Ou sont les péans d'antan

The morning glory climbs above my head,
Pale flowers of white and purple, blue and red.
    I am disquieted.

 Down in the withered grasses something stirred;
I thought it was his footfall that I heard.
    Then a grasshopper chirred.

 I climbed the hill just as the new moon showed,
I saw him coming on the southern road.
    My heart lays down its load.
"The morning glory climbs above my head" by Helen Waddell (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1913)

Yesterday I was going through old notes from my writing while at The University of Nigeria at Nsukka, and I came across Waddell's translation, which I'd copied out by hand.  In those days before Google and ready cut&paste, I used to do a lot of copying out poems I found and loved. This lovely poem, a translation of a translation from the Book of Odes, was originally published with the note "Written in the twelfth century before Christ, c. 1121," and demonstrates once again that extraordinary facility that's blessed Asian poetry through the ages of taking the broad sweep of Nature and tacking it lightly onto the human experience, such as compelled Ezra Pound to toil over Fenollosa's notes to produce Cathay.  Of course that's what many European Classic poets tried to do in pastoral efforts, but generally ended up being so much more heavy-handed with political and academic statement than their Asian counterparts.  That's what the European Romantic movement poets tried to do, but also without much subtlety or delicacy.


The modernist movement in Europe seems to have unfortunately banished this sort of expression entirely, and that is a major tragedy.  Even among poets working to reinstate metrical verse to contemporary practice, there seems to be some inexplicable terror of abstract and natural themes.  This is a shame, but I'll take what I can get, and yesterday I also came across "The Wind with its Smell of Flower," a wonderful translation from Mongolia's Poet Laureate G. Mend-Oyoo by Simon Wickham-Smith and Lyn Coffin.

I love this peaceful blue evening
It is absolutely a castle of the East
I love this cloud with its golden mane
It is absolutely a lantern of the East
I love this wind with its smell of flowers
It is absolutely the fragrance of the East
—from "The Wind with its Smell of Flower," translation from G. Mend-Oyoo by Simon Wickham-Smith and Lyn Coffin in Qarrtsiluni

If you read Mongolian, I'd guess you are very lucky to be able to read the original "ЭНЭ ЦЭЦЭГ ҮНЭРТСЭН САЛХИ."  And while at Qarrtsiluni be sure to check out "The Man in the Yellow Coat/L’Homme au Pardessus Jaune" by my friend M.J. Fievre, a stunning story both in the original French/Creole and in the English translation made by the author.  I'll repeat in public something I remarked to the author in private:

You say "While the omniscient P.O.V is admissible in Haiti, a country known for its oral tradition, it was frowned upon in American literature." I'm not much for American fiction but that startled me. If it's true, it probably helps explain why I'm not much for American fiction.

For me banning the omniscient narrator from story-telling is like banishing the color black from visual art.  Or hey! maybe like banishing abstraction and nature from poetry.  Shame on any MFA departments and workshop people involved in such heresy.


By the way, my title for this posting includes some poetic license.  More accurate to my point would be something such as "Ou sont les idylles bucoliques d'antan," but that doesn't sound nearly as nice.

Nigeria days on TNB

I've recently posted several Nigeria themed articles on The Nervous Breakdown.  I started writing up a series of scatter-shot observations, 50 in all, on the occasion of the country's golden jubilee.  The first part of "50 Observations on 50 years of Nigeria," items 1 - 16,  touches on our staple food, fufu, military coups, parenting, machetes, the national anthem, Niger delta pollution, malaria, rainy season, "Ghana must go," Fela, and much more.  The second part runs from items 17 - 32, touching on the principal languages, street hawkers, economics, religion, colonization, okada, Dele Giwa, clothing, ogogoro, and includes a brief La Divina Commedia parody aimed against the scum who light gas flares.  The third part runs from items 33 - 50 and touches on Pidgin, Nollywood, masquerades, jaas, football, literature, the civil war and the cold war, serious oyinbo grammar, and of course partying.

