Omatseye: Back with a bang
Sam Omatseye has something good cooking. Barely a year after he presented two poetry collections, ‘Mandela's Bones and Other Poems' and ‘Dear Baby Ramatu', the chair of the editorial board of ‘Nation' newspapers is ready to serve up some more offerings.
A novel, ‘Crocodile Girl'; collection of poems, ‘Lion Wind and Other Poems' and ‘In Touch', a collection of some of his essays published in his column in the ‘Nation' on Monday since 2006, will be presented on Wednesday, June 15, at MUSON Centre, Lagos. The occasion will double as celebration of Omatseye's 50th birthday. The columnist is in an upbeat mood.
But isn't releasing three new works a year after two others rather too fast?
The former journalism lecturer at Colorado State University in the United States fires back: "What's fast about it? Shakespeare was believed to have written furiously. He wrote fast. Conrad did not start writing on time. He didn't learn a word of English until about 19 or so and he didn't publish any novel until his 30s but he made sure he published a novel a year until he died at the age of 72. So, it depends on when the idea comes. As they say, you can't stand in the way of a flood."
Not magical realism
Unlike his poetry, ‘Crocodile Girl' took longer to write. He did much of the work last year. Although the work appears to be magical realism, judging by its title, the former deputy editor of ‘Sunday Concord' says: "It is not; it is a tale that exploits our people's penchant for superstition and the concept of demigods in our culture."
The novel was inspired by a true story his father told him years ago about a woman in one of the villages in Itsekiri land. "She was so beautiful people thought that she probably was not human. They said when she went to the river, when they spied on her, she turned into a crocodile and swam in the river but she became a woman again when she got back on land. So when I was in the US, I was looking at race relations, which obsessed me for many years and the issue of slavery which as a graduate of History had always been in my consciousness, came into focus in examining the relationship between Blacks, Africans and Caucasian in the US. That was how the whole idea of writing a story about a Black woman who had a slave background, who married a white man came into being."
Has he overcome his obsession with race?
"I'm still obsessed with the issue. I'm always obsessed with the issue of ethnicity and ethnicism in Nigeria. Why people cannot rise against certain minimal issues of courtesy and understanding. Why little issues can turn people into monsters. Two peoples who are neighbours, they are nice to each other; suddenly, they turn to monsters."
Focus on nature
While some writers have pre-determined themes, it is not the same for the recipient of the Alfred Friendly Press Fellowship. As he puts it: "When I am writing a story or poem, I'm not thinking about preoccupation. I'm overwhelmed by how the words I'm putting together are going to make sense. It is afterwards that I bring my conscious part on it and start saying maybe what I have just said now is about this or about that."
Politics, governance and materialism are some of the issues Omatseye touched on in ‘Mandela's Bones and Other Poems'. This time, his muse led him to focus on nature. "For instance, in the lead poem, ‘Lion Wind', the lion stands for Asiwaju [Bola Tinubu], who they call ‘Lion of Bourdillon'. I am using the nature metaphor to tell stories. So, you have ‘Lion Wind', ‘Pollutant', ‘The Haiti ‘Quake', ‘Python', ‘The Canary' and some few others in the collection. Though I looked at other issues, the main focus was nature."
Politics is an integral part of Omatseye's writings and it will continue to be so for a while. "You cannot divorce politics from my writings because I am a political animal," he reiterates. "A critic once said, ‘there is no work of art that has no politics'. To me, we cannot discuss the issue of race, slavery and alienation without concentrating on politics. Every narrative is ultimately politics."
Omatseye's favourite writers include poets William Blake and Leopold Sedar Senghor, and novelist Joseph Conrad.
A good writer but...
No stranger to controversy for some of the views he espouses in his weekly column, Omatseye drew a lot of flak sometime ago for his commentary on why Chinua Achebe has not won the Nobel Prize. According to him, the formal properties of the writer's ‘Things Fall Apart' "falls short". It is a work of a powerful theme, affecting a great sweep of African history, the age of colonialism. But for most part, it gives more material for Sociology."
Did he expect the negative reactions he got? "I can't say I didn't but I didn't expect it to that extent. My point about Achebe does not make me think he is not a good writer; I am just saying people should not give him the credit that does not belong to him. Achebe is a good storyteller but his best work is not even the one people are making noise about. His best work is ‘Arrow of God', which is by all accounts a profound work. But it's not as profound as Golding's ‘Lord of the Flies', Shakespeare's ‘Julius Caesar' or Soyinka's ‘Death and the King's Horseman'.
So, while we appreciate the story for its simplicity, we should appreciate it for its level in the pantheon of works. That's my point. I am not trying to derogate him. It's a good work for researchers. In fact, I have met a lot of people in the US who were looking at ‘Things Fall Apart' not so much for the literary merit but because of information that they gleaned from it for African, Nigerian and Igbo cultures."