Saturday, October 17, 2009
Nigeria’s Literature At Odds With Her Poor Politics, Says Lindsay Barrett
LINDSAY Barrett is one Diaspora Pan-Africanist, who boldly stuck out his head in the heady days of the 1960s to relocate from Jamaica to parts of West Africa before settling down finally in Nigeria. He was consumed in the vibrant Literature and cultural life of the land he chose to make his home and significantly made his contributions as journalist and writer. Although in his late 60s, Barrett is still active in his journalistic and creative engagements that have earned him fame. More than these, his relevance as a writer also came to the fore recently when he was shortlisted, along other eight nominees, for the NLNG Prize for Literature with his new work, A Memory of Rivers. However, at the Grand Awards Night ceremony last weekend in Abuja, the judges said no winner emerged, and thus, the prize money of $50, 000 was decreed to be given to the Nigerian Academy of Letters to develop Literature. In this encounter with ANOTE AJELUOROU, Barrett reminisces on the journey back to his African roots and the milestones so far. Excerpts:
IT would look like you have been there forever, even while still having your works relevant to issues of today. When you look back at this long stretch of involvement in Nigerian Literature, what really occurs to you?
I’m always saddened by the fact that Nigeria has produced the greatest body of Literature of relevance and strength of any African nation yet little matching national development. Its work is as important if not more so to the rest of Africa than any national Literature, like South African Literature of resistance, Ghanaian Literature of political awareness. Nigerian Literature has cut across all formulas and yet we have produced a national Literature that seems to be at odds with our seeming inability to get the administrative strength of our nation right.
I came to Nigeria directly because I was influenced by her Literature. I came to Africa because I wanted to renew the spirit of ancestral hope. I felt that there was hope in knowing where you came from and that we could renew our links, that we could strengthen our systems.
But for anybody coming from the Diaspora, you don’t have to choose any one country. Quite frankly, if you come from Jamaica, you may be inclined more to Ghana. There is a strong sense of the Akan story in the Afro-centric areas of Jamaica. If you are from Trinidad and Tobago, Cuba or Brazil, you get inclined to Yoruba. If you come from Haiti, you will look back to Angola or Central Africa. Once you begin to know about cultures, you see similarities, you see polarities that attract you. So, if one is academically inclined, you may have a sense of this root movement. I have not been so inclined. I tried to be a Pan-Africanist. For me I look at the contemporary, political issues and see all Africa’s relevance in trans-nationality terms.
But through Nigeria’s Literature I found that there seemed to be a chart. I saw Nigeria producing such rich Literature. There was no constant interaction between the creative and the service sector. When I came that was a disappointment, but Nigerians continue to be the most creative people, expressing creative elements in African life.
By failing to do something, you inspire criticism. You have Soyinka; you have Chinua Achebe and the rest. So Nigeria is a paradox by failing to meet the expectation of those who have the highest expectation. It throws up incredible responses. And, that keeps happening; that is what creative people do. That is what is happening in Literature today. But unfortunately, look at your media (the Radio, the Television), which should be the public media throwing this expression out so that people become infused with the spirit.
Our modern media is behind in Literature. When I came into this country, I lived on writing at least two serious radio drama every month and I re-branded for four years. I lived on programme production, producing a programme called ‘The story-teller’. I wrote two stories every forth-night. I was paid 7 pounds, 7 shillings but because I had the facility to do that and the medium was there to do it, I could make a living but you can’t do that now. Our media has fallen behind even the musical aspect of the media is less than what it was.
When I came into the country, there was a newspaper called, Daily Express. I remembered that the literary days in the Sunday Express was as good as any newspaper. There were incredible critiques from people like J.P. Clark and others. And so we are living a life where the spirit is willing but the material reflex is weak.
There was a time you had small group talking literary stuffs like the Mbari Club. But such things do not seem to happen any more?
Basically, the tradition did not catch up and take hold of its own creative tone. And we had the period of materialism that came up in the oil boom years, and people became enamoured; these things became less important. What is also probably responsible is the fact that nobody really got around to finding a way to make a living out of the arts as pop music and others.
