Monday, April 13, 2009

Aniebo: Nigerian literature and the absent critic

By Obi Nwakanwa, Vanguard Newspapers

I speak with two clear bona fides: as a professional writer and a trained theorist and literary critic. As a literary critic, both in the popular press - meaning literary journalism- and in the academic sense of it, I have grappled with the question of Nigerian literature as a late modern development in world culture.
I have watched with distinct constipation the diminution of the field of literary activity and cultural criticism in Nigeria, both as an academic and a popular venture. This is at the very core of frustrations expressed by Nigerian novelist, I.N.C Aniebo, who recently turned 70, and at this season of his autumnal offered a lament for the absence of engaged Nigerian criticism. First, let me congratulate I.N.C Aniebo on his 70th birthday. Aniebo was the example of the intellectual soldier of his generation.

Educated at the elite Government College Umuahia, where he was classmates with Tim Onwuatuegwu, Aniebo also chose the path of the soldier. He trained as a military officer in Cadet Schools in Teshie (Ghana) and in England and was commissioned Lieutenant as an Artillery officer. He later trained in Marine Warfare in the United States at the Command and General Staff College at Forth Leavenworth, Kansas.

Aniebo’s advents into modern Nigerian writing began with his sallies in the Nigeria magazine then edited by the novelist Onuorah Nzekwu. One of his earliest and more remarkable statements was made in that magazine as critic of Chinua Achebe, in his review of Achebe’s Arrow of God when it appeared in 1964.

In Aniebo’s critique, “Novelist or Sociologist: A review of Arrow of God” which appeared in the June 1964 edition of the Nigeria magazine he raised the questions that challenged Achebe’s aesthetics and its production of value.

He literally consigned Arrow of God to the corners of anthropology. It was a remarkable response, more so because of its provenance: Aniebo was then not an academic or a professional critic; he was a young military officer, albeit one who was making more than a hint of the emergent shape of modern African literature.

His early critical voice was eloquent. Achebe’s rising stature at the time as his generation’s star writer already drawing the significant attention of an international as well as local audience was certainly not hurt, but Aniebo’s perspective further complicated or if you like, muddled the calm waters of fawning criticism that greeted Achebe’s work.

Aniebo began thus to draw attention to himself as an emerging writer, writing very interesting short stories and publishing mostly in the Nigeria magazine, and in other outlets and increasingly using pseudonyms to avoid the military censor. He gained early attention with his short stories and has been referred to by his early critics as the “master of the Nigerian short story form.”

I am of course yet to see the architecture of that form called the “Nigerian short story” since no critic or scholar of that genre has come to clearly map its characteristics, or even show that such a thing exists as a uniquely formal category called the “Nigerian short story,” different in its texture and textuality from, say, the “Russian short story” or the “Gaelic short story” or the short story from any other Anglophonic tradition.

The charge or challenge for that kind of mapping would be to reveal an authentic form of practice that would situate an autonomous Nigerian imagination. The point of course is not, and would never be, that there are no Nigerian writers of the short story.

As I have stated, I.N.C. Aniebo has frequently been described as a real master of that form. His career seemed all set for the army, where he was apparently headed towards an exciting military career and towards the Nigerian High Command, when the volt of violence shocked and shattered the boundaries of the old Nigerian federation.

In 1966, just returning from military training in the United States, the Nigerian crisis ensued. Many of Aniebo’s colleagues were killed in the putsch of July. Aniebo was saved by a happy twist of fate. He fought on the Biafran side, although he was also later detained by the Biafran authorities during the war.

At the end of the civil war, with his career in the army ruined, and with the help of some of his old friends in the Nigerian Army, Aniebo secured admission to schools in the United States, and opted for the University of California in Los Angeles, where he studied, and worked under the late historian Boniface Obichere. Aniebo’s debut novel, the Anonymity of Sacrifice appeared to some acclaim in 1974. It established Aniebo’s claims as a writer, especially in its exploration of the immediate sense of trauma following the civil war.

Aniebo’s novel is without question, among the finest stories that came out of the Nigerian civil war, including V.C. Ike’s Sunset at Dawn, Cyprian Ekwensi’s Survive the Peace, Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Sozaboy, Eddie Iroh’s Forty-Eight Guns for the General, Elechi Amadi’s Sunset in Biafra and even Achebe’s collected stories, Girls at War among the more prominent. Aniebo returned to Nigeria in 1979 after studies in the United States and taught Creative Writing from then on in the English Department of the University of Port-Harcourt.

Aniebo’s grouse - and it is justifiable grouse - is against contemporary critics of Nigerian or African writing. Aniebo has felt himself and many others unjustifiably ignored in the critical enterprise that tends to elide the work of writers not sanctioned, in his reckoning by some “western” or metropolitan critic writing out of New York or London.

Aniebo has incidentally been colleagues to some of the giants of modern Nigerian literary scholarship, including the late Wilfred Feuser and the poststructuralist critic Sunday Anozie as well as Charles Nnolim. But Aniebo’s sense of the Nigerian critic is that he is profoundly faddish and unoriginal, except perhaps in his own radical exception of the novelist and critique, Isidore Okpewho.

Aniebo’s exception declared in his remarks at the events marking his birthday raises certain important questions. Among the most central is the state of contemporary Nigerian humanistic education, with its anchors in literature, language, history, and philosophy.

There is a thorough absence, it seems, of the professional Nigerian critic in the formulation of ideas governing either the shape of the canon of writing in Nigeria or the shape of ideas structuring the discourse of that canon.

The era of the great critics in Nigeria seem to have passed and there are no more great literary critics of power in the Nigerian horizon of the stature of Ben Obumselu, MJC Echeruo, Emmanuel Obiechina, Abiola Irele, Isidore Okpewho, Sunday Anozie, Kola Ogungbesan, and so on.

This first set of Nigerian critics who established a tradition of literary criticism in Nigeria do not seem to have successors. The contemporary Nigerian critic is absent, and the discourse of ideas of nation and of its formation through its cultural texts – those archives of its lived experience in literature - is increasingly a lost art in Nigeria.

Aniebo’s lament is justified: for example, there is something to say against a critic of the culture of nation, who is unaware of the range and the dimension of cultural production of the nation in its current form.

That is the situation of the critic today in Nigeria: an edgy ignorance mediated by a certain hardness of heart, and an unwillingness to discover or explore.

The contemporary Nigerian critic of the new writing is also mostly a ventriloquist doing what I would call “follow-follow criticism”: as Aniebo indeed laments, they now write about Chimamanda Adichie, for instance, only because she has gained some currency among critics and reviewers in Europe and America. Yet, long before Half of a Yellow Sun was the Anonymity of Sacrifice. The Nigerian critic is lethargic and unoriginal, or indeed, mostly alienated.

It is this alienation itself that also characterises Aniebo’s own declaration of ignorance: his lack of awareness of any other writing by a contemporary generation of Nigerian writers, whom he has in is own confessions, not read, and therefore could never talk about with the authority of the scholar of writing and literature.

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