A Grateful Author Remembers
(for Abiola Irele, 1935 – 2017)
When Serendipity conspires with Fate, the result is almost invariably a combination of astonishment and eye-popping bewilderment. This observation provides a painfully perfect script for my own ‘Irele narrative’, especially with regard to my interactions with this great scholar and generous enabler in what has now turned out to be his last few weeks on earth.
The immediate chapter of this narrative has to do with the dedication of my new book of poems, If Only the Road Could Talk, just released in the United States by Africa World Press. In the over 15 years I worked on those poems, it never occurred to me that I was going to dedicate them to anybody. Nor did that thought ever cross my mind in the hectic months leading to the final editing and revision of the galleys. Then, one morning, I woke up with something close to a Eureka feeling: voila, I have found a worthy dedicatee for my new book and that person would be none other than Abiola Irele. That decision itself was both curious and complex; for I already had a piece written in his honour in the book of essays I was readying up for publication – an essay which missed the chance to appear in the highly valuable Irele festschrift, The World in Africa; Africa in the World: Essays in) edited with a characteristically comprehensive and provocative introduction by Biodun Jeyifo. In spite of all this, I woke up with that irrepressible urge to put Irele’s name in my new book’s dedication page. When I called my publisher, Kassahun Checole, and revealed my new decision, I knew the manuscript was set and ready to go to the printer. But the Irele name did the magic. My publisher had the grace to wait for another two days, during which the following was born:
To Abiola Irele
Scholar without borders
These seasoned offspring
Of Songs of the Marketplace
Mr Checole was pleased that his patience had paid off, for he considered Irele worthy of every word in this dedication, and more.
My curious instinct had not run its course. Two weeks after the manuscript had gone to press, I did something that is absolutely out of my character and habit: I “leaked” the dedication to Professor Irele, thus sabotaging the pleasurable surprise I had planned for him upon a later discovery of the dedication in an already published book! Of course, Irele’s response was touchingly grateful. Weeks later, I kept wondering: why, considering the stated prevailing circumstances, did I undertake to pen a paean for Irele? And, even more perplexing, why did I make sure he read this ahead of its publication? Nothing could have told me about his imminent passing. The last time I saw him and his lovely wife, Eka, it was at the funeral activities of another great scholar and humanist, Isidore Okpweho; and I still remember telling Professor Irele how fresh and well preserved he looked, and how eloquent his tribute to Okpewho was. Death, our insatiable enemy, must have been laughing behind the curtain!
I am sad Professor Irele didn’t see the book before he left, but glad that he read my dedication and had a measure of the high regard in which I hold him, and the gratitude I owe him as a writer, scholar, and aburo. For, Irele’s New Horn Press was my first publisher. Unknown to many people, the very title of my first book of poems came from him. I had completed this collection of verses, christened it ‘I Sing of Change’, after one of the major poems within its cover, and started wondering which major publisher would be foolhardy enough to stake his investment on a timid, yet unknown novice, when the Irele ‘Angel’ walled in literally through the door. ‘Niyi, I understand you have a new poetry manuscript; can I take a look at it? I’ve been reading your poems in West Africa, (the then highly influential London-based newsmagazine) and I like them’.
With much trepidation I handed him a bound copy of a collection called ‘I Sing of Change’, and he promised to get back to me in ‘about a week’. But the very next day, Professor Irele left a hand-written message on my office door, telling me the poems were ‘terrific’ and asking if I would let New Horn publish them. Of course, my answer was a resounding affirmative. Two days later, he announced with palpable enthusiasm, ‘I have a new title for your collection: ‘Songs of the Marketplace’. I think that sounds more intriguing, and it captures the essence of the entire collection’. That was it. That name stuck, and the moniker, ‘Poet of the Marketplace’ was born – with Irele as Francis the Baptist. Thus, Irele was not only there at the beginning of my literary-creative journey; he was vitally instrumental in giving my fledgling dream a name, and shaping the trajectory of a life career. Any wonder then that If Only the Road, which arrived with my 70th year on earth, and over three decades since the initial Irele Magic, kept on insisting that it would not be complete without that dedication to the Spirit of the Beginning who gave voice and verve to the ‘hawker’s ditty’ in the marketplace of songs? No doubt the God of Gratitude has wondrous ways of communing with the Spirit of Serendipity. . . .
