Bill French & Onitsha Market Literature:
Afterword to Life Turns Man Up and Down

by Kurt Thometz

"My body may be here
but my mind’s long gone with the Ibo."
—Paule Marshall, Praisesong for the Widow.

This collection partially owes its existence to my friend and colleague, the late William French of the University Place Bookshop in New York’s Greenwich Village. For nearly fifty years the shop specialized in, as their yellow pages advertisement read, "Everything to do with the Negro." It sounded antiquated then and was, as was a significant portion of the significant stock.

More souk than shop, nine floors above Broadway the vocationally marginalized bookseller/scholar curated an imaginary Africa representative of the real Africa. Here I encountered the bibliographical construct of a world deconstructing itself faster than my own: the file cabinet archives of a downed Black Panther, drawers of bus station paperback blacksploitation, the now fly-speckled negritude of Léopold Senghor and Aimé Cesaire, Brooklyn’s quasi-scientific self-published Afrocentric Egyptology, deep, florescent lit stacks of university press evidence of the lost civilizations of the Sub-Sahara, chronicles of the Black Atlantic diaspora, nineteenth century minstrelsies’ imprints in dialect, the belles lettres of Civil Rights, the bullet lettres of Chester Himes, a photo of Idi Amin Dada nude, all rescued from the oblivion of neglect by Mr. French. Rather than travel in pursuit of Africa, he chose instead to Africanize the familiar, to invert the near shores to their other side, to the "Africa within". Which is where we met.

Among Mr. French’s treasures were my introduction to the anthropologic poetics of Onitsha’s market literature. His was one of a few collections to survive Nigeria’s destruction of things Igbo, all of which are presently outside their country of origin. Their collecting he considered paramount in his professional and personal accomplishments. The authors were his contemporaries. He was able to procure two-hundred and twenty pieces before the civil war. I have his catalogues and invoices from Messrs. A. Onwudiwe, Highbred Maxwell, and Njoku & Sons, "Books Sellers", Importers & Publishers, Main Market, Onitsha. His last order was mailed to Biafra, August 9th, 1966. Nine months later the books would arrive but his check was never cashed. There was no response to further inquiries until I made mine a decade later.

Rare, in the book business, is a vague term used to mean there are few copies recorded and thus very few on the market. It might mean scarce and it might mean precious. Too often it means neither. In the case of the pamphletry it meant both. The five and seven dollars a piece Bill asked me for his duplicates I knew to be wildly disproportionate to the pamphletry’s value but appropriate to the demand, as our shared interest knew no other market.

During the late nineteen-seventies and through the eighties, I scavenged University Place Bookshop as I scavenged all of the New York’s Book Row, Greenwich Village’s Fourth Avenue from Ninth to Fourteenth streets. The five blocks of mostly grimy second-hand bookstores presided over by grim often-grimy elderly bibliophiles was a wonderful place for anyone entertaining my literary pretensions. And they were entertaining. Through an association with a bookshop on the Upper East Side, I found myself mau-mauing the literary interests of an educated, affluent, and acquisitive clientele, gifting the erudite mistresses of, appraising, configuring and cataloging the libraries of, and curating the collections of the Upper East Side Medici.

As their private librarian I learnt to appreciate the book as a thing as well as the narcotic state of mind I sought between so many different covers. Catering to uptown’s connoisseurship, I acquired an understanding of motives and criteria that, frankly, had never interested me before as I was far too busy with reading. It didn’t occur to me that the book as an object was of enormous interest until it was brought it to my attention by financial incentive. While some of my clientele were shallow, seemingly in direct proportion to their vanity, the majority of this effete elite were serious bibliophiles to whom I offered the curatorial and bibliographical services they hadn’t time to perform: appraising, arranging, augmenting, cataloging, collating, inventorying, and restoring their carefully cultivated interests.

The mechanisms of collecting support the quest not just for the best but for knowledge. At the heart of these interests I recognized a discernible need for truth, a wanting to know the origin of the thing in order to understand the nature of its message, that I responded to with sympathy if not sentiment – which is where the dealer goes wrong. For collectors, first editions possess an elemental signature, a proximity to the author, that qualify a symbolic validity later editions don’t possess. In collecting incunabula, for instance, the content of the book is often dwarfed by its stature as a relic, a milestone in the history of literacy.

