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Harry Garuba (1958-2020): A Tribute in Two Feelings

I: A Celebration of Scholarship

Harry Garuba, internationally acclaimed Nigerian scholar, poet, journalist, editor, anthologist and theorist.

A prince of Unemenekhua, Edo State, Harry Oludare Garuba was born in Akure on April 8, 1958. He graduated from the Department of English, University of Ibadan in 1978, and earned his PhD from the same University, in September 1988, specialising in the literature of the black Diaspora. His doctoral thesis was entitled “Mask and Meaning in Black Drama: Africa and the Diaspora”, a close study of the works of Wole Soyinka and Derek Walcott. He taught in the Department of English, from 1980 to 1997.

Together with colleagues and students at the University of Ibadan in the 1980s, he started the Poetry Club which was to become one of the major platforms for a new generation of poets and activists who have now become some of the major authors in the country.

His first collection of poetry, Shadow and Dream and Other Poems(Opon Ifa, 1981) received great acclaim as the introduction of a new remarkable voice to modern Nigerian poetry. His second and more recent collection is titled Animist Chants and Memorials(2017)In between 1981 and 2017, Garuba’s significance soared not only as literary scholar of international repute, a dependable mentor to so many writers and scholars. In 1988, he edited Voices from the Fringe: An ANA Anthology of New Nigerian Poetry, perhaps the most important collection of new and emerging poets in modern Nigerian poetic tradition. Till date, Voices from the Fringeearns the accolade of being the most important reference and archival material to study the origin, and rise from obscurity, of a sizeable number of Nigerian writers of  Third Generation of Nigerian Poetrya collection that brought together the works of new Nigerian poets who were coming into voice in the 1980s. In the same year that this anthology was published, Harry Garuba was also asked by the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) which sponsored this publication to read and write blurbs for several of the other single-authored volumes of poetry that it was publishing that year. He was, at various points in the 1990s, the editor and managing editor of ANA Review(the official journal of the Association of Nigerian Authors). Beyond the national scene, he was commissioned to edit the Africa section of Poetry International’sdouble issue on English language poetry from across the world [Poetry International 7/8 2003-4].

His poetry has appeared in journals and anthologies including Opon IfaIdotoThe Fate of Vultures: New Poetry of Africa(1989), ANA ReviewPositive ReviewThe English Academy ReviewSavannah Reviewand Wasafirias well as in such e-journals as African Writing Onlineand Maple Tree Literary Supplement.

As a young student, and later lecturer, Harry Garuba had his first award of recognition twice when he won the University of Ibadan Scholarship in 1976-1978, and in 1980-1981. He held research fellowships in several universities including a Mellon Fellowship at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas in Austin, a Nelson Mandela Fellowship at the WEB DuBois Institute at Harvard, a Visiting Research fellowship at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. He was one of the founding editors of the electronic journal Postcolonial Textwhich is devoted to the study of literatures from the postcolonial world. He was also a member of the international editorial advisory board of the Heinemann African Writers Series before the series was discontinued. He was a recipient of South Africa’s National Research Foundation Grant (2002 and 2005), and a winner of the Harry Oppenheimer Conference Travel Award in 2001.

After leaving Ibadan, Garuba taught at the University of Zululand, before moving to the University of Cape Town, South Africa (with a joint appointment at the Centre for African Studies, and the Department of English). At UCT, he served meritoriously as acting Dean of the Humanities Faculty, Deputy Dean (Research and Postgraduate Affairs), Director of the School of African and Gender Studies, Anthropology and Linguistics and Director and Head of Department of the Centre for African Studies.

As an academic, Harry Garuba published widely in the areas of African and postcolonial literature and literary studies. Some of his scholarly publications - particularly his essay “Explorations in Animist Materialism” and his lectures on the ethical imperative in African literature - have been translated into French, Spanish, Portuguese, Turkish and Korean, among others. His research interests were on the practices and paradigms that guide disciplinary knowledge production in African literary studies and, on the impacts of modernity in Africa, particularly the emergence of new social and ideological subjectivities. In his last days, he was working on a research project entitled “Africa and the Idea of World Literature.” 

He passed onto eternity on February 28, 2020 in Cape Town, South Africa.

 

II: Harry G and the Unbearable Emptiness of Dying

when the night dies 

and the day is reborn 

joy returns to the wings of the eagle

From Harry Garuba’s Animist Chants and Memorials

 

Long after I had spoken with Blossom, his loving sister, I woke up to a call from Harry; it was a phantom call. It was as if he was wondering what I had been up to since he left mother Earth. I was in denial for days after that first ominous call at 1.08am on Saturday, February 29, 2020.

I called him two names depending on the occasion or the mood: Harry GOga Harry.

***

You warned me early. You spoke of an ailment in very light manner; sometimes, you sounded like there was nothing to it; sometimes you would speak quietly about mortality, but most times you lived the full life of a cultured man, ebullient, a long drum of talent, always dripping with insightful critique of literature, politics, nationhood, music, and other phenomena. 

The day you dropped the word, we were together in your room at the University of Ibadan Hotels some weeks after your 60th birthday. Leukaemia. You dropped the word and searched for something in my eyes. I hid a fear and drew blank. I asked if the thing was curable; Carl Ikeme survived the horror, I said; you were a brave man, soft outwardly but made of steel inside. You sounded so positive about the treatment that we relegated the mortal matter to discussions on your favourite subjects, the edifying nature and the immortality of art. We had the choicest of wine till the lean hours of the morning. You asked me to keep faith, that you would fight it, and I should not weaken the resolve by telling anyone or worrying.

***

No one ever had a great supervisor like mine. 

