This interview was published in National Mirror Nespaper in July
Other than the immediate past Director of the Nigerian Film Corporation, Dr. Hyginus Ekwuazi, there may be no other Nigerian academic that has done work on the phenomenon of the film and home video in Nigeria as Dr Onookome Okome, Associate Professor at the Department of English and Film Studies, University of Alberta, Canada. At the African Literature Association summit held recently in Ghana, Okome was there with a paper on “The African New Cinema.” UZEZI EKERE caught up with him in between engagements and extracted this interview from him.
What are you presently working on?
I am just concluding my new book on the video film. I’ve been interested in video film for a long time and I think it’s a very important part of our cultural history that we must not take for granted simply because it is mainly patronized at this moment by people we don’t consider intellectuals or people who don’t speak the intellectual vocabulary. I really think it’s a very important thing and we should deal with it as such, and we cannot hope to minimize the influence of the video film, or the importance of the video film for a large percentage of people in Nigeria.
Beyond films, you are also very much grounded in poetry. Is there anything new that is cooking here?
I’m working on a new collection of poetry. The working title for now is Roaming, though it may change when it goes to the publisher. It’s supposed to be a collection that reflects on my travel to Germany. Brazil, Switzerland, some West Africa countries I’ve been to, the United States, Canada, etc. It’s like a dialogue between these countries and myself as a black person, scholar and writer.
You have been out of the country for some years now. Have you at this time also been following the writing industry in Nigeria and how it is faring?
I have been following it quite assiduously. I think that the novel is doing very now, with a lot of fairly young writers doing some very good novellas. I remember that I taught Helon Habila’s Waiting for An Angel to my post colonial class, and they liked it a lot. I particularly like and appreciate the writings of Habila and Chimamanda Adichie. These are brilliant and talented young people coming up and writing very well. But, I think what is exceptional about what these people write, in my opinion, is more about how they are able to deplore in their narratives, the very debilitating, social conditions in the country. I am not sure that the emphasis or significances is in terms of style. I still will hesitate to say that the style of these novels is close to what we had before. One thing that is very clear to me is that the narratives are daring in terms of their deploring of the really harsh conditions in which writers and ordinary people live. In any case, even those people who are supposed to be big men and women that live in these societies also suffer because I’ve always believed that both the oppressors and the oppressed suffer almost equally in a very corrupt society. It is not just the oppressed that suffers, the oppressor also suffers and I think that’s the reason why these novellas are able to depict both sides of the coin.
Still on Nigerian writing, it is widely believed that poetry doesn’t sell. What is your take on this?
It’s true. People don’t read a lot of poetry, that’s why we don’t think about it as something that sells. But then, that’s only if you limit the definition of poetry to written poetry-a kind of poetry that intellectuals do, or poetry in English Language. But there are several kinds of poetry around us everyday. Everyday people, like the ones you find in polygamous home, etc. If you limit poetry to just written poetry, the kind people like us do, people don’t read much of that, but poetry is beyond that.
On the international scene, how would you rate Nigeria Literature?
Nigeria Literature is doing well, as far as I can tell. African Literature is doing well, but I think that Nigeria Literature stands out. I can give the example of Canada, where I have been for the past four years, teaching African Literature. Achebe is still at the top. But, he is at the top in the sense which it is only Things Fall Apart, is taught and listened to, and I have taught it since I went there. That should tell you how they understand it. And also, people know Soyinka, but lots of than have not read Soyinka at all. In the university where I teach for instance, this is the case. And it is not only because they say he’s difficult, but because he’s a master craftsman and you have to understand both the culture and the craft that he employs. But Achebe provides a very wonderful background to start with, so Things Fall Apart is a very clear and concise nature between the local, African societies, and international global enterprise, such as colonialism, makes it very effective for students. But one of the things I’ve done so far is to redirect attention from that, and to emphasise the plurality of African Literature, and even the plurality of Achebe’s literature itself. Achebe’s Literature is not just Things Fall Apart, you know. It’s more than that. Achebe is not only questioning the whole basis of colonial Africa. He is also questioning post-colonial Africa, and from time to time, he talks about the debilities of African modernity. African and Nigerian Literature are doing well. What I don’t understand, especially in Canada, is whether Africa Literature is still seen as a curiosity rather than a real existential idea focusing on different groups of people.
What is your take on the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA)?
ANA as an institution I think, has changed since the era of Odia Ofemu. It has done exactly what it ought to do, not as a fighting body, but as a body of intellectuals who talk about things they feel are significant in society and ANA may be somewhat disorganized, it is not a political entity, so it can’t enforce any of its desires to change society, other than to use literature, to do that. And many members, who are writers, are doing that. For me, I think one of the highpoints of ANA ever was in the support given by the body to Ken Saro-Wiwa before and after his death. That’s one of the highpoints of ANA as a body that can enable people to think beyond the ordinary. I remember I was at the Lagos edition of ANA in 1995, when Ken Saro-Wiwa was on trial, and it became a very big debate and I was in London, when I finally heard they hung this guy, and lots of people felt very bad and ANA didn’t make any bones about it. They made it very clear that this was the most heinous thing that happened in the country. But my argument about it, and I think this is the reason why I think that one of the finest times of ANA as a body in history of literary production was that period when Ken Saro-Wiwa was in control of ANA, and at the same time, showing what writers can do to elevate the problems of the people. I think he’s the best example since, probably Okigbo of a man who was able to combine the commitment of art and social justice, and ANA recognized this and actually, during that period, put this forward. That’s because Odia Ofeimun who was secretary then, I think believed in what Ken Saro Wiwa stood for, not just as an ethnic person, but also as somebody who had a thorough ground understanding of literature and the place of literature in the struggle of common people.
