The train of thoughts wandered effortlessly, from Africa to Europe and from North America to Asia, so on and so forth, traversing the different continents in a matter of minutes, to the audience fascination.
It was a breathtaking adventure for participants when they were taken on an intellectual trip around the world by a mélange of Nigerian writers and their foreign counterparts at the ‘My Kind of Books’ event organized by the Prisenda Writers Residency Initiative (PWRI) to commemorate the UNESCO World Book and Copyright Day, on April 23, 2021.
The press release heralding the event said: “My Kind of Books is a platform where participants have the pleasure to talk about the books that have influenced their lifestyle, changed their worldview and brought about paradigm shift. Some of the highlights of the books discussion will include authors recounting the various circumstances surrounding their encounter with the books…”
At the online event, just like the American writer – Jhumpa Lahiri, once said in her famous quote that books “… let you travel without moving your feet”, the audience had an unforgettable experience shuttling borders without having to pay a dime for either flight tickets or visa application fees. The train of thoughts wandered effortlessly, from Africa to Europe and from North America to Asia, so on and so forth, traversing the different continents in a matter of minutes, to the audience fascination. It was a jolly ride sort of, a voyage that led to many discoveries.
The afterglow of the 2021 ‘My Kind of Books’ will continue to linger for a long time. It featured as guest writers—Tade Ipadeola, Titi Horsfall, Anote Ajeluorou, Ayodele Olofintuade, Iquo Diana-Abasi and Jona Krutzfeld—a German publisher. With incisive contributions from the audience, the conversation was moderated by the poet and festival administrator- Samuel Osaze.
When the event finally started, it was the poet laureate – Tade Ipadela, that was first at the wheels. Keeping the audience harangued by the sheer power of his literary versatility, the highpoint of the thrill was when the 2013 winner of the Nigeria Prize for Literature made a startling revelation that he made the acquaintance of a fellow Ibadan dweller—Amos Tutuola, through a Japanese writer; Kenzaburo Oe, who holds Tutuola in awe, at the time.
“…I got introduced to other writers. I got introduced to poets like: Wislawa Szymborska from Poland, I got introduced to writers like Kenzaburo Oe, from Japan” Ipadeola revealed.
He continued: “Kenzaburo Oe, was very special. He is still alive. When I started reading him, I saw that he was very diffident towards writers like Amos Tutuola, who’s Nigerian, who’s in Ibadan, who I’d never read until that time. So, you can see how literature moves. So I got interested in reading Amos Tutuola because Kenzaburo Oe held him in such high esteem.
From the outset, Tade Ipadeola clarified that his initiation into poetic craft was from an encounter with one of the collections of Niyi Osundare. “So my first book that really got me as a poet was Niyi Osundare’s The Eyes of the Earth. Through The Eyes of the Earth, I had the impression that poetry had to be in a certain way. Reading Niyi Osundare, there was this intense musicality, which was something I was not used to. I was used to it in the Yoruba language but not in the English language. And, everybody knows that Niyi Osundare can really make words dance on the page. So that was my first really serious encounter with contemporary literature that was great.
Then I got introduced to the Latin American writers, the South American writers: Gabriel Garcia Marquez , and that host- Mario Vargas Llosa, those were interesting, great writers. But, I think the inflection point for me was Derek Walcott. When I got to read Omeros for the first time, it was like traveling to a different planet, like, going to Mars or Jupiter or Neptune. And I said to myself, this is a human being. I have to try and do some works. So, yeah, literature for me has been that kind of journey. So, strange. I get to read about a Nigerian writer through a Japanese writer.” Ipadeola concluded.
For Ayodele Olofintuade, as time continues to evolve, she has learnt to focus more on African women writers whose works have made enormous impact on her career route. Also influential to her writing is the rich Yoruba oral tradition from whence she has learned and gleaned.
“I have learned so much about my ancestry, about Orunmila, Ifa and Yemoja, and when it comes to American writers, Rachel Morrison, of course, black woman writers, there’s Audrey Lorde, whose writing actually like completely, turned the way I saw women’s writing.” The feminist writer said.
