Monday, July 10, 2017

USA Africa Dialogue Series - Fwd: ‘When an African wins the Nobel Prize in Science, we can say we’ve arrived’-Abiola Irele

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: Funmi Tofowomo Okelola <>
Date: 30 January 2011 at 13:02
Subject: 'When an African wins the Nobel Prize in Science, we can say we've arrived'-Abiola Irele
To: Cafeafricana <>

'When an African wins the Nobel Prize in Science, we can say we've arrived'


Abiola Irele is a well respected Nigerian scholar and literary critic who recently returned home from the US to help build the College of Humanities, Management and Social Sciences at Kwara State University.  Ademola Adesola interviewed him during a chance encounter in Ibadan, Oyo State

I would like to know your thoughts on the coming of age of African, and by extension, Nigerian Literature.

Well, there are two ways in which you can say that a literature has come of age. One is the level of competence, achievements of the writers themselves so that you can then say that African Literature has now reached a level comparable to any in the world. That is the first approach, let's say, which enables one to make some kind of general remark or even judgement. That is intrinsic to literature itself.

The second approach will be to see the external extrinsic, which is its relation to its public, its place in the general culture, along with other forms of culture like drama, music and so on. There is no doubt at all that literature in Africa, certainly in Nigeria, is part of what you might call a general consciousness. Everybody knows the names of writers. It has a public. They read this literature more and more. We are also getting more and more publishers. There was a time when there was a lull in publishing. But now there are new publishing houses and there are new writers. From those two points of view we can say that Nigerian Literature has come of age.

How would you assess literary criticism in Nigeria today?

It's very healthy. I mean, all the universities teach English Literature or Literature-in-English, or even other Literatures. For example, they teach French part of which of course is devoted to Literature. They teach Yoruba, Hausa part of which of course is devoted to Literature.

You can say that the literary criticism is perhaps less vigorous than the literature itself. This is of course as it should be. The important thing really is the literature. The criticism is what you might call a secondary literature which comes after.

I presume also that you are more or less looking at the theoretical sophistication of the criticism. You can have a book, let's say a novel. It is not enough to summarise what is in the novel. There must be a critical, analytical component to your discussion of the work. It is there at that level that one is thinking, in fact, of the reputation, the value of the criticism. It must be guided, informed. From that point of view, I think the criticism is still lagging behind the literature itself. Now let me qualify that a little. There is a lot of critical literature that has been written. In fact, there is no doubt in my mind that some of the best works in African Literature have been written by Nigerian scholars. There is no doubt at all about that. The only problem I have about that is the development in the field we have not been keeping up with. For example, in areas such as Post-Structural Criticism, Marxist Criticism, and even Psychological Criticism, we need to have some kind of theoretical grasp.

But let me sound a note of caution here. I may sound contradictory. But I need to make the point. And that is that it is possible to be so concerned with theory that you lose sight of the text itself. For me, the text is very important in its relation to actual conditions of existence. I mean to life. When I say to life I mean to social life, to a certain collective awareness, et cetera. So it must have a concrete reference. You are writing criticism only to demonstrate your grasp of theory, you are writing criticism to elucidate – that you have a critical stand-point that you apply to the text. But the ultimate objective is to make a text part of a general dialogue in the society. Let me give you an example here. Sefi Atta's first novel, Everything Good Will Come, is incredibly original. The reason is that this is the first time that what you might call the post-independence situation in Africa formed the basis of a narrative. And many of her descriptions – going to the boarding school, the life of the bourgeoisie, the building, et cetera, – are superb. The same goes for Chimamanda, in her first book, Purple Hibiscus. Those two books immediately brought to prominence a new way of life, a new class in the community which people have not written about. There have been things like that before. For instance, Butchi Emecheta wrote The Joys of Motherhood. Part of that is in fact the post-colonial life in Nigeria. Then you had My Mercedes is Bigger than Yours. But those two novelists were the first really to explore, fully, the urban experience. The Achebes and the rest of them talk about the past, the village, and the traditional cultures. That makes them original.

There are so many young writers now and I am trying to read up their works because these books published here are not readily available to us in the US. Strange they have African Books Collective but it is not easy to get those books. Now that I am here I have been picking up those books. I want to see a new orientation in our criticism that will reflect those new developments. Also, let me add that the infrastructure, in terms of the literary life, is very, very important too. We must develop that too. I mean by this, journals. A book comes out and it is reviewed. And if it is outstanding, it is discussed. Of course there are a lot of book prizes too. We don't lack book prizes, except of course that we want to be sure that we don't become so tied to foreign book prizes that we make them to impose their own judgements on us. That's very, very important. These are the few thoughts I have on criticism and the general culture. I think the critic is important.

