by Paul Liam
There has been a conspicuous absence of active and mainstream criticism and engagement with the corpus of Nigerian literature, creating a huge gap in the literary firmament. Today, reference is often made to the glorious days of Nigeria’s literary criticism: the golden era of Biodun Jeyifo, Charles Nnolim and Abiola Irele’s generation when the book industry still had a viable structure and education was not a protracted dream. The atrophy of literary criticism today is due to the obvious decadence that has permeated every fabric of the Nigerian experiment.
Nevertheless, there is consistent effort to sustain the practice of criticism even amidst hostility from the literati. African Writer Magazine, The Lagos Review, The Village Square Journal, The Nigerian Review, Brittle Paper, Praxis Magazine Online, Ebedi Review, Konya Shamsrumi and Afapinen are some of the important platforms reviving the culture of literary criticism in Nigerian, nay, African literature today. Of course, literary pages in several Nigerian dailies like The Sun Review, Daily Trust, The Nation, Blue Print, etc. remain the traditional foot soldiers in the sustenance of literary criticism today. However, very little is done to engage these platforms in appropriating their various contributions to the discourse of literary criticism in contemporary Nigerian writing.
Although, not often talked about in mainstream literary discourse, scholarly publications run by Departments of English and Literary Studies in tertiary schools have remained steadfast in their commitment to the culture of literary criticism. Perhaps, the most unrecognised contributors are independent critics who belt the responsibility of understudying the literary oeuvre of individual authors. They mostly work in isolation and publish their studies on authors and their writings in book form. Ezekiel Fajenyo belongs to this group of critics and has been publishing books on Nigerian authors for several decades.
The focus of this review is his 2010 book A Critical Study of Dzukogi’s Writings (Kraft Books). The 300-page book is a critical evaluation of BM Dzukogi’s writings—the thematic preoccupation and philosophy, style and biography. The book summarises Dzukogi’s writing life in four chapters, an interview with the writer, and an index section. It is a thorough dissection of Dzukogi’s writing life and influences, from his poetry to prose, polemics, anthologies, mentorship, and literary activity. Fajenyo presents Dzukogi in an authentic oeuvre that has never before been presented to readers.
The book begins with chapter one subtitled “Introduction,” chronicling Dzukogi’s birth, childhood, family history, education and work. Chapter two, subtitled “Poetry Without Tears: Dimension and Functionality,” is a detailed analysis of Dzukogi’s poetry, exhuming the soul of Dzukogi’s poetic aesthetics and idiosyncrasy. Chapter three is “The Short Stories: Aesthetics and Growth,” an evaluation of Dzukogi’s prowess as a fiction writer with focus on his collection of short stories Potholes in My Dreams. And chapter four, “The Breadth of the Essays,” is a dissection of Dzukogi’s essays and monographs published over the course of his writing career, dating over a decade as at the time the book was published. An “Interview” is featured as an addition but not as a chapter; it provides extra testimony from the horses’ (Dzukogi’s) mouth about his life and writing. For example, talking about the specific influences that impinged on his sensibility in his early stage in life, Dzukogi recounts how him and other children stole books from students of Ahmadu Bahago Teacher’s College, Minna during holidays. He remarks, “I must confess that we were breaking into their lockers when nobody was watching to specifically pick books. You dared not pick any other thing because your parent will ask you where you got them.”
To Fajenyo, Dzukogi’s writing philosophy is summed up in the ideology of “Regenerationism,” which is a core vision of the Fourth Order movement. He explains that the focus of Dzukogi’s literary activism is peculiar about the child as a potential agent of change in society. Fajenyo quotes Dzukogi, thus, “The school child is our major element of the regeneration. I believe that adults are difficult to change. In fact, it is hard to modify their behaviour, so the growing child is the only one amenable to change. So, ours is functional regeneration, which is the natural course of growth anyway.” In analysing Dzukogi’s poem “Lyrics for our time,” Fajenyo draws attention to the hypocrisy of modernism. He argues that “modernity is a statement of human self-deceit and a celebration of backwardness because humanity is lost,” while the poet Dzukogi feels a sense of sanity and fulfilment in nature:
Quietly at the shore
sea waves lulled me to slumber
with unbathsome breeze
freezing my despair
into gestures of solitude;
I feel safe in this moment
Of gentle fondling
Fajenyo’s brilliant and detailed analysis of Dzukogi’s poetry is impeccable and unveils the intricate messages therein—he does it so well we are impressed to think he is the original author of the works he dissects. His interpretation of Dzukogi’s short stories, particularly the story “Dusty Whirlwind” bespeaks of the dystopian times that the country is in even before it happened. Fajenyo remarks: “Dusty Whirlwinds (1999) is a story of a country with a history of political uncertainty, ethnic inequity and social crises, and the citizens had resolved to destroy themselves through ethnic conflagrations.”
About essays, Fajenyo describes Dzukogi as prolific and unhypocritical, a man who speaks truth to society irrespective of occasion. In his words, “one clear point is that Dzukogi never shies away from commenting on issues and the academic and media world have taken note of his sense of freedom and submission when issues crop up. He is assertive; he philosophizes and explains his concept of the arts and of the artist in human society.”
Ezekiel Fajenyo’s professionalism as a literary critic is solid and manifest in his detailed analysis, erudition, cross-textual analysis and execution of facts in discussing various aspects of Dzukogi’s writings. A Critical Study of Dzukogi’s Writings is an important contribution to the critical corpus of new Nigerian literature, a true collector’s item for all lovers of literary criticism and the writings of Dzukogi. Another stellar example of such oeuvre is E.E. Sule’s 2017 Niyi Osundare: A Literary Biography. What, however, might be considered as the book’s major shortcoming is the overt dependence on Dzukogi’s testimonies by Fajenyo to validate his own positions. This is seen in the copious quotes and references to Dzukogi in Fajenyo’s analysis. We expect that a critic’s assertion should hold true for a work under review, and in any need for reference, external sources should be more befitting. Nevertheless, his scholarship shines through and this book adds to his other critical works on Nigerian writers including May Nwoye, Gimba, Gbadamosi, Sowande, among others.
Paul Liam is a poet, literary critic and author of two poetry books, Indefinite Cravings and Saint Sha’ade and Other Poems. He lives in Abuja.