Ekwensi, Cyprian (Odiatu Duaka) 1921-
EKWENSI, Cyprian (Odiatu Duaka) 1921-
(C. O. D. Ekwensi)
PERSONAL: Born September 26, 1921, in Minna, Nigeria; son of Ogbuefi David Duaka and Uso Agnes Ekwensi; married Eunice Anyiwo; children: five. Education: Attended Achimota College, Ghana, and Ibadan University; received B.A.; further study at Chelsea School of Pharmacy, London, and University of Iowa. Hobbies and other interests: Hunting, swimming, photography, motoring, weightlifting.
ADDRESSES: Home—12 Hillview, Independence Layout, P.O. Box 317, Enugu, Anambra, Nigeria. Agent— David Bolt Associates, 12 Heath Drive, Send, Surrey GU23 7EP, England.
CAREER: Novelist and writer of short stories and stories for children. Igbodi College, Lagos, Nigeria, lecturer in biology, chemistry, and English, 1947-49; School of Pharmacy, Lagos, lecturer in pharmacognosy and pharmaceutics, 1949-56; pharmacist superintendent for Nigerian Medical Services, 1956-57; head of features, Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation, 1957-61; Federal Ministry of Information, Lagos, director of information, 1961-66; chair of Bureau for External Publicity during Biafran secession, 1967-69, and director of an independent Biafran radio station; chemist for plastics firm in Enugu, Nigeria; managing director of Star Printing and Publishing Co. (publishers of Daily Star), 1975-79; managing director of Niger Eagle Publishing Company, 1980-81; managing director of Ivory Trumpet Publishing Co. Ltd., 1981-83. Owner of East Niger Chemists and East Niger Trading Company; chair of East Central State Library Board, 1972-75; newspaper consultant to Weekly Trumpet and Daily News of Anambra State and to Weekly Eagle of Imo State, 1980-83; consultant on information to the executive office of the president; consultant to Federal Ministry of Information; public relations consultant; visiting lecturer at Iowa University.
MEMBER: PEN, Society of Nigerian Authors, Nigerian Arts Council, Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain, Pharmaceutical Society of Nigeria, Institute of Public Relations (London), Institute of Public Relations (Nigeria; fellow).
AWARDS, HONORS: Dag Hammarskjold International Prize for Literary Merit, 1969; Association of Nigerian Authors Solidra Prize for the Arts, 1992.
People of the City, Andrew Dakers (London, England), 1954, Northwestern University Press (Evanston, IL), 1967, revised edition, Fawcett (New York, NY), 1969.
Jagua Nana, Hutchinson (London, England), 1961, Fawcett (New York, NY), 1969.
Burning Grass: A Story of the Fulani of Northern Nigeria, Heinemann (London, England), 1962, East African Educational Publishers, 1998.
Beautiful Feathers, Hutchinson (London, England), 1963.
Iska, Hutchinson (London, England), 1966, Spectrum Books (Ibadan, Nigeria), 1981.
Survive the Peace, Heinemann (London, England), 1976.
Divided We Stand, Fourth Dimension Publishers (Enugu, Nigeria), 1980.
For a Roll of Parchment, Heinemann (London, England), 1987.
Jagua Nana's Daughter, Spectrum (Ibadan, Nigeria), 1987.
(Under name C. O. D. Ekwensi) Ikolo the Wrestler and Other Ibo Tales, Thomas Nelson (London, England), 1947.
(Under name C. O. D. Ekwensi) The Leopard's Claw, Thomas Nelson (London, England), 1950.
The Drummer Boy, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, England), 1960.
The Passport of Mallam Ilia, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, England), 1960.
An African Night's Entertainment (folklore), African Universities Press (Lagos, Nigeria), 1962, revised edition, 1986.
Yaba Roundabout Murder (short novel), Tortoise Series Books (Lagos, Nigeria), 1962.
The Great Elephant-Bird, Thomas Nelson (London, England), 1965.
Juju Rock, African Universities Press (Lagos, Nigeria), 1966.
The Boa Suitor, Thomas Nelson (London, England), 1966.
Trouble in Form Six, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, England), 1966.
Coal Camp Boy, Longman Nigeria (Ibadan, Nigeria), 1971.
Samankwe in the Strange Forest, Longman Nigeria (Ibadan, Nigeria), 1973.
The Rainbow-Tinted Scarf and Other Stories (collection), illustrated by Gay Galsworthy, Evans Africa Library (London, England), 1975.
Samankwe and the Highway Robbers, Evans Africa Library (London, England), 1975.
Motherless Baby (novella), Fourth Dimension Publishers (Enugu, Nigeria), 1980.
Behind the Convent Wall, Evans (London, England), 1990.
Murder Mile Two, Evans (London, England), 1990.
Gone to Mecca, Heinemann (Ibadan, Nigeria), 1991.
Masquerade Time, Heinemann Educational Books (London, England), 1992.
King Forever!, Heinemann Educational Books (London, England), 1992.
The Red Flag, Heinemann (London, England), 1993.
(Under name C. O. D. Ekwensi) When Love Whispers (novella), Tabansi Bookshop (Onitsha, Nigeria), 1947.
The Rainmaker and Other Short Stories (short story collection), African Universities Press (Lagos, Nigeria), 1965, revised edition, 1971.
Lokotown and Other Stories(short story collection), Heinemann (London, England), 1966.
The Restless City and Christmas Gold, with Other Stories Heinemann (London, England), 1975.
(Editor) Festac Anthology of Nigerian New Writing, Festac (Lagos, Nigeria), 1977.
Also author of "No Escape from S.A.P.," published on the Internet. Writer of plays and scripts for BBC radio and television, Radio Nigeria, and other communication outlets. Contributor of stories, articles, and reviews to magazines and newspapers in Nigeria and England, including West African Review, London Times, Black Orpheus, Flamingo, and Sunday Post. Several of Ekwensi's novels have been translated into other languages, including Russian, Italian, German, Serbo-Croatian, Danish, and French. His novellas have been used primarily in schools as supplementary readers.
SIDELIGHTS: "Cyprian Ekwensi is the earliest and most prolific of the socially realistic Nigerian novelists," according to Martin Tucker in his Africa in Modern Literature: A Survey of Contemporary Writing in English. "His first writings were mythological fragments and folk tales. From these African materials he turned to the city and its urban problems, which he now feels are the major issues confronting his people." Reviewing Cyprian Ekwensi's Beautiful Feathers in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, John F. Povey wrote: "The very practice of writing, the developing professionalism of his work, makes us find in Ekwensi a new and perhaps important phenomenon in African writing. . . . Other Nigerian novelists have sought their material from the past, the history of missionaries and British administration as in Chinua Achebe's books and the schoolboy memoirs of Onuora Nzekwu. Ekwensi faces the difficult task of catching the present tone of Africa, changing at a speed that frighteningly destroys the old certainties. In describing this world, Ekwensi has gradually become a significant writer."
Born in Northern Nigeria in 1921, Ekwensi grew up in various cities and had ample opportunity to observe what one critic called the "urban politics" of Nigeria. He went to schools in Ibadan, Lagos, and the Gold Coast, excelling in English, mathematics, and science; a high school record indicates that only his temper and occasional sullen moods kept him from being the ideal student. In the early 1940s he enrolled at the School of Forestry in Western Nigeria; successfully completing his degree requirements in 1944, he began his work as a forestry officer. According to biographer Ernest Emenyonu, "It was . . . while wandering in the domains of animals and trees that Ekwensi decided to become a writer. Taking advantage of his wild and lonely environment he began to create adventure stories with forest backgrounds." Among his early works are the short stories "Banana Peel," "The Tinted Scarf," and "Land of Sani," which he published together with a collection of Igbo folk tales under the title Ikolo the Wrestler and Other Ibo Tales in 1947. Other early works include When Love Whispers and The Leopard's Claw; he also published several adventure stories for children. In addition to being a professional writer, Ekwensi has worked as a pharmacist and a teacher. He has been involved with the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation and various newspaper and publishing organizations.
Despite his popularity as a folklorist and writer of children's literature, Ekwensi's fans frequently cite his urban novels as their favorites. People of the City, Jagua Nana, Beautiful Feathers, and Iska are all set in the city of Lagos, and according to Juliet Okonkwo, Ekwensi "revels in the excitement of city life and loves to expose its many faces of modernity. He writes about . . . its criminals, prostitutes, band-leaders, ministers of state, businessmen, civil servants, professionals, policemen on duty, thugs, thieves, and many other types that are found in the city. . . . Employing a naturalistic narrative technique reminiscent of Emile Zola, Ekwensi has been able to capture both the restless excitement and the frustrations of life in the city." Burning Grass: A Story of the Fulani of Northern Nigeria and Survive the Peace are exceptions to his "city novels." The former centers on Mai Sunsaye, a Fulani cattleman living on the grassy plains of Nigeria, and the latter on James Oduga, a radio journalist who tries to rebuild his life after a war.
