What does the mirror show? A review of “The Writer in the Mirror: Conversations With Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo” — Adaobi Muo

Publishers: University Press Plc, Ibadan & Purple Shelves Limited, Lekki, Lagos. Date: 2021.

The Writer in Mirror: Conversations with Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo, edited by Evelyn Urama, is a collection of interviews with Akachi Ezeigbo, by researchers, critics, theorists, and journalists. The four hundred and ninety page-book is organized in six sections and holds forty-two conversations across two decades and eight years (1992 to 2020). Most are already published in local and international academic journals, newspapers and magazines. The book puts to temporary rest Adimora-Ezeigbo’s audible and untiring artistic voice as she faces the mirror and speaks outside the mask of arts. Consequently, the family, cultural, gender, language, educational and political dynamics and orientations, which, together, shape and sharpen the writer’s robust literary oeuvre and prodigious scholarship, are carefully excavated and collectively archived in one accessible space. According to Urama, the book aims to present Ezeigbo’s interviews in a “single reachable volume” for the growing number of researchers interested in her arts (xxiv).  

The book opens with “Foreword” (1 and 11), by Stephanie Newell and Patrick Oloko. Both, respectively, justify the necessity of the book citing Adimora-Ezeigbo’s unsurpassed prolificacy and popularity within the contemporary Nigerian literary landscape. Newell, additionally, emphasizes Ezeigbo’s robust scholarship, gender/social activism, theorisation and oral artistry and observes that, for her audience, the book probably provides a “first time” comprehensive view of the profound link between the several portfolios of the writer (ix). For Oloko, Ezeigbo’s irrefutable contribution towards balancing the gender landscape of Nigerian writing makes her the best candidate for the necessary mirror gaze. He locates the utilitarian value of the text in its capacity to “enrich the reading experience” by revealing remote and concealed forces and intents beneath Ezeigbo’s writings (xii). He notes the profound impact of the book on the increasing Adimora-Ezeigbo scholarship. Oloko’s perception of the role of interviews in closing writer/reader schism adds significant force to his argument and remains one of the most invaluable statements on the necessity of the book and Ezeigbo’s creativity.     

Akachi Ezeigbo’s mirror gaze commences with “Profile: Personal, Literary, Professional and Psychobiographies,” constituted by four conversations. The first two interviews show silhouettes of strong and successful female relatives and good schools that, initially, planted and nurtured healthy seeds of gender activism and writing in the writer. Also illustrated is the dependence of Ezeigbo’s creativity on her immediate environment, as exemplified by the close connection between her parents’ real love story and fictionalised Eaglewoman and Ossai’s in House of Symbols. For readers who, like Oliver Twist, seek some more by asking for her autobiography, Ezeigbo unveils Ezechi Onyerionwu’s biographical Literature and Life: Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo as the book to read.  She locates her near-total satisfaction with the book in its attempt at situating her creativity within the broader historical context of African literature. Other interesting disclosures include Adimora-Ezeigbo’s on-coming Igbo novel and on-line poems. Ezeigbo’s compelling compassion, she identifies as a parental bequest, is best demonstrated in her one-night free shelter to a stranded stranger in her UNILAG home. In the account is perceived the audaciousness and empathy that undergird her personality, creativity and activism.     

Enhancing the first images in the mirror, the two subsequent interviews display Ezeigbo’s voracious reading appetite and her intimate and unbroken communion with a host of prominent literary deities and ancestors from different regions of the world who shaped her literary “sensitivity and sensibilities” (23). In these are perceived the other strong arm beneath the writer’s prodigious accomplishments. Adimora-Ezeigbo’s self-revelation here is mostly prompted by Olatunbosun Taofeek’s scholarly curiosity based on the writer’s novels, including The Last of the Strong Ones and Roses and Bullet. By reason of length, it is the most ambitious, spreading across thirty pages (22-51). Very few responses in the entire book echo the profundity and preferences of Ezeigbo’s equally phenomenal critical enterprise as much as her submission on Achebe’s Arrow of God. She considers the novel a classic, “Achebe’s best … most powerful book,” in terms of content, form and relevance, while the protagonist, Ezeulu, is unveiled as her “favourite character” (29 and 28). This provides a formidable foundation for a holistic reflection of Ezeigbo’s eminently successful writing career, scholarship and activism. 

