AWAAL GATA talks to Femi Osofisan, an internationally acclaimed playwright, scholar, poet, novelist, actor, director, songwriter and activist, on the 40th anniversary of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA)
It is the 40th years of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA). Has creative arts relaxed their powers as tools for securing social justice and equity for the helpless? Are writers doing enough to wade into the threats of political and geographical integrity of the common Nigerians?
A rather complicated question, I must say, although it looks simple on the surface. Did the creative arts relax their potency as a tool for socio-political protest? By which I think you are asking if our artists, and writers specifically, have become less vocal, less committed, less involved in the fight for social justice in our country? In a sense I would answer that, perhaps ‘yes’. We see less and less of the vociferous agitators of, say, a decade or two ago, when the Ofeimuns, Osundares, Obafemis, Jeyifos, and others were younger and the Marxist ideology was in vogue. Since then, as you know, the world has changed considerably around us.
First of all, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and so on, ushered in a new dispensation in which a vicious kind of capitalism became universally dominant. With practically everyone scrambling for money, and every big nation (including even China) piling up arms and carving out new colonies among the poor, while viciously depleting the environment, you can understand that the focus of popular political agitation would shift inevitably. And there are also the revolutionary innovations in communication technology, which have affected the book publishing industry significantly and turned the bulk of the audience away from reading books to audio-visual channels.
Add to all these the specific problems of our country — the chaos of governance that has followed the end of thirty years of calamitous military rule, the alienation of our youth in the face of mass unemployment and a bleak future, the rise and proliferation of cynical evangelists and fraudsters, etc. If you also tally in the current raging pandemic, you will see that we have come to an age when all the old assurances have exploded, and everybody more or less has been cast adrift. And art cannot but reflect that incoherence.
It is a fact that, as our society grows more and more illiterate, our aspiring writers have in response increasingly expatriated themselves. Sadly, the impression you get is that our writers are ceasing to write for our people, for the local audience, and turned instead to seeking their readers abroad. The reality however is that this is where the market is nowadays. It is where the genius of a Chimamanda, or a Jude Idada, can flourish to its plenitude.
Every writer wants to write and be published. He or she wants to write and sell the product. Yet the local market, that was not very big anyway in the first case, has shrunk even further, so severely in fact that readers have become scarce and publishers reluctant to risk their funds on creative works especially by unknown newcomers.
As a result the local problems and what we may think are the pressing concerns of our country at the moment fade away from the central focus of the writer’s attention, and shift instead to the margin, if they are ever mentioned at all. Instead, the new themes that occupy the imaginative space are those relating to the problems of exile and expatriation, the travails of the migrant settling in new places and struggling to find acceptance among hostile hosts or fellow strangers.
This is no doubt the most significant reason why, as you say, the present writers seem no longer concerned with ‘social justice and equity for the helpless’, and why the older writers who remain so preoccupied sound tired and antiquated. In this situation however, I think we must accept for a while to be compensated by the upsurge of what is called ‘Performance Poetry’, which I believe is very popular among contemporary youth. Uche Chukwumerije is an example here. And you must as well add the spectacular rise of the new hip-hop phenomenon, inspired by the late Fela, as a channel of social and political advocacy where the youth are able to voice their anger.
You are amongst the few founding members of ANA still alive from inception in June, 1981, and were also its President in the early vibrant days. Comparing ANA then and now, how would you describe the association?
This question will also need a long response, if you don’t mind. There have been both positive and negative developments since those early beginnings, of course. In those days, we were very few, and there was really sincere interest in creativity as well as genuine appreciation of talents. When Achebe summoned us to Nsukka, it was to encourage us to come together to further the cause of literature, to form a forum of kindred minds where we would discuss our arts and fight for its recognition as an essential preoccupation in national affairs in a context of conspicuous official philistinism.
We had virtually no money then; officials had to work from their own pockets; and all our activities, including especially our annual gatherings, had to be funded through solicitations to private organisations. Yes, private bodies exclusively, since almost everybody had a tacit accord that government funding was potentially toxic, that official sponsorship of any kind would inevitably commit us to the support of government policies. After all, writers and artists, as we saw it, were the voice of the people and so, could not be friends of the government. At least not of the kind of rapacious, kleptomaniac governments that we have been having since Independence. The evidence is there in the history of repeated coups d’état of that epoch.
