Wednesday, June 26, 2019 12:39 pm
Professor Molara Ogundipe, one of the members of the older generation of Nigerian writers, academics and feminists, died on Tuesday 18 June, in Ijebu-Igbo, Ogun State, Nigeria at the age of 78. Below is her last interview with TheNEWS TheNEWS, entitled:
How To Be A Great Writer
The late Prof. Omolara Ogundipe, a scholar, writer, poet and gender advocate was the first Nigerian to earn a first class honours degree in English from the University of London. Widely travelled, she was a professor of English and Comparative Literature and Head of the General Studies Department at Wisconsin International University College in Accra, Ghana. She later moved to Ogun State University, now Olabisi Onabanjo University. She was in Nigeria recently where she delivered the Keynote address at a conference on gender. In this interview with NEHRU ODEH she speaks about her activism, literature, gender issues and publishing.
Why is it that we have not heard of you for a while?
I used to be nationally known when I was writing for The Guardian. The reason you have not heard of me is because I was living in the United States. Not only in the US, in South Africa, Britain and so on. It’s just my way of doing my women’s work on a global level–to teach courses on women, set up women studies department, gender studies departments, gender courses and so on. This is because we need to put the issue of gender on the curriculum. And I think it is something we need to do in Nigeria.
Have women made any headway in their struggle for emancipation?
Yes, I think we’ve made a headway because I have been in the struggle, say, from the 1960s. And at that time, it seemed like a very dark world in which women were consigned to second class spaces, abused and expected to be quiet. There were very few women, even in the university. But if you look at education, particularly post-independence, there has been a vast difference in the status of women. A lot of fathers are sending their daughters to school and supporting them because they want them to have their own ways of supporting themselves in case their marriages fail. You have more visibility of gender issues even at the governmental level; people talking about gender, thinking about gender, legislating about gender even in the military era; and also dealing with issues like the VVF in the North. I hear Nigeria also has been positive about Female Genital Mutilation and has a law against it. Women have worked for widowhood rights and have managed to establish legal protection for themselves. And there are also many women in government than you had in the 60s and 70s. You have women in visible positions such as the media and, of course, in government, more than before. So I think it is not an equal world yet in which women can say they are perfectly happy, but they are protected within institutions like marriage or inheritance. In the 60s and 70s, and until recently, the woman could not do anything without her husband or her brother signing on her behalf, which means that she had no identity. She could not get a passport on her own behalf. Her husband had to sign for her to get a visa to leave the country. But I think there have been significant changes.
In your keynote address you mentioned Mariama Ba’s novel, So Long A Letter. Do you think African female writers still write in her mould?
Female African writers are writing a lot. If you look at it generationally and in detail, there was a time only a few women were writing. And in Nigeria, you had Flora Nwakpa responding to Chinua Achebe when she wrote Efuru because she said the position of Igbo women was not foregrounded as necessary, as it really is, in Things Fall Apart. Then by the 80s we had this efflorescence of women writers. And if you want to look at the book, there are critics who have written about women writings. Da Melda, who was also at the University of Ibadan, had written a book about a lot of Francophone writers. And then, a lot of Anglophone writers such as Buchi Emecheta and Tess Onwueme came out to the point that it has now produced a whole world of scholarship in which women are doing master’s degrees and Ph.Ds on African women writers. And the point I was making is that when you see polygamy from the point of view of a woman, it is different from the happy family portrayed by male speakers.
In some parts of Nigeria, polygamy is romanticised and some women do encourage their husbands to marry other wives because they want their children to have half-brothers and half-sisters.
This is not to say that all polygamous situations were unhappy. There were polygamous situations that were well organised due to the natural justice that people had. It could be happy. And there are women within it who want it because they think they get help from other women. There are women who do not want to continue their duties, and they will even find wives for their husbands. There are women who say they don’t want to be lonely and want the company of other women and want to raise their children together. About the women who say they want their children to have half-brothers, why a half-brother? What is the advantage of a half-brother?
How do you assess contemporary Nigerian writing?
