Nigerian Literature at odds with her poor politics, says Barrett
Lindsay Barrett is one Diaspora Pan-Africanist, who boldly stuck out his head in the heady days of the 1960s to relocate from Jamaica to parts of West Africa before settling down finally in Nigeria. He was consumed in the vibrant literature and cultural life of the land he chose to make his home and significantly made his contributions as journalist, writer and radio producer. In September, he will be 75, and he has two books to celebrate it, a poetry collection, Visiting Eternity and an anthology of his review Rainbow Reviews and Other Literary Adventures to mark his 50 years in West Africa. A Memory of Rivers (2006) was longlisted for The Nigerian Prize for Literature in 2009. In this encounter with ANOTE AJELUOROU, Barrett reminisces on the journey back to his African roots and the continent’s poor political showing ever since. Excerpts:
It seems you have been here forever. When you look back at your long stretch of involvement in Nigerian literature, what really occurs to you?
I’m always saddened by the fact that Nigeria has produced the greatest body of literature of relevance and strength of any African nation yet little matching national development. Its work is as important, if not more so to the rest of Africa, than any national literature, like South African literature of resistance, Ghanaian literature of political awareness. Nigerian literature has cut across all formulas and yet we have produced a national literature that seems to be at odds with our seeming inability to get the administrative strength of our nation right.
I came to Nigeria directly because I was influenced by her literature. I came to Africa because I wanted to renew the spirit of ancestral hope. I felt that there was hope in knowing where you came from and that we could renew our links, that we could strengthen our systems.
But for anybody coming from the Diaspora, you don’t have to choose any one country. Quite frankly, if you come from Jamaica, you may be inclined more to Ghana. There is a strong sense of the Akan story in the Afro-centric areas of Jamaica. If you are from Trinidad and Tobago, Cuba or Brazil, you get inclined to Yoruba. If you come from Haiti, you will look back to Angola or Central Africa. Once you begin to know about cultures, you see similarities, you see polarities that attract you. So, if one is academically inclined, you may have a sense of this root movement. I have not been so inclined. I tried to be a Pan-Africanist. For me, I look at the contemporary, political issues and see all Africa in trans-nationality terms.
But through Nigeria’s literature I found that there seemed to be a chart. I saw Nigeria producing such rich literature. There was no constant interaction between the creative and the service sector. When I came that was a disappointment, but Nigerians continue to be the most creative people, expressing the creative elements in African life.
You have Soyinka; you have Chinua Achebe and the rest. So, Nigeria is a paradox by failing to meet the expectations of those who have the highest regard for her. It throws up incredible responses. And, that keeps happening; that is what creative people do. That is what is happening in literature today. But unfortunately, look at your media (the Radio, the television), which should be the public media throwing this expression out so that people become infused with the spirit.
With the kind of disappointment you experienced on Africa’s failures, why didn’t you pack your bags and head back home to Jamaica or Europe?
Where do I go again? I have made my life here. I have been back to Europe several times and I have lived elsewhere. I was in Liberia before the civil war came. But it’s not something you can just give up. Remember that the objective I have in coming to Africa will always be there no matter how disappointing I get.
I have several children here and in Liberia, and I live for their sake, whether they know it or not. If I lived in Jamaica or Europe, I could live off writing. But the fulfillment of struggling to put in place the renewal will not be there. I have said I may be disappointed by things that have happened in Nigeria, but I’m not totally disappointed by Nigerians because the struggle continues. The other thing is that one doesn’t just give up because your life is not your own. So, I don’t have the right to give up.
We seem to overlook not only our potentials but sometimes, willingly fail to recognise the opportunities offered us. We should work harder to own our opportunities more in the next 50 years; that should be our concern.
How familiar are you with the new writings coming out of Nigeria at the moment? And, are you satisfied?
There are lots of incredible writings going on. Nigeria is producing a national literature totally at odds with her inability to get her politics and management of her affairs correct.
However, there is so much other stuffs coming out that is not properly produced, not properly edited and so on. It means there is a lot bubbling in the pot, and how to get it out. What we need today is the coming together of the media to make this industry big.
As it was before, Nigeria literature is beginning to have world audience again. It had it before, and it’s coming like a second time around. I think government should take note of this and encourage essay competitions, literary clubs in schools. It’s clear that the world wants to hear Nigeria; and, they want to hear something better.
In most parts of the word, literature has a way of permeating into politics and governance. But in Nigeria, leaders tend not to be influenced by ideas enshrined in books. Why is this so?
Actually, I can’t agree with you more. Literature elsewhere is an integral part of the spirit of governance because it has influence on those who govern. I think that in Nigeria, an important cause of this dichotomy goes back to education. The average Nigerian is not educated enough to treat literature as a vital element of service. And, what is regarded as higher is making money to sustain the family. But the truth is that literature is the basis on which everything else is based.
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