Mask, river, song: Award-winning Nigerian poet inspired by adopted home, New Orleans _lowres

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- University of New Orleans English professor Niyi Osundare recently received the National Order of Merit in his native Nigeria, placing him in a class with Nobel laureates such as Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka.

“New Orleans is Africa to me,” Niyi Osundare said, “so many things rolled into one.”

He gestures at the view of Lake Pontchartrain outside his window at the University of New Orleans.

“First there is the water — the river, the lake.”

The essayist and poet pauses to explain: His name means “the gift of the river is on your side.”

“The water,” he continued, “the river, the lake, the smell, the laidback disposition, the architecture.”

“Sometimes it is as if I were in Lagos. In every home in Lagos, there is an architectural interface between the interior of the house and the outside world. That threshold is so powerful, and I came to New Orleans, and here are the people on their porches, talking to one another.

“And then the food, so spicy — Ooh! Okra! And what is jambalaya but jollof rice? And then there is the theater of the streets. New Orleans is always bursting into song both literally and metaphorically.

“Yes, New Orleans is Africa to me, so many things rolled into one.”

New Orleans may claim the University of New Orleans professor as its own writer, but he is truly a citizen of the world. The poet, playwright, essayist and scholar has been at UNO since 1997, steadfastly writing and teaching.

Recently he received the highest honor from his native Nigeria, the National Order of Merit, placing him in a class with Nobel laureates such as Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka.

It is an award he has accepted with his characteristic grace as well as a sense of personal responsibility. With recognition in his home country has also come power and a larger platform for expressing his views.

Osundare, 68, worries about the Nigerian educational system, the treatment of women in his country. He still feels free to criticize Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan’s priorities, though, he said, “My friends were scared for me. I can’t be bought. I can’t be compromised, ” he said. “Not at this age! And I have my anger at what we should be, so this makes a difference.”

Osundare grew up in rural Nigeria, the son of a farmer and an indigo dyer and weaver who prized education. He remembers his father scanning the skies, planning to put in the crops before the start of the rainy season. “My father took the sting out of the scorpion of labor with his songs,” Osundare said.

He remembers the pot of blue dye next to his mother’s loom, her blue hands and forearms. He remembers it all with a poet’s eye and a loving heart.

He had 12 siblings; his father had five wives. He takes his responsibility as the eldest son turned patriarch very seriously. Living in two places with dual citizenship has its demands. “Every day,” he said, “I make three phone calls to Nigeria. And when I am there, every day I make three phone calls to the United States to make sure everything is all right.”

Osundare came to New Orleans in 1992, extending a Fulbright scholarship that had begun at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. After returning to Nigeria for five years, he came back to New Orleans in 1997, with his wife and three children, seeking better educational opportunities for his daughter, who is deaf. She went on to attend the Louisiana School for the Deaf in Baton Rouge, then Gallaudet University.

Osundare’s love of New Orleans would be tested in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when he and his wife were trapped in the attic of their Lakeview home for 26 hours, finally being rescued by a neighbor with a boat. Bounced from evacuation center to evacuation center, the couple ended up in New Hampshire, where Franklin Pierce University made a place for him.

Osundare, who lost invaluable books and manuscripts in the flood, wore his work around his neck on a flash drive for a long time. Even that experience, which he wrote about in the poetry collection “City Without People,” did not change his love for his adopted city, and his university home.

He marvels at the commitment of his University of New Orleans colleagues, in those challenging days as well as in the face of the contemporary financial threat of state budget cuts. He loves his students.

“I learn a lot from them,” he said. “How to be young again, how not to take myself too seriously, how to make mistakes and correct myself. They have that kind of beauty which comes with innocence. I thank them for that. We love our students, but it is a tough love.”

No wonder he would feel at home here. His poems, from the very beginning, dealt with themes that would resonate with New Orleans culture. Some of his continuing, deeply felt metaphors are the mask, the river, the singer and the song. New Orleans would only expand his frame of reference, adding depth and beauty to these ideas with new experiences.

“My father, my mother, never went to school,” Osundare said, “But when I look at my children — they’ve traveled the world. So when I look in the mirror, I think, ‘I like this.’ It is an abiding lesson in humility, too. Who am I?”

Susan Larson hosts The Reading Life on WWNO and is the author of The Booklover’s Guide to New Orleans.