Creativity from Chaos: The Nigerian Scene

Creativity from Chaos: The Nigerian Scene

Sunday, October 31, 2021 8:00 am

Dr. Chris Anyokwu

By Chris Anyokwu

If the Hebrew account of Genesis is to be believed, we are given to believe that Yahweh created the earth, ex nihilo nihil fit or “nothing comes from nothing”, which means that all things were formed from pre-existing things, an idea by the Greek philosopher Parmenides (c. 540 – 480B.C) about the nature of all things, and later more formally stated by Titus Lucretius Carus (c. 99 – c.55 B.C.) ( That is to say, God of the Jews created the universe out of the original watery chaos.  Bible historians and exegetes tell us that, that was chaos or catastrophe, instigated, in the main, by ethereal demiurges who had joined battle with the Almighty, the creator Himself.

God created the world out of chaos. Photo credit: Pray4Zion

John Milton in Paradise Lost sets forth in epic cadences this Biblical myth of creation, positing that Satan and his infernal company were defeated by God in the aforesaid battle and thereafter God created the universe as the habitation of humankind.  But the aporeticmud in this divine act of creation was that God had banished Satan and his hosts to the world of matter, human habitation.

John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Good Books photo

The presence of Satan and his company in the world has remained an eternal source of crisis and chaos and catastrophe for all creation, Satan being the very embodiment of everything that is felicitous, good and beautiful.  Creativity itself has thus been provoked by man’s perennial attempts at resisting the negation of felicity, of equilibrium counteracted by the fallen angels, with Satan in the lead.

Recently I participated in a zoom programme tagged “Creative Writing in the Era of Covid-19: Matters Arising”.  One of the talking points, actually raised by Nduka Otiono, one of the discussants, who had joined us from far-away Canada, was: What inspires creativity?  Is it pain or pleasure?  Has the new coronavirus pandemic been a boon or a bane to creative writers, given the global lockdown it had caused?  This topic became the overarching focus of the virtual jaw-jaw.  Expectedly, opinion was divided on the matter.  Whilst some argued that pleasure or a state of equilibrium inspires them to the heights of creative afflatus, others effectively poured cold water on the idea, countering instead that pleasure or happiness or satiety blunts the edge of their creative ire, lulls them into creative somnambulism.

Nduka Otiono

They likened that state of affairs to asking an overfed person to prepare food for famished people.  That cook, they contended, is not likely to be able to appreciate the urgency of need, especially from the viewpoint of the famished.  They posited further, in the same connection, that it is pain and not pleasure that provokes or inspires literary creativity.  Thus while some creative writers could not bring themselves to put pen to paper on account of the chaos of uncertainty, the palpable feeling of ennui and the psycho-emotional paralysis brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic, with thousands of people reportedly dying across the shell-shocked world, other members of the writers’ commune couldn’t have been more motivated and inspired.  For this latter group of artists and writers, it’s morning yet on creation day.  The chaos, the confusion, the paralysing helplessness with the accompanying brittleness of hope were grist to their creative mills.  Their example reminds us of their precursors, those who created great works of art under insupportable storm and stress.


For instance, at the time his son, Hamnet, died, William Shakespeare was writing primarily comedies, and that writing continued until a few years after Hamnet’s death (1585 – 1596) when his major tragedies were written.  Samuel Johnson translated A Voyage to Abyssinia, by Jeronimo Lobo, a tome by a Portuguese missionary about the country now known as Ethiopia.  For his part, T.S. Eliot wrote The Wasteland after experiencing a series of personal crises that eventuated in exhaustion and depression and a brief period of psychotherapy.  Virginia Woolf was institutionalised several times and attempted suicide at least twice.  Her illness may have been bipolar disorder.  In 1941, at age 59, Woolf, a leading feminist and modern(ist) novelist, a leading member of the famous Bloomsbury Circle, died by drowning herself in the River Ouse at Lewes.  Before her, Alexander Pope, who was lame due to tuberculosis of the bone, had defied his deformity and disability to create several magnum opuses including The Rape of the Lock, An Essay on Man and An Essay on Criticism, etc.

As a matter of fact, Pope, who wrote under an

Alexander Pope. ThoughtCo photo

incredibly difficult social environment fraught with religious hostilities (being a Catholic in a predominantly Anglican society) was the first English author to live completely on the earnings from his writing.  Others before him had survived on the patronage of the palace.  What can we say about writers such as Coleridge, John Keats, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Charles Dickens and James Joyce?  All of these writers without exception created from chaos of one form or another.  For some, it was ill-health, for others, it was either indigency or persecution.

Charles Dickens. HistoryExtra photo

On the African continent, writers like Dennis Brutus, Alex La Guma, NgugiWa’Thiong’o, Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe wrote their justly-celebrated masterpieces while the maw of crises.  Dennis Brutus, La Guma and Ngugi, all suffered imprisonment and the brutalisation of body and mind.  They all eventually fled their lands for exile.  Brutus’s A Simple Lust, La Guma’sThe Stone Country and A Walk in the Night and Ngugi’s Devil On the Cross attest to their carceral and, later, exilic trauma.  Soyinka is well-known for his life-long activism as well as the botched peace-making efforts he had made in order to stop the Nigeria-Biafra Civil War.  He was put in solitary confinement for much of the duration of the war.  To keep his sanity during this period of extreme lonesomeness, he had resorted to writing as a form of psychotherapy.  His non-fictional memoir The Man Died and his poetry collection, A Shuttle in the Crypt eloquently highlight this.

Professor Wole Soyinka. Photo by Ayo Efunla

By the same token, Chinua Achebe, unarguably the doyen of the modern African novel, was involved in an auto crash on March 22, 1990 and was consequently paralysed.  For the next three years before his death on March 21, 2013 at 82, Achebe never ceased creating great works of imaginative art.  He wrote the popular non-fictional memoir entitled There Was A Country during this period of intensely difficult personal crisis.

Chinua Achebe.

Mariama Ba, the Senegalese author of the hugely popular novella, So Long ALetter, wrote her second novel The Scarlet Song right in the teeth of cancer that snuffed out her life shortly after completing the masterpiece.  Commenting on the relationship between chaos and creativity, NiyiOsundare posits: “A writer has no business not writing.  I agree […] that the situation in Africa today is daunting like the situation in the world is daunting […] I think there is a way in which writing itself thrives on those kinds of misery.

Professor Niyi Osundare

There is something called the Columbian Syndrome.  I think that became popular with Garcia Marquez, the Columbian writer.  It was Marquez who said when he was asked. “How do you write in a situation like this?” “Maybe if this situation had not existed I wouldn’t have written.  It is painful quite all right, but it is also an inspiration” (See Asomwan Sunny Adagbonyin’sNiyiOsundare, p. 73).  In an essay entitled “OponIfa’sRebirth: Chaos and Creativity in Our Literary Compound”, Femi Osofisan remarks: “The fable of art[…] is the product of psychotic expression.  And the reason for this is that the Muse of Art is, invariably, the Muse of Anomy.” He elucidates further: “[T]he gods of Creativity arrive to possess their worshippers only at such moments when these votaries are in acute distress when they are sunk in situations of deep emotional and psychological crisis, or lost in ecstatic delirium.”

Professor Femi Osofisan

Osofisan, not done yet, goes on to reiterate the same argument in another context, this time in an Award-Winner’s Lecture (2011) delivered before an august audience of the Nigerian National Merit Award.  In the lecture captioned: “The Muse of Power and the Apologues of Pain: Literature in the Forest of a Thousand Dystopias”, Femi Osofisan muses thus: “In the long and capacious territory of the Muse, pain cannot be said to be a stranger.  Indeed, sorrow and suffering have always been a primordial presence in the shrine of art, like Esu on Orunmila’s divination tray.  Perverse or paradoxical as it may seem, human anguish is a worn and familiar tool in the forge of the raconteur.  It will therefore be hard, if not impossible, to think of any folk tale, for instance, any epic narration however ancient, that is without a catalytic ingredient of hurt.”

