Ekwensi, Cyprian

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ekwensi, Cyprian 1921–

A Nigerian-born Ibo novelist, short story writer, and pharmacist, Ekwensi is considered a masterful stylist, most skillful in his depiction of rural Africans forced into developing urban centers. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 29-32.)

If [Ekwensi] were an American we would not have much difficulty in assessing his position. He would be a best-selling book-of-the-month-club author. But it needs little knowledge of the contemporary African scene to appreciate the significant difference between a writer such as Chinua Achebe, intellectual, classic, and a novelist who can declare, "I am a writer who regards himself as a writer for masses." With such a determination, it is easy to see where the obvious strengths and weaknesses of Ekwensi's writing will lie. He often dangerously approaches the sentimental, the vulgar and melodramatic. Behind his work stands a reading of American popular fiction and paperback crime stories. Yet Ekwensi's writing cannot be dismissed with such assertions. The very practice of writing, the developing professionalism of his work, makes us find in Ekwensi a new and perhaps important phenomenon in African writing. By constant productivity, his style is becoming purged of its derivative excess and his plots begin to take on a less picaresque structure. Ekwensi is interesting because he is concerned with the present, with the violence of the new Lagos slums, the dishonesty of the new native politicians. Other Nigerian novelists have sought their material from the past, the history of missionaries and British administration as in Chinua Achebe's books, the schoolboy memoirs of Onuora Nzekwu. Ekwensi faces the difficult task of catching the present tone of Africa, changing at a speed that frighteningly destroys the old certainties. In describing this world, Ekwensi has gradually become a significant writer. His development can be traced through the three novels that have been published in this country. If there are disconcerting intrusions into his later work of bad writing and scenes of sheer silliness, there is also a growing understanding of what he can achieve, the description of the face of the new Nigeria which has become the new Africa. Only Ekwensi has dared to approach the contemporary scene with critical satire. For others the fact of independence seems too triumphant for the more recent changes to be recorded.

It is in his latest novel Beautiful Feathers that Ekwensi best exhibits those characteristics that will make him important in the African literature. His earlier books had their commendable moments, but the melodrama and the falseness of their situations make them remarkable largely for their energy and enthusiasm. In his first novel, People of the City (… 1954), we have a surfeit of incidents, enough for three normal books….

By the time Ekwensi's second novel Jagua Nana was published in 1961 there were already promising changes. The major character is a whore with the heart of gold who only wants to find true love. This is an obvious stereotype from western fiction. But Jagua Nana has a stagey life of her own, and if not subtle, she has an urgent liveliness. Perhaps we regret what a popular film script some elements of this book will make and we learn that this is to be the first film produced with a Nigerian story. But there is a more significant element in this book than the adventures of Jagua's generous promiscuity. Jagua meets Uncle Taiwo, the secretary of the major political party. He becomes Ekwensi's most successful character. He has a tremendous power. He is grossly amorous, shamelessly venial, crass and vicious. His huge laugh roars without humor at the follies of his challengers. Perhaps he has some part of his origin in the Huey Long type of American politician but Uncle Taiwo remains African; an African who has taken from the west all its evil, its greed and corruption, its tricks of shabby political manipulation. This figure is the most sure and powerful creation of modern African fiction in spite of all the praise of Achebe's noble priests.

Ekwensi's third novel called Burning Grass is a tale of the Fulani tribe and outside the normal themes of his work, but with the publication of Beautiful Feathers in 1963, he begins to show achievement as well as potential. There are lapses in the style and the old sentimentality pushes itself in occasionally, but the moments are rarer and only emphasize the many superior sections of the book.

The story of Beautiful Feathers concerns Wilson Iyari who, like Ekwensi, is a druggist and is also ambitiously forming his own political party to foster the cause of pan-African solidarity. Ekwensi structures his book to balance Iyari's increasing prominence and success as a politician against his failure as a husband and a father. The literary sophistication of this construction is in total contrast to the, at best, picaresque organization of People of the City….

