Turning Nigeria’s Solid Literary Achievements to Gas!
© Ogaga Ifowodo
Finally it has come to this. Our literature, the lone place where it has been possible to revel in an unqualified sense of achievement, has now too been placed on the altar of desecration. Every year since 2005 the Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas company gathers a philistine crowd to wine and dine at a well-appointed venue in Lagos or Abuja. The gathering, usually preceded by a publicity fanfare, is ostensibly to honour writers through the award of a so-called Nigeria literature prize but by the end of the evening it will have done more to insult than flatter them. In the annals of Nigerian writing, there hasn’t been a more self-aggrandising project. The purported goal of NLNG is to make known to the world “the latest achievements of the best writers in Nigeria” thereby “sustaining the tradition of excellence in Nigerian literature, discovering new authors and keeping older ones in focus.”
When the prize was announced, not even its original and unprecedented $20,000 monetary value could overcome the surprise and consternation that greeted it. The decision to accept “only books published in Nigeria by authors resident in the country” proved the most controversial. Residency was defined as “a minimum of three of the four years covered by the competition.” The reason for this curious condition was to “improve the literature value chain and to ensure that winning books are available to (the) local audience and that literary activities from writing, editing, assessing, printing and publishing in the country are enhanced as a result of this competition.” NLNG also wanted to ensure that writers would no longer be “viewed with scorn” and could work with dignity, with a sense of self-esteem and confidence in their future.”
This species of grandiloquence reveals the conceit that conceived the prize and that has governed it ever since. Even before the scandal of this year’s non-award ceremony, incidentally the second time no worthy writer could be found, previous judges have bemoaned the failure of the competition to achieve its vaunted goals. They have lamented the appalling absence of everything that defines good writing, from elementary matters of grammar and diction to the more complex questions of vision and voice. They have been constrained to point out the difference between publishing and printing a book, believing that many of the works they were called upon to judge fall more readily into the latter category. As for the dignity and self-esteem of writers, it appears the NLNG never meant any of that nonsense and has seized every opportunity to prove it. Such as turning the award night into an indoor political rally. For the 2007 edition, General Ibrahim Babangida, a man under a heavy cloud of suspicion for the murder of Dele Giwa — a leading light of journalism, cousin of the literary arts — and who murdered General Mamman Vatsa, a poet, got star billing as the keynote speaker. This year, it was Chief Odumegwu Ojukwu, now coveting the pulpit — and why not with the holy ghost in every street corner? — who delighted the audience with his recent epiphany: “the final knowledge that everything belongs to God” and “that God is supreme.” No poetry was read, though the wife of NLNG’s managing director did sing. After all, Walter Pater said all art aspires to the condition of music! For good measure, NLNG saw to it that no writer, not even those shortlisted for its prize, was invited. You can picture the banner at the entrance to the Transcorp Hilton: “NLNG Nigeria Literature Prize Award Night: NO WRITER ALLOWED INSIDE!”
Since that unforgettable night of 10 October, many have commented on the national insult that this misbegotten prize has come to represent. They have addressed anew all the quarrels with the prize,but we cannot tire of exposing the folded lie that NLNG and its appointed gate-keepers of literary value insist on peddling. There was a clear case of over-reaching when a corporate entity arrogated to itself the privilege of naming a prize for all of Nigerian literature irrespective of our earnest concerns. But NLNG claims to have acted according to the best advice of its handpicked advisers. If that is the case, then the gas company’s counsellors were either blinded by the mist of self-interest or they instantly turned über-patriots in order to believe that the best way to serve a national literature is to establish a sinecure prize.
Yet by the criterion of residency, it seems more likely that what they had in mind was something other than excellence in Nigerian literature since it is all too obvious that great writing is not coincident with any hallowed spot of earth. Consequently, the more the spuriousness of the residency notion was demonstrated to them the more obdurate they became. But not without having to make a clean breast of it: the prize was intended to reward those who stayed; who for loyalty to blood-and-soil were condemned to toil in unforgiving conditions. Conversely, the Nigerian writer abroad lives it up in a writer’s paradise. The great national literature prize, it emerged, was no more than a “home residency” medal, akin to the hazard posting incentive that employers device to entice workers to a dangerous station. What is never mentioned is that some of those who fought tooth and nail to retain the residency condition, as if a literary competition were a municipal election, remained at home only because none of several job, fellowship or graduate school applications sent abroad had yet succeeded. Evidently, a Nigerian writer who toils at his craft in Johannesburg, or next door in Cotonou, or in Accra where Soyinka was once in self-exile, would also be ineligible for his purported national prize.