Armed with fourteen interviews, the second section, “Career Development: Accomplished Academic, Administrator and Award Winning Writer,” is the most populated region of the mirror. It brightens the writer’s mirror image through colourful scenes of her long and demanding, but rewarding, journey to the zenith of her enviable writing, and academic careers, from the late 1960s to the present. The first six conversations made several significant revelations. These include her key success factors of effective time-management, hard work and discipline and sense of fulfillment, rotating around her perception of success as impact. Next, is an identification of space, time and money as prerequisites for a successful writing career, in a manner that reflects Woolf’s seminal “A Room of One’s Own.” Again, is Ezeigbo’s disclosure of her challenges as a female HOD in English Department of UNILAG and in which the administrator in the writer shows up in the mirror. Another is Ezeigbo’s perception of the necessity of talent and criticality of skill in creativity, which exposes Ezeigbo the critic and reechoes Horace’s view in “Epistle to the Pisones.” Similarly, her revelation of the teaching and entertaining motives of her stories reveals her artistic impetus and reflects Sydney’s in “Án Apology for Poetry.” Furthermore, by recommending “spiritual discernment” (95) in discerning one’s divine mission on earth and view that a man must find ways of “helping in the house” (100), Ezeigbo discloses the intense spirituality and gender complementarity which moderate and pervade her creativity and feminist speculations. Moreover, the reader beholds an impressive synergetic communion between Adimora-Ezeigbo the conscious African female poet, critic and gender activist, in her discourse on poetry, based on her poetry collection Heart Songs. The discussion classifies poetry as an “exciting aspect of literature” (119), identifies qualities of a good poem, and calls for active participation of women in the poetic universe.  

The four subsequent interviews portray, in the mirror, the writer’s immense contribution to the development of literature and multiple awards. Included are her central involvement in NLNG’s Nigerian Prize for Literature (NPL), as the 2007 co-winner and 2011 chairman of the panel of judges and leadership seats in professional writing associations like PEN and WRITA. Remarkably, the adjunct journalist who wishes to leave a legacy of a “large reading public” (149), also bares her mind on literary prizes, self-publishing and causes and remedies of poor reading culture in Nigeria. Moreover, reflected in Ezeigbo’s conviction that sex episodes must be depicted with a “measure of responsibility” (132), is a writer with a deep sense of decency and restraint. Interestingly, the writer ingeniously escapes the bait of naming a favourite from her numerous literary outputs. However, House of Symbols, seems like the chosen one based on her submission that it is a “formidable book” and the “most challenging” to write (169 and 199). It must be noted that Unegbu’s interview accommodates some of the lengthiest questions of the book. For a reader, and prospective writer, who wishes to know Ezeigbo’s life style, dressing preferences, attitude to negative criticisms of her books, these are the slides to gaze upon, perhaps more than once. Interestingly, Ezeigbo’s laudable accomplishments are best pronounced as she stands decked in the highly coveted garb of the prestigious Nigerian Academy of Letters (NAL), crowned with red cap of Ugonwanyi Edemede Ndigbo and with ‘best lecturer’ trophy in her hands. Again, by winning the 2022 Fonlon-Nichols Award for excellence in Creative Writing, the writer adds another eagle feather to her abundantly decorated cap.

The writer’s self-exposure, in Enconium and Olofinlua’s respective interviews, stands on her novels.  Ezeigbo’s narrative of the intervention of House of Symbols’ enigmatic Ezenwanyi and poltergeist research exhibit the mystical dimensions of the writer’s creativity and scholarship. The former, in a way, validates Plato’s pronouncement on the involvement of the supernatural in literary expression. Other noteworthy exposures are the high value the writer places on books and the legendary Queen Amina, meaning of her name, Akachi and view that “literature is life” (118). A curious reader cannot but wonder why Olofinlua ignores the writer’s tacit invitation into a student’s essay that elicited the recounted professorial laughter.   

Sandwiched between Enconium and Olofinlua’s separate interviews, reviewed above, is a model intellectual fellowship moderated by Umez. The animated and revealing reflection seems deliberately positioned to reduce the stiffness injected into the text by both interviews which read like cross-examination sessions, in content and style. The mirror here portrays the poet and, to a lesser degree, the critic, by using three of Adimora-Ezeigbo’s four poetry collections. It echoes her prolificacy, choice of form, heavy influence of orality, accessibility and poetic appeal, in a manner that explains her poems’ unapologetic employment of indigenous imagery and symbolisms, as well as their characteristic accessibility. Her rejection of esotericism and authentication of accessibility in poetry reflects William Wordsworth’s supposition in “Preface to Lyrical Ballads. By recruiting Afam Ake’s 2012 “The Living Poem: Manifesto for the Public Poem” (181-182), her view also invokes Niyi Osundare’s 1983 “Poetry Is.” Creativity connects with critical enterprise in one of the most colourful and stimulating displays of the writer’s enviable and prodigious knowledge of prominent poets, seminal poems and poetic forms, as demonstrated in copious quotes and adoption of forms like the Japanese Haiku. More than many other interviews of the book, Ezeigbo’s image as a veteran academic is here facilitated by her view of poetic appeal, paucity of poetry criticism in Nigerian Universities, incisive definitions of the poet as an “image maker” (176) and African literature. The beauty of both definitions is rooted in their respective aptness and comprehensiveness that renders them priceless to teachers and students of Literary Studies. Remarkably, this conversation holds, unarguably, the most dramatic and entertaining performance of the book. In it the reader gets the finest mirror image of Adimora-Ezeigbo the oral performer, through her indigenous ikpem language-enabled rejection of Formalism as a discursive approach, in “Formalist criticism gbakwaa oku!” (181). 

