by Benson Eluma
I have cast around for how best to characterize Nigerian literature 50 years after Independence, and I have decided to settle for the Abiku motif. Abiku or Emere is the colleague of Ogbanje, and these are personages that have played central roles in Nigerian lore and literature. They have also enjoyed a respectable filmic presence, at least in recurrence of use if not in potency and beauty of treatment. There was this film titled ‘Abiku’ which was all the rage in the eighties. It won first prize in the Nigerian film festival held in the year it came out, or so I think. I was a little boy then, and was terribly in love with Tara, the Abiku in the film. She was beautiful and fascinating. But I couldn’t sleep at night because Tara and her entire coven always came for my soul at the witching hour. Yet I never tired of viewing the film whenever it was shown on NTA. A couple of years later, I was disappointed by Ogbanje in the TV serialization of Things Fall Apart. Okonkwo’s impatience with his Ogbanje daughter was not what I had expected from reading the book. Again, the damsel was beautiful, and I quickly developed a painful crush on her. But she lacked Tara’s promise of everything evil and forbidden veiled in a façade of sweetness and innocence.
There is always plenty that Ogbanje and Abiku have going for them. To thwart one’s adult minders, to make a mockery of adult games and severity, to bear a secret that torments everybody in the household, nay, the community, to have the power of coming and going as the spirit moves you—what more can a child desire! Abiku’s hold on me became final and unbreakable by the time I had memorized every line of Clark’s cadence and pathos and of Soyinka’s incantation and defiance. With Okri’s donation of that epiphany of his to world literature, Abiku became part of the toolkit for understanding the trouble that is Nigeria.
The claim can now be made that Abiku is not just a motif in our literature; it is not just source material for a good plot or subplot. That motif is also a barometer. One can use it to measure the literary and, indeed, literal temperament of major Nigerian writers and poets, from Tutuola through Achebe, Clark and Soyinka to Emecheta and Okri. These giants have not only used Abiku in their works, but have re-enacted stations of the passion of Abiku in their respective writing careers. You ask for proof? Recently, JP Clark has come to life all over again, taking his literary production from where he left it after the diminuendo of All For Oil. That crowds of the literati in Lagos and Ibadan have found much to enjoy anew in Clark’s oeuvre, which covers more than fifty years, is evidence of the Abiku qualities of both work and author.
Abiku’s logic is the supreme confrontation of life, and of death. It goes beyond what Mark Twain noted: ‘All say, “How hard it is that we have to die” —a strange complaint to come from the mouths of people who have had to live.’ Abiku says that we have to actively engage both life and death, not just accept them as they come to us. Life and death are things we have to do. This is an epic affirmation of Eros and Thanatos in the self-same breath. Nigerian literature in the past 50 years has displayed a wilful and headstrong nature like Abiku and Ogbanje. Part of its stock-in-trade over the five decades has been to wax strong and then feign death, sometimes so convincingly in terms of how corpse-like it would lie in state. But you could depend on it to suddenly resurrect after the criers have expended a deluge of tears and are deservedly expectant of ample helpings from the regulation feast. The funereal mood transmutes into a naming ceremony.
Lately though, with the sanitization of our conscience by certain influences, some of which I will identify below, there has been a waning of the Abiku live-die spirit in Nigerian literature. These days everybody is winning or awarding some writing prize or the other, and everybody out there who updates a blog considers her/himself a literary phenomenon. We now have a live-live situation in which nothing dies. Nobody wants to die and nobody wants to administer death. There is a timidity of approach in many of those who claim a literary vocation; there is a certain Christianly charity that preaches love for and peace with all men when we should be screaming for a frank reckoning, the kind of reckoning that deals death blows to any corpus that deserves to die for something more potent to be born in its place. Literature dies, and dies permanently without the infusion of a frank reckoning into the literary body politic. I need to make my point clearer. What I want to say is that we will be left with an impressive body of verbiage, and that is all we will have to gaze upon as the gatekeepers of the literary directorate in Nigeria disband the department of criticism, setting up in its place a claque of review writers whose job description should shame even Ovation magazine. The trend is there for all to observe. Just look at the review articles published in many Nigerian newspapers if you have that kind of long-suffering. Abiku’s powers of wilful death and wilful rebirth are lost once he is converted to the live-live logic which—and the paradox is indeed painful—results in permanent death for all at the end of the day.
