Nwelue: Literary rebel on a mission to colonise America
Clutching a bottle of chilled Gulder beer, Onyeka Nwelue sat with some friends sharing jokes and banter when this reporter arrived Gbogobiri Home. The original plan was to hook up with the writer somewhere in Surulere for a chat, but events of the day brought us to Ikoyi.
He was actually on the verge of jetting out to the Ohio University, where he’s currently a Research Fellow with Center for International Studies. Therefore, the setting was that of merry making, a sort of farewell hangout for the controversial, dreadlocks wearing author.
A man of many parts, Nwelue means different things to different people; it all depends on the side of the divide you are. To some, he’s a disrespectful, controversial and pompous young lad, who thinks he knows better than even Methuselah. To this group of people, who obviously are not comfortable with Nwelue’s boldness and independent mindedness, he’s too young to speak.
On the other hand are arts and culture promoters and enthusiast, who see Nwalue as an achiever, having worked hard enough to dine on the table of men. To them, he’s a nonconformist treading on an unfamiliar turf. Usually dressed in African robes with multiple rings, bracelets and beads, Nwelue is a puzzle many still find difficult to unravel.
Born January 31, 1988, Nwelue is a Nigerian cultural entrepreneur, filmmaker, professor and author, who came to limelight at the age of 21, after the release of his first novel The Abyssinian Boy. The book won him the TM Aluko Prize for Fiction and came second at the Ibrahim Tahir Prize for First Book. He was also nominated for the Future Awards that year and later won the Prince Claus Ticket Grant.
His second book, Burnt, is a narrative in verse and has been described by British-Hungarian poet George Szirtes as “breathless.” Nwelue toured 25 countries of Europe in 2014, promoting the book, which has been translated into Italian, Spanish, Igbo and Yoruba languages. Translated by Venezuelan writer Alberto Quero, it was published in Peru, where it had its official launch at the Cusco Book Fair in 2015.
An assistant professor and Visiting Fellow of African Literature and Studies at the English Language Department of the Faculty of Humanities, Manipur University in Imphal, India, Nwelue worked with musicians under La Cave Musik and travelled to different countries to meet different musicians and came up with a controversial book Hip-Hop is Only for Children, which details personal encounters with musicians and music promoters; it was released in January 2015 to critical acclaim.
Just recently, the Imo State native released a documentary detailing the life of Flora Nwapa, Africa’s first female novelist in English. The documentary, which he self-funded, was nominated in the Best Documentary category for this year’s Africa Movie Academy Award (AMAA) holding in Lagos on July 15. Meanwhile, his latest book, The Beginning of Everything Colourful, has jus been released.
“I’ve successfully finished the documentary on Flora Nwapa; I didn’t have the money, so I ended up borrowing to shoot. I’ve done it and it has been screened at many places; I didn’t expect that to happen,” he enthused.
On the choice of late Nwapa as his focus, Nwelue, who described himself as a feminist, said, “too much attention has been paid to Things Fall Apart, a book by Chinua Achebe presumed to be the father of African literature. So, the question is, who is the mother of African literature? Chinua Achebe published Things Fall Apart; he was editor at Heinemann then and Flora was probably his best friend. So, I tried to analyze why he had to choose that woman to publish first before other women. It happened that my mother lived with both of them and I wanted to find out if he did it just because they were friends or whether there was some kind of romantic relationship between them. On the other hand, I asked, ‘is it possible also that writers can be born not made,” he said.
Meanwhile, getting footages for the documentary on Flora Nwapa was a difficult task. Except for a 30-minute film on her by a Norwegian in 1987, there was no existing film for Nwelue to get cracking.
“I didn’t get footage at all; I had to work with it. Then, I started talking to her children; I went to the family house in Oguta. It took me about two years of visiting people, who knew her. It was also difficult to also get people to be interviewed,” he lamented.
In fact, the likes of J.P Clark, who was with Flora for a long time, Zainab Akali, one of the leading female writers in the country, who had working relationship with Nwapa, were not forthcoming.