“For a period of three years, I stopped reading. I said I would focus mainly on black women writers. It has had such a big influence on my work, on my research on women writing, on the books I choose to read, and recommend to people. First, I focused on Asian writers like Huraki Murakami and a couple of others, I have read all their books, and I won’t forget the Nigerian- British writer Helen Oyeyemi. She’s an amazing writer. I read all her books. Nnedi Okorafor is actually the one that influenced my love for writing fantasy novels…” Olofintuade rounded off.
Similarly, Anote Ajeluorou, while sharing his literary sojourn with the audience, disclosed how JP Clark’s ‘Night Rain’ resonated with his childhood experiences growing up in his Ibedeni country home of Delta State. He also added that his first encounter with literature was actually through the oral folktales among his Isoko people, when children would gather for tales by moonlight while being regaled by adults with entertaining and didactic stories.
“…and of course, you can’t forget poets too, poets like JP Clark.
For instance; ‘Night Rain’ for me was highly relatable and nostalgic because our house back then was a thatched house, a mud house with raffia sheet. Ajeluoruo spoke with palpable nostalgia in his voice.
“So, when my dad is probably late in putting a new roof on our mud house, and the rains come, of course, what you experience is exactly ‘Night Rain’ as captured by JP Clark, especially when it’s night, and it rains– you can be sure the rains, were something else. So, exactly the way ‘Night Rain’ is, was how we lived until a few years later that the thatched roof was changed to zinc roof, and then we escaped from, you know, the rain falling like mangoes or oranges on things that mother had placed on the path of raindrops.”
Ajeluoruo had revealed his first encounter with literature at the beginning of his conversation:
“So, for me, it wasn’t actually books that were my first encounter with literature, but as my gateway. What was or were, were actually stories. They were African folktales. I had a great dose of it while growing up as a young child. Almost every evening, we sit down amongst the elders. while they regale us with short stories, about the ancient Edo Empire because my Isoko people actually came from Edo, what is now known as Benin City. So, stories about the Oba of the Oredo Kingdom. The big old Benin Empire formed the bulk of the stories that actually formed our growing up years. They would tell us stories of Obas, about giants, the dealings of the Obas, you know, quite a lot of stories from that era. So you know, we sit down and listen, and drink these stories into our beings. And then the other one was also the positions which the elders held. My father was a spokesman for most of the time the meetings were held in his place. So, we listened to these elders talk. We listened to proverbs, you know, we listened to them using words, just the way Achebe aptly described in ‘Things Fall Apart’ when he said “proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten”.
Also interesting was Iquo Diana-Abasi’s expedition into her literary world:
“I started reading quite young. I just used to read everything I could lay my hands on, you know, and dictionaries, when I stumble upon a word I don’t know the meaning, I would just check the dictionary. I didn’t think any book was too big for me to read. I read everything I could find. In primary school, I had friends who used to bring Pacesetters. I made it a point of duty to read two free Pacesetters every week. I remember when I was about 10, I read one titled Bloodbath at Lobster Close, by Dickson Aghavini. It was like a detective story and I enjoyed it…” Diana-Abasi began.
“I read Sydney Sheldon, Jackie Collins…But I think the point at which literature changed my perceptions was when I read people like Toni Morrison and then Maya Angelou. For Morrison, I’m in awe of her writings, the way she painted events, even of her characters. When I read Maya Angelou, she kind of gave me wings. I began to believe that, okay, my story was relevant. I began to believe that no matter what one went through, one could overcome. So yes, this was the point at which literature went from being pleasurable read, went from being, you know, something that I could hold on to and maybe because at that point, for many years in my life, I was passing through tough time. So, books like that helped me to begin to believe in myself, begin to find solutions, and begin to question things around. So when I read Wole Soyinka’s The man Died, for instance, I began to think to myself, Okay, so I have a right to speak. Not just a right, I have a duty to speak out when things aren’t going right…”
Another inspiring jolly ride was when the German female publisher, Jona Krutzfeld, speaking from Leipzig, navigated the Nigerian literary scene with great aplomb. Showing her vast depth of the exotic landscape, Krutzfeld revealed how the concept of Ogbanje in Nigerian literature, an otherwise mental health challenge in the West, was a mesmerizing encounter for her in Nigerian literature.
