Pius Adesanmi died on March 10 last week aboard the crashed Ethiopian Airline flight 302 which claimed many lives. He was a literary critic, poet, columnist and professor of literature and African Studies at Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada. He’s known for books such as ‘Naija No Dey Carry Last’ (2015), ‘The Wayfarer and Other Poems’ (2001) which won the ANA poetry Prize for that year, and ‘You’re not a Country, Africa’. This interview, where he talks about writing as a form of activism, self-publishing and more was first published on December 9, 2012 in Daily Trust on Sunday. Excerpts:
You came and talked about Nigerian writers and cyberia and I was particularly taken by your postulation that writers have suffered because of their works and then again you mentioned people who have been saved by their creativity, like Shahrazad for instance. To what extent do you think writers need saving from themselves?
Oh (Laughs) to a great extent. There is a degree of the Bohemian that comes in. If you look at the lives of all the great writers in the literary traditions of the world, writers are, by and large, very poor managers of their lives. There seems to be something about the muses. They pack all that talent and creativity and house it in one individual and then they take something in return; the ability to take care of yourself. There are very few organised writers. And in a situation where what you do is already inherently perceived as a threat, you know, to established or entrenched traditions, entrenched ethos, and then you add the tendency not to take care of your affairs, you have a very combustible mix. Yes, writers, to a great extent, need to be saved from themselves. Read their biographies. You know I’ve been talking about Joseph Anton a lot, or Soyinka’s biography for instance. Yes, we need rescuing, seriously. And art, unfortunately, doesn’t do it. Art impairs. Art is something that saves ultimately in terms of its ability to, at least, inscribe the writer in posterity, but it impairs more than it saves.
True. Is there an obligation for the writer to be an activist, especially when you consider the criticisms that have trailed Mo Yan’s Nobel Prize win?
It’s definitely not an obligation. There is a pressure, there is always that idea that the writer is what the French call Ecrivain Phares. Ecrivain is writer and phares is headlight. So if you put the two together you have the writer as headlight, showing the way, the path. So there is the expectation. But there are writers who resist that. There are so many writers who are for what we call arts for arts sake. But ultimately, I’ve found out that one way or the other, development sucks them in. Look at Christopher Okigbo for instance. He spent his life basically disavowing the necessity for the writer to be anything other than a writer, pure, creative writer. In fact, he carried his to a puritanical level when he was asked why his poetry wasn’t accessible he said, I write only for fellow poets. He wanted a life devoted purely to the arts but he ended up leading a very political life and he went to the trenches and died in the trenches. It is not compulsory for the writer to be an activist but down the road somewhere, because arts is essentially humanistic, it is humanising, so long as you are the vector of that fundamental humanism, it is a privilege to be a deliverer of art, the transmitter of art. It chooses you. It is difficult to choose to be a writer, it chooses you. As long as that vocation is there, the social concern part of it is inescapable, no matter whether the writer wants it or not.
So essentially, the writer has to be a social commentator?
Not has to be, but the question is, is there anything a writer says or does that isn’t taken as social commentary or political commentary because the vocation of the writer has something of an unavoidable aspect of the French Ecrivain Phares, you know, the leading light of the society? The writer may say, I am just doing my thing, I am just doing art. But society values codes, what writers do in a way that makes it difficult to claim any form of neutrality.
You are a poet and you just mentioned Okidgbo’s postulation about his writing for other poets. It seems that most poets are being read only by other poets. Why is that so?
Poetry has always been [cultic] and poets have always been arrogant about that across history, you know they consider poetry the grandfather of all the arts. There has always been some kind of cultic essence to poetry. It is the least accessible of the arts and quite frankly, I think it’s the genre that takes the most toll on the intellect. Something I want to say in 2,000 words in a novel, how do you contract that into in a haiku in three lines or in a tweet now? I guess the opacity, if you need to concentrate imagery, metaphor and deliver them in a way which defamiliarises familiar experiences of the everyday to arrive at that level of poetic intensity, poetic concentration, I guess there is no way you are going to avoid some degree of opacity, you know, which comes with the poetic terrain. Although when I write poetry, I try as much as possible not to be, but I understand when writers are. Soyinka is a very opaque poet, for instance. So, it’s not just Okigbo, you know.
And perhaps because of the relativity of poetry, everyone brings out anything and calls it poetry, there is no regulation because publishing houses are not too keen on publishing poetry and everyone goes and self-publish. Is that a service or disservice to the genre?