There’s no one place that Soyinka’s plays are regularly staged and viewed; nowhere, and yet we have so many brilliant playwrights among the old groups that came out of Soyinka – the late Wale Ogunyemi and Bode Sowande and so on. It’s sad because we all lionise Wole. But I always tell my son that the tragedy is, all of you that lionise Wole, how many of you have read his books? But how many of those that shout loudest about Wole actually know something about his works that appeal to them.
I wish that all the taxi drivers had seen the ‘road’ in his plays. I wish everybody that shouts about him really know what Jero is, really could see the role Jero played in his book Trials of Brother Jero. This man is an artist of a popular sensitivity, but he has been put in his compartment and seen as an obscurantist, which he is not to me. We throw up great artists but we do not actually live and believe in their work. We’re all part of the fault, really.
Amongst those personalities you have mentioned: Soyinka, Clark, Okigbo and the rest. Which of them did you have more bonding with at the time?
I don’t see differences; I see similarities. The person who got me this hotel accommodation is Wole’s son, who is like my son like other Wole’s children. They know how I interact with their father. Christopher Okigbo was the first person I really bonded with in this country when I got here and he died shortly after that.
He was the one who put me in Mbari as secretary. J.P. Clark was the person who insisted that I should come to Nigeria when we met in London in 1961 or so. I was producing a programme with some Nigerian writers, and J.P. was one of them. So he said, what the hell are you doing in Europe, a man like you? You belong in Africa; you belong among us. You come to Nigeria; any time you get to Nigeria, you’ll see that we are your people. You know how J.P. talks. I took it as a joke but five years later, I remembered it when I was living in Sierra Leone; and I told myself, why not go to Nigeria?
The truth is that in my life, I just make friends and they all had some meaning to me in their works. J.P. Clark’s The Raft was actually one of the things that drove me to writing plays, and I wrote several plays. I did not act in it but I did effect in a radio production of The Raft in London. And, it was an excellent, extraordinary work.
It reminded very much of my home in Jamaica, my actual home, which is near the sea. When I got to Paris, I wrote a series of plays that were produced. Well, I don’t know where most of my works are, unfortunately. It was during the Commonwealth Festival in 1965. It was a play largely influenced by The Raft. That was a play called John Pukumaka. Pukumaka is a Jamaican term for big stick. They have influenced me in various ways.
Wole strongly influenced me not so much by his works but his activism, social activism. We have not always seen eye to eye, politically; but I strongly respect his commitment to whatever he believes in. After all, when Wole was in detention I was serving the Nigerian government on the federal side seeking to prevent secession. At that time, my biggest fear was the balkanisation of Nigeria.
Some people asked me after nearly 50 years in Nigeria, if that thing happens again, would you be on the same side? Now, I’m not so sure what side I will be. I will just pack my bags and leave. At that time we had this block against Africa’s division, and I empathise and sympathise with Wole’s plight because Wole did not promote secession. Wole believed that we need a different mood in the federal side to encourage the Igbo not to go rather than to fight them physically to prevent them going. That was his theme.
The people I was working with were no less patriotic than him. But they felt that the other side was less altruistic than Wole thought. Of course, in a military era, things were not always as planned. When I was working on the federal side, it was made publicly known that I was praying for and advocating for the release of Wole Soyinka.
I have always gotten away with that in Nigeria. I suppose it’s because I’m a very poor man and nobody thinks I have any interest. So when I make these comments, Wole will say, don’t mind Barrett. But we remain friends even when we fall on different sides on any argument but I will support him to hold his side.
With the kind of disappointment that greeted you on Africa’s failures, why didn’t you pack your bags and head back home to Jamaica or Europe?
Where do I go again? I have made my life here; I’m 68 years. This year I will be 43 years in Africa. I have been back to Europe several times and I have lived elsewhere. I was in Liberia before the civil war came. But it’s not something you can just give up. Remember that the objective I have in coming to Africa will always be there no matter how disappointing I get.
