Clark-Bekederemo, J. P. 1935–
J. P. Clark-Bekederemo 1935–
Nigerian poet, playwright
One of modern Nigeria’s foremost literary figures, J. P. Clark-Bekederemo, known for the first part of his career as John Pepper Clark, is also one of the country’s most versatile thinkers. His work has moved back and forth between Nigeria and the West, between traditional modes of expression and European-derived forms ranging from ancient Greek tragic drama to modern image-centered poetry. Clark-Bekederemo caused controversy in both worlds; he felt distinctly out of place when he visited the United States, dismaying his hosts, but his unsparing depictions of Nigerian civil war likewise unsettled his countrymen. J. P. Clark-Bekederemo was, in short, a modern writer who raised questions and crossed boundaries wherever he went and whatever he did.
Born Johnson Pepper Clark-Bekederemo in Kiagbodo, Nigeria, on April 6, 1935, Clark-Bekederemo was the son of a chief in Nigeria’s Ijaw ethnic group, in the Niger River delta region of the country. Growing up in a small fishing village that had no elementary school, Clark-Bekederemo nevertheless enjoyed the best education that British colonial Nigeria had to offer due to his parents’ influence. He attended British-run schools in the towns of Okrika and Jeremi and then entered the colonial Government College in Ughelli, graduating in 1954. Clark-Bekederemo worked for a year as a government clerk, gaining contacts among Nigeria’s elite, and in 1955 he entered the University of Ibadan (still a branch of the University of London at the time). He majored in English and received an honors degree in 1960.
Clark-Bekederemo had already become noted as an important writer. He and several other undergraduates founded a literary magazine called the Horn, which served as a vehicle for Clark-Bekederemo’s early work. His poem “Night Rain” was one of his earliest, and at the same time one of his most widely reprinted. It was typical of much of his work in its evocation of an African locale, mixed with elevated English diction: “So let us roll to the beat/Of drumming all over the land/And under its ample soothing hand/Joined to
At a Glance…
Born Johnson Pepper Clark-Bekederemo on April 6, 1935, in Kiagbodo, Nigeria. Pseudonym: John Pepper Clark, Married Edun Odutola; children: three daughters and one son. Education: University of Ibadan, BA (honors) in English, 1955-60; Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, graduate studies, 1963-64.
Career: Playwright and poet, 1960-; government of Nigeria, information officer, 1960-61; Lagos Daily Express, writer, 1961-62; University of Lagos, Lagos, Nigeria, research fellow, 1964-66, professor of African literature, 1966-80; Horn and Black Orpheus, editor, mid-1960s; PEC Repertory Theatre, Lagos, founder, early 1980s.
Selected awards: Institute of African Studies research fellow, 1961-62, 1963-64; Parvin fellow, Princeton University, 1962-63; Nigerian National Merit Award, 1991.
Addresses: Agent— Andrew Best, Curtis Brown Ltd., 162-168 Regent St., London W1R 5TB, England.
that of the sea/We will settle to our sleep of the innocent and free,” Clark-Bekederemo wrote.
Clark-Bekederemo’s most famous play, Song of a Goat, was also written during his university years; it was published in 1961. The play was written in verse and had the structure and feel of a Greek tragedy, with an ancient curse as background, a family drama that unfolds into violent events, and a chorus-like group of onlookers. Set in a traditional African village, the play introduces Zifa, a sexually impotent man whose wife enters into an affair with his younger brother Tonye. Despite its emulation of Greek models, Song of a Goat was African to the core; the theme of impotence had an especially strong impact in an African setting, and African-American playwright LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka) noted in an essay quoted in Contemporary Authors Online that “[Song of a Goat] is English, but it is not…. 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.”
After graduating from University College Clark-Bekederemo worked at a newspaper in the Nigerian capital of Lagos. His early plays and poetry had been published, and they circulated among Western readers. As a young African writer with a fairly high profile, he came to the attention of university programs in the United States that were set up with the goal of cultural exchange in mind. Clark-Bekederemo was the recipient of Princeton University’s Parvin Fellowship and spent the 1962-63 academic year in the United States.
The outcome was unsuccessful on a personal level; Clark-Bekederemo clashed repeatedly with his hosts and was asked to leave Princeton after a year. In artistic terms, however, the visit was a productive one. Clark-Bekederemo wrote a book, America, Their America, about his experiences, criticizing what he saw as American materialism, obsession with sex, and ignorance about the rest of the world. In the years before the Vietnam War, the level of Clark-Bekederemo’s invective was unusual. America, Their America was published in London in 1964 and appeared in the United States five years later.
While at Princeton, Clark-Bekederemo worked on two more plays. The Masquerade was a romantic tragedy that carried forward the lives of some of the characters in Song of the Goat. Sometimes compared to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, The Masquerade presented on stage a rich tapestry of West African life, setting the disruptive force of romantic love against the structures and strictures of traditional society. A third Clark-Bekederemo play, The Raft, was intended for radio broadcast. Its four characters are woodcutters floating logs down the Niger River to urban markets; they fall into mortal danger when their raft starts to break up are faced with the test of cooperation. The play may have been intended as an allegory of the ethnic fault lines that soon would split Clark-Bekederemo’s Nigerian homeland.
Clark-Bekederemo returned to Nigeria as the newly independent nation was beginning a long slide into political chaos. He married a fellow academic, Ebun Odutola, and the couple had four children. Showing continuing productivity in both drama and poetry on a one-year University of Ibadan fellowship, he became a professor at the University of Lagos in 1966. Clark-Bekederemo delved more and more deeply into African themes in his writing. A Reed in the Tide, Clark-Bekederemo’s 1965 volume of poetry, touched on the Nigerian political themes that would soon consume Clark-Bekederemo’s life. His 1966 play Ozidi was an adaptation of an Ijaw story that in its traditional setting would have been told over seven successive days, using music, dance, and mime.
In the late 1960s, Clark-Bekederemo’s life was directly touched by a series of military takeovers that led to a full-blown Nigerian civil war. His former classmate Emmanuel Ifeajuna, a military officer, was killed after Clark-Bekederemo had helped to bring him back into Nigeria from exile in Ghana, and the world looked on in horror as part of Nigeria split off and declared independence as the new nation of Biafra, only to suffer brutal reprisals at the hand of the Nigerian military. Ensconced at his university post, Clark-Bekederemo wrote a study of African literature, The Example of Shakespeare. But when he turned his attention to the Nigerian conflict, some of his most controversial poetry resulted.
Clark-Bekederemo’s 28 war poems were collected in a 1970 volume called Casualties. His poems addressed the conflict from a variety of perspectives. The poem that gave the book its title examined the stance of Nigerians who fomented the war from abroad, attempting to whip up support for one side or the other. “The casualties are many,” he wrote, “and a good number well/Outside the scene of ravage and wreck;/They are the emissaries of rift,/So smug in smoke-room they haunt abroad,/They are wandering minstrels who, beating on/The drum of human heart, draw the world/Into a dance with rites it does not know.”
Clark-Bekederemo also used elements of traditional African animal folktales in the Casualties poems, and this and other means he used to distance the reader from the events described angered some Nigerian readers. For other observers, though, Clark-Bekederemo had not just painted a gory picture of war, but had shown how it took shape and rippled through an entire society. Whether discouraged by the controversy or simply exhausted after ten years of intense creative work, Clark-Bekederemo wrote very little in the 1970s. He edited a literary magazine called Black Orpheus, reconstructed the traditional Ozidi saga and translated it into English, and participated in a film based upon that epic. Continuing his teaching career, he spent a year teaching at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut and eventually became a department head at the University of Lagos.
Around 1980, however, Clark-Bekederemo began to feel creative impulses rising once again. He took early retirement from the university that year and set up a theater company, the PEC (for Pepper and Ebun Clark) Repertory Theatre. The PEC Repertory Theatre became Nigeria’s first repertory theater institution, an ongoing theatrical company dedicated to the performance of a mix of classic and new works. Clark-Bekederemo himself wrote works staged by the new company; his 1985 play The Return Home was part of a cycle of three works the author entitled The Bikoroa Plays. These works were rooted in a half century of Nigerian history through which Clark-Bekederemo and his ancestors had lived. In 1984 Clark-Bekederemo also wrote a comedy, The Wives’ Revolt, that was influenced by the ancient Greek comic playwright Aristophanes.
Two more books of Clark-Bekederemo’s poetry, State of the Union and Mandela and Other Poems, were published in the 1980s; some of the poems in these volumes addressed the problems of contemporary Africa and discarded whatever youthful idealism Clark-Bekederemo might have harbored concerning the continent’s future. Several collections of Clark-Bekederemo’s plays and poetry were published in the late 1980s, both in Nigeria and elsewhere; in the United States, Howard University Press issued a collection of his works along with his translation of the Ozidi saga. Clark-Bekederemo remained active as a writer into the 1990s.
Clark-Bekederemo received the Nigerian National Merit Award for literary excellence in 1991 and was the recipient of various other awards. The approach of his 70th birthday in 2004 set off a round of celebrations that included performances by popular musicians Mr. Luvles and the Psound Xpres Band. Clark-Bekederemo could look back on an extraordinarily varied body of work, all of it tied together by his rootedness in Nigerian life. His love of country showed through in one of his shortest and most modernistic poems, “Ibadan,” which read in its entirety: “Ibadan,/running splash of rust/and gold—flung and scattered/among seven hills like broken/china in the sun.”
(as John Pepper Clark) Song of a Goat (play), 1961.
(as John Pepper Clark) Poems, 1962.
The Masquerade (play), 1962.
(as John Pepper Clark) The Raft (radio play), 1964.
(as John Pepper Clark) America, Their America (nonfiction), 1964.
(as John Pepper Clark) A Reed in the Tide (poems), 1965.
(as John Pepper Clark) Ozidi (play), 1966.
(as John Pepper Clark) Casualties: Poems 1966-68, 1970.
The Example of Shakespeare: Critical Essays on African Literature, 1970.
The Wives’ Revolt, 1984.
The Bikoroa Plays, 1985.
Collected Plays and Poems, 1958-1988, Howard University Press, 1988.
Mandela and Other Poems, 1988.
Contemporary Dramatists, 6th ed., St. James Press, 1999.
Contemporary Poets, 7th ed., St. James Press, 2001.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 117, Twentieth-Century Caribbean and Black African Writers, First Series, Gale, 1992.
Africa News, January 29, 2004.
“Bekederemo (John Pepper Clark),” Contemporary Africa Database, http://people.africadatabase.org/people/profiles/profilesforperson3758.html (February 6, 2004).
“J(ohnson) P(epper) Clark Bekederemo,” Biography Resource Center, http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (February 6, 2004).
—James M. Manheim
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