Thursday, 30 October 2014

54 Years of Nigerian Literature: The Mbari Club

I've really had a lot of fun this year celebrating Nigerian literature as part of our Independence month. So far I've looked at fiction set in Lagos, Hausa fiction in English and Hausa poetry on the Nigerian civil war. For my final celebratory post, I am going back to the 1960s to the time of the Mbari Artists’ and Writers’ Club.  This post is less related to my personal identity, but just a really awesome part of Nigerian (and more broadly African) literary history.

Igbo Mbari House (Source:
The Mbari Club was founded in Ibadan in 1961 by German scholar, writer and editor Ulli Beier (the founder of Black Orpheus), Nigerian writers Wole Soyinka, Christopher Okigbo and JP Clark and South African writer Ezekiel Mphahlele. Located in Ibadan’s Dugbe Market,  the site of the Mbari Club was an old Lebanese restaurant that was converted into an open-air performance venue, an art gallery, a library, and an office. Nigerian dramatist, Duro Ladipo (along with Beier and Mphahlele) also developed a similar club at Oshogbo in 1962, which was called Mbari Mbayo. Other members of the club included Chinua Achebe, Francis Ademola, Demas Nwoko, Mabel Segun and Uche Okeke. 

The name Mbari was actually suggested by Chinua Achebe after the mbari ceremony of the Owerri Igbo, as this piece by James Eze reveals: 
"When did you found the club? You ask. 'I think in 1960 and it was Chinua who gave it a name. Mbari is an Igbo name. Soyinka and I were tossing around in search of a name to give the club and then Chinua rang and said "what about Mbari?" And I jumped at the name because I knew Mbari Houses,' he recalls with a nostalgic glint in his eyes".
Mbari publications (which grew out of the journal Black Orpheus and the Mbari Artists’ and Writers’ Club), was unique as it was said to be the only African-based publisher bringing out books of Anglophone African literature in the early 1960s. It also published some iconic works of African literature - the first books by Clark, Okigbo, and Soyinka alongside translations of francophone poetry and work by South African writers critical of apartheid. 

Works included J. P. Clark’s play Song of a Goat, Clark's Poems and Okigbo's Heavensgate and Limit (these two booklets became the first two sections of Labyrinths, which was published after Okigbo's death), Wole Soyinka's The Swamp Dwellers, Bakare Gbadamosi's Okiri (a Yoruba-language collection), as well as South African writers like Alex la Guma’s A Walk in the Night and Dennis Brutus’s Sirens Knuckles Boots

In the 1960s, Mbari Club was a centre of cultural activity in Nigeria for artists, writers and anybody involved in the arts, but it was more than that. Mbari not only promoted African writers, but it also provided a local outlet for publishing with a transnational reach and encouraged writers to find inspiration for their work in their own contexts rather than in colonial stereotypes about Africa. It's also said to have been a crucial prelude for several young African writers to being published in London and New York.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

In Conversation with Okey Ndibe: 3rd November at the University of Sussex

I'm happy to announce that on Monday 3rd November I will be in conversation with Okey Ndibe, as part of African in Words exciting events hosting Okey Ndibe. 

Okey Ndibe is a novelist, political columnist and essayist whose first novel Arrows of Rain was published in 2000 as part of the Heinemann African Writers Series. His second novel, Foreign Gods Inc., was published at the beginning of this year to critical acclaim. This lover of African literature is both excited and nervous.I'm currently reading Foreign Gods and already I have so many questions to ask so I'm really looking forward to the event.

The event at the University of Sussex will begin at 4pm with a panel discussion, Travelling Nigeria: The Circulation of Politics, Art and Literature, with  Okey Ndibe (Brown University), Rebecca Jones (University of Birmingham), Uche Igwe (University of Sussex) and Kate Haines (University of Sussex). This session will be chaired by John Masterson (University of Sussex). This will be followed at 5:30pm with me in conversation with Okey Ndibe about his writing as well as Okey Ndibe reading from his latest novel Foreign Gods Inc. You can find out more on the events at Africa in Words

PS. I'd really love followers of the blog to get involved. So if you've read Foreign Gods Inc., and might have a question to ask Okey Ndibe, I'd love to know. I'll try my best to slip them into our conversation. 

