Monday, July 15, 2024

To a Life of Kisses and Quarrels


By Tolu Akinwole 

  • Title: Niyi Osundare: A Literary Biography
  • Author: Sule E Egya
  • Publisher: SEVHAGE Publishers
  • Number of pages: 334
  • Year of publication: 2017
  • Category: Biography

Some people’s lives compel biographies, and Niyi Osundare is one of them. Or how else does one describe a life that exemplifies the classic grass-to-grace tale? Niyi Osundare: A Literary Biography captures in rich detail the trials and triumphs of one of the greatest poets to have risen from Nigeria; it outlines in bold relief the tortuous road to greatness. Only a few writers other than Sule E Egya, a poet, critic, academic and Osundare enthusiast, are qualified to present the story as he does.

Osundare’s success story fittingly begins with a prescient gift he received from his father – a fountain pen. Aguntasoolo, unlettered but wise, wanted his son to excel at formal education. Apart from the fact that Osundare was perceived as a gift from Osun, the famed queen of the waters in Yoruba cosmological thoughts; that his acting skills were nurtured by his father and uncle; that he excelled at history and languages but did poorly at mathematics; that he spent his formative years internalising the wealth of knowledge that formal education as well as cultural practices in Ikere-Ekiti, his hometown, had to offer; that, while a student at the University of Ibadan, he met a young woman who was also lettered in Shakespeare and devoted to literature but was an astounding nursing student and later became his wife; and that after his first degree at the University of Ibadan he proceeded to Leeds for a master’s degree and later to York University in Toronto for his PhD, much of Osundare’s story stares at readers in his volumes of poetry and stacks of newspaper columns. Egya presents these details on the pages of the book.

Egya’s work is more valuable, however, for the many significant issues it highlights. Osundare’s life is an ongoing conversation with his country, Nigeria. Like the writings of Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka, this biography (just like the body of work created by the biography’s subject) sparks debates about the brain drain, societal dysfunction, academic mediocrity and the ills of the Structural Adjustment Programme – the trouble brought upon Africa by neoliberalism (p 263).

In many ways, the biography upholds the notion of the writer as a righteous rebel. This framing of the writer appears in the works of Nigerian writers, remarkably Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah. Osundare comes across, strikingly, as a blend of both the reasonable Chris Oriko and the fiery Ikem Osodi, characters in Achebe’s novel. It would strike the reader that Aguntasoolo’s bestowal of pen and wit on his son was not only a foreshadowing of the future of a man of letters, but also of the expected difficulties that come with a life of letters. The man of letters bears a burden to his society, to call it to order, to finger the problem with it, and, as in Ikem Osodi’s work, to cause headaches for the evildoer. When, therefore, in 1985, the late editor of Newswatch, Dele Giwa, invited him to contribute to the newspaper, Osundare’s only concern was that his views might be considered too tendentious by the editorial board. Dele Giwa was an intrepid journalist, but indeed he once had reservations about publishing a damning piece that Osundare had written about the Nigerian university system: ‘Solid piece, Niyi, with powerful truth. I’m just afraid it might get you into trouble in the Ivory Tower’ (p 113). Osundare heartily asked him to ‘Slam it on!’ Of the article in question, Osundare recounts:

The impact of the article was immediate and tremendous. Photocopies of it went up on doors and notice boards. University authorities took an especial note of it. They also took note of its author for, on one or two occasions, I was accosted by two angry professors who accused me of ridiculing the university system and threatened I would never become a [tenured] professor as long as they remained in that system. [Well], they and their colleagues succeeded in delaying but not denying my professorial destiny, eventually (pp 113–114).

This indictment of the university system resonates with many Nigerian professors reeling under the gracelessness of mediocre institutions steeped in clientelism. To these, the Nigerian university system, as much as the government, is to blame for the emigration of many of the country’s brightest academics. When Osundare, compelled by many factors, including lack of educational infrastructure for his hearing impaired daughter, decided to seek employment in the United States, his colleagues at the University of Ibadan issued a letter of protestation that received no response. For a writer trapped in a stifling climate, the open arms of the University of New Orleans provided much needed solace.

Angry professors were not the only adversaries Osundare cultivated. His caustic criticism of the ills of the Nigerian government invoked the ire of the powerful. He came close to death when on one night he was attacked by assassins. Miraculously, he emerged from the encounter with his life even though he suffered a heavy machete blow. The encounter resulted in Moonsongs, one of his celebrated volumes of poetry.

Of his colleagues at New Orleans, Osundare affirms, ‘They were omo-iya (children of my mother)’. Anyone familiar with the poet will identify in this his worldview of a united world; a world where experiences, fears, desires and ambitions are inherently similar even if birthed by differing circumstances. The pan-humanity of the human mind, as Osundare is wont to say, should not be taken for granted. Hurricane Katrina proved him right. He lost all his belongings in the ferocious storm but his colleagues provided him with a lifeboat in the form of their support and fellowship. City without People, his collection of poems after the hurricane, appropriately expresses his gratitude and perspective of the world.

A conscious reader will easily recognise Osundare’s Marxist leaning evidenced by the characters he portrays in his works (Village Voices is a worthy example). Faithful to his appellation as the ‘poet of the marketplace’, he admits that he speaks for the traditionally silenced in society, the dregs of society. His accessible poems, many critics assert, further exemplify this disposition. His views on writing, undoubtedly stemming from this leaning, are unsurprisingly provocative. He opines that writers in the diaspora run the risk of deadening their creativity because:

[w]hat makes a writer is the nitty-gritty experience, the flavor of the local flower, the smell of the soil, the rustle of harmattan leaves in the dry season, the rustling of the river in its valley, the cry of the hoi polloi, the smell of the armpits of people in overcrowded buses, the jarring ring of the la la su laila of the beggar, the flatulence of the African politician, his or her lies, the enduring wisdom in indigenous idioms and proverbs (p 268).

This controversial view triggers a number of valid questions that border on the authenticity of works of writers in the diaspora who do not write about rustling leaves, flowing rivers, odoriferant armpits, singing beggars, or flatulent politicians. If Osundare’s ilk fight for a better situation for Africa and comfort for Africans, writers or not, does he suggest thus that when Africa reaches its paradise, writers will cease to write? Dealing with this question will be left to writers like Binyavanga Wainaina whose propositions about the nature of African literature have rent the air in recent times. However, the poet and academic lives by an occupational advantage and hazard: the tendency to provoke.

Osundare’s relationship of kisses and quarrels with his country is well detailed in this exquisitely comprehensive account. Offering copious references to Osundare’s poems, academic writings and interviews, Egya’s Niyi Osundare: A Literary Biography presents, in a linear, journalistic fashion, the eventful life of the celebrated Nigerian poet. Indeed, the phrase ‘literary biography’ is misleading. It indicates, deceptively, that the reader should expect to be transported to the junction where the flowery, grand narrative arc of fiction meets the factual details of real life events. However, what Egya does is, more aptly, a ‘critical biography’. The charm of this important work is not in the elegance of prose: it is in its richness in details.

Photograph: ‘Writing poems…’ by Ginette

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Tolu Akinwole
Tolu Akinwole
Tolu Akinwole is a student of literature. Because talk is cheap, he writes.

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