Saturday, July 23, 2011

E.C. Osondu's reading at The Lifehouse, Lagos

E. C. Osondu [Photos: Chika Okeke-Agulu]

Yesterday, I was reminded what made and makes Lagos--in spite of itself--the city one cannot turn completely away from. E.C. Osondu, who won the Caine Prize two years ago (for his short story, "Waiting") had a reading from his  collection Voice of America at Ugoma Adegoke's trendy The Lifehouse in Victoria Island, Lagos. It was my only chance to see old friends, and make new acquaintances during this trip. Odia Ofeimun, Toyin Akinosho, Ndidi Dike, Toni Kan, Victor Ehikhamenor, Tunde Kuboye, Molara Woods, and many more were there. Toyin who has sparred with E.C. many times before, returned to the question of what constituted appropriate writerly subject for Nigerian writers publishing overseas. A boring subject to me; one that to me comes from a siege mentality, which you also see in the visual arts. The difference of course is that at least there is room for debate about these matters in the world writing. Toyin represents is the kind of criticism that is more concerned with what the "west" thinks than about the freedom of the artistic imagination to seek its subject and, moreover, the fact that these literatures are the product of their environment, regardless of what the imagined "west" thinks about them. 
Ugoma Adegoke (2nd L), Toyin Akinosho (near Center), Toni Kan (in red)

As I see it,  Nigeria's postcolonial condition--manifest  in elaborate culture of mind-numbing official and endemic corruption and violence; economic and psychological impoverishment; paradoxical, stunning even heroic creativity borne out of untold hardships; and rich, diverse cultures layered over by bewildering, new-fangled religiosities--all these and more are wont to excite the creative imagination and to yield literary works of incredible power and beauty. Literature that may not recommend the nation well to the aspiring tourist, or provide sound bites for the Ministry of Information, but which in themselves are memorable if dark works of art by Okey Ndibe, Ike Oguine, Helon Habila, Chika Unigwe, Akin Adesokan, Sefi Attah, Uzodinma Iweala, Toni Kan, and, yes, Osondu and so on.

Tunde Kuboye, Ugoma Adegoke, Odia Ofeimun
Molara Woods, Ndidi Dike
Victor Ehikhamenor with camera

Ok, it is not true that I find these debates about literary subject matter boring! Actually, I like the robustness of it. The fact that the writers are willing to engage with equal passion with their critics makes for a healthy literature. If there is anything that gets me really, really mad, it is that none such serious, meaningful conversations are taking place in the visual arts. And that, if anything, is why contemporary Nigerian literature is miles ahead of contemporary Nigerian art both terms of the quality of the production and the discourse around it.

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