Monday, April 14, 2008

The Rose or the Melon? Femi Osofisan on Art and Politics

If I am hungry and if everybody around me is hungry, will I grow a rose or a melon?

Nigerian playwright and poet Femi Osofisan offered this question by way of probing the writer's responsibility when he visited my poetry class today at UM - Flint, Osofisan, a Yoruba and one of Africa's foremost writers, is on an extended visit in Flint in a collaboration with UM - Flint's Africana Studies Program and the Flint Public Library. Thanks to Ernest Emenyonu, the Africana Studies director and an Ibo Nigerian, a precious slice of time in Osofisan's schedule was eked out to share with my students in our aerie on the fifth floor of French Hall.

In an earlier talk today, Osofisan noted what he characterized as a dearth of political art in America -- a suspicion of it, in fact; he added that what he does, in plays such as Once Upon Four Robbers or poems such as "Fodder," or "The Announcement" are likely to be considered "propaganda" here. Several of us humbly objected to what felt like a contestable generalization, so in the class, after he'd marvelously sung, chanted, tapped at three Yoruban drums and performed several poems, we asked him to elaborate on his views about political writing.

He asserted he resists the notion of art for arts' sake. He said he understands American writers take for granted the right to create art for itself, but that African artists have never had that luxury.

The literature of his country, he said, has been wrenchingly shaped by suffering, by tyranny, by privation and bloodshed and hunger. Describing how the high hopes of the liberation movements of the Sixties were violently dashed in a new victimization -- the tyranny of black on black in the country after country in the forty years since -- he said, "Writers have not had time to write about the rose. Writers have had to concentrate on speaking for the victims. We have had to worry most of all about surviving." Noting how many of his contemporaries have been killed, jailed, or driven into exile, Osofisan said he is lucky that he has escaped all three of these fates and continues to work, though sometimes quietly and inconspicuously, sometimes deliberately avoiding publishing his work overseas, in his homeland. The result is a fiercely brave body of work, based on circumstances I can scarcely imagine.

It made me think about what Barry Lopez said this weekend in Interlochen. Like Osofisan, Lopez calls for an art that "helps," noted in the entry below. It's a contention that calls for further consideration. I've argued here that the greatest vitality in the Flint poetry community, for example, is in the spoken word world largely peopled by African American writers, and their work is frequently and lustily political, invariably voicing anger and calling for change.

I'm not part of that scene, though I regularly visit, support and appreciate it. But here's my view. I've lived a life of incredible privilege. I have never been hungry. I've never had to choose between the rose and the melon. But I believe it's possible that if ecological collapses continue, I well may have to make that choice in my lifetime. So when I write about the rose, I increasingly find myself writing out of elegy and urgent mindfulness. I mean to say, "See here. This is what we must not lose." The literature of "the rose" is a literature that documents and celebrates possibilities for a life lived in peace and plenty -- a possibility that has been enacted in unparalleled ways -- not perfectly, and not without violence, but with remarkable durability -- in my homeland. It is a possibility we must cherish and believe in while it simultaneously becomes more and more imperiled. We deeply need that vision, that hope, the remembered experience of peace. I will continue writing about the rose. And I ardently hope the literature of the rose does not turn out to be yet another tragic extinction.


Anonymous said...

Maybe I'm missing your point, but I see a lot of guilt coming through here. Regardless of how you view your other writing, this blog is full of activism. And I really believe that ALL art has the capacity to "help." You are a melon writer.

Macy Swain said...

Thank you, Anonymous. I believe, too, that all art has the capacity to "help." Your quotes there are significant.