John (Okechukwu) Munonye Biography
John Munonye comments:
Nationality: Nigerian. Born: Akokwa, 1929. Education: Christ the King College, Onitsha, 1943-47; University College, Ibadan, 1948-52, B.A. in classics and history 1952; Institute of Education, University of London, 1952-53, Cert. Ed. 1953. Career: Education Officer, 1954-57, and Provincial Education Officer and Inspector of Education, 1958-70, Nigerian Ministry of Education; Principal, Advanced Teachers College, Oweri, 1970-73; Chief Inspector of Education, East Central State, 1973-76, and Imo State, 1976-77. Columnist, Catholic Life magazine, Lagos, and Nigerian Statesman, Owerri. Member of the Board of Directors, East Central State Broadcasting Service, Enugu, 1974-76. Member: Order of the Niger, 1980. Agent: David Higham Associates, 5-8 Lower John Street, London W1R 4HA, England.
The Only Son. London, Heinemann, 1966.
Obi. London, Heinemann, 1969.
Oil Man of Obange. London, Heinemann, 1971.
A Wreath for Maidens. London, Heinemann, 1973.
A Dancer of Fortune. London, Heinemann, 1974.
Bridge to a Wedding. London, Heinemann, 1978.
A Kind of Fool. Ibadan, Nigeria, Heinemann Educational, 1999.
Uncollected Short Stories
"Silent Child," in Okike 4 (Amherst, Massachusetts), December1973.
"Pack Pack Pack," in Festac Anthology of Nigerian New Writing. Lagos, Ministry of Information, 1977.
"Man of Wealth," in Catholic Life (Lagos), 1981.
"On a Sunday Morning," in Catholic Life (Lagos), 1982.
"Rogues," in Catholic Life (Lagos), 1985.
Drills and Practice in English Language (textbook), with J. Cairns. Lagos, African Universities Press, 1966.
(1991) All six of my novels are children of the land. Set in the Igbo area of Nigeria, they draw from the experiences of ordinary men and women, children too. The motif is the processes of change that started with the arrival of Christian missionaries some sixty years ago. Culture ("all the arts, beliefs, social institutions … characteristic of a community") had to shift ground. And the environment, sensitive in its own way, was transformed too. How did our ordinary men and women fare in it all? Is there anything of their authentic nature that could be said to have survived the stress? The earliest experiences, which are depicted in The Only Son and Obi, were severe and traumatic. Later, people came to live with the new state of things, and the result is Bridge to a Wedding, a novel of accommodation and reconciliation between traditional and modern. We do indeed need the bridge.
Oil Man of Obange is a relentless tragedy, a novel of confrontation on an individual scale. The Oil Man musters all his energy, zeal, optimism, and integrity towards improving his low social status. But did he consult the god of success? A Wreath of Maidens also deals with moral issues—on a wider canvas. The blood shed in the end is not, unfortunately, that of the protagonists: it is a novel of futility. A Dancer of Fortune proceeds on much lighter feet.
What next? The beautiful ones are not yet born—yes. But hope is one of man's sustaining gifts, a gift of the spirit. With it goes vision (without which a people perish) and commitment. Nothing shrill or didactic; no sermons; no protest.
* * *
Though he wrote six novels in one twelve year period, John Munonye has attracted surprisingly little critical attention. The reason is not far to seek: despite the intrinsically interesting material he works on, his craftsmanship and command of English have flagged noticeably since his earliest books. Yet, as a compassionate chronicler of the ways in which ordinary Eastern Nigerian people have been affected by historical and social change, he is a writer well worth reading. In his first and third novels, The Only Son and Oil Man of Obange, theme and treatment interlock admirably and reveal his competence at its best. Jeri, the petty trader in palm oil of Oil Man of Obange, pits his own elemental resources of courage, devotion, and physical strength against fate, accident, and malice to raise money for his children's schooling; Munonye subdues the narration rigorously to a stark recording of the everyday hardships of bare human existence that is still the lot of most Nigerians, indeed of the peoples of the Third World in general. With similar, though slightly less stringent, narrative austerity, The Only Son presents the privations of a self-reliant widow whose humble, sparse life is touched into tragic proportions by her simple courage and steadfastness: the relationship between Chiaku and her son is tenderly but unsentimentally handled, and, in their estrangement, when he seeks Western and Christian education, Munonye achieves a sympathetic insight into both sides of an irreconcilable clash of aspirations.
The Only Son is the first novel in Munonye's trilogy about the fortunes of one family, the twentieth-century descendants of the legendary Udemezue of Burning Eyes in the community of Umudiobia of ten villages and two. In Obi the fully Christianized son and his Christian wife return to Umudiobia to re-establish his father's obi or homestead, but the tensions between traditional custom and their new faith culminate in their flight into exile in a distant town. Bridge to a Wedding introduces them as the materially prosperous parents of six children and traces the patient and successful efforts of a highly respected Umudiobian to heal the feud between them and their village kinsfolk so that his son can marry their daughter. While these two novels share the attractive unifying theme of how African custom still operates upon the lives of ordinary Nigerians, for good and for ill, Munonye's concern with this theme, especially in Bridge to a Wedding, leads him into an often irritating discursiveness.
The virtue of Munonye's civil-war novel, A Wreath for the Maidens, rests upon his intimate knowledge of how the common people are affected for the worse by large historical events, despite the public rhetoric that accompanies them. Poor characterization and a tendency to wordiness do not vitiate the somber moral concern at the heart of this book. That it could so soon be followed by A Dancer of Fortune, with its apparent endorsement of mere individualist opportunism, is a disturbing measure of Munonye's increasing lack of self-criticism as a writer.
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