In this interview, the editor and writer, Darlington Chibueze Anuonye engages the writer, academic, and literary scholar, Amechi Nicholas Akwanya in a conversation about/around his writing, scholarship, and academic vocation.
Anuonye: Hi, Professor Akwanya, I would like to congratulate you on your forthcoming retirement from academic service at the University of Nigeria. But I am conscious of the eternal dialogue that binds the literary scholar to their vocation. So, let me simply say, thank you for a life of excellent service to the arts and humanities. As you will soon be bereft of institutional affiliation, loosely speaking, what creative and critical projects will constitute a continuum of your literary endeavor?
Akwanya: Thank you, Darlington. Well, I look forward to retirement. December 6th is the exact date. And I hope the ongoing industrial dispute with the Federal Government will end in time for me to be able to give my Valedictory Address before I leave my post at the university. On the future: first of all, I need to rest. You know the way our work is organized in this country. It just goes on, without a break, without holidays. Yet our employer, the Federal Government, appears to be of the view that we are being maintained at public expense for doing no work. Today they are talking about no work, no pay, and seem to be impressed with themselves for aligning with such a formula. But even if you could apply that to a soldier or postal worker on strike, it cannot apply to an academic whose research will not end merely because of a strike. And this research will eventually enter the body-scientific and, when the strike ends, nourish his students. The politicians win, I think, because most academics like what they do for a living and became academics not because of the living associated with it, but because they are emotionally attached to the academy; finding, moreover, that they are doing irreplaceable work to benefit the youth, and so the future of the country. So the employer gets away with showing no appreciation. But there is a point here. This emotional attachment I have mentioned means that a retiree from the university should be well-advised to find other engagements to occupy his mind with – which is why our counterparts elsewhere would be planning for museums, ancient ruins and monuments, world heritage sites, and so forth, to visit.
Retirement is a time to savor the achievements of human civilization and human artistic creations: art in all its forms, including literature. The advantage for literary scholars is that some of the things that might engage their attention are within their reach. The discipline of literary studies exposes you to a vast world of literary artworks, as Derrida would say, luring you on. There is no end to it. And you need to see more and more of it. At the same time, you want to keep every single thing you have seen in this art world fresh in your mind. So, from that point of view, retirement may promise – or threaten, if you like – endless adventures. But being a Catholic priest, I am quite certain that it will not be entirely up to me to decide what to do with my time after retiring from university work. So, it is bound to be an interesting time ahead. I should say, however, that there is a book project I am leading with a young colleague entitled Nigeria’s Evolving Literary Culture. It involves a team from my department here at the University of Nigeria. Possibly, that’s something I have to see through before I can really take a break. Then there is a new collection of poetry to see to. Odds and ends.
Anuonye: Your thoughts on the position of the Federal Government on the ASUU strike remind me of Jonas Mekas’ meditation on the condition of failed nations. Hear him:
“In the very end, civilizations perish because [people] listen to their politicians and not to their poets.”
You are a poet, having published impressive collections of poems, which include Pilgrim Foot and Visitants on Tiptoe. In ‘A Statistic,’ one of the poems in Visitants, you write with such visceral knowledge of society that is evocative of Mekas’ insight above. The opening stanza of your poem laments the inexorable ignorance of the “poor,” who “do not know/they are a statistic,” who “don’t even know what is a statistic,” who lack the mental resources to confront the erasure of their identity. What becomes of the poet in a failed civilization, as we see in ‘A Statistic’?
Akwanya: Oh, I see. You noticed ‘A Statistic’? I hear it, when I read it, as an exclamation. I once gave a lecture that led me into researching pauperization in Nigeria, and I was struck by some of the information I found, which was in numbers and percentages. As distressing as the data was, it was still very clinical and abstract. You could do math with it. Calculations. You could put it in a statistical table and work out averages and rates of increase over time. But I didn’t think that a real slum would look anything like mathematics, and the contrast to mathematics might conceivably draw an exclamation. But why would the reaction come out as an exclamation instead of a decision to go out there and do something about it? Or identify someone to complain to or to blame and indict for it? Broadly speaking, I think that poems undergo gestation and are fed along the way by experiences of different kinds and sources, and how it comes out depends, in part, on the form that governs the perceiving, and ultimately what is selected and how the selected elements interact among themselves.
