For the want of a more encompassing theme for the collage of fresh discourses on literature from Africa, this writer has opted for the headline above to capture the wealth of debates, counter-arguments and concessions reached by the literati who witnessed the 18th edition of the Lagos Book and Art Festival (LABAF) held at Freedom Park, Lagos Island.
It is thirty years since the Nobel Prize in Literature was received by the literary colossus, Prof. Wole Soyinka, the first of its kind in Africa, and many concerned Nigerian scholars have asked if this rare honour will ever return to the Nigerian literary space.
It is a big question; sometimes bigger than the sphere of discussants that are usually drawn from the literary sector. Some writers have argued that for this coveted prize to be endowed on any Nigerian, the quality of writing has to improve. And for the quality of writing to improve, there must be enabling infrastructure such as good power supply.
In sharp contrast to that line of argument, some have held that there are impressive writers in Nigeria and indeed Africa who deserve such honour at the moment. A case in point being Ngigi Wa Thiong’o, who, through his writings, propagate a return to the use of indigenous African language in African literature. He remains unapologetic in his use of his native language Gikuyu in many of his works spanning several genres of literature.
In any case, some in the writing circle thought that giving this desirable prize to the legendary singer-songwriter, Bob Dylan is a slap- on -the –face. Why? Some don’t think songwriting qualifies to be accepted as literature. That was one of the debates touched on at one of the panellists’ sessions at LABAF recently. Fortunately, the playwright and scholar in whose honour this LABAF edition was held, Prof. Femi Osofisan was attentive when this debate started.
Too many issues evolved at the debate. One that was prominent was writing with the view to be rewarded with a prize. Some scholars favoured the idea of a prize. For instance, Prof. Hope Eghagha, from the University of Lagos, thought that if not for anything else, the prize money itself helps writers who struggle against economic challenges to make brilliant literary effort.
An executive member of the Lagos Chapter of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), Olatunbosun Taofeek seemed to be the only voice on the panel that insisted that serious minded writers should not even target prizes with their writing. Rather, writing should be borne out of the natural inkling to express thoughts and actions creatively, without necessarily looking out for selfish interest.
Prof. Osofisan agreed that writers should not be motivated to write only for the sake of winning a literary prize. However, he was impressed by the choice of Bob Dylan for the 2015 Nobel prize in Literature, adding that African oral tradition had been ignored by some elitist literati as not qualifying as literature. But with Dylan’s victory, it is an indication that lyrical poetry, such as promoted by the likes of Akinwunmi Ishola, D.O. Fagunwa and Adebayo Faleti, should be globally acknowledged as literature for these document history, preserve cultural heritage and clamour for social change. Hence, Osofisan believed that Dylan’s honour is a collective honour to the African argument for our documented oral tradition in literature to be accepted as literature globally.
Away from that, scholars also pointed to the publishing issue for many Nigerian writers. Apparently, winners of many international prizes in literature have published works by international publishers. More often than not, only works published in the UK, USA or so qualify as entries for many of the prestigious prizes in literature. Sometimes, it is these foreign publishers who usually apply for the literary prizes on behalf of the writers.
But for a Nigerian writer to get a foreign publishing house to accept his manuscript is often as tough as making a camel pass through a needle. Dami Ajayi, a medical practitioner and poet, famed for his anthology of poetry, Clinical Blues also recalled how he was almost disillusioned by the rejection of his manuscript by international publishing houses. Of course, that led him and his team of thinkers to set up Saraba, an online platform for many published and unpublished writers to showcase their creative pieces.
No doubt, the Nobel Prize in literature has become more interesting with the Bob Dylan question.
The conservative thinking that rejects other well-informed views is the same reason that an American rapper, Marshal Mathers otherwise known as Eminem, didn’t show up at the 2002 ceremony to receive the Academy award for best Original Song for the movie, “8 Mile” with his personal composition, “Lose Yourself’’. The song became the first rap song to win at the Academy Awards and the rapper thought that his rap song wouldn’t be taken so seriously. That’s why art and artistry demand rethinking always; because every artist deserves some respect.