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A Journey through Nigerian Literature

A Coat of Many Colors - a Review

By Henry Chukwuemeka Onyema


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Henry Chukwuemeka Onyema


Title: Nigerian Literature: A Coat of Many Colours

 Editor: Koko Kalango

Publishers: Rainbow Book Club

Page no: 109

Year: 2012


I begin this article with a profound sense of ownership and not a little pride. Koko Kalango got the inspiration for the book’s title from a piece I wrote back in 2010 looking at the road Nigerian literature has travelled since the country’s independence. In the acknowledgement she wrote: ‘‘I have Henry Chukwuemeka Onyema to credit for the unusual title of this book, which, though derived from a biblical story, actually occurred to me after I read a piece he wrote ‘Nigerian Literature at Fifty: A Coat of Many Colours.’’’  So here is a heartfelt thank you to Mrs. Kalango and the Rainbow Book Club for the contribution of my work in activating their fecund genius to create this literary history which will outlive us all.  


Now that the appropriate encomiums have been paid, let the dissection begin.


This book is worthy of its title. It is indeed a ‘coat of many colours.’ It captures the gamut of generations of writers who shaped, and are still shaping, Nigerian literature. From Amos Tutuola whose novel ‘The Palm Wine Drinkard’  opened the chapter of modern Nigerian literature in 1952 to the new kid on the block, Chibundu Onuzo, the editor and her team did a good job to give us snapshots that will interest the general reader, the student and the researcher. The absence of intellectual heavy-handedness in the book is highly commendable.


Its features are human, accessible and digestible. Fifty of Nigeria’s arguably best writers are alphabetically arranged and in subsequent pages, two sections are devoted to each author: one containing a lively biosketch, selected works of the author and a cover picture of the writer’s defining work; the next has either an excerpt of the writer’s work or a piece of nonfiction or an interview that illuminates the reader’s comprehension of what makes the author tick. The book opens with an acknowledgement; a foreword by President Jonathan and an introduction by Governor Rotimi Amaechi of Rivers State. It ends with a publisher’s note and information pages about the publishers, the editor and her team.


Reading through the pages, I gained fresh insights into the minds of some writers I am already familiar with, and knowledge about the ones I know little about. The corresponding article on Chinua Achebe titled ‘What Nigeria Is To Me.’ helped me understand, at least to an extent, what made him write ‘troublesome’ books like ‘The Trouble With Nigeria’ and ‘There Was A Country.’ Defining his love-hate relationship with Nigeria over the years has not been easy for Achebe. Esiaba Irobi’s conversation with the publisher of Sentinel online magazine, Nnorom Azuonye, convinced me that if cancer had not claimed the NLNG Literature prize winner at forty-nine, it would have only been a matter of time before he went the way of Walter Rodney, the radical historian and writer of ‘How Europe Under-developed Africa.’ Such daredevils rarely die in their beds. The interview was so refreshingly vulgar that I resolved to read all I can about and from Irobi. It has been years since I first encountered Kole Omotoso’s ‘Just Before Dawn.’ Now I will go searching again because of the thirst Kalango stirred in me.


Of all the playwrights depicted in the book, Tess Onwueme, Femi Osofisan and Ahmed Yerima’s pieces stirred me the most. It goes beyond the sparks of solid sex in the excerpts; it encompasses their vivid and vital imagery; their visible dialogue. Though I am essentially a prose man, these excerpts subtly told me that perhaps I am missing out on a world of goodies. I was enthralled by Bode Sowande’s inclusion but it is not because of his plays which have made him a lord of the African literary clan.  As soon as I saw his burning eyes and goatee my mind flew to his 1981 political thriller novel ‘Our Man the President.’ Since I first read it my mind has always associated the author with Jaiye, the radical lecturer-turned-commando and hitman, one of the novel’s principal characters.


Going through the poems of J.P. Clark and Christopher Okigbo was humbling. The late soldier-poet, Mamman Vatsa’s pidgin poems made me laugh and sigh in turns. What a great mind, what a great loss, I thought.


The photographs in the book indicate that these folks are not green men from Mars. Their expressions range from sagely reflection (Achebe) to friendly calmness (Elechi Amadi); a frown? (Lola Shoneyin); rich humour (Chika Unigwe); and a not quite-eliminated childlike innocence (Chibundu Onuzo). Inevitably it was a female author’s photograph that won my vote. Do not ask me whose.


But why couldn’t the editor find at least new, if not the latest, cover pages of some of the books depicted in the collection? Some were downright old, with the sellotape that bound them clearly visible. Examples include Cyprian Ekwensi’s ‘The Drummer Boy,’ (p.23); Okigbo’s ‘Labyrinths,’ (p.65) and Wole Soyinka’s ‘The Interpreters’ (p.91).


This book is a must-have for anyone who has anything to do with Nigerian literature. For the younger generation, especially those from ages thirty and below, it is important to help them put a face to the builders of the Nigerian literary estate. We will appreciate this if we realize the troubled times Nigerian education is going through.  Back in 2008, during the fiftieth anniversary of ‘Things Fall Apart’, Dr. Reuben Abati wrote in his ‘Sunday Guardian’ column about a young Nigerian female university student of English Language who declared that Achebe’s magnum opus was written by Pete Edochie, the actor who portrayed the protagonist in the TV series based on the novel. It is to fill in such lacuna that this book was born.


But this ‘coat’ must be redesigned if it will appeal to more wearers. Its current coffee-table edition may be okay for shelves and tables but we need editions that can fit into bags; the type you can flip the pages on a plane or in a bus-not the Lagos ‘Molue’, please. The publishers should think along these lines when the book goes commercial. The deficient pictorials I mentioned can be improved on. The principle of selectivity must have restricted the number of authors included to the rather inadequate number of fifty. Agreed, you cannot please everyone and every literati and even non-literati have their pets.  I think a fair number of leading lights of Nigerian literature since 1970 who ought to make the cut were excluded. I hoped to see Helen Oyeyemi and Onyeka Nwelue who are the new faces of ‘other-worldism’ in Nigerian fiction. What of Eghosa Imasuen who pioneered alternate historical fiction with his debut ‘To St.Patrick’? The late doyen of popular Nigerian thriller and action adventure fiction, Kalu Okpi of the Macmillan Pacesetters fame should be in this book. What of Myne Whitman who is giving romance fiction its deserved place in Nigerian literature? If this book must engage the youths who are the primary targets of the ‘Get Nigeria Reading Again’  campaign spearheaded by the editor and the publishers it must tell them about the writers they can connect with; writers who write their stories and ‘yarn to their levels.’


Kalango stated in page 101 that the book ‘attempted to reflect the variety of works coming from around Nigeria with careful attention to issues of gender as well as those pertaining to literary genres.’ The assemblage in the book does justice to writers of literary fiction, poetry and, to an extent, children’s fiction. But I am not convinced that the last fifty years has not produced Nigerian genre fiction writers worth celebrating. Only Ekwensi of ‘Jagua Nana’ fame got a ‘colour’ in the ‘coat.’


These omissions do not dent the book’s credibility. Kalango and her team should as soon as possible put this prizewinner on sale. While they make efforts in this regard, all those governments and bodies who proclaim their zeal to revive Nigeria’s reading culture should support the team’s efforts to get this edition to as many people as possible in this blessed country.


Henry C. Onyema is a writer and historian.