Prof Charles Larson is at the Department
of Literature The American University, 4400 Massachusetts Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20016-8047 USA. +1 202 885 2972(tel) +1 202 885 2938(fax),
email: email@example.com, USA
Writing a quarter of a century ago, Ernest
Emenyonu, the Nigerian writer and critic, stated passionately of Cyprian
He has been praised and blamed but
never correctly assessed as a writer. Critics who seem unable to cope
with his versatility, not to mention his vast volumes have abandoned
him, and in effect his growth as a writer, which can be clearly discerned
in a chronological study of his works, has been missed by many
(Emenyonu, E., Cyprian Ekwensi, London: Evans. 1974. p. 3).
Ekwensi is not only one of the most prolific African
writers of the twentieth century but also a man who has had several
different professional careers besides that of writer. An Ibo, he was
born in 1921 in Northern Nigeria, but attended secondary school in Ibadan,
in an area of the country that is predominantly Yoruba. His familiarity
and apparent ease with several of his country's major ethnic groups
have been reflected in his fiction.
Ekwensi's education continued in Ibadan [at Government
College, Ibadan] and then at Achimota College in Ghana. He studied forestry
and worked for two years as a forestry officer. He also taught science
courses briefly, worked for Radio Nigeria and, in 1949, entered the
Lagos School of Pharmacy, subsequently continuing his studies at the
University of London (Chelsea School of Pharmacy). During these years,
Ekwensi also wrote his earliest fiction. He has frequently been identified
as one of the major forces in the Onitsha Market Literature though his
book-length publication, Ikolo the Wrestler and other Ibo tales
(1947), was published in London. When Ekwensi's ever-popular novel Jagua
Nana (1961) was first published in the United States in 1969, the
author listed nineteen books to his credit, beginning with When Love
Ernest Emenyonu identifies the significance of
When Love Whispers: 'This short, light romance was one of the
earliest works of fiction in English in Nigeria and may have helped
to inspire the popular Onitsha pamphlet literature'. Unlike other Nigerian
writers, Cyprian Ekwensi made the transition from writing for readers
of Onitsha Market literature to a mainstream audience. Stated another
way, Ekwensi discovered quite early in his career that there were Nigerians
who could be lured into reading if there was suitable material to attract
their attention. When Love Whispers, Jagua Nana and several
of the writer's subsequent works mine the field of western popular fiction:
sex, violence (though never as extreme as in the West), intrigue and
mystery in a recognisable contemporary setting, more frequently than
not in the fast-paced melting pot of the big city. To all this, Ekwensi
has further added a relentless fascination with African women - in short,
his works contain all the elements of western bestsellerdom, except
that in recent years the concept of the bestseller in the Nigerian book
market has been eclipsed by the country's depressed economy.
Jagua Nana was so popular in the 1960s
that a film version was planned by an Italian movie company. The mere
idea that a film of this sensational novel might provide the world with
an unflattering glimpse of life in Nigeria led to discussions in the
Nigerian parliament that resulted in an abrupt cancellation of the project.
Emenyonu notes the irony of this incident because it happened almost
at the same time as Ekwensi was awarded the Dag Hammarskj÷ld International
Prize in Literature (1968).
This ironic juxtaposition is important because
Ekwensi has written just as many 'literary' works as sensational ones,
though he is more often remembered for the latter. Of his early books,
The Drummer Boy (1960), Passport of Mallam Ilia (1960),
Burning Grass (1962) and Iska (1966) are all 'serious'
novels, some produced by academic publishers (such as Cambridge University
Press) for the African market, and becoming set texts for the West African
School Certificate examinations. There has always been this pull in
Ekwensi's writing between the sensational and the serious, the playful
and the concerned.
Cyprian Ekwensi has written hundreds of short
stories, radio and television scripts, several dozen novels, including
children's works, yet in the 1970s he said that his writing had brought
him both fame and poverty:
Five decades or more of writing novels,
novellas, short stories, children's books, have brought me world fame
but not fortune. If I were an American living in America or Europe,
I would be floating in a foam bath in my own private yacht off the coast
of Florida (letter to author, 8 March 1999).