My own interactions with the land of my birth have been complex, with so much time spent abroad, but so many crucial, formative years spent in Nigeria.  I admit there is so much of me that reflects the time spent in America, and I do have a significant bent towards Britain, but the Igbo and overall Nigerian consciousness within me is mountainous.  It's my utter foundation.  I think I speak about Nigeria with an unflinching eye to my experiences of its glories, its tragedies, and its absurdities, but regardless of context and mood, my hope and faith in Nigeria is unquenchable, and I hope that's plain in my series.


As a sort of epilogue to the series, I posted an interview with award winning Nigerian-American novelist Nnedi Okorafor, whose African themed fantasy and science fiction stories have always delighted me.  She was a good college friend of Chimezie, whom I met a few times while visiting my brother in University.  He brought my attention to Zahrah the Windseeker, and I was hooked, and I'm hardly alone in that.  Her work has been hoovering up prizes and acclaim, and she is incubating some very exciting projects in multiple media.  In the interview I ask her primarily about the "bubbling calabash of language stew" in her latest novel "Who Fears Death."

I also include a couple of gorgeous illustrations related to Nnedi's work, including the cover of Zahrah, and a pair of drawings by Ross Campbell, to whose work I was just introduced while preparing this interview.  I'm really struck by Campbell's skill and feeling drawing ethnically diverse characters.

It has been a busy period following the birth of my daughter, with many exciting developments at work, a scare for my father's health (to which Chimezie has alluded), a more hectic than expected holiday period, and much more.  I'm always grounded by my family, but it was very nice to be further grounded by so much contemplation of the past, present and future of that paragon of complexity, my native Nigeria.

Quotīdiē ❧ She writes for nigeria

Nigerian female writers, it has been argued, really deserve commendation and encouragement with the value of impact they are making among their contemporaries in the Diaspora. Among over 400 leading women writers listed in Who's Who in Contemporary Women's Writing, edited by Jane Eldrodge Miller, Nigerians occupy conspicous percentage and position.

Some of these references include Flora Nwapa, a novelist, dramatist, short story writer and children's author; the late Zulu Sofola, novelist, dramatist, poet and children's literature writer; Kema Chikwe, a children writer, non fiction author and publisher; Tess Onwueme, a playwright; Mabel Segun, fiction writer, essayist and poet; Zaynab Alkali, novelist, short story writer and essayist; Buchi Emecheta, novelist and Catherine Acholonu, poet, dramatist, essayist and fiction writer. Others include Ifeoma Okoye, Adaora Lily Ulasi, Molara Ogundipe-Leslie and Ifi Amadiume. They have all proved their mettles in their various choice of genre and have won several awards in the world class record of literary circle.

—Yemi Adebisi, "Acholonu - Celebration of a Scholar," Daily Independent (Lagos)


"They've all proved their mettles..."
That definitely settles
How uncountably in fettle
Lies the pen upon that nettle.

But of course I digress.

Anyway, I've been observing for a while the current efflorescence of Nigerian women writers.  The above list does not even include Adichie, Oyeyemi, Atta, Nwaubani, and I could go on and on.  And then there is Okorafor another important example whom I've mentioned here on Copia before, and with whom I'm wrapping up a wonderful interview for The Nervous Breakdown.  Adebisi's full article is an extensive encomium of Acholonu, which is richly enough deserved, but my main interest was captured by the leading paragraphs I quoted above.  I don't know what is behind the phenomenon, but long may it continue.

Quotīdiē ❧ A gratifying week in poetry

Corium Magazine

Got people swaying like
Brown Grass. Mud sucking up
against our toes, horns blowing salt
Through our noses.
There’s a flower now.
Red like liquor in a brother’s heart,
Pushing through the joint
Like it’s about to break free.
But that can’t be your lipstick
Cause you wear no lipstick:
You’re a soul flame.

