Ekwensi, Cyprian 1921–
Cyprian Ekwensi 1921–
For more than a half–century, Nigerian author Cyprian Ekwensi has been known for his prolific output of popular novels and stories that some critics have classified as formula fiction. He has repeatedly focused on the Nigerian capital city of Lagos and the negative impact of the urban milieu on immigrants from rural areas, portraying the lives of prostitutes, shady politicians, businessmen, police officers, reporters, thieves, and others who witness the seamy side of life. Among his themes number sex, violence, brutality, and intrigue. In a 1972 interview by Lewis Nkosi published in African Writers Talking, Ekwensi explained his role as a popular novelist: “I think I am a writer who regards himself as a writer for the masses. I don’t think of myself as a literary stylist: if my style comes, that is just incidental, but I am more interested in getting at the heart of the truth which the man in the street can recognize than in just spinning words.” Although some critics hastily point out the works’ often haphazard plots, inconsistent characterizations, and melodrama, others have praised the social relevance of his novels.
Ekwensi broke ground in portraying the erotic and masculine/feminine love in a society where marriages are arranged and fiction eschews plots dealing with love and marriage. Moreover, he is one of few African writers who has remained in his native country, rather than live abroad where publishing opportunities are more abundant. According to Charles R. Larson, author of The Emergence of African Fiction, Ekwensi “is probably the most widely–read novelist in Nigeria—perhaps even in West Africa—by readers whose literary tastes have not been exposed to the more complex writings of Chinua Achebe and other more skilled African novelists.” On a more personal note, Nigerian–born drama professor Kole Omotoso expressed his admiration for Ekwensi–the–struggling–artist on the Bellagio Publishing Network Web site, saying, “Cyprian Ekwensi is important in Nigerian writing for many reasons, but especially because he believed in himself and made us believe in ourselves.”
Several events in Ekwensi’s childhood contributed later to his writings. Cyprian Odiatu Duaka Ekwensi was born in Minna, in Niger State, in northern Nigeria. Although ethnically an Igbo, he was raised among Hausa playmates and schoolmates and so spoke both tribal languages. He also learned of his heritage through the many Igbo stories and legends that his father told him, which he would later publish in the collection Ikolo the Wrestler and Other Ibo Tales. In 1936 Ekwensi enrolled in the southern Nigerian secondary school known as Government College, Ibadan, where he learned about Yoruba culture as well as excelling in English, math, science, and sports. “I read everything I could lay my hands on in the school library, concentrating on H. Rider Haggard, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Walter Scott, and Alexandre Dumas,” the author recalled in The Essential Ekwensi. He also wrote articles and stories for numerous school publications, particularly The Viking magazine.
After studying forestry at the Yaba Higher College in Lagos during World War II, Ekwensi began a two–year
At a Glance…
Born September 26, 1921, in Minna, Nigeria (now the capital of Niger State); son of Ogbuefi David Duaka and Uso Agnes Ekwensi; married Eunice Anyiwo; children: five. Education: Attended Achimota College, Ghana, and Ibadan University; earned B.A.; further study at Chelsea School of Pharmacy, London, and University of lowa.
Career: Novelist and writer of short stories and juvenile works. Igbodi College, Lagos, Nigeria, lecturer in biology, chemistry, and English, 1947–49; School of Pharmacy, Lagos, lecturer in pharmacognosy and pharmaceutics, 1949–56; Nigerian Medical Services, pharmacist superintendent, 1956–57; Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation, head of features, 1957–61; Federal Ministry of Information, Lagos, director of information, 1961–66; chair of Bureau for External Publicity during the Biafran secession, 1967–69, and director of an independent Biafran radio station; chemist for a plastics firm in Enugu, Nigeria; Star Printing & Publishing Co. (publishers of Daily Star ), managing director, 1975–79; Niger Eagle Publishing Co., managing director, 1980–81; Ivory Trumpet Publishing Co. Ltd., managing director, 1981–63; East Niger Chemists and East Niger Trading Co., owner. East Central State Library Board, chair, 1972–75. Newspaper consultant to Weekly Trumpet and Daily News of Anambra State and to Weekly Eagle of Imo State, 1980–83; information consultant to the executive office of the president of Nigeria; consultant to the Federal Ministry of Information; public relations consultant
Memberships: PEN, Society of Nigerian Authors, Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain, Institute of Public Relations (London), Institute of Public Relations (Nigeria), Civil Resource Development and Documentation Center (CIRDDOC) Nigeria.