I think contemporary Nigerian writing has blossomed, particularly through the activities of the Association of Nigerian Authors, which was founded by the great Achebe. And with his vision and great generosity, he decided very early, from the 1970s, that he was going to help others to write. In that way, Chimamanda Adichie is his spiritual daughter. Achebe also had this magazine, Okike, at Nsukka, that was helping to bring forth new writers. And I think, through those processes, we have been able to have a lot of writers in that generation–Chinua Achebe, Soyinka, Okigbo, Cyprian Ekwensi and so on. And we have in the second generation writers like Femi Osofisan. Then there is the generation even younger than that, people in their thirties and some of them winning awards. So people are really writing.I also notice that many of the writers are now products of American writing programmes and they have second degrees in Fine Arts and so on, which help them to learn the discipline of writing–the way to arrange your days and how to produce your materials–which is also helping to produce some of the outstanding writers like Helon Habila and Chimamanda Adichie. And over the years, our beloved Ayi Kwei Armah; I really love his work. He now lives in Senegal. And he has set up a writers resort, where he brings people to teach others how to write. So far, he’s produced an outstanding woman writer, Ayesha Hassan, who has written a novel called Harmattan Rain. I think this is very great way for Ayi Kwei Armah to spend his time and his money. He has an article in his latest book, the Eloquence of the Scribes, in which he talks about the responses in African literature and our links to ancient Egyptian literature. In that same book, he has a chapter called ‘The Colonial Publisher as a Pirate’, which is a tremendous condemnation or exposure of Heineman for how they have treated and exploited African writers.
You just spoke about creative writing programs. Is it important for writers to be trained?
It is important for writers to be trained because writing is a craft. There is this myth that it comes by divine inspiration, that you are born a writer and if you get the divine inspiration, you sit down and you dash off this novel. But great writers like W.H Auden have said writing is 90 per cent perspiration, one per cent inspiration. Ninety-nine per cent is waking up in the morning, getting to your desk, knowing how to organise your day, knowing how not to waste the time, knowing how to read to support your own development, knowing how to spend your time to improve yourself and knowing how to deal with the material after writting it. And you have to do many drafts to be a great writer. You just don’t publish your first two drafts. These are the things you learn from writing schools. Whereas as a writer on your own, you do it through your own discipline.
Nigerian writers complain about the dearth of publishing outlets and the fact that the few ones available are not interested in literary works. What is the problem?
The problem of publishing is again very political and racial. It’s an aspect of media that is controlled by forces more powerful than us. We do not have our own printing presses. Sometimes, we cannot determine what they publish. You can write a beautiful novel and foreign publishers can tell you that is not in their interest. They could tell you to write a novel set in Afghanistan or about something that interests them a lot. So, who determines the subject? Who determines what is marketable? And, of course, there is the problem of distribution. With the money situation, the book that is published over there may not come home for you to read. There are African writers writing abroad, but their books cannot get home. That happened to my book, too. My book on recreating women is so expensive that you cannot sell it here. Some of the local publishers do very good work, but the issue always is distribution. After the book is published, the problem then comes: how do you distribute it? That costs money; it means contact, it means the support of other bookshops here and abroad. And the bookshops may not accept it because they don’t have an audience to read it, their students will not buy it. I think this is something we need to pay attention to. Ayi Kwei Armah said we probably need to form cooperatives, so that we publish books here and find ways to distribute them and ensure the destiny and the lives of gifted writers do not depend on what is happening outside Nigeria, which is the audience. And there is also the issue of colonial mentality where we still think that being acknowledged abroad, being foreign-based, is the mark of success. We could be great writers just writing for Nigerians. There are great Indian writers and Danish writers and Swedish writers. They are not concerned with what happens abroad because they are writing for their audiences and are even writing in languages that are not English.
There is this belief that foreign literary institutions give awards to Nigerian writers who write about subjects that suit their literary tastes.
And that is why people don’t read them here. People say Africans don’t read. It’s not true. Africans do read; they read the magazines for instance, they read newspapers, they read a lot of religious tracts. Motivational books are selling like hot cakes, including the writings of pastors and so on because they speak to the need of the people. But when we write novels that deal with issues that are interesting to foreign publishers, that’s why we don’t sell. That’s why the movies are popular, too. Look at Africa Magic. No matter how amateurish the movies are, they are dealing with issues that speak to the people.
Do you have anything against foreign awards?
I don’t have anything against them. I just feel that we should not live to win awards. We should just live to write for our audiences. If we write novels with themes that are consumed by our people, if it is chosen by the foreign world as a successful product, then it can get an award. But to think that a writer is not great because he is not writing for a particular audience is a sickness, I think. And when a writer decides he wants to write in Kikuyu, like Ngugi Wa Thiong O, people almost ate him up. They attacked him all over the place. And he said in one of the conferences, where I heard him, that if it is just writing for Kikuyus or for Kenyas, that’s enough for him. So one has to make a choice. Do you want to win a foreign award? Do you want to be known in Britain, and America and Alaska or you want to write for your audience? Most artists create for their society, for good or ill. Do you want to create for your society or you want to make yourself a famous person? That’s a serious dilemma, a serious choice that the writer has to make–to define your audience.
Read up her profile here: https://www.pmnewsnigeria.com/2019/06/20/molara-ogundipe-frontline-nigerian-feminist-dies/
• This interview was published in July 2010 in TheNEWS hard copy.