You said some of the new works published here were not readily available over there. But some people are of the opinion that African Literature is more at home in the US …

(Cuts in)It's not true! That is simply not true. Let me demonstrate that very quickly. At one time the African Writers Series was everywhere. They were sold here in Nigeria; some over there, yes. But the bulk of that series was in fact consumed here in Nigeria. Part of it was because they were used for exams. But they were sold here. Then from about the mid 80s the economy collapsed. The bottom fell out of that market. It was still making money but not the like it used to. When that market began to disappear, Heinemann wound up the series. It wasn't profitable, which is the best proof you have that those books were read here. If you go to any of the critical and cultural journals, you will find out that African Literature is not central to them at all abroad. That's a banal truth. I want to challenge that statement.

Let's talk about literary prizes. Last year, some literary minds eagerly expected to see either Ngugi Wa Thiong'o, Chinua Achebe, or Nuruddin Farah emerge as the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. What is your position on this?

Let me say this: there is a lot of politics involved in the Nobel Prize. A very good indication of that is Aime Cesaire. That he didn't win the prize is a scandal, a very serious one. Because Aime Cesaire is one of the greatest French writers, the French President, Nicholai Zarkosy, is arranging to have his body removed from Martinique and buried in the Pantheon in Paris, where Victor Hugo, another great writer, is buried. That's enough. For a French man, that Cesaire is buried in the Pantheon is more valuable than the Nobel Prize. But he never got the prize. We thought he would get it; we've been waiting since the 70s to see whether he would get it. But he never got it. Senghor didn't get it. There is a lot of politics involved.

That said- nobody will doubt that the people who have got the Nobel Prize are outstanding writers. There is no question at all about that. However, there have been a few occasions when controversy arose about some winners. I have a lot of reservations about the people who have won the Nobel Prize for Literature among the French in particular. I won't mention any names. But we cannot make the Nobel Prize a criterion for our own writers. Whether they win the Nobel Prize or not, if they are writing about us there must be a certain truth of our own lives that is reflected in it.

Secondly, a novel, written by an African will obey certain aesthetic laws that derive from what you might call the traditional African background. Let me give you an example. Matigari by Ngugi is a kind of fable. When it came out many of my colleagues in the university in America didn't understand what he was trying to do. It is a folktale with a moral. They have also misunderstood some of his works too. So, they are not the best judges of our works. That's what I am trying to say. We shouldn't worry about the prize because it is not like the World Cup or Olympics. When an African wins the Nobel Prize in Science, we can say we've arrived. Let me make another point: Literature, Humanities and so on are very important. But there is nothing more important for us in Nigeria now than a scientific culture, a technological culture. That is why, for instance, this new College of Engineering that we are setting up at Kwara State University is so important. It's probably the most important project of the university now. More important than my Humanities, your ICT, or whatever. The relationship of Agriculture to technology is very close. People must bear that in mind. When you have a developed, prosperous economy, driven by technology, all kinds of things begin then to happen. The miracle that is happening in China is essentially technological. They are building this incredible train from Shanghai to Beijing, which goes at 380 kilometres an hour. We are still riding on bumpy roads here.

Recently the Federal Government announced its decision to establish six additional federal universities to be situated in the six geo-political zones of the federation. Do you think we really need that?

We do and we don't. I'm talking in riddles. There is a huge body of the youths out there who after finishing secondary schools find it difficult to get university education. We need to inaugurate post-secondary education. That's why, for example, I'm glad that they are going to convert the Yaba College of Technology into a university. We need highly-trained people in many areas. So, there is still need for more universities.

On the other hand we don't because they talk about setting up universities but they don't in fact support those universities. Very little of the oil money we make here go into education. We bought into the World Bank/IMF thing about the State disengaging from the education of its people. That's nonsense. It's really a scandal. If we had kept on that policy of the free university education, we could have had more interesting development. We could have made some substantial progress. There is no country that has developed, succeeded without the universities. If you read the social history of Europe, you will discover that the progress of many of those European countries has been dependent on their elite. I'm using the word "elite" not in the sense of people with privilege but in the sense of highly-trained people from Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard. Cambridge was where the whole research on DNA was carried out. Those universities and many others sustained the intellectual health of their states, of their countries. Now China is doing this. So, we need those universities and we need support for them. There will come a time when private benefactors will come in. But that isn't happening yet in Nigeria. I hope it will happen. But the state has primary responsibility. The German universities were developed in the 19th century. And they propelled Germany in Chemistry, for instance. And they were all state-run universities. We don't need those universities that are half-baked.

