John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo

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John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo (klahrk beh-keh-deh-REH-moh), also known as John Pepper Clark, has played an important role in the development of Nigerian literature in English through his association with the important art journal Black Orpheus. He took an honors degree in English at Ibadan University, where he established a student poetry magazine called The Horn. After graduation, he became a journalist on the Lagos Daily Express. He undertook research in the Ibadan University Institute for African Studies and was finally appointed a professor of English at the University of Lagos. The decade from 1960 to 1970 saw his most important publications.{$S[A]Clark, John Pepper;Clark-Bekederemo, John Pepper}

As a dramatist, Clark-Bekederemo draws upon local African themes but lends them a greater dramatic impact by incorporating elements of British and Greek classical drama. Song of a Goat (the title clearly refers to the Greek origin of tragedy, “goat song”) depicts the sexual tension which develops when a virile younger brother seduces his frustrated sister-in-law and fathers a child for his impotent elder brother. The complication of the plot derives from African tradition, which, holding childbearing as a necessity, requires that a family member should take the place of the husband to fill the barren womb. Unhappily, the couple does not proceed in formal duty but falls madly and lustfully in love. They enflame the husband’s jealousy to the point where he kills his own brother, to his personal anguish and social shame. The elevated diction of its blank-verse lines adds to the extraordinary power of this widely performed play. The Masquerade continues the plot, as the inevitable public curse that follows from the wicked deed works itself out in the manner of Oedipus’s redemption.

In production, Clark-Bekederemo’s plays have a powerful impact, but there has been African criticism that Clark-Bekederemo has borrowed too freely from international sources and so has diluted what should be essentially African subjects. It may have been this recurrent complaint that caused him to write Ozidi, a less theatrically effective but a far more “African” play derived from a traditional ritual enacted in his birthplace. He later recorded this ritual in a documentary film.

As a poet, Clark-Bekederemo is primarily a lyricist whose lines record his own inheritance with sensitive affection. “Night Rain,” with its childhood memory of awaking to the sound of rain falling on the roof thatch, and the gentle family recollection of “For Granny,” show an unexpectedly tender side of a public personality which has sometimes seemed abrasive. No book exhibits this abrasive side more clearly than his petulant complaints about the United States which arose from a period on a journalist fellowship at Princeton University. To be fair, there were false expectations on both sides, but in the resulting book, America, Their America, Clark-Bekederemo’s reactions are reported in styles ranging from sardonic wit to brutal vehemence. His reactions to the racism he claims to have encountered are delivered with genuine passion, but his more general grievances are likely to rouse resentment in many American readers.

Although he was born in Nigeria’s separatist eastern region, during the Biafran War Clark-Bekederemo supported the federal side. For that he received open condemnation from his friends. Yet his decision was more humane than political, and the terrible human consequences of the brutal war revived his poetry. His war poems, collected in Casualties, become a poignant and despairing response to the cruelties of war suffered on both sides. The collection takes his poetry into a more solemn and profound vein. The death of his friend Christopher Okigbo in the war was a crushing spiritual blow.

(This entire section contains 871 words.)

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, become a poignant and despairing response to the cruelties of war suffered on both sides. The collection takes his poetry into a more solemn and profound vein. The death of his friend Christopher Okigbo in the war was a crushing spiritual blow.

After the peace, when Clark-Bekederemo took up his academic position, he turned from creative writing to criticism. The Example of Shakespeare brings together a number of seminal articles that had been published in journals such as Transition and African Forum. “The Legacy of Caliban” extends the African opinion that Prospero should be perceived as a colonialist exploiter of the native inhabitants.

In 1980, Clark-Bekederemo gave up his professorial post and retired to his home village of Kiagbodo. At this time, he added Bekederemo to his name, generally publishing as J. P. Clark-Bekederemo. Bekederemo is part of his father’s name; his father, Clark Fulu Bekederemo, was a local chief. His prior work was published as John Pepper Clark. He continued to concern himself with traditional drama and the establishing of a repertory theater in Lagos. His contribution to the theater continued with the production of The Bikoroa Plays, The Wives’ Revolt, and All for Oil. The production of All for Oil coincided with the celebration of Nigeria’s fortieth anniversary of independence. The play is a biographical drama that draws on Nigeria’s historical background involving the trade of palm oil and the present plight over oil in Nigeria and the Niger Delta.

Clark-Bekederemo’s importance stems in part from the fact that his energy and personality provided encouragement and opportunities for the many younger writers who have established a major national literature. At the same time, his work reveals explicitly the constant inner struggle of the African author, who must somehow manage to express his African experience and identity in a language which is simultaneously internationally expressive and personally alien.


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