Friday, 22 August 2014

The writer, The Reader and Society

On Saturday, August 16, 2014, a new writer, Seigha Lin Onwuteaka emerged on the Nigerian literary scene with her debut novel, LOST IN THE CITY. Our Creative Director and one of the writers in the NaijaGRAPHITTI stables was present at the occasion and gave this speech:

The writer, The Reader and Society
By Kenneth Nwabudike Okafor
"There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you."
― Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
The Writer
"If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that."
― Stephen King
The Writer’s Motive and Motivation
I wish to preface my presentation with a reference to George Orwell. Of course, George Orwell was not his real name, but rather a pen name. Eric Arthur Blair (25 June 1903 – 21 January 1950), was an English novelist, essayist, journalist and critic. His work is marked by lucid prose, awareness of social injustice, opposition to totalitarianism, and commitment to democratic socialism. Commonly ranked as one of the most influential English writers of the 20th century, and as one of the most important chroniclers of English culture of his generation, Orwell wrote literary criticism, poetry, fiction, and polemical journalism. He is best known for the dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) and the allegorical novella Animal Farm (1945). His book Homage to Catalonia (1938), an account of his experiences in the Spanish Civil War, is widely acclaimed, as are his numerous essays on politics, literature, language, and culture. In 2008, The Times ranked him second on a list of "The 50 greatest British writers since 1945". Orwell's work continues to influence popular and political culture, and the term Orwellian — descriptive of totalitarian or authoritarian social practices — has entered the language together with several of his neologisms, including cold war, Big Brother, thought police, Room 101, doublethink, and thoughtcrime.
In a particular speech which George Orwell gave in 1946, titled Why I Write, he enunciated the reason why he writes. He said and I quote:
"…I do not think one can assess a writer's motives without knowing something of his early development. His subject matter will be determined by the age he lives in at least this is true in tumultuous, revolutionary ages like our own but before he ever begins to write he will have acquired an emotional attitude from which he will never completely escape. It is his job, no doubt, to discipline his temperament and avoid getting stuck at some immature stage, in some perverse mood; but if he escapes from his early influences altogether, he will have killed his impulse to write.
"I think there are four great motives for writing, at any rate for writing prose. They exist in different degrees in every writer, and in any one writer the proportions will vary from time to time, according to the atmosphere in which he is living. They are: Sheer egoism. Aesthetic enthusiasm. Historical impulse. Political purpose.
"I cannot say with certainty which of my motives are the strongest, but I know which of them deserve to be followed. And looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally."
At once, I would also add that a writer might write: to contribute to knowledge or for spiritual obligation/devotion.
The Writer’s Worthy Goal
"Read, read, read. Read everything trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You'll absorb it.
Then write. If it's good, you'll find out. If it's not, throw it out of the window."
― William Faulkner
The writer ought to write for the empowerment of the reader and society. The writer’s greatest achievement would be to contribute to the library of books and the corpus of wisdom and learning, for the discerning public and the astute reader.
The writer for me is anyone who writes ideas fit for reflective consumption, by which society can be built up and developed. The Writer works with ideas and conveys them to the world by the construct of words. Ideas are crucial to the writer. The process of writing is the communication of the writer’s ideas to the reader and to society. This ought to be a sacrosanct relationship but I dare say this is not always the case.
The writer ought to be a builder using words for mortar and bricks but many times there is failure to build or there is a misconstruction and the structure which emerges is misshapen and unfit for purpose. There is a very commonsensical piece of counsel to the budding writer: "Practice is essential to learning. Each time you choose your words, order your thoughts, and convey your ideas, you can improve your writing."
The Writer’s “Flower Period”
In the work, Culture and Customs of Thailand, the Thai historian, Arne Kislenko writes "Poetry was so important in the Ayutthaya [Ayutthaya period 1350 – 1767] that it became one of the most important artistic and historical legacies of the kingdom. By the seventeenth century, poetry was very common, and moved beyond the realm of monks. Most people in the royal court were expected to write poems, so much so that the period between 1656 and 1688 is known as the "Flower Period" from this blossoming of poetry."
