By Remigius Akinbinu
How come Reno Omokri thinks by his limited knowledge of literature and literary appreciation, he can become a judge as to who deserved a Nobel prize in Literature more than the other or as to whose works are more superior between two Nigerian Literary giants?
Late Prof. Chinua Achebe was my hero and which was what motivated me some five years back to visit the African Literature Centre at Brown University, RI after his death and I was so proud to see how greatly they respected him in one of the US’ Ivy League Universities.
Chinua Achebe wrote simply, in short sentences and is easily understood by all and sundry. In my secondary school days, I derived a lot of pleasure in reading Achebe’s novels and that included those we don’t read for WAEC Literature.
From “Things Fall Apart” and “Arrow Of God” to “Anthills of The Savannah” and “There Was A Country”, Achebe’s novels were always delightful to read as the storylines were always full of suspense and intrigues though as a non-Igbo reader, you may not be at home with the theme and conclusions of his last novel which I felt shouldn’t have come from him as it finally presented him as an unrepentant tribalist. It is remarkable to note also, that no other African novel has been widely translated in other languages as Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. A big plus for the great writer ahead of his contemporaries.
Wole Soyinka on the other hand was bad news to young literature students because he appeared too difficult to understand by reason of the high level of technicality and symbolism he employed in writing his plays, poems, essays and novels. But Soyinka, I realized, seemed to have captured the attention of the literature world with such technical and complex way of passing his messages across in such manner as would be possible only for the initiate to decode, comprehend and ultimately appreciate.
Soyinka is, however, not just that technical and complex writer that you know. He was a wordsmith. An unusual one at that. The most prolific African writer to have invented new English words adaptable and acceptable to the global use of English and its dictionaries.
Many who criticize Soyinka hardly read his works. (And I guess Omokri is one of them). Some don’t have the required patience and prowess of literary appreciation to explore to the very end what the Nobel laureate was driving at but the literary technocrats who rule the literature world understand and appreciate the efforts and literary genius involved in his works.
“A Forest Of A Thousand Demons” and “In The Forest of Olodumare” which ordinarily shouldn’t have elicited attention for the literary giant since they were ‘merely’ interpretations of novels written in Yoruba, nonetheless caught the attention of the world and indeed literary powers because of the ingenious translation and adaptation of the deepest of Yoruba words to the English language in such a manner that he was able to transport his readers from the unknown, incomprehensible and mythical to the actual imagery intended by the original writer in his dialect.
If by reason of your limited exposure and inability to appreciate great literary works, you cannot understand and appreciate the complex works of a globally acclaimed giant in the field, it behoves on you to seek knowledge or keep shut rather than indulging in such faux pas to denigrate a great man.
I remember some fifteen years ago or thereabout, Soyinka himself naively delved into the field of Law by attempting to correct the legal position taken by Festus Keyamo, but the great legal icon, Gani Fawehinmi told Soyinka to restrict himself to his field as Keyamo was right. Who then is Omokri in the field of literature to become such a motive-hunting hunter of motiveless malignity and a judge of no moral consequence?
Literature is a beast with a double face: the simple and the complex, the didactic and the eclectic, all within human and non-human adventures and abstractions. That you find Ola Rotimi’s ‘The Gods Are Not to Blame’ easy to understand and didactic doesn’t mean Soyinka’s ‘Trials of Brother Jero’ did not teach any lesson or pass across any message. You only have to be inhibited with the prowess of literary appreciation to grab the gist. The biggest reason why students fail Literature exams is to conclude a writer or a poet is driving South when he’s actually heading towards North. Thus, the ability to decode and comprehend a writer is what is called Literary Appreciation for which complex writing, more often than not, provide veritable tests.
Soyinka’s ‘A Dance of the Forests’ is perhaps the most difficult and complex among all the plays he wrote on account of its archetypal characters, multiplicity of themes, complicated symbolism and multi-dimensional technique yet it was recommended for studies in most Institutes of Advanced African Literature across the globe.
Geofrey Chaucer was called the Father of English poetry despite writing in the middle ages in such complex and technical nature because his poetry symbolized as no other poet’s.
Truth remains evident going by Omokri’s outburst that many of those who think they know about literature only think about prose leaving out other areas like poetry and playwriting. Yet Poetry is the real soul of Literature because you find it in great works of prose and playwriting.
Soyinka did not only write novels, he also wrote poems that changed the face of African poetry which were of global acceptability for examinations from ordinary to advanced level, degree to post degrees. Achebe too,wrote poems but while he contributed quatrains to collections, Soyinka wrote collections. He was a poet in the class of the greatest of African poets like Sedar Senghor, Okot Bitek, Dennis Brutus , David Diop, JP Clark, Gabriel Okara, Kofi Awoonor and so on. Yet beyond Poetry and prose, he was a great playwright whose number of published plays was about the number of plays written by William Shakespeare and Ben Johnson which twosome,in my opinion are the greatest playwrights the world ever knew.
Soyinka was also an essayist, song writer and film producer who wrote great memoirs for people to know his past and the trajectory of how he became the global brand he is.
Across Africa, you can find another Achebe in the likes of Camara Laye, Mongo Beti, James Ngugi (Ngugi Wa Tiongo) and so on who did great works of prose and little poetry but it’s tough to find another Soyinka who is a very consistent global name in all genres of Literature.
Tribalism, which I believe is the biggest bane of the Nigerian society also seems to have always reared its ugly head in this unending Soyinka/Achebe debate. Most Igbos who reacted on Omokri’s thread pitched their tents with him while most Yorubas countered him. Oh no! this shouldn’t be the case without a dispassionate analysis of these two great men and their works. I read someone from Igbo extraction who took his support for Omokri too far by saying Soyinka probably bought the Nobel Prize because unlike Achebe, he was always courting the powers that be and gaining enormously from every government in power. This means he never saw any activism in Soyinka as he saw in Achebe whereas one of those attributes that earned WS the Nobel prize was the great extent of activism he use his literary ingenuity to achieve.
Such people need to be reminded that WS escaped from the country on motorbike when a death penalty was placed on him by Nigeria’s most despotic ruler ever, Late Gen Sanni Abacha.
One thing Omokri & co don’t seem to understand is that Soyinka didn’t contest the Prize with Chinua Achebe in particular but with an avalanche of giant literary names across the globe. Yet it is something being given very regularly. (Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz won it two years after WS did). Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe are undoubtedly the greatest of all Nigerian Literary giants. While one is Asiwaju of Literature, the other is the Ogbuefi. That’s how we should all see these two great men we are all proud of.
It goes without saying therefore, that what ought to be posited by right thinking, unbiased and ‘detribalized’ Nigerians is that Chinua Achebe, a literary giant by all standards also deserved the Nobel Prize and not that he deserved it more than the only Nigerian who has won it and whose Nobel citation described him as “an author who in a wide cultural perspective and with poetic overtones fashions the drama of existence”.