Oct. 13, 2008
Umezurike's writing reflects the pain of Nigeria's recent history
Uche Umezurike took literary inspiration as a young man from Shakespeare and John Donne, but much of his mature fiction and poetry takes its substance from the political, cultural and environmental travails of Nigeria's recent history.
Umezurike, who is in residence this fall in the University of Iowa International Writing Program (IWP), was personally shielded from much of his country's traumas. He was the son of a middle-class family -- his parents worked in the textile and pharmaceutical industries -- that had the resources to flee the violence that overtook the vast, chaotic capital Lagos in the early 1990s. He moved to the family's ancestral city in the Niger Delta, where he lived with an uncle who was a biochemistry professor.
And yet he was sensitive to the pain and hopelessness around him in a country ruled by a repressive, corrupt military regime that assassinated political opponents and gave shoot-to-kill orders if the people demonstrated. Schools and colleges were shut down for months at a time.
"The government went into a politician's house, and they shot him down," he says. "Sometimes they killed the children and killed the wife, or sometimes there was an explosion. So there was all this intimidation. I became quite sensitive to very negative things. There was so much pain, so much anger. You could see it in people's faces.
"Political opponents, human rights activists and writers were hunted and sent to a very terrible prison and were treated like criminals. If you voiced your discontent against the government, you were treated like a criminal. People lived in fear and were traumatized. Inflation was terrible, and people who worked for the government weren't paid their salaries for months.
"There was so much hopelessness in Nigeria. Little by little people were being dispossessed of the essence of their lives."
That dark era came to an end in 1999, but many of the conditions in the country are still bleak, with endemic corruption, violence and environmental degradation. "It's only now that people are breathing a sigh of relief in Nigeria," he says. "There is so much more freedom now, but the conditions have improved only minimally."
Lagos, for example, is home to 10 million people, making it one of the largest cities in the world. Without access to an efficient transportation system, many workers spend three to four hours maneuvering to work through a bustling, garbage-strewn megalopolis of open sewers.
In the Niger Delta, westerners are kidnapped for ransom, the fishing industry has been crippled by oil slicks, and acid rain falls.
Money from the country's oil production often disappears into corrupt pockets. There is no free education or social services, food is expensive, and electrical blackouts are still common.
But Umezurike's writing points to a more positive future for which he sees the potential. "The resources are there for Nigeria to be a world power," he says. Nigeria accounts for a quarter of Africa's population, and has one of the world's largest reserves of oil.
He sees a religious fatalism as one of the major obstacles that must be overcome before the potential can be realized. "It is a very radical reorientation to make people understand that, no, even though some of these things seem predestined, you can make things change. You can't expect God to come down and fight your battles.
"Until we say this is wrong, we cannot talk about change. It may take a long time, but when you keep harping on it, it becomes like an anthem. My writing may not go a long way to changing people's attitudes and fears, but it brings to the fore that we are marginalized and almost displaced in the country where we are citizens. That is not God's will."
Umezurike is the author of the children's novel "Sam and the Wallet," the collection of short stories "Tears in Her Eyes" and two volumes of poetry, "Aridity of Feelings" and "Dark Through the Delta," which collectively have brought him numerous national and international awards.
His collection of folk tales, "Tim the Monkey and Other Stories," is forthcoming later this year. And he is now working on a collection of poems reflecting the despoliation of the Niger Delta.
He is in residency at the IWP through the support of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the US Department of State.
Biographies of the writers in residence this fall at the IWP are accessible at http://iwp.uiowa.edu/writers/index.html.
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STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa Arts Center Relations, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 351, Iowa City, IA 52242-2500MEDIA CONTACTS: Hugh Ferrer, IWP, firstname.lastname@example.org; Winston Barclay, Arts Center Relations, 319-384-0073, email@example.com