People who find book collecting a vain pursuit are always goading me to confess to having clients who are trying to buy class by buying fancy books. These people, who claim to be bibliophiles, generally quite sensible people, differentiate themselves from such frivolity by imposing puritanical and proletarian constraints on book buying they would never consider when choosing anything else. They say it isn’t necessarily because they’re cheap. They’ll insist they don’t care about the edition they read or its condition and like to infer that to consider the book as a thing of interest in itself is crass materialism. They insist their interests are strictly academic and their reading has never been touched by sentiment. As book lovers they’re as impotent as the most dilettante fashionable readers.

I admit to being a rather dilettante "hip/phony" myself at times. Uptown’s effete elite contributed to my education as an antiquarian and this collection owes a small but significant debt to the clientele that brought the pamphlets within my ken. Likewise, the milieu in which my appreciation of the pamphletry lived, south of 14th Street deserves its honorable mention. By Downtown standards they functioned within the tenor of the time. Downtown, my social circling beyond the pulp mines mamboed about the incipient graffiti/neo-expressionist art scenes and beyond to the wild style third whirl electric boogie all New York City borough high-life scenes of the times.

In the Seventies and Eighties, each of those scenes assimilated Africas like the one I have always known. These Africas were neither a place, a philosophy, nor so much a style but a dialectical touchstone, one that implied more than it ever explained. The aesthetic said it. Its destructionist mentality is similarly about breaking down existing forms and putting them back together. The paradoxical nature of the pamphletry, its promise and demise, its invincible ignorance, its pop splendor, and its outsider status all appealed to my black heart and the black hearts of my artist contemporaries and their models, who were entertained.

As the pamphletry intended. Unlike, say, the signed first editions I’d accumulated, the Onitsha books interested people who cared nothing for dicty books or Africa. They spoke directly and simply to a sensibility that felt confined by the literary. The Igbo authors’ enthusiasm for their new media captures the spirit of experimentation drained from our contemporaries’ prose. Once the first flush of fab curiosity wore off, the little books retained their grip. Once accustomed to reading the unhomogenized prose that’s sometimes called Young, Mad, or Uncooked English, the polished prose of my time’s publishing wore comparatively tight in the crotch.

* * *

In the winter of 1993 Bill asked if I was interested in buying his pamphlets. While he was desperate for money he gave them to me at cost. We shared the troubles of the times. In the early Nineties, the other affinities New York City shared with Africa were the AIDS epidemic and economic blight. I’d lost a family member/best friend, five close friends and one hundred and fifteen acquaintances to the former and my bank account to the I.R.S. Likewise, Bill was losing his wife and his livelihood. The recession and technological changes took a great toll on independent booksellers at the time and we knew several bankrupts and suicides.

That spring I was afraid I was losing my young son to an autistic state of mind I couldn’t conceive. That my son’s involvement with the spectrum threatened to preclude his using language gave me nightmares. He didn’t speak and only a small sparkle in his eye betrayed comprehension.

In oral and written cultures, these people of the fourth dimension are sometimes outcasts and sometimes seen as holy madmen, emissaries of a world primary to the illusionary realm we inhabit. If it is difficult for the literate to conceive the unwritten world, it has been near impossible for either to grasp autistic consciousness.

I became highly aware of the literary constructs I couldn’t take for granted if I wanted to save my son. Words were as immaterial to him as they were in the oral world the writers of the pamphlets were emerging from. They, however, provided me the key. Find the key and it leads to the Word. Literacy employs mnemonic devices within his capacities. To understand my son, it seemed to me, as to understand the pamphletry, was not so much a romance (a literary construct) as a love affair.

The pamphleteers warn us not to misconscrew the two up and never to mix them up with money. The complete title of Sunday Okenwa (The Strong Man of the Pen, The Master of Life) Olisah’s pamphlet of useful advice this book takes its name from is Life Turns Man Up and Down, Money and Girls Turn Man Up and Down. Olisah, one of Onitsha’s greatest existentialists, cautions us to the perils of romantic notions confusing practical solutions. For all the doggerel of his evangelical didacticism, his forewarnings argue against the presumptions imposed by the world without.

