By Emmanuel Iduma
Perhaps the objective of this post is to signify a clarion call against what I shall term literary amnesia, that lapse in the collective conscience of writers where we do not speak to our generation. It is a journey, this movement against literary amnesia; and I draw relevance and strength from what has been called an institutional amnesia – where diplomats, journalists and anyone who has been dipped into the current of a hoax (say, the Sudan crises) has no idea about its root cause. And when I speak of journey, I speak in both abstract and tangible terms. In relation to the former, I speak of the objective of ensuring that, as writers in this generation, we define ourselves, our art, speaking to our time so that in retrospect our essence can be identified.
In relation to the later, which is the tangibility of my journey, I speak of a recent trip I made to Ibadan. This journey, in hindsight, seems to have begun the movement I speak about. I will, for sake of space and simplicity, create sub-headings, speaking about my encounters, the thrills, challenges; I shall speak of the aesthetics of the encounter. For, it is this word – aesthetics – that seems apt as a definitive word, concept and (if I may be ambitious) narrative tool.
I set sail with Damilola Ajayi, my dear friend and brother (who, heavens be praised, officially became a child of Hippocrates last Thursday). Our mission was simply to see Tade Ipadeola, poet and intellectual property Lawyer, who heads the Nigerian PEN chapter. We had prepared not to meet him even before we left Ife, for we had been unable to reach him on phone. And, indeed, we did not see him, for he had to be home with his Mum.
Tade’s name falls easily in my list of supporters of a movement against literary amnesia because he was the first person to review my poetry aside my close peers, in public space. I quote him: “We have a young metaphysical poet in Emmanuel Iduma, whose offerings leap upon the imagination from past, present and future. His handling of space and time is remarkable and a comfort to those wondering where the next great poets of this continent are hiding.”
He spoke of Damilola’s poetry in a different fashion, and of Adebiyi’s. It seems, then, that our generation needs to be spoken about in terms of what we are doing at the moment, how we are writing at a time of less renown.
Remi Raji, who heads the English Department of the University of Ibadan, has warmed his way into my head, and heart. Given that it was unlikely that we see Mr. Ipadeola, Damilola contacted Prof. Raji, who gave us a description to his house. The house was nearly habitable, and he informed us he went there on weekends to supervise the work being done.
We spoke on several matters; an anthology in the works, which is to include our poems, and the poems of a number of young poets that we had either suggested or confirmed their artistry. But what dominated our conversation was the attempt, in various ways, to define what our generation was, and what we should be concerned about.
There were, of course, questions about the social media revolution, the sheer amount of information available and the falling standards of education. I made the point that it was necessary to put all the cards on the table – social network, post-colonialism, ease of access and availability of information, the publishing hoax – and see if there is a pattern of redemption that jumps at us. This pattern, I argued, would ensure that we can cross the borders of our peculiar challenge. We agreed, standing beside Prof’s car, that our generation was peculiar in certain respects, although Prof had stated that this peculiarity was not necessarily opposed to the challenges of the Soyinka generation, for instance.
Prof will turn fifty in November, and there is a program of events lined up to mark his jubilee. While looking forward to the events, I state that Prof’s willingness to engage with us, struck me as an important stimulus, and an indication of his range of vision. We have had, as a continent especially, a hole, a lapse of consciousness, an absence. There has been a disconnect between the formed and the forming. The discourse tables have been empty for a long while. But Prof, by engaging us (we spoke of language, Saraba, a paper he is writing) has begun to negate that absence that exists. We need to learn from those above us, as fast as we can, for they would not be here forever. And we will not, too.
Damilola referred to Benson Eluma and Rotimi Babatunde as the intellectual thugs of Ibadan. His choice of words couldn’t have been more apt; their private library proved this acceptable form of thuggery. When we entered the University of Ibadan Staff Club, we saw two men. Damilola walked up to one of them and asked, “Are you Benson Eluma?” He said, “Yes.” And later, Benson said that was the most foolish thing he had ever done – for an age where the fear of Boko Haram is the beginning of long life, one cannot be too sure of who is asking. The other guy, Yomi Ogunsanya, whose fine poetry we had discovered for the first time, seemed to be Benson’s cleansing fire, in a way that cannot be explained.
We danced to Fela; Benson has a huge collection, and when Niran Okewole joined us we argued about books, spoke of the influence of booze (I was nagged for being a teetotaller, Niran called me ‘Emma Malt’), and Benson let us on into his life, frustration and iconoclasm.
Once, before Rotimi Babatunde’s arrival, Benson spoke to us as though a parent. He advised us to read, read, read. He noted that we were doing well, but that we needed to read. It is difficult to forget his voice as he emphasized the advantages of scholarship, calling to note the work of Teju Cole, and warning that what he spoke of did not necessarily connote name-dropping, but the pointers in a text that emphasizes wide scholarship.
When we left Ibadan I caught the flu from sleeping under the fan, and, I believe, from inhaling too much nicotine. Cigarettes came with the Ibadan package. Yet, what I held onto was the dialogue we established. The guys we met, and spoke with, were ahead in terms of scholarship and depth. We might share positions in this generation, or not. We might be peers, or not.
What I think we were doing – listening to Fela, sharing links, drinking together, sleeping in the same rooms – was an attempt to herald a coming pattern of definition. Questions will be asked when we are gone, or when we have sagged. The foremost question will be: how did they speak to their time?
And if we are found wanting, what will be said about the Ibadan evening? It will, of course, be said that we have lapsed into a literary amnesia, a generation that slept away its definitiveness.