On Literature and Writers

January 13, 2024
4 mins read

By Henry Chukwuemeka Onyema
Saturday, August 20, 2011.
There are times I pause to wonder what gives people like me the temerity to describe ourselves as writers. Now the title itself is no big deal: a nurse who pens a drug prescription for a patient is a writer; a teacher copying notes on the black-oops-white board is also a writer.
I refer to those of us who think that something; a crazy whim, probably some imagined fancy, or a nameless idea, compels them to write something they think will mark their voyage through this realm years after they have become cosmic dust. Of course, not everyone who takes on the mantle of the quill or biro or even the laptop has such an elevated motive. Some write because of sweet, succulent, saliva-eliciting banknotes. This is not necessarily bad, though some hypocritical, self-styled guardians of the literary temple think otherwise. Others may want fame or even want to contemplate their navel in public. Yet some write because they are, frankly speaking, mad; only a virgin sheet of paper or an undefiled computer screen can exorcise their demons. Reasons abound why we, mere earthlings, think we can play God without shouldering the responsibilities of being a creator. Anyway, that is not the subject of this piece.
What bothers me is this: we or rather, I say I am a writer. Good. Do I have what it takes to be one? Am I willing, able and ready to pay the price for writing? Access to the country of literature, like any other, demands for passport and visa. Am I ready to bear the strains and stresses of going to the appropriate embassy to get the required documents?
Those of us who think we can write more than drug prescriptions and road signs must know that the dilemma of writing is real. I am not talking about publishing; that is another matter, particularly here in Nigeria. My concerns are much more fundamental.
So-called writer, creator of a unique universe, are you ready to put your head on the block for your writing? Literally or figuratively? Ask Wole Soyinka; ask Chinua Achebe. The July 29 1966 coup plotters gunned for his head because they thought his novel ‘A Man of the People’ was a blueprint for the January 15 1966 coup. Ask Buchi Emecheta; she lost her marriage to literature. Ask me; some years ago my job trembled because of an apparently innocuous piece I sent to a newspaper. Many of the members of our tribe are wearing headstones in cemeteries in different countries because they dared to be creators. The new generation of Nigerian writers (which I am proud to belong to), steeped in the glamour of the book business and not its grime since the dawn of our so-called democracy, has largely lost the stomach for taking to the trenches. Exceptions abound, of course. But writing, even if it is popular fiction, can take the writer, whether he wants it or not, to Golgotha. One word can ignite a grenade from an offended hand.
Writer, are you ready for obscurity? To be misunderstood and for misunderstanding? To be the butt of a here-and-now society that panders to the lust of the flesh and the pride of life? True, a good number of the writers in this clime are not ready to rise above the cesspool of our environment. Thus pander to it with paeans they will: hagiographic memoirs steeped in untruths; motivational pieces that demotivate seekers of the right human condition; histories dipped in mendacity; religious tracts that chart the course to damnation; educational materials that leave readers more uneducated than ever; the list is endless.
Lest I be misunderstood, I love motivational works; I am a fan of Norman Vincent Peale, the apostle of positive thinking. I hope to write a history of this great entity called Naija, as distinct from Nigeria. But expect our milieu to hoist the head of any of us who expands the literary frontier on the battlements. Who among my generation dare write stuff that can tear our people’s insides, make them vomit their cant and purge their prejudices? Who among us can paint sex so beautifully that the words alone give you a glorious erection that does not blind you to the tale being told? Who will pull down our religious and political oppressors from their sphires and minarets like Fela Anikpulapo-Kuti did with his music? Come on; find me a Dan Brown, a D.H. Lawrence or even a Salman Rushdie. Who does the cap fit? To best of my knowledge these guys did not consciously set out to do what they did. (Do not ask me what they did. Read their books to find out). But their hearts conceived and their pens spewed blood. Why are we afraid of shaking and shocking the establishment? Because they provide our meal tickets?
This brings me to the last question: Writer, what of the meal tickets? What if the awards do not come? The wielders of grants bypass you? You are excluded from the literary mafias because you are opinionated? You shock the world and it blacklists you? Publishers consign your stuff, no matter how good, to the shit bucket, not even the slush pile? You remain unknown because you refuse to ride on anyone’s shoulders? What if you do not have the opportunity to travel to ‘Jand’ (migrate to the West, mumu)? The demands of keeping the silvery thread that holds body and soul from snapping, nko?
If you contemplate these questions and decide that the game is worth the candle, then the kingdom of twenty-first Nigerian literature belongs to you.
Henry C. Onyema is a Lagos-based writer. He was a runner-up in the Farafina Independence Short Story Competiton.

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