The writing in … scenes [in Beautiful Feathers] is a measure of Ekwensi's growing confidence. When it is employed in the political scenes, his characterization is even more effective. It suggests that one day Ekwensi will write a full scale political satire of present day Nigeria; vicious, sardonic, and pointed. In this novel there is no single character with the grand solidity, the Falstaffian grossness of Uncle Taiwo [in Jagua Nana], but there are others of a similar caliber….

The satiric portraits are more effective than the idealistic description of politics. The portrait of the president of the republic is too nobly wise, improbably benign, with virtues that read like the praises of Joseph Stalin some years ago. Less successful too, are the scenes where Wilson represents his country at the Pan-African Conference. Perhaps Ekwensi has little conviction about the probable efficacy of the Pan-African movement. Certainly pious platitudes take the place of sharp perception. This might determine Ekwensi on the best direction for his future writing, but one must admit that Ekwensi does not even seem very certain of what are the relative qualities of his writing. The latter part of the book has much less to recommend it and shows the ever threatening influences of bad movies and cheap magazine stories on Ekwensi….

It may seem after these comments that the total of Ekwensi's achievement is not very extensive. Some bits of People of the City, a character in Jagua Nana, several scenes from Beautiful Feathers. But Ekwensi is a prolific writer and each novel has shown a development in his control and creativity. Until that sloppy ending, Beautiful Feathers can be measured against any novel we have yet had from Africa. It may be that Ekwensi's very weaknesses will prove to be the source of his future promise. If his attempt to be popular and modern leads him into the trivial and shallow, it also saves him from the contrary threat that makes pedagogic competence and mediocrity the common flaws of some African writing. His energy and liveliness may be controlled by a more serious subject and indeed there is already evidence of this. I shall expect Ekwensi's next novel to show this increasing depth and sophistication. Some critics apparently feel that his attempt at the merely popular makes his writing unworthy of serious critical consideration. I believe that they may be missing not only a new phenomenon in African writing, but a novelist who will have the potential to create books far more profound and complex than those he has so far achieved.

John F. Povey, "Cyprian Ekwensi and 'Beautiful Feathers,'" in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. VIII, No. 1, 1965, pp. 63-9.

Cyprian Ekwensi is the earliest and most prolific of the socially realistic Nigerian novelists. His first writings were mythological fragments and folk tales. From these African materials he turned to the city and its urban problems, which he now feels are the major issues confronting his people….

Certainly his realism is his predominant characteristic; his reliance on sociological material often mars his fiction with the superficial patina of a journalistic exposé, but at his best moments his vision of the animal vitality of human struggle is powerful and evocative. Even at his weakest, when he indulges in what his critics call a "true detective" or "modern romance" level, he still exhibits narrative agility and inventiveness….

[The] journey motif—that of the young man's initiation into an awareness of adult responsibilities and burdens, into a choice between the magical past (his father's mysterious "wandering") and a present time shorn of the gift and charm of potent superstition—is what impels all of Ekwensi's fiction, even his most urban book, Jagua Nana, in which Jagua goes back to the Eastern section to find a potency she has squandered in the modern city. Burning Grass, though entirely devoted in setting to the rural North, refers at many points to what has become the central thesis of Ekwensi's work: the ambivalent, destructive-invigorating city life of Lagos….

Ekwensi's thematic symbols [may be found in Beautiful Feathers]. The beautiful but errant woman sacrifices herself for the virtuous man; the life of the city is represented as another kind of hell: "Lagos was rapidly becoming Nigeria's divorce centre. It was the mark of its outward sophistication that nowhere did a happy marriage really exist" …; the inhabitants of the city are beautiful people turned bestial and captive.

Beautiful Feathers is a familiar story, and very familiar territory for Ekwensi. It is, however, Ekwensi's most economically written work; the journalistic and sociological conglomeration of details which marred his earlier urban novels have been carefully avoided. In its portrayal of urban realities and the secrets of men behind locked apartment doors, the novel is powerful, but it is also a quasifairy tale, with its solution to political problems lying in the hands of beautiful wives and mistresses sacrificing their lives for the cause of a virtuous man.

Martin Tucker, in his Africa in Modern Literature: A Survey of Contemporary Writing in English, Ungar, 1967, pp. 74-5, 82.