A year after Isidore Okpewho’s death in the US, his friends, associates and admirers converge for a literary evening in his honour in Asaba. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke reports
Meeting place: Hotel Benizia in Asaba. Among the guests expected here tomorrow are the literary community’s leading lights.
But this is really not about them. Rather, the meeting – which calls itself a “literary evening” – turns the spotlight on the departed literary titan, Isidore Okpewho.
It was only last year that Okpewho closed his eyes to this side of existence at 74. Indeed, it’d be exactly a year by tomorrow, September 4. This was in a hospital in Binghamton in New York, US, where he had lived and taught since 1991. More detailed reports suggested that he battled an undisclosed ailment and died “peacefully” from it.
Subsequently, on Saturday, September 17, his earthly cloak was interred at the Gate of Heaven Cemetery, East Hanover in New Jersey. This was after a funeral mass, among other rites, held the previous day at St Vincent de Blessed Sacrament Church in New York.
Meanwhile, the tomorrow’s “literary evening” in Asaba – billed to hold from 1pm to 5pm – is expected to feature special readings from two of Okpewho’s award-winning books (The Victims and The Last Duty), short critiques, eulogies and anecdotes, among others in celebration of the departed. The guest list, which flaunts names like Professor Pat Muoboghare, Dr Sunny Awhefedha, Odia Ofeimun and members of the deceased’s family, requires the participants at tomorrow’s event to deliver 10-long eulogy on the life, works, scholarly stature and literary relevance of the late Okpewho. They are also enjoined to speak on Okpewho’s “exemplary dedication and commitment to his chosen career or indeed any other aspect of the outstanding scholar, as [they] may deem appropriate and comfortable to handle.”
Okpewho, known to have been a novelist, poet, folklorist, scholar and university administrator, was described by the poet Niyi Osundare as “a Jack of many trades and master of all, who left his mindprints on virtually every aspect of African literature and literary studies”.
Okey Ndibe, a celebrated writer and visiting professor of creative writing at St Lawrence University, Canton, USA, was certain that “even in death, his name, reputation and work, his memory, would never dim or lose their lustre but would remain vital.”
Marame Gueye, an associate professor of African and African Diaspora Literatures in the English Department of East Carolina University, Greenville, North Carolina, US likened the death of “a scholar and mentor such as Isidore Okpewho, [to] losing a parent”.
Chiji Akoma, the acting chair, Department of Global Interdisciplinary Studies and associate professor of English at Villanova University in the US described the late writer as “a true iroko tree standing majestic in the public square, unperturbed by the passage of time”.
Okepwho would probably have winced at this eulogy. For he was a man known for his discreet lifestyle. This must have informed his family’s decision to make this important anniversary celebration a private affair. According to one of his acolytes, Professor Nduka Otiono, who spoke for the late writer’s family: “To commemorate the one-year anniversary of Professor Isidore Okpewho’s passing, his family will be gathering with friends to share memories, stories and prayers at his graveside in celebration of his rich life and legacy.”
As a foremost scholar of African oral literature and award-winning novelist, the late literary titan has engraved his name in the consciousness of many Nigerian literary enthusiasts. It is not surprising, therefore, that the news of his passage last year was received with shock in the Nigerian literary circles both at home and in the diaspora. Indeed, his renown as a distinguished man of letters continued to linger even within the first one year after his death.
Otiono also noted that this has been acknowledged by intellectuals from various parts of the world. Several activities had held posthumously in his honour. Among these was the special roundtable on his life and work at the 2017 African Literature Association (ALA) conference at Yale University. The event, chaired by the new President of ALA, Professor Adeleke Adeeko, featured associates and speakers who had been taught by professor Okpewho and who had become professors in North America.
Born in the Delta State town of Agbor to an Urhobo father and a Igbo mother, he had his early education at St Patrick’s College in Asaba. Later, he studied classics at the then University College (now the University of Ibadan) in Ibadan and graduated with a first-class honours degree.
He would later further burnish his credentials with a PhD in comparative literature from the University of Denver in the US and a D. Litt from the University of London, UK.
He had first worked at the Federal Ministry of Education, then at the Federal Ministry of External Affairs before becoming an editor with Longman Publishers, a post he held for eight years.
While in the US for his doctorate, he had taught at the University of Buffalo, The State University of New York from 1974 to 1976, Harvard University from 1990 to 1991 and Binghamton University.
His stint in academics also saw him becoming a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in 1982, Alexander von Humboldt Foundation in 1982, Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences in 1988, the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute in 1990, National Humanities Center in 1997, and 2003 Guggenheim Fellowship.
Okpewho would become the president of the International Society for the Oral Literatures of Africa (ISOLA).
The fact that he wrote, co-wrote and edited 14 books, dozens of articles and a seminal booklet established his literary prominence. His four novels – The Victims (1970), The Last Duty (1976, winner in manuscript of the African Arts Prize for Literature, an international competition organised by the African Arts Center, UCLA), Tides (1993, winner of that year’s Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, Africa region), and Call Me By My Rightful Name (2004) – are not only studied in Africa and other parts of the world, but also translated into other languages.
Among his non-fiction works are: The Epic in Africa: Toward a Poetics of the Oral Performance, (1979), Myth in Africa: A Study of Its Aesthetic and Cultural Relevance (1983), Once Upon a Kingdom: Myth, Hegemony, and Identity (1998) and Blood on the Tides: The Ozidi Saga and Oral Epic Narratology (2014).