“All these people didn’t grant me audience at all; Zainab even asked me to come to Minna. I got to Abuja on my way to Minna when she sent me a message that she wasn’t interested in the interview anymore. But I felt her story needed to be told because, people were stopping it from being told; her second husband also refused to talk to me,” he noted.
What could be the reason?“I think Flora is bigger than all of us; she was stronger than many men. So, I think most people don’t want her story to be told,” he said.
Could this not be an assumption?“No, I’m sure, I know that. I recently spoke to the second daughter, who told me on the phone that people don’t want mama’s story to be told. ‘Onyeka, thank you so much for doing this.’ Did you know that Flora was married to two men? But they will always say to you that she was married to them differently. Flora was a woman, who was firm in her decision; she could marry anybody she wanted to marry. She married Gogo Nzeribe first, who gave birth to Ejine Nzeribe, and then she married Nwakuche, who gave birth to Uzoma Nwakuche. I think she did not change her surname; she remained with it.”
Describing Nwapa as the pioneers of African feminism, from the perspective of an African, Nwelue said, “the name that we attach to feminism today is not really the person; that person looks up to Flora. I don’t know if her people got to her, but I tried to get to her to talk about Flora, after making Flora’s sister, Weruche, believe that Flora was her inspiration when she started writing. But she never wanted to talk about Flora in front of a camera; how do you want young people to know there was a more powerful woman than you that you looked up to,” he quizzed.
Though he didn’t mention any name, his assertion points in the direction of Chimamanda Adichie.“Yes, she’s the one; I’m not worried about that. Chimamanda refused to be interviewed on Flora because, probably she doesn’t want anyone to know how powerful and influential Flora was. Flora was the first female commissioner during Ukpabi Asika’s regime; she built the golf course in Oguta and the general hospital in Oguta. Flora was one of the first women, who married younger men; her second husband was eight years younger. Nobody wants to tell these stories, nobody wants to say that these things had been there before the advent of Internet and all these one now screaming ‘we all must be feminists’ online. The story of Flora is better told from the point of view of woman, but they are letting a man tell the story,” he said.
As much as the agitation for gender equality has gathered momentum, in reality, women appear to be their own enemy and Nwelue shares the same opinion. “When you say it, they say you are generalising. If a woman comes out for President in Nigeria today, it’s a woman that will run her down. The first critic of Flora Nwapa when she published Efuru was Nadin Godima of South Africa; she’s a woman not a man. She ran Flora down completely wit her review of Efuru, saying, ‘this is sociological book, it’s not a work of fiction.’
But Flora was different, that’s why one would be forgiven if they say you are generalising.”Indeed, Flora Nwapa was a great woman and nonconformist; she was never afraid of losing her husband to another woman. In fact, story has it that she married another wife for her husband, which Nwelue also confirmed in his documentary.
“She married Modline Nwakuche from Udi, Enugu State; she went with her children to the traditional marriage. She was the one, who took the palm wine, drank and gave to the new wife; she acted as the husband, it’s in my film. And when she started raising the children of the new wife, they didn’t know their mother; they thought it was Flora. In fact, they were calling their own mother aunty and called Flora mum,” he said.
Along the line, another woman, Iduu, who happens to be Flora’s best friend’s daughter, came into the marriage. Yet, she was never bothered.“Flora was not scared; she wasn’t a woman, who was scared of women. She was a very independent woman; she was strong. It’s a trait you find in a lot of women in Oguta. I feel bad that not even a biopic has been made on her. Her book was 50 recently, but there was little celebration of it, which I started probably with the blackmail on Facebook when I asked, ‘where are all the women?’ Nobody wants to celebrate a woman, who pioneered writing from the female point of view,” he lamented.
Though many refused to contribute to the production of Nwapa documentary, the premiere created some sort of bad blood between Nwelue and some practitioners and friends, who complained of not being invited.
