On 26 September 1921, Nigerian writer, Cyprian Ekwensi, was born. Ekwensi saw himself as a custodian of Nigerian life and the patron saint of the city dweller. He wrote social commentaries where the Nigerian city or town took on the texture of a character.
The social role of the novelist—the idea of who the novelist is in society and what their responsibilities are, both self-assigned and thrust upon the author by the reader—is constantly shifting. We are, right now, living through a moment when the work that a novelist does, from the point of view of the tech disruptor, appears ripe for disruption, hence reducible to its most basic formula and easy to replicate. The novelist, once called upon to function as the ‘conscience’ or ‘interpreter’ or ‘secretary’ of society becomes within this new proposition, de-personalized and disembodied. There are many ways to worry about this. Some of them, urgent, concern issues of intellectual property theft. Others, difficult to equate to material loss, require that we simply remind ourselves why writers matter. What it means, for instance, to encounter the mind of a writer like Cyprian Ekwensi for whom the novelist in society had to be totally immersed in, and preoccupied with the theatre of society.
CITY OF DREAMS
Ekwensi saw himself as a custodian of Nigerian life and the patron saint of the city dweller. He wrote social commentaries where the Nigerian city or town took on the texture of a character. Even when his human characters did not appear to be going through any serious internal upheavals or developments, the city, site of the epic and mundane, acting on them, was dynamic, punishing, exhilarating and elusive.
Not particularly Ekwensi’s most ardent reader, I read him anyway. He was available and it was routine to read The Passport of Mallam Ilia as a required school text. I must have picked up copies of An African Nights Entertainment and The Drummer Boy at some point in a school library. I sought out Jagua Nana and Jagua Nana’s Daughter in my late teens and early twenties. This is as far as my familiarity goes. I have not reread the author as an adult beyond a recent attempt to read Jagua Nana again. I did not get far. This is not to say that the book does not satisfy the requirements for necessary delight. Its engagement with the world of sex work was progressive for its time. But it is a book I fear I have now sadly outgrown.
Yet Ekwensi, undeniably a prolific writer, knew how to tell a good story. I imagine him at this very hour writing another novel about Lagos. What would he make of Lagos today? Its inventive underbelly. Its con artists. Its musicians. Its nightlife. His characters, considered by certain critics as lacking the kind of cognitive depth or range of mythological interest common in the works of his contemporaries, were familiar and fascinating. A writer with as much interest in the daily encounters that happened in public spaces, the countryman’s dream of grandeur, the psyche of sex workers, Ekwensi treated the novel as a living inventory document. We may find progenies of Ekwensi in many new generation writers as anthologized in Lagos Noir, but more broadly, perhaps in a new kind of storyteller, the skit maker. Not just any skit maker, but the kind quick with translating desires and documenting social mobility, social unease, adventure, romantic exploits, all with an invitation/reminder to live in the moment. This kind of skit maker understands the medium of the skit as doing its best work as a vehicle for social realism.
Ekwensi was born in 1921 and died in 2007. He is noted by the Guardian as having published more than 40 books in his lifetime. In his literary debut, People of the City, Ekwensi’s fascination with public life and the personas we create for public living is evident. It drives the plot. The novel tells the story of a character, Amusa Sango, a staple of the Nigerian cityscape, perhaps more so today; a fine boy on the come-up who plays a club gig and works as a crime reporter in the West African Sensation. It was published in 1954, selected by the Heinemann African Writers Series editor, Chinua Achebe. This was well before Achebe made the pivot from editor to writer and published his own monumental works, including the city novel No Longer at Ease.
Before People of the City, Ekwensi wrote romance and folktales, some of which were published in 1940s Onitsha. Along with Ayi Kwei Armah and Amos Tutuola, Ekwensi’s first works appear in the collection of essays, Early West African Writers by Bernth Lindfors. His later novels, written in quick succession include the 1968 Dag Hammarskjöld prizewinning Jagua Nana published in 1961. The book, immediately controversial, spurred discussions on the floor of the Nigerian parliament amid concerns that it would have a corrupting influence on the Nigerian character. And its pop culture status was sealed when the musician, Orlando Julius, immortalized the main character, naming his breakout song after her. Alongside a writing life, Ekwensi worked as a pharmacist, broadcaster, forester, teacher and filmmaker. He wrote radio and television scripts, and newspaper columns. He balanced the necessary solitude that writing required with a complete immersion in society. When he lived in Lagos, his writing room reportedly faced Ojuelegba Road on the Lagos Mainland. His son, George Ekwensi, shares a family lore in a retrospective on the author’s legacy, in which Ekwensi on a steamship en route to study in the United Kingdom, completes a novel, For a Role of Parchment, during the duration of this trip, prompted by the solitude of uninterrupted days at sea. He is said to have finished the first draft of Jagua Nana while studying abroad in a record ten days.
In a 1965 interview, Ekwensi offered his theory of the novel, noting that he had no interest in being a political writer. He considered the creative writer one who was primarily defined by their sociological concerns. For him, the categories did not necessarily mix. The creative writer ‘showed the people [to] themselves,’ and the story acted as a self-correcting mechanism at work within society. About a year later, the Nigerian Civil War would begin and Ekwensi would take on a role that required the lines between the sociological and political concerns of the writer to meet and mix. He served as Head of Publicity for the Biafran government, resigning his position as Director for the Ministry of Information on the Nigerian side. By 1969, in another interview, he appeared to have reworked his theory toward flexibility. He noted that the writer, incapable of ignoring the times and saddled with the job of truth-telling, had to be faithful to mirroring the truth found in the subject. He also published one war novel, Survive the Peace.
