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Of Generations and Limits:

Pius Adesanmi in conversation with Nnorom Azuonye

(Part I)


This conversation took place in late 2005. I had set no word or size limits to the conversation because I hoped Adesanmi would address all aspects of questions surrounding the generational writing issues in Nigeria, or at least open the discussion in a more robust manner. I am aware that since the conclusion of what became a 15,000-word material, Adesanmi has given other interviews in which he had been drawn into some of the issues he discusses in here.



Nnorom Azuonye: You have embraced the concept of ‘Third Generation’ Nigerian writers, describing them as writers born after 1960. It is unclear why 1960 should be the boundary between the Second and Third Generations. Kindly tell me which writers constitute the First and Second Generations, and the precise basis or thematic or stylistic shifts that have marked the boundaries between them.


Pius Adesanmi: Thank you. I am going to engage your question from multiple but overlapping perspectives in order to clear the air on what, apparently, has become a controversy – because authorship of that very notion, third generation, has been curiously attributed to me by two major critical voices in the fold. Obiwu speaks derisively of Pius Adesanmi’s problematic notion of “third generation” in an issue of Sentinel Poetry Quarterly without offering any convincing approach to the important question of how to engage the new and expanding corpus within the framework of the distinctive textual strategies and the peculiar informing contexts that mark it out as an independent generational oeuvre. Writing recently in Wasafiri, Niyi Okunoye, in what amounts to the shortest (four or so lines) and most outrageous misreading of anything I’ve ever written, also attributes authorship of the notion to me and proceeds to declare it problematic and contestable. Like Obiwu, he is tragically unable to proffer any illuminating alternatives.


Now, it would be disingenuous of me to claim the authorship that is being so cavalierly attributed to me. It is a commonplace term that has been around and has been used continentally. If you want to be generous and kind, you could claim that, in the case of Nigeria, I've been a major megaphone of the idea in international discursive circuitries in Europe and North America through my publications and peripatetic university guest lectures. You are probably aware that I co-edited a special issue of English in Africa in May 2005 with Chris Dunton on this issue of third generation Nigerian writing. I am also currently guest-editing a special issue of Research in African Literatures on the same subject with Chris Dunton. So, I admit to giving the term a certain discursive/critical visibility and legitimation.


Coming to the specifics of your question, with this background in mind, you have merely zeroed in on one among several mutually reinforcing but non-sacrosanct factors that could allow for the delineation of a literary generation, or any generation for that matter. If you look for instance at global intellectual traditions, the co-presence, overlap, and intermeshing of factors ranging from approximate age/publication brackets, ideological leanings, responses to socio-political context, distinctive textual strategies, personal politics and self-definition – all flowing towards a collective self-fashioning, which sometimes crystallizes in a manifesto, manifest, or in the subtle rebellion against antecedent traditions – and above all the interpellation of history and responses to it etc, are some of the elements that would enable you to speak, say, of the generation of Russian Futurists, Italian Futurists,  the generation of French classicists and surrealists, the beat generation, the Negritude generation, etc. To all these factors, the Spanish philosopher, Jose Ortega Y. Gasset, perhaps the most formidable theorist of intellectual and literary generations, adds the factor of coevality. When these factors are present and interweave, you are able to talk of a discursive formation in the Foucauldian sense and that is what, approximately makes a generation.


So temporality - 1960 - is but one of several factors that I have always foregrounded in my interventions in this matter. The factor of productive temporal cohesion enables us to put Senghor, David Diop and Tchicaya U’Tamsi in the same literary generation despite their respective and considerable age disparity. With specific reference to Nigeria – and this is not to be seen in isolation – the cultural nationalist project of reaffirmation, self-assertion, and delinking from centuries of Euromodernist misrepresentation occasioned a certain recourse to a politicised ritualism as the core of the textual response of those we now conventionally refer to as the first generation. From Wole Soyinka to Chinua Achebe, from JP Clark to Christopher Okigbo, from Wale Ogunyemi to Mabel Segun just to mention those few, there is always this mobilisation of the ritualist topos as a locatable centre of the text’s ideology. Once that has been stabilised and normalised as a valid basis of our Weltaanschaung, political and social accretions come in to consolidate the themes. Of course we must add the co-presence of critical structures such as journals and an active critical community, which complete the picture of a first generation discursive formation.


