Jun 29, 2016

Writing Under the Hot Nigerian Sun


We write what we know. African fiction is reality-based and for good reasons. Outside a simple hut, dirt roads lead to work, to the water well, to the Savanna. Movie theaters, libraries, schools, places that spark imagination beyond just survival are far and few between. African legends and lessons are passed from family to family in a story-based culture. These are the commonalities of African writing, in poetry, fiction, theater and folk tales. Many published works from these authors are culture-based centering on the household, politics and choices of morality. This is the world within the reach of 1900’s African writer, raised in riches or poverty.

My research led me to Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, writing under the name James Ngugi, a Kenyan writer of fiction and historical novels. I also found a Somali American educator named Sofia Samater. She has received multiple awards for her novel A Stranger in Olandria. Flora Nwapa, another Nigerian writer known for novels and short stories is acknowledged as the first African woman novelist. Her first novel Efuru was published in 1966, receiving acclaim and international recognition.

I became focused on Cyprian Ekwensi, a Nigerian fiction author. He was hailed as one of the most prolific writers of Nigeria from 1947 through 1991. His books of fiction Burning Grass and Beautiful Feathers, have received both critical review and literary awards. Fiction is a tool for those without voice to, not so subtly, hide meaning and code of the common tongue in the text of seemingly harmless fantasy. This leaves the interpretation open to government scrutiny. It is a protest of reading and whispers.

“However famous a man is outside, if he is not respected inside his own home, he is like a bird with beautiful feathers, wonderful on the outside but ordinary within.” Ekwensi, Beautiful Feathers(36)

This Igbo proverb applies to Wilson Iyari, the hero of Ekwensi’s novel. In the novel, Ekwensi writes about a non-violent demonstration to promote African solidarity. Wilson is the owner of the Independence Pharmacy. 

Cyprian Ekwensi
Coinciding with Nigerian Independence Day, this simple metaphor is teetering on literary insurrection. For it is a dangerous time in Nigeria to be outspoken against your government.

Cyprian Ekwensi has a unique style of writing; his at times excessive use of commas is to me a measure and beat to the reading. To think like an African is to read like an African. I am not African. 

At points in his story where my American eye wants to continue a thought or action from a protagonist, breaks and beats force me to refocus my perspective. I have to teach myself to let the author tell the story. And an African story is in the telling, not just the reading. Passing along a thought or an emotion has more importance than remembering the words used. 

When Ekwensi flowers his pros with eloquent words, those words seem forced, inserted rather than written from the heart. But this is a versatile author. Ekwensi has published novels and short stories, written plays for radio, scripts for television and the big screen. His writings focus on love, infatuation, infidelity, war, adventure, fantasy, politics, childhood, marriage, death, and ritual sacrifice. Ekwensi lived through the Apartheid in Nigeria. Many of his works were not translated into English until decades after being published in his native language.

While his land may be a continent away from us, his themes of love, hate, violence, childhood, death are common throughout the world. His protagonists are business owners, servants, farmers, working everyday men and women searching for a voice in the blazing Nigerian sun. I am pleased to have gotten to know Cyprian Ekwensi, through critical reviews, biographies and small portions of his work I was able to read.
Cyprian will be added to my library and shared with readers looking for a taste of African writing.

Cyprian Ekwensi was born on September 26, 1921 in Minna, Nigeria. He died November 04, 2007 but not before leaving a lasting and admired litany of written works, respected and reviewed for decades.

Author’s prolific work:
Ikolo the Wrestler, and Other Ibo Tales (London: Nelson, 1947).
When Love Whispers (Onitsha, Nigeria: Tabansi, 1947).
The Leopard's Claw (London: Longmans, Green, 1950).
People of the City (London: Dakers, 1954; revised edition, London: Heinemann, 1963; Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1967).
The Passport of Mallam Ilia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1960).
The Drummer Boy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1960).
Jagua Nana (London: Hutchinson, 1961; New York: Fawcett, 1969).
Burning Grass (London: Heinemann, 1962).
An African Night's Entertainment (Lagos: African Universities Press, 1962; London: Ginn, 1971).
Yaba Roundabout Murder (Lagos: Tortoise Series, 1962).
Beautiful Feathers (London: Hutchinson, 1963).
The Great Elephant-Bird (London: Nelson, 1965).
The Rainmaker and Other Stories (Lagos: African University Press, 1965; London: Ginn, 1971).
The Boa Suitor (London: Nelson, 1966).
Iska (London: Hutchinson, 1966).
Juju Rock (Lagos: African Universities Press, 1966; London: Ginn, 1966).
Trouble in Form Six (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1966).
Lokotown, and Other Stories (London: Heinemann, 1966).
Coal Camp Boy (Ibadan: Longman, Nigeria, 1973).
Samankwe in the Strange Forest (Ibadan: Longman, Nigeria, 1973).
Samankwe and the Highway Robbers (London: Evans, 1975).
Restless City and Christmas Gold, with Other Stories (London: Heinemann, 1975).
The Rainbow-Tinted Scarf and Other Stories (London: Evans, 1975).
Survive the Peace (London: Heinemann, 1976).
Divided We Stand (Enugu, Nigeria: Fourth Dimension, 1980).
Motherless Baby (Enugu, Nigeria: Fourth Dimension, 1980).
For a Roll of Parchment (Ibadan: Heinemann, 1986).
Jagua Nana's Daughter (Ibadan: Spectrum, 1986).
The Masquerade (London: Heinemann, 1991).
Gone to Mecca (Ibadan: Heinemann, 1991).

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