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Isidore Okpewho: Portrait of a scholar as an artist

Not many have the distinction of being very good writers and very good critics. Isidore Okpewho somehow managed to straddle the two divides like a…

Not many have the distinction of being very good writers and very good critics. Isidore Okpewho somehow managed to straddle the two divides like a skilled horseman riding two stallions at once. Such was his mastery of the two fields that those who first met him as a critic, thought of him only as that. And those who first met him as a novelist, an outstanding one at that, have wondered how he could be anything else. If there is a book title that depicts Okpewho’s life, it would be Ali Smith’s 2014 novel, ‘How to be Both.’

When on Monday, September 5, news filtered in of Okpewho’s death the previous day, it was almost with the slow, sluggish flow of something magical-say the passing of Chinua Achebe, for instance- like the death of a man who had already immortalised himself in literature, in the hearts of the men who have read them, in the hearts of the men they had taught, the men who have sipped from the deep running stream of his wisdom, that death for them seems like an alien, incomprehensible occurrence.

“Isidore Okpewho was one of the most brilliant and consequential scholars I ever met. Yet, in person, he was a quietspoken, unassuming and utterly approachable and kind man,” famous novelist and columnist, Okey Ndibe, said. Those who have only known him through his works and have marvelled at the quality of his thoughts, will find that the picture of the man emerging after his death is that of a sage, a considerate human and an avuncular figure to some of the current torchbearers in the Nigerian literary arena. One needs to hear what Prof.

Remi Raji of the University of Ibadan said about the man who taught him and lighted the path for him. “Prof. Isidore Okpewho was a great scholar, a disciplined administrator and a fine gentleman. He was one of those we were always proud to call our icons at Ibadan. He was my teacher in both undergraduate and postgraduate years; he, it was who first took my first year class in ENG 140 – Creative Writing in the Department of English,” Prof. Raji, who is the immediate past president of the Association of Nigerian Authors, said.

Born in Agbor, Delta State on November 9, 1941, Okpewho grew up in Asaba, where his mother hailed from. After his education at St. Patrick’s College, Asaba, he proceeded to the University College Ibadan and graduated with First Class Honours in Classics. With a PhD from the University of Denver, he moved into the academia and there excelled as he had as a creative writer and literary critic.

Since 1991, Okpewho had been living in upstate, New York, where he eventually succumbed to death after battling a medical condition for some time. If there is anything that characterized Okpewho, perhaps it was this unassuming nature that allowed him to thrive without the fanfare that has characterized some of his contemporaries, qualities that emerged in his works. Few writers have managed to capture the Nigerian Civil War and its impact in the life of people as Okpewho did in his powerful novel, ‘The Last Duty,’ with nuance and sensitivity.

Yet as unassuming as he was, Okpewho was a man for epic achievements. As Dr. Isma’ila Bala Garba of Bayero University, Kano said: “Isidore Okpewho has trenchantly advanced the cause of African literature: his takes on the epic, myth and oral literature as a whole have been epoch defining.”

This is something that Dr. Ndibe also noted about Okpewho.

“His work in Africa’s epic and oral traditions is itself epic in scope, his contribution to knowledge in those areas not just signal, but approaching definitive. In his death, we have lost a true Renaissance man and a deeply generous human. But because he left such a phenomenal intellectual legacy, he will live on-as imperishable as the rest of his kind: men and women who strive to make the world better than they found it,” Ndibe, who is the author of the novel, ‘Foreign Gods Inc.’ told Arts & Ideas.

For Prof. Raji, himself a distinguished poet, Okpewho’s mastery of creativity and critique was one of the things that set him apart. “With Okpewho, we had our cake and ate it, because he taught us directly in class and we fed vicariously on his scholarship. His creativity as a novelist helped many of us who arrived in Ibadan in the 1980s with the assuredness that you can excel both as a critic and writer,” he said.

Prof. Raji adds another dimension to Okpewho’s accomplishments.“Of course, his first-class scholarship had long been established in the publications of his books, ‘Epic in Africa’ and ‘Myth in Africa’. These were the books that lit our paths to deeper understanding of the heritage of African orature.

“Also, his highly quoted inaugural lecture – ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Scholar’ – marked the turning point in the structure of the assessment of humanities scholars at the University of Ibadan, influencing other universities in Nigeria thereafter.  Okpewho was a great sportsman too. Apart from his scholarship and his stature as accomplished novelist, he will be remembered as the composer of two anthems, one for his alma mater, Nigeria’s premier University of Ibadan, and the other, the anthem of his hall of residence, Sultan Bello Hall.”

It has been over a decade since Okpewho last published a fiction book, his 2004 ‘Call Me By My Rightful Name’ (Africa World Press), but the fact that his death at the age of 74 has thrown Nigeria’s literati into a state of mourning is a testament to the staying power and trenchant qualities of his works. The Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) issued a statement calling on all lovers of Nigerian literature to find ways of celebrating the life and works of Okpewho as a way of honouring the man, the legend.

“The Executive Council and the entire membership of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) is deeply touched by his passage (which we still consider very untimely given his pedigree and potential for further contributions to the literary and intellectual field) especially coming within the precincts of another great loss in Captain Elechi Amadi, another son and icon and an exponential voice in the emerging literature of the Niger Delta,” the statement by Malam Denja Abdullahi, ANA’s President, said.

Okpewho had been the keynote speaker at the 2000 ANA Convention. “The news of the departure of yet another father of our literary vocation and a most monumental loss in the Nigerian literary firmament remains a very difficult pill to swallow at most trying time in the nation. We deem this not only a painful exit of one of the best of our brains but also a troubling signal of the loss of a legacy of great writers and eggheads that may be almost impossible to replace,” Abdullahi said.

Prof. Okpewho is survived by his wife, Mrs. Obiageli Okpewho and four children.

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