The world of letters is divided by temperaments, ideologies, perceived paranoia, and just plain bad blood.
Two Nobel laureates once took their gloves off in the evening of their years for literary boxing. Derek Walcott’s The Mongoose, referencing that eponymous Caribbean creature, was once read out loud at a literary festival. In the witty and scathing poem, Walcott caricatures Sir VS Naipaul, his fellow Caribbean writer and Nobel laureate, and lands a good knockout blow.
Now that these two great writers are of blessed memory, what is left, besides their towering legacy in letters, is the tender and brutal way they cat-fought each other’s ideology and practice. I admire both men, even if I am not particularly persuaded by Naipaul’s affectations.
American white male writers also indulged in literary feuds. Gore Vidal versus Truman Capote is quintessential. Never mind that Vidal first dissed Capote’s New Journalism, a style he later appropriated and even won a Pulitzer for.
There were also intimate literary feuds in that firmament. Ever so often, I return to the scathing letter Saul Bellow wrote to his friend Jack Ludwig, having an affair with Sondra, Bellow’s second wife.
Ayei Kwei Armah and Chinua Achebe?
They too had their squabble. Armah told Achebe that rather than take his book’s title from Yeats, he would look outside his window and glean one from bus graffiti.
Soyinka and his elders sparred over Negritude and years later, Panashe Chigumadzi would reference this intellectual spat in her own excessive take-down of Soyinka, Nigerian writers and our ‘small mountain’ Olumo Rock.
There was radio silence from her Nigerian contemporaries. Strike that. There were a handful of tweets, but Akin Adesokan rose to the occasion. His avuncular riposte felt like feedback on an ambitious student’s term paper, and that kind of put paid to the matter.
Now to the matter of Ms Adichie versus two lesser known writers. Twitter was recently feverish with excitement over Ms Adichie’s three-part essay on her encounters with two alumni of her famed annual workshop.
While the Orange Prize longlisted writer Akwaeke Emezi has taken their L, in a series of frantic and poorly articulated notes on social media, I understand that Timehin Adegbeye has also issued a more muted statement.
L, for the unwoke, is the ‘l’ in loss, loss in a feud. L is short for accepting or owning a reprimand. The most hilarious deployment of this slang is rapper Blaqbonez’s infamous verse on the Mantell cipher, where he humbly bragged about assigning Ls and offers his peers the option of where to locate their L within their names.
Do you want it in front of your name like LL Cool J or in the middle, like Samuel L. Jackson?
Timehin Adegbeye used to edit my weekly essays at Olisa.TV and I can recall an incident. I had posted my copy that week for editing. In this instance, it was a review of Iyanya’s Applaudise album, and I had gotten vague feedback from her that it needed more work.
Some feedback, I thought. So I responded: advise me on what more work I need to do. What I got was a summary dismissal to which I did not know how to respond. This triggered an email exchange that I, unlike Ms Adichie, will not publish here, because it was a private conversation—and Ms Adichie crossed a line by sharing those intimate messages.
But I suppose all is fair in love and war, especially when you examine the circumstances of Ms Adichie’s response. She had lost loved ones and these writers had taken to Twitter to gloat about how she may be suffering the repercussions of her alleged attack on the transgender community.
They also crossed a line.
The Nigerian literary community, like the real world, is a market place, full of intrigue, tall tales and gossip.
It all seems chummy when we gather at readings, share drinks and laughter, but the smiles hardly go deeper than the lips.
As small as that space is, there are cliques who push each other’s works by recommendation and social media promotion, but there is hardly any critical peer appraisal.
We don’t read each other. Maybe we hardly read at all. But we are revellers who won’t turn down a party.
When we are not partying at book readings or festivals, we are plotting against each other.
When Rotimi Babatunde was shortlisted for the Caine Prize in 2012, there was rousing applause until Mr Maiwada launched a plagiarism accusation against his excellent story “Bombay’s Republic”.
Quickly, the community became divided, embarrassingly along ethnic lines, with a sizable number of writers of Northern extraction egging Maiwada on.