It’s a double-edged sword. You want a thousand flowers to bloom, right? But where you don’t have the infrastructure, where you don’t even have the economic wherewithal to sustain the culture, then it becomes very difficult. Look at all the books you had at the convention centre. The sales figures, and writers have this tendency, I was buying these books and the writers will come and say, here is a complimentary copy and I will say, how much is it? They will say, ah, Prof. Just have it and I will say, no, let’s encourage one another. It’s your intellect, you know, and there is no price you can put on your intellectual work and you would want to show that you value it, so I want to pay for it and the guys will be surprised. So, you don’t have the structure. So, I think we should have organisations like ANA, the cultural organisations like what Tony Akinosu and Jahman Anikulapo have. They are doing a lot of cultural activism and I believe there are structures like that in Abuja. We should have formal or informal frameworks to encourage writers to meet some form of vetting or editing because the democratization of the publishing space, especially with the social media things and self-publishing and all that, in terms of the quality, we have to be frank and admit that oh, ho ho! Some of the things you see out there are just not it. It makes poetry the most susceptible to being abused because people want to have a book out there in order to claim the title of writer and people have this idea that if I can have 20-25 poems, it’s already a collection but I need 80, 000 words and above to have a novel and I don’t have that patience so let me scribble something and the next thing, you have a poetry collection. It’s out, it’s self published and all. But if people will have structures to vet some of these things, because you will never be able to stop it. The movement of culture is something very difficult to stop. It’s all online now, so how are you going to stop it? So what we can do is to meet culture every time at its point of evolution and intervene meaningfully in order to ensure standards.
Are we going about it the right way, the intervention, I mean, or are we even intervening at all?
No, we are not intervening. We are not. I haven’t seen anything to show that we are intervening in very meaningful, critical ways. Or maybe that is not totally true, on second thought. Maybe it’s just not enough. There are all these workshops, you know. Helon [Habila] comes once in a year for instance. That’s wonderful. He does his thing with Fidelity Bank. And Chimamanda has a gig that she runs. It’s just that we don’t have enough of those things and we have to make sure there are. I don’t know what the selection processes are to get people into the Helon workshop, but you could take a model like that, and Helon would need to have more people involved, whereby it could be something that could be taken across the country and have centres and have staff and broaden the scope of what Helon is doing. So, the bank would have to pump in more fund and have more resource persons on the ground. Because there is talent in this country, there is creativity, there is passion. I saw it on the faces of all these young writers. Young boys, young girls coming out, wanting to write. So, all they need is nurturing, encouragement. Where they don’t get it, then they scribble something and … [Shrugs].
There are lots of young writers and there is the first generation which is being held up as the standard and some critics have said this generation of writers are not as good as the first generation. Do you agree to this?
No, I don’t agree to this. I think there is always that literary tradition. It often starts with every generation feeling like they are the best. We’ve been talking about structures. You cannot compare the structures and opportunities that the Soyinka, Achebe, Okigbo generation had in terms of the nurturing and honing of their skill, and they didn’t have the numbers, so it was a small coterie of literati and culturati. So, the best way to judge is, is the talent sustained, for a start? Is the creative intensity sustained? Each generation has responded to the best of its ability but that is not to take anything away from the genius of the first generation. They placed [us] first on the map. But I believe subsequent generations have been responding adequately.
I think they had issues of colonialism and independence to address in their writing. Is it that this generation lacks critical, momentous issues to address, or are they more concerned, as Nnolim said, with fleshly literature?
I think the difference between freedom and unfreedom is like the difference between life and death. In a way, I think, they were more constrained to be committed writers. If you look at the poetry Uche Nduka is writing now, it’s very experimental; it’s all over the place. Some I like, some I don’t like, in Uche’s work. If you look at Afam Akeh; all over the place now. Ogaga [Ifewedo], I believe still does a lot of social-politically conscious poetry. If you look at Madiba, The Oil Lamp and all that, because of the peculiar nature of the Niger Delta where he comes from, he responds to that but to a great extent, the first generation was responding to colonialism and writing in reaction to a situation of unfreedom and we don’t have those constraints. We have other post-colonial constraints – post colonial disillusionment, bad governance. I don’t think you could equate that. Those are issues we are confronting from the perspective of dignity, we are not enslaved people anymore. So the writer is freer in our generation to say he wants to explore, I want to go in a direction that the Achebes and Soyinkas didn’t go.
I think you are in a position to dispense this onerous task I am going to ask you based on your background. If you are going to grade the new generation of Nigerian writers between 1-10, what would you score them?
