By Chibueze Ukwuoma

The James Currey Literary Festival opened on September 1, 2022, at the Wadham College, University of Oxford. A celebration of the life and legacy of Professor James Currey, co-founder of the African Writers Series and the godfather of modern African literature, the event was honoured with a bust donated by Professor Onyeka Nwelue, Director of the James Currey Society.

Following yesterday’s event, Chibueze Ukwuoma of Ngiga Review interviewed the literary and cultural critic, Ikhide Roland Ikheloa, who is the recipient of the James Currey Lifetime Achievement Award for Literary Criticism. The following is their conversation.

Pa Ikhide

Chibueze: Hello, Pa Ikhide, thank you, for making out time for my questions.

Ikhide: Sure! I am happy to respond to them.

Chibueze: How would you describe today’s event? And what are the highlights of the Day one of the James Currey Literary Festival?

Ikhide: Today’s event was quite exciting. We talked about the future of African literature. It was quite a feisty conversation. I am trying to get people to understand the awesome power of the internet and social media and why people should pay attention to what those structures and technology are doing to what we call literature. I tried to get folks to understand that people may not be reading books. In Africa they are reading the equivalent of several chapters on the internet. We talked about prizes and the unintended consequences of luring young writers with generous prizes, the fear that they may be writing to the test of the prizes. A couple of us agitated for the sharing of the $100k prize among the shortlisted, instead of giving the one prize to a writer. We discussed about the NLNG prize. There were a couple of us that suggested wrongly that the prize should be split among the shortlisted, and that the NLNG should be open to different options for supporting all the resources devoted to the prize (about $1 million annually). Ultimately, we had a feisty, stimulating conversation.

Chibueze: Do you have any title yet, for The James Currey Lecture, which you will be delivering tomorrow?

Ikhide: I am still writing the speech, lol. But the working title is not what Professor Nwelue advertised.

Chibueze: Could you reveal a few details regarding the theme of the lecture, how relevant is it to African writers?

Ikhide: What is my central thesis today? I will be talking about three things:

1. The greatest tragedy of modern literature is that those who are invested in the past, those who are welded to the book, hold strong sway over the trajectory of the world’s stories. These powerful keepers of the gate of stories insist on reading to a bored, disengaged world, one-dimensional pap, milled from a flat world. Imagine where the world would be today if mathematicians had insisted on feeding us faded truths from the slide rule. Computers would be relegated to third class status to be patronized by the mummified wealthy. And we would not be here today. The world of literature is changing. Think about it, Bob Dylan got the Nobel Prize in literature!

2. On balance, the West has been supportive of African literature, but the Internet and social media house authentic African narrative, unlike the sanitized gruel from many traditional Western publishing houses. We must revive African narrative organically. Long live social media!

3. Academia has been remarkably allergic to opportunities provided by advances in technology. Nowhere has this been more evident in literary discourse where narrative is left to languish in the arid flat plains of the book medium in the face of evidence that 3-D media can do a better job to engage young folks, and cheaper. For Africa where the book has been priced out of the reach of millions, there’s an opportunity here wasting. Meanwhile we continue to publish those lovely papers that few read or can afford to read in Africa. We have a crisis.  Nigeria is a vast crime scene, our saviors are the new oppressors, and the land reeks of the blood of martyrs fleeing genocide and the rage of those allergic to dissent. Hence, I will conclude with this: Dear white publisher, when our writers preach justice to you, ask them to show you the talking points they wrote for despots.

Chibueze: That is something to think about. Hopefully, we will have more conversations like this in the future.

Chibueze Ukwuoma

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