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Ike Oguine

From: Ike Oguine
Sent: Monday, June 17, 2013 2:09 AM
Subject: Re: [krazitivity] My Original Sin Against Soyinka: Adewale Maja-

I read A Peculiar Tragedy as the controversy about it was bubbling, and I
was keen to see in the book itself evidence of this hatchet job that Maja-
Pearce was engaged in. Perhaps I’m thick, but I didn’t find even the merest
hint of malice of any colour (at least not towards JP Clark). The suggestion
that Achebe or Soyinka was used as any kind of pawn to perform a hatchet
job is staggering. I thought and still think it is a very important book in
assessing both the life and work of JP Clark.

One of Maja-Pearce’s conclusions, lost in all the controversy, is that JP was
actually in his early poetry the better poet than Soyinka, perhaps the best of
his generation. This assessment is based not just on the much-loved, much-
anthologized “Night Rain,” but also on a number of other early poems which
Maja-Pearce studies closely. Another conclusion, which is hardly original
and cannot by any stretch of the imagination be considered a hatchet job, is
that JP’s later work did not fulfil the promise of that brilliant early poetry. No
scholar I know of has reached a different conclusion. Maja-Pearce,
however, praises JP’s industry and originality that went into the Ozzidi plays,
the sheer amount of work that JP undertook in his renderings of the epic. He
also praises some of JP’s essays. So this hatchet job does not seem to
have been undertaken as far as the work is concerned.

On the controversies regarding what JP did or did not do or say regarding
Soyinka’s imprisonment, Maja-Pearce communicates with Soyinka in order
to ensure that before he reaches any conclusions he’s heard from both
sides. As he points out in his email to Soyinka, this is a rather important
aspect of how JP is regarded at least in the “literary community”. I remember
reading The Man Died in secondary school, just a few years after I had
fallen in love with the one poet whose poetry I could enjoy (and
understand), and the deep sense of betrayal about what he’d supposedly
said about another writer who was fighting for his life in detention. It was a
heinous charge and no story of JP would be complete without touching on it.
So to suggest that Maja-Pearce should leave the matter alone is advice no
self-respecting biographer would have taken. The irony is that here Maja-
Pearce, far from trying to do a hatchet job on JP, was checking out his
account of events, was giving him the fair treatment which every biographer
owes his subject.

Another big controversy in A Peculiar Tragedy concerns a letter Maja-
Pearce found while going through JP’s papers, suggesting JP was doing
business deals which required good connections with the military
government of the time. Maja-Pearce says that JP tried to suppress the
letter and threatened to sue him if he made it public. Here I have only Maja-
Pearce’s version of events, not having seen any statement by JP on the
issue. If Maja-Pearce is right that the subject of his biography was trying to
prevent him from mentioning aspects of that subject’s life that, in the subject’
s opinion, were unflattering, then Maja-Pearce clearly had a duty to reject
that pressure and go ahead and publish, which is what he says he did. Maja-
Pearce correctly notes in the book that a Nigerian citizen, including a
university teacher doing business with the military to earn some extra
money, is not by any means a criminal offence. It is JP’s alleged efforts to
prevent publication of the letter that made the circumstances suspicious.
If the suggestion is that because he had drunk JP’s beer, Maja-Pearce was
duty-bound to conceal the letter he stumbled upon then that is very
surprising. If that is not being suggested, then what exactly is Maja-Pearce’s
“offence” in all this? Where is evidence of this hatchet job he’s supposed to
have perpetrated? It is perfectly understandable that Soyinka and JP
looking back over decades of achievement and concerned about their
legacy might view the old battles as quite puny in the scheme of things. But
that is not to deny the right of a biographer writing about either JP or
Soyinka to rake over those coals as much as he considers necessary.

Maja-Pearce’s comparisons to Abacha and Stalin are, as Lola points out
quite laughable, but the serious point here is that we cannot grant our
writers immunity from examination (including tough and unpleasant
examination) because of their great achievements or their unquestioned
place in our literature. I disagree with several of Maja-Pearce’s judgments
on literary merit or lack thereof in A Peculiar Tragedy. I thought that some of
his comments on Soyinka’s work seemed intended to distort rather than
evaluate the works he referred to. You cannot deal fairly with The Road
without conceding the ambition behind its complexity, the “layers of
meaning” it seeks to engage. It is fair to question whether that complexity
was successfully engaged, but to judge it on how good the pidgin in the play
is or that sort of thing is simply to be ridiculous.

There are also throwaway comments on Achebe that seemed to have no
other purpose than to be provocative for the sake of being so. One more
irony for me is that the only writer Maja-Pearce seemed interested in fairly
assessing was JP. And that’s another reason why this talk of a hatchet job,
supposedly on JP, rankles. If there are problems with A Peculiar Tragedy, let’
s say what they are. If indeed it shows evidence of a hatchet job which I
missed, by all means let’s know what those are. But there is something
troubling when we dismiss in those terms a work that contains readings of
several important texts of Nigerian literature and snippets about some of its
most important pioneers.

Yet another irony in all this, for me, is that this is similar to one of Maja-
Pearce’s “crimes” in A Peculiar Tragedy, that he’s dismissive of important
texts of our literature without bothering to relate his “judgments” to the texts
themselves. You may say, he’s getting a dose of his own medicine!

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