I use this phrase of "Flower Period" to describe a metaphorical time describing the writer’s moment of greatest flourishing, profusion and productivity. If you mentioned this same phrase among some people with naughty intentions it may probably mean something else for example cannabis growers. There must be a blossoming of the writer, when the writer is at the peak of his/her productive powers.
Every writer whose work will make impact and be as complete as can be, must master his or her own "Flower Period" and maximize production then.
Though I am not a Jane Austen scholar, I would like to use her life even though much of her personal stories are obscure, to make my point about the writer’s flower period.
Historically, Jane Austen (16 December 1775 – 18 July 1817) was an English novelist whose works of romantic fiction, set among the landed gentry, earned her a place as one of the most widely read writers in English literature. Her realism, biting irony and social commentary have gained her historical importance among scholars and critics. Austen lived her entire life as part of a close-knit family located on the lower fringes of the English landed gentry. She was educated primarily by her father and older brothers as well as through her own reading. The steadfast support of her family was critical to her development as a professional writer. From her teenage years into her thirties she experimented with various literary forms, including an epistolary novel which she then abandoned, wrote and extensively revised three major novels and began a fourth. From 1811 until 1816, with the release of Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814) and Emma (1815), she achieved success as a published writer. She wrote two additional novels, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, both published posthumously in 1818, and began a third, which was eventually titled Sanditon, uncompleted before her demise.
She lived a relatively short-lived life but story has it that she completed all the outlines of her books by the age of twenty-four. By forty-one, her work was done but then her legacy was also truly well established.
Whereas as we have seen the diligent writer must be a reader first and foremost, however, a reader must not necessarily write, but he or she must be reflective in order to make fodder from what is written. So who is the reader?
The Reader
The reader is the learner, or should be the learner, and would-be protagonist, who ought to become compelled by what he/she had read.
The singular lesson I would share with anyone as valuable insight as the singular incentive for reading is that the reader should read to obtain education and/or to augment education. In Nigeria where the educational system is famished and nearly bankrupt, reading therefore becomes dire need. The poet, Odia Ofeimun has famously described the Nigerian education system as " education system which give poor education to poor people in order to keep them poor and unmobilisable"
According to Reading Culture Book Club, "Reading is a continuous self-education." I fully subscribe to this notion.
Thus, the reader should approach every volume with the intent to be educated. The reader ought to develop a relationship with every book they read, an interaction which helps the reader to design and improve action and outcome, or refrain from action and outcome. For example a good moral story may teach lessons from which the reader can learn ethics and proper behaviour.
According to United States NCA Commission on Accreditation & School Improvement (NCACASI), there are about half a dozen characteristics of good readers. In sum, good readers grasp: conventions, comprehension, context, interpretation, synthesis, and evaluation. When readers use each of this half a dozen traits they are, in essence, reading the lines, reading between the lines, and reading beyond the lines. The traits are:
o   Conventions—Understanding conventions means being able to make sense of words, grammar, and punctuation. When readers learn to identify and recognize conventions, they can understand meaning.
o   Comprehension—With comprehension, readers obtain meaning from text.  Comprehension occurs when readers make predictions, select main ideas, and understand important details.
o   Context—Context involves reading between the lines to identify setting, tone, and the voice of the author. Context also includes placing ideas and concepts in a "bigger picture" to help students see practical applications.
o   Interpretation—When readers interpret, they "fill in gaps" in the text, using clues and evidence from the text to analyze problems and draw conclusions.
o   Synthesis—Synthesis involves reading beyond the lines, as students must apply and synthesize knowledge from outside the text.
o   Evaluation—Evaluation occurs when readers are able to express opinions, ask questions, challenge the text, challenge the author, and note bias and distortion.
The good reader ultimately develops an interactive relationship with the work of the writer and by extension the writer’s ideas, through books.
Here are some vital reasons for the Reader to read books:

1. To Gain Advantage and Mastery over the World Around the Reader

In a study carried out by US National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the researchers found that "With lower levels of reading and writing ability, people do less well in the job market. Poor reading skills correlate heavily with lack of employment, lower wages, and fewer opportunities for advancement."
In his book How to Read and Why, Harold Bloom says that we should read slowly, with love, openness, and with our inner ear cocked. He explains we should read to increase our wit and imagination, our sense of intimacy—in short, our entire consciousness—and also to heal our pain. "Until you become yourself, what benefit can you be to others." With the endless amount of perspectives and lives we can read about, books can give us an opportunity to have experiences that we haven’t had the opportunity to, and still allow us to learn the life skills they entail. Books are a fast track to creating yourself.
Readers are active participants in the world around them, and that engagement is critical to individual and social well-being.

2. To Develop Reader’s Verbal Abilities

Although it doesn’t always make you a better communicator, those who read tend to have a more varied range of words to express how they feel and to get their point across. This increases exponentially with the more volumes you consume, giving you a higher level of vocabulary to use in everyday life.y read

3. Improves Reader’s Focus and Concentration

Unlike blog posts and news articles, sitting down with a book takes long periods of focus and concentration, which at first is hard to do. Being fully engaged in a book involves closing off the outside world and immersing yourself into the text, which over time will strengthen your attention span. to

4. It Improves Reader’s Imagination

You are only limited by what you can imagine, and the worlds described in books, as well as other people’s views and opinions will help you expand your understanding of what is possible. By reading a written description of an even or a place, your mind is responsible for creating that image in your head, instead of having the image placed in front of you when you watch

5. Reading Makes Reader Smarter

Books offer an outstanding wealth of learning and at a much cheaper price than taking a course. Reading gives you a chance to consume huge amount of research in a relatively short amount of time.
Anne E. Cunningham and Keith E. Stanovich’s What Reading Does for the Mind also noted that heavy readers tend to display greater knowledge of how things work and who or what people were. Books at home have been strongly linked to academic achievement. If you are looking for a list of great books to read, check out 10 Easy To Read Books That Make You Smarter.

6. It Improves Reader’s Memory

In their book Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, Maryanne Wolf explains that "Typically, when you read, you have more time to think. Reading gives you a unique pause button for comprehension and insight. By and large, with oral language—when you watch a film or listen to a tape—you don’t press pause." The benefits of this increased activity keep your memory sharp and your learning capacity nimble.

7. It Makes Reader’s Interesting and Attractive

This goes hand in hand with reading to become smarter. Having a library of information that you have picked up from non-fiction reading will come in handy in any academic or scholarly conversation. You will be able to hold your own and add to the conversation instead of having to make your excuses and leave.  You will be able to engage a wider variety of people in conversation and in turn improve your knowledge and conversation skills.hy to read

8. It Reduces Stress

A study by consultancy firm Mindlab International at the University of Sussex showed that reading reduces stress. Subjects only needed to read, silently, for six minutes to slow down the heart rate and ease tension in the muscles. In fact it got subjects to stress levels lower than before they started.

9. For Spiritual Growth and Maturity

The fact that scared cannons are recorded for the present, posterity and for eternity. Several kinds abound, but I am particularly interested in the Holy Scriptures which is an essential part of the celebrant’s life and experience. Reading the Bible helps to develop spiritual maturity and development.