It may happen that when the writing starts, the original impulse is, as Shelley says, a fading coal. Unless you are keeping the poem always in your front burner, so to speak, the fading coal is likely to get fainter and fainter. As to listening to poets, I remember a quote from Plato in the draft of my Valedictory concerning a city where evil is permitted to have authority and the good elbowed out. He says it is the same way in the soul of a man in whom, according to him, the imitative poet, being a manufacturer of images and far from the truth, implants an evil constitution. Something like that, from his Republic. You see, Plato does not think that a poet is any good for society. He thinks that what society rather needs is a philosopher king. His society did not agree with him. That was 2,500 years ago. It rather continued to elect people who could sway public opinion with powerful rhetoric. To the present, very few societies have chosen philosopher kings for their leaders. But there are some in Africa. I think of Kwame Nkrumah. Other intellectual leaders were Nnamdi Azikiwe, Kenneth Kaunda, Julius Nyerere, and Robert Mugabe. Leadership by these intellectual men did not always yield positive results. There were also poets like Leopold Senghor and Agostinho Neto. In these African cases, it was not merely a question of the people listening to the poet, the poet was actually in charge of decision-making. No, I wouldn’t go along with Mekas in the simple view of building and maintaining a political culture. There is nothing wrong, in my view, with the poet doing his or her work, and the politician his or hers.
Anuonye: Speaking of the structure of ‘A Statistic’, that inner working of style, which ultimately unifies the disparate elements of language and culture into a coherent poem, I think of your innovative reading of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, in which you explore “the vertical dimension of the narrative” in an attempt to underscore the connectedness of scenes in the text, events that, when taken as a whole, derive from as well as illuminate the mythological background of the Igbo society in which the novel is set. What has sustained your interest in structural criticism? And what are the defining elements of this tool of critical enquiry?
Akwanya: I was expressing a basic principle in structuralism when I said that ‘A Statistic’ struck me as an exclamation. A poem, a novel, a play, under structuralism, is a single object. It is a work; a made thing; crafted together into an entity, like an architectural piece. a) it is not atomic, in the sense of not consisting of one minimal element only; b) it has a finite number of constituents. But it is not equal to the number of constituents that make it up, but all those together make up a unitary entity. So exclamation is the direct hyperonym of ‘A Statistic’, that is, its meaning. In other words, the poem is grasped at the integrational level; that is the vertical dimension of the narrative quoted in your question. Yes, the novel comprises a number of lines, individual facts, even visions. But all that together amounts to something. What it amounts to is not found at the end of the story – that is the horizontal level of structuralism, where one incident succeeds another. What it amounts to is the whole story. In structuralism, we can literally speak of a work of art. Such is Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. It is a work consisting of parts, hundreds of sentences, many different incidents, speeches, and narrative units, proverbs and citations, characters, their contrasting viewpoints, and the relationships of struggle, or even support, among them. Being a work, every little element is essential to the life of the whole. All the incidents, as in Aristotle’s account, are arranged with a beginning, middle, and end into a single action, whole and complete. For instance, I call Things Fall Apart a heroic narrative. There are incidents of different sorts in the story: the wrestling match with Amalinze the Cat, Okonkwo’s begging of seed yams from Nwakibie, his crunching away on locust beans with Nwoye and Ikemefuna, his inspecting of his war gear in anticipation of a war in which it would not have served him much, and so forth – all together make up this particular heroic narrative.
The mythological background of the Igbo world, as you say, might be illumined by the story of Agadi Nwanyi, the war medicine of Umuofia, but the crunching away of locust beans and the begging of seed yams are really indifferent to the mythological background of the Igbo world. To think of Things Fall Apart as portraying the mythology of the Igbo world necessarily leaves out of consideration the elements that are indifferent or unrelated to that mythology. So a mythological background of the Igbo world does not capture the novel at the integrational level. It cannot grasp Things Fall Apart. The integrational level is, as Paul Ricoeur calls it, what makes maximal sense of the text, with all of its disparate elements. Thus we are able to see the work as a set of incidents strung together, able to see each element in detail, but as part of a single edifice, and as Mulder would say, relevant to the purport of the whole of which it is a part. Structuralism is really an elaboration of Aristotle’s theory of poetry. Understanding literature as an artwork renders it untenable to say that “Achebe was saying in Things Fall Apart…” If anything says, it should be Things Fall Apart. But then such a formulation would split Things Fall Apart apart from itself. It would have to position itself outside Things Fall Apart to be able to say that Things Fall Apart says… Heidegger states the matter in a very interesting way: in the poem is the setting to work of truth, and the work of art is the happening of truth. With respect to Things Fall Apart, heroic action is what is happening; in ‘A Statistic’, it is an exclamation that is happening.
