A poet’s work is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it (from) going to sleep.
May we, for a moment, discard the epigraph above and reflect on the poser: who is a writer and what are their obligations to the society other than the creation of fictions? As we ruminate on this, may I warn against such cliché of a writer being the conscience of the society without a veritable justification? No doubt, the position of a writer, as the conscience of the society, is a fact well too known, not only in this part of the world but in the entire literary universe.
In his 1980s essay titled Literary Criticism in the Nigerian Context, Abiola Irele argued that the only justification of literary criticism, as a profession in a developing country like Nigeria, is in its ability to relate literature to social significance. What exactly is the focused point here? The point is simply that if a critic, a secondary voice on literary products, is tasked to establish the nexus between literature and the society in his critical endeavours, then it becomes even more obligatory for a writer to be society-sensitive at all times. After all, a writer writes for the critic to reflect and interpret.
Perhaps if we are to use the models put forth by Salman Rushdie in the epigraph above, we may have to journey back to the early days of literature in Nigeria, before we can think of individuals worthy of being regarded altogether as writers; I mean writers in the literary space. No attempt is made here to downplay the panache of creativity in the current crop of Nigerian writers. No. After all, Achebe had before death delivered to us a replica of self in an Adichie that he said had come almost fully made.
Obviously, Adichie’s narrative finesse has held readers to awe since she launched her career into the fictional world; and the writer has not in any way whittled in style. There are the thriving Chika Unigwe, Sefi Atta, Lola Soneyin, Helon Habila, whose narrative impulses are no less piercing as those of the masters. We also have the flourishing Soji Cole and other fledgling playwrights, soaring in the drama genre. Our emergent poets are not floundering in creativity either.
However, it will be critically profane to put this new generation of writers on the eminent row with those of the earlier days. Why? The reason is not in the 1986 Nobel laureateship of Wole Soyinka, nor the Booker Laurel of Chinua Achebe. No. The difference is simply in the devotion of one generation to the society beyond the production of fictions, and remoteness of the other from it.
Whether any one agrees or not, the nexus between literature and society which, as we have often read, was the hallmark of literary engagements in this country in the 60s, 70s, till the late 90s, has now been broken by the remoteness of our contemporary writers from the immediate social and political concerns in our society. In the past, the relationship between the writers and the society was beyond the I-write-and-you-read literary tradition being practised by today’s writers.
For instance, according to a critical review, Achebe’s novel, A Man of the People, conveyed a more vivid sense of the situation in the country in the turbulent years of the first republic than all the political and sociological studies of that period put together. Yet, Achebe did not go to sleep because of this single fictional achievement. He was not deterred from furthering his social responsibilities to the nation through his non-fictional writings. His social remarks and critical reflection on the immediate matters in Nigeria produced a collection of essays, Morning Yet on Creation Day, and one political commentary, The Image of Africa and the Trouble with Nigeria in the 1970s alone.
Less cannot be said of Wole Soyinka, the maverick and literary enigma whose blend of literary and social activism is resonantly echoed in the memoire, Ibadan: The Penkelemes Years. Soyinka’s involvements in the nation and the people’s politics, especially in the gory years of the Biafran Civil War are not hidden to all. Frank Aig-Imokhuede was another of the lot. Known for his delight-and-teach satirical penmanship, Imokhuede’s social criticism thrived in the worst days of the military, when his satirical column in the Vanguard newspaper was always a pain in the arse of the green gods.
Same was (and still is) the case with the Marxist duo of Biodun Jeyifo and Niyi Osundare, both still actively involved in the big social issues of the country, in spite of their respective distances away from home, as well as their academic and literary occupations. But this is not the case with the contemporary generation of writers in Nigeria. And one only wonders why these writers are so detached from the society they profess to project in their fictions.
Recently, some social media pseudo-activists went all out to descend heavily on Wole Soyinka. Without any reason other than that the old man had not mooted on the goings-on in the country, the critics took Soyinka to the gallows of social persecution. And this was the same Soyinka whose social political involvements had started at Government College, Apataganga, as a high school student. It was the same Wole Soyinka who would endure many months of solitary confinement for challenging the Nigerian military government to cease fire with the Biafran secessionists. This is not so with our contemporary writers.
It seems to me our contemporary writers are unaware that their social obligations are beyond the fictional creations of realities. They appear obviously oblivious of the unsworn oath of a writer as the pointer of frauds, starter of arguments and “waker” of the society from socio-political limbo. They seem to have forgotten the fulfilment of a writer’s social cause is not and cannot be wholly achieved in fictions, because fiction is sometimes too remote a cure for social matters at times needing urgent responses. A writer must get involved in the real public debates, while making his voice heard in the interest of the people.
Perhaps, among the many writers of our time, Adichie has been the relatively regular voice on the relevant issues relating to the country; but her social contribution has never transcended the justification of man-woman equality, until her recent mixed fortunes of library clapback and postcolonial gaffe during the Paris Night of Ideas. Our writers must fully get involved in the serious matters of social concerns.
There is the queerness in the administrative indifference of the Nigerian government to the gory adventures of the Fulani herdsmen in most part of the country. Innocent Nigerians are butchered by the day without check. We have heard of the ingenious innovation of happiness and fulfilment Ministry by a governor, to the mockery of the discontented members of the state. Today, we are being fed with a larger-than-Beckett’s absurdist spectacles of cash-hungry python land.
These are the major issues which should have taken the front burner in the daily reflections of conscientious writers. Sometimes, when writers respond to social matters, follies are quickly called to cuffs. We do not have to wait for fictional publications, before we discuss the matters that matter. One only questions the social sensibility of our contemporary writers that every social reality seems to pass them by. Or to use the poser of Osundare, are our writers no longer part of this earth?
There was no internet facility that connected Chinua Achebe to the world in the 1960s and 70s; yet he did not fail in his periodic projection of the gory story of the Biafran people to the world. He wrote to the public and engaged in social debates to achieve his writer’s obligation to the society. He did not end it on fictional pages; he knew such would be too parasitic of him as a writer. Now the world has even been turned into a global hamlet, where no civilised creature can pretend to be incognizant of the happenings in the remotest part of the world. But to our utter dismay, our West-bound writers have been the farthest from their society, the same society whose reading patronage they enjoy away from home.
Before I bring this essay to conclusion, permit me to invoke the South African poet, Dennis Brutus, to help remind our contemporary writers that escape to parasitic relationship disgusts. There is no basis for diasporic heroism, under the pretext of the Afropolitanist movement. It is not enough that they mouth their social sensibilities abroad without meaning them at home. They have to be truly committed to the society from which they enjoy readership patronage.
I am not asking writers to play the daredevil Soyinka by going to a broadcasting house to snatch the broadcaster’s speech; and I am not asking them to jostle from country to country like Achebe to advance a Biafran cause. So what is the sermon being preached here? It is simply that our contemporary writers should be truly sensitive and socially committed – not only in fiction, but also in reality. The Soyinkas have served for long. They need to be relieved.
Akin Oseni is a graduate of the Department of English, University of Ibadan.
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