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Nigerian Literature: A Coat Of Many Colours

Posted: Jun 21, 2015 at 12:00 am   /   by   /   comments (0)

Title: Nigerian Literature: A Coat of Many Colours

Editor:  Koko Kalango

Reviewer:  Henry Chukwuemeka Onyema

Publishers:  Rainbow Book Club

No of pages:  109

I begin this article with a profound sense of ownership and not a little pride. Koko Kalango got the inspiration for the book’s title from a piece I wrote back in 2010 looking at the road Nigerian literature has travelled since the country’s independence. In the acknowledgement she wrote: ‘‘I have Henry Chukwuemeka Onyema to credit for the unusual title of this book, which, though derived from a biblical story, actually occurred to me after I read a piece he wrote ‘Nigerian Literature at Fifty: A Coat of Many Colours.’’’  So here is a heartfelt thank you to Mrs. Kalango and the Rainbow Book Club for the contribution of my work in activating their fecund genius to create this literary history which will outlive us all.

BookNow that the appropriate encomiums have been paid, let the dissection begin.

This book is worthy of its title. It is indeed a ‘coat of many colours.’ It captures the gamut of generations of writers who shaped, and are still shaping, Nigerian literature. From Amos Tutuola whose novel The Palm Wine Drinkard  opened the chapter of modern Nigerian literature in 1952 to the new kid on the block, Chibundu Onuzo, the editor and her team did a good job to give us snapshots that will interest the general reader, the student and the researcher. The absence of intellectual heavy-handedness in the book is highly commendable.

Its features are human, accessible and digestible. Fifty of Nigeria’s arguably best writers are alphabetically arranged and in subsequent pages, two sections are devoted to each author: one containing a lively biosketch, selected works of the author and a cover picture of the writer’s defining work; the next has either an excerpt of the writer’s work or a piece of nonfiction or an interview that illuminates the reader’s comprehension of what makes the author tick. The book opens with an acknowledgement; a foreword by former President Jonathan and an introduction by former Governor Rotimi Amaechi of Rivers State. It ends with a publisher’s note and information pages about the publishers, the editor and her team.

Reading through the pages, I gained fresh insights into the minds of some writers I am already familiar with, and knowledge about the ones I know little about. The corresponding article on Chinua Achebe titled ‘What Nigeria Is To Me’ helped me understand, at least to an extent, what made him write ‘troublesome’ books like The Trouble With Nigeria and There Was A Country. Defining his love-hate relationship with Nigeria over the years has not been easy for Achebe.

It has been years since I first encountered Kole Omotoso’s Just Before Dawn. Now I will go searching again because of the thirst Kalango stirred in me.

Of all the playwrights depicted in the book, Tess Onwueme, Femi Osofisan and Ahmed Yerima’s pieces stirred me the most. It goes beyond the sparks of solid sex in the excerpts; it encompasses their vivid and vital imagery; their visible dialogue.

I was enthralled by Bode Sowande’s inclusion but it is not because of his plays which have made him a lord of the African literary clan.  As soon as I saw his burning eyes and goatee my mind flew to his 1981 political thriller novel Our Man the President. Since I first read it my mind has always associated the author with Jaiye, the radical lecturer-turned-commando and hitman, one of the novel’s principal characters.

Going through the poems of J.P. Clark and Christopher Okigbo was humbling. The late soldier-poet, Mamman Vatsa’s pidgin poems made me laugh and sigh in turns. What a great mind, what a great loss, I thought.

The photographs in the book indicate that these folks are not green men from Mars. Their expressions range from sagely reflection (Achebe) to friendly calmness (Elechi Amadi); a frown? (Lola Shoneyin); rich humour (Chika Unigwe); and a not quite-eliminated childlike innocence (Chibundu Onuzo). Inevitably it was a female author’s photograph that won my vote. Do not ask me whose.

But why couldn’t the editor find at least new, if not the latest, cover pages of some of the books depicted in the collection?

This book is a must-have for anyone who has anything to do with Nigerian literature.

Only Ekwensi of Jagua Nana fame got a ‘colour’ in the ‘coat.’

Onyema is a writer and historian.