Harry Garuba allowed the penchant for the radical and the unfamiliar in my formative theorizing. He encouraged and indulged it. He would commend the conclusion but query the method; he would point at the milestones of disputation and ask you the best roads taken to the interpretive end. He was a compendium of knowledge who simplified the theories like no other. Master of anecdotes and great humour, Oga Harry brought tangible meanings to the ideas of great and influential  scholars who provided the planks to our path. Izevbaye. Irele. Abdul R. JanMohamed. Aijaz Ahmad, Bakhtin. Gayatri Spivak. Said. Gikandi. Anderson. Louis Gates Jr. Gilroy. Cornel West. Mbembe. Zeleza. Ad infinitum. He was the high priest of African literature and postcolonial theorizing.

My indebtedness to Harry G is longer than the beginnings of the Niger to her very end.

***

Oga Harry, my love for you is incomparable, my respect for you is immeasurable, and my gratitude, for waking and walking with you, learning so much, each rising sun, from the effortless and fathomless depth of your intellect, is both incomparable and immeasurable.

Precocious, you were raised in the best of the literary traditions, under Michael Echeruo, D.S. Izevbaye, Sam Omo Asein, Isidore Okpewho, Chiwenye Ogunyemi, Molara Ogundipe and Abiola Irele. You were a great collaborator and colleague to teachers Niyi Osundare, Femi Osofisan, Odia Ofeimun and Femi Fatoba. Emevwo Biakolo was your confidant and kindred spirit. Lekan Oyegoke, Jide Ogungbade, Remy Oriaku, Oti Agbajoh Laoye and Lekan Oyeleye were your special friends. Hyginus Ekwuazi was your classmate, friend and kindred spirit too. You were made in the fluidity of plaintive poetry. At Ibadan, you were the magnetic force of lasting and legendary friendships. How many of those abe-igi sessions do I remember now, with great minds like Dipo Irele, Eghosa Osaghae, Emman Oga, Mike Diai, Duke Anoemuah, Pius Omole, Oga Joe Emordi, Sesan Ajayi and Segun Oladipo as directors of disputations where you held sway as the crown prince. Beyond Ibadan, you introduced us to Festus Iyayi, G.G. Darah, and Tony Afejuku among many other defining scholars and writers of Nigeria’s Beat Generation. 

You announced your poetic presence through Shadow and Dream and Other Poems (1981). You were the leading light of the Thursday People, the commune of poets and artists at Ibadan of the 1908s; as you wrote in your own acknowledgements: “Remi Raji, Afam Akeh, Sanya Osha, Niyi Okunoye, Chiedu Ezeanah, Bose Shaba, Onookome Okome, Ogaga Ifowodo, Thane Maxwell, wih whom we lost touch, and for Odia Ofeimun, my best man, literally.” Funmi Josephine Dukiya, Chima Chima, Henry Folusho, Titi Adepitan, Tony Nduka Otiono, Sunmbo Afonja, Godwin Amatoritsero Ede, Funmi Adewole, Akin Adesokan, Nehru Ode, Sola Olorunyomi, Uche Nduka, Obi Nwakanma, Pius Adesanmi and Nike Adesuyi, how many of those who shared moments with you and how many remain to remember you with fond memories. Through ANA’s historic book project, commissioned by Ofeimun as President, you discovered the largest body of Nigerian writers in Voices from the Fringe (1988). Thirty-six years after Shadow and Dream, you resurrected the talent with Animist Chants and Memorials (2017). You coursed through this space like a meteor. You arrived in Zululand already made and became a star in Cape Town. In South Africa, you became the next important Nigerian export after Kole 'Yebo' Omotoso. There was only one Harry. Civet cat, you have the brilliance of fire that burns and heals. Uzor Maxim Uzoatu will agree with me that you were the god of the Poetry of my generation.

***

In thirty-nine years of special connection, Harry G was my tutorial master, teacher, friend and supervisor,  brother, confidante and mentor; he was my grants advisor, my phenomenal sparring partner; and he was a good man, the undisputable prince and bridgehead of (Nigerian) letters. He wore the garland of excellence comfortably and was generous to a fault. He was a truly talented poet who endorsed others while he sought little recognition for himself.

Your legacy is assured. Apart from being a major voice and influence in the making of Third generation Nigerian literature, you bequeathed the term 'animist realism' to readings of African literature and theory, an alternative critique of magical realism. You were the master of critical methods and theoretical procedures.

***

Each time you returned to Ibadan, you brought something back: the memories of our heroes past, the sheer spark of salient days, and the promise of brilliant futures. You were indeed our shuttle in the crypt, the shadow of our long dreams; once you were around, I took permanent leave from things non-literary, and everybody knew you were around.

Harry G, you had a weakness, and it was the weakness of virtue: you could not think of hurting a fly or taking the pound of flesh from those who had hurt you.

***

Nigerian sun, South African star, 

your blood irrigates the continent of thinkers

Now you depart and made Death even more sneaky

Now you leave almost quietly in your nature, daintily.

Harry Oludare Garuba. Triumphant talent of Unemenekhua. It is I who call your name in full. The one you taught how to catch fire. You must go with a proper celebration. You advised that I shelve the idea of coming to Cape Town on your birthday because you might not be around then. You would let me know when to come. You came to Ibadan in 2018 and 2019. It was my turn to come close to the edge of Rondebosch. So I chose the week coinciding with your April 8 birthday. No, you said, you would get back to me. I didn't know you were speaking in metaphors. You held the dreadful information back. You kept faith, we kept faith to the very last.

And yes, I know, you will rest in peace.

 

Remi Raji

Ibadan

March 4, 2020.

https://www.thenewsnigeria.com.ng/2020/03/04/harry-garuba-1958-2020-a-tribute-in-two-feelings/

 

Published on:: 
April 8, 2020