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In conversation: Yvonne Owuor, author of Dust, and Ayobami Adebayo, author of Stay With Me, moderated by Dami Ajayi. Photo credit: Ake Festival Media Team.

Lucia was keeping us. “Stay on this side of the road,” a nice man on her bus to Ojota had told her, “don’t use the pedestrian bridge.” She was half-way to Mile 12 when I called her, frantically demanding her whereabouts. Rendezvous was Berger. The nice man had misled her.

A toppled trailer or some such misfortune had backed traffic up for miles on the earliest leg of the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway and so we arrived Ake late. Or so we thought.

The formal welcome ceremony, I learnt, was still on. At Cinema Hall, the furthest of all the halls at Kuto Cultural Centre, I found Ogun State’s deputy governor on the brink of delivering the welcome address. The Ogun State government is one of the headline sponsors of the Ake Festival, a fact which imposes natural constraints on reportage prosecuted at the festival’s prompting. If you know, you know.

Some say the rape panel moderated by Timehin Adegbeye was the highlight of Thursday. I was elsewhere and so I cannot bear witness. For me then, Thursday’s highlight was Mona Eltahawy, her feminism and wit as fiery as her shock of red hair.

In a furious fusillade of F-word and righteous indignation, Mona had declared the ultimate task of the feminist to be seizing the day—because waiting for the patriarchy to fix itself on its own terms was an exercise in f is for futility. Uncover your hair, become an Imam, pray during your period. Seize the day! A line of Muslim girls walked out; it pained them deeply, these things Mona was saying. The rest of us erupted.

The consensus was the same—and different—in an earlier panel on Thursday, where finance was the F-word of the moment. The relationship between finance and the creative arts has always been fraught, and that relationship was under the microscope.

The moderator was Olaokun Soyinka, the panelists Sterling Bank’s Yemi Odubiyi, British Council’s Ojoma Ochai and Tom Ilube the philanthropist. The room, encircled by busts of Ogun State’s good, great and male, might have elicited a tirade of f-words from Mona. Prompted by a question off the floor, the conversation soon turned to what obligations financiers have to the creative arts industry. When the answer came, it might as well have been something out of Stephen Crane’s oeuvre:

A man said to the universe,
“Sir, I exist!”
The universe replied,
“The fact does not create in me
A sense of obligation.”

Nobody owes you anything, certainly not organisations with a bottom line to pad. The onus is on creatives to attract funding. Raising finance, said Ilube, is a sales project, and any successful sales project conforms to a model: operators in the creative industry are condemned to create awareness, interest and desire in potential financiers—like Sterling Bank, who would then take action.

A more difficult question came. What if creatives and their financiers differ on creative direction or significance? What if the art subverts its financiers’ assumptions?

With a panel like that, the response to this one was predictable. The business of business is business, and creatives are not necessarily the most business-savvy people, which financiers tend to be. That of course raises the question of artistic integrity, conveniently elided here. Can the vision survive the onslaught of profit? The intersection of art and corporate finance has never been smooth, and nobody owes you anything. The end.

Over at the book chat moderated by Dami Ajayi, F for Friedrich Nietzsche made an appearance. A word, Nietzsche once wrote, is “the copy of a nervous stimulation in sounds.” And perhaps we should hesitate to ascribe any finality of meaning, any final truths, to something as flimsy and uncommitted as the copy of a nervous stimulation?

Perhaps we should indeed, or what was one to make—what is one to make—of General Babangida’s iconoclastic arrogation to himself of the title “President” in 1990s Nigeria?

For Ayobami Adebayo, author of the smash hit Stay With Me, who burst into song at some point during her reading, this was a seminal moment in the Nigerian polity. Up till Babangida and indeed after him, Nigeria’s military rulers were known as “Head of State.” The military instinctively flinched from ascribing the implied legitimacy of “President” to itself. Were these leaders hoping to recast society in their own likeness?, Adebayo wondered.

Legitimacy, as Zimbabwe has proven in these past few days, is a word too, a nervous stimulation, etc., etc.

For this book chat, the first of 2017’s Ake Festival, Adebayo was paired with Yvonne Owuor, writer’s writer and author of the sublime Dust. Owuor’s native Kenya is currently coming to terms—once again—with the meaning of “election.” What’s an election? “It is the continuation of all the elections we’ve never completed,” said Owuor, and you sense how this is true for elections even beyond Kenya. “Our dreams have been broken by home,” she continued later, now visibly emotional as she discussed postcolonial Kenya. “An ultimate and terrible betrayal.”