Of Ekwensi's city novels, Jagua Nana is considered his best work. It focuses on Jagua Nana, an aging prostitute who thrives on Lagos nightlife—"They called her Jagua because of her good looks and stunning fashions. They said she was Ja-gwa, after the famous British prestige car." When the novel opens, she is in love with Freddie Namme, an ambitious young teacher. She continues to sleep with other men for money, to Freddie's dismay, because she wants to "wear fine cloth." Ekwensi goes on to explain that Jagua "loved Freddie well, but his whole salary would not buy that dress. He must understand that taking money from the Syrian did not mean that she loved him less." Freddie claims to despise Jagua's lifestyle but doesn't refuse the luxuries that her income provides. Seeking consolation, Freddie has an affair with a younger woman, but before Jagua can unleash her jealous rage, he leaves for England. When Jagua and Freddie meet again, Freddie is running for office against Uncle Taiwo, a large, crass, power-hungry politician "who has chosen to absorb and use all that is worst in European ways," according to critic John Povey. The novel ends with Freddie and Uncle Taiwo both murdered and Jagua fleeing Lagos for her life. "Through Jagua, her career, her pursuits and her fluctuating fortune," Okonkwo observed, "Ekwensi reveals the common wickedness, squalor, materialism and immorality of the city, together with its crimes and violence." Since its publication in 1961, Jagua Nana has attracted bitter controversy. Church organizations and women's groups vehemently attacked it, prompting some schools to ban it from their libraries. The Nigerian Parliament refused an Italian studio's request to film the book. Some readers called it "obscene" and "pornographic," while others praised it as a masterpiece. Similarly, literary critics were equally divided in their opinions: some were impressed with Jagua Nana, particularly by Ekwensi's use of language and depth of characterization, but others dismissed it as another "whore-with-a-heart-of-gold" story commonly found in bad American movies and books.
Controversy appears to follow all of Ekwensi's fiction; while Jagua Nana has received the most attention, his other books have also been scrutinized. Assessing Ekwensi as a writer, critic Bernth Lindfors declared: "Not one [of his works] is entirely free of amateurish blots and blunders, not one could be called the handiwork of a careful, skilled craftsman." Ekwensi's supporters, most notably Povey, have argued otherwise. Acknowledging Ekwensi's weaknesses as a writer, Povey explained: "He often dangerously approaches the sentimental, the vulgar and melodramatic. Behind his work stands a reading of American popular fiction and paperback crime stories. Yet Ekwensi's writing cannot be dismissed with such assertions. . . . Ekwensi is interesting because he is concerned with the present, with the violence of the new Lagos slums, the dishonesty of the new native politicians. . . . Only Ekwensi has dared to approach the contemporary scene with critical satire."
Ekwensi states that his life in government and quasi-government organizations like the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation has prevented him from expressing any strong political opinions, but adds, "I am as much a nationalist as the heckler standing on the soap-box, with the added advantage of objectivity." During the late-1960s Biafran war, in which the eastern region of Biafra seceded temporarily from the rest of Nigeria, Ekwensi visited the United States more than once to help raise money for Biafra and to purchase radio equipment for the independent Biafran radio station he served as director. He has also traveled in western Europe. Later in his career, Ekwensi spoke out against the difficulties facing writers of fiction in Nigeria and elsewhere in Africa. In an interview with Charles R. Larson for World and I, he maintained that the Nigerian publishing "system fails to provide regular income for the writer." Larson explained further that "Nigerian writers typically have to sign contracts loaded in favor of the publisher—such as control of world rights. . . . Authors seldom receive royalties from their books without demanding them." Ekwensi told Larson: "I have yet to know of an African author living in Africa who died a wealthy man from his writing. The rich ones all live abroad."
J. O. J. Nwachukwu-Agbada, in World Literature Today, described Ekwensi as the "Nigerian Defoe," because "Ekwensi has been writing fiction since the 1940s. He is prolific and versatile, especially in the subject matter of his works, which can range from sex to science. . . . The 'new' work [For a Roll of Parchment] also reveals considerable artistic development, particularly in language and descriptive power." Though published relatively late in Ekwensi's oeuvre, 1986's For a Roll of Parchment is based on the author's own experience as a pharmacy student in London during the 1950s. The fictional protagonist, however, seeks a law degree rather than one in pharmacy. According to Emenyonu, writing in the Concise Dictionary of World Literary Biography, "The plot tells of mental torture, disorientation, unrequited love, and the degradation to which the hero is subjected in the British social and political environment because of his skin color." Emenyonu went on to note that the novel "is a revealing imaginative documentary of race relations and color prejudice in England during the 1950s. It is also an evocative tale filled with pathos and narrated with candor, its acrimonious undertones notwithstanding."