I want to also make another point here. I'm very glad to see that at long last, the university teachers are being better paid now. In my time when I retired, retirement benefits were non-existent practically. They were not even paying our pensions regularly. But it looks like there is change of heart. People are now getting their retirement benefits. That's from what I've heard anyway. What I'm getting at is that it is not the buildings only. You also need to take care of the personnel. The universities overseas have very high standard of recruitment. And they pay their people very well. They look after them. Ours is in trouble right now. But we are going to recover.

In those days there used to be many interesting seminars and symposia in which students of Literature came in contact with established authors. There seems to be some serious decline in this area.

Well, it has not all disappeared. A few weeks ago there was this big literary gathering in Port Harcourt. There are occasional meetings like that. By the way what we are trying to do at Kwara State University is to promote that kind of activity, where lectures will be delivered by African writers, and African intellectuals in many areas like History, Sociology and Philosophy. We want to bring, invite them to come and give lectures. And we will publish those lectures. I won't mention any names yet because we are still working on it. For that, we need resources. One of the ways in which we are trying to get those resources will be through endowments. Our industrial leaders here have not got to the point where they will give money to universities, endow chairs. In October last year I visited the Humanities Centre in Harvard together with my VC at Kwara State University. The Director of the Centre, who happened to have been a colleague of mine there, told us that an Indian industrialist had just given 10 million dollars to the Humanities Centre in Harvard. We need to have that kind of thing here, where the rich people endow chairs and endow institutions sometimes for specific purposes, or just give them the money for what they want to do. The Rockefellers, the Ford Foundation, McArthur, etc., this is what they have been doing. These are private philanthropists. We need to also get into this. There will be certain basic things that the government will do. But we also need the extra. And this can only come really from private philanthropists.

Another point that we need to bear in mind in this particular respect is that meetings and so on in this country is not easy to organise. The infrastructure again comes into play. If you want to go from Lagos to Ilorin, you have to think seriously because of the bad roads. If we are to organise a conference at Ilorin, you can't bring people down easily with the bad roads. You come to Ibadan, turn to Iwo to go through Ogbomoso. Practically every 500 yards of the road between Iwo and Ogbomoso is broken, pot-holes everywhere. They decided to build a new road between Ibadan and Ilorin. They completed the Ilorin-Ogbomoso part of it. It's beautiful. It brings Ilorin nearer because people in Lagos do say Ilorin is too far. It's not. The Ibadan to Oyo is going on, it will soon be finished. But the Oyo to Ogbomoso part has not been completed. That is what you need now to make Ilorin accessible. So, the best way is to fly, which is expensive. N12,000 one way, Lagos to Ilorin by any of those airlines. People cannot continue flying, they can come by road. And if they complete the new expressway, Lagos to Ibadan, it will take you just three hours maximum to get from Ilorin to Lagos, which is less than the time it takes to get from Boston to New York. These are little things that can be done. But you have people in Abuja getting top salaries and not doing any work. Transportation in America, England, Japan Germany, and France is easy with trains. Even in America you can drive a car four hours steady driving from Boston to New York. You have an option. The airlines are quite cheap and reasonable. Hotel costs here, relative to what people earn, are astronomical. So, there is that aspect too.

You are now helping to set up the College of Humanities, Management and Social Sciences at Kwara State University. Many more private and state-owned universities are springing up. Do you see them taking over and becoming for us what the public universities used to be?

Some of them are evolving that way. But I have two observations to make on that. One is that they will never replace the government-run universities. Never! The ability of the private sector to take care of university education in this country is very limited.

Another thing that is crippling is that the structure here is so poor. Everybody knows about electricity in this country. But we don't reflect on the repercussion. The amount of overhead that industries have to cope with because of the lack of electricity is incredible. They buy generators, fuel them. It increases the cost of doing business. And it increases the cost of running universities. There are many of them and they charge incredibly high fees; one million, two million a year. And they make a lot of many there. However bright the students, many of them come from poor homes. They cannot pay a million or two a year to go to university. So, there is a class system development, where the private universities are developing elite, in the negative sense of the word, privileged class. It happens in other countries. It's there in Harvard, Yale, Princeton and so on. But it is not as bad as it is here now, where the upper class people are sending their children to these universities. That's what I'm afraid of – that these private universities are going to create class division. In any case, I don't see them being able to afford the cost of high-rate universities in this country. It's only government that can do it. And we have the resources. I'm fully in support of creating six more universities. The regional balance in it is not a bad one at all. But the federal and state governments must know that when they make those commitments, they must be able to stand by them.

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