Anunoye: There is a sense in which your poem, ‘Home is a Feeling’, expresses Heidegger’s notion of the complementarity of truth and art in the poetic process. Acknowledging the distinction between reality and illusion, the poem persona says: “but your real life/where you have often seen hunting parties/suspicious of your antelope limbs.” This address to the unnamed subject of the poem is evocative of the Igbo proverb which speaks of the possibility of humans to disguise enmity as friendship and brotherhood. Now, this is the truth. But the art lies in your ability to adapt this idea and situate it within the context of our contemporary social milieu. It is at this point that we see “the wrong man win a vote.” What follows afterward is a concatenation of the psychological and political ramifications of trauma. I read this poem as a testament to the exilic fundamentality of postcolonial Africa, bearing in mind Warsan Shire’s terrific confession, “No one leaves home unless/home is the mouth of a shark.” What other truths does ‘Home is a Feeling’ embody?
Akwanya: It may be hard to think Heidegger, to think along with him, because what he is saying is fundamentally different from what the humanists and the stylisticians have been saying forever. Recall the account of structuralism we have just given where you may count hundreds of individual elements in the architecture, hundreds of bricks or stones. But the name of the architecture is a temple. It is one single object, together with the decorative art that may be on it. Everything, including the decorative art, the stones and bricks, lose their autonomous individuality in the monument. And you can stand back – and here is the difficult thing for the art critic, to stand back in such a way as to see the one object in its full display: when you do stand back for this act of perception, what you see is, truly, the temple. It is the same with the novel. With a lyric. With a drama. The critic may follow the words and incidents of a novel one after another until the very last item, but only after this does the critical reading begin. He must stand back and see the totality. What I am saying is that the poem or novel does not house truth, much less truths: the poem, the work of art is itself the happening of truth, or as Heidegger himself also puts it, “the setting-into-a-work of truth.”
By the way, I use the name of Heidegger first of all for the great twentieth German philosopher of that name, but also as the name of a tradition going back to Aristotle, the Aristotelian tradition of criticism. In this tradition, there isn’t a poem, and then something else compatible or complementary to it, or inside it somewhere. It is one object, one totality. In ‘Home is a Feeling’, all the individual elements, like the feet of the antelope, the wrong man winning a vote, and so forth, are all interacting in the one business of the setting-into-a-work of truth. None of these exists for itself; its appearance is co-incident with the poem’s coming into being. The echo of the proverb you identify may ring out in the poem. But what we have in the poem is not the proverb, and not a disguise of it. It says “your antelope limbs,” not that the limbs are like antelope’s. In strict terms, it is an impossible thought, as impossible as ‘home is a feeling,’ notwithstanding the ‘of course’ that introduces it. So also a ‘harried listening,’ or hate disturbing the undergrowth. How may this poem be grasped at the integrational level? Now, I do not want to do the work of the critic for him. And the critic is not a translator. He or she undertakes the labor of thought; for as Heidegger also says, the poem gives food for thought; it is food for thought: what it gives to thinking is itself: there is no art in it; it does not contain art: it is art. This is what we also have in Aristotle’s hylomorphic theory with the bonding of matter and form into one entity where subsequent separation back into matter and form is the annihilation of the object that had been created by the former union. Hylomorphism is the birthing of something other than the matter, other than the form, but a third thing. Nothing less than the critic’s devoted thinking will render the happening of truth apparent. The “you,” as you rightly observe, is unnamed; in fact, it doesn’t need a name. It is a kind of character that frequently occurs in modernist literature, who is unsure of his individuality, and lacks a clear capacity to distinguish between things, assigning each its distinct boundaries, as a “Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante” (T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’) would have done. However, to think about this “you,” one cannot leave out the speaking voice: what kind of consciousness is this?
Anuonye: Your debut novel, Orimili, has been identified as a part of the Modernist literary tradition that you speak of. For instance, in their comparative study of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea and Orimili, Greg Omeje and Chibuzo Onunkwo highlight the impact of the Sisyphean myth on the characterization of Hemingway’s protagonist, Santiago and Ekwenze Orimili, the protagonist of your novel. In her own study, Florence Orabueze locates a familiarity between Orimili and Sophocles’ King Oedipus, in their explorations of the complicatedness of belonging and the weight of unbelonging. Likewise, Valerian Sosthenes underscores the motif of exclusionary discourses in Orimili. It is now three decades and a year since the publication of Orimili. What inspired the novel?
Akwanya: Ah, thirty-one years! A long time to be able to keep in mind the inspiration of a book. What I remember is that I started writing it after I had read all the novels I was going to cover in my PhD thesis and all the books I was able to gather on the subject. The thesis was on structuring and meaning in the Nigerian novel, and between my supervisor and myself, the idea was to cover, if possible, everything. So, I did quite an extensive search. Let me put the inspiration for Orimili down to what must have been my sense of what was missing: a book that should be there, but was not. The first draft of it, I remember, moved rapidly, and it was done. It is interesting to see the criticism and the comparative readings that it has attracted.
