, from when he was four to when he was 11 and he represented that. He wrote in the voice of an adult – Wole Soyinka, and he was able to capture the magic of childhood and his growing up and the complexity that he faced in a changing culture, the emerging Western culture encroaching on the traditional African culture. He shows how things gradually started to change. And the older he gets, of course, the more changes there are.
He uses particular tropes such as family, commerce, etc, to develop this theme of change. So, for example, using an institution like religion. His mother is called Wild Christian in the book, which exemplifies her total commitment to her religious belief. And then you have the church itself, the parsonage, which is just next door to the Soyinkas’ compound, and you see how it interacts with the other side of the town, which is animist and African. There is this symbolic demarcation between the Christian and the traditional. And later in the book there is this growing nostalgia, a lament about the modern taking over from the traditional. Well, not totally taking over, but hybridising it, changing it irrevocably. Another interesting part of the book is how his father, called Essay in the book and who is a headmaster at the local school, pushes him to get a Western education. And through this process we notice the young Soyinka changing, dualising mentally
One other thing he uses very well is the Second World War. The book is set in the 1930s and 1940s, and, without overtly mentioning the war, you still have references to Hitler and the soldiers passing through the village. War is perhaps the best metaphor a writer can use to signify change, cataclysmic change. So you really understand about the West’s influence on his childhood.
What makes Wole Soyinka stand out as one of your top Nigerian writers?
He is first and foremost a dramatist who has written some memoirs. This makes him a master of scene and dialogue and characterisation and, of course, language. In this book, especially, the language is amazing. He is a poet and in every sentence, every page, you get the sense of smell and wonder and imagery. Description is alive in every line. Every sentence is well thought out, well written.
Ben Okri is next up on your list with Dangerous Love.
Actually, this is the second manifestation of this particular story. He first wrote this story under the title Landscapes Within, his second novel, in 1981. Then he rewrote it as Dangerous Love in the 1990s after he had won the Booker Prize. He said after the first version he continued to feel haunted by the story, by the feeling that the book wasn’t complete. And I think he actually manages to complete the story with this book.
It is the story of a young painter, Omovo, who lives in a compound in Nigeria. He is trying to make sense of the environment around him, the oppression, poverty and corruption. His father is a very harsh man, who is feeling emasculated by his current wife. Omovo is in love with his neighbour’s young wife. So all this is going on in this novel and Okri handles it brilliantly. The main story is about Omovo’s escape through his art, his painting. Through this he is able to express his inner protest. He is very young and during the book you see his growing consciousness about what is going on around him. As the name of the first version suggests, it is a book about exploring one’s inner landscape, about refection, about bringing order to the daily chaos around. The setting is the 1970s, just after the Nigerian civil war, so you have that militaristic echo, a feeling of violence in the air, forming a backdrop of oppression and violence which is threatening to Omovo’s art. Okri describes it all beautifully, suggestively, through vivid imagery and metaphors.
Okri is amongst a group of exceptional writers that have come out of Nigeria. What do you think it is about Nigeria that inspires such great novels?
Well, Nigeria has a tradition of storytelling. People grow up listening to stories for entertainment. Before we were over taken by TV and video games it was very much part of our culture to tell stories. And this tradition still persists on the streets… you will see people spend hours just talking to each other! In everything they do there is a sense of performance and I think you grow up with that mentality, so lots of people go on to become writers. And, of course, extraordinary things also happen, so you have lots of material. But all this wouldn’t produce writers if you don’t have that sense of wonder, a way of looking at the world and trying to make sense of it by arranging it into a story.
As for Ben Okri, the reason I think he stands out is his ability to give you direct access to the innermost feelings of his characters – he cares about them, he understands them, and he is able to make you see that. It is a rare talent. It comes across so clearly in his stories.
Your last two choices are both by Chinua Achebe. Let’s start with Home and Exile, which is based on three lectures he gave at Harvard.
He is a brilliant narrator. He can say anything and he will captivate you and you will listen. He is a great performer. Here he is writing about the confrontation between Western culture and the traditional culture and he gives you a historical framework in these essays – but he does it in a very personal way. One of the titles of the essays is ‘My Home under Imperial Fire’ where he talks about the advent of the colonial administration in Nigeria and how this aided, and indeed rode on the back of, misrepresentations of the African in literary accounts of early European travellers, etc. He particularly singles out Conrad and Joyce Carey as being the latest manifestation of that long tradition. And in another essay, ‘The Empire Fights Back’, he talks about the emerging literary works from former colonised territories, Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana, etc – leading towards what he calls a balance of stories. These are recurring themes in all of his writing. Even in his latest collection of essays, The Education of a British Protected Child, he returns to those themes. But, such is his genius for narrative he never bores. He is a brilliant essayist.
With everything going on in Nigeria at the moment including the death of the president and the unrest in Jos there must be lots of fresh writing coming out.
Yes, things are always happening and you have to write about them to make sense of them. We have some younger writers coming through. It is hard for me, being based in the US, to be on top of it all. But one follows what is going on in the papers. I know that a young lady, Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani, just won the Commonwealth Prize for Literature. She wrote about the notorious Nigerian email scams. I haven’t read the book yet. And other people are writing about the Niger Delta troubles. These are topical issues that people living there are trying to make sense of. Nigeria is a society in transformation. It is changing politically and sociologically and that, of course, has its effect on the people.
What about your final book, Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe.
It almost feels like a cliché to say that this is one of my favourite books. But there is no way you can escape this book. It is such a part of African literature. It is an inescapable classic. It is a brilliant feat of storytelling, the economy of it, the brevity, the imagery, the ear he has for the traditional language.
This is the story of Okonkwo, one of the chiefs in the village who rose from poverty and becomes one of the leading figures. He is a leader and local wrestling champion in Umuofia, a fictional group of nine villages in Nigeria, inhabited by the Igbos. He tries to stick to the tradition that he knows and is hopeless when confronted with the modern. He cannot wrap his mind around change in the form of the British and the missionaries and ultimately he is destroyed by that. Even though it is a tragic story you are still captivated by it.
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Helon Habila is an award-winning Nigerian novelist and poet.
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