Children’s writing and Nigerian contemporary fiction received a boost recently when the authors of Igho Goes to Farm and Prodigals in Paradise, Messrs Anote Ajeluorou and Henry Akubuiro, were hosted to a Creative Writing Masterclass at the Department of English and Literature, University of Benin, Benin City, Edo State. The event afforded both Ajeluorou and convener of the event and notable poet, Prof. Tony Afejuku, opportunity to call on Nigerian universities’ departments of English and Literature to make conscious efforts to include children’s writing and research in their departments’ curricula as well as devote more space to studying contemporary fiction texts being written by Nigerians.
It was a rare moment to engage the enthusiastic students who turned up in large numbers at the 1000 lecture theatre to connect with two Lagos-based writers and journalists on the rudiments of creative writing. Ajeluorou, whose debut, Igho Goes to Farm, is adjudged among the 11 best children’s books in the country in the last four years by The Nigeria Prize for Literature 2019, first charged teachers of literature in universities and other higher institutions to incorporate the study of and research into children’s writing in their departments’ curricula.
He argued that those at the cradle of learning were being denied the benefit of sound reading texts, because the experts in the field were not involved in what constitute recommended texts. As a result, the author who was returning to the department where he graduated, said, badly written and substandard texts flood both private and public schools’ classrooms that become deterrent to efficient mastery of the rules of grammar in spoken and written English. He said reading well-written children’s storybook like Igho Goes to Farm helps the linguistic ability of children just as bad ones retard it.
Ajeluorou further argued that the foundation of children’s education needed to be protected from badly written texts so Nigerian children are given a good start in life. He stated that such poor foundation in children is hard to correct later in life, as it trails them to their university education level and life after school. The children’s author therefore said teaching children’s writing in higher institutions, as a specialised field of study, would further enrich writing in that genre, facilitate its research and documentation, and elevate children’s writing in the country to an enviable level. He said there was no reason a professorial chair devoted to children’s literature should not be established in any of the country’s university.
Another area of scholarship gap that needs to be urgently addressed that became obvious from interaction with some of the students is the scant attention being paid to the teaching of Nigerian contemporary fiction in departments of literature in Nigerian universities. Some of the students complained that there was too much concentration on European literary tradition in the literature curricula than on local Nigerian writing. They noted that such concentration limited their capacity to engage with locally written texts and their writers. The implication, they further argued, was that the practice militated against the ‘local informing the global’ dictum as creative writing is usually framed where writers are encouraged to focus on their environment as it has implication for the global audience.
While responding to this charge, convener of the Creative Writing Masterclass, Prof. Afejuku noted afterwards that although the students who made the complaints were right, he said the blame should go to writers of contemporary fiction and their publishers who he accused of continually failing to take advantage of the vast number of students studying literature in Nigerian universities and how to make their books readily available for teachers of literature and their students alike. He said publishing fictional writing in Nigeria is based on a ‘fake premise’ that fails to understand that actively promoting books is one of the most important component duties of publishers.
According to Afejuku, “Well, the students are right and they are also not right. We don’t see the works of contemporary writers; they don’t bring their works (to us). If I didn’t bring you two here, the students wouldn’t have seen your works – Igho Goes to Farm and Prodigals in Paradise. So that is a major problem. It has to do with book distribution in the country by the publishers and the bookshops. Publishers don’t promote their writers which is a big problem; they just collect money from writers to publish their books. Since they already collect money from me (writers) to publish their books, why not take money from me to promote my books? Abroad, they (publishers) promote their writers, taking them to read here and there.
“I don’t want to use the word ‘fake’ because (American President Donald) Trump has over-used the word. We do fake things here because we are a fake people. Contemporary writers and their writings are kind of rudderless; the attention that they (writers) rightly deserve they are not getting. It’s very wrong; they have to change, but they are not ready to change.”
The author of poetry collections, A Garden of Moods, A Spring of Sweets, An Orchard of Wishes, stated, however, that he was among the first lecturers to include contemporary fiction texts in his teaching kit, especially at post-graduate level with the late writer and environmental activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa whose startling works he stumbled upon while on a teaching assignment outside the country.
“Having said that, I was the first person to teach Ken Saro-Wiwa in Nigeria, particularly Soza Boy (a novel in rotten English) and his collection of short stories, A Forest of Flowers. I first encountered excerpts of Saro-Wiwa’s Soza Boy in Nigeria Magazine at the University of Sterling in Scotland in 1984. It was amazing. At the time, I didn’t know him from Adam. I started teaching him to my Master of Arts (MA) students; then my undergraduates. I recommend all kinds of contemporary texts. So, in my own way, I try to promote Nigerian contemporary writers. I also encourage my students to look at contemporary writers in their (final year) projects.
“It’s a Nigerian condition. Truly, people are not reading the way they should read. There’s always a way out of it. The university bookshops can buy your books. The challenge is that the university bookshops don’t remit money as and when due. University authorities don’t make things easy either. They say ‘don’t sell your books to students.’ But if my students don’t buy my books who will buy them? They say ‘take your books to the university bookshop’. But those university bookshop people don’t do book deals the right way; they don’t make returns; they sell books but don’t return money to writers and publishers as and when due. So, it’s a Nigerian condition. It’s true that some lecturers threaten students to buy their books. That is true. I say, don’t make it compulsory.”
On his part, Akubuiro gave the students 10 points to consider when writing that play, poem, prose or short story. He advised them to ‘choose a genre of fiction’ to write on, ‘choose a story idea’, ‘read books in your genre’ of choice, ‘choose your point of view’, ‘establish the setting’ for the story idea, ‘develop your main character,’ ‘establish the conflict,’ ‘create an outline,’ ‘structure development,’ and ‘give yourself target and create a unique style.’
While declaring the masterclass open, the Head of Department, Prof. Esther Ugwu, who was represented by Dr. Esther Jamgbadi, said the event was to further deepen the students’ consciousness in the art of writing through interaction with two current practitioners in the creative writing craft.
In summing up his impression of the masterclass, Ajeluorou expressed satisfaction at the enthusiasm of staff and students alike in giving the programme maximum support. He said he was fascinated by the students’ eagerness to learn, the engaging questions they asked and their overall comportment.
“Here are a set of great students who are taking their writing craft seriously through the way they listened and asked questions,” Ajeluorou said. “A generation of new writers is in the making. It’s only a matter of time before these young ones blossom and burst into the literary landscape. I’m happy to have met and interacted with them. They hold hope for the future of writing in this country. This is worth celebrating. UNIBEN is, indeed, UNIbest!”
Akubuiro on his part said, “It was a mind-blowing experience. The turnout was encouraging. Indeed, it was massive. I could count over a thousand students in the hall. I can’t remember the last time I saw that kind of crowd in any literary event in Nigeria, not even in the biggest literary festivals in the country. I have been reading all over the country for years now, but the UNIBEN outing ranked up there among the most exciting.
“Again, in terms of sales of books, it was good news for me. Above all, the attention paid by the students in the course of the master class was superb. You could see that hunger to learn. I think other universities in Nigeria should borrow a leaf from the University of Benin. That town and gown synergy in the academia brings out the best in both parties. The students, especially, are the greatest beneficiaries, seeing the writers firsthand and fraternising with them.”
-Ipogah, who teaches English, lives in Benin City