Resilient eminence are the two words that come to mind for me I as rush this short tribute for Professor Abiola Irele, doyen of African literary and cultural theory and criticism, publisher of note, frontline academic editor, great teacher, category bending anthologist, and one of the deepest among Africanist thinkers.
From the record of his achievements, to describe him as one with inexhaustible fund of epithets, akiikitan in Yoruba, entails no exaggeration. World Literature has just lost one of its cardinal bearings. African Literature just got poorer, alas.
Three years ago, at an event mounted by Kwara State University, Malete, where he spent last leg of his incomparably vigorous life as an academic and an administrator, to celebrate Professor Irele’s receiving Nigeria’s National Order of Merit Award, I teased him that even if he wishes to leave the university, those of us who cherish his being in the university world will not let him go. Prof, as everybody calls him, responded bemusedly, “Leke, you are not serious.”
A couple of years back, I did a simple Google Scholar search of Abiola Irele. In just 3 seconds on the not noticeably speedy Etisalat data network, the computer returned 4,460 records.
The confirmation search I did a few moments ago showed that the two editions of Professor Irele’s The African Experience in Literature & Ideology have been cited at least 445 times; his African Imagination, 229 times, and even the inaugural lecture he gave at Ibadan, In Praise of Alienation has been quoted 93 times.
These are not e-books but bound, analog, tactile, volumes that people actually walk up to depositories to read or check out. The 1965 essay on négritude, written years from before the hands of many of us could reach our ears, has been quoted on 76 occasions.
These numbers reflect only those that Google computers can glean from predominantly anglophone digital databases. We should imagine tens of thousands of other references that are logged in analog French speaking African, Carribean, European, and Asian libraries inside hard to reach theses, dissertations, articles, and monographs.
Countless are those that will definitely miss him, and my superficial gleaning of the records confirms for me that Abiola Irele is going to be with us in the university forever.
Of course, Abiola Irele can never leave us. How can Irele be said to have left us when the records stare us in the face at Benin Review, Research in African Literatures, Savannah Review, and Transition.
How can Abiola Irele leave us, as long as we remember that his New Horn Press introduced Harry Garuba to the world, gave us the first glimpse into Femi Osofisan’s fiction in Kolera Kolej, brought Sembene Ousmane’s Money Order to the Yoruba reading (and speaking) world as Sowedowo, and midwifed the Yoruba language birth of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart as Igbesi Aye Okonkwo. Irele shall continue to live at the annual Abiola Irele Seminar in Theory and Criticism at Kwara State University, which is convening for the third time on July 17.
For Abiola Irele’s exemplary service to his profession, the African Literature Association, honored him with the Distinguished Member Award three years ago. Every aspect of the institution of literature making, physical and intellectual, I am trying to say, gained some substantial inheritance from Abiola Irele.
I could continue. But today is for homage making. The occasion for play is for another day. Hence, I will close by saying only a liar or a euphemist will encounter an elephant and report that “I caught a fleeting glimpse of something.”
I am not a liar, and I am not good with euphemisms. It was a great pleasure to have known Professor Abiola Irele.
Adélékè Adéẹ̀kọ́ is a Distinguished Professor at the Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio.