Clark Bekederemo, J.P. 1935–

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Clark Bekederemo, J.P. 1935–

(Johnson Pepper Clark Bekederemo, J.P. Clark, John P. Clark, John Pepper Clark)

PERSONAL: Born Johnson Pepper Clark Bekederemo, April 6, 1935, in Kiagbodo, Nigeria; son of Clark Fu-ludu (an Ijaw tribal leader) and Poro Clark Bekederema; married Ebun Odutola; children: three daughters, one son. Education: University of Ibadan, B.A. (with honors), 1960.

ADDRESSES: Agent—Andrew Best, Curtis Brown Ltd., 162-168 Regent St., London W1R 5TB, England.

CAREER: Poet, playwright, and filmmaker. Nigerian Federal Government, information officer, 1960–61; Daily Express, Lagos, Nigeria, head of features and editorial writer, 1961–62; University of Lagos, Lagos, research fellow, 1964–66, professor of African literature and instructor in English, 1966–85.

MEMBER: Society of Nigerian Authors (founding member).

AWARDS, HONORS: Institute of African Studies research fellow, 1961–62, 1963–64; Parvin fellow, Princeton University, 1962–63; honorary degree from University of Benin, 1991; Nigerian National Merit Award for literary excellence, 1991.


(As John Pepper Clark) Song of a Goat (play; produced at Ibadan University, 1961), Mbari (Ibadan, Nigeria), 1961, new edition edited by Ebun Clark, University Press (Ibadan, Nigeria), 1993.

(As John Pepper Clark) Poems, Mbari (Ibadan, Nigeria), 1962.

(As John Pepper Clark) The Raft (play), produced at University of Ibadan Arts Theatre, Ibadan, Nigeria, 1964.

Three Plays: Song of a Goat, The Masquerade, The Raft, Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 1964.

(As John Pepper Clark) America, Their America (non-fiction), Deutsch (London, England), 1964, Africana Publishing (New York, NY), 1969.

(As John Pepper Clark) A Reed in the Tide, Longmans (London, England), 1965, 2nd edition published as A Reed in the Tide: A Selection of Poems, Humanities Press (New York, NY), 1970.

(As John Pepper Clark) Ozidi: A Play, Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 1966.

(As John Pepper Clark) Casualties: Poems, 1966–68, Africana Publishing (New York, NY), 1970.

Tides of the Delta: The Saga of Ozidi (screenplay), Colour Film Services (London, England), 1975.

(Translator) Okabou Ojobolo, The Ozidi Saga, University Press (Ibadan, Nigeria), 1977.

The Hero as a Villain, University of Lagos Press (Lagos, Nigeria), 1978.

The Boat, produced at University of Lagos Auditorium, Lagos, Nigeria, 1981.

A Decade of Tongues: Selected Poems 1958–1968, Longmans (London, England), 1981.

The Wives' Revolt, produced at PEC Repertory Theatre, Lagos, Nigeria, 1984.

The Return Home, produced at PEC Repertory Theatre, Lagos, Nigeria, 1985.

The Bikoroa Plays (contains Full Circle, The Return Home, and The Boat) Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 1985.

State of the Union, Longmans (London, England), 1985.

Mandela and Other Poems, Longman Nigeria (Ikeja, Nigeria), 1988.

The Ozidi Saga, Howard University Press (Washington, DC), 1991.

Collected Plays, 1964–1988, Howard University Press (Washington, DC), 1991.

Collected Plays and Poems, 1958–1988, Howard University Press (Washington, DC), 1991.

Collected Poems, 1958–1988, Howard University Press (Washington, DC), 1991.

The Wives' Revolt, University Press (Ibadan, Nigeria), 1991.

A Lot from Paradise, Malthouse Press (Ikeja, Nigeria), 1997.

The Poems, 1958–1998, Longman Nigeria (Lagos, Nigeria), 2002.

Contributor to Seven African Writers, edited by Gerald Moore, Oxford University Press (Oxford, England), 1962, West African Verse: An Anthology, Longmans (London, England), 1967, and A Book of African Verse, edited by John Reed and Clive Wake, Heinemann (London, England), 1964. Scriptwriter, director, and producer of documentary films The Ozidi of Atazi and The Ghost Town. Founder and editor, Horn (literary magazine); coeditor, Black Orpheus, 1968–. Contributor of literary criticism to Presence Africaine, Nigeria, Transition, African Forum, Black Orpheus, and other journals. Contributor to anthologies, including The Example of Shakespeare: Critical Essays on African Literature, 1970, and The Philosophical Anachronism of William Godwin, 1977.

SIDELIGHTS: Nigerian-born J.P. Clark Bekederemo has been called one of the central figures of West African drama, and he is equally well known as one of his country's foremost poets. In both roles he combines classical Western style and structure with stories, characters, and themes rooted in his native Ijaw tradition to create a body of work that is both universal and culturally unique. In a discussion with university students in 1970 included in Palaver: Interviews with Five African Writers in Texas, Clark Bekederemo commented on the cross-cultural fusion in his work, noting, "In a new nation like Nigeria which cuts across several groups of people, or rather which brings together several peoples speaking different languages, you've got to have a lingua franca, and this is the role that English is playing in the absence of one widely spoken Nigerian language…. I belong to the new community of Nigerians who have undergone a new system of education and therefore share a new kind of culture, a synthetic one which exists alongside the traditional one to which fortunately I also belong."

Like the life he has led, the new Nigerian culture Clark Bekederemo references is a bridging of two worlds, African and European. Clark Bekederemo's father was an Ijaw tribal leader in a fishing village in Eastern Nigeria. The author attended local elementary school and the Government College in Ughelli before pursuing a bachelor's degree in English from University College in Ibadan, a branch of the University of London, and a partially completed fellowship at Princeton University in the United States.

Critics have found ample evidence of Clark's bifurcated background in his plays and poetry, noting the presence of Ijaw myths, legends, and religion, masks, pantomimes, drumming, and dancing alongside poetic dialogue that seems distinctly Shakespearean, within epic tragedies styled after Sophocles or Euripides. Commenting in English Studies in Africa, T.O. McLoughlin observed, "The interesting point about John Pepper Clark is that his awareness of what he calls 'traditional' and 'native' influences has come to dominate what he has learned from western literature."

Clark Bekederemo's first dramatic work was the 1960 play Song of a Goat, about Zifa, a fisherman, whose sexual impotence causes his wife, Ebiere, to seek advice from the village Masseur. The Masseur, a sort of doctor-mystic, suggests that Zifa's younger brother, Tonye, should, as a practical matter, assume the husband's duties. Both husband and wife reject the idea, but eventually Ebiere's frustration drives her to seduce Tonye. Zifa uncovers the truth and attempts to murder his brother. Though Tonye escapes his brother's wrath, his guilt is too heavy and he hangs himself. Zifa walks into the sea to drown and Ebiere is left pregnant, setting the stage for The Masquerade, Clark Bekederemo's 1964 sequel to this tragic family drama.

African-American playwright LeRoi Jones asserted in Poetry: "[Song of a Goat] is English, but it is not. The tone, the references … belong to what I must consider an African experience. The English is pushed … past the immaculate boredom of the recent Victorians to a quality of experience that is non-European, though it is the European tongue which seems to shape it, externally." Acknowledging that cultural background affects how an audience experiences Song of a Goat, Clark Bekederemo once told a group of American students, "The idea of sacrifice is a universal one, but the theme of impotence is something that doesn't have the same kind of cultural significance for you as it has for me. The business of reproduction, of fertility, is a life and death matter in my home area. If a man doesn't bear, he has not lived. And when he is dead, nobody will think of him."

The Masquerade is a lyrical, fairy-tale tragedy that has been compared to Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. In the play Ebiere's son, Tufa, is a grown man who woos Titi, a popular village girl who has refused all other suitors. Through lavish presents and attention he wins the favor of Titi and her father, Diribi, and an extravagant wedding is arranged. Prior to the nuptials, however, the groom's family history is discovered. Everyone, including the innocent Tufa, is surprised to learn he is the son of his father's brother and that his conception caused the deaths of all his parents. As the plot hurtles to a climax, Diribi shoots and kills his daughter in a furious rage, then is forced by the despondent Tufa to end his life as well.

Critic William Connor praised The Masquerade in World Literature Written in English, saying, "I can think of no other modern play which in its compactness, the power of its tragic irony and the neatness of its resolution comes as close to duplicating the achievement of Clark's models, the classical Greek tragedies." Nevertheless, the play was generally dismissed by other critics as second-rate, unbelievable storytelling, and what began in the playwright's mind as a classically modeled tragic trilogy was never completed.

Instead, Clark Bekederemo wrote The Raft, a tragedy about four lumbermen attempting to earn money by delivering a load of logs downriver to a wealthy buyer.

Although The Raft has often been described as a political drama foretelling the fate of Nigeria at the time of its Civil War, the playwright himself insists he was not trying to write a "political thesis," but instead was "trying to create a human condition which I knew existed not only in Nigeria but elsewhere."

Through much of the 1960s, Clark Bekederemo continued to write plays, culminating in his 1966 adaptation of the sprawling Ijaw epic, Ozidi, one of the tribe's masquerade serial plays which are told in seven days, and which incorporate music, dance, and mime. After Ozidi, however, the author turned from drama to poetry and did not write another play for nearly twenty years.

The intervening decades saw the publication of a handful of volumes of poetry, including A Reed in the Tide, the first international publication of Clark Bekederemo's verse, Urhobo Poetry, Mandela and Other Poems, and Collected Poems, 1958–1988. According to Research in African Literatures contributor Dan S. Izevbaye, Collected Poems, 1958–1988 "effectively carries across Clark-Bekederemo's literary burden—his apprehension of the potentially tragic experience of the Ijo in their riverine home, and its imaginative impact on the sensitive psyche of the poetry. The collection enables the reader to follow the evolution of the poet's sensibility and his quest for an adequate medium for expressing personal and communal themes, as he reaches for the simplicity and clarity of good prose in his poetry."

Like his drama, Clark Bekederemo's poetry reflects both African and European cultures, describing the author's surroundings and experiences in his native country and abroad in a style that has been likened to the English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. While he was not writing plays Clark Bekederemo also published criticism in magazines, journals, and books, including The Example of Shakespeare: Critical Essays on African Literature and The Philosophical Anachronism of William Godwin.

1985's "Bikoroa" plays, which include The Boat, The Return Home, and Full Circle, marked Clark Bekederemo's return to playwriting and his renewed interest in familiar themes. Family conflict, revenge, and hereditary suffering play prominent parts in this epic trilogy about two quarreling brothers who kill each other, and pass their strife along to their sons and their grandsons. This cycle of plays "seems a more unified attempt to explore the notion of the tragic from a purely African perspective" than the author's earlier plays, wrote Osita Okagbue in African Writers. The Bikoroa plays also differ in style, having been written in prose, not verse. Still, Clark Bekederemo is a writer with a poet's penchant for simile, metaphor, and turn-of-phrase; for instance, an angry man in a hurry is described as "a whirlwind with a lot of dust in its eye."

The 1997 collection A Lot from Paradise "comprises poems of memory, nostalgia, and passion, qualities that enhance lyricism," wrote World Literature Today contributor Tanure Ojaide. The poems in A Lot from Paradise, including "Two Loves," "The Last Call," and "Land of Paradise," focus on the people of the Niger Delta. Clark Bekederemo "is working on familiar literary terrain in A Lot from Paradise, which marks his return to the land of his nativity, whose water, crops, and atmosphere nourished him physically, spiritually, and creatively," Ojaide stated. "In these poems as in his early verse, there is a strong sense of place, a local specificity of the Niger Delta that gives not only local color but also spiritual color to the poetry."

When asked about the artist's role in society, Clark Bekederemo's first response is typically a practical one. "I think that the writer—whether African, European or American—is just like a lawyer, a doctor, a carpenter, a janitor, one type of citizen within society," he insisted before a student audience. "He has his work as has everyone with a job to do." And what is the writer's job? Clark Bekederemo suggested, "The commitment to produce something beautiful, and perhaps functional as well—this is the business of the artist as an interpreter, as a maker, as a creator, as a constant renewer of life."



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Smith, Rowland, editor, Exile and Tradition: Studies in African and Caribbean Literature, Longmans (Harlow, England), 1976.


Concerning Poetry, fall, 1984.

English Studies in Africa, March, 1975, pp. 31-40.

Ibadan, June, 1966.

Literary Criterion, volume 23, numbers 1-2, Isaac I. Elimimian, "J.P. Clark as Poet," pp. 30-58.

Literature East and West, March, 1968, pp. 56-67.

Modern Drama, May, 1968, pp. 16-26.

Poetry, March, 1964.

Research in African Literatures, spring, 1994, Dan S. Izevbaye, "J.P. Clark-Bekederemo and the Ijo Literary Tradition," pp. 1-21; summer, 2001, Luke Eyoh, "African Musical Rhythm and Poetic Imagination," p. 105; spring, 2002, Titi Adepitan, "Between Drama and Epic," pp. 120-133; fall, 2003, Isidore Okpewho, "The Art of the Ozidi Saga," pp. 1-26.

World Literature Today, spring, 1993, Aderemi Bamikunle, "The Poet and His Art," pp. 315-319; autumn, 2000, Tanure Ojaide, review of A Lot from Paradise, p. 796.

World Literature Written in English, November, 1976, pp. 297-304; November, 1979, pp. 278-286; autumn, 1987; spring, 1988.

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Clark Bekederemo, J.P. 1935–

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