For John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo: Triumphing Over an Imaginary Tragedy

by Ikhide R. Ikheloa

Note: Reprinted for archival purposes; first published June 20, 2011

I revere Buchi Emecheta, Ola Rotimi, Flora Nwapa, Elechi Amadi, Cyprian Ekwensi, Gabriel Okara, Chinua Achebe, John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo, Vincent Chukwuemeka Ike, Wole Soyinka, and TM Aluko. Together, they raised and nurtured those of my generation who loved the world of ideas and we devoured their works like starved children. We owe much of what we are today to these great owners of words.

So imagine my excitement the other day when I chanced upon a used copy of Clark’s book, America, their America. As a teenager I had been awed by the audacity of this African that had gone to America, hated her patronizing and condescending attitude, and spat at her faux generosity. I cheered then, when in the end he was unceremoniously ejected from America for being a prickly non-conformist. Clark was defiant to the end. I was a hot headed youth in those days and I loved beret wearing, brandy swilling, cigar chomping rebels, so romantic. Besides I always liked JP Clark, as we called him in those days. As a playful secondary school student, I appreciated that his poems were always more accessible to me than those of Soyinka. Try this: Read Clark’s Abiku and then read Soyinka’s Abiku. Your headache will ambush you after reading the latter.

America their America. America, their America is an angry book from cover to cover written by a gifted young man that railed against the alienation and sense of loss he felt upon turning the corner and seeing the nightmare that was their America. Clark gleefully deployed muscular prose to settle scores with America. The America he saw was not the America of his dreams. And this young man was not impressed. He spoke truth to their power in prose. It is an important book; I will always include it in a study of Africans in exile, along with Nnamdi Azikiwe’s My Odyssey and Buchi Emecheta’s early books. I still think America, their America is an important book; however, upon re-reading the book recently, I was taken by how angry Clark was in the book. Clark used the novel to settle scores with his American guests. As I read the book again, it occurred to me that I did not know much about Clark beyond his poetry and the book. Indeed, we do not have a robust culture of writing reliable biographies of our literary heroes.

I am always filled with envy when I read unflinching high quality biographies of folks in the West, most recently of VS Naipaul by Patrick French. So, I was thrilled to learn that Adewale Maja-Pearce had just written a biography about Clark, titled, A Peculiar Tragedy: J.P. Clark-Bekederemo and the Beginning of Modern Nigerian Literature in English. I went online to buy the book; with taxes, shipping and handling and other forms of robbery fees, I was looking at $30. Not happening, the economy is bad. Seeing that the book was published in Nigeria (The New Gong), I begged friends to scour bookstores in Nigeria in search of the book. It turns out that The New Gong publishing company is owned by none other than Maja-Pearce himself and the distribution structure on the ground in Nigeria is non-existent. To cut a long story short, this self-published book is not available in Nigeria. I finally relented and bought the book online. I did not waste our family’s money but I expected more for $30, I really did.

Hagiography or Biography? So, how did this biography come about? It goes something like this: Maja-Pearce dreams up a proposal to write Clark’s “biography” and applies somewhere for a $63,000 grant to fund the project (don’t ask me why he needed that much to write a book). When he doesn’t get the grant, he approaches Clark who agrees to foot the bill for the “project.” A flattered Clark readily agrees and pays Maja-Pearce one million Naira (about $7,000) with a promise to pay an additional one million Naira later. There are other perks; Maja-Pearce is allowed free access to Clark’s records, house and wine bar (and Maja-Pearce admits that he helped himself generously to everything, especially the alcohol). Soon, things go wrong; Clark does not like drafts of the manuscript and balks at the use of a certain letter. The relationship goes south badly. Maja-Pearce is unceremoniously ejected from Clark’s home and heart and he goes off in a huff to write a stinging tell-all tale.