10. For Entertainment

All the benefits of reading mentioned so far are a bonus result of the most important benefit of reading; Its entertainment value. If it were not for the entertainment value, reading would be a chore but it needn’t be. Reading is not only fun, but it has all the added benefits that we have discussed so far.
In the landmark study, to which I had earlier alluded, using data gathered across the country the US National Endowment for the Arts carried a research from which they produced the report titled To Read or Not To Read: A Question of National Consequence, Dana Gioia, Chairman, National Endowment for the Arts writing the preface asserts:
"To Read or Not To Read confirms—without any serious qualification—the central importance of reading for a prosperous, free society. The data here demonstrate that reading is an irreplaceable activity in developing productive and active adults as well as healthy communities. Whatever the benefits of newer electronic media, they provide no measurable substitute for the intellectual and personal development initiated and sustained by frequent reading.
"To Read or Not To Read is not an elegy for the bygone days of print culture, but instead is a call to action—not only for parents, teachers, librarians, writers, and publishers, but also for politicians, business leaders, economists, and social activists. The general decline in reading is not merely a cultural issue, though it has enormous consequences for literature and the other arts. It is a serious national problem. If, at the current pace, America continues to lose the habit of regular reading, the nation will suffer substantial economic, social, and civic setbacks."
If America finds good reason to lament a lack of and/or a faltering in the culture of reading; is Nigeria more righteous?
But to some people, I must admit, reading is a tedium, and books are no more valuable than furniture and decorative appurtenances; objects of gratification to prop up one’s life and social standing. You may know someone like that; people who would not think nothing of purchasing high-priced libraries or prohibitively priced stocks of books and collectible volumes with which to prop up their egos and elaborately decorate a new home, without one iota of intent to reading.
Personally, I consider this is a betrayal, of the writer and of the noble aim of helping grow a more learned, more educated society.     
The Society
In this presentation, I do not at all wish to come across as negative, rather I wish to make certain to pass the message that task at hand is clear, is unambiguous and is enormous; for the writer as well as society. As far as any self-respecting writer is concerned, Nigeria in its diverse collectivity should be boldly and appropriately marked "UNDER CONSTRUCTION".
This vivid imagery has helped me on occasion, personally, to see that there is redemption to be found for the seeming endless quagmires and even morass into which Nigeria is enmeshed as a country and collection of societies; that the Nigerian societies, for I see them as legion, are not irredeemable.
Let us attempt to answer the question: what is society?
Frank Chodorov, the author of The Rise and Fall of Society (1959), has devoted the whole of his mature life to a struggle against the twin perversions of concentrated power in the State and intellectual irresponsibility in the academy. In the book, The Rise and Fall of Society, the first sentence blows you away: "It is hard to think of an age which, with less reason, has been more smugly self-satisfied than ours." Chodorov wrote this book in 1959! Chodorov laments the distortion and outright denial of truth in favour of self-worship of the State. Chodorov vows to defend the individual and natural law.
I may not entirely share Chodorov’s philosophical outlook and ideological leanings, but I appreciate specific contentions he has raised about society. And I fully subscribe to Chodorov’s description of society in his book. In chapter four smartly titled Society Are People, he writes:
 "SOCIETY IS A COLLECTIVE CONCEPT and nothing else; it is a convenience for designating a number of people. So, too, is family or crowd or gang, or any other name we give to an agglomeration of persons. Society is different from these other collective nouns in that it conveys the idea of a purpose or point of contact in which each individual, while retaining his identity and pursuing his private concerns, has an interest. A family is held together by family ties, a crowd consists of a number of people bent on some common venture, such as a baseball game or a lecture. Society, on the other hand, embraces the father and the son, the doctor and the farmer, the financier and the laborer—a host of people following all sorts of vocations and avocations, pursuing a variety of goals, each in his own way, and yet held together by a purpose which is in each of them. But Society is still a word, not an entity. It is not an extra "person"; if the census totals a hundred million, that's all there are, not one more, for there cannot be any accretion to Society except by procreation." (Italics and emphasis mine)
Simply put, I, from Chodorov’s definition, understand society to be people, getting together in a meaningful conglomeration, bound together by common norms, to pursue purpose within the purview of agreed strictures and system of accountability (or non-accountability, in case of outlaws), building unique sociology all of their own making. This means that there are many factors and elements that can go to shape the emergence and development of any society.
Books (through the writer) can duly be regarded as one of these inescapable elements. Books can shape society; this, however, must be a deliberately desired goal. By extension, this infers that the writer can shape society.
