First-generation prolific Nigerian novelist Chukwuemeka Ike, who died on Thursday, January 8, is fondly remembered by the literary community for his landmark creative offerings. Okechukwu Uwaezuoke reports
Could something about his poise have elicited so much awe? When Indian-born Professor Kanchana Ugbabe described Vincent Chukwuemeka Ike as a “gentle giant”, she had intended the words to be understood not only metaphorically, but also literally. The University of Jos-based professor did indeed specifically allude to both the author’s impressive literary stature and his imposing physique as well as his calm, cool and collected mien. This was while she was delivering a keynote address at the Authors’ Forum, organised in 2015 by the University Press in Ibadan as one of the nationwide events commemorating the 50 years of the author’s literary odyssey since he wrote Toads for Supper. First, there was a literary fiesta, featuring drama, music and prose presentations at the Princess Alexandra Auditorium of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. Then, Learn Africa held a Jubilee Book Programme in his honour at the Nigerian International Book Fair, held at the University of Lagos.
Ugbabe had also in her address regaled the audience with the impression the Indian poet, novelist and short-story writer Lakshmi Kannan had of Professor Ike when the duo met at the International Writing Programme held in 1987 at the U. S. city of Iowa. Ike, she quoted Kannan as saying, “paraded with dignity, holding his head high unmindful of the petty goings-on in the jungle”, much like a “black panther”.
According to Ugbabe, Kannan had not only talked about Ike as “soft-spoken, his voice low and well-bred, his language bearing an unmistakable stamp of refinement and culture”, but also as “incredibly modest” and with “a natural inclination to respect the person he was speaking to.”
Perhaps, it was this placid disposition that helped Ike survive the emotional upheaval that assailed him when his only son, Osita, died towards the end of 2016. A little more than three years later, the first generation Nigerian novelist would also breathe his last a few months to his 89th birthday. This was on Thursday, January 8 at the Nnamdi Azikiwe University Teaching Hospital in the Anambra State industrial town Nnewi.
Expectedly, an outpouring of tributes from the literary community trailed his demise. For he was indeed a leading first-generation Nigerian writer, who Sentinel Literary Quarterly said had “produced more novels than many of his contemporaries.”
Yet, the publication of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart in 1958 was the prodding he needed to become a novelist. It took another seven years for his first novel Toads for Supper to be published in 1965. This was after several rejections by publishers. He had since written other works like Toads Forever, The Naked Gods, The Potter’s Wheel, The Chicken Chasers, Sunset at Dawn, Conspiracy of Silence, The Search, The Bottled Leopard, Our Children Are Coming and Expo ’77. He had, besides, published an instructional book, titled How to Become a Published Writer and founded The Nigerian Book Foundation, in a bid to advance the cause of literature, creative writing and literacy in Nigeria. These latter endeavours attested to his interest in grooming young writers and fostering a book reading culture in the larger society.
Even before the publication of his first novel, Ike once told Sentinel Literary Quarterly of October 2008 that he wrote short stories because none of his contemporaries believed they could write novels. The novels they used to read in those days were written by British authors. Hence he said: “What actually made me feel that the time had come for me to attempt writing a novel was when my friend, Chinua Achebe, published hisThings Fall Apart in 1958. We were friends during our secondary school days, university days and even after graduation. The fact that he could do it encouraged me to start a novel. Things Fall Apart inspired me. And by 1962, I had completed a novel, which I titled, ‘ Toads for Supper.’ But it took some times of rejection before it was eventually published in 1965.”
The novel, Toads for Supper, which was published by Longman, is an engaging novel set in the fictitious University of Southern Nigeria. Laced with humour, it delves into the issues that confront lovers and couples from different ethnic backgrounds in Nigeria. Its plot is woven around the main characters: a first-year history student of the university, Amadi Chukwuka; his campus friend and second-year history student, Chima; a Yoruba-speaking female undergraduate of the same university, Aduke Olowu; a semi-educated Lagos street girl, Sweetie M. Akpore and Nwakaego Ikwuaju, a girl from his village Ezinkwo in the Igbo-speaking south-eastern Nigeria who was betrothed to him from childhood years.
Amadi’s desperate bid to woo Aduke’s love triggers off a series of events that spiral to a tragic conclusion of the novel’s comic storyline. Ironically, Ike was able to surmount the challenges of inter-ethnic relationships and marriages he described in the novel with his marriage to a Yoruba woman. “A perceptive reader of the novel might go away concluding that the author supports inter-ethnic marriage prohibition,” a Lagos-based cultural activist and brand management consultant Ernie Onwumere writes. “His personal marital life contradicts that assumption.”
Unresolved issues in Toads for Supper were later addressed in a sequel titled Toads Forever, published in 2008. “To resolve some of the issues, I have recently published a sequel to the novel,” he told Sentinel Literary Quarterly of October 2008. “People from Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya etc. have been pressurising me over the years, so I have now tried to resolve the issues. It is titled Toads Forever and published by Longman. You will find that the end is different. In the novel, I tried to stress the fact that ethnicity should not be allowed to ruin this country. There is nothing wrong with an Igbo person befriending a Hausa person or even marry each other, in case of the male-female relationship. That is the main message in the novel.” In response to the accusation that his novels are obsessed with the past rather than focus on the present social realities, he told the publication: “Some issues are timeless. But, I’ve also written novels that do not follow that pattern, novels that are written for the period in which they are published.” One of such novels, he explained was Conspiracy of Silence, which – published in 2001 – dwelt on the social consequences of estranged, illegitimate, fatherless children born out of wedlock and incest.
Then, there was also his only detective novel, Expo ’77, which was based on his experience as the head of the West African Examination Council (known by its acronym WAEC). He wanted, through the novel, to draw attention to the fact that the problem of examination malpractices was an environmental one rather than one that could be fought in isolation.
Perhaps, Sunset at Dawn, which documents his eyewitness experience of the horrors of the Nigerian Civil War and The Search – an exposé on the Nigerian society’s endless search for solutions to issues bordering on military coups, corruption, ineptitude, neo-colonialism and ethnicity – also qualified as novels, which focus on the present social realities.
The late patriarch of Nigerian literature, having served as the WAEC registrar, became the first Nigerian registrar of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. After the Nigerian Civil War, he concurrently served as both the pro-chancellor and then vice-chancellor as the chairman of the university’s management committee for 18 months. Later, after a stint as a professor of English Literature at the University of Jos, he also became the pro-chancellor and chairman of the Governing Council of the University of Benin.
Ike, who studied history, English and religious studies at the University of Ibadan and had a master’s degree from the Stanford University in the U.S., was also the traditional ruler of his native Ndikelionwu, which is an Aro settlement in Anambra State. He held the title Ikelionwu XI until his death.
In a condolence message to his family and the people of Ndikelionwu, the Anambra State Governor Willie Obiano described him as one of the state’s greatest assets and totems of excellence, adding the state “shall find strength and consolation in his examplary life and the legacies he left for mankind through his literary works and stellar contributions to the traditional institution in Anambra state.”
In a statement by his Special Adviser on Media and Publicity, Mr Femi Adesina, in Abuja on Saturday, the President condoled with family, friends and associates of the traditional ruler.
Similarly, President Buhari said in a statement by his special adviser on media and publicity, Femi Adeshina, that the late author will always be remembered for his exceptional creativity in communicating wisdom in simple ways through his books.