Isidore Okpewho, the Nigerian fiction writer and literary scholar, died on Sunday, the 4th of September in a Binghamton hospital in Upstate New York. He was surrounded by his family and loved ones. He was 74.
Many readers know him as the author of The Victims-–a dark and twisted family thriller that explores the dynamics of polygamy. Others know him as a literary scholar extraordinaire whose work on oral literature in Africa is rich and expansive. His passing is an incalculable loss to the global literary community, but most especially to African readers and scholars.
While we mourn the loss of this literary icon, we also want to acknowledge the full and beautiful life he lived as a writer and a thinker.
He was born in Agbor but grew up in Asaba where he attended St Patrick’s College before moving on to University College in Ibadan. He graduated with First Class Honors in Classics. A doctorate from the University of Denver and a DLitt from the University of London prepared him for a life-long career in teaching. In 1974, he took up a teaching appointment at University of New York, Buffalo. Two years later he moved back to Nigeria and taught at the University of Ibadan. He also taught at Harvard University and later at the State University of New York, Binghamton, where he stayed until he passed on.
His research work on African literature earned him numerous fellowships, including a Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars fellowship in 1982 and the Guggenheim Fellowship in 2003.
To those outside the literary scholarly community, Okpewho was the bestselling author of The Victims (1970), a novel that continues to grip the imagination of readers the world over. But he wrote other novels: Call me by my Rightful Name (2004); Tides (1993); and The Last Duty (1976). All his novels have been translated into the major world languages.
In celebration of his contributions to African literature, Okpewho was awarded the Nigerian National Order of Merit in Humanities.
His death brought a flood of condolences from every corner of the world. Those who read his novels looked back on his life and the gifts he gave the world through his literary works.
Okey Ndibe, a fellow novelist and literary critic, had this to say on Facebook:
“Isidore Okpewho, who died yesterday at 74, was a literary and academic star, regarded by many as the most consequential student of Africa’s oral tradition. And he was possessed of a deep humanity. For decades, this star dazzled us. Now that he’s gone to the realm of ancestors, I will long treasure my personal and intellectual interactions with him. May his soul rest in peace.”
Whether you physically sat in his classroom or read his novels at home or studied his scholarly writings, you were taught by Isidore Okpewho.
He was a poet, a folklorist, a scholar and a teacher and many will remember him. While he has passed on from this earth we are left with his works which will surely stand the test of time.
We hope that future generation continue to enjoy the rare gift of his vast and beautiful body of work.