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The Mass Media

UMB to host African poetry conference

Author and critic Dr. Chukwuma Azuonye of the Africana Studies department at UMass Boston
Author and critic Dr. Chukwuma Azuonye of the Africana Studies department at UMass Boston

The poet Christopher Okigbo accepted little praise while he was alive. Forty years after his death in the Nigerian civil war, he can raise little opposition to the lionizing-and close examination-he will receive this week at the Christopher Okigbo International Conference. Hosted by the University of Massachusetts Boston and Harvard University, in conjunction with an art exhibit at a Boston University Gallery, the conference will bring together some of Africa’s finest writers, poets and scholars for a five-day exploration of Okigbo’s life and works.

The conference opens on Thursday September 20, 2007, at UMass Boston, with a round table discussion of Okigbo by his wife, friends and family. The day is filled with presentations and discussions by international and North American scholars, including professors from top universities as well as the foreign minister of Nigeria and the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner. In the evening, the Campus Center ballroom will shake with music, song and poetry in honor of the great modernist poet. The poetry will begin with a reading by Chinua Achebe, Africa’s most outstanding novelist and friend of Okigbo. Events on Friday and Saturday will take place at Harvard University.

The conference explores not just Okigbo’s legacy, but also the cultural, political and intellectual environment-and its associated traumas-that shaped him and his country. Ali Mazrui’s 1971 novel, The Trial of Christopher Okigbo, imagines the dead poet arraigned in a court of African ghosts to face the charge that he has senselessly cast away his talents in pursuit of a minor, partisan agenda. While Obadiah Mailafia of the Central Bank of Nigeria will support this argument in a paper revisiting the trial, Mazrui himself will give a closing keynote offering a reconsideration of his own work. His paper, “The Muse and the Matryr,” presents Okigbo’s death as a modern manifestation of the African warrior-poets of antiquity. Also giving a closing keynote is the “latest sensation” among African authors, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, whose new novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, recently won the 2007 Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction.

The conference was initiated by Dr. Chukwuma Azuonye, professor of Africana Studies at UMass Boston, and a fellow at Harvard’s W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African-American Research. A published poet and author of numerous papers on African epic tradition, he is also a preeminent scholar and critic of Christopher Okigbo, and was inspired to organize the conference after cataloging the poet’s personal papers for inclusion in the UNESCO Memory of the World register.

Azuonye long interest in flared up recently with the discovery of Okigbo’s correspondence in various archives. He pursued Okigbo’s private, inner life and journeyed to University of Texas at Austin to explore their collection of documents from a London transcription center that processed the works of many African writers and poets up to 1967, and contains many letters and autobiographical notes by Okigbo and his compatriots. Says Dr. Azuonye of reading Okigbo’s personal correspondence: “It’s like standing behind him and watching him write.”

Dr. Chukwuma Azuonye is currently finishing the first complete edition of Okigbo’s poetry, which will contain many previously unpublished pieces. Although Okigbo was a native Igbo speaker, until Dr. Azuonye’s research into the poet’s archives, no poems in that language were known. Seven Igbo poems have been unearthed, and will be included in the compilation. A massive six hundred page tome, it features extensive annotation and commentary, and will be published in 2008 by Africa World Press in Trenton, New Jersey.

Christopher Okigbo is “the most outstanding African poet of the 20th century and example of trans-national modernism,” asserts Dr. Azuonye. Okigbo’s greatness, he says, comes from his masterful synthesis of multicultural sensibility: “He is influenced by Babylonian mythology, Christianity, oriental mysticism, you name it. [He is] a poet that represents the conscience of the global multicultural society.” Awarded the poetry prize at the Festival of Negro Arts in 1966, Okigbo rejected it, refusing to define himself as an African poet. “I’m a poet,” he said. “There is no African literature. There is good writing and bad writing-that’s all.”

Dr. Azuonye enthuses, “I have taught Okigbo every year for over 30 years in universities in Nigeria, America and abroad.” He recognizes that Chinua Achebe’s modern classic Things Fall Apart is required reading in many American school systems, and one of his long-term goals for the conference is to have Christopher Okigbo included in the student literature canon. Okigbo is only the beginning. In 2008, Azuonye plans a celebration for the 50th anniversary of Achebe’s landmark novel, followed in successive years by conferences on Wole Soyinka and Ngugi wa Thiong’o.