Shift to the 1970s and the early 1980s and you encounter two major factors that would immediately enable you to delineate a generational shift. First, colonialism and the imperative of response are no longer the regnant historical interpellation, second politicised ritualism is no longer the centre of the text. Here, post-independence disillusionment and the attendant moral, political, and social atrophies, have become the dominant interpellation and a certain socialist aesthetics, complete with its utopias, replaces ritualist recourse as textual strategy. You can already guess that I am talking about Festus Iyayi, Niyi Osundare, Femi Osofisan, Odia Ofeimun, Bode Sowande, Tunde Fatunde, Abubakar Gimba, Zainab Alkali and Kole Omotosho. And the critics around them? Chidi Amuta, Biodun Jeyifo and Wale Ogunbiyi; all vaunting a chaotic Marxism. That is why a critic like Udenta Udenta is able to speak of “revolutionary aesthetics” as the defining identity of this group in his brilliant book on the second generation.


Shift again to the mid-1980s and beyond and you notice an interweaving of new sets of factors, circumstances, textual strategies and modes of self-fashioning that Harry Garuba has summed up brilliantly as the overarching absence of an ideological/discursive core in his theoretical contribution to the English in Africa volume I spoke about earlier. So the fact that most of these writers were born after 1960 and were therefore not ocular witnesses of the colonial event is just one among so many other generational markers. That merely speaks to their coevality in the sense of Ortega Y. Gasset. I agree entirely with Garuba that while an instrumentalised ritualism constitutes the centre of first generation writing, while a will to socialist utopia (Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s new earth motif for instance) seats at the heart of second generation writing, decentralization of narrative, the dispersal of the thematic core are some of the very noticeable characteristics of third generation writing. That is why it would be difficult to summon a transcendental ideological interpellation that could link, say, the poetry of Amatoritsero Ede with the plays of Biyi Bandele.


Critics, like Obiwu and Okunoye, who are taking their disagreement with my parameters too seriously are of course limited by the Anglophonic provincialism which makes it impossible for them to assess the phenomenon continentally. Otherwise, they would be able to see that what I am calling third generation in Nigeria is what my very good friend Abdourahman Waberi – arguably the most famous and most prolific African novelist in France today – calls “children of the postcolony” to signify that his generation was born after independence. In East Africa, they are called the Uhuru generation and the reason is obvious. In South Africa, it’s the post-trauma generation. In the Maghreb, they are the ‘beur’ generation and they live mostly in France. We must however always emphasise that these are categories of convenience and they help in our understanding of literary growth and development. They are by no means sacrosanct.


NA: The quixotic flavour of your response to the first question raises many others. First, is it within reason to talk about Olaudah Equiano in relation to Nigerian writing? Second, kindly suggest a generational locale for a pan-Africanist writer such as Nnamdi Azikiwe whose poetry and political literature appeared in the mid-1930s through to the early 1950s, way before any of the writings of the people you call the first generation. While you are there, kindly reflect on whether you could perhaps be accused of decapitating the history of writing in Nigeria by placing the take-off point around Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe, both of whom first published books (The Swamp Dwellers and Things Fall Apart respectively) in 1958.

PA: Let me confess that I anticipated this question since I am fully aware of the currency of this position within a certain Igbocentric strand of ongoing critical commentary/punditry in our generation. I will readily identify Obiwu as the arrowhead of this brand of epistemological self-fashioning. You see, it actually depends on who subscribes to the notion of an Equiano generation of Nigerian literature and Azikiwe generation of Nigerian literature and for what ideological, political, or even literary-historiographical reasons. It depends on who is prepared to render their understanding of what constitutes a viable, veritable literary generation so flexible as to lose pedagogical, theoretical, and hermeneutic relevance. This said, I must observe that your question contains a very serious misrepresentation of my position by equating my identification of the generational phenomenon with the origins of Nigerian writing! I can’t recall where I have ever written or claimed that Soyinka and Achebe constitute the takeoff point of Nigerian writing. This sort of misrepresentation occurs anytime ideology preconditions colours reception and perception of expressed positions. As I stated and exegetized in my entry on “African Literature” in the recent revised edition of Scribner's New Dictionary of the History of Ideas, scribal African literature is at least 5000 years old. And African orature is undatable. I have read my Anta Diop. I have read my Martin Bernal. I would have no business in this business if I thought that Nigerian literature started with Tutuola, Soyinka, and Achebe and Okigbo. I have clearly established what the basic benchmarks for a literary generation are for me in my response to your first question. If you think continentally of British-colonised Africa after the Berlin conference down to the 1940s, it is possible to speak of an early precursive generation of modern African literature, starting perhaps with Joseph Casely-Hayford's Ethiopia Unbound (1911). It is possible to include, in no specific order and certainly inexhaustively, poets and prose stylists such as Gladys Casely Hayford, J.B. Danquah, Raphael Armattoe, H.E. Dhlomo, Dennis Osadebay, Abioseh Nicol, Michael Dei-Anang, Pita Nwana, R.E. Obeng, and Nnamdi Azikiwe, etc. A holistic, continental perspective allows these early, precursive voices to be discoursed, with great caution, as a generation.