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Two Fiction Debuts: Dieokoye Oyeyinka's "Stillborn" and Chigozie Obioma's "The Fisherman"

October being the month that I celebrate Nigerian literature, here are two new releases from two young Nigerian authors. One is out now and the other will be published in early 2015.  Enjoy!!!!

The first comes from Diekoye Oyeyinka. His debut novel Stillborn is published by East African Educational Publishers. Narrated from the point of view of Seun, an orphan from the Niger Delta, Stillborn is not only a tale of turmoil and tragedy; desperation and despair; but also one of optimism and opportunity. It revolves around the lives of five characters: Seun, his mother Ranti, herself a girl of limited privilege; Seun's lover, Aisha, a refugee from the religious clashes in the North; and Emeka from the South-east, a war deserter who becomes an unlikely hero. Their lives intersect in the residence of Dolapo, a civil rights lawyer from the South-west. And the five lives come together to paint a vivid picture of Nigeria since its infancy fifty years ago, meandering into the complexity of the lives and communities of present-day in Nigeria. In the end, Stillborn traverses the various political epochs that have shaped Nigeria, and by extension, Africa in general, right from the pre-independence period and through the fears, frustrations, hopes and dreams that have characterised this fragile continent.

The second, The Fishermen, comes from debut novelist Chigozie Obioma. Published by ONE (an imprint of Pushkin Press), The Fishermen tells the story of what happens to nine-year-old Benjamin and his brothers after their father accepts a job transfer to a faraway city and the four boys go fishing in the river that snakes through their small town in western Nigeria. Near the river, a place the town's people are forbidden to go, the four close-knit brothers encounter a local vision-seeing madman, Abulu, whose prophecy of violence threatens the core of their family. When Benjamin's brothers assume one brother will kill the other, an extraordinary tension is created, and a chain of events is set in motion that threatens to change the course of Benjamin's life and even that of the entire community. 

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

54 Years of Nigerian Literature: Hausa Poetry on the Nigerian Civil War

Major Yakubu Gowon at Dodan Barracks, Sept 13 1968
(Source: Nairaland)
Last year, one of my celebratory posts was on books based on/inspired by the Nigerian Civil War, where I showcased novels such as Elechi Amadi's Sunset in Biafra (1973), Chukuemeka Ike’s Sunset at Dawn (1976), and Flora Nwapa’s Never Again (1976). I was initially going to write a different post, but then I stumbled on an article written in 1991 by Graham Furniss on Hausa Poetry on the Nigerian Civil WarAfter reading it, I decided to share some excerpts from the article (yes, my nerdy academic side could not resist) which gives insights into the ways in which Hausa poets wrote about the military leaders of both sides of the war. Hope you enjoy!!!
"In Hausa, there has been little written recently looking back to that period [Nigerian Civil War]. Nevertheless, there was a considerable body of material in verse produced during the war years (1967-70) and published in the main Hausa language newspaper, Gaskiya ta Fi kwabo, or recited at gatherings and over the radio." (Furniss, 1991:21).
Gaskiya Ta Fi Kwabo (The truth is worth more than a Kwabo [Kobo - Nigerian currency]) is a Hausa-language newspaper in northern Nigeria and the first newspaper published entirely in Hausa. 

Gaskiya ta fi Kwabo, Issue 24, Nov 1940 (source: Endangered Archives, British Library)

Furniss then goes on to write about a "competition ... held in 1968 for the best poem written in praise of the Federal forces':
Akilu Aliyu
"Some seven hundred entries were received and many of the manuscripts from that competition have been collected in the publication produced by the Centre for the Study of Nigerian Languages in Kano, entitled Wakokin yabon soja. The winner of the competition was the doyen of Hausa poetry-writers, Akilu Aliyu, with the poem entitiled Jiki Magayi." (Furniss, 1991:21)
Most of the poetry submitted praised the qualities of major Northern figures in the Federal army and government like Yakubu Gowon (Head of State from 1966 - 1975): 

