By Sylvester Asoya
As a school boy, Odia Ofeimun was seized with a passionate enthusiasm for literature. And for many years during his early years, he struggled and endured as he crossed many rivers and streams in search of his writing dream. Eventually, he made that unusual transition from just loving writing and writers to becoming one of the gods of Nigeria’s literature. Now, at over 70, this love for creative writing continues despite the changing and challenging times.
Ofeimun also loves the Association of Nigerian Authors, ANA, the union of writers in Nigeria. But as ANA turns 40 this year, it is obvious that he is not in a celebratory mood for reasons that are not far to seek. So, as ANA celebrates this major milestone, Ofeimun, ‘the great ANA man’, will not be part of the approaching ‘big birthday party’.
For many years, Ofeimun maintained a very close relationship with ANA’s robust creativity and politics. He served as the body’s Publicity Secretary from 1982 to 1984 and General-Secretary from 1984 to 1988 before emerging president in 1993. But he is also well known for his interest and active participation in literary and cultural issues beyond Nigeria’s shores. Being designated advisor to PEN Nigeria Centre and a founding member of Pan African Writers Association confirm his cross-border love for literature and life.
In fact, writing runs deep in his blood.
For a man who fought his way through life, it is important to note that success did not come to Ofeimun on a silver platter. Today, he is globally acknowledged as an important Nigerian poet, polemicist, author, journalist and editor of two critical anthologies of Nigerian poetry. He has also written dozens of books and essays on culture, politics and a broad range of issues. His major works include: The Poet Lied, Dreams At Work, London Letter, The Feast of Return, Under African Skies, In Search of Ogun, Poems for Dance Drama, In Defence of the Films We Have Made and others.
However, among his colleagues in ANA, Ofeimun is generally perceived as unbending and very controversial. His outspokenness on issues has also been largely misunderstood by many due to his unconventional approach. He speaks his mind anytime and everywhere no matter how uncomfortable or unpopular his views are. But to those close to him, this writer is essentially an inflexible man guided by the axiom that in the real world, there is no need to pretend. So, he tells it as he sees it. His disposition has therefore kept his critics busy on matters of literature, politics, journalism and culture.
A literary journalist once described him as the only former ANA president with the power of life and death. The reporter’s critical comments were actually inspired by Ofeimun’s influence and activities in ANA at the time.
Many years ago, he was accused of singly cancelling awards already decided in favour of some writers during one of ANA’s awards ceremonies. And this was not well received by some writers, particularly those who were deprived of ‘their awards’ but Ofeimun had his reasons for weighing in as an elder. His critics insist that he is also rude and sometimes cantankerous but it appears Ofeimun has stopped worrying about what people say or think of him.
He is also not favourably disposed to speaking to journalists on ANA and its politics despite his status as a former top executive of the association. However, in a telephone chat recently with alice in Lagos, the poet insists that literature will continue to blossom in Nigeria, no matter the conditions. “With or without ANA, Nigerian literature will continue to flourish. I am sorry for young people who no longer have a stable platform to create but it is the Nigerian problem. The trouble has always been there; these days almost everything you hear about ANA is trouble and that for me is very painful. But it is the usual Nigerian fight with everyone looking for something to grab”, he says.
Moreover, Ofeimun makes no apologies for his life or views. During his birthday celebration last year, he told reporters that he had no regrets being a bachelor at 70. That is Ofeimun, a man who continues to declare and cheerfully defend his unmarried status without qualms.
It is not clear yet but who knows, a woman may one day become a part of his boundless creative life and journey on this planet earth.
Nonetheless, one thing is certain, and that is his love for literature. Certainly, his life will continue to revolve around creativity and writing. After all, literature, they say, is life. So, he is obviously living his best life.
-This article, written by Sylvester Asoya, journalist who oonce worked with TheNEWS, was first published in alice, the in-flight magazine of Air Peace.