Abiola Irele Essay Outline

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When Serendipity conspires with Fate, the result is almost invariably a combination of astonishment and eye-popping bewilderment. This observation provides a painfully perfect script for my own ‘Irele narrative’, especially with regard to my interactions with this great scholar and generous enabler in what has now turned out to be his last few weeks on earth.

The immediate chapter of this narrative has to do with the dedication of my new book of poems If Only the Road Could Talk, just released in the United States by Africa World Press. In the over 15 years I worked on those poems, it never occurred to me that I was going to dedicate them to anybody. Nor did that thought ever cross my mind in the hectic months leading to the final editing and revision of the galleys. Then, one morning, I woke up with something close to a Eureka feeling: voila, I have found a worthy dedicatee for my new book and that person would be none other than Abiola Irele. That decision itself was both curious and complex; for I already had a piece written in his honour in the book of essays I was readying up for publication – an essay which had missed the chance to appear in The World in Africa & Africa in the World: Essays in Honor of Abiola Irele, a highly valuable festschrift edited with a characteristically comprehensive and provocative introduction by Biodun Jeyifo. In spite of all this, I woke up with that irrepressible urge to put Irele’s name in my new book’s dedication page. When I called Kassahun Checole, my publisher,  and revealed my new decision, I knew the manuscript was set and ready to go to the printer. But the Irele name did the magic. My publisher had the grace to wait for another two days, during which the following was born:

To Abiola Irele

Ageless Humanist

Scholar without borders

These seasoned offspring

Of Songs of the Marketplace

My curious instinct had not run its course. Two weeks after the manuscript had gone to press, I did something that is absolutely out of my character and habit: I “leaked” the dedication to Professor Irele, thus sabotaging the pleasurable surprise I had planned for him upon a later discovery of the dedication in an already published book! Of course, Irele’s response was touchingly grateful. Weeks later, I kept wondering: why, considering the stated prevailing circumstances, did I undertake to pen a paean for Irele? And, even more perplexing, why did I make sure he read this ahead of its publication? Nothing could have told me about his imminent passing. The last time I saw him and Eka, his lovely wife, it was at the funeral  of another great scholar and humanist, Isidore Okpweho; and I still remember telling Professor Irele how fresh and well preserved he looked, and how eloquent his tribute to Okpewho was. Death, our insatiable foe, must have been laughing behind the curtain!

     I am sad Professor Irele didn’t see my new book before he passed away, but glad that he read my dedication and had a measure of the high regard in which I hold him, and the gratitude I owe him as a writer, scholar, and aburo. For, Irele’s New Horn Press was my first publisher. Unknown to many people, the very title of my first book of poems came from him. I had completed this collection of verses, christened it ‘I Sing of Change’, after one of the major poems within its cover, and started wondering which major publisher would be foolhardy enough to stake his investment on a timid, yet unknown novice, when the Irele ‘Angel’ walked in literally through the door.  ‘Niyi, I understand you have a new poetry manuscript; can I take a look at it? I’ve been reading your poems in West Africa, (the then highly influential  London-based newsmagazine) and I like them’.

     With much trepidation I handed him a bound copy of a collection called ‘I Sing of Change’, and he promised to get back to me in ‘about a week’. But the very next day, Professor Irele left a hand-written message on my office door, telling me the poems were ‘terrific’ and asking if I would let New Horn publish them. Of course, my answer was a resounding affirmative. Two days later, he announced with palpable enthusiasm, ‘I have a new title for your collection: ‘Songs of the Marketplace’. I think that sounds more intriguing, and it captures the essence of the entire collection’. That was it. That name stuck, and the moniker, ‘Poet of the Marketplace’ was born – with Irele as  Francis the Baptist. Thus, Irele was not only there at the beginning of my literary-creative journey; he was vitally instrumental in giving my fledgling dream a name, and shaping the trajectory of a life career. Any wonder then that If Only the Road, which arrived with my 70th year on earth, and over three decades since the initial Irele Magic, kept on insisting that it would not be complete without that dedication to the Spirit of the Beginning who gave voice and verve to the ‘hawker’s ditty’ in the marketplace of songs? No doubt the God of Gratitude has wondrous ways of communing with the Spirit of Serendipity. . . .

 Irele’s New Horn initiative predated my Marketplace experience. First on the New Horn Poets list was Harry Garuba, whose Shadows and Dreams (1982) struck the literary public with its poignant precocity and intensely engaging rendering. Following four years later was Conflicts, debut poetry collection by Mabel Segun, who had already made a name as one of Nigeria’s finest short story writers; and much, later, Poems of the Sea by Jean-Baptiste Tati Loutard, one of Africa’s most eloquent poets. Irele had an overriding passion: to discover, nurture, and promote a new crop of writers after the phenomenal achievements of the Achebe-Soyinka-Clark-Okigbo generation. The ‘New’ in his ‘Horn’ was both a statement and a promise; a literary journey and cultural investment, with a staunch hope in the future of African writing.

There goes Abiola Irele, the doer and enabler. Admirably cosmopolitan and  inspiringly literate, Irele was a man and scholar constantly re-inventing himself and his ideas, an ageless humanist with an astounding combination of youthful energy and the seasoned wisdom that comes with age. We will sorely miss his fertile, encyclopedic mind, his stupendous zest for life, his powerfully resonant voice, his infectious passion for music, wine, and enlightened company.             