As does the great Igbo author, Chinua Achebe, in Things Fall Apart. Literacy as much as Colonialism is the catalyst for change in Nigeria. Literacy, similarly, was the tool I used to effect change for my son. Incomprehensible and apparently uncomprehending, he was read to, year in and year out, all the books I never read when I was a kid. Books written, like Onitsha’s street literature, to an audience with the equivalent of a third grade education. And it worked. I’d been reading to him for two speechless, ritualistic, mystical and mystifying years when, on my skimming over a word, he supplied the word, his first. It was as if he couldn’t speak until he could read.

Until The Word heard became concrete, alphabetized and grammatically ordered, cause and effect seemingly eluded him. With The Word he could reason. With it we could talk. The market writers’ perceptual differences often times mimed the kid’s, bringing me the same answers by different questions. I do not equate oral and autistic consciousness, save to relate their differences with the literate state of mind. Neither can withstand it. Both fight it. Autism, I hypothesized, is to illiteracy as illiteracy is to literacy but in the other direction: Equal but separate.

Neither illiteracy nor autism are synonymous with stupidity. They are states of mind. To understand either is to grasp a consciousness no more illusory than our own. Igbo consciousness underwent no less radical effect when it grasped literacy than my son did and it happened in much the same manner. Literacy has always been a means of coming to terms with a technologized environment that never comes naturally. It is a sanctuary in a life that turns man up and down. It is full of hard lessons and good laughs. It is full of friends and family, imaginary and real. I want to thank my son for impressing me it doesn’t much matter which. I want to thank him from the bottom of my heart for emerging.

Bill did not. New York University absorbed the shop’s stock, paying his debts, just saving him from bankruptcy. The New York Times and Village Voice covered the shop’s demise in much the same manner they’d cover Sotheby’s sale of the city’s last Checker Cab. He wasn’t the last of Book Row but he was the last of its great authorities. And now he’s ceased to be, on purpose.

* * *

This selection owes a great debt to Dr. Emmanuel Obiechina, whose works on the Market Literature are indispensable to its appreciation. Mr. French accompanied my introduction to the pamphletry with Obiechina’s anthology from the African Writers Series, Onitsha Market Literature , and his unsurpassable critical study, An African Popular Literature. I can make no greater recommendation to the interested reader than these books. Read him and reap.

I have Arthur Nwankwo of the Fourth Dimension Press, Enugu, to thank, as we all do, for sustaining an independent literary voice in Eastern Nigeria during the dark ages following the Biafra War, as well as facilitating my search for copyright holders during the as dark ages of Sani Abacha’s thoroughly corrupt regime. Communications with Nigeria came to an impasse when I needed them most. Neither postal nor telephone connections functioned sufficiently. Arthur and his associate, my friend, Udenta O. Udenta, worked with me to find anyone who might hold copyright to any of the market’s publications. Without their instruction and friendship my study could never have come so to life for me. Justice, Peace & Progress.

Bernth Lindfors, Peter Hogg and Ilse Sternberg have been very helpful to me in my studies and have my gratitude. As do the librarians of the Schomburg Center for Black Culture, the New York and the Brooklyn Public Libraries.

For a variety of good reasons I would like to thank my parents, brothers and sisters, Martha, Pedro Oliverio and Adolfo Rene Sanchez, Steven Kramer, Fran Lebowitz, Peter Heaney, Julian Asion, Murray Berger, Edwin and Barbara Weisl, Courtney Ross Holst, Gustavo and Patricia Cisneros, Arthur Loeb, Fab Fred Brathwaite, Erroll McDonald, Tim Yohn and Lina Todorovich.

And for even better reasons, this book is dedicated to my son, Adam Adolfo Thometz and the former Camilla Jackson Huey, who we just love. 

SOURCE: Thometz, Kurt. Life Turns Man Up and Down: High Life, Useful Advice, and Mad English (New York: Pantheon Books, 2001), pp. 339-347. This web site edition incorporates corrections to the printed text.

(c) 2001, 2002 Kurt Thometz. All rights reserved. Published by The Autodidact Project with permission of Kurt Thometz.

"High Life & Mad English" review by John Strausbaugh

A Memorial Tribute to Bill French

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