Missing in the Archives

This is an extract from my article (just published in Stand 18.3), about the urgency of creating new records and archives in response to absences in official archives.

from Unofficial Archives in the 1950s and 1960s: Leeds, Ibadan, Hull and Zaria

“… Over the last couple of years I have been researching some of the relations between poets in Northern England and Nigeria, tracking down letters, manuscripts, and photographs in a range of archives, including the extensive Tony Harrison Archive, Geoffrey Hill Archive, Wole Soyinka Archive, Stand Archive, Martin Banham Archive and London Magazine Archive in Special Collections at the Brotherton Library (University of Leeds). There are also valuable materials in the Hull History Centre (especially the Howard Sergeant Papers), The British Library, the University of Ibadan Library, and the Rose Library (Emory University). […]

Although these archives are extremely rich, they also contain significant absences, particularly in relation to female poets and editors, and the wide range of writers who did not have the material means to physically travel between Nigeria and the UK or to collaborate or correspond directly. There are traces of these women, but often nothing more. This means that several writers important to understanding the relations between British and Nigerian literary production, including women like Minji Karibo, Mabel Segun, Juliet Udezue and Yetunde Esan, are mostly absent in official archives. Many of these women contributed the best poems to publications like Nigerian Student Verse – a selection of poems from The Horn, an Ibadan student magazine (modelled on the University of Leeds’s Poetry and Audience) edited by the esteemed J.P. Clark – but subsequently disappeared from the records. As a result of this research, I have realised how urgently we need to create new archives. In practice, this means conducting research on ‘unofficial’ archives (such as school log-books and recipe books), for example, as well as pursuing original interviews and correspondence with writers like Mabel Segun, Martin Banham, Jon Glover, Tony Harrison, and Wole Soyinka. 

One of the writers central to this new work is Mabel Segun (née Imoukhuede) – one of the very first women at University College Ibadan in the 1950s, who has since become an award-winning poet, playwright, novelist, academic, and teacher. I have recently been corresponding with Segun’s daughter, Omowunmi Segun, herself a prize-winning novelist. Segun’s early poetry and writing was published alongside that of Soyinka, Clark, Christopher Okigbo and Achebe, and she went on to receive many prestigious prizes including the Nigerian National Merit Award in the Humanities and the Officer of the Federal Republic award (OFR). 

There is surprisingly little written on Segun, or on the work of pioneering female editors like Frances Ademola (née Quarshie-Idun), editor of Reflections: Nigerian Prose and Verse, in which four of Segun’s poems and an article were published alongside the work of Achebe, Clark, Gabriel Okara, Christopher Okigbo and Soyinka. Although my research has shown how important small magazines were for young writers who wanted to share their writing and ideas, Segun has also talked about the challenges she faced as a young female intellectual in Ibadan in the 1950s, including the way that the student newspaper, The Bug, circulated sexist and stereotypical ideas about her and other prominent female students.

 We urgently need to locate different sources if we are to find out about people who only appear as traces in the official archives. I hope that the work I am currently undertaking with writers like Segun will contribute to this project of creating more inclusive histories – ones that do not repeat the exclusions of the past.”


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