The conflict of interest inherent in this pay-for-your-hagiography scheme shreds whatever credibility the book has. Clark was right in demanding that the product fit his specifications. Well, think about it, if you commission an artist to paint your portrait wouldn’t you want the portrait to be flattering of your jowls? What doomed the project from the onset, besides the sloppy writing is the loss of credibility. When someone pays you to write his biography, he is most definitely not interested in an objective tome. He wants something that will provide a mirror to the side that flatters him the most. Why would you demand payment from someone to do their biography? Who does that? It reads like a shake-down to me. And it was.

What Maja-Pearce has written is not a biography in the real sense. I am not sure what to call it. Let’s just say that Clark will not be pleased with the book. Wole Soyinka will not be pleased either. Neither will Achebe. Maja-Pearce is an equal opportunity hack savaging the dignity of any and every one in his jaded sight. Which brings me to another point: Sometimes you wonder if this is really about Clark or about Maja-Pearce’s desperate need to put together all his sloppy research about various subjects in one book. He succeeds in that and fails in virtually everything else.

If the aim of the book was to diminish Clark and his generation of writers, Maja-Pearce misses the mark terribly. The reader actually comes away empathizing with Clark at the end of the book. And it was not for lack of Maja-Pearce trying. He expends extraordinary energy toward diminishing the man. Insults and put-downs fly gleefully and no one escapes Maja Pearce’s teasing, especially Soyinka and Clark. It is an unnecessary exercise that merely diminishes Maja-Pearce himself. And as an aside, the notion of setting Clark up as a rival to Soyinka and Achebe is a needless distraction. Maja-Pearce plays up the rivalry between Soyinka and Clark to very tasteless levels. Each writer is different, endowed with extraordinary gifts and if Clark is a literary failure, as Maja-Pearce implies, many of us would like to fail like that. The bottom line is this: The history of African literature, indeed English literature would be incomplete without Clark’s contributions.

Analysis or Personal Opinions? Maja-Pearce should have enlisted the help of someone who knows poetry; his analysis of the works of Soyinka, Okigbo and Clark is disgraceful. He readily admits that he knows little about Okigbo’s poetry but he did some work on it because it “was just a job with a modest fee at the end of it.” One thing about Maja-Pearce, he is honest. He presents himself as a hustler lurking in the seamy edge of the literary world scheming to make a quick buck. Here is a man who measures a writer’s worth by the number of google hits: Achebe is more important that Soyinka who is more important than Okri. Who does that? His standard of success is suspect. Biases and prejudices mar the book’s quality and credibility. I would read Robert M. Wren’s Those Magical Years: The Making of Nigerian Literature at Ibadan first before reading this book. The few insightful observations in Maja-Pearce’s book are inspired, if not lifted from that book.

In this highly disorganized book, Maja-Pierce fails to provide the appropriate context for his thesis. Who is Clark? Why are we reading this book? The analysis of several weighty issues falls short, for example Maja-Pearce lacks an appreciation for the complicated relationship minorities had among the major ethnic groups leading to and even after the Nigerian Civil war. He concludes that Clark’s decision to side with the Federal government, rather than the Biafran side, was reactionary and self-serving. To ascribe Clark’s decision to side with the Federal side as self-serving is to totally miss the complexities of that unfortunate war. Maja-Pearce does not get it: Clark and Saro-Wiwa especially would never have joined the Biafran side. His analysis of this issue is typical of the strands of his arguments – they are mostly shallow and glib retorts to weighty positions.

Despite all my misgivings, I would still recommend this book. Maja-Pearce spent a lot of time developing and accessing sources for his book. The cited sources alone are worth the steep cost of the book. It is a gossipy, fairly entertaining and engaging book written in an accessible style. He provides useful insights about the lives of Clark, Achebe, Soyinka and Okigbo. The reader learns for instance about the influence of the CIA on African intellectuals (funding grants, workshops, etc). One learns that Government College Umuahia produced a bountiful crop of great writers: Achebe, Elechi Amadi, Vincent Chukwuemeka Ike, and Gabriel Okara. Clark’s valiant struggle to sustain several high quality literary magazines is nicely documented here.