Niyi Osundare                   


July 6, 2017

(For Abiola Irele, 1936 – 2017)


Abiola Irele
Born(1936-05-22)22 May 1936
Ora, Nigeria
Died2 July 2017(2017-07-02) (aged 81)
Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA
Other namesFrancis Abiola Irele
Known forLiterary scholar and academic

Francis Abiola Irele (commonly Abiola Irele, 22 May 1936 – 2 July 2017)[1] was a Nigerian academic best known as the doyen of Africanist literary scholars worldwide. He was Provost at Kwara State University, founded in 2009 in Ilorin, Nigeria.[2] Before moving back to Nigeria, Irele was Visiting Professor of African and African American Studies and of Romance Languages and Literatures at Harvard University.[3][4]

Early life[edit]

Abiola Irele was born in Ora, Nigeria, and moved to Enugu very early in his life. While he was of Edo ethnicity, and had been born in an area where Ora was predominantly spoken, the first language he learned was Igbo, which he learned from the servants who worked for his father and took care of him growing up.[5] After moving to Lagos in 1940, he began to speak Yoruba. In 1943, after a fight between his parents, Irele returned with his mother to Ora, where he picked up and developed a fluency in the Ora language over the course of a year. However, after returning to Lagos in 1944 to live with his father, he began to predominantly speak Yoruba and maintained it as his ethnic identification.[5]

Irele's first encounter with literature was through folk tales and the oral poets who recounted "raras" in the streets. During the years of his formal education, he began to read more English literature.[5]

Education and career[edit]

Irele graduated from Ibadan University in 1960. Immediately after graduation, he went to Paris to learn French and completed a Ph.D in French at the University of Paris, Sorbonne, in 1966. On his return to Nigeria, he was employed on the Languages Faculty at the University of Lagos, and then at the University of Ghana, Legon.[6] He was editor of Black Orpheus magazine, from 1968 until 1975.[6] He also held teaching positions at the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University), and in 1975 at the University of Ibadan, where he was Chair of Languages.[6] In 1989, he moved to Ohio State University in the U.S. as Professor of African, French and Comparative Literature.

He was Provost at Kwara State University, founded in 2009, in Ilorin, Nigeria.[7] Before moving back to Nigeria, Irele was Visiting Professor of African and African American Studies and of Romance Languages and Literatures at Harvard University.[8][9]


Irele helped to expound upon the understanding of Négritude first theorized by Léopold Sédar Senghor in his article "What is Negritude?" featured in Tejumola Olaniyan and Ato Quayson's African Literature: An Anthology of Criticism and Theory. In his article, Irele defines Négritude as "the literary and ideological movement of French-speaking black intellectuals, which took form as a distinctive and significant aspect of the comprehensive reaction of the black man to the colonial situation...".

In his collection of essays Négritude et condition africaine, Irele explores the question of African thought. He begins by rejecting the notion of ideological difference between anglophone and francophone Africa. He aims to root African progress in the present and not in a romanticized past.[10]


Irele died at the age of 81 on 2 July 2017 in a US hospital.[11] Tributes to him included a poem by Wole Soyinka.[12]

Selected publications[edit]

  • The African Imagination: Literature in Africa and the Black Diaspora, Oxford University Press (paperback 2001), ISBN 0-19-508619-8
  • The African Experience in Literature and Ideology, Indiana University Press (reprint 1990), ISBN 0-253-33124-2
  • Joint editor with Simon Gikandi of The Cambridge History of African and Caribbean Literature, Cambridge University Press (2004), ISBN 0-521-59434-0
  • "Négritude: Literature and ideology" in The African Philosophy Reader, ISBN 0-415-96809-7

Further reading[edit]

  • F. Abiola Irele, What is Africa to me?: Africa in the Black Diaspora Imagination (Distinguished Lecture at Ohio State University, 30 October 2002)[13]
  • Abdul-Rasheed Na’Allah, "Literature, Culture and Thought in Africa: A conversation with Abiola Irele", in West Africa Review, Issue 7 (2005)[14]
  • Wumi Raji, Churchill College Celebrates Abiola Irele (report of 70th-birthday celebration, November 2006)[15]


  1. ^"Abiola Irele dies at 81", The Guardian (Nigeria), 4 July 2017.
  2. ^"Kwara State University – The University for Community Development". 
  3. ^Reviews of his essays, OUP websiteArchived 2007-09-29 at the Wayback Machine.
  4. ^Faculty page, Harvard UniversityArchived 23 January 2007 at the Wayback Machine.
  5. ^ abcSavory, E. (2009). "An interview with francis abiola irele". Wadabagei: A Journal of the Caribbean and its Diaspora. 12 (1): 109–132. 
  6. ^ abcObi Nwakanma, "Tribute: Francis Abiola Irele (1936 – 2017)", Vanguard, 16 July 2017.
  7. ^"Kwara State University – The University for Community Development". 
  8. ^Reviews of his essays, OUP websiteArchived 2007-09-29 at the Wayback Machine.
  9. ^Faculty page, Harvard UniversityArchived 23 January 2007 at the Wayback Machine.
  10. ^Dash, J. Michael (1 January 2009). "Review of Négritude et condition africaine". Research in African Literatures. 40 (4): 200–201. JSTOR 40468180. 
  11. ^"Abiola Irele (1936 – 2017)", The Nation, 14 July 2017.
  12. ^Wole Soyinka, "For FRANCIS ABIOLA IRELE – 'Olohun-Iyo'", Premium Times, 20 July 2017.
  13. ^Distinguished Lecture Series – Ohio State UniversityArchived September 1, 2006, at the Wayback Machine.
  14. ^Na'Allah, Abdul-Rasheed (2005). "Literature, Culture, and Thought in Africa: A Conversation with Abiola Irele". West Africa Review (7). 
  15. ^Wumi Raji, "Churchill College Celebrates Abiola Irele", Nigerians In America, 1 April 2007.

External links[edit]


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