Against the backcloth of the foregoing discourse, we are constrained to reflect on the current anomalous and dystopian state of affairs in our country, Nigeria.  Since late 2019 when the Covid-19 pandemic broke, Nigeria, like the rest of the world, has been in a state of arrested development.  Many lives have been lost to the invisible but deadly virus.  Many people have lost their jobs, a parlous situation that has plunged many homes into a state of hopelessness.  Hunger now stalks the parched land.  Both citizen and country now go a-borrowing to survive.  The situation in the land is as distressing as it is (some would argue) hopeless!  Unverified reports trending on social media claim that some Nigerian parents are selling their children for food.  Whilst some breadwinners are going into violent crime like armed robbery and kidnapping for ransom in order to make ends meet, women, including married ones, are returning to the world’s oldest profession, prostitution, just to survive.  Dante’s Inferno can’t be hotter or tougher than this neck of woods, this post-colonial hell-hole called Nigeria.

Dante. Vatican News

Amidst these “thousand dystopias”, our young writers who manage to write tend to sensationalise anomie.  They fail to deeply muse on and engage with pain, with chaos in order to distil nuggets of wisdom from it.  What does pain teach us?  What did suffering teach Job?  What does sorrow of heart teach King Lear?  Is pain such a bad thing in the grand scheme of things?  Can we canalise and alchemise chaos, catastrophe, or pain into the vintage wine of tragic joy?  It is simply difficult to get easy answers to these questions given the starkly barren intellectual landscape that confronts us at the present time.  The old problem of poor reading culture among our people is still unresolved and, if anything is worsening.  The intellectual laziness of the present generation has been made worse by the ubiquity of the internet.  Such is the obsession with the internet and its addictive apps among our young people that they are simply not interested in old-fashioned, rigorous academic research.  There is no time at all for reflection.  All they know is vicarious experience of life’s many twists and turns.  Under these circumstances, truth, as Plato tells us in The Republic,is not just accessed from three removes, it is nowhere to be found.  We can only make do with approximations at best.  Unsurprisingly, therefore, Chris Anyokwu in a publication entitled “Nigerian Poetry and the Lost/Careless Generation” bemoans the poor and dismal state of poetry-making in contemporary Nigeria.  But we must remind ourselves that, before the advent of European colonisation of Africa, Africans had their various media and modes of artistic expression.  There was folklore under which we have folktales, myths, oral narratives of different types, legends, oral histories, epic narratives, riddles and jokes, and proverbs.  How about the numerous colourful festivals, rites of passage, songs and dances?

Traditional Africa also boasts of different genres and sub-genres of oral poetry.  All of these which constitute the mainstay of our oral tradition remain a constant and inexhaustible source of inspiration, a cornucopian repository of tropes for the latter-day literate artist.  (See Irele’sThe African Experience in Literature and Ideology).  The African Novel or The Novel in Africa is a domestication of the imported from, the novel.    Ruth Finnegan, the Scottish oral scholar in The Oral Literature in Africa declares erroneously that Africa does not have the epic like the West does, e.g. The Epic of Gilgamesh, Homer’s Iliad and The Odyssey and Spencer’s The Faery Queene. Isidore Okpewho went to Columbia University, USA to debunk that fallacy by doing his doctorate, researching The Epic in Africa.  However, given the universality of poetry, Western scholars have been hard put to it to deny Africans their innate predilection for verse-making.

Ruth Finnegan. Callender Press photo

Even so, one is constrained to ask: what is the fate and/or future of poetry in Nigeria with the growing influence of New Media, computer-generated hypertexts and the like?  Also: in terms of literary genres and modes, where are our own indigenous or endogenous forms?  Chinua Achebe in his famous essay entitled “The Novelist as Teacher” examines the heuristic role of the African artist and concludes that: “I would be quite satisfied if my novels (especially the ones I set in the past) did no more than teach my readers that their past – with all its imperfections – was not one long night of savagery from which the first Europeans acting on God’s behalf delivered them.  Perhaps what I write is applied art as distinct from pure.” From this statement by Achebe, we can surmise that much of what constitutes African literature today is applied art.  Homi K. Bhabha in The Location of Culture calls it mimicry or “hybrid” art.  Frantz Fanon in Black Skin, White Masks describes the same notion of “double consciousness” that rips the soul of the African asunder.