Leader of the age, my heart bids me
make this song for you, Major Yakubu Gowon, great one, leader of soldiers.
The world recognises you, your zeal and your honesty. 
Your patience is very great. You have no elder, only younger brothers among
all the soldier-governors.
You have no fear, only respect for others. 
If any man opposes you or acts shamelessly, compel him to return to the road, commander of the host of soldiers. 
Your great zeal, Mamman Shuwa has long been known, 
and now today I shall include it in this account of the soldiers. 
I too would like to learn - I refuse to swerve from the road; 
give me the form to sign, Muhammadu Shuwa, who holds the reins of the soldiers. 
Like a great steed that fills the eye, Murtala, leader of men, 
you who set brave men to work to cook - not tuwo but soldiers' cannon.
Major Yakubu Dan Juma, tenfold greetings!
(Skinner, 1980:220-1 in Furniss, 1991:22)

When they weren't praising 'great men', the poetry was vilifying Ojukwu (the leader of the Republic of Biafra from 1967-1970), with Furniss writing that most of the poetry was anti-Igbo:

Soldiers who leave no malicious attack unavenged, who fear no quarrel; 
it is you who subjugate the shameless one, the one who has deviated far from the right way.
Toss him and catch him like a stone in carabke. 
Give him your sort of cola-nuts, that he has asked for!
And since he has provoked you, do your duty by him. 
Don't ket Ojukwu get away with it, soldiers.
Hey Ojukwu! You lie! Your guessing game
and your soothsayers are both given the lie. Brave men are after you and they will catch you, the soldiers. 
You black, rebel scum! Offspring a village girl.
Today your charm's power is broken. You think you can hide, but you're
playing the ostrich before the eyes of our soldiers.
Today you have no place left in which to lie low, my monkey can see you, 
Now where's your idle talk? Now where's your babbling? If you breathe a
syllable - up comes a soldier!
What's the matter with you, Ojukwu? I see you frown, 
and increase the intensity of your screaming. Has some calamity come upon you?
Yes you've met the range of the soldiers.
Don't be afraid! A grown man does not cry at the razor
Wherever you are, inside or outside, slow down and go and seek peace from the soldiers.
(Skinner, 1980:221 in Furniss, 1991:23)

" ... a number of poems present a chronology of events leading up to the outbreak of hostilities and an outline of the progress of the war at the time of writing. For example, Faduwar Enugu (The Fall of Enugu) dated 5/10/67 by Mudi Spikin; Tarihin Yakin Nijeriya farkon somawa daga 27/5/67 zuwa 7/10/67 (The history of the Nigerian War from its inception on 27/5/67 to 7/10/67) again by Mudi Spikin, in which the author sets out his understanding of the sequence of events leading up to the secession ... The poem goes in detail through the progress of advances and retreats, ground and air attacks and the disposition of the Federal forces and their senior officers.
The background narrative setting in a number of poems, Alhajiya 'Yar Shehu's Waka da Bayani and others, includes a picture of Nigeria prior to the outbreak of the war in which each part of the country contributed resources to the whole, the North grain crops, cotton, metal working, skins and hides; the South oil, both palm and petroleum, cola nuts and other things." (Furniss, 1991:24)
In Bearing Witness: Readers, Writers and the Novel in NigeriaWendy Griswold estimated that three quarters of Biafran novels are by Igbo authors (some exceptions she mentioned includes Wole Soyinka's Season of Anomy, Ken Saro-Wiwa's Sozaboy and Elechi Amadi's Estrangement).  So it's really interesting to get this small glimpse into the writings of Hausa poets during this period of Nigeria's history. 

Excerpts from Graham Furniss (1991) 'Hausa poetry on the Nigerian civil war', African Languages and Culture, 4:1:21-28 

Friday, 17 October 2014

54 Years of Nigerian Literature: Fiction from Northern Nigeria

Kurmi Market - Kano's 500 year old market. 2011
A couple of years ago,  I wrote about Hausa Popular Literature, which is also known as Kano Market Literature or littattafan soyayya (books of love) in Hausa. There I mentioned Balaraba Ramat Yakubub - said to be a leader in this genre - whose books Alhaki Kukuyo Ne (Sin is a Puppy that Follows You Home) was translated into English by an Indian publishing house. Just last year (October 2013), Words Without Borders presented works by women writing in indigenous African languages. One of the works was from Rahma Abdul Majid's novel Mace Mutum, which was translated into English by Ibrahim Malumfashi.