Maiwada, a poet of mild abilities, boasted on Facebook that he would produce an essay to support his knee-jerk plagiarism accusation. The crock of shit he later wrote held neither critical thought nor audience. To his chagrin, Mr Babatunde won the Caine Prize.
In the most staggering farcical display, those on Maiwada’s side quickly began their moonwalk to the other side, extending congratulations to Mr Babatunde, who suffered greatly from the rash of the positive media of being shortlisted for a major prize and the negative media caused by the contagion of Maiwada’s foolishness.
I have not forgiven Mr Maiwada, obviously.
But this kind of malice is an epidemic. How does one explain that some members of the Ogun State chapter of the Association of Nigerian Authors visited the Ake Festival sharing leaflets maligning Lola Shoneyin, the organiser of that influential festival?
Anyone who knows anything about literary entrepreneurship will acknowledge that the business is all sacrifice and no profit. But there are prominent Nigerian writers who have written to international sponsors, seeking that funding for the aforementioned festival be cut because they weren’t invited to the inaugural edition.
It is this kind of anti-intellectual bickering and small-mindedness that has replaced genuine criticism and camaraderie.
I have also been at the receiving end of backlash from writers in the recent past. While I am open to dialogue and criticism, I think this should be conducted in the most civil manner. But social media has access to our most spontaneous thoughts. If a thought is left to linger, perspective may undress its foolishness. But once it goes on social media, it is effectively published. And it stays that way. As we all know, the internet never forgets.
Neither does Ms Adichie, whose reflection on her victimisation by these writers whom she “mentored and championed” is a necessary read for anyone who trades in language and empathy.
I wonder if, for a minute, these relentless abusers imagined that Ms Adichie is human after all or that their uncharitable tweets would find their way into her inbox.
But I suppose they weighed the possible outcomes before making a choice and owning their “truth”. The easiest way to be noticed in this literary scene is to espouse an agenda, align with a trendy ideology, tweet vigorously about it and watch your social capital rise.
I agree with Ms Adichie: it is obscene!
Human relationships have been transformed in this age of social media.
There is less care for bonding and more concern for cyber-wokeness. Literary rockstardom has become a hustle. These days you only need a social media account and a consistent projection of your existence.
But social media is only a figment of reality. There is still a place for tactile friendships, and I will always take this over and above the din of the timeline.
I would rather have a front room bustling with bodies than a social media account smarting with notifications.
But that is just me. To each his own.
Ms Adichie is the leading light of the third generation of Nigerian writers, bar Ben Okri.
I am not excited about critiquing the problematic ageist dimension of categorizing Nigerian writers into generations.
So here is a counter-argument within that reductive framework: she is the leading light of the fourth generation of writers, to which, by the merit of a couple of poems, I also belong.
Sometime in 2009, when I was still a medical student but already a publisher of Saraba Magazine, I left Ife to attend one of those famous literary Farafina evenings. Ms Adichie was the star of the show, understandably.
I went to that event as a young writer myself, still conflicted about studying Medicine and Surgery. I was clear about my love for language, but I did not know if abandoning medical school was worthwhile.
Ms Adichie was on a panel with facilitators of her annual workshop. Binyavanga Wainaina was there. American writer Nathan Englander was also there. The Q&A session was a time for people to offer their adoration to Adichie, who looked stunning with a ready smile and booming laughter. I watched this panel become facile because there was hardly any serious engagement with the texts that had been read by the panel.
I had questions for all the panelists. For Nathan Englander, it was about his story published in the New Yorker that year. His face lit up. He felt recognised that minute, and I felt that too. For Binyavanga, it was a question about Kwani? the literary magazine he founded. And for Ms Adichie, I asked her what she intended to write about next.
Ms Adichie’s response was a washdown. She conjectured that I did not read, and she summarily concluded that I was one of those blurb readers who gleaned all their reading from the back of book covers. There was a conceited smile lurking in the corners of her mouth. I felt small in that audience, as I felt the power of her voice reprimand me for asking her what directions her future books were going.
But I clamoured for the microphone again. Mr James Eze, the compere at that event, ignored me, until Binyavanga spoke into his mic that the “young man” had a response.
