The JP Clark I knew – Prof. Hope Eghagha

The JP Clark I knew – Prof. Hope Eghagha

Friday, October 15, 2021 5:41 pm

The late JP Clark and Professor Hope Eghagha

The late JP Clark and Professor Hope Eghagha

Memories of Professor John Bekederemo Clark, poet, playwright, writer, academic and essayist, who passed on on 13 October, 2020, are forever etched in the minds of literary buffs across the globe. Not only was he one of the three literary giants who shot Nigeria to global prominence, he was also very active in the Nigerian literary space.

It was for these reasons that the Department of English, University of Lagos, the Department of English, University of Ibadan and the family of JP Clark organised a three day literary fiesta tagged, The First JP Clark Memorial in honour of the highly accomplished writer.

The event, which held between Monday, 11 and Wednesday, 13 October 2021 was headlined by Nobel laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka and featured distinguished scholars and writers such as Professors Nduka Otiono, Mabel Evwherhoma,. Tanure Ojaide and Saint Gbilaka.

Professor Hope Eghagha of the University of Lagos, who was one of the organizers of the fiesta, moderated it alongside Professor Femi Osofisan.  

Eghagha, in this interview with NEHRU ODEH speaks about why the fiesta was held in honour of JP Clark, his recollections of the distinguished writer and the role Clark’s family played in organizing the event.   

Why did the English Department, UNILAG, organize a literary feast in honour of Prof. JP Clark?

Two reasons: Professor John Bekederemo Clark was the first Nigerian Head of Department of English as a professor.  And he spent his academic career as a professor in the University of Lagos, where he influenced the curriculum, teaching and development of the department until he retired in the early 80s. Second reason is that he is one of the foremost poets of Nigerian literature belonging to the very first generation of writers along with Wole Soyinka, Christopher Okigbo and Chinua Achebe. They formed the first set of writers who shot Nigeria to literary prominence through their writings, their poetry, prose fiction and drama.  One year after his death, it is simply just befitting of the city to honour its legacy in such a manner.

You had a very close relationship with Professor JP Clark before he died. How would you describe him?

JP Clark was a man who was a writer in and out. He dreamt writing, ate writing and practised writing in the sense that he wrote profound poetry, profound drama and remained prolific until he died. He was very kind if you were close to him. He had this demeanour, this façade of someone who doesn’t smile, who is very strict. But if you get to the other side of him, you would find a jolly man who liked the good things in a decent way. He was a mentor. He had this self-confidence that he is good. He had no apologies for it.  He didn’t suffer fools gladly you may say. Not a perfect human being, but he was a man who believed in excellence. I remember he once told me that he decided to retire early when he started reading scripts at postgraduate level in the Department of English that had grammatical errors. He said that is one of the reasons he said look this is the time to leave. And he did. He took an early retirement and spent the rest of his life writing and being active in the cause of the Nigerian state.

What fond memories do you have of JP Clark? Could you mention one or two of them?

Yes, we had a conference in his honour and I saw that he could be excited and show it, helpful, suggestive. When he heard that we wanted to do the conference he was very appreciative. I could see that he was someone who could be very appreciative of little things you may not know. But he also was not happy when people flippantly interpreted his work. So I have a memory of somebody who was kind, who could be generous, who loved his family, who related well with all the younger ones, because I was at home with him. There were no airs, always casually dressed. I was a guest of his at Kiagbodo. I was also guest of his in his house here in Lagos.

In the build up to the conference did you have any challenges arranging with his family?

No, no, no. The family is in full support of everything, including the widow, who has been very active to promote the legacy of her husband. She’s been devoted. She had been by his side all his life. And now posthumously, she is also involved in sustaining his legacy, which, as you know, did not receive the appropriate attention while was alive. His family, the wife and his children have been very supportive. They are keen on making sure that their father’s legacy endures and in the department as well we teach his work and they will endure.

For some reasons the critics did not pay close attention to the literary merit of the work of JP Clark. And now that he’s gone, we need to sustain that. His works need to remain in the public space, both in the academia, social media and academic journals and all.  So that is it. That’s what we are doing. He was also Head of Department of English and University of Ibadan, UI, where he studied. These two universities were deeply involved in the business of promoting his legacy.

Professor Wole Soyinka is headlining this memorial. What was his reaction when you wanted to get him involved?

 Professor Wole Soyinka has been very supportive and friendly with Professor JP Clark. If you recall, when we did the conference in honour of JP – there had been two or three previous attempts to hold a conference and study the works of JP Clark, they all flopped.  But this time, when we wanted to host it, once we told him and then we said we wanted Professor Wole Soyinka to give the keynote, he got across to Professor Soyinka himself. He did. And without much ado Professor Wole Soyinka agreed, even at short notice, to give that keynote.  Then this time too, although he was in transit, and very busy he agreed to headline the literary feast.

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