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Prof. Chinedum Nwajiuba, AE-FUNAI VC

Putting literary criticism in the public space at Alex Ekwueme Federal University, Ndufu Alike

Prof. Chinedum Nwajiuba, AE-FUNAI VC
Denja Abdullahi, ANA President
Prof. Ernest Emenyonu

There was once a time when literary criticism occupied public space in Nigerian newspapers with popular pullouts like Guardian Literary Series and Post Express Literary Supplement. They are no more. Worse still, upcoming writers are oftentimes denied access to relevant theories that could enhance their creative effort if they don’t belong in the academia. At a recent literary conference in Abakaliki, the Association of Nigerian Authors, ANA, in partnership with Alex Ekwueme Federal University, has taken a bold step in bringing literary criticism to the public domain. Michael Jimoh was there… 

Literary conferences mean different things to different people. If you don’t much care for the hundred and one theories professors, writers and critics swear and live by, it isn’t such a bad place to nod off in-between yawns while talk on post-colonial this and post-colonial that sail overhead. But if you are a professional student of Literature or English with a bias for writing hoping to be taken seriously as a writer, you are sure to pay attention for much of the time the conference will last.

So it was with students of Department of English and Literary Studies, Alex Ekwueme Federal University, Ndufu Alike, for two days starting from Tuesday, July 2 to Wednesday, July 3 in the main auditorium of the campus. Home to Nkwagu Military Cantonment, Ndufu Alike is the host community of one of the newest universities in the entire South-East. It is about half an hour’s drive by car from Abakaliki, capital of Ebonyi state. Majority of the students reside off campus, which means they commute to and from school every lecture day.

A month before the literary conference cum workshop commenced, students and teachers had publicized the event through campaigns, word of mouth, level by level in related departments. Add those who must have done that through several platforms on the social media and you will understand why the hall was impressively filled when the program began on Tuesday morning. It also helped that they were exempted from classes for those two days.

It helped even more that, instead of listening to lecturers droning on about routine topics that could become soporific, there were half a dozen or so professors around they’d heard of and read their works but never seen in person. There were many more writers from across Nigeria to update them on the latest literary trends, the importance of criticism to creative writing, how to or not to become creative writers and the role of digital media in all of that.

One professor came in from America. Another flew in from Lagos. As with the students and lecturers of the school, all of them would have looked forward to being part of a conference themed: “Nigeria’s Literary Criticism in an Expanding Space of Creative Writing and Digital Production in the 21st Century.”

Above all, it was dedicated to Professor Pius Adebola Adesanmi whose tragic death occurred aboard an Ethiopian Airline on March 10 this year.

Adesanmi was professor of African Studies at Carleton University, Canada, and an intellectual superstar following the footsteps of pioneer African writers and academics such as Achebe, Clark, Kane, Okpewor, Senghor, Soyinka, Wa thiong o, etc.

More important, Adesanmi was, in the words of one writer and admirer, “a public intellectual who transcended the formal academic space and used the digital platform to reach a wider audience of fellow scholars, students and the general public.”

The theme could not have been more fitting, considering the late scholar’s versatility as a writer and critic who used all that modern technology could offer to broaden his intellectual base and followership. It was thus appropriate that before the end of the opening day of the Conference , a special panel was held on the works of Pius Adesanmi as a public intellectual, moderated by Dr Ezechi Onyieronwu and which featured Dr Amanze Akpuda of Abia State University and Dr Onyebuchi Nwosu of Federal University , Ndufu -Alike Ikwo.

But why another literary conference so close to the annual convention hosted and organized by the Association of Nigerian Authors which will hold this October?

As the president of ANA, Mallam Denja Abdullahi himself put it, “the conference is to bridge the gap in the criticism of contemporary Nigerian literature, where critics would be encouraged to give rigorous attention to contemporary literature, make young scholars acquire some critical tools they can use in their lifelong career and to make criticism more popular in the public space.”

Begun only last year, the conference is his brain child. Soon after Abdullahi was elected president of the writers’ body, he promised to “unbundle the annual convention” by having such meetings at least once a year in relatively young federal universities willing to partner with the association.

Alex Ekwueme Federal University, Ndufu Alike (AE-FUNAI) readily welcomed Abdullahi’s idea, pitched, first of all, to Professor GMT Emezue, Dean Faculty of Humanities last year who, in turn, told the Vice Chancellor, Professor Chinedum Nwajiuba. This is the second of such conference in the school since last June. The way it is, it should be a continuous programme as long as ANA is willing, post-Abdullahi’s tenure as president.

“This programme has taken its own life and anybody that comes will have to continue with it,” Mallam Abdullahi told me. “It is also good that in a non-profit making association, when you change the departing leadership, always link it to the incoming one because they should be able to continue with the good thing that your predecessor has left for you.”