For a generation of Nigerians who grew up reading Ekwensi, and hence parsing city life through his books, especially his novels for young adults—An African Night’s Entertainment, The Drummer Boy, Trouble in Form Six—the mind of Ekwensi is foundational. It is there in the brickworks of memory. We may accept that the job of the novelist is deputized by new kinds of storytellers working in new formats. We may accept that the novel is forced to occupy a shrinking space as our attention spans are fractioned off online. But we maintain that the novel and novelist are irreducible to their lowest common multiples, a replicable code.
THE STORYTELLER, REIMAGINED
To be sceptical as the social role of the novelist becomes subject to an impending ‘inevitable’ shift at the mercy of new tech monopolies is to wonder what changes for the reader when the novel as a form ceases to be primarily an act of will against time, chaos, and human contingency. What changes if the storytellers’ cognitive, sensory and affective experience—the storytellers’ critical eye, and meaning-making—become easy to substitute with the ‘cognition’ of a large language model (LLM) trained on the works of a thousand disembodied storytellers? What changes if we substitute the idiosyncratic mind of the novelist Cyprian Ekwensi with a thousand generative, silicon-based Cyprian Ekwensis, who happen to be efficient and optimized machines, all high-performing? Are we willing to make this barter? One writer for multiple of the same writer, LLM-trained and ready to dispense wisdom, theory, wit and anecdotes. Sort of in the mould of that never-ending AI-generated conversation between the philosopher Slavoj Žižek and the filmmaker Werner Herzog on the website The Infinite Conversation. The writer thus reimagined as a prototype maker with a trademark. The ideal prototype, not exactly a novel itself but the formula for one, harnessed and sold like an app to the highest bidder. Scalable, missing the human element, but still vaguely attached to a good origin story. Ekwensi anticipates this development in a 1965 episode of the United Nations’ Television programme, ‘International Zone’, in which he appears alongside Achebe. Here, he identifies a shift in the role of art/artists, from social to economic. But he is more disturbed by a change driven purely by acquisitive interests than the reorienting effects of technology. The question then becomes, if reorientation is inevitable, what changes about the reader’s access to the human, singular, in this slice of time, in this unindexed city street? In that unnumbered house?
A few days ago, the American literary website, Lit Hub, published a definitive list of European cities that most appear in fiction. The list led with London at a total number of 286,675,501 occurrences between 1921 and 2019. For the curious, this data was mined from the Google Books database by a digital printing company called Aura Print. The printing experts possibly combed through Google Books relying on a neural network of some sort for this trend-seeking exercise. They claim to have gone through 25 million books as parameters to arrive at this data. Unable to resist, when I read this, I tried to imagine an extended list of cities, more global and inclusive. For all Ekwensi’s works and the works of writers for whom Lagos has been central, versions of this global literary list, however hypothetical, would still not objectively reflect this city or throw up an accurate number. The immediate concern raised by data like this is the implicit bias of language models reliant on archives that already exclude or disproportionately archive one set of data over another.
In his lecture on the impact of recent AI systems, the MIT-based physicist, Professor Max Tegmark, obviously invested in making LLMs like OpenAI’s generative pre-trained transformer, chatGPT perform reliably, suggests that we are better off getting AI systems to a point of trustworthiness. He offers working toward human control and AI trustworthiness under a new field of study he calls ‘mechanistic interpretability’ as an alternative/reasonable response to ‘freaking out’. He defines the ambition of this field as getting AI systems to a point where they become scrutable and we understand how a large language model correctly identifies, say, the Eiffel Tower, and makes useful factual associations like how to get from Berlin to the tower, what duration this journey might take, and what the area around the tower looks like. Having understood this, to work toward improving the reliability of this process, and then guarantee that it will generate the desired outcome every time, irrespective of what the stakes are. This sounds great. But the ethicist and computer scientist, Timnit Gebru, maintains based on her time studying at Stanford and working at Google, that the reliance of these systems on surveillance in the interest of neocapitalism remains a concern. Worse, she notes that there was an obvious and consistent imbalance in who would likely be disadvantaged by these systems however scrutable and reliable they become and ‘who would be likely to be developing these systems’, race being a crucial factor.
It is possible that many of the new concerns about technology’s disruption of the novel are needless. It is possible too that worrying about the novel, the people who write them, and their relationship with the material world is laughably low stakes within the hierarchy of urgent concerns. It is possible that the form of the novel morphs beyond recognition along with the role of the novelist in society when the tech disruptors move in to have their way. It is also likely that the novel will survive recent campaigns to minimize the writer’s role of questioning, accessing, reassessing and presenting useful points of view. Who’s to say? In the words of the OpenAI boss, Sam Altman, humans, for all our intuitions, almost always miss the mark when it comes to predicting exponential curves and outcomes.
Yet, we know this. When a writer like Ekwensi looked at the city, he saw the unfolding theatre of a place. People in their distinctions fascinated him. He watched them move through the city. On occasion, he did this from the window of his street-facing writing room. An easterner born in the north and educated in the western part of Nigeria; he worked the myths of these places into how he understood the topography of a city. How does one get a language model with a bias kink, however multimodal and well-trained it is, to understand this? To correctly identify the underlying myths that govern a life. How does it detect what informs the genius loci of a place? The fact that beyond the obvious, identifiable properties of a random tree on a street corner, lacking the documentation of the Eiffel Tower, there are gods in that tree. That this tree is sacred⎈
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