By Dennis Kabatto
Dozens of Canadians, Africans and student members of Africa Awareness Initiative (AAI) recently descended upon the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada for a dialogue about the state of African literature organized by the Nigeria-Canada Friendship League in association with the AAI where Dr. Ngozi Achebe, author of Onaedo: The Blacksmith's Daughter and the niece of "Thing's Fall Apart's" Chinua Achebe, was the special guest speaker.
According to Dr. Achebe, the event chaired by Professor Gloria Onyeoziri- Miller professor of African literature at UBC and author of Shaken Wisdom: Irony and Meaning in Postcolonial African Fiction featured cultural performances by the dancing troop African Great Lakes –Omokaro; and poetry readings by poet Juliene Okot Bitek from her book ‘The dry Season’ including author June Hutton who also read from her new novel Underground.
In her address, Dr. Achebe talked about the devastating Nigerian-Biafran civil war which she said torn apart her native Nigeria in the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s. “I could not have written a first book without touching on that war – the Biafran war,” Achebe said. “It left an indelible mark on our collective childhoods.”
She also revealed that the Igbo-Ukwu bronzes – a 1938 discovery in the former Eastern Nigeria was influential in the creation of a blacksmith in the book Onaedo.
The AAI, a major partner in organizing the event was founded 9 years ago out of frustration and as a response to the lack of representation and intelligent dialogue of Africa on the University of British Columbia’s campus.
Its website states, "Africa was rarely ever discussed in the Academic arena, and when it was, it was presented as a homogeneous and often negative entity. This was evidenced in the general lack of knowledge about Africa, the lack of attention given to contemporary African issues and initiatives, and the lack of African subject matter in courses at the university."
The dialogue on African Literature at the University of British Columbia as part of AAI 9th anniversary ended with a declaration by Prof Miller (chair of the event) “to all who were interested, African Literature is alive and kicking and would be so for a long time to come.”
Upon her arrival back in the US, I conducted a brief interview with Dr. Achebe about her trip to Canada.
DK: Recently, you were a guest of the Nigerian Canadian Friendship League (NCFL) in conjunction with student members of the Africa Awareness Initiative at the University of British Columbia in Canada. How did you connect with these organizations?
Dr. Achebe: After my interview with Gibril Koroma of The Patriotic Vanguard he brought up the idea of visiting Canada. The NCFL was excited about the whole idea, seeing it as an opportunity for solidifying relationships between the two communities. The rest, as they say, is history.
DK: Your visit must have been quite an experience. Actually, Vancouver, Canada is less than 200 miles from your neck of the woods, was it your first trip to Canada?
Dr. Achebe: Yes indeed. I took the opportunity to do the tourist thing in Vancouver too although my time there was short. I was glad I was able to visit Stanley Park and see the totem poles of the First Nation peoples. Quite remarkable.
DK: What did you discuss with the Canadian Writers?
Dr. Achebe: There were about a dozen or so people graciously hosted by Dr Godwin Eni who laid out quite a spread the night before my talk. It was great to be in the company of fellow writers. We discussed the state of Canadian writing and publishing and the challenges writers face generally the world over. There was an ambience to the evening and we talked late into the night.
DK: Talk about your interactions with your fellow Nigerian country men and women in Vancouver and give us a bird's eye view of the Nigerian population in that part of Canada
Dr. Achebe: It was warm gathering with reminisces about home – the good and the bad. There is a thriving Nigerian community and the challenge, as most immigrants face, is to settle in and organize so as to make meaningful contributions to their new community.
DK: From your recent visit, do you have any future plans to visit other Canadian cities with bigger African population like Toronto?
Dr. Achebe: Absolutely. I will try to make the time.
DK: There are quite a few upcoming book festivals including the Miami Book Fair International from November 13 – 20, 2011 in Florida as well as the Green Valley Book Fair in Mount Crawford, Virginia. Do you plan to showcase Onaedo: The Blacksmith's Daughter in any of these festivals?
Dr. Achebe: There are plans afoot for book shows and I will attend the ones that I can.
DK: what is your next writing project?
Dr. Achebe: My next book, The Secret Keeper of Utopia is due out in the near future.
DK: And, in conclusion despite decades of disparagement, African Literature is steadily building up momentum with the influx of more younger writers including you. From your observations, what is your assessment of the future of African Literature globally?
Dr. Achebe: I believe that African literature has been strong for a very long time maybe because I fortunately grew up in the era of the Heinemann Books' African Writers Series, probably African literature's most important renaissance period. This was the time of the greats of African writing – Achebe, Okara, Nwapa, Soyinka, Ekwensi, Ngugi, Munonye to mention a few. They fashioned my world view of literature and so I can't say I knew much about this disparagement and I certainly would not have paid any attention to it. A good, well written book is just that and people will sit up and take notice, no matter where you come from – even Africa!