Awards: Dag Hammarskjold International Prize for Literary Merit, 1969.
Addresses: Home —12 Hillview, Independence Layout, P.O. Box 317, Enugu, Anambra, Nigeria.
stint as a forestry officer. While working in the forest reserves, he wrote adventure stories in rural settings with a view toward publishing them. “In the days in the forest, I was able to reminisce and write. That was when I really began to write for publishing,” he told Nkosi. He also spent several months with the nomadic Fulani people, who later became the subjects of Burning Grass. Yearning for the city, beginning in 1947 he taught English, biology, and chemistry at Igbobi College near Lagos. To his classes he read aloud manuscripts of books for children, Drummer Boy, Passport of Mallam Ilia, and Trouble in From Six, and short stories that he later read every Saturday night on a radio station in Lagos. Many of these stories would eventually become episodes in Ekwensi’s novels.
In such early works as the collections Ikolo the Wrestler and Other Ibo Tales, and An African Night’s Entertainment, the novel Burning Grass, and the juvenile works The Leopard’s Claw and Juju Rock, Ekwensi told stories in a rural setting. In Burning Grass Ekwensi follows the adventures of Mai Sunsaye, who has Sokugo, a wanderlust, and of his family, who try to rescue him. While seeing his protagonists through varied adventures, Ekwensi portrays the lives of the Fulani cattlemen. This early work, which has been considered one of the author’s more “serious” novels, was published by an educational publisher and reissued in 1998.
Yet Ekwensi could not escape the appeal of urban life, for himself or his readers. Due to his radio broadcasts of stories in which he struck a chord in listeners with the portrayal of urban life, Ekwensi earned the national moniker “Your Favourite Story Teller.” He was perhaps also inspired by sorrow over an unsuccessful attempt to court a young woman whose father insisted that she make a marriage of convenience to write the novella When Love Whispers. This short, light romance formed part of what became known as the Onitsha Market school of pulp fiction, and its success inspired Ekwensi to continue in the same vein. Knowing that a writer needs to have a living wage, Ekwensi attended the Yaba School of Pharmacy and then taught at the Lagos School of Pharmacy. All the while, he kept the fire of his creativity burning. He wrote short stories and articles for newspapers and read his work on a Wednesday night show called West African Voices.
Ekwensi turned a series of stories from his Saturday morning radio broadcasts into his first full–length novel, People of the City, which he wrote in ten days, while on his way to pharmacy school in London on a government scholarship. Nigeria’s premier newspaper, The Daily Times, published the novel in installments before it appeared in book form in 1954; it did not see publication in the United States until 15 years later. The episodic nature of the novel, which followed the paths of newcomers to Lagos, garnered negative criticism. This initial blemish to the author’s reputation has followed him because some reviewers discounted his work from the outset. Even so, Ekwensi continued to write prolifically for his readership—the man in the street—but also for more educated readers.
Ekwensi’s 1961 offering, the novel Jagua Nana, tells the story of an aging prostitute named Jagua (named for the Jaguar sports car) who tries to provide for security in her later life through her relationship with a younger man. Yet while this young man is studying law in England, Jagua involves herself in various activities, some dubious, some not. In the end, after she suffers sufficiently, Ekwensi allows her to have happiness. As was to be in several of his other novels, Ekwensi’s moralizing is evident and reform is possible for some characters. For example, in the later novel Iska Ekwensi portrayed a young Ibo widow, Filia, who moves to Lagos after her husband’s death. There she tries to lead a respectable life. While she tries to get an education and responsible employment, she encounters numerous obstacles, which allow Ekwensi to show readers a wide range of urbanités. Yet this novel, published by a European press, could not compete for popularity with its predecessor, Jagua Nana, which caused controversy for its frank portrayal of sexuality. When an Italian movie company wanted to film Jagua Nana, the Nigerian government prevented this effort because it did not want negative portrayals of the country in the media. Ironically, at nearly the same time, Ekwensi won the Dag Hammarskjold International Prize in Literature.
From 1967 to 1969, during the Nigerian civil war, when the eastern part of Nigeria attempted to succeed, Ekwensi served as a government information officer. He mined his experiences during this time to write the 1976 picaresque novel Survive the Peace. In it he realistically portrayed the activities of a radio journalist in the wake of the civil war in Biafra. As he tries to reunite his family, the reporter encounters the violence, destruction, refugees, and relief operations that such chaos engenders. Through flashbacks, Ekwensi also depicts the war itself.
With the market for novels uncertain, Ekwensi found a more sure outlet for his work among the educational and juvenile publishers, writing books for classroom use. He wrote a handful of juvenile works, including novels and collections of short stories, during the 1970s. Finally, after decades of supplementing his writing career by working in broadcasting and doing other public relations work, Ekwensi gave up his day jobs in 1984 to pursue writing full time. He returned to writing adult novels, picking and choosing from his personal “archive” of previously penned manuscripts. He revisited much of his earlier material for the novels Jagua Nana’s Daughter, Motherless Baby, For a Roll of Parchment, and Divided We Stand, which were published in the 1980s. For example, in For a Roll of Parchment he recounted his trip from Nigeria to England, as he had in People of the City. He did, however, update his material to portray post–World War II Nigeria, with its faster pace of life.
While some scholars discounted Ekwensi’s novels, others valued their social realism. Writing in The Emergence of African Fiction, Charles R. Larson put his work in historical perspective: “Local color is their forte, whether it be Ekwensi’s city of chaos, Lagos, or Onitsha …; the Nigerian reader is placed for the first time in a perspective which has been previously unexplored in African fiction.” Placing Ekwensi’s work firmly in the popular idiom, in his 1971 Introduction to Nigerian Literature, Douglas Killam explained the importance of such works: “Popular fiction is always significant as indicating current popular interests and morality. Ekwensi’s work is redeemed (although not saved as art) by his serious concern with the moral issues which inform contemporary Nigerian life. As such they will always be relevant to Nigerian literary history and to Nigerian tradition.”
In the decades since Ekwensi began writing, the Nigerian readership has changed. Unlike the days of the Onishta Market fiction, when books were printed inexpensively and sold cheaply to suit popular taste, at the turn of the millennium few publishing companies controlled the choice of books published; book prices made books often beyond the reach of the masses, so books are found mostly in schools and libraries, which cater to nonfiction and instructional materials. With various forms of media increasing in popularity, the incentive to read has fallen. With fewer people reading for pleasure, novels are in little demand. Because of these circumstances, creative writers suffer. Of this downside, Ekwensi told Larson, as quoted in The Ordeal of the African Writer, “Journalists thrive here, but creative writers get diverted and the creativity gets washed out of them if they must take the bread and butter home.”
At a public lecture in 2000, quoted by Kole AdeOdutola in Africa News, the elderly but still vivacious Ekwensi expressed his desire to “build and nurture young minds in the customs and traditions of their communities” through his writings. He explained, “African writers of the twentieth century inherited the oral literature of our ancestors, and building on that, placed at the centre–stage of their fiction, the values by which we as Africans had lived for centuries. It is those values that make us the Africans that we are—distinguishing between good and evil, justice and injustice, oppression and freedom.” In tune with the times, he had started self–publishing certain of his writings on the Internet. Despite the vagaries of the African publishing world, at age 80 Ekwensi was still pursuing his goal because. As he wrote in his essay for The Essential Ekwensi 15 years earlier, “The satisfaction I have gained from writing can never be quantified.”
People of the City, Andrew Dakers, 1954; revised edition, Fawcett, 1969.
Jagua Nana, Hutchinson & Company, 1961.
Burning Grass, Heineman Educational Books, 1962; reprint, East African Educational Publishers, 1998.