The moment you enter the national category as a marker and begin to speak of Nigerian, Ghanaian, Sierra Leonian, or Liberian literature before the 1950s, the generational perspective collapses entirely and you are left, nationally, with scattered pioneers, early voices, and precursive presences. It is not for nothing that no serious, canonical book of African literary historiography, speaks of national generations within this period. Whether you are talking of O.R Dathorne's African Literature in the Twentieth Century, Donatus Nwoga's West African Verse, Chinweizu's Voices from Twentieth Century Africa or Oyekan Owomoyela's A History of Twentieth Century African Literatures, just to cite those few, you will encounter constructs such as ‘pioneers’, ‘early voices’, and ‘first wave’, even when they are offering a broad, trans-continental Anglophonic canvas. When speaking nationally, it is not for nothing that everybody avoids the use of literary generation until we get to the Soyinkas, the Achebes etc. People do not have a cavalier approach to what constitutes a viable literary generation and they understand that the early period you have asked me to comment on did not produce the level of corpus, and robust circumambient critical opus that would justify a generational perspective.


So, as far as Nigerian literature is concerned, I cannot accept your invitation to construct a generational locale around Nnamdi Azikiwe because I am not interpellated by the ideological predispositions that would make some commentators want to renarrativize literary history in such a way as to make him more central to the Nigerian literary process than Achebe, Okigbo, and Soyinka rolled into one. I say this because a few years ago, I had one of those perfunctory telephone conversations with another notable Igbocentric thinker, a brother of mine I often disagree with in listserves. Lo and behold, he was placing Azikiwe as a creative writer – I repeat: as a creative writer – on the same bracket with Leopold Sedar Senghor and Aime Cesaire! He was practically placing the poetry of these three men on the same pedestal. Such outrage by one of the most brilliant minds I've been privileged to be around demonstrates the power of ideological interpellation. Azikiwe towers above Senghor and Cesaire in domains you are familiar with. But in creative writing? He is definitely not at their level!! Yes he wrote and published poetry, including an anthology. W.E.B du Bois also wrote and published poetry. I am yet to hear of a Du Bois generation of African American literature. His greatness, like Azikiwe’s, lies in other areas of praxis and exercise of the intellect. 


To recap and avoid misrepresentation since we are in extremely dangerous territory, Nnamdi Azikiwe, the poet, belongs to that precursive wave of twentieth century Nigerian literature in English. And if you ask me, he was not central to that tradition, his greatness/legend lying elsewhere outside of creative writing. It is not for nothing that his kinsmen, Nwoga and Chinweizu, omit his poetry in their respective anthologies. Critical error? No. Critical blindness? No. They merely selected poetry they consider central to and representative of that period.


NA: I believe the question I asked was in what generation of Nigerian literature would Azikiwe fit in. That is not being Igbocentric, which of course I am, but let’s not make ethnic warfare sir. Of course you have mentioned Osadebay and Nwana, whose writings were also exceptional. I hold the view that ignoring these ‘pioneers’ is inimical to the historicization of Nigerian literature. That Nwoga omitted Azikiwe in his West African Verse is not an indication that the latter’s work is not worthy of critical attention. Anthologists and critics are subjective and will build up what they want, knock down what they want or ignore what they wish to ignore. These decisions are not to be deemed infallible. You may recall that The New Oxford Book of English Verse (1973), edited  by Helen Gardner, included for instance the poetry of Alexander Pope, which had been omitted in The Oxford Book of English Verse (1900), edited by Arthur Quiller-Couch. Quiller-Couch had favoured the lyrical poetry of Dryden, and Tennyson etc. So, it took 73 years for Pope to be included in that book. Never too late. Moving forward with this… do you reckon – with regards to the need for a vibrant critical movement for the growth of Nigerian literature – that, in order to end the ‘controversy’ around this ‘generational’ issue, it is necessary at all to break down these generations; that a book, say an anthology of Nigerian literature, which clearly collates works and writers according to their generations, including critical or analytical notes, would help in defining or structuring critical discourse in Nigeria?