The first time I heard the word “spoiler” used in relation with a novel was in the lead-up to the publication of an essay I built around Stay With Me and Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen. Ordinarily, a spoiler was something you tweeted about the new instalments of Game of Thrones, Insecure or Stranger Things. My essay, I learnt, contained a lot of these disclosures. Which was fine, I was assured, so long as I was fine with it.

I was.

And so I was confronted by the spectre of “spoiler” here, shouted from the stage as a member of the audience began to build a case for a question regarding the elephant stomping around the room of Adebayo’s novel. This time, a mild unease. How to resolve this notion that language in motion can be prematurely disclosed? At a festival celebrating the service to which language can be put? Nietzsche, naturally. That was how. What good is it to pin down the unpindownable?

F for fame proved much less elusive. “Flash,” Owuor called it, the spectacular. It is nice, can be blinding, but “you stop believing the bullshit.” Adebayo has stopped reading reviews of her novel since March, and she’s saving Michiko Kakutani’s review in The New York Times for when she completes her new novel. This circumspection with acclaim, both authors agree, is how a writer avoids stasis. To get on with it, “you need to step away from it.”

If Mona was the highlight of Thursday, then F for Friday was the highlight of Ake. Friday was the day I was compelled to ask what the point of books were again.

I was born in Lagos when the 1980s stood at the cusp of the 1990s. (Am I an ’80s kid or a ’90s kid?) Nobody gathered anybody for tales by moonlight. The city’s pace, the sheer magnitude of the task of survival, meant there was scarcely any time for the frivolity of nighttime entertainment. There was no moonlight at Ake that afternoon (how could there be?), and we were gathered in a hall, not under the shade of a large tree at the village square. There was Maria Menzies though, beautiful, dazzling and majestic up on the stage, reminding us all of the way things used to be.

Maria Menzies told two stories, one from Kenya and one from Cuba, full of everything Professor Akporobaro’s textbook on the subject says you should expect. The narrator grabbed attention by histrionics. She impersonated with aplomb. She seasoned the fare with lavish. She compelled audience participation: she urged and we responded with glee and inventiveness. Our inventiveness spurred hers in return: improvisation was a key characteristic of oral storytelling. There were moral lessons, explicitly stated to end each story.

On Thursday, Mona had exhorted women to reform cultural practice by force of initiative. Wachu, the first story’s protagonist, was corroboration from antiquity. By migrating the bone of contention—the eating of meat—from the wispy realm of theory into the concrete realm of practice, Wachu’s defiance taught the Gikuyu the arbitrariness of convention. Only the flimsiest of whims, it is demonstrated, prevents the Gikuyu woman from eating meat. Nietzsche be praised.

Nothing, no Greek myth, defines cosmic irony better than the story from Cuba. Perhaps you might reconsider and temper your punishment, Eleshua the supreme deity urged Ochosili, the newly ordained deity of the hunt. But Ochosili was deaf to consideration, giddy with excitement at the prospect of retribution.

Someone had pilfered the rare bird he’d meant as a gift for Eleshua; what if its twin hadn’t fortuitously come along? No, no, no, that someone’s days were numbered. When I release this arrow, he repeated, defiant, it will find the heart of whoever stole my bird. So be it, said Eleshua. The arrow flew several leagues to lodge itself in his mother’s heart. It was his mother who’d innocently cooked her son a special dish with the bird. Eleshua doubled the portfolio of a chastened Ochosili: he became, too, the deity of justice, for no one could know better than he the value of careful consideration.

Menzies’ reenactment of the oral tradition now lost to other forms nudged awake suppressed memories. This wasn’t nostalgia, you must understand. These memories were more recent, academic memories spun in oral literature classes at Unilag.

They’d always been inert memories—dry, tepid, unidimensional, dead. Imagine teaching theatre without the theatre. Imagine deadening oral literature to the mechanical methodology of text (stricto senso). Go and read Akporobaro. Commit him to memory. Regurgitate him at exam time. Never, never ever seek that which will breathe life into the mold.

Listening to Menzies, I couldn’t help but wonder how indigenous literary cultures and technologies might have evolved had colonialism not happened. Would it take Menzies to come put on a storytelling show for us? Or would it be a mundane fact of the literary scene here? Would we have had a Gutenberg moment, evolved some means to trap sound for all time, democratizing creation, viewpoints and access?  This truncation of a potentially autochthonous technological evolution is one legacy of colonialism that we perhaps haven’t interrogated enough. We made, for instance, all manner of “phones”—idio, membrano, chordo, aero; why have our indigenous musical technologies not evolved?

That morning, Alexis Okeowo, author of A Moonless, Starless Sky, and Dayo Olopade, author of The Bright Continent, sat down to discuss their books with Lamide Akintobi. Her own book, Olopade said, was an exercise in correcting “the narrative” and winning arguments about Africa at the dinner table. I caught up with her later at the rambling “Men Who Write Women” panel, and bumbled through a half-coherent critique of what she’d said.

