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 BPN Newsletter Issue No 29, December 2001 


Cyprian Ekwensi

Charles Larson
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:, USA

Writing a quarter of a century ago, Ernest Emenyonu, the Nigerian writer and critic, stated passionately of Cyprian Ekwensi:

“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 Whispers (1947).

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´┐Żld 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 author:

“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]). 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:

“Living 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 life. ”

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]


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