Anuonye: ‘Structuring and meaning in the Nigerian novel.’ That must have been a truly engaging research. Tell me more about it. Which novels formed the focus of your research? What were you looking for in them? And what were your findings?
Akwanya: My supervisor, Barbara Hayley, was the best guide I could have had in my research. She died in a motor crash in 1991. God rest her. At the start, my interest was in the great modernist, Henry James. But she said to me, “you see, we do not know what they study in Nigeria. You may do a brilliant thesis on Henry James, as you are quite capable of, only to get to Nigeria and see that he is not even known. Isn’t it better to research what we know will definitely be in the curriculum in Nigeria?” So, that was how I changed to the Nigerian novel, a topic on which I had no idea what to expect. To find out what to expect, even to formulate a topic, I had to gather and read all the titles by Nigerians under the African writers Series and the Drumbeat Series, plus a few others that were published by Rex Collins and some others. After a few weeks of reading, we met for a discussion and she asked me what I thought about the books I had read. There were also scholarly books I had read, such as James Booth, Lewis Nkosi, Emmanuel Ngara, and Ogunbiyi’s two-volume Perspectives on Nigerian Literature. After I had made my presentation to Professor Hayley, she said to me, “Yes, but what is literature about these novels you have read?” This in fact became the research question to support my thesis. Before long, it was possible to formulate a title that would carry the thesis. I was thus able to pursue the argument that certain of the novels had organic structure, and therefore internally coherent, and functioned as self-subsisting worlds. Sometimes, these worlds contrasted among themselves. Taking Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God, for instance, it became clear to me that even though these were often called traditional novels, and roughly contemporary in terms of the story-times around the arrival of the colonists and missionaries, the story frameworks were different, their systems of authority and ultimate decision-making. To explain these differences in terms of the shape of the worlds they purportedly described seemed to me to leave too many incoherencies. To put it differently, if the two novels should be taken as systems of knowledge about something, knowledge would not increase in moving from one book to the other. There would in fact be insurmountable conflicts. So they were two totally different books: each one was a work, whole and complete. This is what art does. It creates, and what it creates is one totality and describable in its own terms. It exists for itself, and not for another work or for the sake of some cultural fact or historical passage: it is an aesthetic object insofar as it can seize attention for itself; insofar as it can reward that focused attention by yielding ever-new critical discoveries. I found many works that were undoubtedly literature, but which were hardly discussed in critical scholarship: Nkem Nwankwo, Danda and My Mercedes is Bigger than Yours; John Munonye, Oil Man of Obange and A Dancer of Fortune; T. Obinkaram Echewa, The Land’s Lord and The Crippled Dancer; T.M. Aluko, Chief the Honourable Minister; Kole Omotoso, The Combat, The Edifice, and Memories of our Recent Boom; Festus Iyayi, Heroes, and so on. With some of these, as well as others, I had not seen any critical discussion of them outside what I had done in my thesis. Included here also are Zaynab Alkali, The Stillborn and Soyinka’s Aké. Some of these still have not come to the notice of the critics.
Anuonye: Are there some qualities of your supervisor that shaped your own scholarship as well as your relationship with your supervisees over the years?
Akwanya: The most important thing I learned from my supervisor, I think, was the knowledge of literature as an art work. When I started my research, based on the things I had read, it seemed to me that the way to read and discuss Nigerian and African writings was as political and cultural documents. Once I had begun to seek to understand them as literature in the strict sense, it became clear to me that if they were literature, they would be so on exactly the same grounds as any other, no matter the tradition or the age. Literature was a certain kind of thing whose essential essence was not affected by the name of a nation, language, or culture that might stand in front of it. So there is a founding question that constituted the science that studied this kind of object, just as any other discipline has a founding question: what is x; what is literature. It does not seem you can have a discipline – a science, as Northrop Frye calls it – that asked, what is English literature, or what is Kenyan literature? If that were the case, there would be at least 193 disciplines, corresponding to the number of countries of the world; a lot more if the count is based on languages and cultures. Another big thing I learned from her, which I have tried to pass on to my supervisees is what I regard as a method of effective research. She told me: “you have nine terms, 36 months for this programme; I want you to spend the next 18 months reading and making notes. After 18 months, we shall see how ready you are to start writing.” My PhD programme ran during the academic sessions 1986-1989. In following her directive, I found that doctoral research was an intensive and extensive learning experience. It was the deep and solid foundation for a great deal of the research I was to do subsequently. I also found that when the research was fully done, the writing up moved swiftly. Horace says something that can be applied to what I am saying here, that a writer who chooses a subject within his powers will never be at a loss for words, and his thought will be clear and orderly. When the research is properly done, the researcher is on top of his game, as they say in tennis.