Slivers of Brilliance and Petulance. Maja-Pearce is more at home with plays. In Chapter 3, he devotes literary muscle and rigor to analysis of plays. Chapter 3 is almost worth the price of the book but it has little to do with Clark. It reads like a failed manuscript from a different project. The book provides some good history showing Clark as a visionary when it comes to promoting our literature (Mbari, Black Orpheus, etc.). However, Maja-Pearce manages to diminish Clark’s contributions by ascribing significant credit to the late Ulli Beier. He is genetically incapable of giving unqualified praise.

The most egregious failing of this book is Maja-Pearce’s misrepresentation of a 1975 letter which clearly showed that Clark was in the oil business and was soliciting business overseas. Maja Pearce sought to represent that Clark “benefitted from an oil contract for services rendered to the nation following his support for the federal side during the civil war.” The letter, a copy of which is in the book’s appendix, makes no such claim. I think it was irresponsible journalism, bordering on blackmail for Maja-Pearce’s part to make such an insinuation. In a responsible society he would have been hauled before an ethics commission.

Grammatical issues plague the book and careless statements are paraded as facts. The book is a dizzy harvest of tipsy thoughts struggling to pass the sobriety test. As a result, the book fails grandly. There are all these loopy drunken sentences dripping with vinegary venom. Maja-Pearce quotes myriad sources but there is ample evidence that he did not read them thoroughly. I urge a more talented writer to use the same sources and write a real book about a great man- John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo.

Shakedown Inc. Faced with Clark’s alleged pettiness, Maja-Pearce rises above the effluvium with his own brand of pettiness. In that department he easily bests Clark. The story of the book is of a shakedown gone awry. And Clark is the victim here. Maja-Pearce’s fee to write a shoddy book is a hefty $63,000 and he is piqued when Clark asks him why he would need all that money to write a damn book. This is one Nigerian intellectual pining for alien wines, turning tricks for quick bucks.

Maja-Pearce describes Clark’s eagerness to fund the book as part of an elaborate plan to rehabilitate his image, in the hope that he might get the Nobel Prize. Bizarre. Some of it smacks of megalomania on Maja-Pearce’s part. It is quite possible that Clark was unimpressed by the work. Maja-Pearce had trouble selling the book to Western publishers but he ascribed ulterior motives to their refusal to publish his book. Reading this poorly edited book, I can see why no one would want to touch the manuscript. It is poorly written, poorly organized and certainly not marketable as presented.

Maja-Pearce portrays Clark as a tragic Walter Mitty character who still harbors dreams of making it big on the world stage. Maja-Pearce is no angel himself. A self-confessed heavy drinker, in one forgettable passage, he leaves Clark’s dining table after a feud but does not forget to grab a half-empty bottle of wine on his way to his bedroom. What a class act. The Clarks were generous to him, paying for his writing and buying his wife’s expensive art. Still he whines nonstop; he even complains that the Clarks put him in a bedroom that lacked a balcony. Someone hand me my violin.

Broken Guns for Word Deities. Clark is a well-read complex thinker. It would have been more respectful and productive to pair him with a thoughtful and gifted interlocutor. Clark is an accomplished playwright and poet and nothing can take that away from him, not even his own demons and there are many of those.  Clark is not the only victim here; Maja-Pearce dismisses Achebe’s Things Fall Apart but offers no reason for such recklessness. Who does that? One of the chapters offers an egregiously awful rumination on writing in one’s own language, one that calls to serious question, Maja-Pearce’s ability to engage in these kinds of debates.  It is a poorly articulated filler that was relentlessly stretched to give the impression that it is somehow about Clark. There is scant evidence that he personally interviewed Soyinka, Achebe, Ike, etc. And missing are the insights of the female writers of the time, someone like Buchi Emecheta who is still alive.