Very well said, for the association itself will meet this October in Enugu to elect new executive officers to run its affairs for the next two years. Having such readymade projects is a plus for those in a profession other people praise less for their administrative savvy than their writerly skills. Moreover, there is a N3m grant for ANA against such contingencies outside its annual convention. In fact, it has been there for eight years.

“That means the grant will be there for whoever becomes president of ANA,” Adullahi said confidently, insisting that “the way to institutionalize this one we are doing now is to get a regular grant.”

Apart from continuity, the conference, as Abdullahi also said, “was conceived to focus on new works and young scholars within and outside the academia and one of the major objectives is to divert critical engagement to authors and works that may not be receiving the critical attention.” In his reckoning, most critical attention on literature in the country today “is within the academic circle. So, we want to bring that into the public sphere as an activity just the way Pius Adesanmi in his lifetime was able to move some critical thoughts into the public space.”

If he were alive, it is impossible to imagine the late professor turning down invitations from ANA and FUNAI were he invited to the conference. Indeed, in 2012 in Uyo during the annual convention of ANA, Adesanmi delivered the keynote speech presciently predicting the influence of the social media on Nigerian literature in the coming years, leaving behind his unique imprimatur “Cyberia” in social media lexicon.

It is also impossible to have a conference on literary criticism anywhere in Nigeria, especially east of the Niger, without expecting to see one of the grand uncles of the genre, Professor Ernest Emenyonu, a dynamo of a man with a corresponding formidable academic credential.

He has been professor of English focusing on African Literature for 40 years, privileged to have been thought by some of the greatest Nigerian scholars, Emmanuel Obiechina, and has had contact with many others, MJC Echeruo, Isidore Okpewor. Alone, Emenyonu started a conference called International Conference on African Literature and English Language (ICALEL) when he was Deputy VC in University of Calabar.

He has also been Provost of Alvan Ikoku College of Education, editor, since 2000, of the oldest journal on African Literature, African Literature Today, begun by Professor Eldred Durosimi Jones, published every year on November 18 with simultaneous appearances in London, New York and Nigeria. Emenyonu is currently at University of Michigan, Flint, a professor of African Literature since 2002. As recently as 2017, he was chairman of the panel of judges of the Nigeria Prize for Literature in the poetry category sponsored and awarded by Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas.

The renowned professor’s fascination with African literature is less because of his provenance and more because of the courses he studied while in the university. Back in the sixties at Nsukka as students under Professor Donatus Nwoga, Emenyonu recalled that all they read as English majors were British literature, American literature, “everything except African literature.”

He graduated with a first class. Anyone would be quite delighted to have made such grade. Emenyonu was, but less so because it was in foreign literature. Though he did a graduate programme on Victorian Literature in London, Emenyonu returned to the U.S. and did his PhD on African Languages and Literature. Since then, it has been, in his own words, “my second wife, my second love.”

The professor amply demonstrated that love at the conference. Like a paean, he told both students and lecturers to “embrace African literature,” since it is only Africans who can better tell their stories. As erroneously believed, Emenyonu said, “African literature didn’t start with European languages. We have oral literature, literature in Nigerian languages which they (Western scholars) cannot access.”

To prove his point that Europeans didn’t bring literature to Africa, the professor himself embarked on years of research – what else do scholars like him do? What did he unearth? He discovered and translated what he calls the first Igbo novel, Omenuko by Peter Nwana. It is remarkable to note that the novel itself was first printed in 1933. Making a case for the entire continent, Emenyonu insists that Chaka Zulu by Daniel Kunene, a South African author, had a head start after it was published in 1925. Also, Soyinka translated DO Fagunwa’s A Forest of a Thousand Demons in 1938.

As for the conference, Emenyonu maintained that both students and their minders would benefit tremendously from it.“It is going to help them because nobody can succeed in literature anywhere in the world without a sense of history. It is even more so in the African situation. That was why the keynote speaker enjoined the younger ones to read the critical literature before now. Achebe was not only a novelist. He was also a critic, a literary philosopher, Soyinka the same thing, JP Clark, all of these African writers and they were gifted. What ANA is doing is unique, what the VC of the university is doing is also unique because what they have done is to create a partnership whereby ANA can now come to Ndufu Alike every year. Nigerians are looking for international conferences elsewhere. Why can’t we create international conferences and let people come here? This is a wonderful beginning and, honestly, with the kind of momentum I am seeing, they will do a wonderful work. What ANA is trying to do now is to be the literary umbrella that covers all of these, learning of African Literature and talk about African Literature from the African perspective, from the African point of view. These children will now know that there is something called African Literature.”