I have several children here and in Liberia, and I live for their sake, whether they know it or not. If I lived in Jamaica or Europe, I could live off writing. But the fulfillment of struggling to put in place the renewal will not be there. I have said I may be disappointed by things that have happened in Nigeria but I’m not totally disappointed by Nigerians because the struggle continues.
Like the event that happened recently (the CORA Party for nine shortlisted poets for the Nigeria Prize for Literature); it means there is progress at certain levels. The other thing is that one doesn’t just give up because your life is not your own. So, I don’t have the right to give up.
I was telling somebody that Nigeria is celebrating her 50th birthday next year. Nearly everyone I told said, what are we celebrating? They said we are celebrating nothing. I said, no; celebrate the fact that you have survived so far because of the civil war of such brutality when you were not 10 years old. And you call yourselves Nigerians 40 years after that civil war.
We who are inside Nigeria tend not to know the extent to which we are actually better off than many others. The challenge that we have to overcome is to assume our full potential, but not to say we have achieved nothing. We have achieved a lot. History has it that Nigeria picked the bills of anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa. Abacha, who we all abuse, is the same who brought peace to Sierra Leone.
Somehow, the President is looking to 2020 to set a target that can be owned. Why don’t we own our mistakes and our triumphs in the last 50 years? We don’t. Nigeria’s failures have been so spectacular that why not just celebrate the fact that we could fail so spectacularly and still be alive?
We seem to over-look not only our potentials but sometimes, willingly fail to recognise the opportunities offered us. We should work harder to own our opportunities more in the next 50 years; that should be our concern.
How familiar are you with writings coming out of Nigeria at the moment? And, are you satisfied?
There are lots of incredible writings going on. One of those I can say without fear of being challenged for nepotism is when I say my son, Igonibare (Igoni Barrett), is one of the finest writers I have seen over the years.
I’m particularly happy to say I have nothing to do with developing his talent. What I did was when I saw his talent I told him I admire it and asked him to keep it up. I have distanced myself from promoting him until he could see any of his achievement, which resulted to his book of poems that is recognised globally as a brilliant work. This made me happy.
But he is not the only one. There’s an interesting thing going on among the women. You have Chimamanda; she is a brilliant writer although I still have my reservations about her style. But, no problem. The real original is Sefi Attah. I haven’t really read much of her works except excerpts on the web but she writes beautifully. There are two others, who have not gotten equal recognitions. One of them is Kaine Agary, who won the LNG prize with Yellow Yellow last year; brilliant book.
Then there is a girl, Bimbola Adelakun with her Under the Brown Rusted Roofs. The book is not well put together. If I had the money I really would have loved to publish that book. It’s an extraordinary book. I find her potentially much more satisfying than Chimamanda, who is, herself, quite a talent. Then there is a book called Burma Boy (by Bandele Thomas, a Nigeria resident in Great Britain); extremely brilliant. Nigeria is producing a national Literature totally at odds with her inability to get her politics and management of her affairs correct.
There is so much other stuffs coming out that is not properly produced, not properly edited and so on. It means there is a lot bubbling in the pot, and how to get it out. What we need today is the coming together of the media to make this industry big.
As it was before, Nigeria Literature is beginning to have world audience again. It had it before, and it’s coming like a second time around. I think government should take note of this and encourage essay competitions, literary clubs in schools. It’s clear that the world wants to hear Nigeria; and, they want to hear something better.
In most parts of the word, Literature has a way of permeating into politics and governance. But here those who govern don’t even read the available books on major issues. Why is this so?
Actually, I can’t agree with you more. Literature elsewhere is an integral part of the spirit of governance because it has influence on those who govern.
I think that in Nigeria, an important cause of this dichotomy goes back to education. The average Nigerian is not educated enough to treat Literature as a vital element of service. And, what is regarded as higher is making money to sustain the family. But the truth is that Literature is the basis on which everything else is based.
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