Once empowered with the microphone, I reeled out all her stories in the new book The Thing Around Your Neck, which I had read and reread as a student of the craft. I stated that I had a theory she was about to write an immigrant novel. To this, she smiled, and responded that I have to keep reading her to find out.
Later that evening, Mr Eze walked up to me and said I was a disgrace to my generation. 12 years later, I still think this was an awful thing to say to a young person. And I still find myself wondering why Mr Eze will direct a statement that vicious at me.
A few years later, Ms Adichie published Americanah.
The limelight is something Ms Adichie luxuriates in—and this too has consequences. Like the absence of a fourth novel. Like befriending woke rabble rousers who smile in her face but stab her multiple times in the back.
- This article was amended on 11 August 2021. The Farafina Literary evening held in 2009, not 2010. This has been corrected.
This is a great read! Highly infectious and cerebral! A crux-stick for the younger generation to up their their defiance against the continous reading of their futures in the work of older writers! And the younger writers too do legitimize this imperialism of their creativity by waiting for them to write blurbs for their works, attend their book launchs or put in a word of two for them in the public. What nonsense! You are writers and not beggers! You are as good as they are! Our writing associations in Nigeria is a mess too! It is completely gerontocratic and non-progressive. We need more courageous writers like this! I’ll rather sit all day reading articles like this over and over again over a cup of coffee, than read those nauseating hagiography that some young people write! If you want the literature of your generation to flourish, then you have to own it! Stop living in the image of older writers! Thank you for this great article, Dami Ajayi! *flees to my hideout*
Always going into your hideout… Someday, we will take out this hideouts
You did the same thing you accused Adichie of. You brought private conversation to the public. I enjoyed the piece though
Bravo! Very refreshing and timely essay. We need to tell ourselves these truths.
This is a very fascinating essay. Definitely worth a reread.
I think yyou are just the same, and I am particularlyy careful about people like yyou. People who are exactlyy who theyy claim not to be.
This might be beautifull and bold Dami if only you have a neutral lane between Chimamanda and her friends. You wanted to explain that they shouldn’t have brought their private disagreements or bitter feud to the ears of the general public, but ended up becoming worse as a mediator or so to say free mind analyst. It turns out you too have a side in it. You talk about Adichie, Maiwada, Jazes and Association of Nigerian Authors etc with hot discontent and not as a neutral analyst you ought to be.
I was about to say this too… 🙄🙄🙄
A good read Dammy.
You put a lots of things in perspective. Though, this essay seems more like you grieving your experiences as a budding and known writer. It is actually beautiful.
“Social media has access to our most spontaneous thoughts. If a thought is left to linger, perspective may undress its foolishness.”
The quoted part above, diagnosed a whole lot of social media problems, and also subtly prescribed a cure!
Aside from this essay being well placed, it obviously resonates from a place of acrimony, and that has left the piece dinted in some kind of way.
Are these quarrels necessary?
Yes, because they help upcoming writers to define themselves against their predecessors. Think Baldwin-Wright, for example.
No, because all they do is create bad blood and undermine the integrity of the fraternity that all writers belong to. “Social” media, with its viciousness and its posturing, only worsens the damage such antipathy can generate.
Write a lot. Think a lot. Comment less.
Honestly, I was waiting for this. Well done Dami. But I think at the end of the day, we are all humans and forgiveness is the model I want to see in my generation. Forgiveness and more forgiveness.
Well done, again.
It is what power does, and the Nigerian literary industry is, like all industries anywhere, literary or not, a power arena. In this particular instantiation of the ceaseless tussle in that arena, we were witnesses to another unsuccessful palace coup, in which the parties directly involved seem to have come away with their reputations burnished rather than tarnished, augmented rather than depreciating, a win-win rather than a zero-sum game, with kudos pouring in on the performers from their respective fanbases. (In these matters, a fanbase is more important than a readership. A readership has the potentiality of that dangerous but corrective stance—critical distance; a fanbase can be depended upon to throw themselves into the grave of the champion whom they champion, even as the supposed enemy stands away, genuinely grieving.)
