A Coffee-Table Approach to Koko Kalango’s Nigerian Literature: A Coat of Many Colours

A book review by Dr Obari Gomba

Nigerian Literature: A Coat of Many Colours, compiled and edited by Mrs Koko Kalango, is more than a coffee-table book. It is an important book on Nigerian authors and literature, which will stir a lot of conversations in the days ahead. And that is a good thing for literature. Literature is not a quiet enterprise: the noisier, the better. I think it is a privilege that I have been chosen to open the first conversation on the book. I know the hidden charges: the earliest walker sees spirits. The safety mask is that I have been asked to review the book in a Coffee Table manner, shorn of the turgidities of academics, light-hearted and down to earth. That gives me the license to pretend that I am holding this conversation on the platform of my coffee table. Here I go.

The book has 109 large gloss-pages, besides its 11 unnumbered preliminary pages. The preliminary pages comprise the title-page, the data (legal) page, the acknowledgement page, and the epigraph page which has a quote from Dr. Goodluck Jonathan; the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Next is Dr. Jonathan’s foreword to the book. The President’s foreword is followed by the map of Nigeria. Next is an Introduction written by Rt. Hon. Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi, the Governor of Rivers State. Let us note that Dr. Jonathan and Rt. Hon. Amaechi, show a lot of passion for literature. It is indeed a breath of fresh air to see leaders who are genuinely interested in literature. They have added value to the book. The dedication page is next; the book is dedicated to the Nigerian Child. The next page is the contents’ page which bears the names of the 50 Nigerian authors who are listed in the book. There are 35 men and 15 women. Mind you, 15 over 50 is less than 35% affirmative action for women. But we shall excuse Mrs Kalango because the book is not based on quota system. Women stand with men. And they are all listed by surnames in alphabetical order. This is a very convenient way to list the writers. You know how writers are. They always bicker about who should stand first on the queue. Here, the alphabet has saved Mrs Kalango from being accused of bias. If you are a writer and you want to be listed first, in a subsequent coffee-table book, well, change your surname to Aaaa.

Under letter A, the listed writers are Chinua Achebe, Toyin Adewale-Gabriel, Chimamanda Adichie, Kaine Agary, Funso Aiyejina, Uwem Akpan, Zaynab Alkali, TM Aluko, Elechi Amadi and Sefi Atta. There are10 writers whose surnames begin with letter A. There are no surprise inclusions here. It appears that Aiyejina is the least known of this group on Nigerian coffee-tables and streets; the book states his well-deserved place. The younger writers have become quite popular in recent times and they deserve their placement amongst such daddies like Achebe, Amadi and Aluko.

There is no entry for letter B. And JP Clark-Bekederemo stands alone under letter C. I thought he has dropped Bekederemo! There is no entry for letter D. There are 3 entries for E: Cyprian Ekwensi, Buchi Emecheta and Akachi Ezeigbo. DO Fagunwa and Adebayo Faleti are listed under F. Faleti is not popular around Nigeria but he is a significant inclusion. He has been published since 1958 and he belongs to the first generation of our movers-and-shakers. Most of his works are in Yoruba. Therefore, his inclusion is an endorsement for the merit of the literatures of our native tongues.

Abubakar Gimba stands alone under letter G. Helon Habila and JE Henshaw are the only ones under H. There are 5 writers under letter I: Chukwuemeka Ike, Abubakar Imam, Akinwumi Isola, Esiaba Irobi, Festus Iyayi. Let us single out Imam from this group. Imam represents the Hausa language tradition in our literature. He is a great writer. He has earned his place. In this book, he is to Hausa what Faleti is to Yoruba. There is a problem here. Where are the Igbo and Ijaw equivalents? Are there no writers who have done great works in Igbo and Ijaw? Well, as I have said before, this is no quota system. But…. Let us move to letter N: Flora Nwapa, Adaobi Nwaubani and Onuora Nzekwu. Letter O has the highest entry, 12 in all. Odia Ofeimun, Ezenwa Ohaeto, Tanure Ojaide, Gabriel Okara, Wale Okediran, Christopher Okigbo, Ben Okri, Kole Omotoso, Chibundu Onuzo, Tess Onwueme, Femi Osofisan and Niyi Osundare. Ola Rotimi stands alone under letter R. Ken Saro-Wiwa, Mabel Segun, Lola Shoneyin, Zulu Sofola, Bode Sowande and Wole Soyinka are under letter S. There is something I do not want to tell you about the S group. I do not want to tell you that I suspect that a father-in-law and his daughter-in-law are in that group. They are Soyinka and Shoneyin. If my suspicion is correct, it is just great.

Under T, there is Amos Tutola alone. Chika Unigwe is under U alone. Mamman Vatsa is under V alone. Let us pause for a second on Vatsa. I think this book has marked his place in his true constituency. Soldiers might have denied him a foothold but his place is ever constant in Nigerian literature. Next is letter Y: there is Ahmed Yerima there, alone. There is no entry for Z as there are none for J, K, L, M, P, Q, T, W, X. The explanation is simple. The editor has set out to present only 50 writers. And 50 they are.

Let me admit too that 50 is too exclusive a number. It leaves out some worthy candidates: Lindsay Barrett, Biyi Bandele, Wale  Ogunyemi, Unoma Azuah, Segun Afolabi, Promise Ugochukwu, Maik Nwosu, Ogaga Ifowodo, Akin Adesokan, Chimalum Nwankwo, Ifeanyi Ajaegbo, Nkem Nwankwo, Adebayo Williams, Chris Abani, etc. I can go on and on. Anyone can argue that some of these Rejects have more laurels than some of the Included. But we will not begrudge Mrs Kalango her prerogative of selection or rejection. The Rejects should wait for another coffee-table book. Mind you, I have not used the word Rejects in the sense in which Professor uses it in Wole Soyinka’s The Road. I have used it in a nice Biblical sense: the rejected stones are the chiefs of the corner. Your own coffee-table book will come. Take solace that I am one of the Rejects, and I have not raised an AK-47 to Mrs Kalango’s temple. Rather than do so, I have simply enjoyed this remarkable book. I say, Shame on you if you do not enjoy the book because you are excluded from the list of 50. Learn of me, so says the Good Lord.

