Nigeria-born writer and academic Funso Aiyejina, who had a lasting impact on Caribbean literature, has died

Photo of writer and educator Funso Aiyejina courtesy Bocas Lit Fest, used with permission.

On July 1, news broke on local social media channels that the Nigeria-born writer and poet Funso Aiyejina, who made Trinidad and Tobago his home, had died in his sleep. He was 75 years old. Former Dean of Humanities and Education and Professor Emeritus at the University of the West Indies’ (UWI) St. Augustine campus, Aiyejina was well loved by students and colleagues alike, so his sudden passing was a shock to both academics and the regional literary community of which he was an integral part.

Born in 1949 in Ososo, a town in Nigeria's Edo state, Aiyejina was a lifelong scholar with degrees from three universities: the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University), Acadia University, and the University of the West Indies, where he earned his PhD. He went on to teach at both Obafemi Awolowo and UWI, and was also a Fulbright Lecturer in Creative Writing at Lincoln University, Missouri. He introduced — and for many years, headed — UWI's MFA in Creative Writing programme, helping to nurture contemporary regional talent, and was also instrumental in creating UWI's Campus Literature Week.

Speaking with Global Voices via WhatsApp, Ira Mathur, who “had the honour of working with him” on “Thicker Than Water: New Writing from the Caribbean,” said of his passing, “Prof. Funso Aiyejina was a cornerstone of Trinidad's literary landscape, his gentle smile and knowing eyes reflecting the soul of our new world islands, gifting us the spirit of his old world native Nigeria.” She added that his “meticulous attention to language embodied the essence of our literature.”

By all accounts, Aiyejina was a master at teaching writing because he understood how to write. His collection of short fiction, “The Legend of the Rockhills and Other Stories,” won the 2000 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book (Africa). As a widely published commentator on both African and West Indian literature, Aiyejina was deeply passionate about well-told stories and soon became a founding board member (and later, deputy director) of the NGC Bocas Lit Fest, Trinidad and Tobago’s annual literary festival.

On Facebook, Bocas called the news of his sudden passing “devastating news for the Bocas team and for many in Trinidad and Tobago's and the Caribbean's literary community,” adding:

Funso was a loyal friend and steadfast partner, tireless in his contributions to our work and his many other interventions to promote literature in our region. Himself a prizewinning writer, Funso was also a beloved teacher, a scholarly authority on the work of Earl Lovelace, [and] for over two decades the co-facilitator of the Cropper Foundation's residential workshops that trained so many leading contemporary Caribbean writers.

Indeed, Aiyejina's extensive writings on the work of Trinidadian writer Earl Lovelace are well regarded. On Facebook, Gregory McGuire recalled that it was on Aiyejina's insistence that The Players’ Workshop “had the honour of repeating “Jestina's Calypso'” in celebration of Lovelace's 70th birthday nearly 20 years ago.

Via email, Rhoda Bharath, who had completed UWI's MFA in Creative Writing degree under Aiyejina's tutelage and was both his research assistant at the university and his house mother at The Cropper Foundation, told Global Voices:

Funso was an institution within institutions. There is no sphere in his academic or creative life where he didn't impact people positively. He is easily the most generous and fairest person I know. It was an honour to know him as a student and a colleague. My loss is huge. But it pales in comparison to all I gained from having met him. May he transition safely.

In 2022, after his formal retirement from the festival, Bocas honoured him — alongside his literary colleague Merle Hodge — with the Bocas Henry Swanzy Award for Distinguished Service to Caribbean Letters. Fondly remembering Aiyejina as “strong in his opinions, meticulous in his reasoning, always warm and ready to crack a joke,” Bocas saw him as “a bridge between the literary and scholarly worlds of Nigeria, where he was born and grew up, and T&T, where he spent most of his life and career.”

Bocas Lit Fest founder Marina Salandy-Brown added:

We are all devastated, bereft, shocked and speechless in the face of this sudden loss. Everyone loved and deeply appreciated him as a friend and mentor. He was always honest and generous. For me personally, he had a special place outside of work. My mother too was born in Nigeria, and he talked to her about their birthplace and he translated the remnants of the Hausa she still remembered. He was a link with her past. She adored him.

Lovell Francis, meanwhile, who first met Aiyejina “more than two decades ago, after he had already won the Commonwealth Prize for Literature,” was struck by his humility:

As human beings, we are a very curious bunch. Some of us bounce our big toe and want the whole universe to know, and others like my Professor walked around carrying a bag, heavy with accolades, normal-normal like it was nobody's business […] this was not that fake/performative humility that Trinidadians love so much, but rather the genuine vibe of a very bright man who was as keen on producing written excellence as he was on not falling into that trap of taking himself too seriously.

Francis noted that being Aiyejina's student was a “privilege,” adding, “[A]n exemplar, a brilliant lecturer, thinker and writer and though born on the Continent, a lover and believer in all things Trinidad and Tobago, we have truly lost a titan.”

Like many of his students, Petrona Strachan agreed that Aiyejina fostered a love of lifelong learning:

Class sessions with him were enlightening and dynamic. […] He was also humble. I [remember] him slipping in to sit next to me at a Professorial lecture. I told him, ‘You need to go down to the front with the other specially invited guests.’ He laughed and still sat at the back. His witty, jovial, comments had me stifling laughter. That this brilliant, energetic, affable, witty, indomitable, versatile, on-the-move scholar is suddenly silent is surreal. Gone, soon, but his impact is left.

Writer Ayanna Lloyd Banwo, who won the 2023 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature, expressed her shock on Facebook:

Funso Aiyejina has been a part of my writing and academic life since it began. […] He was there at every Bocas Lit Fest I ever attended, Heard me read for the first time, saw me win the OCM Bocas Prize. I just always expected he would be at the next Bocas asking me how the writing was going. It is an infinite blessing to have such a teacher, and to live with his poetry, prose and criticism as a reader and a fellow writer. He did what he came to do. A reminder that we should do the same.

Online, the tributes kept pouring in, with Onesimus Felix remembering his “ability to weave intricate tales that explored the human experience” and “vividly [lead] us into a new world with words that glistened,” as well as the fact that he was a “professor who saw the importance of education for marginal groups.”

Rondel Benjamin succinctly captured the sense of loss people were feeling when he wrote on Facebook, “Meh whole heart. Walk tall giant elder.”

A dedicated family man, Aiyejina leaves behind his wife, Lynda, and two sons.

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