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Review of Focus on Nigeria: Literature and Culture


By Femi Osofisan

Focus on Nigeria: Literature and Culture (Matatu no. 40). Gordon Collier (ed). Editions Rodopi, Amsterdam / New York, 2012. Pp. 498. ISBN. 978-90-420-3752-0 / E-Book 978-94-012-0847-5 (hb). €105.

This number of Matatu is unusually, but perhaps not surprisingly, voluminous: it is a special issue on Nigeria and assembles some thirty essays on a wide range of disparate topics. These have been neatly organized by the editor, Gordon Collier, into three sections—namely, ‘Literature’, which has 13 essays; ‘Creative Writing’, with 2 contributions; and ‘Society and Cultural Expression’, with 25 essays. The second section, as can be seen, is the poorest: the two contributors here are Benjamin Panulo with a story entitled, ‘Two Thieves’, while Oby Okolocha fills up with ‘Three Poems’. It is only the short story with its beautiful manipulation of dramatic irony that, in my opinion, would seem to justify the inclusion of this section at all; the so-called ‘poems’ are so obviously prosaic and pedestrian that they should have been omitted. But of course, in this matter of poetry, one’s taste is always subjective, and perhaps my judgment here will be considered by some readers to be unfair to Okolocha.

Otherwise the two essay sections are richly rewarding. One of the remarkable  observations about this issue is its attention to what I would describe as the celebration of new voices. By this I am referring to the considerable amount of space that has been offered here to younger scholars to make their voices heard generally, and then, particularly  in the first section on ‘Literature’, the attention given to the examination of works by the recently-discovered younger writers.

Thus, along with the expected essays on established names like Achebe, Ojaide, and Osundare, there are pioneering and illuminating explorations of the oeuvre of Tracie Utoh-Ezeajugh, Tayo Olafioye, Uwem Akpan, Chimamanda Adichie and Hope Eghagha, plus an engrossing interview with the young and talented debutante, Jumoke Verissimo. Also, Duro Adeleke’s essay on the theatrical Fool offers a fresh and interesting re-reading, from the perspectives of our indigenous cultural tradition, of this familiar character from the medieval stage. A non-Nigerian author, the veteran Ghanaian novelist, Ayi Kwei Armah, is the subject of Ode Ogede’s essay, and justifiably so, because the author’s personal ordeal in his dealings with a multi-national publishing firm as recounted here is a valuable instruction for all writers on the continent.

All the same, while one finds these essays to be generally enlightening about these authors and their works, it is still necessary perhaps to state that we have reached the point now, surely, where editors can insist that our critics expand their horizons beyond the prevailing tendency to focus exclusively on close-readings of individual achievements—not to be discarded by any means, I hope I am not misunderstood—and broaden their gaze into wider contextual and comparative studies, which would challenge our perspectives on the broader organic life of our literary production.

One would have loved to read for instance how Akpan welds with Okri or Armah and even Tutuola, or other predecessors in the territory of the picaresque; where Utoh-Ezeajugh meets with or departs from Tess Onwueme or Irene Salami-Agunloye; or how Adichie’s narrative contrasts with other chronicles of civil wars in Africa and elsewhere; and so on. The joint essay by Ibhawaegbele and Edokpayi offers an instance here of the kind of contrastive analysis I am pleading for, although it is still not deep or adventurous enough.

The umbrella term ‘Society and Cultural Expression’ seems indeed to be the most convenient term to encompass the essays in the third section. The topics explored by the different authors are so wide-ranging that they would otherwise have been difficult to assemble under the same theme. They range from anthropology to mysticism, from pedagogical systems to linguistics, from Islamic art to drum poetry, from musicology to feminist dialectics: an oblique tribute to the vigorous, but often unsung and unacknowledged, work of scholarship that is going on nevertheless in our decaying institutions. Here therefore the reader would have to exercise his or her preference, according to the area of interest or specialization. This reviewer has only been able to go through a sample; and I confess to have found the exercise personally rewarding, in that I was able to gain new and useful knowledge about each of the selected areas even in spite of the sometimes esoteric jargon of the disciplines.

In conclusion then I would say that this issue of Matatu will appeal to a very wide readership of specialists in African studies. It is surprising that the editor has given us no introductory notes whatsoever, but still, he deserves commendation for the almost total absence of the usual typographical errors; as well as for his sensitivity in the selection and organization of these articles.

Reviewed by: Femi Osofisan, International Research Institute, Freie University, Berlin.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 75 (Winter 2013/14), pp. 119-121]

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