The trouble with Abiku or Nigerian literature seems to have started in those dark days (we are still in the darkness, mind you) when publishing in Nigeria ran aground. The only people who could bring out books on a regular basis were plutocrats with a sense of their abject need to deceive posterity. The book launch became a recurrent potlatch where ‘big’ people gathered to exchange falsehoods about the glories of ‘The Life and Times of Chief or General XYZ’, and to endorse their falsehoods by buying two copies of the book—‘for my wife and my children’—at N500,000 apiece. The charade would not stop there. Some hack, who must have also ghosted the autobiography largely from imaginary materials, could be depended upon to write the required review for publication in the papers. The poor chap would throw all he had into the task, looking at ‘style’ and ‘narrative thrust’, ‘overall literary merit’ and even ‘the place of the work in the curriculum of the future’. It did not take much time for this business model to be adopted by writers who would have us believe that they are self-respecting and serious about their craft. Where is the colobus monkey that blames them too much? Writing had become the job of the mad and the hungry in Nigeria, and as the popular saying goes—‘Man must wack’. Writers with support and connexions in the plutocracy have benefited immensely from this business model. Chief or General XYZ is always there to ‘generously’ buy two copies—for the writer and the writer’s wife. Needless to say, such support does not come gratis. Every plutocrat in the country today has his official ghost, and most ‘big’ men are published writers, many of them filling up weekly columns in the papers with tripe from the overworked guts of their respective ghosts.
Part of the publicity for the work of the ‘serious’ writer who applies the book-launch business model is to have ‘promotional’ reviews written by fellow writers and circulated in the papers. These are often done in friendship, sometimes for a fee, always with the intention to peddle lies about imagined merits and brilliance. In this way the weed of mutualism has been sown and watered on Abiku’s stomping ground. And it has since taken over the entire expanse of territory occupied by the reviewing directorate, and has also spilled into the training grounds. In many a Nigerian secondary school and university, Lit. Crit. is now anathema, unfairly accused of impudence like the clitoris and then excised. Pupils are informed that literature is meant to be appreciated, not criticized. So we now have Literary Appreciation, that euphemism for mutual dependence on the live-live weed.
And the weed is even overgrowing into the expanse of territory occupied by Nigerian literature in the age of the Internet. One would have expected such new media as online publication to give back to Abiku, to Nigerian literature, the power of life and death. But the logic of live-live, the business model of the book launch, has so overwhelmed and tied down Nigerian literature that Abiku finds that its limbs are firmly earthed, even in virtual space. We can find examples of this dependence on the weed in some of the responses to Chris Ihidero’s review of Adaobi Nwaubani’s I Do Not Come to You by Chance. Chris more or less declared that some things must die. Many of the commentators, champions of live-and-let-live, crowed no. Humph! And yet there are much worse examples of what I am talking about. For instance, it is only in this situation of live-live mercantilism that a business-card litterateur like Wole Oguntokun would unashamedly style himself on Facebook as ‘Half-Nigerian; Half-Genius ©’ even though all he has ever brought to the stage is endlessly apish and/or driven by the craze to quickly seize and secure any niche or opening he can ferret out in the marketplace, e.g. his brilliant idea—The Tarzan Monologues. Compare what our writers were doing in the 1960s with much of what is being done today and you will begin to understand why I feel that this impresario needs to be chided. By all accounts, however, Oguntokun is an exemplar, so let me omit him from all of this.
Nothing dies anymore but the paradox, as I have said, is that everything faces certain death in this new eschatology. After 50 years, in which period there has been much to celebrate and regret, we need to realize that death and rebirth enter literature through criticism. Maybe I exaggerate in much of what I have said. But our Abiku is too alive, if I may further exploit the conceit. Abiku is now content with the live-live business model. Abiku is no longer the delinquent looking for things to steal and hearts to break. Abiku is that besuited corporate executive who knows that image is everything; he gives to others so that he can receive from them. Abiku is no longer the errant kid. That kid has been demobilized into adult gentility. No longer capable of going away and then coming back in renewed capacity to fascinate and task the household, this adult has a largeness of heart, an expansive spirit. He has fallen in love with life and earthen encumbrances, and now repudiates death—thereby losing the gift of rebirth. Thus all kinds of works are guaranteed stardom and a stretch of life, even those ones that are actually stillborn. Everything gets numbered in the living canon. This is not magic; it is dormancy, torpor. It is a pretence that some things are living when they are in reality long dead. It is a farcical tragedy of the commons in which many animals that can’t even digest grass are allowed into the grazing field on a daily basis.
There should be some death so that there can be more life. I am tired of hearing variations on Mark Twain’s ‘Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated’ in relation to every work by a Nigerian writer. I don’t know about you but I would love to witness for a change the killing cry at some of those glitzy Lagos venues where much of what passes for Nigerian literature is celebrated. Then and only then will I scream: Happy Independence Abiku! Right now there is just too much dependence on the live-live weed.