“I think they were like, ‘this guy, he’s ranting; he’s a mad person. Let’s forget this guy.’ And then, when I premiered the film, few people got angry that I didn’t invite them for the premiere. I was like, ‘why would anybody get angry? The same way I asked for money to make the film publicly was the same way I invited people for the premiere. I don’t understand the Nigerian psyche because, they would have got angry and say, ‘Oh, Onyeka why didn’t you inbox me and send me your account number to send you money for the film.’ Nobody did that; they were only interested in being invited for the premiere of a finished product. So, it’s the attitude,” he frowned, as he sips his beer.
As far as the author is concerned, Nigerians are not interested in anything that has to do with the preservation of culture.“We want to leave it for the white people. Check all the documentaries done on Fela Kuti; the white people did them all. We let white people tell our story; we are cool with that,” he noted.
To him, blacks generally are people, who don’t think for themselves.“We always let white people think for us. We’ve not even asked ourselves this question, why Christianity? Why are we Christians? We start asking these questions when we have gotten our international passports and traveled; that’s when we start asking questions. We meet the Chines and Japanese; they will come to Nigeria and use sign language to do business and go. And then somebody tells you, ‘no, English is a global language that’s why we are using it.’ The French are here. They are talking to us; they are even forcing us to learn French through French Cultural Centre. Where’s the Nigerian Cultural Centre? How many people have we forced to learn Igbo or Yoruba,” he quizzed.
When Nwelue talks Africanisms, believe him; he’s practical about it. Sometime ago, he was invited to speak at Harvard University and he almost made the presentation in Igbo.
“I told my friends a day before my talk that I was going to speak in Igbo. They said, ‘Onyeka no o, they won’t understand you…’ I said, ‘but if a Japanese came here, he’s going to address these people in Japanese and these guys are going to find an interpreter.’ There’s Igbo department in Harvard, if I had succeed in speaking in Igbo, they would have gone there to get the guy. And I’m going back to Harvard and that’s my plan; I’ve been invited back to talk for a week. I’m going to do that in Igbo and they have to get an interpreter,” he disclosed.
Looking at Nwelue, one recalled his early days as a writer, when he usually visited The Guardian as a student of the University of Nigeria Nsukka, where he was studying at the time. Though the smiles are still there, the Onyeka of Abyssinian Boy is entirely different going by what he has become; a lot has changed.Since publishing his first book in 2009, Nwelue has spent most of his time speaking at different events and festivals and forums. He recently courted controversy when he picked holes in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.
“I don’t know how it happened, but I found myself in a situation where I ask a lot of questions; I ask my parents a lot of questions, but my siblings don’t do these things. So, for the fact that we were told as children that this is the great African novel (Things Fall Apart) by white people, it’s fine for us. But how many people have actually asked themselves this question, how’s this book a great African novel when it’s written in English language? There’s a book called Omenuko by Peter Nwana; it’s in an African language and it’s Igbo. English is European language; it’s not African language,” argued.
For Nwelue, Things Fall Apart being described as the great African novel was already disqualified before it was published because, it’s written in English. “Now, if you are going to call it the great African novel, you can say the great novel written by an African because, it’s not written in an African language. Why don’t we say Omenuko is a great European novel, will they be fine with that,” he quizzed.
But don’t you think they were focusing on the setting and plot?“No, they are just being assertive and imperialistic; they are controlling our mindset. There could be a poll and you would find that there are better books. The young people, who abused me on social media, have not read Things Fall Apart; I’ve read it over 40 times. The time that controversy happened, I was traveling to Zimbabwe and I bought another copy in Johannesburg; I read it and used red pen to mark all the places where Achebe made mistakes. They wrote ‘Ibo’ instead of ‘Igbo.’ And I knew these things came from the editors, who were Europeans, who couldn’t pronounce ‘Igbo’ and opted for ‘Ibo,” he said.
According to him, the time has come for Africans to shake off colonial mentality and embrace our cultures.“What I’m trying to say is that we need to ask questions; we need to discard a lot of things; India has been able to do that successfully. Here, you have Gerald Street, Bourdillon Street… change them to Nigerian names. You don’t have Nnamdi Azikiwe Road in England; these people are controlling us,” he said.