While that post focused on books in Hausa, in this post on writers from Northern Nigeria, I showcase some authors whose works are available in English. As Richard Ali writes in his essay On Northern Nigerian Literature And Related Issues, 'contemporary northern writing is now centred on four towns (Minna, Jos, Kano and Kaduna)'. 

*The post has been updated to include The Undesirable Element and Sterile Sky 
Cassava Republic is delighted and excited to announce the signing of Abuja-based writer Elnathan John.  Elnathan quit his job as a lawyer in November 2012 to focus on writing full-time. His work has been published in Per Contra, ZAM Magazine, Evergreen Review, Sentinel Nigeria and Chimurenga's The Chronicle.  In 2013 he was shortlisted for the Caine Prize For African Writing for his story Bayan Layi. He also writes political satire for his weekly column for the Sunday Trust newspaper. - See more at:

Labo Yari's novel Climate of Corruption (1978) is said to be the first English-language novel published in northern Nigeria. Climate of Corruption is an ironic and amusing story of a group of young Nigerians making their lives in modern times, synonymous with a climate of corruption, in which traditional, moral and religious values are withering. Instead, they are exposed to drinking and smoking, and theatre and (Indian) films, extra-marital sex, feminism and homosexuality.
Labo Yari's other works include A House in the Dark and Other Stories (1985), Man of the Moment (1992), and A Day Without Cockcrow (1999).

In the 1970s, Macmillan Publishing House established the Macmillan Pacesetters Series. The series made its debut with three books - one being The Undesirable Element by Mohammed Sule (the other two were Agbo Areo's Director!  and Sam Adeowoye's The Betrayer). In The Undesirable Element, before his death, Mallam Shehu entrusts the care of his daughter, Bintu, to an old friend and begs her to fulfil his solemn vow that the girl will marry Faruk Abdu on his return from Europe. But before his return, events take a twist and lead Bintu down the path to tragedy. 
Mohammed Sule's other works include The Delinquent (1979) and The Infamous Act (1982)

Zaynab Alkali is said to be the first female novelist from Northern Nigeria and her debut novel, The Stillborn, was published in 1984. It tells the story of Li - a thirteen year old who has completed her primary education but is restless and finds her home stifling and longs to escape the boredom and drudgery of her life of sweeping, fetching the water and firewood and washing dishes. She longs to escape to the city, but the death of her father leads her to take up the responsibilities in her household. The Stillborn won the Association of Nigerian Authors Award for the best novel of the year when it was published.  
Alkali's other works include The Virtuous Woman (1987), the co-edited anthology,Vultures in the Air: Voices from Northern Nigeria in 1995 and the collection The Cobwebs and Other Stories in 1997 - this also won the Association of Nigerian Authors Award  for best collection of short stories that year. Her most recent works include The Descendants (2005) and The Initiates (2007). 

Innocent Victims (1988) is Abubakar Gimba's third novel. It is a story of fraud, abuse of power and political machinery for selfish ends. Centring on Faruk Kolo, the Director-General of the Department of Food and Animal production, a panel has been set up to probe the Departments activities. During this panel, the workings of the department come under scrutiny, with Innocent Victims revealing the in-fighting, power struggles and corruption present in the civil service. 
Other novels from Gimba include Trials of Sacrifice (1985), Witness to Tears (1987), Sunset for a Mandarin (1992), Golden Apples (1994) and Foot Prints (1998)

Fatima Ba'aram Alkali's debut novel, Personal Angle, published in 2008, delves into the world of politics and business and does it through the lives of two women - Zaria (a lawyer) and Basheika (a housewife). In an interview, Alkali explains what these two women represent to her: 
'The lives of the "two heroines" ... Basheika and Zaria, reflect the core moral messages I am seeking to express to the world. Zaria, a divorced professional lawyer, represents the ideal of a woman who maintains her dignity and integrity in a morally bankrupt world. Basheika's life helps me to express the belied I have always held about power struggles between men and women; that marriage should not be a battle ground where women 'fight' for their rights. It should rather be a loving union where women freely "claim" their rights.'
Personal Angle won the 2009 Abuja Writers' Forum (AWF) Ibrahim Tahir Prize for Prose.

