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Okigbo’s Generation: A Conversation with Obi Nwakanma


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Dr. Obi Nwakanma is a poet, journalist, literary critic, and scholar. Currently an assistant professor in the department of English at the University of Central Florida, he has published three collections of poems, including Birthcry, which was longlisted for the 2013 Nigeria Prize for Literature. In 2010, he published a landmark biography of poet Christopher Okigbo, who died in 1967, at the age of thirty-six, fighting the Biafran War. In interviews, Dr. Nwakanma has said that he wrote this biography as a “quest after an extraordinary life.” It was not an obsession but a “project of recovery.” He said, “I like to think that the life of the poet mirrors the great drama of a generation.”

The biography, Christopher Okigbo, 1930–67: Thirsting for Sunlight, is a thrilling work that reaches deeply into the life a very complex man. Christopher Okigbo is considered one of the great African poets of the twentieth century, a label that Okigbo might well have shuddered at. “The time has come to question some of our old prejudices, to ask ourselves . . . whether there is such a thing as African literature,” he famously said in 1963, to the consternation of many.

In September 2012, at the Berlin International Literature Festival, I spoke with Dr. Nwakanma about two generations of Nigerian writers and thinkers who have played a large role in shaping the political discourse in their country: Chinua Achebe, Christopher Okigbo, Amos Tutuola, Wole Soyinka, Ken Saro-Wiwa, Ben Okri, and, more recently, Helon Habila, Chika Unigwe, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. These writers have reflected on the state of their nation through storytelling and essays, through forms that are not afraid of ambiguity and double-consciousness. A great novel, Chinua Achebe has said, “alters the situation in the world.”

When I wrote to a Nigerian friend, James Eze, a fiction writer and essayist, and told him that I would be speaking with Dr. Nwakanma, he wrote back:

Maddie dear, Okigbo and Obi mean so much to us here in Nigeria. Okigbo for one has held successive generations of Nigerian poets captive with his slim volume of poetry, Labyrinths. In engaging Obi on Okigbo, you are engaging a huge chunk of Nigerian and probably African poetry. I wish you well.

Thien: I’m going to preface by saying that I’m clearly coming to this conversation as an outsider. I’ve been to Nigeria, but only for a few weeks, and it was a small window into the country. So I’m very glad to have this opportunity to expand that window.

Nwakanma: And hopefully do something with it!

Thien: I wanted to start with your biography of Okigbo, Thirsting for Sunlight, because it also tells the story of a generation that was foundational to Nigeria, directly after independence. Okigbo died forty-five years ago. Why write this biography now and why Okigbo?

Nwakanma: His poetry was very spare, as everyone knows, yet he spoke in profound ways to my generation, and for this reason I approached him with interest as well as awe—I was profoundly awed by Okigbo’s lean production. In fact, many of us who went into poetry did so because of Okigbo. In my reading of him, he is the symbol of a vast epochal moment in African post-colonial history, the symbol of a lost innocence.

There is no such thing as a good time to write a book. The book comes out when the spirit compels us. But I thought also that at a time when Nigeria is in transition to democracy after years of military rule, as we move toward the fashioning and refashioning of this society, it was necessary to touch base with issues that remain unresolved, to be true to the life of that poet.

Thien: You describe the world that Christopher grew up in, eastern Nigeria, as “the old, passing Igbo world and the new powerful, modern European world with all its complexities.” Can you talk about the confluences and the spiritual conflicts that shaped Okigbo, Achebe, Soyinka, Saro-Wiwa, and other writers of their generation?

Nwakanma: Okigbo’s generation was born at a point Nigerians call the crossroads of history, a time when the British had almost fully penetrated Nigeria. That thirty-year span, from 1900 to1930, was a moment when the British tried to settle Igbo country. You know, I’m Igbo, and the Igbo are fairly stubborn people, and they resisted British colonialism for a long time. And it was in this period that this generation—Okigbo, Achebe, Chukwuemeka Ike—were born. Okigbo writes about this in Limits, when he talks about the “profanation of the mysteries,” referring to the violation of the traditional mores of his ancestry.