Beautiful Feathers, Hutchinson & Company, 1963.
Iska, Hutchinson & Company, 1966, reprint, Spectrum, 1981.
Survive the Peace, Heineman Educational Books, 1976.
Divided We Stand, Fourth Dimension Publishers, 1980.
Motherless Baby, Fourth Dimension Publishers, 1980.
Jagua Nana’s Daughter, Spectrum Books, 1986.
For a Roll of Parchment, Heineman Educational Books, 1986.
Gone to Mecca, Heinemann, 1991.
(Under name C. O. D. Ekwensi) When Love Whispers, Tabansi Press, 1947.
The Drummer Boy, Cambridge University Press, 1960.
Passport of Mallam Ilia, Cambridge University Press, 1960.
Yaba Roundabout Murder, Tortoise Series Books, 1962.
(Under name C. O. D. Ekwensi)Ikolo the Wrestler and Other Ibo Tales, Thomas Nelson, 1947.
(Under name C. O. D. Ekwensi) The Leopard’s Claw, Thomas Nelson, 1950.
The Great Elephant Bird, Thomas Nelson, 1965.
An African Night’s Entertainment (folklore), African Universities Press, 1962.
Trouble in Form Six, Cambridge University Press, 1966.
Juju Rock, African Universities Press, 1966.
The Boa Suitor, Thomas Nelson, 1966.
Coal Camp Boy, Longman, 1971, reprint, 1981.
Samankwe in the Strange Forest, Longman, 1975, reprint 1985.
Samankwe and the Highway Robbers, Evans, 1979.
Masquerade Time, Heinemann Educational Books, 1992.
King Forever!, Heinemann Educational Books, 1992.
The Rainmaker and Other Stories, African Universities Press, 1965, revised edition, African Universities Press, 1971.
Lokotown and Other Stories, Heinemann Educational Books, 1966.
The Restless City and Christmas Gold, Heinemann, 1975.
(Editor) Festac Anthology of Nigerian Writing, Festac, 1977.
The Rainbow–Tinted Scarf and Other Stories, Evans, 1979.
Ekwensi has been recorded on such works as Cyprian Ekwensi of Nigeria, Voice of America, 1975–79, and Nigerian Writer Cyprian Ekwensi Reading from His Works, Archive of World Literature on Tape, 1988. He is also the author of BBC radio and television scripts. Contributor of articles, reviews, and stories 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 a number of European languages.
Breitinger, Eckhard, “Literature for Younger Readers and Education in Multicultural Contexts,” in Language and Literature in Multicultural Contexts, edited by Satendra Nandan, Univeristy of South Pacific, 1983.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 117: Caribbean and Black African Writers, Gale, 1992.
Emenyonu, Ernest, Cyprian Ekwensi. Evans Brothers, 1974.
Emenyonu, Ernest, editor. The Essential Ekwensi. Heinemann Educational Books, 1987.
Larson, Charles R., The Emergence of African Fiction. Indiana University Press, 1971.
The Ordeal of the African Writer. Zed Books, 2001.
Nazareth, Peter, “Survive the Peace: Cyprian Ekwensi as a Political Novelist,” in Marxism and African Literature, edited by Georg M. Gugelberger, Africa World, 1986.
Nkosi, Lewis, “Interview with Cyprian Ekwensi,” in African Writers Talking, edited by Duerden, Dennis and Cosmo Pieterse, Heinemann Educational Books, 1972.
Okonkwo, Juliet, “Ekwensi and the ‘Something New and Unstable’ in Modern Nigerian Culture,” in Literature and Modern West African Culture, edited by Donatus I. Nwoga, n.p., 1978.
“Popular Urban Fiction and Cyprian Ekwensi,” in European–Language Writing in Sub–Saharan Africa, edited by Albert S. Gerard, Akad. Kiado, 1986.
Africa News Service, October 25, 2001.
African Literature Today, Volume 3, 1969, pp. 2–14; Volume 10, 1979, pp. 202–206.
African Studies Review, Volume 20, 1977, pp. 127–130.
Conch Review of Books: A Literary Supplement on Africa, Volume 3, 1975, pp. 83–86.