In a later issue of World Literature Today, Nwachukwu-Agbada talked of "Cyprian Ekwensi's Rabelaisian jeu d'esprit whose obscene flavor sparked considerable outrage among Nigerian readers of the sixties [upon the release of Jagua Nana in 1961]. The new novel's [Jagua Nana's Daughter] bawdiness twenty-five years later has not attracted similar attention, probably due to the increased permissiveness and decreased influence of tradition in modern-day Nigeria." The title character of Jagua Nana's Daughter is Lizza, the result of an illicit union Jagua had as a teenager. She is raised in Jagua's hometown, unknown to her grandparents, while Jagua pursues her life in the big city of Lagos. When Jagua returns at the end of the events portrayed in Jagua Nana to look for her daughter, "she is led to believe that Lizza has since died," in the words of Emenyonu in the Concise Dictionary of World Literary Biography. "Later events reveal that Lizza is alive and prosperous," Emenyonu continued. The critic summed up Jagua Nana's Daughter as "the story of a dual search—daughter for mother, and mother for daughter," which "later develops into a moving account of international border clashes and migrant labor."
According to the St. James Guide to Children's Writers, "Ekwensi is an acknowledged pioneer in writing Nigerian youth literature. He is nearly unique among African writers in publishing stories for children as early as the 1940s . . . before children's literature was emphasized, and in continuing to write for children after becoming an internationally known novelist." The entry on the author went on to state that "Ekwensi's fiction includes the same elements he enjoyed reading as a youth: truth, poetic justice, heroism, romance, folkloric mystery, and adventure. His stories, most of which are about the adventures of boys and men, reflect real experiences, such as going to school in the colonial and post-colonial eras, poverty in urban areas, and the aftermath of the Nigerian Civil War, as well as fictional experiences prominent in the mass media, such as capturing thieves and searching for lost treasure." Comparing Ekwensi's writing for children to his writing for adults, Emenyonu in the Concise Dictionary of World Literary Biography noted that in his adult-oriented works the author "catered for the ravishing tastes and appetites of reckless youths in the newly emergent bubbling urban centers." As a children's author, however, Emenyonu saw Ekwensi as "a grandfather-artist" who "seems concerned with . . . shaping . . . the future of young readers, some of them his grandchildren." The critic went on to explain that Ekwensi's "themes emphasize disciplined adventurism, heroic enterprises, friendship across cultures, gallantry, humanitarianism, truth, honesty, integrity in human relations, healthy competition and rivalry, the dignity of labor, building and producing things, and the search for and the acquisition of moral and spiritual endowments." Emenyonu singled out 1992's King for Ever! as "a well-crafted parable on the nature and fate of military dictators and self-proclaimed absolute rulers for life," because the tale centers on Sinanda, a man who wrests power from a legitimate king but is in turn deposed and killed himself, despite killing almost everyone he once loved in an effort to hang onto the throne. Ekwensi's fellow African writer Kole Omotoso remarked in an article for the online Bellagio Publishing Network that one of Ekwensi's works for children had a great influence on him. The Yaba Roundabout Murders "taught me the importance of space in fiction writing," Omotoso stated. "Ekwensi was putting on paper my environment and it was so delightful!"
Ekwensi's stature as a novelist is still debated. Emenyonu believes that Ekwensi's commitment "to portray the naked truth about the life of modern man" is the reason for the existing controversy over Jagua Nana and all of Ekwensi's fiction. "When one looks at his works over the past three decades," he observed, "one sees the deep imprints of a literature of social awareness and commitment, and this is Ekwensi's greatest achievement in the field of modern African writing."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Concise Dictionary of World Literary Biography, Volume 3, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1999.
Contemporary Black Biography, Volume 37, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2003.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 4, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1975.
Emenyonu, Ernest N., The Essential Ekwensi: A Literary Celebration of Cyprian Ekwensi's Sixty-fifth Birthday, Heinemann, 1987.
St. James Guide to Children's Writers, 5th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.
Tucker, Martin, Africa in Modern Literature: A Survey of Contemporary Writing in English, Ungar, 1967.
Books Abroad, autumn, 1967.
Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, October, 1965.
Times Literary Supplement, June 4, 1964.
World and I, October, 2000, Charles R. Larson, "Fame and Poverty: The Career of Nigerian Novelist Cyprian Ekwensi Exemplifies the Plight of the African Writer," p. 254.
World Literature Today, autumn, 1988; winter, 1989.
Bellagio Publishing Network,http://www.bellagiopublishingnetwork.org/newsletter29/omotoso.htm/ (May 2, 2003), "What Cyprian Ekwensi Meant to Me."*