Anyway, what I am trying to say is that ANA was a small, impecunious but fiercely independent body in those days. There were no membership fees, for instance. Books sold slowly or rarely, as they still do, and many of us were just ambitious tyros, and those who held positions then did so largely as an act of self-sacrifice. But writers had a lot of respect and admiration among the general public—no doubt because of names like Achebe and Soyinka and Clark—and because of that, we were always able to find tolerably adequate funding for our activities from sympathetic donors.
But you can see straightaway how far ANA has traveled since then, and how different the situation has become nowadays. ANA’s trajectory only mirrors the familiar story of all organisations in Nigeria that I am familiar with. At the beginning, when the body is still young and struggling, you will encounter a lot of excitement, of adventurousness, of innocence and even, of touching naivety. Then the organisation begins to grow, to expand, and as it attracts more hands the fall ironically begins. The organisation becomes the victim of its own success. It is strange but true. This was for instance my experience at The Guardian. Almost fatally, the success of organisations turns out to be the very seed of their decline. Hence, as the years passed, and ANA began to attract more prestige, more and more members came on board. Soon, state chapters were born and the tussle for official positions began, growing increasingly frantic, and more cantankerous. In order to win positions, candidates began to encourage dubious characters into the membership in order to strengthen their voting base, just as the politicians do outside. The definition of who a writer is became very elastic, and closeness to ministers and/or state governors, for financial benefits, became de rigeur. Consequently therefore, ANA began to lose its ability to act as the champion of the people’s cause, to be the conscience of the society. In many states now, you will find that ANA has invariably allowed itself to become an organ of the establishment, of the very body that it is supposed to watch and criticise on behalf of the people.
It is particularly worrisome that the virus that has infected everything in recent years, this noxious disease of materialism that has eaten into the very heart of society everywhere, has found writers just as sadly vulnerable. Our members have proved to be just as eager as others to participate in the gross, unashamed scramble for cash that has corroded everything, using their talent as bait.
Unfortunately, as you know, our society is still for the most part an oral, and not a reading, society. Indeed the statistics of the number of people who unable to read or write in this country, in this 21st century, is simply alarming. We were just emerging, as it were, from an oral age and struggling to enter into the literate tradition, when new developments in information technology came and made print literacy subordinate to the audio-visual media. I am referring here specifically to the Internet and the growth of the social media, which have become not only immensely popular and accessible to the masses, but also provided many now with a happy excuse to remain illiterate.
As a consequence of this, as you know, the small and fledgling readership that was just in the bud dwindled much further, and the publishing market for creative writers virtually collapsed. Since publishing is a commercial business, and creative writing is not lucrative, publishers lost interest in it. Most aspiring writers soon found that, to get into print at all, they have to foot the bill themselves. This is what is responsible for the phenomenon of self-publishing, self-marketing, and self-promotion which some decry. In turn, it has led to the fierce scramble among writers for prizes, from which they hope to recuperate at least a part of their investment.
But the problem is this, that where the writer’s gaze is focussed on the monetary reward and on pandering to the taste of judges, he or she will cease to be eager or even inclined at all to champion socio-political causes. Nor can we blame them for this. it is the simple law of economic survival from which none of us can claim exemption. For some time, it is true, the university-based writer and academic seemed able to cope, in the sense of being able to ride above this general financial diktat. But you all know what has happened in recent years, when even the salaries of university teachers became impossible to guarantee.
The result of this overall economic instability is what we are seeing now, sadly, in ANA’s loss of innocence. The association has hence been invaded by all kinds of mercenaries, all sorts of touts and prétendants who are only interested in using the association as a stepping stone to personal wealth and fame. They have no interest whatsoever in promoting any humanistic vision or ideal, or in ideological struggles. These are the ones responsible for the current tensions and fracas within the organization. But they must be resisted—and indeed are being resisted—by those who still believe in the humanizing goals of art.
You are the first African to be awarded the prestigious Thalia Prize in 2016, by International Association of Theater Critics and the only playwright dead or alive to write more than 60 plays and still going. What are the do’s and don’ts for upcoming writers?
FLet me first clarify the part about numbers. It can’t be true, and I don’t believe that I am the only one to have written as many plays. You see, there are numerous people writing in the country, many that you are probably not aware of, some of whom churn out several plays per week. The late Stella Oyedepo for instance had almost up to two hundred scripts in her locker, a fact unknown till I sent one of my graduate students to study her work. Of course we proptly encouraged her to start publishing them. And then also, how many plays do you think the irrepressible Ahmed Yerima has written? What of the many who teach in the secondary schools, and so on? So, numbers are not, should not, be the issue. Prolificity does not translate spontaneously to profundity. Let us take our attention away from quantity, and focus instead on quality. Let us be more demanding on our playwrights on the value of their work, on such attributes as the depth or otherwise of their vision, the brilliance and innovative ingenuity of their craftsmanship, the iconoclastic daring of their challenge to the inherited tradition, such things, than on the mere volume of their output.
