Heart of Arts

Nduka Otiono: The Bard of Many Colors, By Toyin Falola

Toyin Falola


I was in-between spaces and places when Professor Nduka Otiono informed me that he had been appointed as the new Director of the Institute of African Studies at Carleton University in Canada. This appointment, which is for a three-year term, takes effect on July 1, 2022. I was excited and wished I had more time to listen to his vision. I have been privileged to read his great works, write a review on his latest poetry collection, and interact with him from time to time. It has been a string of good news from our wonderful African colleagues in Canada. His new portfolio allows me to re-introduce him to the public.

            Otiono obtained a Bachelor of Arts (Hons) degree in English from the University of Ibadan in 1987 and a Masters of Arts degree in the same course and university in 1990. In 2011, he earned a PhD in English from the University of Alberta. He has worked in Media Journalism for over a decade, with extensive experience in editorial and management roles in print journalism, particularly literary and cultural journalism. He was the founding editor for various newspaper literary supplements such as This Day, National Mirror, and Post Express Literary Supplement (PELS) and worked with top-ranked media houses in Nigeria like The Guardian, Vanguard, The Sun, Flashpoint, and The Nation.

Otiono has characterized himself as a man with a coat of many colours. His major strength and ability effectively straddle numerous fields while placing the agencies of Nigeria, Africa, and the African Diaspora in high regard. Peering into his training in professional media, he has contributed significantly to the Department of Communications, as well as being cross-appointed to the Department of English Language and Literature, School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University, where he has contributed with other professors to make the School of Journalism and Communication a leading centre in Canada. Most importantly, the infusion of African journalism into the curriculum has established his position as a credible source for strong opinions on public affairs.

Similarly, Otiono’s grand knowledge and research experience in Oral Literature and African literature is another of his contributions to academia, as he successfully researched street stories to engage orality, popular culture, and the postcolonial condition in Nigeria. Based on these, he has distinguished himself as a Nigerian academic on oral culture. Many of his works are on the plane of redefining and reconstructing African literature through the lens of the digital space. In a bid to impact the digital space and pave the way for upcoming scholars to sharpen and develop their skills and for research using digital tools to appropriately initiate policies, the preservation of African memories and African history, he has imbibed the method of finding a nexus between Digital Humanities and African Studies. Notably, one of such works is the introduction he wrote in honour of Pius Adesanmi on Death and an African Digital Towncrier.

Likewise, in his contributions to African literature, he has published various poetry anthologies and chapbooks where he has made impressive landmarks, coupled with the indelible impact that separates him as an exemplar figure in writing culture, particularly poetry. Recently he published DisPlace: The Poetry of Nduka Otiono (2021); his other works include Voices in the Rainbow (1997), Rivers Within (2007), and Love in a Time of Nightmares (2008). These books, which have won awards such as the James Patrick Folinsbee Memorial Scholarship in Creative Writing and Honorary Mention in the Association of Nigerian Authors/Cadbury Poetry Prize, address diverse sociopolitical and psychosocial aspects of living in Nigeria and the diaspora.

Otiono has contributed to post-independence Nigerian writing by featuring poets across the country in an anthology titled Camouflage. This collection, edited by himself and Odoh Diego Okenyodo, brings together a new generation of writers from Nigeria and the diaspora, aged 24 to 46. These authors are highly recognized in various contexts, from winning international honours to participating in writers’ forums. This book is about Nigeria’s post-independence circumstances and fresh realities, and the link between ideology and aesthetics that tends to affect the Nigerian experience is also effectively problematized and dramatized in the anthology. Readers are treated to a unique and interesting surreal experience of confronting the unknown and traversing various styles and ideologies while reading the book because the anthology lists each contributor’s work alphabetically rather than thematically.

Otiono has contributed to the locally specific constructions and representations of women in Nigeria and Africa in literature and popular culture by showing his diversity in writing and research efforts. He has delved into the various reflections on the place of women in major African and Nigerian novels, poetry, and even drama. For example, Wemen: An Anthology of Men Writing on Women (1998), “Colour Me Ba(r)d: Orality and the Feminist Question in Zaynab Alkali’s The Stillborn” (2015), and “Catherine Acholonu (1951 – 2014): The Female Writer As a Goddess” (2019), rendered the machinations needed to appropriately understand the relationship between gender and power, discussing how readers should move past the old, binary-based conjectures in research on women and women’s writings.

For his numerous contributions to education, teaching, and literature, Otiono has won many prestigious grants such as the Canadian Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Scholarships – Advanced Scholars, where he was the principal investigator; the FASS 2020 COVID19 Research Assistantship Fund; the Izaak Walton Killam Memorial Scholarship, and the F. S. Chia Fellowship; Andrew Stewart Memorial Graduate Prize. In 2002, he was a Grantee, Embassy of France in Nigeria, for the trip to Chambery, France, to attend the International Society of Oral Literature in Africa (ISOLA) conference, and in 2003, he was a Fellow, British Council Cambridge Seminar on Contemporary Literature, Downing College, Cambridge University. He held a postdoctoral fellowship at Brown University for a year in 2011, during which time he was also named Visiting Assistant Professor and was nominated for the Governor General’s Gold Medal for academic excellence. Then, in 2015, he was awarded the Carnegie African Diaspora Scholar Fellowship, Delta State University in Nigeria. In addition, he was a Fellow at the University of Massachusetts, Boston’s William Joiner Centre for War and Social Consequences. He earned all these due to his interdisciplinary focus research focuses on oral literature in Africa, the digital humanities, popular urban stories, and the role of Nigerian theatre and its nexus with postcolonial Africa.

Otiono is an accomplished literary writer who has won many prizes from Ibadan to Canada. In 1987, he won the prize for the second position in the annual Christopher Okigbo Poetry competition of the Poetry Club, University of Ibadan. A decade later, he won the Association of Nigerian Authors/Spectrum Prize for Fiction in 1997. His most recent literary prize came a decade into the twenty-first century when he won the prestigious James Patrick Folinsbee Memorial Scholarship in Creative Writing.

Otiono has significantly contributed to media outreaches and has about two dozen international and local TV and radio appearances with significant contributions to community-building and public debates on socio-cultural issues about Africa and the African Canadian experience. He also belongs to various professional associations, notably the Association of Canadian College and University Teachers of English, the Canadian Authors Association, and the Association of Nigerian Authors. With his new appointment as Director, he has truly earned it, and he will surely move the Center to the next level. Congratulations!

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