25 March 2009

Nigeria: Celebrating I.N.C. Aniebo At 70


No doubt, I.N.C. Aniebo (Ifeanyichukwu Ndubuisi Chikezie Aniebo), the writer of immense endowments, brilliant scholar, fine teacher and literary critic, is most deserving of the profuse attention that has been lavished on him by the mainstream, national media since March 31, 2009, when he turned 70. Since 1979, when he returned from the United States, Aniebo has taught Creative Writing and Literature at the English Department of the University of Port Harcourt, and his numerous former students, who had taken his courses in African Fiction, Creative Writing, African Poetry, Research Methodology, etc., still retain pleasant memories of him and his very unique, exciting approach to knowledge dissemination. His novels, The Anonymity of Sacrifice, AWS 148(1974); The Journey Within, AWS 208(1978), published with the prestigious African Writers Series (AWS) of Heinemann of London while he was at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), USA, wasted no time in confirming him as a writer of exceptional talent and insight. When I first interviewed I.N.C. Aniebo in his office in 1995, he told me his second novel, The Journey Within, was popular with critics. Hear him: "The Anonymity of Sacrifice was published abroad and I was in the USA at the time ... Then, four years later, I published my The Journey Within [and] the critics loved it. When I came back here in 1979 and started teaching, I saw some reviews of that my book in French, which I had one of my colleagues translate into English. I couldn't believe that this was being said about the novel I wrote. They praised it so much. One critic did say something. He said that if this novel had been published in the early sixties, it would have been as famous as Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart. "Well, the novel may not be as popular as Achebe's first novel, but it has, without doubt, made its mark on the African literary landscape. One feature that always distinguishes Aniebo's work is his way with words. In my view, only few of his colleagues share his special skill for describing characters and situations with such amazing vividness, precision and detail that force them to come powerfully alive before the reader. No one can, for instance, read the description of Joe's compound in Aniebo's short story, "The Quiet Man," and not be awed by the overpowering imagery he was able to conjure in that powerful tale. His prose flows with soothing, pleasant and disarming ease, and clearly gives him away as someone who finds writing most delightful. The dominant themes in his work are the tensions and conflicts that dominate relationships, either between superiors and subordinates, or men and women. We see in his works how the determination of one party to selfishly exploit or oppress the other throws up complex web of tragedies, sometimes with far-reaching consequences on the main character and even the community. Although, Aniebo tries very carefully not to moralize, his sympathies, most of the time, appear to reside with the supposedly weak and underdog, so much so, that he often punctures the delusion of grandeur and undue conceit of the superior, by allowing his fierce contempt for the feelings and views of his subordinate constitute his undoing. We watch helplessly, with bated breath, as the hitherto powerless, less-endowed underdog drags the main character down the path of infamy and tragedy, in a web of haunting ironies and overwhelming complexities. At the end of the day, there is a lingering debate about who the real hero is. For instance, in his first novel, The Anonymity of Sacrifice, who can possibly be termed the hero of the novel? The junior officer, Stephen Agumuo, or Captain Benji Onwurua, his superior officer? That's the dilemma, which in itself further enriches the aesthetic value of the book.

In his introduction to Jazz And Palm Wine, a collection of short stories by major Franco-Phone writers, distinguished German critic/scholar, Professor Willfried Feuser, described Aniebo as "the master craftsman of the Nigerian short story." Aniebo has published three collections of short stories, all palpably advertising great talent and skill. Interestingly, he first caught the attention of the literary world with a very timely critical intervention. Not long after Chinua Achebe's third novel, Arrow Of God, appeared in London in the early 1960s, Aniebo's voice rang out from Lagos, in the journal, Nigeria Magazine, with a review titled: "Achebe: Now A Sociologist or Novelist?" That question was to seriously awaken considerable interest in Achebe's new novel and opened fresh vistas in the criticism of the works of Achebe who by then had been acknowledged as the best writer to come out of Africa. But Aniebo the Critic seemed to have, in the course of time, allowed Aniebo the Novelist to dominate virtually every discussion or writing about the man and his art, so much so, that readers have to, often, be reminded that Aniebo is also a perceptive critic. His novels and short stories are mostly woven around the Biafra-Nigeria War which occurred after Aniebo had become an officer in the Nigerian Army.

At 70, therefore, this writer of immense talent has done enough to leave lasting memories about himself as a writer, critic, scholar and wonderful teacher in the minds of many, and surely merits the very colourful literary celebrations being enacted in his honour, which will commence tomorrow at the University of Port Harcourt. The two-day literary conference, which will be declared open by the Rivers State Governor, Mr. Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi, will be marked by a public presentation of two books, Crtical Perpectives on INC Aniebo and The Aniebo (Creative Writing) Workshop: Selections From Students' Writing 1988-2008, and other very interesting activities.

As writers, scholars, critics, readers, literary journalists, former students, etc., gather tomorrow to celebrate Aniebo and offer him deserving tributes, garlands and bouquets, the best memory about him that would dominate my thoughts is that of an excellent teacher who had taught me very well during my undergraduate days at the University of Port Harcourt.

It is impossible to sit in Aniebo's class and not retain lasting memories of the pleasant experience he turns his lectures into. Whether he is teaching poetry, fiction, research methodology or creative writing, his classes are always very lively, grip and sustain virtually everyone's attention till they are over. Students, in those days, looked forward to his next lecture with pleasant expectations; and the lectures appeared to end too quickly, because they were really very interesting. After studying each work, Aniebo would provoke a debate on its themes and characters, and this would excite tremendous interest in the work and compel every student to activate his or her brain for beneficial participation in the debates. He does not believe in spoon-feeding students. He would so expertly drop hints and leads about the issue at hand, and let the class take over from there. But, intermittently, he would intervene with profound insights, to throw more light, and ensure the discussion remained on course. His Creative Writing classes were the most enjoyable, and I always looked forward to them. Even some students who were not offering the course were known to have sometimes joined the class to be part of it. In Aniebo's Creative Writing classes, one not only learnt "the rules of the game," one's critical faculties were equally sharpened as one listened to him appreciate the poems or analyze the prose or playlet with disarming insight.

When I went to another University for Postgraduate study and listened to the fellow who taught me Creative Writing demonstrate with insufferable hubris his little or no acquaintance with even the most basic aspects of the course, I looked back and expressed silent gratitude to my beloved teacher at UNIPORT. And as the life and work of that my teacher is celebrated tomorrow (Thursday March 26) and the next (Friday) at the University of Port Harcourt, my prayer is that God will keep him strong and healthy, and draw him closer and closer to His heart.

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