Like many of his peers, Ekwensi agrees that the
reading culture of his country (and of the continent) has changed drastically
during the course of his fifty-year career. Even more extreme changes
have taken place in the world of publishing. When he began writing in
the days of Onitsha Market literature, 'the books came out spontaneously
and unsolicited. They were hawked and distributed quickly. In many cases
the author was also the publisher.' Books often sold quite well; several
of his most successful Onitsha publications were reprinted frequently.
Today, 'There is rigid control by the publishers (and by the economy).
Your book has to fit into their schedules and programmes and not the
other way around. Radio and TV and, lately, video have destroyed the
reading culture.' What little reading there is, is chiefly of set texts
within the schools.
Ekwensi especially bemoans the state of 'big business'
publishing, which has altered the entire context of writing for the
There are big African publishers with foreign
partners and there are Nigerian publishers on their own and there are
aspiring author self-publishers. The objective of all of them is to
sell books, but it is more lucrative to have as your customer the World
Bank project or the Ministry of Education or the Petroleum Trust Fund.
These conglomerates place large orders and some authors, especially
of textbooks, benefit by the bulk sums paid in royalties. Always bear
in mind that publishing is a business. The small publisher of creative
books is a retailer whose returns will not pay the rent for the author's
one bedroom apartment, much less buy him a decent agbada for the family
ceremonials. But his friends have by now heard that he has become an
author and that is a feather in his cap.
Of the 'book launch' that Soyinka and others have
so decried, Ekwensi states that the publisher with enough clout can
rake in thousands of naira by way of recouping investments. The money
is shared as per agreement but this system fails to provide regular
income for the writer. 'Writers, typically, have to sign contracts loaded
in favour of the publisher', granting them control of world rights which
they are 'incapable of selling or enforcing'. Authors seldom receive
royalties from their books without demanding them: 'I have yet to know
of an African author living in Africa who died a wealthy man from his
writing. The rich ones all live abroad.'
Perhaps the major problem that Ekwensi identifies
is an attitude towards the creative writer himself/herself:
Writing is still regarded not as a career
but as a charitable pursuit - designed to educate and entertain readers
with nothing coming to the writer. The mention of money appears obscene,
but the glamour is there and thousands do take the plunge, but support
it with moonlighting or chasing jobs in construction companies or ministries.
As for writing being a career, the writer will have to try the Media
- especially radio, television and the regular press. Journalists thrive
there, but creative writers get diverted and the creativity gets washed
out of them if they must take the bread and butter home. Ending up in
the gulag of some dictatorial government is just one of the hazards
of the trade.
Ekwensi none the less has kind words to say about
Spectrum Books in Ibadan which published one of his more recent novels,
Jagua Nana's Daughter (1986). My conversations with Joop Berkhout,
the publisher, revealed that current sales of the novel total a couple
of thousand copies a year - in a country once considered to be full
of readers (interview, 6 August 1998).
Except for those years when he studied pharmacy
in England, Ekwensi has remained a Nigerian writer living in Nigeria.
He supports himself by his profession as a pharmacist, yet still he
keeps writing, moving with the times (when I talked to him recently,
he enthusiastically described a short story he has published on the
Internet: [See Ekwensi, Cyprian, "No Escape from S.A.P" at http://www.ishmaelreedpub.com/ekwensi.html]).
In his response to my questionnaire, he identified himself as 'one of
the pioneers of modern African writing'. No one in the field of African
literature would question that. Still, I can't help wondering whether,
if he had his writing career to begin all over again, he might not consider
the expatriate route of so many of his contemporaries:
abroad the African writer is then in the midst of publishers, booksellers,
world writers and others who respond to his presence and give him his
due place in society. He even becomes an Ambassador of African cultures,
which is as it should be. Communication is speedy and efficient and
all the world becomes a stage on which he can play his part. Even so,
the Exile is homesick, out of touch and is only postponing the evil
date when he will come home and find he has become irrelevant.
It's a dog's
It is impossible to determine the antecedent of
the pronoun in the concluding statement: the African writer in exile
- or all African writers?
Extracts from The Ordeal of the African Writer
(2001) by Charles R Larson, published by Zed Books (London and New York),
pp 64-69. We gratefully acknowledge Zed Books for permission to publish
this piece. [BPN 29, 2001, pp. 10-12]
to table of contents for BPN Newsletter 29, 2001>>