Fame and Poverty - the Career of Nigerian Novelist Cyprian Ekwensi Exemplifies the Plight of the African Writer

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Charles R. Larson is professor of literature at American University in Washington, D.C., and the fiction and book editor of Worldview. Larson's books include The Emergence of African Fiction (1972); he edited the anthology Under African Skies: Modern Stories (1997) and coedited Worlds of Fiction (1993) with Roberta Rubenstein. This article is adapted from a chapter in his forthcoming book, The Ordeal of the African Writer (Zed Books, 2001).

Although Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe has become the best-known African writer and Things Fall Apart (1958) the most widely read piece of African fiction, for a time his compatriot Cyprian Ekwensi seemed likely to become the more famous writer.

Ekwensi's People of the City (1954) and several of his novellas were published before Things Fall Apart, and Jagua Nana acquired immediate notoriety when it appeared in 1961. Moreover, for a time, his Burning Grass (1962)--the story of a Fulani slave girl in northern Nigeria in the early part of this century--achieved enormous appeal with secondary school students. Ekwensi hasn't been forgotten, but during the last two decades, due to the vagaries of African publishing and readers' shifting tastes, Achebe has moved to center stage.

A quarter of a century ago, the Nigerian writer and critic Ernest Emenyonu stated passionately: "Ekwensi has been praised and blamed but never correctly assessed as a writer. Critics who seem unable to cope with his versatility, not to mention his vast volumes, have abandoned him, and in effect his growth as a writer, which can be clearly discerned in a chronological study of his works, has been missed by many."

Ekwensi is one of the most prolific African writers of the twentieth century, but he has pursued several other professions as well. An Ibo, he was born in 1921 in northern Nigeria and attended secondary school in Ibadan, in a predominantly Yoruba area. His familiarity and apparent ease with several of his country's major ethnic groups have been reflected in his fiction.

His education continued in Ibadan (at Yaba Higher College) and then at Achimota College in Ghana. Ekwensi studied forestry and worked for two years as a forestry officer. He also taught science courses briefly, worked for Radio Nigeria, and, in 1949, entered the Lagos School of Pharmacy, subsequently continuing his studies at the University of London. While engaged in these varying careers, Ekwensi wrote his earliest fiction. He has frequently been identified as a major force in the group of post--World War II "pulp fiction" writers known as the Onitsha Market school, though his first book-length publication, Ikolo the Wrestler and Other Ibo Tales (1947), was published in London. When the ever-popular Jagua Nana was first published in the United States in 1969, the author listed nineteen books to his credit, beginning with When Love Whispers (1947), which leads this critic to conclude that it was his first published book.

Emenyonu identifies the significance of When Love Whispers: "This short, light romance was one of the earliest works of fiction in English in Nigeria and may have helped to inspire the popular (Onitsha) pamphlet literature." Moreover, Ekwensi made the transition from writing for readers of Onitsha Market literature to the mainstream audience, a path followed by few other Nigerian writers. Stated another way, Ekwensi discovered early in his career that Nigerians could be lured into reading if there were suitable material to attract their attention. When Love Whispers, Jagua Nana, and several of his subsequent works mine the field of Western popular fiction: They feature sex, violence (though never as extreme as in the West), intrigue, and mystery in a recognizable contemporary setting, more frequently than not in the fast-paced, ethnically diverse big city. To this domain, Ekwensi has added a relentless fascination with the African woman. His novels display all the marks of Western bestsellerdom, except that in recent years the depressed economy has made the possibility of Nigerian best-sellers most unlikely. …