Amatesiro Dore assesses Adewale Maja-Pearce’s memoir in an unorthodox review, which matches the nature of the book in question, as he highlights Maja-Pearce’s history as the troublemaker of African literature.
Reading a slush pile of submissions is the worst task in publishing. It was a hangover morning and Amatesiro was reading at Kachifo Limited, publishers of Farafina Books. He tagged email submissions of poorly formatted manuscripts, and unimpressive prose writings: maybe, maybe, no, no, no. He forwarded fan mails, interview requests, speech-appearance solicitations for Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, to whom it may concern, and so on. It was time for his tobacco break but a submission from Adewale Maja-Pearce, the troublemaker of African literature, was pending at the bottom of his computer screen. So he opened the manuscript from the former editor of the African Writers Series by Heinemann, fiend of JP Clark and errant critic of Wole Soyinka.
The title was abridged from the opening lines of Richard Nixon’s autobiography. Like Watergate, Maja-Pearce had been bugged by litanies of literary scandals: Ken Saro-Wiwa I (the man cannot write), KSW II (the man was part of the problem in Ogoni land), and KSW III (my publisher must not edit my work); JP Clark (everything [poetry] he wrote after the civil war was pure crap); Wole Soyinka (“I disliked the book [You Must Set Forth At Dawn] and said so”). All that baggage beclouded Amatesiro as he read these opening lines:
“I hadn’t expected anything from my father’s will and was surprised when I discovered that he had left my siblings and me a block of four flats – one each for my mother’s children – in a decent area of Lagos.”
Amatesiro became oblivious of his need for tobacco air, the repercussions of a successful night out, the discomfort of a revolving chair and the resolution of a laptop without screen guard. He was unconsciously on the fifty-seventh page of bliss when Eghosa Imasuen, the COO of Kachifo Limited, appeared behind his back.
“You need to see this,” Amatesiro beamed as he tagged his first Yes.
The House My Father Built is a harrowing tale of Nigeria as it then was (1993-1999); a memoir of Adewale Maja-Pearce’s quest to possess his birth right, his country and personal dignity. The sunburnt Oyinbo who rejected the physician dreams of his Nigerian father returns home to claim his inheritance. But the prodigal son is also an unwanted interloper in the lives of his longstanding tenants—Alhaji feigns being the Landlord, Ngozi invested a water heater into the project plus her brother and (secret) son are all attached to the building, Pepsi rents out his wife and son to remain an occupant, Prince moves in to save the heir before trying to kill him. Mr Maja-Pearce presents the greatest cast of characters in the history of Nigerian literature. And nothing comes close, no cliché, except you consider Basi and Company by Ken Saro-Wiwa.
Recently, Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison quipped “I’m not writing a memoir: I’m not interested, I know that part”. She clarifies her distaste: “So much contemporary fiction, even when it’s well written is sort of…self-referential. I used to teach creative writing at Princeton and I would say ‘Don’t do that. Don’t write about your little life’.” It was then I understood Maja-Pearce’s distaste for Wole Soyinka’s memoir—You Must Set Forth At Dawn. It possessed a nagging consciousness of his [Soyinka] contested place in Nigerian political history: from the Western Nigerian crisis, to the Civil War, to the Military Regimes of Buhari, Babagida and Abacha. The entire memoir smacks of belaboured greatness, no subtlety; and Maja-Pearce called out Africa’s pioneer laureate on the pages of the London Review of Books—the same venue of Adichie’s stinging criticism of Achebe’s There Was A Country. But Achebe didn’t label Adichie an “inept hustler” and “sterile literary aspirant”. Those are the words of Professor Wole Soyinka for Maja-Pearce, who felt “rebuked by the headmaster at morning assembly”. And Maja-Pearce’s book on JP Clark, A Peculiar Tragedy, was described as “a compendium of outright lies, fish market gossip, unanchored attributions, trendy drivel and name dropping, a ghetto tract that tries to pass itself up as a product of research” by Wole Soyinka.
But on this matter, the Professor appears as vindictive as Obasanjo: a bad review and a difference in opinion about his troubled relationship with JP Clark do not make Maja-Pearce a liar and incompetent writer. So what do you do after a public lashing from a Nobel laureate? Write The House My Father Built and shut up the critics. I opine that it took ten years of failed attempts at telling the stories of others for Maja-Pearce to learn how to write his own story, his magnum opus. Yet he populates a few pages (175) to narrate a story as wondrous as The Old Man and The Sea by Ernest Hemingway and Hunger by Knut Hamsun. But Maja-Pearce is more courageous and ambitious to publish such a self-depreciating and honest account of his turbulent life as a Johnny-Just-Come Lagos landlord. From the annulment of the June 12 elections up until after the 1999 inauguration of President Olusegun Obasanjo, the author fights an embarrassing battle with the Nigerian judicial system and a cabal of Lagos tenants.
This book documents, without trying, how far we have come as a nation. Like Things Fall Apart, this book will be widely read. It will be revered long after the grammar of Wole Soyinka loses meaning and his plays disappear from theatres. Like Toni Morrison said: “Some people just close when they get old. But if you’re open, if you have been, you can rely on the lived wisdom of the elderly. It’s not the book learning, it’s the lived wisdom. I ask friends of mine, ‘How old are you, inside?’ and they always know…There’s a moment when you just arrive.”
Adewale Maja-Pearce is open, The House My Father Built is full of lived wisdom and both have arrived after the 1987 publication of his first memoir. We await the third instalment.
Amatesiro Dore is a Writer-in-Residence at the Ebedi International Writers Residency