—from "Demoiselle," by Uche Ogbuji

I've had some pleasant rewards in the past week, wielding both purple pen, and red.  I learned this afternoon that my poem, "Demoiselle" was published in the latest edition of Corium Magazine.  A few notes later about some of the other work that appeared in the issue.

I wrote the poem on 31 March 1996 in Dallas, briefly possessed at the time by the spirit of the Deep Ellum district.  I always tell people visiting Dallas that they can go to The West End and Dealey Plaza during the day, to get their tourist camera allocation, but that they need to go to Deep Ellum at night for their dose of unadulterated soul.

It was also just over a week ago that I featured seven of my poems here on Copia.

The red pen event is hardly worthy of the name, considering the excellence and pedigree of its headliner.  I was thrilled to present to the world "John," a new poem by Lewis Turco, and an interview of Mr. Turco by his altar ego (read the piece to ravel that pun) Wesli Court.  In "John" Mr. Turco contemplates through the glasses (telescope and microscope) of a nephew the utterly grand and the utterly small. It includes a brilliant, poetic take on the standard model of physics.  It also includes a meditation of the universe, rising to the following.

The paltry gods of Earth

were never meant to handle such immense
   phantasmagoria as these, were
never meant to represent these Powers,
Thrones, Dominions, eidolons of the mind

   of man, these firefly mysteries.

The self-interview is a splendid mini-memoir tracing through the history of a too-often neglected branch of modern poetry, and it includes so much that inspires me as a poet and a student of poetry.  In one telling passage he describes how, sending poems out to periodicals in the middle-to-late 1970’s, he was amazed that magazines began accepting rhyming and metered poems more readily than syllabic poems.


What was going on? I thought I knew. The worm was beginning to turn again, and there was a big pile of younger poets who had been using The Book of Forms for almost a decade, writing in the old forms, experimenting with the Bardic forms, publishing in the little magazines, and even beginning new periodicals that published what they were interested in.


I've read Mr. Turco's poetry and criticism since I've been a teenager, and it has been an honor to work with such a creative, perceptive and hard-working gentleman.  I should also mention his Weblog, which is one of the best maintained and most interesting you'll find by a major contemporary poet.

Quotīdiē ❧ Tincture of tigritude

Who Fears DeathOne of my favorite quotes is from one of my greatest idols, Nigeria's great writer and Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka: "A tiger does not proclaim its tigritude. It pounces." This tiger of a story [Who Fears Death] definitely pounced on me without proclamation or warning. I'm glad I was ready for it.

—Nnedi Okorafor—"The Tigritude of a Story"

Soyinka's famous quote, made in response to the Négritude movement of Senghor, Césaire, and other Francophone African writers has always resonated with me as well.  Afrocentrism that spends most of its time contemplating its own plumage was perhaps inevitable in those early days, so soon after the colonial yokes had been thrown off.  But having been immersed in our own reality, having, as Nnedi also mentions, endured wars of desperation such as the Biafran, having lived to see our resources squandered and the legacy of revolutionary leaders turned despots, we're past time for preening.  If we plan to survive, it's well past mealtime.  We'd better pounce.

To be fair, Négritude never really took off in Anglophone Africa.  In "Christopher Okigbo," Sunday Anozie quotes a letter sent to him by the great Nigerian poet.  In 1966 Okigbo had been invited to the Negro Festival of Arts in Dakar, where his poem Limits was awarded first prize.  Okigbo wrote:

About Dakar.  I did not go... I found the whole idea of a negro arts festival based on colour quite absurd.  I did not enter any work either for the competition, and was most surprised when I heard a prize had been awarded to Limits.  I have written to reject it.

As Anozie says, "This sums up Okigbo's whole attitude to the color stress in Négritude."  Soyinka's reaction was of the same kind.  Anozie does actually surprise me by going on to claim that Okigbo's objections are ultimately shallow, and Soyinka's "cynical."  To be honest, I find a lot that annoys me in Anozie's book, overall, but he also does more to plumb Okigbo's depths than anyone else I've seen, so it's still well worth a read.