What elements then are shaping the Nigerian societies at the present time? we may ask. As far back as 1967, a writer of renown and in his literary distinction outstanding, had opined that modern Africa (Nigeria included by association) was not a construct of writers. In The Writer in Modern African State publication which was an outcome of the African-Scandinavian Writers’ Conference which held in Stockholm in 1967, Professor Wole Soyinka writes "the present philosophy, the present direction of modern Africa, was created by politicians, not writers." I daresay the politicians have even lost the plot to the political jobbers and quacks with an aggravated military interregnum hangover. Several other scholars and commentators have reinforced the same message at different forums all over the world whenever Nigeria has to be described. In essence, Nigeria has yet to become a learning society.
A flourish of writers had we permitted them to thrive would have delivered to us, a learned, self-critical and reflective learning society. Somewhere else I have written about the nature of a learning society. I wish that Nigeria would become truly a reading and learning society, now or in the nearest future.
In a blog post titled "Promoting Creative Mindset - Building a Culture of Learning" I once wrote:
"Ignorance is a natural state except you beat it back with the instrument of learning and enlightenment. Because learning requires concentrated effort and investment, people generally tend to follow the path of least resistance – which is to live with ignorance.          
"The real calamity is when ignorance gains prevalence and ascendancy, and, more tragically, the ignorant climb into leadership. Ignorance has blossomed into a growth industry in Nigeria. If knowledge is power, then ignorance is disempowerment.  The vast majority of the citizenry are deliberately disempowered by a handful of conspirators and collaborators. People prefer others ignorant so they can deprive, dispossess, and disenfranchise them. …
"The real death of learning in Nigeria began with the neglect and eventual abandonment of public library culture.
"In his memoir, I. Asimov: A Memoir, Isaac Asimov, prolific writer and American immigrant, wrote "I received the fundamentals of my education in school, but that was not enough. My real education, the superstructure, the details, the true architecture, I got out of the public library. For an impoverished child whose family could not afford to buy books, the library was the open door to wonder and achievement, and I can never be sufficiently grateful that I had the wit to charge through that door and make the most of it. Now, when I read constantly about the way in which library funds are being cut and cut, I can only think that the door is closing and that American society has found one more way to destroy itself."
"Ikhide Ikheloa, blogger, social and literary critic, wrote in his blog post titled The Library Lives Still, "As a little boy growing up in Nigeria, I travelled the world in books. The walls of my school’s library fairly throbbed with the power of words. I loved the library and it was one place where you could find me, basking in the smell of books. I remember the few distractions that kept me from the library of my childhood."
"We need accessible and well-stocked libraries once more – whatever kinds may be suitable, and whatever form is affordable. Along with extra-curricular activities which encourage interactions with books. …
"A Learning Society would value learning for its own sake; it would place emphasis on learning about self, relationships and community.
"A Learning Society:
·         would be challenging, questioning, creative, curious and risk-taking
·         would be compassionate, collaborative, caring and playful
·         would promote social justice, be open to change and have an international perspective
"A Learning Society would be open to all. There would be access for everyone with a spectrum of opportunities, entry points, locations and routes and it would not necessarily be about formal recognition, qualifications or be institution based. The learner would be at the heart of such a society with the natural human desire to learn acknowledged, affirmed and nurtured. The Learning Society would be aspirational, inspirational and courageous; invest in individuality, in being in community, in persons in relationship, both with each other and the world."
Without promoting the writer and his/her products and engaging with them to provide illumination and direction, to fill up square metres upon square metres of libraries and learning places, Nigeria is dead in the water of ignorance and underdevelopment.
This is the Nigerian writer’s Macedonian Call: come over here and write to set us at liberty!
Counsel for the Emerging writer for her Journey
"How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live."
― Henry David Thoreau
Well you have lived; you have also taught and gathered rich materials with which to work. You have no excuses anymore. Go ahead and write.
You may not be able to create the road which your words will take you, but, at least, you can be prepared that there never will be a dull moment in this world of working with words. As much as you can travel light, for it promises to be exciting, and you will gather much luggage of strange and exciting experiences (and, hopefully, accolades, too) along the way.
Without doubt, the readership and the Nigerian disparate collection of societies require empowerment; you have your work cut-out for you.  
I wish you a safe and productive travel on this exciting road of the letters. May you pen wax mighty and grow stronger daily. May your ideas gain the attention of the audience for which they were/will be forged.

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