THE THING WITH INTERPRETERS (an essay by Oludipe Oyin Samuel)

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Many things are allowed in the ‘most contemporary’ Nigerian literature, even psycho-imaginative meningioma; proclaim the very art of purposeful nationalist writing— countryside lyricals, activist poems from the contained ghetto-minds— I say the dynamics are vastly enmeshed in the spurring notes of sincere satire and a so self-indicting, predictable sadness, that which oft never redeems the writer but situates him in locus of a ‘boring interpreter’.

The issue comes down, as always, to a struggle between what the littérateur is to compose of reality and reality itself. Reality, obviously, establishes the most perceptible elements around, married to a writer’s pensiveness and latched besides to his eternal mind.This same reality, which is already considered inevitable, marks the boundary between artists and its everyday victims.

The popular dictum dictates: Art is creating for oneself a different reality. And where the ‘reality on page’ becomes as stark as the one of the outside realm, that baring form is couched in upbeat terms. It becomes activist, or rather is staged to be so.Most times, the grievances come in form of a stale account, a surface censuring of situation than facets of situation. We have been this or that. Oh it feels as this here or there.

End of lecture; such sensibilities areallowed to slip to numbness, ergo, willfully creatively impoverished.So far, so good; nothing does change, either for crucial reality or the inventiveness of art, which is to be flexible.
But let us range the being called ‘poet’. It is natural enough to recognize what is meant by his imaginative impulses.

That one-off trait opens up originality, spawns the generousness of an artist’s innovative existence and sometimes his cynic moods. It is, as well, required of spectators to respect those impulses. For as, in them, entrenched the individual turns out to be, the unique his works.

The profuseness of romantic poems (about nature) lies in that bearing, and yes, only the Wordsworths and Bryons are to be relieved the hitches with plagiarizing reality.Nature, the only constant element of reality, has to be performed, not reformed. Yet, every so often, the many ‘most contemporary’ ones, just as ordinary humans would tend to, subject this same impulse to castrate itself of suppleness, of variety and of resistance to ‘dub the background’.

I mean these, in the sense that a poet would have preferred to tell you, through his poem, what your society is like (while you already know and need not be told) and makes no later effort to prove to you why it was worthwhile, the intrusion, in either dropping some prophecy, beatifying the possibilities or revealing the ‘secreted’.

So, it’s got to be these three or one of these three, if I, for one, shall be appeased…after the interpretation. Where none rather surfaces, the poet generates that murdering inadequacy of ‘not recapturing emotions in tranquility’.

Save a few pastoral and romantic poets, nothing as the requisite to ‘mirror life’ ought to singly typify the work of the artist, the owner and Machiavelli of art, which is the extension of life itself. And note, singly.

Like art, he must extend beyond that urge to merely perform existence, or the barebones therewith, its frontrunners and administrations of every kind. Otherwise, he becomes, as I’ve already briefly referred, the mere mind-numbing interpreter; the environs-arrested ‘supposed-to-be-creator’ that conjures a hawser of the intellectual absolutism that has, since colonial juntas, characterized the average African literati.

Alas, he shall be the gong-bearer of his continent’s bad luck, and he shall head for home after a tedious work-out of conventional creativities.

Let it hold that I am only an apostle of that concept of ‘expansive imagination’. I shall not be the apostolic; I try to be nationalist, self the same.

But this myopia of agony, this inbred skill of wanton wailing minus a fashioned sentry against the arbitrary drawback imposed on the literary arts was and is what, to boldly pertain to Wole Soyinka’s ‘The Interpreters’ notion, handcuffs modern African literature, overtly. The African writer continues to be an interpreter, rather than a creator of an African situation that is capable of transition.

It’s why I continue to insist to poet-friends that I will continue to loathe the shallowness and narrowness of verses that’d claim no drawbridge between them and the early-morning newsbreak or midnight breaking news. Helon’s critique of Bulawayo’s We Need New Names better describes the issue.

I speak no further in that vein.

So I say, to the peat with those ‘most contemporary’ Nigerian literatures that tuck me to a monotonously pessimistic rim. I rather endure the pessimistic ones that bear a comparative reworking to tone, a treasury of transferred meanings, that which is expected of a good catharsis-evoking satire.

I put certain works in that uncommon slate; some as Chimamanda’s Half of a Yellow Sun or Chinua’s Anthills of the Savannah or Sefi’s Everything Good Will Come speak the volume. These aren’t the same traditional African works that try to present themselves as mirror of misfortunes, conjure up a mirage to innovation. If they are not monotonous in the concept of showing the flaw, the finest of literatures are the comparative, inter-culturally piercing ones.

