My work is larger than any female-centred ideology
My work is larger than any female-centred ideology – Prof Onwueme
On July 24, 2011.
By Mcphilips Nwachukwu & chris mba, WORKSHOP
Professor Tess Onwueme is one of Africa’s foremost female playwrights and a Distinguished Professor of Cultural Diversity and English at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire, USA.
The playwright, who has not only published severally, but is so globally studied was recently honoured with a named chair by the University of Wisconsin as the institution’s University Professor of Global Letters.
An honour reserved for the most accomplished academics, the full-time tenured appointment was recently given to her in recognition of her “increasing prominence in the field of contemporary playwrights,” and comes with “a new contract and new duties” consistent with the high profile of the appointment.
In appointing Professor Tess Onwueme to this exalted platform, Dr. Patricia Kleine, Vice-Chancellor and Provost of the University of Wisconsin noted in a letter to the author of over a dozen award-winning plays: “You bring honor to the University of Wisconsin. It is only fitting that the university recognizes your extraordinary talent.”
Onwueme has received many international awards, including the prestigious Fonlon-Nichols award in literature in 2009. The award is given annually to a black writer whose works have demonstrated a commitment to democratic ideals, humanistic values and literary excellence in writing. She was also in 2007, appointed to the US State Department Public Diplomacy Specialist/Speaker Program for North, West, and East India.
In this interview with Vanguard arts, the Delta State-born and American- based playwright-cum-scholar ushers the reader into the theatrical spirit of her art.
But before we go on Professor Onwueme, would you explain to us the implication of your new position as the “ University Professor of Global Letters” by the University of Wisconsin?
It means that I now exclusively occupy a an Endowed or Named Position in the university. It is a professorial position of prestige and honor bigger than all academic professors in the academic field.
Only one professor can occupy that position of Special Honor and prestige. It means that the appointee has become a ‘ bigger’ name and symbol in the academic field, institution, or department. Other full Professors look upon the recipient with awe, dignity, and respect because he/she has become a PROFESSOR OF PROFESSORS among them.
In other words, the occupant of the meritorious post is like a ‘Super Professor’ in the university, which has placed him/her on a pedestal as their PRIMUS INTER PARIS, “First Among Equals.”
In my own special case now, it means that I am in a very exclusive club by myself. I’ve gone beyond being a Distinguished Professor in the University, to becoming an iconic mark of honor, pride, and excellence, reaching far beyond the local to the (inter)national community as the institution’s UNIVERSITY OF PROFESSOR OF GLOBAL LETTERS.
It is a very uncommon position. Only extremely distinguished African writers and Professors like Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, occupy such special named positions/chairs in American universities. From now on, I will not teach like my fellow professors.
I will teach much less, and the position is permanent. On a much lighter note, therefore, being ‘crowned’ a UNIVERSITY PROFESSOR OF GLOBAL LETTERS is like being declared an ‘NZE’ or KING, or OBA, or EMIR, or ‘MUALIMU’, as it were, in the academic field.
Given your creative writing efforts as a known female dramatist in Nigeria, who propagates female centered ideology, would you say that women centered drama is achieving the purpose of creating identity for the women?
Let me say right away that I am partial to the experiences, concerns, struggles, and challenges of women, along with the teeming powerless youths who are daily challenged by the “poly-tricks” of oil, globalization, unemployment and poverty.
I’m equally passionate about the nagging matters of (dis)connections between Africa and her Diaspora, as well as those of the grossly (ab)used Earth––our Environment and (Mother)land––like our own Nigerian Niger-Delta! All these concerns color and temper the texture of my work.
And so who’s afraid of ideology, if I may I ask?
For I must say that I’m quite tickled by your curious caption of “Ideology”: specifically your branding of the “female centered ideology.” Is it a demonic disease? Because it’s rooted in the female? Frankly, on the one hand, that impassioned framing of it makes it sound like some form of influenza, rabid pestilence, or even a WMD (Weapon of Mass Destruction), which terrorizes healthy people (male, I suppose!), and therefore must be exterminated.
On the other hand, it also sounds much like putting on a “designer suit” by someone in a binge to make a fashion statement, because it is a fad or vogue. And I’m not so sure that I fit into that chic designer suit or straight jacket: as is.
For I’m larger and my writing is even more complex and larger than me. What with the shifts in tone and contours, from the award-winning Then She Said it (2003) and What Mama Said (2003), Shakara: Dance-Hall Queen (2001),
The Missing Face (1996/2006) and Legacies (1989), Riot in Heaven (1997/2006), No Vacancy (2005), Tell it to Women (1995/2003), The Reign of Wazobia (1988), The Desert Encroaches (1985), Ban Empty Barn and other Plays (1986), Mirror for Campus (1987), and Acada Boys (2002), The Broken Calabash (1984), through the allegorical Why the Elephant Has No Butt (2000), etc.
The rich textual evidence is there in the evolving topographies of my work to defy any such labeling and pigeonholing and boxing in(to) one corner as simply “female centered ideology.”
Since the seventies when I adopted the pen as a most reliable friend that can help me interrogate and discover truths as I took to writing, what has evolved is a thick tapestry of knowledge and ideas/ideologies woven with the variegated yarns and patterns of interpreting contemporary life’s experiences that are marked by the growing challenges of gender, ethnicity, class inequality and poverty impacting the (global) underclass women and youths, especially.
Today these are aggravated by the (un)holy wars and the “poly-tricks” of religion, faith, and ideology that’s fast polluting and corrupting our land and environment.
All these colorings and strands of my work were woven into a representative thematic fabric in: “Staging Women, Youth, Globalization, and Eco-Literature in Onwueme’s Work” by the respected scholars who convened the 2009 Tess International Conference, which was exclusively devoted to my work, following the award of the Fonlon-Nichols award to me in that year.
And that leads me now to what we mean by Ideology: what is it, really? Ideology stems from Ideas. The basic ingredient of an ideology is an idea, a value, a principle, the essential nectar of knowledge for coding, informing and shaping a cause of action. Ideas/Ideologies do vary: some are healthy and nurturing; others are malignant and toxic.
As a promising student of life, and one writing and teaching life, I’ve since committed to deploying my own creative talent and scholarship in awakening and producing consciousness, textured and tempered my own unique experiences as a Nigerian woman, mother of five children, and a growing global citizen.
As a woman, I can see life, better, and more focused, from the vantage point as a woman; and not a man.