Which is why the Thalia award was so important to me, as it should be to all of us in the country. That such an important body of experts from all over the world could locate me here in Nigeria where I have done most of my work, and placed me in the category of such theatre legends as Eric Bentley, Jean-Pierre Sarrazac, Richard Schechner and Eugenio Barba, and so on, who have al been honoured in the past, was like an impossible dream. I mean, just think of it! For days I confess, I was in a cloud! Furthermore, the fact that I was the very first on this continent to be so recognized is a landmark in any one’s career, one of which I will always be proud. It is a pity that our nation itself is shamefully indifferent to such achievement, unless it comes with a hefty monetary prize. But, at the risk of sounding immodest, it ias an award that I cherish above all others except of course the Nigerian National Order of Merit that I received some years earlier.
In the sixties, seventies and even eighties, Nigeria became the African factory for great literature: poetry, prose and drama. Outstanding works and promising great authors were coming out from the country. What is happening now? 40 years after ANA was formed to bring these vibrant writers together as a body and expand their world view and create an enabling environment, the case is not the same?
Well, I think the answer to this can be found already in some of the answers I gave above.
First of all, I think it will be merely fanciful to compare the society we have nowadays to that of the last decades of the last century. Things have changed considerably for the worse on all fronts. The economy for instance has been so badly managed by our leaders that the scale of mass poverty and squalor among us has escalated beyond belief. Correspondingly violence and insecurity, avarice and callousness, and predatory religiosity have grown in immense proportions. In a situation where the majority have been driven into a desperate daily fight to earn a livelihood, it is clear that literature and art will not have eager patrons and cannot flourish.
I know that I have said, elsewhere, that from historical evidence, chaos and incoherence have been the catalysts for the flowering of the creative impulse. But perhaps I should have added that it is not those engaged right in the cauldron of the battle who are so empowered. It is, rather, those who survive to tell the story, the generation afterwards. Like we see nowadays with the children of Biafra. Where Achebe for instance became shell-shocked, so to say, to the point of muteness, his ‘daughters’ so to say, writers like Akachi Ezeigbo, or Chimamanda Adichie, have on the other hand been fervently vocal.
In the same vein, I think we can say that we are all now entrapped within the suffocating webs of contemporary crisis to the extent that it has been almost impossible to free ourselves to dream, to carve out like our predecessors any lofty ideals out of our predicament. We may need to wait for another decade or a new generation entirely to experience the exciting literary renaissance you are pining for.
Writers these days try very hard to find sincere outlets to publish their works through conventional means and have to resort to self publishing, promotion and distribution. As Chairman ANA advisory council, what do you think is the way forward?
Well, this is not in the mandate of the Advisory Council really, so what I have to say can only be in my own personal capacity. And as you may have inferred from what I have said so far, I think the resort to self-publishing is both a negative and positive development. The negative part is that self-publishing bypasses the normal processes of publishing, in which for instance the work is subjected to editing and critical assessment before it is brought out. Many of the works we see therefore are invariably full of elementary errors—wrong spellings, grammatical howlers, faulty punctuations, etc—plus sometimes even the untidy numbering of pages and the design of the books themselves, with unattractive covers. Concerning the story itself, you will find superfluous material sometimes, improbable endings, unwieldly sequences or incoherent plots, flaws that a good editing would normally help eliminate. Such a pity then that most of our output now does not benefit from this critical midwifing process, and most of the so-called ‘publishers’ are merely printers with no more than a ‘garbage in-garbage out’ mentality. Happily, though, a few are beginning to emerge with the desired professional proficiency, but they are still pitifully inadequate.
