Recently, at a June 18 conference jointly organised by the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) and Alex Ekwueme Federal University, Ndufu Alike Ikwo, Nigeria, themed “Expanding Frontiers: Nigerian’s Creative Writing in the 21st Century,” an academic got up and said that Chika Unigwe’s On Black Sisters’ Street and Abubakar Ibrahim’s Season of Crimson Blossoms should not have won the NLNG Prize for Literature as both novels dealt with sex. Professor Nwachukwu Agbada—who teaches at Abia State University, Uturu, Nigeria, and is the author of 17 books including five novels, one collection of stories, and two collections of poetry—went on to state that he had tried to influence his co-judges for the 2012 Prize to overlook Chika Unigwe’s On Black Sisters’ Street which eventually won. Abubakar Ibrahim’s Season of Crimson Blossoms won the prize in 2016.
Obinna Udenwe, author of the novel Satans and Shaitans and the erotica novella Holy Sex, had been at the event and, after calling out the professor right there, has now written an essay for The Village Square, titled “The Older Generation of African Literary Scholars and their Obnoxious Idea of African Literary Tradition,” in which the events at the conference are detailed.
“In 2012, a book that was going to win the NLNG Prize and in fact ended up winning the prize had many instances of sex in it. I advised that such book should not be given the prize, that doing so would set the precedence for future judges to start awarding the prize to books on sexuality. That book won the prize in 2012. In 2016, the fear I had expressed earlier in 2012 happened. This means that contemporary writers would now continue writing stories on sexuality and be awarded the NLNG Prize. . . .”
Professor Agbada was also vocal about his homophobia, roundly pissed that Nigerian writers dared to write about LGBTQ experiences:
He argued that books bothering on such subject matters like sex just as books addressing LGBTQ are un-African, “as they are even against our laws”. He wondered why writers wrote on “such themes that are against our traditions and laws”.
It is views such as those expressed by Prof Agbada and echoed by professors of his generation in that conference that has continued to wriggle blood out of African literature, by not just making it shallow but its appreciation very limited.
. . .
To them – the likes of Prof. Nwachukwu Agbada – African literature ended with Things Fall Apart, Weep Not Child, Labyrinth and many other works of Okigbo, Soyinka, Owoonor and the rest. It is because of this thinking that Nigerian professors still teach Achebe, Hemingway, Shakespeare, Dickens, Fagunwa and Tutuola to students of Nigerian literary studies without enlightening them to the idea that in Africa a writer like Lauren Beukes exists, that a young poet called Warsan Shire uses words to challenge held societal values and norms.
Udenwe is wholly right about the state of literature departments in Nigeria. It is something that the present writer has witnessed both as a student—undergraduate and postgraduate—and as a lecturer: It appears that, for most professors of Agbada’s generation, African literature begins with Things Fall Apart and stumbles around Purple Hibiscus.
So why are old professors not reading contemporary authors? I asked Prof. Agbada this question at the ANA – AE-FUNAI Conference after he perhaps unwittingly derided the two works that won the NLNG Prize in 2012 and 2016. I also told the audience that the problem facing African politics and governance of recycling old, tired, unproductive politicians was the same problem facing African literature – where old professors would be invited to conferences to sit together on a panel to discuss and scale what should be admitted into the almighty tag of “African literature” and what should not. I noted that the same problem plagued prizes which were created to enhance and build the African literary tradition. I also reiterated that it was a shame that the older generation of professors would stick to only books and writers of their generation and the thematic issues they address, but denigrate contemporary writers and their works, announcing them unworthy of recognition because “they address sexuality and LGBTQ”. I asked Prof. Nwachukwu Agbada if he had read Nnedi Okoroafor’s “Zarah the Windseeker” or “Who Fears Death”; if he had read Tomi Adeyemi’s “Children of Blood and Bone” and other contemporary books on magical realism. I told him that the African literary tradition would only grow if his generation stopped gate-keeping African literature and accepted the role books in other genres must play. Most importantly I wondered aloud why young professors like E. E Sule cannot be in the NLNG board or judging panel.
How interesting that sex scenes might have determined the winners of a $100,000 prize.
Read the full essay on The Village Square.