“I don’t know where to start. Nigerian classics are very well-known to all of you and we don’t have to talk about them. But one book that really inspired me recently and made me think, is Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi . About a girl, actually, the main character of this German book that I just talked about is called Ada, which is not a common name at all in Germany, and the main character of Freshwaters is also called Ada, and I don’t know this is something that reoccurs in my life. So this is a character that travels with me throughout my life, but always different ones and in this Ada of the Freshwater, it’s what in Germany is considered a pathological disorder that you are being sent to a psychiatric ward for. But in this book, it means he (the writer) really manages to have a very interesting take on these multiple personalities, because Ada does not perish from the voices in her head. But there is some sort of inspiration for her to grow. What’s very interesting is that it means he explores these different voices through the means of Igbo culture, and brings in the concept of Ogbanje. And that for me was a whole new world.”
Krutzfeld spoke further: “A lot of Nigerian books have shaped my path of reading and of course the Famished Road by Ben Okri also The Fisherman by Chigozie Obioma for the way that he talks about a river he gives a sense of urgency, which was very uncommon for me before. Of course The Famished Road was my introduction to magical realism and spirit children, for example, and then yes The Palm-Wine Drinkards also is a really great, especially since there’s a lot of pidgin English, and you know; the language debate, yes. I think, also recently like within the past two or three years, was Oil on Water by Helon Habila, because it really made me understand the extent of environmental pollution and the oil crisis in Nigeria.”
The Prisenda founder, poet and novelist– Titi Horsfall, deftly sustained the momentum by further taking the audience into her world of literary voyage. Horsfall talked about how a home library stocked with series of encyclopedias greatly shaped her expedition into the literary realm as a precocious child growing up in Port Harcourt.
“Thank you very much.” She began. “I mean, I have just enjoyed listening to all of you. Really exciting! I will wrap it up in about two minutes. When I was about three years old, I started reading. So, we had a library that’s well-stocked with encyclopedias. For some years, all I had at home were these books, you know, reading the entire volumes. I recall, about two or three years ago, when I wanted to set up a library, I asked a vendor to supply me encyclopedias just as I remembered in my childhood days. And when he told me about the cost, I screamed! I had to run back to my parents and said ‘do me one favor. Can you gift me those encyclopedias I read as a child?’ Because, that’s the greatest memory I have, you know, as a child. Now, why did I enjoy encyclopedias? Because, I have an inquisitive mind. I read everything. I read about world wars, I read about colonialism, I read about slave trade, I read about black history; everything that was in print, I would read it. And that evolved into the kind of books I love to read.”
“So if I read a work that is sedentary”, Horsfall spoke more: “I will drop it. If I read a work that’s intellectual- that’s layered, or complex, is teaching me everything, and it’s doing it in a very literal sense. I tend to go towards those books. I also came across poetry when I was also very young. I did a lot of poetry reading, but was more for the English authors. I didn’t delve too much into African poetry just that I’m trying to go into that space. The likes of Lord Byron, John Keats, you know, I enjoyed their works. I also enjoyed Maya Angelou, I enjoyed her stories. I think, I’m more also driven first to the personalities, to know what caused them to go into writing. Buchi Emecheta for instance, I’m crazy about her personal experience.
Milk and Honey , a poetry book by Rupi Kaur was a book I fell in love with while growing up. So I bought it at a bookstore at the airport while travelling back to Nigeria. And all through that flight, I was laughing. I would implore you to take a look at this exciting book. Here is literature which was being narrated in a very informal way just as Wole Soyinka said at the World Poetry Day event in Lagos when he implored all to write poetry from a very, almost relaxed point of view.” She concluded.
Some participants like Wole Oguntokun also made their voices heard in the enthralling discourses. He started off bemoaning the poor state of Nigerian writers in relation to their foreign counterparts. “Nigeria is hard for writers. As a matter of fact, Nigeria is hard for anyone who is not a politician or in the military”. Oguntokun said. The occasion being the World Book and Copyright Day, the playwright and lawyer also made references to the appalling condition of copyright laws among Nigerian creatives. In particular, he cited the case between Jude Idada and Omoni Oboli. The two Nigerian-Canadian writers were embroiled in a copyright tussle that literally engulfed the creative industry at some point. For Oguntokun, there is an urgent need to intensify enlightenment campaigns by the respective collective management organizations. Other prominent people in the audience included: Prof. Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo and Chief Seyeifa Koroye of the Bayelsa State Library Board.
–Osaze, a poet and culture administrator, lives in Lagos.