Section three, in six interviews, externalises Ezeigbo’s thoughts on her creativity and gender issues, including patriarchy, feminism, her indigenous model – Snail-Sense Feminist Theory, and women empowerment. The mirror here shows enabling frameworks of Adimora-Ezeigbo’s fecundity and creativity. Thus, her, image as “one of the most significant voices” in Nigerian literature (Obafemi 218) and a writer “ahead of the game” (Akubuiro 193) are shown as standing on paternal encouragement, influential female relatives, good education, prolific imagination, addiction to writing, and historical events. Moreover, the pictures of a literary critic and gender activist are further broadened by Ezeigbo’s concept of poetry as “primarily song” (202) and oft-expressed deep-seated belief in women’s empowerment through the “best education” (214). Deepening the gender politics, Ezeigbo, yet again, unveils her culturally-conscious Snail-Sense Feminist theory. She describes it as “a brand of feminism … that believes in complimentarity” between both sexes (238) and situates it within the larger Afro-centric body of Feminism. In telling that her belief in equal rights regulates her characterization of women, she reveals a major influence on her art. The writer’s professed love for amala and any rich soup and endorsement of good Nigerian films, epitomized by NEK films, display two vital angles ignored by others. Any reader conversant with the Nigerian literary topography will naturally expect the interviewer, Olu Obafemi, a renowned playwright and activist, to drag Ezeigbo’s plays to the center of discourse even without pushing his preferred Feminist debate to the margins. 

In the fourth interview of section three, the mirror takes a short detour into women in leadership. It broadcasts Ezeigbo’s list of essential requisites for any potential female leader and it includes integrity, honesty and mentoring capacity. One of the longest and most stimulating conversations of the book is Sule Egya’s “somewhat confrontational” interrogation (246). It deepens Ezeigbo’s creativity discourse, in more ways than one. For anyone who wishes to access a significantly different, albeit informed, interpretation of the writer’s characterisations, narrative technique and conflict in the The Last of Strong Ones and House of Symbols, this interview is a must-read. 

Section four mirrors Akachi-Ezeigbo the international scholar, using her researches, collaborations and fellowships, in three interviews. While the comparatively short first conversation is solely based on Ezeigbo’s one-year research fellowship in South Africa, the second touches a number of issues and unveils anthologies of short stories and poetry birthed by Women Writers of Nigeria (WRITA). Azodo’s questions open the writer’s mind on the related troika of culture, literature and language. The writer, again, appears with her trademark crusade for preservation of African languages by bemoaning their subsidiary position as the “greatest tragedy” of colonialism in Africa (290). It must be observed that the insightful questions and responses of this section further lengthens the reflection of Ezeigbo as an award-winning writer and conscious African scholar and deepens the link between the two.

Literature And Society constitutes the primary concern of section five, from the perspectives of cultural tradition, politics, war and contemporary and national issues in Nigeria. The first two interviews of the section, individually, reflect the writer’s identification of Nigeria as her “primary market” (302), satisfaction at being a known voice at home, support for university autonomy and sharp censure of increasing number of out-of-school children. The second is one of the most emotional as the writer’s face in the mirror shows her agony, irritation and anxiety at the unrestrained and progressive decadence in Nigeria. Remarkably, her trenchant criticism hardly spares her own constituency, the academia, and adds to the social critic account of Ezeigbo. The four successive conversations add significant force to the already established creativity and scholarship as they prominentise her fictional depiction of the Nigerian Civil War in Roses and Bullets and academic engagement with the same war. Based on her comprehensive research on the war, the writer considers her work as, arguably, the “most intensive critical writing” on that event (335) and interrogates some published factual accounts, she considers inaccurate.  Remarkably, the earlier discussed sex in fiction reappears in Osagie’s interview where Ezeigbo unveils her husband as one of her critics in recounting his subtle disagreement with a sexual episode in Heart Songs. The conversation with Kola-Dare revolves around youth empowerment and entrepreneurship as well as the role of a writer in a bedeviled Nigeria, all mostly, anchored on Magic Breast Bag; one of the most appealing titles in Ezeigbo’s oeuvre.  Behind Ezeigbo’s aversion for Sowore’s revolutionary approach to political change in Nigeria and RUGA, the mirror shows her personal unsettling encounters with war and a herd of cattle. 

