Authors: Wole Soyinka
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Monica Arac de Nyeko
Eileen Almeida Barbosa
A. Igoni Barrett
Jackee Budesta Batanda
Recaredo Silebo Boturu
Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond
Hawa Jande Golakai
Abubakar Adam Ibrahim
Stanley Onjezani Kenani
Richard Ali A Mutu
Mohamed Yunus Rafiq
Nii Ayikwei Parkes
Novuyo Rosa Tshuma
The Word Shall Fly Free!
This year, the world will mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The city of Port Harcourt, designated World Book Capital 2014, can justly consider her literary constituency especially privileged to be playing host to the world on the anniversary of a convulsion that profoundly impacted the world of letters and creativity. Not just Port Harcourt of course, but decolonised Africa. For the generation captured in this anthology, the connection may not be obvious. The ‘wind of change’ had already blown over the continent and nearly all African nations had long gained their independence from colonial rule. That wind, however, did not take long to change direction and character. Inevitably it brought with it the detritus – including shrapnel – of ideological warfare from other lands. ‘Inevitably’, since the struggle for independence itself was never completely devoid of a search for ideological anchors. Wherever convenient for the corralling of citizen solidarity and commitment, unity of purpose and obedience to political direction, leadership itself adopted ideological labels, either pitting itself against, or co-opting its writers and intelligentsia into strategies for, social transformation.
For a handful of that leadership, conviction in the social doctrines for radical change was genuine. For the majority, however, it was a sham, a weapon for silencing dissidence and regimenting society. Material development, productive strategies and social organisation were never considered sufficient in themselves as validation of the radical choice. The mind itself was the ultimate target, its conformity and intellectual submission to the prevailing ideology. This made the creative writer a primary objective in the struggle for power. In the Soviet Union and its captive bloc – the birthplace of what, till today, was considered the most radical manifesto of all time – the writer’s creative choices became subject to clinical inspection under the testamentary microscope: theme, language, stylistics, social relationships, class consciousness or the absence thereof, revolutionary rhetoric and so on and on – under which the material of literature itself virtually disappeared, leaving only a question of conformity to, or deviation from, a Party ideology. The African intelligentsia was not slow to catch on, and the battles that raged in academia and among the general literati soon degenerated to a level of ferocity that virtually inhibited new talent altogether. Like the proverbial millipede that stopped to count its feet, they could no longer walk!
For writers and aspiring writers everywhere, Berlin was not simply a wall of concrete with watchtowers and armed guards, bristling with electronic gadgets, mined sectors and slavering guard dogs, but a structure of mind control and creative interdictions. Put at its most basic, under that ideology, the world of literature was neatly bifurcated. There was literature that advanced the revolutionary cause, whose destination was a classless Utopia, and there was – The Rest. During the extreme phases of that division, from the epicentre to the peripheries of its catchment zones, including the African continent, the rest was fit not merely for the garbage dump, it was deemed a crime against social perfectibility, if not against humanity itself.
A quarter of a century after the battle for the mind was resolved in Berlin in favour of freedom of intellect and imagination, a new (yet ancient) enemy of that eternal quest resurfaces on African soil. The vestments of today’s commissariats of ‘correctness’ may have changed, but the credentials remain the same – a doctrinaire mentality that cannot tolerate the freedom of the mind, its exploration of a universe that continues to astonish, to take us on unique voyages of discovery both physical and metaphysical, and even into the hidden, censored and denied histories of ourselves. Was that not what Nelson Mandela had in mind when he rhapsodised: ‘In the presence of Chinua Achebe’ – referring to the writer’s famous work – ‘the prison walls fell down’? Yes, indeed, that is one of the attainments of literature. And not just the walls of Robben Island but of ignorance. Prejudice. Separatism. Mind constrictions. Robben Island could be located in Pyongyang, in Ahidjo’s Cameroon. In Pol Pot’s necropolis. Where are they all? Where will they be found at the dawn of tomorrow? Literature survives them all.
One of my favourite browsing grounds remains, unrepentantly, the garbage dump, or, to put it more elegantly – the flea market, especially of books. Those rows and jumbled stalls and trestles of browned, dog-eared second-hand books, pages frayed with age, evocative of contemplative, even escapist hours in the company of unknown faces, redolent of distant places and exotic adventures both of mind and body – such musty, unruly way stops have the edge, for me, even over the fragrance of newly-minted volumes on tidy rows of antiseptic shelves, with careful labelling under subject matter, author, geography etc. You never know what you will find in the flea market! They are spaces of fleeting to deep self-immersions in the unknown, and a purchase does not break your budget. Tantalising extensions of the mind in unscheduled directions, they engender curiosity, and a wistful regret that life does not offer more leisure for infinitely extending such ephemeral moments, those meagre interruptions of routine hustling for material survival or even structured study.
Making a literary discovery becomes a bonus that is casually savoured for days afterwards, hanging in the background of other activities until it dissipates on its own or prods the mind (or hand!) into sometimes unrelated undertakings. Where it takes on a life of its own, or simply inducts the mind into new regions of awareness, is, however, the most rewarding. Blessed be those who can swear that they never touch a book unless it promises class conflict and pays homage to dialectical materialism – the rest of us infidels look forward to being surprised by an exquisite literary vignette from a hitherto unknown hand, a work that has emerged through reinterpretative intelligence over humdrum existence, the transformation of the familiar through a new order of reality, the creation of an autonomous realm of social relations and extraction of congruence from incongruence etc. etc. The writer is a magician. Here now are three quite recent literary adventures, each exposing this secret fraternity within the world of books.
Take one of my nominations for this very
project. It came from one such encounter in a ‘garbage’ pile. I have no idea, even at the stage of writing this, if the product of that encounter will make the longlist, the short, or eventually earn a place in this anthology – or indeed if others have entered the same choice. All I know is that the modest volume of short stories had me making enquiries and keeping a lookout for further works from that pen. I encountered it in a sort of Fringe Mart, in this very city, outside the confines of a previous book festival in Port Harcourt organised by the Rainbow Book Club. It was a work of acute social observation and creative empathy – the author was clearly no beginner. His collection did not spout any ideological sermons, being committed only to exposing the social fakeries and artificial values of contemporary society, delineating the delicate, and often moving, course of adolescence in a mined environment. It did not take more than the flash of one line and I knew that I held a miniature gem in my hands. I was not deceived.