However, as I said, there is a positive side to this faulty situation, and this is that it at least helps to provide the writer an outlet and a personal sense of accomplishment. I must say that I am constantly impressed by the zeal of our people to get into print, by any means in order to have their thoughts and their stories recorded. Many would go through any pain to raise the money themselves, not even minding to go into debt, to pay some publisher to oblige them and help realize their dream. Hence, with this kind of prevailing enthusiasm, this widespread, overwhelming bug to write and be published, the field of literary activity has been kept active and alive only by the boon of self-publishing. Some new author is thus born every day, almost hourly; new works of poetry or fiction or drama or (auto)biography are churned out irrepressibly in every corner of our country and with such frenzied frequency that no one can keep track of them anymore. You will be right to say that it has become an all-commers’ market, noisy with all kinds of crap, of course. But I harbour no fear—in the end, I’m sure, the good will be separated from the chaff and the talented authors will come to stand out from the crowd. This is why I consider self-publishing expedient for the growth of our literature.
The theater used to be the hub of people in Nigeria, theaters used to be filled to the brim with eager audience awaiting stage plays. These days it’s film industry that’s making wave and getting global ovation. What happened along the way?
You are right about the decline of the theatre patronage, and I can’t deny that it worries me as an active practitioner. But it is not only in Nigeria, you see. The film medium, as you know, has several possibilities of enchantment that the theatre cannot match. I don’t have to list them for you. One of these advantages for instance is that a spectator can stay anywhere he or she pleases, slot in a film, and enjoy it all by him- or herself. Or invite friends for them to watch together. They can pause or rewind the film wherever they wish, or replace it with another one, all without leaving the comfort of their room. Besides, the film also offers a more expansive scope for narrative experimentation. One single film can take you through several exotic locations in a few seconds, present a diverse cast of characters from a wide variety of époques and loci in enchantingly arresting costumes. The theatre is obviously limited in these areas, and these limitations make it an inferior medium of entertainment to the film consumer. All these limit the theatre’s scale of competitiveness vis-à-vis the film.
Particularly at this kind of period, when the covid-19 pandemic imposes isolation, against the gathering of large crowds in an enclosed space, the film would seem the ideal form of entertainment for people.
In such circumstances, the special attraction of the theatre, which is its enhancement of the communal spirit by assembling crowds in a single space, has become a sudden disadvantage, a liability. This is a factor we used to hold dear and boast about. Unlike the film where actors and spectators may never meet, the two are in active physical relationship in the theatre. The presence of live spectators right before the actor, actively participating in the action, interacting with him or her, gives the actor a certain challenge that the film cannot do. It is like a religious service of collective response.
All the same, I do not give up. Man, and in particular, the African Man, is a gregarious creature. Our humanity cannot endure too much isolation. It is in groups, together with others, that we thrive. Therefore the theatre cannot die, and will in the end find a means to survive.
What rapid change can ANA bring to be as the largest writers body in Africa to increase the few books that get to the reading public and elevate the demeaning love for literature in the country?
Again, I would be chary of that claim of being the largest body of writers in Africa or not. Nor does it matter anyway. Especially as it is clear also that ANA was a much more vibrant body when it was smaller and could concentrate more on its primary purpose of nurturing literature. As for increasing the number of books that get to the reading public, I am not sure it can do more than it has been doing so far. It has fought hard to attract prizes from several organizations for writers, and to use the media for book reviews and announcements in order to give publicity to publications, performances and book launchings. ANA chapters also organize regular meetings for members to introduce their works and discuss developments in the field. Some chapters also organize visits to educational institutions, charity homes, and so on, for literary encounters and drama shows.
Also, with one of our former Presidents now occupying the position of the Secretary General of PAWA in Accra, you can see a spectacular increase already in these activities, through the use of the Internet.
As I said earlier, it is this growth in visibility that, ironically, has attracted mercenaries into the organization. It is inevitable. All human organizations are susceptible to infiltration by these ambitious forces, and self-seeking interests, as they grow and expand. But I am optimistic, I believe that as time goes on, these negative forces will be gradually weeded out, and those with genuine interest in literature will regain control.
Finally Sir, most young writers these days compromise standards and originality of their art; they write with borrowed culture and tongues. What could be the cause of this trend?
It is the same thing again, my friend: no other reason than the inexorable law of the market, as I’ve explained above. Aspiring authors watch very carefully what is selling abroad, interpret this as being the stuff that the market wants, and then proceed to imitate, so as to become successful too. And sometimes these pastiches do sell in fact. So this is not likely to stop until we ourselves are able to create a society with a comfortable indigenous middle class who will be consumers of our literature. Or else, initiate programmes here that will deliberately encourage and promote local productivity, say by sponsoring and supporting local authors. Otherwise the situation you describe, of producing shameless parodies, will not, I’m afraid, change in any way. But still, with all this bleak atmosphere, I will urge us all not to give up, but to continue to live in hope of better times.