We’re in Africa now, in Nigeria, and a famous Nigerian once asked—implicitly—what the value of proclaiming tigritude was when said tigritude was inherent in the tiger’s pounce, know what I mean? She is a business writer, not a philosopher. Still, does that not divest agency from the continent and invest it in extra-continental bodies?

Consider, she told me in a furiously fast American accent, the opportunity cost of the usual Africa narrative. Consider what investments have not been invested, what investments have failed, because of a misconception of the terrain. True, but the budding postcolonial scholar in me winced. Agency. Does this not invest our agency in extra-African entities?

We both teased out one more value of her book: the tiger can be so caught up in its tigritude it requires other perspectives—lion, duiker, elephant—to put things in proper context. Even if it was written more about us than for us, there was a thing or two to learn about ourselves.

Before the panel commenced, I’d seen Okeowo walk the room, perhaps looking, as I’d done, for any female presence in the pantheon of busts in the chat room above the exhibition hall. Now, I watched her walk up behind Dayo. Lunch was served, she informed her friend. We got up and began to walk.

I’d been standing beside a seated Okeowo as the panel meandered from men who write about women to questions of place. When I looked down, I found her reading The New Yorker and thought about sneaking a photo. Alexis Okeowo reading The New Yorker. Hashtag Ake Festival. She switched seats, moving forward to better hear how much further Zukiswa Wanner was pulling her panel from its remit. In A Moonless, Starless Sky, Okeowo wanted to sidestep the exceptionalism of activism in order to fixate on the more mundane defiances of ordinary individuals in the face of towering adversity. In Northeastern Nigeria, that was a man who’d performed a citizen’s arrest on a Boko Haram member.

That right to be ordinary—mundane—in the face of adversity was the object of the Friday’s showcase of short films. The right to be ordinary, of course, derives from acceptance—and a consequent transcendence—of one’s circumstances. Sex workers have loves, have scrapes and bear offspring who desire friendships. When Jamil died and Bariga Sugar cut to credits, not a few eyes in Cinema Hall were glazed over with the beginning of tears. Look, we’ve been subjected to genital mutilation, Leyla Hussein’s Face of Defiance points out, but that fact doesn’t make us any less human, any less creatures of desire. We laugh, we cry, we fall sick, we jazz june, we real cool, we F-word. We are as ordinary as anyone else.

Through Her Eyes was Ibrahim’s attempt to understand the psychology of a suicide bomber, a female. (And two days after Ake ended, we were reminded of its reality when a teenage boy blew himself up in Mubi, killing at least 50 people.) We’ve come to expect that the girls, sometimes as young as five, who blow themselves up on the orders of Boko Haram overlords have been brainwashed, deceived or blackmailed into the act. We’ve read of girls who alert security forces to the plosive baggage they carry. Some of these bombs, we’ve read, have been defused, their wearers rescued and rehabilitated. Aziza, Ibrahim’s protagonist, presents a different conundrum.

Aziza’s brand of acceptance is harrowing. She has quite obviously not succumbed to blackmail, deception or ideology, neither will she consider not carrying through her task. When the taxi driver bearing her to her target plays the Qur’an through his car stereo, Aziza asks him to turn it off. There is something more substantial at work here, something more sinister. She understands what she must do, understands what will happen when she does it, and is completely at peace with what is to come.

Ibrahim employs flashbacks—of traumatic terrorist events Aziza has suffered through—to portray a tearing Aziza as conflicted as she makes her way to her eventual target. There’s some dissonance here. In the real sense, that Aziza will detonate her bomb is never in doubt. When she learns that her taxi driver’s child died at the scene of a suicide bombing, she remains unfazed, maintaining a grim focus on the dastardly task at hand. Bad things have happened to her and she doesn’t understand why they do. She has asked but the meaning of life eludes her. Or perhaps it doesn’t. The answer to that question, and the one before it, unfortunately, coincide with the motives of the terrorists: it’s all meaningless anyway, and it will end one way or another.

I’ve thought of an alternative end to Through Her Eyes. In Ibrahim’s ending, the taxi driver figures out Aziza is about to bomb the supermarket. In my ending, the taxi driver would get out of his taxi to smother Aziza in a hug, a double entendre: first as empathy and then as a casualty reduction technique. I understand why it has come to this, but it doesn’t mean so many people have to die.