English in Africa, Volume 4, 1977, pp. 32–39; Volume 5, 1978, pp. 51–56.
International Fiction Review, Volume 6 1979, pp. 71–72.
Literary Griot: International Journal of Black Expressive Cultural Studies, Fall 1999, pp. 9–22.
Research in African Literatures, Fall 2001.
Transition 1965, pp. 26–33.
World and I, October 2000, p. 254.
Bellagio Publishing Network. http://apm.brookes.ac.uk/ (October 24, 2002.
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Cyprian Ekwensi (born 1921) was a Nigerian writer who stressed description of the locale and whose episodic style was particularly well suited to the short story.
Cyprian Odiatu Duaka Ekwensi was born at Minna in Northern Nigeria on September 26, 1921. He later lived in Onitsha in the Eastern area. He was educated at Achimota College, in lbadan, the Gold Coast, and at the Chelsea School of Pharmacy of London University. He lectured in pharmacy at Lagos and was employed as a pharmacist by the Nigerian Medical Corporation. Ekwensi married Eunice Anyiwo, and they had five children.
After favorable reception of his early writing, he joined the Nigerian Ministry for Information and had risen to be the director of that agency by the time of the first military coup in 1966. After the continuing disturbances in the Western and Northern regions in the summer of 1966, Ekwensi gave up his position and relocated his family at Enugu. He became chair of the Bureau for External Publicity in Biafra and an adviser to the head of state, Col. Odumegwu Ojukwu.
Ekwensi began his writing career as a pamphleteer, and this perhaps explains the episodic nature of his novels. This tendency is well illustrated by People of the City (1954), in which Ekwensi gave a vibrant portrait of life in a West African city. It was the first major novel to be published by a Nigerian. Two novellas for children appeared in 1960; both The Drummer Boy and The Passport of Mallam Ilia were exercises in blending traditional themes with undisguised romanticism.
Ekwensi's most widely read novel, Jagua Nana, appeared in 1961. It was a return to the locale of People of the City but boasted a much more cohesive plot centered on the character of Jagua, a courtesan who had a love for the expensive. Even her name was a corruption of the expensive English auto. Her life personalized the conflict between the old traditional and modern urban Africa. Ekwensi published a sequel in 1987 titled Jagua Nana's Daughter.
Burning Grass (1961) is basically a collection of vignettes concerning a Fulani family. Its major contribution is the insight it presents into the life of this pastoral people. Ekwensi based the novel and the characters on a real family with whom he had previously lived. Between 1961 and 1966 Ekwensi published at least one major work every year. The most important of these were the novels, Beautiful Feathers (1963) and Iska (1966), and two collections of short stories, Rainmaker (1965) and Lokotown (1966). Ekwensi continued to publish beyond the 1960s, and among his later works are the novel Divided We Stand (1980), the novella Motherless Baby (1980), and The Restless City and Christmas Gold (1975), Behind the Convent Wall (1987), and Gone to Mecca (1991).
Ekwensi also published a number works for children. Under the name C. O. D. Ekwensi, he released Ikolo the Wrestler and Other Ibo Tales (1947) and The Leopard's Claw (1950). In the 1960s, he wrote An African Night's Entertainment (1962), The Great Elephant-Bird (1965), and Trouble in Form Six (1966). Ekwensi's later works for children include Coal Camp Boy (1971), Samankwe in the Strange Forest (1973), Samankwe and the Highway Robbers (1975), Masquerade Time! (1992), and King Forever! (1992). In recognition of his skills as a writer, Ekwensi was awarded the Dag Hammarskjold International Prize for Literary Merit in 1969.
Among the studies in which Ekwensi's work and life are discussed are Ulli Beier, ed., Introduction to African Literature (1967); Ezekiel Mphahlele, ed., African Writing Today (1967); Oladele Taiwo, An Introduction to West African Literature (1967); Martin Tucker, Africa in Modern Literature: A Survey of Contemporary Writing in English (1967); and Margaret Laurence, Long Drums and Cannons: Nigerian Dramatists and Novelists, 1952-1966 (1968). □
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