Wole’s‘Demosthenes’ is a fine example. I often laugh at the thought of a Yoruba man addressing an ancient Athenian orator. You see, I had thought, that’s just another kind of the millions of ways to be creative with satire as Ken Saro Wiwa’s Dance the Guns to Silence.

The youth-agers of the newest Nigerian literati, I suppose, must begin to learn the craft of painting the ‘corruption and quackery’ without deforming the soothing affective face of true literature, which is the society’s light, the writer’s light. How is literature then different from journalism? I say still, the former defies the orthodoxy agony imposes, maybe sparingly, but it does defy.

Addressing ‘defy’, let me pick on Nkemjika Crystyn with a smile. You seldom read a young Nigerian lady and evoke a suspicion that you just did a lost poem from Flora Nwapa or MolaraOgundipe. Relieved of ponderous lyrics or having read much of her poetry, Nkemjika comes to me the almost record serenely natural and concise-mannered poetess I have tried.

I had confessed my figuring her as my second favourite poetess-friend and she, too, had asked for the first and mentioned something about how she shall become Herod. I had a good laugh and began stalking her works. I think, since then, I’ve been doing nothing but the think-and-wonder gesture of a buff.

It’s not the substantial structure now—succinct stanzas, sudden cessations— but her style with placing two words or more in a row. It’s the titles first. ‘Bush of Ghosts’ and ‘My Coloured Impact’ placed me on a verge, some nasty verge where I could only read a thousand meanings to a line at a time.

And it’s not the words but the intricacies spun around the way she words. So I read her “Evening Befriends the Spider”, another interesting poem I stumbled upon sometime in the previous two months.

I was better nerved. Of course, you should know better when I say the title features as a line in the famous Wole’s Abiku poem: “The ground is wet with mourning/…Evening befriends the spider, trapping/ Flies in wind-froth”; the old prof’s piece about himself as a wanderer child that would keep tormenting the Nigerian government, his mother.

And that clause, ‘Evening befriends the spider’ is just one of the many symptomatic images that herald the returning of Abiku. So it’s an abomination in Yoruba belief when the evening (a season of rest) connives with the spider (an omen of bad luck, for the babalawo, in the case of Soyinka’s poem).

But Nkemjika’s adaption is a different one; the evening is a not the victim, the spider is not the monster, per say. Rather, ‘Evening befriends the spider’ is that moment, as pictured in the poem, before the unforeseen and unspeakable creeps in:

Evening befriends the spider
When the sun
Turns yellow in its rays (3)

I had thought it an impasse of meaning with the first three lines, insinuating nothing so definite; for what sun has its rays in black and where has it happened? Next-on, before another evening befriends the spider, the poet tells us in few lines (as is her usual style): “When impossibilities frame lightly/ The shade of your victory”. So this is a ‘life-thing’, a humble hope inundated with brave humours.

But I can pontificate that the poem tries to make better use of those things that have failed and are presently failing in our own country; the potholes, the darkness et al—it basically goes on to mimic, with a sting of self-affirmation for national hope.

Nkemjika says something about when ‘dirt forms a road blanket for the man called mad’ or ‘when layers of clouds have bridges’ or ‘when electricity prevails over night time’.

Another emotive place, she writes:

Evening befriends the spider
When estates and slums merge
Bridging my differences
When acts have talents
That life sees and smiles (15)

I had sighed. Mirror of life, I’d suppose. These are transparencies, words that are the lifeblood of a painful truth, told without frills and affectations, with a bold sincerity, with innocence. And then you ask yourself: Are our decays really down to hair-roots?

Evening befriends the spider
When hellos meet smiles in fellowship Walking the pathways…
When oneness we acknowledge
As we plan for the morrow (23)

Like this, aforementioned, I only abide by the pessimistic poems that bear a comparative reworking to tone, not by those who finish wailing and drop you by the street to head home by yourself.

This one tells one the woe of the soil and throws you the hoe. Its approaches the future and reproaches the present. What is a proper ‘wail-poem’, after all? How would She, in all honesty, describe herself as poet and go on to torment people with the lines contained in this poem, without the faintest assurance…of any kind.

©Oludipe Oyin Samuel, poet and critic

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I am a member of the WRR editorial team.

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I am a member of the WRR editorial team.


    1. Kukogho Iruesiri Samson – Abuja, Nigeria – I am a media professional with experience in multimedia journalism, book publishing, content creation, web management, public relations, media relations, social media management, and client relationship management. My interests include multi-platform content creation and management, media relations, digital and print publishing, and youth-oriented social services. I am open to middle-level positions in organizations that encourage innovation.
      Kukogho Iruesiri Samson says:

      Thank you

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