Much, much later on Saturday, many festival goers would lose all propriety under the influence of alcohol and music. But a long way before that, just before Arsenal imparted football lessons into Spurs, sporadic applause broke out for Kikelomo Woleosho, whose pointed commentary delivered in Jenifa-style joie de vivre sat well with the audience at Saturday’s first panel, “Talking Sexual Violence: Victims & Violation.”

Her Sigmund Freud may have been proud, but not a few members shifted uncomfortably as Woleosho located the source of “deviant” sexual behaviour in the trauma of childhood abuse. There’s every possibility, she seemed to contend, that that woman who sleeps around today was abused as a child. There are merits to Freudian psychoanalysis of this sort, that our earliest experiences are formative. The problem is its totalization of sexual exuberance in an atmosphere of feminism. For instance, I did not think Mona Eltahawy would agree.

Someone from the audience wanted to know to what extent demonstrable psychiatric malaise could be separated from criminal behaviour. Is there any difference between a crime and what you’re psychiatrically condemned to do? Yes, I was aware that people pled insanity to charges of murder and such-like, but I found Professor Oyebode’s submission—everything redounds to the law—a little wanting and cornered him after the panel had ended.

I had carefully rehearsed my opening—there was to be no repeat of my experience with Dayo Olopade. You’ll agree with me that the law only addresses what it can assume, I began, which explains the existence of lacunae and which renders your submission on the question slightly problematic. Consider this as well. Some deviant behaviours are increasingly being found to have genetic provenance, in certain instances at least. There was, I’d read long ago, a convicted paedophile who was found to have a brain tumour sitting on the part of his brain that regulates the ability to control impulses, impairing his ability to control against the expression of paedophilic behaviour—the essay, published in Aeon Magazine, made a distinction between paedophilia, a psychiatric condition, and paedophilic behaviour. Once removed, the man’s paedophilic behaviour disappeared. When the tumour relapsed, the behaviour resurrected. Was this a problem for the law or a public health crisis?

Professor Ojebode would not budge. It was left for lawyers to bring the law’s attention to their client’s possible plight. If corroborated by expert evidence, then perhaps said client would be subjected to treatment rather than go to jail. I was unsatisfied—the opioid crisis sweeping the USA and Nigeria, for example, were recent exemplars to the limits of the law. Jessica wanted to take him away for an interview and I was keeping him. We shook hands. Are you a lawyer? he asked me. In another life maybe. In turn, I wanted to know if he knew he was a dead ringer for Wole Soyinka were his head of sporangium fuller and whiter. In the end, I decided it was enough that I knew.

There were other doppelgangers at this year’s festival. The schedule said Maimouna Jallow but wasn’t that Maria Menzies up on the rostrum telling an idiosyncratic version of Lola Shoneyin’s The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives with characteristic vim and vigour? It had to be Menzies—whoever put together this schedule made a typo. Case closed.

On Tuesday morning, the mist cleared. They look alike eh? Jessica said to me, half-mockingly. Now that I think of it, Saturday’s performer had seemed a little more restrained than the full-speed-ahead ebullience of Menzies.

 

 

About the Author:

bty

Káyọ̀dé Fáníyì is a writer, editor and cultural critic. He holds a degree in Microbiology from the Ọbáfẹ́mi Awólówọ̀ University. He has previously been published in the Kalahari Review, Africa is a Country, Brittle Paper and Music in Africa.

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About Otosirieze Obi-Young

View all posts by Otosirieze Obi-Young

Otosirieze Obi-Young was born in Aba, Nigeria, and attended the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. A finalist for the 2016 Miles Morland Writing Scholarship, his short stories include: “A Tenderer Blessing,” which appears in Transition Magazine and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2015; “Mulumba,” which appears in The Threepenny Review; and “You Sing of a Longing,” which was shortlisted for the inaugural Gerald Kraak Award and appears in Pride and Prejudice, an anthology by The Jacana Literary Foundation and The Other Foundation. His essays appear in Interdisciplinary Academic Essays and in Brittle Paper where he is Deputy Editor. His interviews appear in Africa in Dialogue, Bakwa Magazine, SPRINNG, and Dwartonline. He is the curator of the Art Naija Series, a sequence of themed e-anthologies of writing and visual art exploring different aspects of Nigerianness. The first, Enter Naija: The Book of Places (October 2016), focuses on Nigerian cities. The second, Work Naija: The Book of Vocations (June 2017), focuses on professions in Nigeria. A postgraduate student of African Studies, he currently teaches English at Godfrey Okoye University, Enugu, Nigeria. When bored, he blogs pop culture at naijakulture.blogspot.com or just Googles Rihanna.

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I hold a doctorate in English from Duke University and recently joined the Marquette University English faculty as an Assistant Professor. I love teaching African fiction and contemporary British novels. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

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