From: Ike Oguine To: firstname.lastname@example.org Sent: Monday, June 17, 2013 2:09 AM Subject: Re: [krazitivity] My Original Sin Against Soyinka: Adewale Maja- Pearce
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!