Anuonye: This is a moving tribute. May Professor Hayley’s legacy endure. In a teaching career that spans well over three decades, I suppose you must have been impacted by many teachers as well as impressed by many students. Could you comment on the few teachers and students that stand out in the longlist?
Akwanya: The students would be mostly at the postgraduate level, some of whom have become professors, like Professor Florence Orabueze, University of Nigeria, Nsukka; Professor Ignatius Chukwuma, Federal University, Wukari who, with Martin Okwoli Ogba, earlier organized and edited a Festschrift entitled Shadows of Interstitial Life: Essays on African Literature in Honour of Rev. Fr. Professor Amechi N. Akwanya, and Professor Chinelo Nwokolo, University of Petroleum, Effurun; and there are others on the way, like Dr Abba A. Abba, Federal University, Lokoja; Dr Lilian Onyeiwu, University of Benin; Dr Nkiru Onyemachi, Edwin Clark University, Kaigbodo; Dr Ngozi Ulogu, Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka; Dr Virginia Eze, Dr Chibuzo Onukwo, Dr Basil Nwokolo, University of Nigeria; Dr Ayila Orkusa, University of Ngaoundere, Cameroon; the two who are piloting this Festschrift, Dr Mary J.N. Okolie, and Ogochukwu Ukwueze. There is also Andrew Bula, Baze University, Abuja who I part-supervised, and who has published interviews with me in three international journals. Others that took my postgraduate courses, but were not supervised by me, include Professor Chinyere Ngonebu, Professor E.A. Chukwu, Nnamdi Azikiwe University; Dr Romanus Nworma, Federal University, Ndufu-Alike. There are others who have worked with me closely in various projects, like Dr T.M.E. Chukwumezie, Rev. Dr C.A. Chigbu, and Dr Dorothy Ezeh at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. Two lecturers I met early on in my career at the University of Nigeria deserve special mention: Dr Virgy A. Anohu and Professor Clement Okafor. I met Dr Anohu at a funeral within days of receipt of my novel newly published by Heinemann, Oxford. She looked the novel over when she saw it, and said to me, “See, you have to join us at the University of Nigeria.” Within weeks, I was indeed permitted to seek university employment. So, I went straight to the University of Nigeria. This was August 1991. The letter of appointment finally came in December, and the offer was for Lecturer II. Some, including herself, thought that I deserved better than that. But she said to me, “No matter. Go on with your research and writing. They will hand you your professorship without your asking.” It turned out almost like that, midwifed, one might say, by Professor Clement Okafor, who mentored me in academic leadership and administration, and was my Head of Department when I was made a senior lecturer. He handed me the letter and congratulated me, but he added, “you have six months to give me your papers for professorship.” Astounded, I said to him, “Can that be done?” For all answer, he counted six months on his fingers, and wound up dramatically: “Yes, in six months we will be in another assessment year, and you will be completing the mandatory three-year waiting period!” It wouldn’t have occurred to me otherwise to gather my papers together for presentation. So these are two persons who figure very strongly in my career at the University of Nigeria.
Anuonye: Yours is an illustrious career. I will end with thanks, Professor Akwanya. I wish you a great retirement.
Akwanya: Thank you, Darlington, and best wishes.
About the Authors:
Darlington Chibueze Anuonye, a literary conversationist, editor and writer, is editor of The Good Teacher: An Anthology of Essays in Honour of Isidore Diala and Samuel Anthony Itodo, Selfies and Signatures: An Afro Anthology of Short Stories and the international anthology of writings, Through the Eye of a Needle: Art in the Time of Coronavirus. He is also co-editor of Daybreak: An Anthology of Nigerian Short Fiction. Anuonye was awarded the 2021 Amplify Fellowship of the MasterCard Foundation, longlisted for the 2018 Babishai Niwe African Poetry Award and shortlisted in 2016 by the Ibadan Poetry Foundation for its inaugural residency.
Amechi Nicholas Akwanya, a retired Professor of English and Literary Studies at the University of Nigeria and a Fellow of the Nigerian Academy of Letters, is author of the novel Orilimili, and the poetry collections Pilgrim Foot and Visitants. Akwanya’s scholarship focuses on Literary Theory, Discourse Analysis and the Phenomenology of Language.