Irele’s New Horn initiative predated my Marketplace experience. First on the New Horn Poets list was Harry Garuba, whose Shadows and Dreams (1982) struck the literary public with its poignant precocity and intensely engaging rendering; followed four years later by Conflicts, debut poetry collection by Mabel Segun, who had already made a name as one of Nigeria’s finest short story writers; and much, later by Poems of the Sea by Jean Baptiste Tati Loutard, one of Africa’s most eloquent poets. Irele had an overriding passion: to discover, nurture, and promote a new crop of writers after the phenomenal achievements of the Achebe-Soyinka-Clark-Okigbo generation. The ‘New’ in his ‘Horn’ was both a statement and a promise; a literary journey and cultural investment, with a staunch hope in the future of African writing.
There goes Abiola Irele, the doer and enabler. Admirably cosmopolitan and inspiringly literate, Irele was a man and scholar constantly re-inventing himself and his ideas, an ageless humanist with an astounding combination of youthful energy and the seasoned wisdom that comes with age. We will sorely miss his stupendous zest for life, his powerfully resonant voice, his infectious passion for music, wine, and enlightened company.
July 6, 2017
Like many graduate students, I had only a vague understanding of my principal professor’s standing within the field in which I hoped to earn a PhD. I was somewhat aware that he was supposed to famous. But his actual stature as a scholar in African literary studies began to come into focus only during a year I spent at the Sorbonne in Paris. Almost invariably, and whenever I introduced myself as a student from the University of Ibadan, one of the professors at the Sorbonne would inquire: “so, do you know Abiola Irele?” Professional doors would swing open once his name was mentioned. Against this background, I have never forgotten the generosity that he extended to me as a beginning graduate student, a nonentity in the world of intellectual stars where he had made his professional home.
I honor Professor Irele on this sad occasion, not just as a scholar, but also as an incredibly open-handed mentor and teacher. A few examples will have to suffice as placeholders for his decades-long generosity to peers, students, and fellow travelers. I recall that in his last years at the University of Ibadan, when the economic crisis ravaging Nigeria began to deplete the University library, his library became my library. Every few weeks, he would pick out books from his personal collection for me to read and to use in writing my papers. There were no due dates for the books he lent me, I could return them in three weeks or two years: he never inquired. And he always found a way to make encouraging comments on those papers I wrote as a graduate student. As I have moved from country to country, and university to university, I have kept every one of the papers I wrote for him. They represent for me a record of encouragement and a reminder of the path that brought me to my current position. As a ‘mere’ student Irele allowed me to read the galley proofs for The African Experience in Literature and Ideology. I was stunned by the gesture and illuminated by the contents of the manuscript. He introduced me to his intellectual peers, who then became additional mentors and friends with me. Through him, I met Alain Ricard in Paris, who subsequently invited me to take up a fellowship at Bordeaux. The last piece of writing that I undertook at Professor Irele’s request was a tribute for the recently deceased Alain Ricard to be published in the Savannah Review in 2017.
Although we are all condemned to mortality, I could not have imagined that I would so soon be called upon to reflect again on the passing of another one of our great scholars. Much more will remain unsaid because it is difficult to distill the many dimensions of a life of intellectual generosity into a few short paragraphs. In summation, for myself, and all those who benefited from your friendship, openness, and generosity, I simply say: thank you.
University of California, Davis, ALA President 2015-2016
Thank you and goodbye!
Raoul J. Granqvist
Writer, professor of literatures in English
It has been said that among the effects of musical composition is to deepen one’s knowledge of music, to improve one’s performance of music, to enhance one’s ability to improvise music, and to bring joy and understanding not only to one’s own life, but also the lives of others.
Many closer to Abiola Irele and more knowledgeable than I can speak to the personal and to his wider intellectual scholarly oeuvre. For myself, however, my first intellectual encounter with him was his two-part piece on négritude, and it bore all the hall marks of his inimitable style and every subsequent piece from his magnificent oeuvre. It was like reading, feeling and listening to a musical composition and performance; it could be heard and felt as much as read; the substantive musicality of his work meant that every piece he wrote was was worth listening to.
The quiet beauty of his prose was of someone who had deliberated on deeply about what it meant to identify and elaborate, always on a topic of some import, to enhance our understanding. There was an elegant, limpid cadence to his writing that was never discordant or loud, even where it may have identified a quiet remonstrance with those or positions that he might have disagreed with. His was a power of humility that came from one who had engaged deeply and respectfully with others.
Indeed, in being lucky to meet him a few times, in conferences in Accra and Lagos where he was keynote, and on one occasion the AASA, in brief conversations that quiet prose had its analogue in his manner of engagement. He had a generous, at times laconic, at other times forthright, tone and humour, whether of agreement and disagreement, even when I suspect, he did not suffer fools very gladly. He was nothing less than an intellectual giant in an academic age when we lionize academic rock stardom production over quality, and in an age when the mechanics of writing are hewed to the demands of “knowledge” production and publishing excess, and a babel of neoliberal individuation over the wider, shared humanistic inquiry, here was a scholar who exemplified what it is best in being Nigerian, being African, and to be human.
The ancestors have welcomed Abiola Irele for the legacy that he gifted us, and in whose debt so many subsequent generations will gratefully share in his being part of us all.
Prof. Pablo Idahosa,
International Development Studies Master
A huge loss of a selfless intellectual, who saw far and deep! We must prove worthy of his encompassing legacy. Now, the bards will begin singing, for eternity, strains which will echo down the ages. It is up to us and those whom we touch, in our various ways, to show that Abiola Francis Irele has NOT lived in vain.
In the meantime, condolences, as we borrow Emile Dickinson's tongue to bid Abiola
"Pass to thy Rendezvous of Light,
Pangless except for us—
Who slowly for the Mystery
Which thou hast leaped across!"
Homage to Abiola Irele from Véronique Tadjo
Abiola Irele knew how to build bridges between people. He dedicated his entire academic career reinforcing the ties between Anglophone and Francophone African literature. He loved the French language, the sound of it and the culture behind it. He was a man of the world who famously eased the rift between Léopold Sédar Senghor and Wole Soyinka around the Négritude movement. He was a sophisticated literary critic whose ability to straddle different cultures did not prevent him from retaining a deep Yoruba identity.
I first met Abiola Irele in Lagos when I was living there in the 80’s. He was already a well-established critic whose opinion I valued. We kept in contact and met at many conferences. When in 2005, my first collection of poems (1984) came out in a bilingual edition Red Earth/Latérite, he wrote a thoughtful preface that gave a fresh reading of my book.
I was happy to learn that he had returned to Nigeria where he would have the opportunity to share his experience and talent.
I first met Abiola Irele at an ALA meeting many years ago but became more acquainted with him when I participated in a NEH Summer Seminar on African literature which he organized at Ohio State University. His intellectual depth, knowledge of African literature in English and French, was immediately apparent in his lectures and overall commentaries. At subsequent ALA and ASA meetings, I had the pleasure of conversing with him and recognizing his inclusive Diasporic perspectives. My sincerest condolences to his family.
Guardo un excelente recuerdo del Sr. Irele Abiola, a quien nunca conocí personalmente. Cuando realizaba mi tesis doctoral sobre Amadou Hampâté Bâ le solicité informaciones vía correo electrónico, que generosamente me proporcionó y que me resultaron de gran ayuda. Nunca olvidaré su gesto. Mi más sentido pésame a su familia y amigos.