The clash of civilizations, the contact between the ancient African world and European modernity, seemed also to be the very soul of the conflict for that generation. If you read Achebe, if you read Okigbo, if you read all of them in that period, they were basically mourning the loss of an irrecoverable past, because it did seem that whatever modernity touched, whatever colonialism touched, it basically absorbed. They recognized that. They attempted to be a kind of witness, and perhaps, in this witnessing, recover that world. And so Okigbo mentions the spiritual loss both in his poetry and, in fact, in his life. As he always said, he was supposed to be the inheritor, the priest of the family shrine to Idoto, to whom he dedicates his quest.

I think that in sum, that time represents Africa at a vanishing moment, and also in its emerging moment, in its absorption toward what we call modernity. That period was an intersection that represents both the tragedy as well as the possibility of Africa in the twentieth century.

Thien: I wanted to give people a sense of Okigbo in case they hadn’t read him. This is from his very famous poem “The Passage”:

Before you, mother Idoto,
Naked I stand;
Before your watery presence,
A prodigal
Leaning on an oilbean,
Lost in your legend.
Under your power wait I
on barefoot,
watchman for the watchword
at Heavensgate;
out of the depths my cry:
give ear and hearken . . .

Nwakanma: It’s a lovely piece of poetry. That’s Okigbo.

Thien: Achebe has said that “English was forced down our throats.” With Okigbo, though, something else is happening. Reading Thirsting for Sunlight, I felt he tried to stake a new identity in the English language. He really loved the Western canonical works, he studied classics, he famously had passages from Virgil written all over the walls of his dormitory. Do you think that he responded to these works because they resonated with something that was already in him? Or was he embracing a European way of being modern?

Nwakanma: Bear in mind that I didn’t meet Okigbo, so whatever I say about him will be hearsay, you know. But I do think I have a fair idea of who he was from talking with his friends, his relations, his lovers, everybody. It does seem that Okigbo embraced cosmopolitanism. Not deracination. He believed that there was always an intersection of cultures, that every culture is a product of interactions. And he was a classicist, but what he did with the classics was to domesticate them. And in domesticating the Western classic to the African environment, he proved, or attempted to prove, that cultures borrow and mesh with one another in order to create new forms of expression.

Thien: He reimagined an Igbo mythology throuh his poems. Whatwas he looking for in the past? It was more than nostalgia.

Nwakanma: The re-creation of this mythology shows an awareness of his location in a world that was passing. There was some nostalgia, but he carried a practical sense of that world. That is, though you need to preserve in some way its memory, you also need to be aware of the current reality, of your place in the world in transition. And Okigbo was very cosmopolitan. He said that in his interview with Robert Serumaga in London in 1965. He said, Look, here I am, I’m wearing a European suit, and tomorrow I’m going to eat pounded yam. I embrace the world. Okigbo felt at ease in every world. He was a jazzist, he was a clarinettist, he was a man who was sensual. He would be great friends with hedonists. He was a hedonist.

Thien: He was an epicurean as well. His appetites—

Nwakanma: His appetites were vast. And sinful.

Thien: And yet he was afraid too. He was afraid of a life without sin because he thought it would be a life without consciousness.

Nwakanma: It was a bloody wasted life.He said that to his sister-in-law, Georgette, in 1967, in the heat of fighting: Oh, well what do I care if I die now? I’ve enjoyed myself.Here was a thirty-six-year-old man talking about not being afraid of death because he was resolved to the pleasure of living. So you could tell he had no fear of experience. That was possibly the tenet of his life. He thought a life without sin was a life without women.

Thien: He wasn’t alone in this approach to life. He and his contemporaries desired freedom in every aspect of their lives—it was the 1950s, they were young. But this was also the generation—they were called the “talented tenth,” you call them the “enchanted circle”—that was being groomed, in a sense, to be the new leaders of this country. His peers went on to be diplomats, scholars, they were in government and the army, they really—

Nwakanma: They were the leaders of that society. I went to the same high school as Okigbo, Achebe, Gabriel Okara, Saro-Wiwa. It was the colonial attempt at putting Eton in some backwoods, you know. And that’s how they were trained: to be the leaders of a new society. Bear in mind that in 1945 the post-war transition toward independence had begun, and that’s when that generation was being admitted into boarding school. They were being prepared to staff the new post-colonial bureaucracy—the entire frame of a new post-colonial society.

