Authors: Cyprian Ekwensi

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Nigerian novelist

Author Works

Long Fiction:

When Love Whispers, 1947

People of the City, 1954, revised 1963

Jagua Nana, 1961

Burning Grass, 1962

Yaba Roundabout Murder, 1962

Beautiful Feathers, 1963

Iska, 1966

Divided We Stand, 1980

For a Roll of Parchment, 1986

Jagua Nana’s Daughter, 1986

Short Fiction:

Lokotown, and Other Stories, 1966

Gone to Mecca, 1991

Children’s/Young Adult Literature:

The Passport of Mallam Ilia, 1960

An African Night’s Entertainment, 1962

Juju Rock, 1966

The Boa Suitor, 1966

The Drummer Boy, 1991

Masquerade Time, 1991

King for Ever!, 1992

Biography

Cyprian Odiatu Duaka Ekwensi (eh-KWEHN-see) has an important but controversial place in contemporary Nigerian English-language literature. He was one of the first authors to publish a new type of national literature, one that employed English rather than a Nigerian mother tongue. This phenomenon later spread to numerous other African countries. In Nigeria, the early 1950’s saw the development of a major local literature that soon achieved worldwide distinction. In particular, novelist Chinua Achebe and Nobel Prize-winning dramatist Wole Soyinka earned an international acclaim that ranked them among the great twentieth century authors. To understand why Ekwensi has not received similar respect one must look to the historical background, which requires brief comment on the status of English in independent Nigeria.{$I[AN]9810001277}{$I[A]Ekwensi, Cyprian}{$I[geo]NIGERIA;Ekwensi, Cyprian}{$I[tim]1921;Ekwensi, Cyprian}

Under the colonial administration, English became the official national language of the multilingual state, a lingua franca that was the regular medium of school instruction and the second language of its citizens. In practice the quality of the English used ranged from a full pidgin to the highly competent English of the university educated, which retained only minor peculiarities of local usage. As the most populous African country, Nigeria educated its citizens to varying degrees of English linguistic ability. Now literate, they sought reading materials that were not available in their own languages but only in English. The range of publications resulting to fulfill this need was as extreme as the competence in usage. One type of writing that served this demand was the so-called Onitsha novels. On the somewhat primitive presses located in the town of Onitsha, entrepreneurs crudely printed a large number of story books, about twenty pages long. These cheap products were very popular because they were written in a lively, local English that approximated the idioms spoken by readers. These books depicted the startling and exciting opportunities presented by independence and the decay of the inhibitions imposed by the restrictive tradition. Passionate love stories, tales of city corruption–all concluding on a heavily moralizing note–were eagerly purchased by those who found in their romantic plots a glamorized version of their own expectations.

Because Ekwensi’s work originated from such publications, it is easy to see how the association tainted his subsequent reputation. Although the most prolific of Nigerian writers, Ekwensi was thought to exhibit none of the seriousness appropriate to major literature, exemplified by Achebe’s Hardy-like recording of the idealized past. The issue is further complicated by the vexing question of audience. The outsiders who have tended to shape the judgment of African literature honor Achebe’s controlled academic diction. Yet Nigerians read with delight Ekwensi’s thrilling tales of the high life of modern Lagos, which until the mid-1980’s in the conventional critical judgment were considered too popular and too shallow to be respected. However, much of the re-evaluation of his art and its contribution to the African literary opus in the last five years has made Ekwensi an important literary figure to be reckoned with. In fact, outside literature, Ekwensi’s background was as intellectual as any of his peers. He had a university education before taking postgraduate pharmaceutical work in London. He also held a series of important scientific government posts. As an author, however, he sought for his books a popular readership of those who would understand and enjoy the dilemmas of his larger-than-life characters. His characters all have an enormous, if somewhat vulgar vigor, and they greedily seek profit and excitement in the frenzied chaos of contemporary Lagos. Ekwensi’s novels describe a way of life that totally reverses the assumptions of the innumerable solemn volumes of other writers, which concentrate on recalling the noble rituals of traditional village life. His plots are improbable and confusing, his characters often mere puppets, but it is his energy and enthusiasm, and theirs, that attracts.

The novel People of the City could almost be a collection of unrelated stories. In it, Ekwensi depicts a world ignored by more cautious authors: a society of opportunist women, the nouveau riche, and those innocents who are exploited by them. The most successful novel is Jagua Nana. Its heroine has an elemental force; she is a good-time girl, an optimistic whore with the conventional heart of gold. The name “Nana” recalls the ultimate courtesan of Émile Zola. “Jagua” does not derive from the lithe movement of the jungle cat but from the British Jaguar car. To own Jagua, or a Jaguar, is of equal prestige in this greedy, exhibitionist society. Iska has similar melodramatic characteristics of plot: An innocent young girl is lured to the big city by its dazzling opportunities and encounters its dangers and cruelties.

Unlike many African novels, Ekwensi’s works are consistently interesting. Perhaps they might best be judged as sociological studies of the new society, both vital and corrupt, apparently indifferent to everything but the acquisition of money, the manipulations of power, and the enjoyment of sex. His fascination with such topics denies Ekwensi the high literature market that sustains the sales of some African writers. Only with Burning Grass, a sensitive tale of the Fulani herdsmen of northern Nigeria, does he draw upon traditional life, and even there he rapidly abandons his description of that nomadic existence and describes instead the excitements of the jet-set living among the new political elite.

While it may be difficult to attribute great literary distinction to Ekwensi, one must be ever mindful of Ekwensi’s own assertion that he regarded himself as a writer for the masses, “a popular writer, and a popular writer in English.” Nevertheless, he depicted with accuracy and passion the frightening changes wrought by modern commerce, changes that have destroyed the dignified traditions of old Nigeria. He expressed well the externally imposed moral debasement of life in modern Lagos.

BibliographyEdjeren, Felix. Four Fathers of African Fiction: A Critique of Artistic Flares and Flaws in the Major Works of Amos Tutuola, Cyprian Ekwensi, Chinua Achebe, and Elechi Amadi. Warri, Nigeria: Eregha, Ughelli, 1998. Assesses Ekwensi’s place in Nigerian literature.Emenyonu, Ernest. Cyprian Ekwensi. London: Evans Brothers, 1974. A full-length study of Ekwensi’s works.Emenyonu, Ernest. The Essential Ekwensi: A Literary Celebration of Cyprian Ekwensi’s Sixty-fifth Birthday. Ibadan, Nigeria: Heinemann, 1987. A collection of essays.Nazareth, Peter. “Survive the Peace: Cyprian Ekwensi as a Political Novelist.” In Marxism and African Literature, edited by Georg M. Gugelberger. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 1986. A valuable resource for providing context.Obiechina, Emmanuel. Culture, Tradition, and Society in the West African Novel. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1975. Provides important critical analysis of Ekwensi’s novels.Palmer, Eustace. The Growth of the African Novel: A Study of Onitsha Market Pamphlets. Exeter, N.H.: Heinemann, 1979. Useful background information on the history of African literature.Povey, John. “Cyprian Ekwensi: The Novelist and the Pressure of the City.” In The Critical Evaluation of African Literature, edited by Edgar Wright. Washington, D.C.: INSCAPE, 1976. An insightful essay on themes in Ekwensi’s work.
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