There are four core angles to this colourful book. They are the biographies, the photographs, the selected works and the selected listing from each author’s corpus. The reader will enjoy the life-details of our writers. Two, the reader will enjoy the photographs: they tell deep stories, photo-logos. The photos are generally of good quality except for those of Okigbo, Fagunwa, Imam, Nwapa and Segun. Okigbo’s photo is actually the worst; he really looks dead. Well, you could leave Okigbo’s ghost alone. Go to the new generation of beautiful women who are writing today. God has been so fair to Nigerian literature. Believe me. Three, read the works/interviews which are published in the book. There is a piece from each of the listed writers. Imagine that most of us will encounter the writings of Imam, Faleti, Fagunwa, Isola, Vatsa, Aiyejina, etc for the first time. Four, find out the titles of the works which these writers have written. The listed titles are not exhaustive but you could find some revelations. Do you know that Adichie’s first book is a poetry collection called Decisions?  Do you know the titles of Aluko’s autobiographies? Do you know the titles of Amadi’s plays? What do you know about Emecheta’s books for children? This is truly a book for researchers, young and old. Yes, our highly erudite critics will also benefit from this book. For instance, each of these entries is capable of being a trigger for an essay, even a polemical one. Let me prove it with two troublesome paragraphs on Achebe and Soyinka.

The first author that is listed is Achebe. The biography section loads Achebe’s illustrious career into a neat capsule. At a glance, the reader can tell that this great author is an avatar: a living ancestor to us all. Let me tell you a few things about Achebe’s photograph. I think he is a man who has grown very handsome with age; compare his earlier pictures if you doubt me. This particular photograph, I think, is the same on the cover of the Anchor Books edition of his Collected Poems. It is a lovely picture. Every inch of his sagehood is marked in the picture. We can relate his face to his impressive canon, some of which are listed, from Things Fall Apart to Anthills of the Savannah. There is something about the title of his first poetry collection. Is it Beware, Soul Brother, and Other Poems as Mrs Kalango wants us to believe? Or is it Beware, Soul Brother? For many years, I have thought that it is the American edition that goes by Christmas in Biafra and Other Poems. But never mind. Just look at the featured essay by Achebe: “What Nigeria Is To Me.” For this essay alone, Mrs Kalango’s book is worth its price. Believe me, I have read the essay before and it inspired me to write a poem entitled “Chinua Achebe’s Country”. It is the first poem in my newest collection, Length of Eyes. Who knows what the essay will inspire you to do.

Soyinka is number 46 in this book. Blame the alphabet. Or simply enjoy the excitement on Soyinka’s face in the photograph. The photo credit goes to TY Bello as expected. It is a great picture. You will see that Soyinka is what the old folks called Guy Man. My generation calls it swag. Soyinka really has swag. You cannot relate his relaxed mien to the WS of Fire who chased Gen. Abacha into an inglorious grave. You cannot relate the wise-looking old man to the story of the mystery gun-man. That is the story that excites me most about this great man. I had longed to re-enact that feat at the Radio Rivers in the days of the soldiers. A great feat! It is not mentioned in the biography, for want of space, of course. But the Pirates (?) Confraternity is mentioned. What is the official spelling? Pyrates or Pirates?  Never mind. Go to the list of Soyinka’s works. Most of Soyinka’s recent works are not listed. It is a lost for the reader. Titles like Climate of Fear, The Unappeasable Price of Appeasement, Harmattan Haze on an African Spring, etc are not listed, for want of space, of course. Mrs Kalango appears to have compensated the reader with the featured essay, the Nobel Prize speech, I think: “The Past Must Address its Present.” Soyinka delivers the right punches on the Whiteman’s nose. But it is more than that. There is this epiphany on Africa which I find in the essay. It is one of the merits of Mrs Kalango’s effort. Now, let the word MERIT take us back to the big picture.

There are lots of merits in this book. One angle is the generational scope. Every generation of Nigerian writers is covered. But I am particularly excited by the attention which is given to our younger generation of writers. It represents quality support for my generation. It shows that literature has received a new burst of energy from the writers of my generation. The facts do not lie: Adichie, Atta, Adewale-Gabriel, Agary, Shoneyin, etc. It is not too early to sing the success of my generation. The likes of Soyinka became celebrities in their twenties and thirties; most of them achieved that on the strength of their first titles. It is good that Mrs Kalango has not yielded to the wrong reasoning of those who prefer to leave my generation in the box until we are grey. Literature is not gerontocracy. There should be more inclusive books on our writers.

Mrs Kalango’s effort is great. You will see her vision for our culture in the Publisher’s Note. You will see more in the note on the Rainbow Book Club. You will see a snippet of her profile on page 103. There is a good heart lodged in this woman. There are great visions in her heart. The visions are unfolding, already. This book is a new page on our literature. Our conversation on Nigerian Literature has turned a new page. There should be more books of this kind, I say again.

I recommend this book to everyone who is interested in Nigerian Literature. I recommend this book to everyone who is a lover of books. I recommend this book to you. Thank you for listening to me. Thank you.

OBARI GOMBA – poet, playwright and literary scholar – teaches Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Port Harcourt. His poetry collections are Pearls of the Mangrove, George Bush and Other Observations, Canticle of a Broken Glass and Length of Eyes.

Leave Comment