The book is a petulant retort to a spurned relationship with JP Clark-Bekederemo Paul Theroux wrote Sir Vidia’s Shadow, a good book on VS Naipaul based on a sustained decades-long personal relationship with Naipaul. It was a work of rigor and scholarship. Maja-Pearce is no Theroux. For one thing, Maja-Pearce desperately needs to read new writing to update his opinions.

Many decades ago, Paul Theroux, a young aspiring writer befriended an older writer VS Naipaul. The friendship of two complex persons was to be a marathon journey of at least three decades that Naipaul ended abruptly and on a sour note.  Theroux did not take being unceremoniously dumped well. He wrote a caustic but important and well-received biography of Naipaul, Sir Vidia’s Shadow:  A Friendship Across Five Continents. Patrick French followed up with his own book, The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of VS Naipaul which largely corroborated the main burden of Theroux’s book. In neither instance was the subject of the biography asked to pony up money for the privilege of being flattered or lampooned. Such an act would have been inappropriate and unethical. Maja-Pearce owes Clark a huge apology.

The chapter on how to win the Nobel Prize is yet another long unnecessary chapter that has a long unnecessary riff about Soyinka. The chapter has little or nothing to do with Clark. Tasteless is the rumination about whether Soyinka was worth the Nobel. One senses that he is unhappy with Soyinka because the latter wisely declined to be a reference for one of his numerous money making schemes. (p253).

Recreating Faux Naipaulean Drama. In his book, Maja-Pearce’s attempt to recreate a Theroux-Naipaul drama is self-serving and falls short on many levels. There is clearly no chemistry between the two men and Maja-Pearce is in too much of a hurry to make a quick buck to establish a rapport with a clearly more complex man. And when Clark boots him out of his house, he responds with a poorly written book that is remarkable mostly for its vindictiveness and cutting sarcasm. He paints Clark as a has-been writer for whom several doors are no longer open. Did he not know this before going to Clark with a proposal to write a biography about him?  This is the same man who in the book proposal to Clark praised him as the most underrated writer of four men, the rest being Achebe, Okigbo and Soyinka; who stated that Clark’s plays were more accomplished than Soyinka’s; and who shared that  he had a poor opinion of Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (p 125).. It would appear that he basically said all of this to make money off an old man.  The intellectual dishonesty is blatant and galling.

There is a pattern to Maja-Pearce’s mischief; he has sought to sustain a tottering career in letters by attacking better known and accomplished writers. He is probably best remembered for his long rambling attack-review of Soyinka in 2007 under the smirking title Credulous Grammarian a scathing “review” of Soyinka’s You Must Set Forth at Dawn that is so full of ridicule, it barely has room for substance.

Quoting liberally from Soyinka’s The Man Died, Maja-Pearce makes sinful literary hay out of the tensions between Clark and Soyinka and pits both men against each other. He is quite gossipy, Maja-Pearce is not someone you want to invite into your home, you will regret the result. The disrespect shown Okigbo, Soyinka, Achebe, Clark and even Odia Ofeimun is particularly troubling. There is no compassion for the bravery, intellect and erudition of these men who taught several generations of youths even as they were youths themselves. Despite their flaws and demons, these men deserve our gratitude not ridicule. Maja-Pearce owes these great men unqualified apologies.

Again, the burden on these brave warriors of letters in the face of the birth of a new nation is hard to quantify. They were certainly no angels, but that is what makes their narrative powerful, evocative and compelling. Try to imagine as a twenty something year old, writing Things Fall Apart long hand without the benefit of a word processor and definitely without the Internet and you get some sense of what these griots accomplished. A balanced objective biography that tells the truth warts and all and respectfully is what we need. In the twilight of their life’s journeys we should treat these brave men and women with compassion, respect and definitely with appreciation for making our world a better place than they met it. I salute Professor John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo, warts and all.