No doubt, there were some more socially significant issues at the heart of this case of a palace coup, issues of what we may call ‘gender trouble’, for want of a better term. But the exploration of these issues as a shared, a collective, challenge was soon abandoned, or rather reduced to the exciting personal troubles between our contenders, and the process of this reduction is all so admirable, to the extent that a generational Iron Curtain was magisterially unfurled down the aisle, a brilliant curtain, beautiful, well designed, made from fabric of the highest quality, rich in texture and tone. Well, that vaudeville curtain does not seem to represent any such thing as an absolute dissolution of all relationship between the present parties. We shall hear much more from this un/happy family in the nearest future. Blood is thicker than water. Don’t intrude.
It is what power does, and the Nigerian literary industry is, like all industries anywhere, literary or not, a power arena. In this particular instantiation of the ceaseless tussle in that arena, we were witnesses to another unsuccessful palace coup, from which the parties directly involved seem to have come away with their reputations burnished rather than tarnished, augmented rather than depreciating, a win-win rather than a zero-sum game, with kudos pouring in on the performers from their respective fanbases. (In these matters, a fanbase is more important than a readership. A readership has the potentiality of that dangerous but corrective stance—critical distance; a fanbase can be depended upon to throw themselves into the grave of the champion whom they champion, even as the supposed enemy stands away, genuinely grieving.)
No doubt, there were some more socially significant issues at the heart of this case of a palace coup, issues of what we may call ‘gender trouble’, for want of a better term. But the exploration of these issues as a shared, a collective, challenge was soon abandoned, or rather reduced to the exciting personal troubles between our contenders, and the process of this reduction is all so admirable, to the extent that a generational Iron Curtain was magisterially unfurled down the aisle, a brilliant curtain, beautiful, well designed, made from fabric of the highest quality, rich in texture and tone. But that vaudeville curtain does not seem to represent any such thing as an absolute dissolution of all relationship between the present parties. We shall hear much more from this un/happy family in the nearest future. Blood is thicker than water. Don’t intrude.
Great Essay. Bold. Courageous. But you were everywhere at the same time.
“…like the absence of a fourth novel..”
Lol, are you throwing out a challenge or you’re just missing her already? What’s in the number of books published anyway. Akwaeke also bragged about the number of books they have published in a short number of years, but some complain it’s all the same.
Even as I write this I struggle to remember Dami Ajayi’s face but it eludes me. I have no memory of him. I have never met him before or spoken unkind words to him.
Mr Ajayi situated the false encounter we purportedly had in 2010. In 2010, I had absolutely nothing to do with Chimamanda Adichie or her workshop. The Fidelity International Creative Writing Workshop which was the precursor to Farafina Creative Writing Workshop began in 2007 when I was Head of External Communications at Fidelity Bank in Lagos and ended in 2008 after only two editions. By 2009, Adichie had moved on with Nigerian Breweries after an unpleasant parting with the bank. In 2010, I revived the workshop initiative and invited Helon Habila to anchor it. So, when Adichie was holding her workshop in Lagos Helon Habila was anchoring the Fidelity workshop in Abuja with me as coordinator. The workshop had Canadian Maddie Thien and Zimbabwean Tsitsi Dangarembga as co-teachers. There was a silent rivalry between the Fidelity workshop hosted by Habila and the Nigerian Breweries workshop hosted by Adichie. Under no circumstances could I have left my duty post in Abuja to attend Adichie’s workshop in Lagos. I’m therefore shocked that Dami Ajayi could conjure such falsehood to smear someone who has never met him.
I am human and I make mistakes. But this evil that Dami Ajayi seeks desperately to hang on my neck belongs to someone else. I never attended the Adichie workshops in Lagos after 2008.
Again, there is also the issue of language. I can show anger in so many ways when I’m offended but even in the grip of anger, I still strive to use words differently. I’d never say to someone, “you’re a disgrace to your generation.” It sounds like the kind of idiom you would hear from someone who would quickly tell you “thunder fire you!” I think I am cleverer with words than that. So, that language does not belong to me. I’m just stunned that Mr Ajayi could so brazenly attribute wickedness to me without any provocation or clear motive.
I am beginning to think that Mr Ajayi is in one of those flights of the imagination that writers revel in and must have got a few things a little fuzzy in his memory. I think that probably because of my early association with Adichie he had erroneously assumed that the man who heckled him had to be me. Whatever his state of mind was when he penned his acidic verses, I am innocent of his accusation.
