Writers Lola Shoneyin and Kunle Ajibade were on a panel moderated by Toyin Akinosho at the City Hall offices of Goethe Institut, Lagos, recently.
The topic for discussion was “15 years of democracy in Nigeria—How do Writers Respond”.
The event was the latest instalment of Author’s Talk, a regular programme held by Goethe Institut. A statement from institute explained that the authors were to discuss “developments in Nigerian literature within the context of democratic rule.”
Seated between the authors, Akinosho made the point that he was merely qualified to be so seated because he “created a book festival 16 years ago.” He was referring to the Lagos Book and Arts Festival (known popularly by its acronym, LABAF.) He neglected to add among his credentials, Artsville a column he kept in the Sunday Guardian, renowned among the country’s literati for its weekly chronicles of art events; and his position as Secretary General of CORA, the Committee for Relevant Art.
His self-deprecating remark, however, drew laughter from the audience.
Lola Shoneyin, poet and novelist, read first. After a lengthy introduction by Akinosho, she read Song of the Confined, a poem she wrote in 1997 for three journalists then imprisoned by the military: Ogaga Ifowodo, Akin Adesokan and the man seated across from her, Kunle Ajibade. Mr. Ajibade had refused to declaim to the military his source for a story, and received a life sentence for his silence.
In Song of the Confined the narrator drew parallels between sounds heard in jail and those recalled from freedom. “We were living in a climate of fear,” she said after reading, “the clever thing to do was to hide protest in humour and harmonies.”
Reacting to the poem dedicated to him, Ajibade concurred with Shoneyin’s poem adding that, “in prison, sounds were signifiers,” as the distant sound of birds chirping and dogs barking indicated time of day.
Nevertheless time passing was a minor strain. He recalled deaths of political rivals and activists at the time: Kudirat Abiola, Alfred Rewane, Ken Saro Wiwa. Thinking death may occur before the publishing of his notes Ajibade decided to write legibly to prevent debate over his manuscript’s content.
He did survive to see those notes published as the book Jailed for Life: A Reporters Prison Notes. That was in 2003. And without the oppressive thought of impending death, he has since written and published another book, 2008’s What A Country!.
An inevitable comparison between both works greeted the latter’s reception, with Reuben Abati, former critic, writing in his review of What A Country! that:
“critics of Ajibade’s Jailed for Life had noted an absence of personal ideology. The latest book has now been written to articulate that personal ideology, but what I find here in terms of ideology is the ideology of faith, faith in the limitless possibilities of the human essence…What A Country! is Ajibade’s dialogue with the land of his birth, his interrogation of the Nigerian question, and more, his reflections on universal ideals for the making of a good society”
Akinosho, articulating this criticism, asked Mr. Ajibade about this lack of an ideology in his first work. “I was interested only in telling stories,” he said. The reader could introduce interpretation to the events recounted in the book. He noted that even his second book was also written to tell a story using “avatars of the struggle.”
“Let us just tell the stories, we can leave the interpretation to the critics,” he said, and then claimed Salman Rushdie, Gunther Grass and Soyinka were of that mould—inadvertently claiming a few purveyors of fiction as heroes for his nonfiction enterprise.
Shoneyin agreed, saying while writing she is unconcerned with ideology. Reading a portion of her novel The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives where heavy rains exhume body parts because of shallow interment, she says municipal authorities ought to be troubled reading that passage as it was based on experience.
The discussion had in some ways deviated from what had been announced, but the audience was engaged.
In response to Akinosho’s demand for audience participation, the Marxist critic and filmmaker Didi Cheeka noted that, “too many writers today are confused after the army left.” French author Pierre Cherruau, added that “If you bring too much ideology into your book, it could be boring.”
As is usual with such discussions, a consensus was not reached; and when Toyin Akinosho brought the satisfactory session to an end, panel and audience had been talking for almost 2 hours.
Photo credit, Jere Ikongio.