Section Six, “Celebrated Literary Icons: Visionary and Revolutionary African Writers and Raising up Future Writers,” with eight interviews, displays the last episodes of the writer’s act before the mirror. The first two conversations of the section mirrors Ezeigbo’s salute to Chinua Achebe for his almost unrivalled national, regional and global significance and influence, through his writings and African Writers Series. The writer confesses that her first published novel, The Last of the Strong Ones, draws its inspiration from Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. This revalidates the respective postulations of theorists like Longinus, T.S. Eliot and Harold Bloom, in the essays “On the Sublime” “Tradition and Individual Talent” and “Anxiety of Influence,” on the relationship between past and present writers. The third edition of the Port Harcourt Garden City Literary Festival provides the platform for one of the most apt and distinguishing images of Ezeigbo in the mirror; her “natural and simple disposition,” (Adebisi 352). Again, Ezeigbo the social activist manifests in the writer’s memorable view of education as the “most important gift” a child or youth can receive from parents and state (354). The reflector shifts from activism to scholarship, with Ezeigbo’s view of literature as a major agency through which Nigeria contributes to global culture and development. The conversation also includes the essence and goal of an inaugural lecture and connection between the writer’s ‘live-and-let-live’ attitude to criticisms of her works and Reader Response Theory. This tends to fill the vacuum created by her earlier renunciation of Formalist criticism.

Furthermore, the reader, guided by Olu Obafemi, takes a “luminous expansive insight” into nooks of Adimora-Ezeigbo’s “creativity, scholarship and essence” (373). Here, the interviewer’s observation of her immense contribution to the development of children’s literary tradition in Nigeria as well as a “large dose of traditionalist aesthetics” in her works (369), enhances her creative persona. In Ezeigbo’s position that any African writer who sacrifices the indigenous to achieve universalism commits “artistic suicide” (369), is perceived a profound African consciousness which deeply marks her creativity and scholarship. Urama’s segment reflects a successful and seasoned academic saddened by the progressive deterioration of Nigerian educational system and who identifies mentoring and literature as effective means of reversing the worrisome trend. Ezeigbo’s several post-retirement activities in AE-FUNAI are also displayed alongside her call for the mainstreaming of Children’s Literature and introduction of Biographical Studies in the syllables of tertiary institutions. The writer’s tips for excellence in a highly competitive space, includes her definition of a “wise and intelligent” scholar as that academic who reads extensively, networks, collaborates with colleagues and is humble and has a mentor (384). Then, using the award-winning short story “The President’s Change Agent,” the writer reveals the source of her materials and therapeutic effect of writing a story. 

In the penultimate interview, Ezeigbo reveals the facilitating impact of COVID 19 lockdown on her writing and notes the indebtedness of literary themes to events like the pandemic. Back to her post-retirement activities, the writer enumerates a number of self-imposed tasks, including creative writing competitions and workshops, towards grooming prospective writers in selected Nigerian universities. Ezeigbo’s multi-part self-representation ends on a political and activist note by indicting Nigerian leaders of mismanaging the country and proposing restructuring for inclusiveness and equity. Going into a prophetic mode and reviving the hitherto rested creative voice, she warns that unless the leaders “mend the broken national fence … the deadly serpent of destruction” will bury its poisonous fangs “into the nation’s weakened body” (409). The interview ends with her vision for Nigeria as a country where citizens are proud of their country. The writer’s patriotism, shining through the mirror, is indeed a good place to draw the curtain.

The Writer in the Mirror: Conversations with Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo offers the reader several memorable images of Ezeigbo’s development across the ages. Within the context of the writer’s mirror gaze, Chieme’s chants in The Last of the Strong Ones, are put to rest while the teaching lips of House of Symbols’ Ezenwanyi are zipped as the writer takes the steering wheels from Obioma, one of the Children of the Eagle. Again, the Trafficked returnee Nneoma returns to school while traumatised Ginika of Roses and Bullets, goes to sleep. The writer emerges from behind her characters and stands before the readers to tell her stories, in her own voice. The one who rewrites others gets herself written into texts and without the disguising garbs and make-overs of fiction. Thus, in forty-two conversations, the mirror shows the writer behind the stories. 

—Adaobi Muo (Ph.D.), National Institute for Nigerian Languages (NINLAN), Aba.


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