Given your interest in video films, let’s go to the famous Nollywood. There’s been a lot of debate about the movie industry and on its activities. There are so many unsatisfied people who think Nollywood is not doing things right.
I have been studying African cinema for the last 20 years. I did my Ph.d partly on cinema. Nollywood has been stigmatized by mostly, the intellectuals, mostly university people. But I think that is very wrong. If you understand Nollywood as a part of popular culture, then you will understand the importance of Nollywood in that respect, and begin to understand that it is a very important part of our cultural and intellectual history, and you cannot begin to minimize the significance of this. The question I always ask when they say Nollywood means nothing, it’s stupid, it’s full of fetish, whatever the question is - Is Nollywood telling the truth about Nigerian Society, and are we complaining about what Nollywood talks about or the style that Nollywood uses to talk about it? I don’t see how anyone can actually complain that Nollywood does not reflect the society - what we do. Those who are pan-Africanists for instance, or those who are interested in the curiosity of culture, would say, ok - let us ascend with what is great about our country or culture, not those things that are not great about our culture.
The idea for me is that, art is supposed to represent life, and I think Nollywood does that very well. Now the second point would be, if you say Nollywood is stupid, the style is hopeless, the narrative is stupid, the storyline is not always coordinated or whatever-my question here is, is the audience complaining? Nollywood is a very local phenomenon. It’s centred on local people, talks about local issues and does not bother so much about foreign people. So, the success itself is because it’s been able to carter for the need of these people for such a long time. That is what ought to be respected about Nollywood and the idea of saying it’s not stylistic, it doesn’t have the grandeur, is infantile. This is what I think people like us ought to be talking, but we are not condemning Nollywood on aesthetics, because for those who do, the question to ask is, whose yardstick are you using to judge Nollywood as an aesthetic category? Is it Hollywood, Bollywood or Continental European films? Now, if you use those aesthetic criteria to judge Nollywood, then you miss the point, because Nollywood is not producing films for Hollywood or wherever. They are producing films for the local people, and once the local people like what they are producing, then you don’t have any reason to complain.
Now there are of course certain shortfalls in Nollywood, and there are short falls in every cinema in the world Hollywood, Bollywood, Latin American cinema, Hispanic cinema, you name them. You find this all over. My response always to African Literary critics who denounce Nollywood as conveying nothing, is to remind there once again that in the 1950’s, there was a very vibrant form of popular culture in the country called the Onitsha Market Literature. This was exactly what was said about the Onitsha Market Literature. One of the most brilliant critics that I know of today, Emmanuel Obiechina wrote about the Onitsha Market Literature and made the point that whether you like it or not is not the case. The real case about popular culture, especially the Onitsha Market Literature, is that it meant something to people who produced and consumed it. Just like the medieval Literature in Europe meant something to the people who produced and consumed it. The reason we often condemn these things is because we always are looking towards Europe for some kind of medieval plays, and we neglect the real Literature happening around us, and I don’t see any justification for this at all.
So, how does a busy person like you manage two homes in Canada and Calabar?
It’s stressful. That’s why I come like thrice in a year. But one good thing is to understand that taking a job in a Northern American University makes it very possible for you to do this, if you have the will, because the facilities and pay, makes it possible for you to visit you family anytime. And the flexibility of the teaching schedule also makes it possible, and that is the good part of it. The other good thing is, I’m able to keep in touch with what is happening in Nigeria and Canada. The really bad part of it is that most African scholars and writers, then give the best part of their youth to the outside world, not to Africa, but had I stayed here I wouldn’t have had the resources to go back and forth like that.
But, even after, we all go to Canada this summer. I will have to make adequate contacts with my country, because my research is based here. I have worked primarily in cinema and my interest is to document the video film from the very beginning, and that’s what my new book is about. From the beginning, because Nigerian journalists and scholars don’t always get it right, the video film came from two very different strands of cultural production. One is the Traveling Theatre Tradition, and then the entrepreneurship of Igbo Traders. There’s the third one which comes from television also. I have been called to edit two special editions on the video film in Nigeria. The first is going to be published this summer in an on-line journal called Post-Colonial Text, and the second is going to be published by a journal in Sweden, and both will be based on the video film in Africa. My sense is that, this will open up, the debate further in order to show exactly the significance, not only of the video film, but also of popular culture.
You talked so much on the video film, the cinema. What about the theatre, the stage? It is almost non-existence anymore, that some believe it is dying.
Well, some will say actually that it is dead, but this is in my view only a period shift in cultural production. It happens all over the world, not only in Africa. Sometimes, it will be the television that will be at the top. In the 1950’s and 60’s, it was radio. Things move from the margin to the territorial, and from the territorial, to the margin. At other times, it was cinema. Culture production moves from one margin to the other. People cry about this, but I think culture has a way of dealing with this and if tomorrow, the people of Nigeria find out that they don’t like this thing called video film anymore, it will die off, just as all other cultural productions have died off. I don’t see any need to worry over this.