By all means let us reward the stoicism of compatriots who labour in exigent conditions, but writers would hardly be the first in line on that account alone. Do these proponents of a home residency literature intend to do away with the condition whenever the country’s luck turns for the better? Does the Nigerian writer lose her citizenship by mere fact of expatriation — not to be confused with exile, a term blithely used to describe those who happen to live abroad for the time being but who are free to return at will? And does it need to be said that many of those writers were driven abroad to borrow seasons of alien lands, as Soyinka memorably put it? “I borrow seasons of an alien land,” he said, “In brotherhood of ill, pride of race around me ... / I borrow alien lands / To stay the season of a mind.” This won’t do, the NLNG judges say, “Exile literature may have mitigating political or economic causes; but its unusual dependence on memory work, reminiscence and the imaginary clearly raises questions of commitment to cultural development.” A curious thought, that exile literature is “mitigated” by any affirmative circumstance, least of all those cited. Or that imagination — which, I believe, is what is meant by “the imaginary” — characterises only “exile literature.” And at what point does memory fail the writer “in exile” and restrict him to “memory work,” whatever that means? Precisely after the three to four years conveniently “covered by the competition?” Well, then, shall we excise from our literature the work that Soyinka produced from 1971-1975 while in exile, including his magnum opus Death and the King’s Horseman written in the very belly of the imperial whale at Churchill College, Cambridge University? By the way, the poem from which I quote was written in Tegel, Germany, but is presumptuously entitled “Massacre, October ’66.” Perhaps we ought to cover our faces in shame that Chimamanda Adichie’s meteoric rise is due to work written “in exile.” Whatever objections we may have to Ben Okri’s identity politics, are we, in all earnestness, being invited to consider The Famished Road a British novel?
What sort of cultural nationalism would so cut off the nose to spite the face of our literature? Obi Wali, of blessed memory, may have started the debate but not even Ngugi wa Thiong’o has ventured the notion of “resident” and “exile” African writing as a yardstick of authenticity. Clearly, were Ngugi Nigerian none of his novels written in true exile would qualify for his national literature prize though written in his mother-tongue! The irony may be lost on the NLNG judges, some of whom were iconic literary interpreters three decades ago but who are not helping their hard-earned reputation by their recent pronouncements. Banjo informs us that they searched in vain for “a body of poetry of high seriousness and an all embracing vision that reaches beyond social satire and a private quest for meaning.” It was a needless search. The private quest for meaning is the very raison d’être of the author, what distinguishes her voice and vision. When the writer sits alone at her desk in the dead of night, what can she be about but a lonely quest to make sense of life through the fictions that she creates? But because her vision is distilled from experience, lived or imagined, and must be expressed in language which is inherently social, it ceases to be private. In any case, what would Banjo say of a work that does not wear its “high seriousness” on the cover? Such as meditative verse on the meaning and purpose of life, or poetry content to contemplate and commemorate the awe and splendour of Nigeria’s beauteous landscape? If Banjo doubts the “high seriousness” of nature poetry, I will recommend to him Jamaica Kincaid’s essay, “On Seeing England for the First Time,” where he will see the role Alice Miller’s “The White Cliffs of Dover” played in shaping Kincaid’s sense of cultural identity.
And just how did it transpire that Banjo and his co-seekers could not find that great quality in themselves? At what point, we may ask, did it dawn on them that none of their shortlisted works met the mark? Since for their own sake we must assume that they concluded their deliberations before the award night, why did they not simply issue a statement and save everyone a wasted journey? Indeed, what moral code justified to them the empty ritual of reading their verdict behind the back of the writers whose night it should have been? Yet all of that pales before the climax of the night’s event: the award of the prize to its chief judge! Banjo, it just happens, is a member of the Nigerian Academy of Letters deemed far more deserving than any of his shortlisted poets.
Now the world can see how far Nigerian writers have come in glory since NLNG came to their rescue. Going by the size of the purse alone, the prize aimed to outshine such time-honoured recognitions as the American Pulitzer which awards a paltry $3,000, and the British Man Booker, whose value until recently was £20,000. As if all it takes to achieve great literature is to throw money at it. The national pastime of throwing money at problems should remind us that the one thing most responsible for warping our national thought process is oil, together with the associated gas that forms NLNG’s business, the source of that easy money. The lethal gas fires of the Niger Delta that symbolise the burning away of all that is precious in our national life have now reached beyond the political landscape to find new kindling among writers. And I say to them, Watch out! Writing about the decadence of bourgeois existence, Marx and Engels noted that it is characterised by “naked self-interest” and “callous ‘cash payment,’” by brutal exploitation veiled by religious and political illusions, an idea that subsumes NLNG’s cultural-nationalist illusions. If you consider the analogy inapt, recall their famous conclusion: a perversion of moral life as “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.”
Far from sustaining the tradition of Nigerian literature, NLNG, a gas company built on corruption — the Halliburton bribery scandal opened the cesspit — seems set to make Nigeria’s solid literary reputation fizzle into thin air. Of course that is impossible, but we must recognise the hubris that informs this heinous sleight-of-hand. Next year, for all we care, the prize may well be awarded to the Peoples Democratic Party. Then, at the very least, we would not have to put up with the smugness of NLNG’s chief executive claiming to be doing writers the priceless honour of insulting them before a motley crowd that couldn’t tell a poem from the menu on their sumptuous tables.