Here are links to some stories on the Fidelity International Creative Writing Workshop which I coordinated in Abuja at the same period when Ajayi said I was raining insult on him at Adichie’s workshop in Lagos. If Nigeria were a decent society, Ajayi would not wait for me to demand an apology before he tenders one to me. I leave him to his conscience. You be the judge!👇👇👇
It doesn’t bode well that this diatribe is the first so called editorial of Mr. Ajayi’s new venture. He might want to refresh his familiarity with what editorials are. James Eze has defended himself but Mr. Ajayi does not have the backbone to issue a proper response or ammendment. Only a footnote that doesn’t prove his claims about Mr. Eze. Mr Eze says he had nothing to do with Ms. Adiche’s workshop since 2008. However, Mr. Ajayi claims this incident, which is probably a fabrication, took place in 2009. It calls to question the veracity of anything Mr. Ajayi claims happened between him and Ms. Adichie.
This is an acrimonious screed by a young man who has an inflated sense of himself: citing being a publisher of a moribund magazine as some sort of credential (such endeavours are a dime a dozen), baselessly classifying himself as Ms. Adiche’s peer (hilarious). Nothing to see here but a little man who was not fawned over as he thought was his right. And of course the habitual need to worship at the altar of Ms. Shoneyin without whose patronagr, he would not have much relevance in the literary space. And of course, the whining about being unable to edit as directed by Ms. Adegbeye, that Mr. Ajayi does not realise that this reflect badly on him and whoever edited this? Uproarious.
Finally and crucially, Ms. Adegbeye has published a response in The Republic. Mr Ajayi might want to respond to that as opposed to reducing legitimate concerns she has about her community to his displeasure about how she edited him. Link below.
There are real concerns about the safety of queer people at stake here, that is the real issue at the heart of the skirmish between Ms. Adichie and the writers Mr. Ajayi dismisses as ‘lesser known’. This juvenile tendency to make wider issues about himself was evident in his verbose and overly emotive, ‘essay’ about Mr. Wainana’s passing.
This platform would have been better served if Mr. Ajayi rose above his personal grievances to actually engage with the legitimate concerns about LGBTQ safety in Nigeria. Maybe Ms. Adegbeye’s essay might trigger a real engagement with the issues. I hope to see a response that on this platform, as well as an apology to Mr. Eze. (One holds out hope that Mr. Ajayi has the capacity to grow and will hone a real vision for this platform instead of using it as an outlet for his ego, his badly edited pieces and equally shoddy work of his close friends as was the case with the moribund magazine & his venture with Mr. Kan.)
Put your outrage to good use: You think Adichie’s uninformed and ill-considered opinions make sexual/gender minorities feel insecure?
Write that essay.
Saraba in 10 years published more than 20 issues of the magazine as well as chapbooks. Over 100 writers have been published in its pages and affectionately add Saraba to their bios. ‘Our’ work is online and available for download.
Lack of criticism in Nigeria cultural space? I started The Lagos Review. Shoddy work by your estimation but nevertheless commitment to more than the verbalising of outrage.
Dearth of Non-American inflected poetry and glut of MFA-affected Nonfiction? I started Yaba Left Review. And you should consider submitting some of your more considered commentary to us for publication, we will publish it if it is good enough.
Regarding Mr Eze’s unnecessary press release, I have updated my original essay with a picture of him holding a microphone with a Farafina Literary Evening banner as backdrop. It is difficult to argue with a photograph.
My essay was fundamentally about literary feuds and the nature of power. I do not consider Ms Adichie’s opinions about sex or gender particularly important or endangering as say Nigeria’s legislation against same sex affection. I consider her a good novelist.
That said, I hope, like you, that Timehin’s essay finds genuine readership.
And I wish you a better use of your angst in the near future.
Be assured of my kind regards,
Good checks on porosity of language-audacity. I consider it an insolent boldness which at times smartly encroaches our landscape of thoughts.
Dami has boldly confronted the enigmatic position of unguided literary deism.
Some people do possess power to nail others whom by choice have same power to repell.
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