Habila's third novel, Oil on Water, was published in 2010 and was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize (2011) and the Orion Book Award (2012). It was also a runner-up for the Pen Book Award (2012). Oil on Water is set in the Niger-Delta region where the wife of a British oil executive has been kidnapped. Two journalists - a young upstart, Rufus, and a once-great, now disillusioned veteran, Zaq - are sent to find her. As Rufus and Zaq navigate polluted rivers flanked by exploded and dormant oil wells, they must contend with the brutality of both government soldiers and militants. Habila's other works include the short story collection Waiting for An Angel (2002), Measuring Time (2007) and The Granta Book of the African Short Story (2011). 

Sterile Sky, E.E Sule's debut novel won the 2013 Commonwealth Book Prize for the African region. As the gifted young Murtala comes of age in Kano, violent riots and his family's own woes threaten to erase all he holds dear. Stalked by monsters real and imagined, desperate to preserve a sense of self and the future, Murtala hunts for answers in the wreckage of the city - and gives us a unique insight into modern life in northern Nigeria. Other works from E.E Sule include poetry collections Knifing Tongues (2005), Naked Sun (2006) and What the Sea Told Me (winner of the 2009 ANA Gabriel Okara Prize). He also has two short story collections Impotent Heavens (2004) and Dream and Shame (2007). 
Published in 2012, The Whispering Trees is Abubakar Adam Ibrahim's debut collection of short stories, which employs nuance, subtle drama and deadpan humour to capture colourful Nigerian lives. There's Kyakkyawa, who sparks forbidden thoughts in her father and has a bit of angels and witches in her; there's the mysterious butterfly girl who just might be an incarnation of Ohikwo's long dead mother; there's also a flummoxed white woman caught between two Nigerian brothers and an unfolding scandal, and, of course, the two medicine men of Mazade who battle against their egos, an epidemic and an enigmatic witch. 
The Whispering Trees was longlisted for the inaugural 2014 Etisalat Prize for Literature, and the title story was shortlisted for the 2013 Caine Prize for African Writing. 

Richard Ali's debut novel, City of Memories, published in 2012, is a love story set in Northern Nigeria. It is about four characters negotiating the effect of various traumas. Towering above them is the story of Ummi al-Qassim, a princess of Bolewa, and the feud that attended her love - first for a nobleman, then for a poet - a feud that bequeaths her with madness and death. All four are bracketed by the modern city of Jos in Central Nigeria, where political supremacy and perverse parental love become motives for an ethno-religious eruptions calculated to destroy the Nigerian state.   
Finally, a press release from Cassava Republic in June announced that Elnathan John's debut novel will be published in the second quarter of 2015. No title yet, but here's a brief synopsis:
"[This] is a compelling coming-of-age story about Dantala a boy who starts out as a disciple of Quranic knowlege. Through Dantala's maturing eyes and diary entries, we are shown life as it is lived in northern Nigeria - the vagaries of familial care, violence and the nuance of political leadership. The novel uses fiction to give a finely textured exploration of the evolution of religious fundamentalism in the North and its complex relationship to politics and economics. Northern Nigerians reading the book will find in the novel a deep recognition of their circumstances, whereas those from beyond will appreciate (sometimes for the first time) that northern Nigeria is far from that monolithic existential space that prejudice and stereotype will have us believe. "

Elnathan John's writing has been published in Per Contra, ZAM Magazine, Evergreen Review, Sentinel Nigeria and Chimurenga. His short story Bayan Layi was shortlisted for the 2013 Caine Prize. 

He also released a short story collection in 2008 called DayDreams Etcetera, which he describes on his blog as 'an embarrassing collection of short stories which has thankfully gone out of print'.

is a compelling coming-of-age story about Dantala, a boy who starts out as a disciple of Quranic knowledge. Through Dantala’s maturing eyes and diary entries we are shown life as it is lived in northern Nigeria- the vagaries of familial care, violence and the nuances of political leadership. The novel uses fiction to give a finely textured exploration of the evolution of religious fundamentalism in the North and its complex relationship to politics and economics.  Northern Nigerians reading the book will find in the novel a deep recognition of their circumstances, whereas those from beyond will appreciate (sometimes for the first time) that Northern Nigeria is far from that monolithic existential space that prejudice and stereotype would have us believe. - See more at: