‘The price for speaking up is high: the towncrier often has the hangman’s noose very close to his or her throat; but the cost of silence would be even higher’ – Niyi Osundare
I must thank the organisers of this lecture for the opportunity given to me to speak on the might of the writer. Hmmnn… The might of the writer! I suppose it makes us think of the power of a goliath or some like image, which thrusts the writer upward for assessment beyond the limits of our expectations and unreels a long tapestry of possibilities! This is why I must immediately concede that I am over-awed by the word ‘might’, a ‘simple’ and ‘modest’ lexical item, yet one that conjures so much power and strength as its meaning. I am nevertheless conscious of the fact that those who have asked me to speak believe so intensely and irrevocably that the writer does have ‘might’. Does he? Does he have the capacity to make oracular pronouncements that could at once, as J. P. Clark said in his ‘Casualties’, “turn the world into a dance with rites it does not know”? Can the writer mount the saddle of a conquistador, sacking empires and rendering kingdoms desolate? Can he roll an armoured tank into the cavernous corners of brooding streets in the dawn of martial songs and wrest power from the hands of the drunken, blood thirsty emperor? Can his pen spew bullets instead of ink and mow down those who bask in the fetid heat of stolen power and tell them they have bitten much more than they can chew? With his metaphors and stubborn vision can he create a physical paradise beyond Utopia where there will be no bound but free people, no aches or pains, no suffering nor toil, no losses, but gains? Who the hell does he think he is: the writer? In an age when, according to Niyi Osundare, the question people are asking is not “how many books have you read today?” but “how many times have you eaten today” of what relevance is the writer? Often beaten, pummelled, chastised, deprived and denied his rights to freedom, does he have the ability to fulfil the messianic role he is often believed to have by virtue of his calling? So who cares about the writer?
Don’t get me wrong! I am only asking innocuous questions, some of which I believe many of us in this audience have had cause to ask countless times. We are probably still asking the questions right now! The truth is that the idea of the might of the writer is one that unavoidably throws us into a web of complexities and elaborate interrogations. And rightly so, because when we come to look at it, the writer is but a human being who sleeps and wakes up and sometimes wakes up badly when his sleep has been disturbed, as is often the case. He suffers the same privations and pains as everyone else, and sometimes even more, because it is often as if the society deliberately targets him for snuffing out! His tolerance level for that which is not right is zero because of his hyper sensitivity, a reason why he constantly suffers. His pursuit of immutable truth is with a zest that surpasses the zeal with which the corrupt seek after lucre and vain glory. He is often agitated, angry and bitter. He smells a conspiracy of everyone against his person and the values he holds so very dearly. He is often aloof from the things that many others in his community value and celebrate with pomp and pageantry. He flees from the aroma of stolen power and is constantly cynical, charged with the passion of seeking change to the sordid state of affairs. The target of his attacks is the emperor and his band of looters and he holds this group in irrevocable loathing. Armed only with the banner of truth, he is never afraid to tell the emperor he is naked. He damns the consequences of his actions. He is bold and courageous and is ready to sacrifice his life for what he believes and for those he holds in deep solidarity who are often the poor and lowly majority among whom he is to be found. While he seeks to always do that which is right and by so doing flagellates the wrongdoers, his patriotic zeal ensures that he “proffers the healing hand, points out alternative questions” (Osundare, “Singers of a New Dawn” 75). But even these unsettle the State and ruffle feathers at certain quarters. Unsure of himself and his clique, frightened by the overwhelming presence of the writer, and sensing his empire and his demoniacal grip on power threatened, the emperor does a waltz, swigs stolen champagne and in his inebriated condition issues orders for the writer to be brought to him “dead or alive”. The acolytes who seek the writer with armoured tanks and tomahawks in the slums in which he dwells know the meaning of those words, and so the writer if he does not go into exile fast enough, becomes a familiar “guest” of the emperor in either his prison or his mortuary! The overwhelming contrast between the image the writer wears before his capture and crucifixion (if he waits for the emperor’s goons) and that when he stands before the emperor’s royal presence, is so sharp that the emperor wonders within himself: “Have they brought me the right person? Is this frail innocent looking one the one that I have dreaded so much and whose head I seek?” But the emperor’s murderous instinct seeks fulfilment and a pleasing and it would not be assuaged by seeking the freedom of the held.
I have often believed that the kinetic energy which propels the writer in his business of writing also compels him to stand and look the emperor straight in the eye. In the arena of battle, this same energy drives him, frail though he may look. In the battle between brutish strength and solid ideas, ideas prevail. They will always do. They are the forte of the writer, the pivot of his strength, of if you will, his might; the raison d etre of his constant victory over those who seek to hold him and his people in captivity. They are the things the emperor seeks to kill, if he misses the writer, believing that once ideas are vanquished, what is left is only a requiem for the writer.
There have been quite a handful of arguments to the effect that he is not a writer who hides only in the closet of words and shies from the context of battle; that a writer is one who writes primarily and also joins in the physical battle for the rescue of the soul of the nation. These arguments see the writer’s task as embodying ‘theory’ and ‘practice’, if we could use those plain terms. He does not just prophesy; he ensures that his prophesy comes to pass by being part of the engineering process of retrieval. The arguments also see the writer as one who would only be building castles in the air if all he sees around him are roses, not thorns, and even when he sings about the thorns he does nothing to remove them or prevent them from stifling even the flowers that he sees. A writer’s ‘might’, therefore, will be fully established when he physically confronts the monstrous barn burners, looters and plunderers and claim for his society and his people that which is their right.
While I must confess that I have occasionally pondered over whether the stifling conditions in our nation do not make it blatantly suicidal for a writer, a physically unenamoured being who may not have been trained to even hold a double barrel shot gun, to take on a frenzied army of trained looters armed with the fleshpots of office and with the best resources of defence known and imaginable, I have also been challenged by the fact that writers who go into the heat of battle carry along with them not only their bodily selves but also the spirit of their vision. While the former could be killed, the latter never will. They remain better than those who carry their selves to war and leave no legacy behind – a fruitless and futile exercise!
The impermanence of things constantly reminds us that the very fact that we are born at all is a clear sign that we will die. Is it not then better for the writer to have something to die for than not to have, and when he finds it, so be it? Wilfred Owen (1893 – 1918) had something to die for – his beautiful England, painful though it was that he was shot in the head a week to the end of the war; Christopher Okigbo had something to die for – his beloved Biafra. Ken Saro-Wiwa had ample reasons why he needed to die: that Ogoniland and the Niger Delta may live, free from the stranglehold of those who value oil more than blood. Thus it would be unreasonable to imagine that a writer’s might resides only in his ability to weave colourful threads of words, to rear beautiful dreams and probably die in the bosom of those threads and dreams. He would be unsung, for his would be like a mere ripple in the pool.
Requesting the writer to go into the context of battle is another way of insisting that he must clearly define his essence as a writer. What made him begin to write? What is his role by choosing to write? How does he perceive himself? How does he view even his life? What is his purpose in this life? The moment he reconciles himself to these questions and proffers appropriate answers, he will be able to take a position and not merely sit on the fence where he will be a target from two sides – the oppressor and the oppressed.
We insist that a writer’s job goes beyond just writing; it also involves being a participant in the affairs that control the destiny of his nation – the very events that shapen even his own life. To stand aloof and be uninvolved is to wear the toga of Armah’s The Man in The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, and to self-destruct and be a destroyer. Realities of our post colonial condition suggest quite eloquently that writing has gone beyond the stage of being just self-gratifying. The realities of our world confirm that even art itself is rising beyond mere artifice – mere beauty, mere form – despite the attraction of postmodernist theorising They insist that while being a piece of beauty, art should also be utilitarian, functional and relevant, for anything short of these would make it what it is: mere artifice to be admired and then tossed aside, like a beautiful woman who has nothing to offer beyond her looks.
Extracts from an Asomwan Sonnie Adagbonyin lecture delivered at the University of Benin, Benin City, Creative Writers’ Workshop on Friday, September 14, 2007.