But I do think Okigbo and Soyinka are right to shrug off the totems of tigritude, I think we're seeing a generation of African writers come into their own through the urgency of the modern African reality I describe above.  I look forward to reading Nnedi's own testament, which UPS delivered yesterday.

By the way, Nnedi says:

Amongst the Igbos, back in the day, girls who were believed to be ogbanjes were often circumcised (a.k.a. genital mutilated) as a way to cure their evil ogbanje tendencies.

I had heard of female circumstances in parts of Igbo land, but I hadn't heard of its use as a counter to Ogbanje.  I wonder whether that custom was widespread in Igbo land (as for example destruction of twins was a custom more in the far south than elsewhere).  Time to ask our elders some straight questions.

Pondering "World Literature"

I came across "Tips on How to Read World Literature for Personal Enrichment" by Susan Abraham, which she plans to turn into a weekly series.  Her perspective seems to suggest it might be a series worth following, even though I've always been a bit churlish about the increasing popularity of "World Literature", which is a very narrow vein of literature in the world.  I have a similar ambivalence as lovers of novels had to the emergence pop culture commentators such as Oprah.  On one hand they appreciated the expansion of markets for their dear works.  On the other hand they grew wary of a homogenizing influence from the popular machinery.

I'm no lover of novels, but I also look askance towards the tendency of the popular machinery to find fodder in exotic places.  I can't really complain about anything that brings millions into better awareness of other cultures, but for the most part I find a great deal of homogenization of these books. They all elaborate Western traditional (and often tedious) plot devices, character development and such, careful to confine any adventure to the realm of setting.

You can almost hear these masses of novelists sitting as foreign exchange students at Western university workshops, being beaten by ex-hippie professors into clones of expository form, while getting a pat on the head to the effect of: "oh but you have something special to offer; talk about that exciting war you had in your home country. And by the way, Western audiences will eat it up if you pour to the brim with tales of women triumphing over ancient tribal oppressions."

Admirable stuff, for all I know, but for my taste it is hard to read more than two or three of the resulting species.  They all blend together after a while.  I suppose that is the way of the world itself.  But perhaps someone will show me an unimpeachable crop of so-called "World Literature".  Perhaps Susan Abraham.

Kambili? O bia la ozo?

No, Kambili is not back, but the genius behind that wonderful character has obviously not been resting on her laurels. The buzz about Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's sublime novel Purple Hibiscus finally compelled me to find an (alas!) rare spot in my schedule to read a novel last year. I won't soon forget the rewards. Not only does Adichie possess rare craft in prose, but her characters are vivid and sympathetic. Even the antagonist figure, Kambili's father, was rendered with the sensitivity you would expect from a seasoned storyteller. This was a first novel? Almost impossible to believe. Throw in the fact that the descriptive prose evoked so many wonderful memories of South-Eastern Nigeria, and especially of Nsukka, where I spent three years in University, engaged in a frenzy of intellectual, social, and even political activity. On a sad note she describes the terrible decomposition of the town and University of Nsukka, a process of which I've heard plenty from other Great Lions and Lionesses. I'm hardly the only one to marvel at Adichie's accomplishment. Her reviews have been effusive, and her novel won or was short-listed for an armful of awards. More importantly, it did a respectable trade, which is rare for a book of literary merit in this day. Furthermore:

Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus may soon become Nigeria’s most widely translated work after Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. The author told Sunday Sun that the book which won both the Hurston Wrights and Commonwealth Prizes and made the Orange Prize shortlist and the Booker Prize long list has been translated into nine European languages -- French, German, Lithuanian, Spanish, Italian, Greek, Polish, Dutch and of course Hebrew.