Okigbo, Achebe, Soyinka, J. P. Clark, that group of writers was at the epicentre of something powerful that was imagined in Africa in the 1950s. There was incredible hope, a certain form of elation. The idea of freedom. A freed continent, capable of its own restoration. That restoration is what drove them, the idea of a renaissance, and they felt capable of anything.

Thien: I had no idea that one in every four Africans is Nigerian. That there are 250 ethno-linguistic groups. And I wonder if people fear that this multiplicity, this extraordinary richness, is becoming a weakness. A weakness in the governmental structure, trying to find ways to give everyone a voice or to maintain power for your own.

Nwakanma: Well, the algorithm of the nation is shaped by factors other than diversity. Diversity could be a profound plus. In fact, it is. The character of Nigeria, the vast scale of Nigeria, the wealth of Nigeria, is encoded in its diversity. It’s massive. We always make this joke that haunts us: Everywhere in the world, people say to God, how could you give so much wealth to one people, to one place? He answers, Wait until you see who I put there. This is again part of the Nigerian cynicism. Seriously, I don’t think Nigeria’s diversity is its weakness. I think that the management of that diversity is the problem. There is great amity among Nigerians. But once it comes to the question of resource sharing, things become problematic. Now, I think that the problem of Nigeria also may just be, as I’ve pointed out on occasions, that we may be expecting too much from a nation that is, in simple historical time, a sapling. Nigeria is a child at fifty years since independence. When the British brought together this diversity, I don’t think that anybody had any illusions that it was going to be easy work to meld it. It was going to take time, and we had to survive. But hopefully, and this is the hope of people like me, Nigeria might come out a more tolerant man or woman. I think that there is always a temptation to dismiss the possibility of Nigeria. Optimism helps me wake up in the morning. I tend to be optimistic and think, Yes, we are going to go through this process of nation building. And crisis will sometimes be part of that process. It depends on Nigerians to manage that crisis and help shape the nation toward its own fruition. That’s what I always say, but who knows.

Thien: How do you imagine Okigbo’s poetry would have changed in response to this altered Nigeria?

Nwakanma: Poetry responds to the temperature of its world. Contemporary Nigerian poets are no different in responding to the sensibility that shapes their art—in terms of its use either for provocation or for celebration. Okigbo’s poetry was no praise-song. If anything, I situate Okigbo in the tradition of the elegies—the lament for a disappearing world and the lament for the dark world inherited after the colonial raping of the land. This is from “Limits”:

For the far removed there is wailing.
For the far removed
For the Distant . . .

The wailing is for the fields of crops:
The drum’s lament is:
They grow not . . .

The wailing is for the fields of men:
For the barren wedded ones;
For perishing children . . .

The wailing is for the Great River:
Her pot-bellied watchers
Despoil her . . .

Okigbo’s poetry felt the true pulse of the land, and that is why it is haunting, and that is why he’s often described as a “prophetic voice.” That voice came out of the acute awareness of one who lived in full spectrum of his world. I do think, from the evidence of his last sequence, “Path of Thunder,” that Okigbo’s art would only have gained with greater mastery to respond to the transformations in his society. But perhaps his work was done, because it was that altering of the land that compelled him to fight. Poetry was no longer enough.

Thien: I keep thinking about how complex, and sometimes contradictory, Okigbo’s thinking was. He said that “poetry was a way to bring out an inner disturbance.” Leslie Harriman described Okigbo as taking part in “sheer and necessary theatre.” Do you think it relates in some way to his question of whether there is such a thing as African literature? How would you answer Okigbo’s question?

Nwakanma: It is dangerous to second-guess Okigbo. However, what I do suspect is that, aside from the drama of it all, Okigbo also genuinely felt that poetry was a border-crossing art capable of subverting all ossified norms and cultural zones and interests. What indeed is African poetry? It is an abiding question. Poetry is the art of being human through language, and in Okigbo’s very cosmopolitan sensibility, there is no point in limiting its possibilities with redundant categories. For me, of course, African literature exists in so far as there is such a thing called the African experience of the world and its sensibility. But, in fact, what does that mean? How does a potter making pottery in my ancestral village in southeastern Nigeria differ from a potter making pottery in Ramallah or in some studio in Vermont? Perhaps the process is no different, but only in the particular nuances and idioms captured in the finished art can we see the uniqueness of our human condition.

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Madeleine Thien was born in Vancouver. She is the author of four books of fiction, most recently, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, a novel.