Between 1-10! Now be careful when you say the new generation, this generation builders [laughs] be careful. Because after the third wave, now I am stealing somebody’s classification, there is another one now, they are much younger. Are we talking about the two combined as new generation? So be careful. Which one are you asking me to asses? Because the Richard Alis, your generation, the Elnathan Johns, the Tolu Ogunlesis, you guys were born in the 80s[laughs] when the generation you were talking about were publishing their first book. [laughs]. But to be serious, I think we can take the two together. I am impressed because, you know what? I am in a vantage position to see how the global world of letters sees Nigeria, and you know we’ve got a very bad reputation so the only good reputation we’ve got going is what these two generations, the third wave and the cyberia people, is what we have. I am going to say, this is literature so unfortunately, we can’t say 100 per cent, so I’m going to say a very high nine [laughs]. Despite everything, warts and all, I am going to say a very high nine. I am honestly fired up. The passion is there, the will is there, the talent is there. We just need to do more of nurturing, more of mentoring and more of harvesting. You guys are really doing wonderful things. We still define Africa culturally, we still define Africa. What brings Binyavanga [Wainaina] here? Even on Facebook, all these other guys from other continental literary traditions, why are they running to be friends with Nigerian writers? If you don’t plug in to what’s going on in Nigerian letters then you are not talking in Africa. So a very high nine.
Let’s talk about you now. How did this romance with literature start?
It goes way back into the way I was raised. My parents, both of them were bibliophiles and the tradition those days of missionary educated Nigerian parents – my father had been trained by Catholic missionaries, my mother by protestant missionaries. So, my father had collected lots of books and all I got from him when he died, all I inherited, were books, books, books. He studied African history but leaned heavily towards literature so that I grew up in his library, his personal library, with the great classics. By the time I was 10 years old, I had finished all the abridged versions of ancient Greece, ancient Rome, all the philosophies. By the time I was 15, I had finished every title in the African Writers Series because we had that. So that, combined with the traditional upbring I got from my grandmother, storytelling and all that, I was receiving a modern version of it from my parents who virtually threw me into a world of books and ideas and my grandmother developed my passion for storytelling. I would say I was born into it. It’s the only thing I‘ve ever known. There has to be that part of chosenness I was talking about earlier when I said art chooses you, you don’t choose it. Why do you think -I know you have experienced this- why do you think when there is something, an idea [in your head] why does it grip you, until you get it out, you can’t eat, you can’t sleep, everything you are doing, you are distracted until it takes some form, in terms of putting it down. That’s the entrancement part of it, the chosenness part of it. And I’ve always had this itch to write so I was just lucky to have been born by parents who value it and into an environment which nurtured it.
At what point did you come into consciousness about this chosenness status?
When in high school I would miss or dodge Physics or mathematics classes, I was never good in the science, and I discovered what was encouraging truancy, I used to scribble poetry a lot, I used to scribble plays a lot and I would feel the intensity and would sit in class wondering what all this Archimedes Theory is. I endured a lot of corporal punishment [laughs] you didn’t come to class, you didn’t do this or that. In an ironic sort of way, I was missing classes because I needed to read or write. By the time I got into the university, it had become clear it was something I wanted to take very seriously.
Odia Ofeimun described you as a rascal, intellectually, do you consider yourself one?
Well, to an extent, I think that’s true. I liked to rumble, intellectually, I like to be contrarian, I like to push boundaries, I like to be unconventional. To that extent, yes.
Do you remember the first thing you wrote that made you realise this is what you want to do all your life?
Ooooh, the first thing I wrote got me into trouble. I remember it was a love poem [laughs]. I knew it had to be that.
It was a love poem, in form 3. My father had sent me on an errand and the thing was in my pocket and I put his change with it so that when I gave him his change, I mistakenly included the letter in it because I hadn’t delivered it. That was the first thing I remember scribbling, I wish I could find it now. I thought it was the best poem in the world at that time.
So, this assertion that love inspires poetry also holds true for you?
Oh, yes. It inspired my first piece of creative writing. And after that, because I was a member of the drama club, I nearly turned out an actor, so that also inspired me to scribble bits of drama. So, I wrote a lot of garbage, stealing bits of Shakespeare here and there.
What has been the most rewarding moment in your literary career?
The most rewarding moment, maybe when I won the Penguin Prize for African Writing. It was for creative non-fiction and it was ok.
You are based in Canada and you have always had a say on what is going on in Nigeria, why is it so important to you to maintain that connection?
Oh, it’s essential. Absolutely essential. It’s not so much an undying love for country but the vitality of our literary community is what feeds me, without it I am nothing. So, I am just physically there. Mentally, psychologically and emotionally, this is where I am. I feel more in Nigeria than abroad because if you see me every day it’s Nigeria. Apart from the political activism, I need the vitality of our literary community to sustain me, our arts and culture community, to feed my work, otherwise its spiritual exile and spiritual exile is death. [laughs].