PA: This question comes with another set of erroneous assumptions which reinforces my assertion that something is colouring the reception of my expressed positions. I must address them briefly so we can move forward with this conversation as you suggest. I am as anxious as you are to move forward. Where you see and automatically suspect ethnic warfare, I see a robust discussion that I am enjoying, laden, as it were, with the epistemological tensions that should be expected when discursive engagement takes place at your level and my level. I would be disappointed if this discussion operated beneath this sophisticated level of healthy oppositionality. In fact, I would discontinue it. This brings me to your seeming assumption that Igbocentrism as a strand in critical engagements of the current generation has a negative connotation. Why would I expect you to be in a position where its denial would be necessary? Its denial is both neither necessary and feasible nor desirable because it exists factually as a legitimate category of knowledge and discourse in this generation, my frequent disagreements with what I perceive as its extremisms notwithstanding. For my current RAL project, haven’t I only just commissioned a major older thinker to attempt, where and if possible, an Igbocentric panoramic brush of the Igbo element in the third generation novel: Abani, Adichie, Oguine, Ndibe, Nwosu, Azuah, Onwordi, Iweala? Why didn’t this man suspect something sinister, automatically negative, at the mere mention of Igbocentrism as is the wont of some of our contemporaries? Are the ever frequent disagreements with the Afrocentrism of Molefi Asante, Chinweizu, Anta Diop and Martin Bernal always coterminous with enemy intellectual action or descent into warfare? In all my previous discussions of this generational phenomenon- and incidentally within this interview- is it possible for you to point out any sentence, any word, any hint, any punctuation mark suggestive of the finality and infallibility of my position? Responding to your first two questions, I have used indices of non-finality, non-absolutism such as ‘categories of convenience’, “non-sacrosanct”, etc; I have used locutions of tentativeness and idiosyncrasy such as “for me” and “as far I am concerned”, yet it seems to me that you keep reading me as pushing what I believe to be an absolutist, overarching, infallible position, occasioning these restatements and repetitions. Even for the English in Africa project, I made it clear to all the contributors - Maik Nwosu, Chielozona Eze, Remi Raji, Harry Garuba, Wumi Raji, Odia Ofeimun -  that they were free to reject or problematize the three-generations approach. They all accepted it with hedgings, caveats, and progressive criticism. Maik Nwosu, for instance, went back and forth between third generation and new voices, changing his title so many times before he made up his mind that third generation was convenient for him. I think you should check this at the SOAS library; May 2005 issue. One look at the flexible, tentative, non-absolutist introduction I co-wrote with Chris Dunton would hopefully take care of your concerns. And where is the hint, in anything I have said, that Azikiwe’s poetry is not worth critical attention? There is a gulf between claiming that a body of literary work is not central to, is marginal to the existing tradition of its age and claiming that it does not deserve critical attention. Is my declaring it marginal as far as I am concerned not a critical opinion? I cited the anthologies of Nwoga and Chinweizu as evidence of the marginality- mind you, not marginalization - of Nnamdi Azikiwe's poetry to that precursive tradition. I don’t see how that implies that it is not worthy of critical attention. Yes, the field of literature is replete with revisits, revisions, rediscoveries, and rehabilitative ventures. Some even posthumous. I am familiar with that. So, nothing is ever too late and everything is always welcome. That is in the sense in which you have framed it towards the end of your question. I would be interested in more archival, restitutive work on the poetry and other literary writings of Othman Dan Fodio for instance. I would be interested in more theoretical, archival, and restitutive historiography on successive generations of Northern Nigerian writing, middle belt writing, South-South writing, so as to demonolithise the Lagos-Ibadan-Nsukka metanarrative.


NA: In your call for papers for the English in Africa issue you have referred to in the course of this conversations, you write: “Nigeria presents certain unique features that deserve attention…Nigerians stand out by their numerical superiority and the overwhelming sense of a collective, generational identity. The art and politics of these writers are often underpinned by a generational self-consciousness that is unprecedented in the annals of Nigerian letters.” You have just said to me that you agree with Harry Garuba that “decentralization of narrative, the dispersal of the thematic core are some of the very noticeable characteristics of third generation writing.”  Kindly marry these two statements for me, and tell me if there is any possibility that they could be misread as opposing each other.