--Nigeria's Daily Sun tabloid

Imagine, then, how my ears perked up when I was listening to the Foley Flap show (a.k.a. today's All Things Considered on NPR) and I caught in a story relieving the political firestorm a reporter trying gingerly to pronounce Adichie's name. It turns out she has a new novel. It's not more from Kambili, which is in a way too bad, because Kambili is a character I hope to encounter once more. Then again every writer deserves the emancipation of their choice from their own characters, who can sometimes act as jailers. Besides, this time, Adichie has taken on quite a setting: the War for Biafra. This war is as important in the minds of most Igbos as the six-day war is in the minds of most Israelis, despite the fact that we did not enjoy the same successful outcome. (Indeed the fact that Israel was one of the only nations to support Biafra is one of the reason so many South-Eastern Nigerians have a strong pro-Israeli tendency, although some of the unfortunate recent power politics in the Middle East is beginning to test that loyalty among Igbos I know). I've read my share of novels and memoirs of those times, but as I've remarked to my father (who was an officer in the Biafran army), I think it won't be until my generation takes up the story that the episode will receive the literary and historical treatment it deserves. I'll definitely start on Half of a Yellow Sun as soon as I can, to see if Adichie is the one to prove me right.

p.s. It was fun to hear the NPR reporter pronounce "Igbo" as "Ig-boh", with the "g" and "b" clearly pronounced in separate syllables. No labial-velar plosives in the NPR pronunciation cheat-sheet, I guess.

p.p.s. I also recently bought Helen Oyeyemi's Icarus Girl, about which I've heard wonderful things. I surprise myself in the degree of possessiveness with which I eye my Nigerian middle-class peers. I'm not surprised that all the intellectual belligerence, curious creativity and dogged resourcefulness I remember from my teens is fueling a new generation of Nigerian literary accomplishment.

p.p.p.s. I also ran across an interview with Adichie in Nigeria Village Square , from which:

...religion in Nigeria has become insular, self-indulgent, self-absorbed, self-congratulatory. Churches spring up day after day while corruption thrives as much as ever and God becomes the watchman standing behind you while you seek your self-interest at all cost. God loves you more than others. God wants you to be rich. God wants you to buy that new car.

Boy did I feel that in my recent trip back home. It's rather creepy.

[Uche Ogbuji]

via Copia

The Loss of a Great Author - Octavia Butler

I just found out earlier today, that Octavia Butler died at the age of 58. I really cannot fully express how her body of work has effected me on a very personal level. CNN has a short entry about her passing that is probably appropriate to anyone who has never read any of her work - especially in regards to why she was more than just yet another science fiction author.

For me, the thing about her work that impressed upon me (more than anything else) was her ability to blend standard science fiction components (futuristic settings, super natural characters and scenarios, underlying science themes, etc..) with incredibly unique, believable, and powerful characters. Not just strong characters, but characters that found themselves in situations that posed very profound questions about issues of race, gender, culture, and the human condition (with a heavy enphasis on the first two).

I had always felt after reading her literature that the issues were addressed and presented much more effectively (in the science fiction context) than if they were works of non-fiction, biographical literature, essays, or other more 'formal' literary forms.

The most poignant of her characters were black women and she had a way of writing black female characters with such authenticity that it often left me expecting the same authenticity from authors in the same genre (or in general). It was this authenticity (that I couldn't find anywhere else) that kept me coming back to her work, hungry for more glimpses of her vivid, anthropological tapestry.

Character development, especially in stories where the plot is more creative than the norm, is so easily overlooked and underappreciated. For my money, there were few authors who could create characters that stuck with you long after the plots (through which they developed) were lost and displaced by recent readings. Octavia Butler was one of them.

My favorite of her books were:

  • Wildseed (From the trilogy: Wildseed, Mind of My Mind, and Pattern Master)
  • Parable of the Sower (From the series: Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents)

I had (wistfuly) hoped to meet her someday and ask her (amongst a long list of other, related questions) whether she had come to conclusions / resolutions of her own regarding the depravity of the human condition that she so eloquently described in her books, but I'll never get that oppurtunity.

From one of your most enthusiastic of fans: Rest In Peace, Miss. Butler. You would have made Lao Tse (and his contemporaries - in their time) proud.

Chimezie Ogbuji

via Copia