“Camouflage”: Tales from the powerhouse of modern African writing -Chris Dunton
Camouflage: Best of Contemporary Writing from Nigeria (Treasure Books/Mace Books Associates) Edited by Nduka Otiono and Odoh Diego Okenyodo.
Nigeria is without doubt the powerhouse of modern African writing. As I have observed elsewhere, this has to do with a number of factors, all of which are grist to the creative writer’s mill: the sheer size of the place, its complexity and dynamism, and its host of unresolved problems.
The second edition of Camouflage: Best of Contemporary Writing from Nigeria begins with an extensive introduction, covering a range of issues. The editors, Nduka Otiono and Odoh Diego Okenyodo, note that “the centres of literary activities . . . have grown from [the university bases] of Ibadan and Nsukka to the nooks and crannies of the country.”
Nigeria is replete with nooks and full of crannies. The editors’ observation is in accord with Nathan Suhr-Sytsma’s fine study of the movement from the centre on the part of Nigerian and Irish poets, Poetry, Print and the Making of Postcolonial Literature. The editors emphasise, too, the importance of performance poetry, and a paradigm shift from the aspiration of everybody to publish and to do so in Europe.
On the choices the authors are able to make, the introduction is deficient in one important respect, making no reference to literature in languages other than English. The possibilities for the wider dissemination of this have recently been highlighted in the excellent Africa Pulse series of translations of southern African language texts published by Oxford University Press in South Africa.
While a large proportion of the anthology is taken up with critiques of Nigeria’s lamentable governance, an important recognition is that of newly-emerging subject-matter, including LGBTQ+ experience (though only one item in the anthology reflects this), feminism and environmental concerns. The title, Camouflage, is explained as referring “to the various guises and voices which our contemporaries deploy to speak to the Nigerian condition and to overcome censorship”. The editors go on to note that “overlacing the despair in most of the contributions is a sublime albeit dogged spirit determined to outlive present frustrations and gerontocrats in order to enhance a new dawn.”
Of the 71 contributors to the anthology, aside from Afam Akeh at 60, their ages range from 24 to 46. This does make one wonder why the editors use the word “generation” so frequently in the introduction. Nigeria’s emerging writers have often been referred to as “third generation”, but this label is unhelpful in the extreme (as Harry Garuba has inquired, “when is a generation?”)
More of an issue, only 15 of the contributors are female, which is at first glance surprising, given the prominence of contemporary Nigerian female novelists. There are, too, some surprising absentees, including Jude Dibia, Sefi Atta and Elnathan John (whose Born on a Tuesday is perhaps the African novel for our fraught times). But one has to bear in mind that none of the book’s contents were commissioned; the volume represents writers who responded to a call for contributions. As the editors have pointed out to the present reviewer, there was, too, the consideration of book length, given the volume’s (handsome) layout design.
There is no arrangement by theme or genre to the close to 200 pieces contained in the anthology; the editors note “we have allowed the works to flow as freely as possible . . . That way, the reader will have to turn the pages, unsure of what to expect next, except perhaps, surprises.”
Appropriately enough, the book opens with a poem about poetry and the role of the writer, Akeh’s The Living Poem: “This is poetry as she breathes, / popping like corn, as she sits in a Lagos stall / talking clever with the touts.” The same poet’s Three African Lives introduces subject matter that recurs throughout the book: the scourge of Nigeria, namely, its politicians and military dictators. On that score I can’t resist quoting the final poem in the cluster by Akeh, National Broadcast: “Any thought found loitering / Will be arrested, charged with treason.”
On the same core topic is a volcanic satirical poem by Pius Adesanmi, one of Nigeria’s brightest stars, who died in last year’s Ethiopian Airways plane crash. His Message from Aso Rock has the military head of state railing against the country’s Nobel prizewinner, Wole Soyinka: “We invited him to come and eat / He clung to a pen, clung to shit.”
Not all the poets are as assured as Akeh and Adesanmi, by any means. There are the usual syntactic inversions and archaisms (“doth” and “yore”) introduced to induce a sense of the poetic, and — to quote one of David Leavitt’s characters — there are “words not to read beyond”, such as “abode” (I couldn’t spot “myriad”). But we’ll pass over all that.
Much more refreshing is Fake Oyibo (Fake White Man), a meticulously observed character study by Adolphus II Amasiatu. Unlike most of the poets, Chiedu Ezeanah attempts a Soyinka-like level of complexity, compression and allusion: “Barons of letters and book-peckers neigh / The Nero theme: Blindness is contentment!” There is a substantial clutch of short erotic poems by Victoria Sylvia Kankara, lovely and quite raunchy.
Accomplished poems also by husband and wife Maik and Angela Nwosu, both better known for their fiction (Maik is one of the country’s most innovative younger novelists). Quite a few of the poems are tributes to Nigerian writers who have passed away (several of them murdered by the government and its agents) or who have sought exile.
The book contains only one dramatic text, a short play by well-known novelist Helon Habila. This is The Trials of Ken Saro-Wiwa, commissioned by PEN International and adapted from Saro-Wiwa’s prison notes, which were written shortly before his execution by Abacha’s military regime. The dramaturgy of The Trials strains at the seams, but the material is hard-wearing.
Among the short stories, Bina Nengi-Ilagha’s Crossroads is notable, structured as a dialogue between story-teller and audience.
Pita Okute’s The Cock is one of the few comic pieces in the book (darkly comic since, as with much of the fiction here, its characters are desperately poor — those for whom marginalization would be a comfort zone). An excerpt from an unpublished full-length work by Chinyere Obi-Obasi leaves one eager for the novel’s publication.
The volume ends with Ike Okonta’s The Fate of Yola Street, a scabrous satire that might seem extravagant, until one remembers Nigeria’s history of brutal slum clearance and (vide a well-known satirical song by Soyinka) the sight from a spacecraft of piles of the national rubbish).
The fact that the present reviewer has found it so difficult to decide which of the volume’s contents to highlight is a tribute to the scale of riches in this anthology.