PA: No, there shouldn’t be any possibility of misreading them at all. Now, I am assuming you want me to comment independently on the statements before I “marry” them for you! We do agree - albeit problematically - that the mid-1980s is a rough dateline for the gradual emergence, continentally, of this new literature that is referred to, in the case of Nigeria, as third generation writing. In Nigeria, the publication of Harry Garuba’s poetry anthology, Voices from the Fringe, as well as the publication by the Association of Nigerian Authors and Update Publications of Afam Akeh's Stolen Moments, Uche Nduka's Flower Child, Emman Shehu's Questions for Big Brother, Kemi Atanda Ilori's Amnesty, and Idzzia Ahmed's A Shout Across the Wall and Esiaba Irobi's Cotyledons make the late 1980s a particularly useful timeline for the beginning of this writings’ journey toward disciplinary presence, local canonicity, and public discoursing. Now, Voices from the Fringe, alone assembles 100 poets and that is already an indication of numerical strength. And only recently, Jerry Agada published the first volume of his anthology, Five Hundred Nigerian Poets, which contains three hundred, mostly third-generation, poets. Mind you, we are still speaking of poets exclusively. It would be difficult for you to find this level of national massification elsewhere in Africa. What we often find are instances of a few massively successful and internationally postcolonised examples as Zimbabwe’s Tsitsi Dangarembga and Yvonne Vera, or Uganda’s Moses Isegawa exemplify. South Africa perhaps comes closest to the Nigerian situation with the post-apartheid generation exemplified by the likes of the late Phaswane Mpe, Lesego Rampolokeng, Lesego Molope, and my good friend, Gabeba Baderoon. The South African’s have outlets of generational visibility such as Chimurenga and the young voices online project. In Francophone Africa, the migritude or ‘children of the postcolony’ rank keeps expanding within the likes of established novelists like Waberi, Alain Mabanckou, Kossi Effoui, Bessora, Fatou Diome, Sami Tchak, Alain Patrice Nganang, Nathalie Etoke, etc but that does not even begin to approach the Nigerian situation. Apart from numbers, a good number of indices allow us to talk about generational self-fashioning and consciousness in the Nigerian situation. One important index is, of course, anthologising. Look at the number of post-Voices from the Fringe anthologies of poetry and short stories - E.C. Osondu's For Ken, For Nigeria; Toyin Adewale's and Omowumi Segun's Breaking the Silence; Nduka Otiono's and E.C. Osondu's We-men, Toyin Adewale's 25 Nigerian New Poets; Bunmi Oyinsan’s Wandering Leaves, Diego Okenyondo’s After the Curfew Nduka Otiono and Diego Onkenyodo’s Camouflage: The Best of Contemporary Nigerian Writing. Unoma Azuah is currently working on yet another anthology of poetry. A cursory look at the voices privileged in these anthologies as well as the thrust of editors’ introductions will buttress the idea of a peculiar generational self-consciousness. And don’t forget that this generation self-defined largely in local newspapers in the 1990s: the Guardian Literary Supplement, Vanguard Arts, Times Literary Supplement and, of course, the most significant of them all, The Post Express Literary Supplement. This may however not be apparent to a Western audience only just getting acquainted with this writing through the success of, say,  Abani, Adichie, Atta, and  my maternal cousin, Segun Afolabi on the one hand, and  through the occasional glance in that direction by magazines such as  Wasafiri, on the other. So, this generation found its voice and defined itself largely on the literary pages of newspapers in the late 1980s and the 1990s with voices like Afam Akeh, Amatoritsero Ede, Ike Okonta, Remi Raji, Akin Adesokan, Nduka Otiono, Maik Nwosu, Obi Nwakanma, Wunmi Segun, Lai Adeniji, Mike Jimoh, Onookome Okome, Lola Shoneyin, Unoma Azuah, Uzor Maxim Uzoatu, Chiedu Ezeanah, Sola Olorunyomi, Ogaga Ifowodo, Obododinma Oha, Toni Kan, and yours truly being extremely crucial to the process. So keen was the sense of generational divide at this time that Remi Raji and Nduka Otiono had a prolonged newspaper spat over Otiono’s review of Raji’s first collection of poetry, A Harvest of Laughters. Otiono had reviewed it without sufficiently marking a generational boundary between it and Niyi Osundare’s Waiting Laughters. Toni Kan and I also had frequent brushes with Odia Ofeimun. If you are looking specifically for how these writers’ creative works self-consciously make a generational claim, you hardly need look beyond Ogaga Ifowodo’s famous poem, “Theme of the Half-Child (Conversation with Wole Soyinka)”, a sort of performance-based offering in which a third-generation poet-persona debates/addresses Soyinka’s generation. There is also, of course, Uche Nduka's Chiaroscuro which, as far as I am concerned, is a poetic historiography of the new generation. There is really no shortage of examples of generational consciousness, critically and creatively speaking. Generational self-consciousness does not however mean that the new writers submit to the thematic Ur-texts of preceding generations: the ritualism and cultural/political nationalism of the first generation, and the revolutionary aesthetics of the second. This new writing is marked by a narrative dispersal and decentralization that makes it difficult, theoretically, to place it in neat compartments as was largely possible with antecedent generations. And this decentralization is part of its distinctiveness. So, I don’t see the contradiction in the two statements: they are happily married!


Go to part 2 of this interview

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