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  • Isidore Okpewho (1941–2016)
  • Dan Ben-Amos

Isidore Okpewho died on September 4, 2016, a day after my birthday. The news hit me hard. We first met in 1982 at a social gathering at the University of Ibadan. I had approached him with some trepidation. In 1980, my review of his 1979 book The Epic in Africa appeared in Africana Journal, and it was not a raving review. I had criticized him on several issues, and now I had to face the author. To my relief, our conversation was relaxed, friendly, and substantive. He accepted some points of my criticism and rejected others, standing his ground with profound knowledge and logical counter-argument. We became friends. Isidore was born in Agbor, Delta State, Nigeria, a state that shares a boundary with Bendel State, where I conducted my research on Edo (Bini) oral tradition. His father was an Urhobo, a people that have some critical narratives about the politically dominant Edo and their Oba (king). We shared stories about these mutual traditions, and, 16 years later, I read his perceptive analysis in his book Once Upon a Kingdom (Indiana University Press, 1998), describing Benin from the perspectives of the peoples it dominated.

In his scholarship, Isidore did not limit himself to the traditions of his own people. Rather, he was a global scholar before globalism became a keyword. He began his university education studying classical literature at the University College of Ibadan (then still affiliated with the University of London), from which he graduated in 1964 with first-class honors. After graduation, he did not embark immediately into graduate studies but took time off to find his way between Robert Frost’s proverbial “two roads diverged in a wood.” For him, these were scholarship and novel writing. Okpewho ended up choosing “the road less traveled by,” combining art and scholarship. He worked for a while at Longman Publishing and wrote his novels The Victims (Longman, 1970) and The Last Duty (Longman, 1976); the manuscript of the latter received the UCLA African Arts Prize for Literature in 1972. Throughout his scholarly career, Okpewho continued to write fiction about life in Africa. He wrote four novels altogether. While he was an established scholar, he wrote Tides (Longman, 1993), which was the winner of the (British) Commonwealth Writers Prize for Africa (1993); his last book, venturing into magical realism, was Call Me By My Rightful Name (Africa World Press, 2004).

The year The Last Duty appeared, Okpewho received his doctorate in comparative literature from the University of Denver, but even before that, he taught at SUNY Buffalo from 1974 to 1976. Upon completing his dissertation, he was appointed to the English Department at the University of Ibadan, where he taught from 1976 to 1990. He then returned to the United States, and after teaching at Harvard University as a Ford Foundation Visiting Professor for the academic year of 1990–1991, he joined the faculty of SUNY Binghamton, where he taught until his retirement as a Distinguished Professor in 2016.

Okpewho’s accomplishments as a scholar correspond and even surpass his literary achievements. In addition to his abovementioned books, he wrote Myth in Africa (Cambridge University Press, 1983) and an introductory book to folklore in Africa, African Oral Literature (Indiana University Press, 1992). While in Nigeria, being attuned to the theoretical developments in the United States, he edited The Oral Performance in Africa [End Page 209] (Spectrum Books, 1990). In his last scholarly book, Blood on the Tides (University of Rochester Press, 2014), he returned to his first love, the epic in Africa, and to the work of his admired friend, the poet and scholar John Pepper Clark-Bekederemo, analyzing in depth the Ozidi Saga that his friend recorded and dramatized.

Okpewho’s achievements were well recognized. As a leader in the field of African folklore, he was elected President of the International Society for Oral Literature in Africa (2002–2006). He was appointed a Fellow in the Society of Folklore Fellows of the Finnish Academy of Science and Letters in 1993, and 10 years later, in 2003, he received a Guggenheim Fellowship. In between these two honors, the University of London bestowed upon him...


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