As such conferences go, it wouldn’t be complete without a panel discussion on anything literature, as well as a keynote speaker, which was for this conference, Prof Olu Obafemi represented by Prof Abubakar Abdullahi of the University of Ilorin. The trio of Amanze Akpuda, Obari Gomba and Greg Mbajiorgu had the floor during a session on writers/critics forum. Akpuda is of the Department of English in Abia State University, Uturu while Gomba is in a related department in the University of Port Harcourt. Mbajiorgu is of the University of Nigeria Nsukka.

Gomba ruffled literary feathers when he accused Emenyonu of contributing to the brain drain syndrome in Nigeria. In other words, rather than remain in the country and let young scholars sip from his pool of knowledge, the professor has spent much of his time teaching in American schools. Emenyonu rose stoutly to his own defence, insisting that though he currently teaches in an American university, he has spent much time here in the country as a teacher.

One of the speakers is also a teacher in a foreign country. Dauda Bivan Amos is of the Department of English Studies University of the Western Cape, South Africa. In his presentation titled “The Nigerian Novel in the 21st Century, he noted that “literature springs directly from life…it is in life that we have to seek the sources of literature, the impulses which have birthed the various forms of literal production.”

Amos also let it be known that the Nigerian novel in this century is “irrepressible” despite “the several challenges confronting it. It is a novel born and garbed on the cradle of discontent (ment) and wears many faces in confronting its tremendous challenges.”

One of such challenges was what the second speaker touched on. Onyekachi Peter Onuoha teaches in the Department of English and Literary Studies, University of Calabar. At more than 20 pages, his paper would, no doubt, have sent many heads nodding on desks. Mercifully, he didn’t have to read all in a presentation titled “Creative Writing and Digital Production: Constraining and Expanding Nigeria’s Literary Criticism in the 21st Century.”

For him, criticism of literature is forever changing, especially in the digital age. “The expanding nature of creative literature in the cyber space also challenges traditional critics perception of what literature represents, predetermined participation in its own space…the failure of the patronizing prevailing criticism on the digital space and how it makes its own impact on the art of criticism.”

For sure, it was not all talk at the conference. There was drama, on stage and real life drama to keep things moving. The first was spontaneous when Ms Ofoma Mma, Public Relations Personality of the institution who also doubled as MC all through the event, announced that the invited guests would have their lunch somewhere else while the students would be served in the hall. Shouts of discrimination almost brought the roof down.

But they were soon pacified when Mma declared in the same breadth that a drama presentation would be staged during lunch for them. Title of play: “When Women Go Naked,” by Nwagbo Pat Obi.

More drama was to come by way of a solo performance by Ifunaya Idinedo, a teacher of Igbo language in the school. Urged on by a flutist, she praise-chanted the guests one after the other as she danced around the hall, rendering several songs as best she could.

One of Nigeria’s foremost female writers, Professor Akachi-Adimora Ezeigbo, danced with her and gave the vote of thanks as the conference wound to an end. She thanked the VC “for empowering people” through such conferences. (The VC was, at that very moment, chairing a meeting of VCs in the South East so, he was unavoidably absent.)

One of the persons already empowered was a 200-level student of the Department of English and Literary Studies, Gerald Ede. He followed avidly the workshop from day one. Though Ede has a first degree from Calabar, he is now reading English as a second degree and hoping seriously to become a writer. For him, the conference is “to help students who aspire to be writers and lecturers to hone their writing skills, know what is going on in the literary landscape.” This literary empowerment for students was achieved at the conference via literary workshops on prose, poetry and drama facilitated by Dr Wale Okediran, Dr Obari Gomba and Greg Mbajiorgu respectively.

But do such literary conferences really help, considering that the founding fathers of Nigerian literature never relied on such meetings to establish themselves. True, responded Ede when asked about the conference’s relevance to making good writers. The older generation, he declared, had no such conferences but they had people who inspired and encouraged them to write, insisting, for example, that when Achebe was at Government College, Umuahia, “they made reading some novels compulsory some days of the week. That was the foundation. It is true that that culture no longer exists in most secondary schools in Nigeria today, the culture of trying to indoctrinate people into reading creative works that could motivate them into writing. If that culture has been lost, this conference is filing that gap. The Achebes had a way of being inspired then, the kind of way their studies were programmed, the kind of teachers they had; times change even though.”

It is apparent from the joy on the faces of the students, the enthusiastic involvement of the management and staff of the host university and the high spirit exhibited by the visiting writers and scholars that the partnership forged by the Association of Nigerian Authors with the Alex Ekwueme Federal University, Ndufu-Alike Ikwo for the cause of literature and its criticism, is going to endure.

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