Vicente Montes Nogales
Universidad de Oviedo
In Remembrance of Francis Abiola Irele
The bell tolled for our brother and colleague Abiola Irele and as we say in the African-American vernacular “Abiola got on up outta here.” He has left us but not before creating and depositing in our souls an extraordinary legacy of scholarship and intellectual achievement. Abiola was an exceptional scholar and thinker. And yet he never lost the human touch. He was indeed the professor’s professor. Abiola’s works of literary criticism manifested a rare combination of profundity and accessibility. Irele’s book Aimé Césaire: Cahier d’un retour au pays and his classic The African Experience in Literature and Ideology were required reading for my courses on francophone African and Caribbean literatures. These texts, in particular, constitute incomparable pedagogical tools.
"When Abiola speaks people listen." Abiola possessed a unique talent for imbibing his oral gifts with humor and wit. After admiring Brother Abiola from a distance for years, I was honored to serve on a panel with him and other distinguished personalities (some have since joined the ancestors: Amiri Baraka, Jayne Cortez ) during the Slave Routes Symposium held at New York University in 2008. While walking the long blocks to and from the Club Quarters and during the subway train rides to the NYU campus I got to spend special moments with Irele that I will always treasure.
Abiola has relocated. His physical address is no longer the same. How we miss you Abiola! We loved you so much and you will stay in our hearts.
Debra S. Boyd
North Carolina Central University
Tribute to Professor Abiola Irele
This tribute is for Professor Abiola Irele, one of the finest scholars Nigeria, Africa and indeed the world ever produced. His presence as a scholar and a person was inspiring, encouraging and reassuring. I first met him as a fledgling, eager, determined and ambitious young doctoral student in 1983 in his office at the University of Ibadan where I was sent to obtain a PhD by my employer, the University of Lagos. Abiola Irele encouraged me to get on with my studies and research. The next time that I went to see him, I learned that he had left the university and the country. It was fifteen years later in 1998 that I met him again at Cambridge University, UK, where he gave a keynote speech at a conference convened by Dr Stephanie Newell (now a Professor of English at Yale University, USA). That day I witnessed the stuff Abiola Irele was made of – he gave a keynote address without once referring to or reading from a script. He simply spoke for almost an hour, mesmerizing his audience, some of them famous scholars like him. It was remarkable. I have never again witnessed such a feat in all my years as an academic.
My other interactions with this great and erudite scholar were at various literary and intellectual forums – at African Literature Association (ALA) Conferences; at a Nigerian Academy of Letters (NAL) Convention at the University of Lagos where he gave a keynote address; at Pan African University (now Pan Atlantic University) Lagos; and in a few telephone conversations I had with him. I recall that after he read my Nigeria-Biafra War novel, Roses and Bullets, he was impressed by it and told me he would invite me to Kwara State University where he was based to interact with his colleagues and students, but unfortunately he was not able to do this.
Professor Irele touched many lives positively. We will all miss him, especially his scholarship and his amiable disposition. I would like to celebrate him and his achievements with the poem below:
Abiola, the intellectual warrior son of Irele
Mira magista, renowned teacher, famous scholar
It is your accomplishment that calls forth this encomium
You sowed good seeds, nurtured them with care
And reaped a hundred fold, a thousand fold.
The one who bestrode traditions and cultures
And yet was as urbane and cosmopolitan as they come
Ever confident, relaxed, attentive, in every situation.
You traversed the land of the great and the small
But your pace did not slacken till the very end
Let committed disciples inherit your forest of books
Your tall tower of ideas and illustrious monuments
Disseminate the unfettered knowledge you bequeathed the world.
Let the initiated drink from your spring of knowledge
A legacy that will endure till the end of time
Our song soars with you as you rejoin revered ancestors
Ije awele. Go in grace and in peace.
A mighty tree has fallen down
And all the birds have scattered in the forest.
Akachi Ezeigbo, PhD, FNAL, FLSN, FESAN
Professor of English
Federal University Ndufu-Alike, Ikwo