Isidore Okpewho: The Exit of Another Titan


With inspiration from the titles of the works of the late writer and scholar, Professor Isidore Okpewho, Yinka Olatunbosun pays tribute to the award-winning author who died on September 4

Once Upon A Kingdom, there lived a writer; one of the leading literary scholars and novelists, Isidore Okpewho who died on September 4, 2016, just about 40 years since he won the African Arts Prize for Literature. He reportedly died at a hospital in Binghamton, New York where he had lived and taught since 1991.

He drew global attention when he received the prestigious Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Literature for Best Book in 1993. The Tides in intellectual waters was favourable for him that year although Longman Publishers had earlier published two novels of his, The Victims and The Last Duty for him.

His award-winning piece, The Tides has a theme rooted in the injustice of tribalism. Two professional male journalists, Tonwe and Dukumo are fired from the national newspaper, The Chronicle. Both from Niger-Delta, the older of the two, Tonwe goes back to his riverine village while Dukumo remains in Lagos and starts freelancing. The environmental pollution in the Delta caused by the activities of foreign oil companies becomes a serious threat to life in their hometown. The journalists are forced to make tough decisions to save their community. They have to declare their stand in the contest between public welfare and personal interest; state security and professional ethics as well as national agenda and ethnic goals.

The story in this classic novel is set in contemporary Nigeria in epistolary form using a series of letters exchanged between Tonwe and Dukumo. The writer presents an objective moral and political analysis of Nigerian society. Tonwe, who had a nationalistic outlook at first, had his ideals ruptured by injustice whereas Dukumo, who strikes a reader as a man of integrity, is too attached to ethnic sentiment.

“Call Me By My Rightful Name”, Okpewho declared in 2004 in a book title and that was respected by his scholarly colleagues as his contributions in non-fiction publications by various international university press.

Though he held a PhD in Comparative Literature, his works cannot be compared to the works of contemporary writers who have recently won the same literary prize in terms on thematic preoccupation. He touched on African Oral literature and mythology.

His academic feat is enviable; beginning with his academic excellence that led to his first class degree in classics from University College, Ibadan and till date University of Ibadan, as it is now known, is the only university in Nigeria where the course is taught. First class honour in that course is also a rarity. It involves the study of classical period, specifically Greek and Roman, with Latin as a compulsory course of study. Great Nigerians such as Bola Ige and Soyinka had studied this course in their undergraduate days with the latter holding his first Bachelors degree in it. Naturally, the Abraka-born writer learnt Latin; for his background hinged on languages. His mother hailed from the Ibo-speaking part of Delta while his father hailed from the Urhobo-speaking part.

His early career began with the Federal Ministry of Education, Federal Ministry of External Affairs and Longman Publishers where he served as an editor for eight years. Subsequently, he pursued a doctorate in English at US before his first novel The Victims was published.

His second novel, The Last Duty seems to have out lived its colonial themes of national unity and patriotism. The novel focuses on the casualty of war, deprivations, hardship and the will to survive. One of the central characters is Aku, wife of a man who is wrongfully imprisoned for suspected pro-rebel activities. Major Ali Idris, a federal commander assigned to protect the village and its citizens and Toje, a selfish local chief and rubber farmer who is a war profiteer. Moral virtues were debased as the novelist used the dramatic monologue to set the tone for the conflict.

The novel treats the psychic effect of war more than the physical. The novel remains a reference point in literary reviews and discourses based on gender, sex and domestic violence. Some reviewers even perceived its Marxist thrust in the writer’s treatment of economic being; a very relevant topic for any committed social-realist writer from Nigeria.

Any literature student who is yet to read his classic novels is yet another victim of widespread book reading deficiency. In the study of literature, certain themes are universal which accounts for why they are usually on the reading list in most institutions. For instance, polygamy occupies the plot of The Victims. Polygamy is considered to be an African way of life. It is accepted in the traditional African culture for a man to have more than a wife. But the post-colonial African adopts the European perspective of one man-one wife, authenticated by Christianity. The conflict in a polygamous African family constitutes the plot of this well-rated literary piece.

Okpewho’s earliest seminal academic monographs, The Epic in Africa: Toward a Poetics of the Oral Performance (1979) and Myth in Africa: A Study of its Aesthetic and Cultural Relevance (1983) he established himself as a reputable scholar and proponent of oral literature in Africa. He was honoured with the Nigerian National Order of Merit (NNOM) in humanities in 2010. He also served as President of the International Society for the Oral Literatures of Africa (ISOLA).

Undoubtedly, Okpewho’s literary legacies will remain engraved in the minds of readers and critics of African literature.

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