Unfortunately, Nwelue’s position seems not to be going down well with some Africans abroad, who are now fully embedded in the western tradition.“When I said this in Ohio, a Nigerian girl said to me, ‘then, why are you here? Why did you entre plane to come here.’ I said this is how stupid we are because, Columbus, Vasco da Gama and all the people that colonised Africa, traveled; they had to travel to colonise you guys. I’m here to colonise Americans,” he boasted.
Don’t take Nwelue’s resolve as an empty threat; he’s already carrying out his mission in the United States.“Before I started any class in Ohio University, I gave them kola nut to eat because, I had an experience once where I brought some Dutch guys to do a film for me in Oguta; one ate kola nut and ended up in the hospital. He said he’s allergic to it and I said, ‘you can’t be allergic to it, you have to eat it; we eat it as Africans.’ We consume all their rubbish and feel cool about it. Steve Howard, who brought Soyinka to Ohio in 1986, brought Seun Kuti and Esiaba Irobi as well, he ate the kola nut. He tried to explain it and ended up explaining it using Things Fall Apart. He said to them, ‘do you remember in Things Fall Apart where it’s written that, ‘he who brings kola nut brings life…’ Now, that was an easy way to explain our culture to them by using a book.
But then, is it a proper book that defines what we are,” he quizzed.From all indications, Nwelue has issues with the book Things Fall Apart and not with the author, whom he described as one of the best in the world.
“I didn’t say that to spite Achebe, no! I think his book Anthills Of The Savannah he wrote in 1988 when I was born, is one of the best novels written in the history of the world. I have issues with the novel not Achebe; he wrote that book at my age. With the things I know now, I don’t think I will write such poor book; I will be serious with my writings, I will be deep in my research. I need to ask questions; he didn’t ask questions, especially about the killing of twins. Everything he gave to Things Fall Apart was from what he read in school. Mary Slessor did this, Mary Slessor did that, no.”
He continued: “If I have any book that is coming out now, I’m not italicizing Igbo words. If my editor in Europe says, ‘you have to italicize it and explain it,’ I will say, ‘no, Google it. Go and learn it; go to Nigeria and ask them questions, enter the plane and go. As Africans, when somebody uses a word and we don’t know the meaning, we got to the dictionary. There are Igbo dictionaries and the rest, they should go and buy them. The truth is, both races are lazy; the white people are lazy, the black people are lazy to ask question. That’s why I like Indians; they do things their own way,” he said.
Nwelue’s journey to India at a very young age came to family members as a surprise, except for his father, who willingly bought into the idea.“I told him I was going to India to study and also write. Within one week, he was done with all my travel documents and took me to the airport. He said, ‘go’ and that was it. Everybody else in my family was worried; he wasn’t worried. I went to India at 18; my father just saw me off to the airport and started crying; me I started crying too, but I had to go,” he said.
To him, India is the best country in the world.“They are talking about American dream, I got my own dream from India. People talk about how they want to go to America and work in grocery shops; a lot of my friends are in America selling bugger. I told them I would come to America as a king not a slave,” he said.
On his career direction, he said, “I don’t have a direction in life; I’m very spontaneous. All I think that is happening now is that I’m facing nature as it comes to me. I don’t have any plan because, each time I plan, I fail.”
As for his dreadlocks, “I was born with dada. As a child, my parents would cut my hair and I was very sick and skinny. So, they sent me back to Oguta, which is basically where I stay whenever I go to the east. I now found that Eze Nwanyi (priestess of Oguta Lake) had eight children, who didn’t have dreadlocks and they all died. Now, she has 12; six with dreadlocks and six without dreadlocks, she talked about it in my documentary. She addresses the ones without dreadlocks as mortals and the ones with dreadlocks as immortals; I’m an immortal. And you can see that in the story of Samson in the bible; if you cut your hair, you lose your power,” he said.And his love for Area Fada Charley Boy is never hidden.“He’s my uncle; one of the greatest souls I know. People misunderstand him, but I understand him because I see myself in him,” he concludes.