Frantz Fanon

The content of his art is African, but the medium of expression is foreign (i.e., English, French or Portuguese).  Whether it is prose fiction, drama or poetry, it is the same dilemma (see Obi Wali’s “The Dead-End of African Literature?”).  Bottom-line: so long as Nigerian, nay, African literature is composed in any language other than indigenous African languages, our literature is condemned forever to cultural and, hence, epistemic mongrelism.  For it is only a bastard that points to his family house with the left hand.  Since Nigerian writers are inescapably trapped in English as their medium of artistic expression, what effort are they making to, at least, domesticate the western-derived genres and modes?  How are they trying to “apply” (Achebe’s word) or reconfigure the borrowed forms, such as fantasy, magical/marvellous realism, sci-fi, western, crime genres, realism, naturalism, modernism, postmodernism and the digital novelisation of human experience inter alia?  How, also, are they domesticating fiction, non-fiction, drama and poetry as institutionalised forms of artistic representation?  What new or novel directions and trends are Nigerian writers inaugurating in the major genre of literature?  How are our kith and kin in the Diaspora helping out?  To be certain, what kind of relationship exists between Diaspora and Home in this regard? Chummy or adversarial?

So far we have argued that, contrary to the belief that it is pleasure or happiness that inspires creativity, it is chaos, it is pain that inspires creativity in humans from time immemorial.  Yes, we are at present going through existential insecurity induced by the on-going Covid-19 pandemic.  Nigerians have never had it so bad economically speaking.  People are really suffering untold economic hardships in Nigeria which is regarded as the poverty capital of the world.  But just as writers and artists of old rose to the occasion with their pens, showing society the way forward, present-day Nigerian writers have no excuse not producing great works of imaginative art.  They say when life gives you lemon, you turn it into lemonade.  However, for our writers to be able to do that, I mean write in the midst of chaos, there is need for greater funding of education by government.  On their part, writers must strive to get grants and residences to enable them to write in conducive environments.  Established authors also must help organise clinics and workshops for budding writers.

So far we have argued that, contrary to the belief that it is pleasure or happiness that inspires creativity, it is chaos, it is pain that inspires creativity in humans from time immemorial.  Yes, we are at present going through existential insecurity induced by the on-going Covid-19 pandemic.  Nigerians have never had it so bad economically speaking.  People are really suffering untold economic hardships in Nigeria which is regarded as the poverty capital of the world.  But just as writers and artists of old rose to the occasion with their pens, showing society the way forward, present-day Nigerian writers have no excuse not producing great works of imaginative art. 

They need to mentor the young ones.  Further, government must help establish and subsidise publishing firms to provide outlets for would-be authors to get their works published.  There is also urgent need to establish digital libraries across the nation, book clubs in secondary schools and tertiary institutions of learning as well as organise quarterly writing competitions among our emergent writers.  But, more importantly, the so-called Town-Gown synergy must include a programme in which university scholars and writers must go to our villages to seek out oral bards, raconteurs, poets, etc. and record their works, transcribe and translate them and publish them for the benefit of all.

Sulaiman Ajilara Ajobiewe is one of Nigeria’s legendary Yoruba Esa Oriki Orile exponents. City People photo

Our oral artists are some of our greatest sources of cultural identity and pride.  They are dying out fast and therefore, it is vital and imperative to commit their artistic wealth to retrievable forms of memory before it is too late.  This is one huge area of collaborative research awaitingour researchers and scholars across disciplines.  This Town-Gown synergy will go a long way in helping us decolonise knowledge production in Nigeria.

Perhaps we should end this essay by quoting an important excerpt from Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah:

“So why do I say that the story is chief among his fellows? The same reason I think our people sometimes will give the name Nkolika to their daughters- Recalling-Is-Greatest.  Why?  Because it is only the story can continue beyond the war and the warrior.  It is the story that outlives the sound of war-drums and the exploits of brave fighters.  It is the story, not the others that saves our progeny from blundering like blind beggars into the spikes of the cactus fence.  The story is our escort; without it, we are blind.  Does the blind man own his escort?  No, neither do we the story; rather it is the story that owns us and directs us.”


*Chris Anyokwu writes from the University of Lagos.



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