Book Talk

‘Winning the NLNG prize has changed my life’

Chika Unigwe

Chika Unigwe

On the sidelines of the Port Harcourt Book festival, I caught up with festival headliner, Chika Unigwe, and engaged her in this interview where she talked about her life after winning the coveted NLNG prize. She spoke also on other sundry issues.
How has life been since the NLNG prize?
How has life been? It’s been a lot easier to convince other people that writing is a serious business and that’s what winning a big prize always does. Suddenly people who help baby sit your kids so you can go and gallivant round the world and do things start taking you seriously. It’s been such a great honour to be recognised in my country. Of everything I would want to win, the NLNG was top of the list simply because it is something from Nigeria. It’s been nice coming back to Nigeria as a writer some people have heard of. So it’s been a wonderful experience.
Was winning the prize a kind of fulfillment for you?
If I had a literary bucket list, it would be top of the bucket list.
Since winning the prize, you have been working on a writer’s centre here in Nigeria.
Another thing on my literary bucket list is a writers’ centre and that requires a lot of money. I was in Nigeria in July because Governor [Peter] Obi [Anambra State] promised us some land for the project. There was a mix up with the initial land we got there but it’s being rectified now. The initial land we got was designated for a government project and that project is not a government project. What else have we done since then? We have registered the trust. It’s called the Awele Creative Trust (ACT) Awele in Igbo means not just a journey but a safe journey, a good journey, wonderful journey, which is what I wish for the writers who come to inhabit that space and wish them the best in their writing journey. I have spoken to at least one foreign residency and they are very willing to collaborate with us but I need the money. So next year, I am hoping we would be able to have a fund raising event somewhere in Nigeria that will bring enough people, individuals, corporate organisations who will invest in this. I have gained a lot from residencies abroad, other people’s country. Apart from Ebedi, we don’t have any such thing for writers in Nigeria. If I could get this done, to give back, it’s the biggest thing on my literary bucket list that I could hope to achieve. And that’s another way my life has changed since the NLNG. Before the prize, it was just an idea but what the NLNG has given me is the contact I wish to tap into. I think prizes give you a certain credibility or validation with certain people so if I go to some organisation and say I am trying to set up a writers’ centre, I have some credibility because it is on my CV that I have won this.
What exactly will writers be doing at this centre apart from the residency?
What I envisage is to have Nigerian writers, established writers, or establishing writers, ideally. I would like to have an established writer from one of the residencies I am talking to, because I think that interaction is important. Then you have other writers, established and establishing from Nigeria and from abroad. So apart from giving them space to work on their writing, I would want the immediate community to get something from them as well, maybe workshops in schools. I want it to be an interactive residency. They are writing and giving back. But everything depends on funding. If I get enough funding to start it off and run it for some five years and the reputation would help it run itself, then it is all good. But I don’t want to start something that will fall apart. I have very good people who are enthusiastic about the project on the board. I have a very good friend of mine who is into project management, Kainenedi Obi. And I have Prof. Akachi Ezeigbo, I have Prof. Femi Osofisan and I have a very good friend of mine who is a business man, Nnaetu Orazulike so I have a very good mix. And these people, if they are not practitioners of literature, they are very enthusiastic about literature and creativity because it is not just about literature. The trust is called Awele Creative Trust and some of the residencies I go to abroad, it’s not just about writers, you have other artistes such as musicians or painters. When we start, we are going to start with writing because it is good to start from some point and grow from there. Ideally, we would like to expand. I have lots of plans for it but first things first, we get the land then we look for funding. Nigerians are very generous so hopefully . . .
You are a very popular person. So with the land and the fund-raising, we should be looking forward to the project taking off next year?
Insha Allah. If we get the funds. I can’t afford to build it on my own. You are also setting up a structure and you need manpower to run it and in Nigeria if you set it up, you need a working generator to keep it running, you need a gateman for very obvious reasons (laughs). You can’t keep writers where they will not be comfortable.
In a previous interview you said you were going to buy shoes with your NLNG prize money. Did you buy the shoes? How many?
No (laughs) I didn’t buy shoes.
Not even one?
Maybe a few pairs (laughs)
Do you have a thing for shoes?
I love shoes. Some people have a thing for makeup, some have a thing for hair extension. I am a shoe person, I like footwear a lot. Mhmm. I am not too much into jewellery unless it’s an African thing. But shoes, yeah.
You have a new book out, Night Dancer. What is it about?
Night Dancer is about the relationship between mother and daughter, a single mother and her daughter, how the daughter begins to understand the mother only when she dies, how she understands the extent to which the mother had sacrificed for her only after the mother dies and she reads the memoir the mother has left her. Some of the strongest women I know are single parents and in our society, single mothers have it very tough especially single mothers that are not widows, like single mothers that are divorced or whose partners are somewhere. I know a few of these women and I know the extent to which they sacrifice for their children. But I think it is the nature of kids to take it for granted that their parents would sacrifice for them not realising that some of the parents go over and beyond . . . well, I don’t know if you can go over and beyond the call of parenthood. Anyway that is what the novel is about and I think single parents are the unsung heroes of Nigeria especially single mothers who choose to walk out on the relationship. I have heard people say it is better to be married to a bad man than not to be married at all. I am so scared about how society is very judgemental.
What are your thoughts about this?
I think marriages are good. It’s a good thing if it works. If it doesn’t work I don’t see why it shouldn’t end. It’s supposed to be about two people loving and respecting one another. As long as the love is in there and the respect is there. but if you have a man who comes home and beats his wife, or a woman who beats her husband, because some women do that, if you can’t have a conversation with your partner without biting off each other’s head, that kind of relationship is not healthy emotionally. When you are abusing each other physically and emotionally then I think it is better that you part ways. I think marriage is good but marriage is not for everyone. I don’t think one has to remain married under any circumstance, especially when there are children involved because it is doing a lot of harm to the children who are witnesses to a dysfunctional relationship. I have been married for 18 years so you won’t hear me say marriage is not good.
This is your second book to be published in Nigeria. How excited are you about that?
I am happy it will be available in Nigeria for people to buy at affordable price. Because the problem with having your books published abroad is that people import these books and it becomes difficult for readers to buy because it becomes very expensive.
It’s obvious there is an absence of structures, especially in the publishing sector and even with theatres which are not even available. How much of a problem do you think this is?
Just from my interaction with young people who want to be writers, what I noticed is that they really want to read. Here are people eager to read books and unless they buy them they have no access to them. I haven’t been all over Nigeria but I am yet to find a well stocked public library in the places I have been to in Nigeria. In Awka they are building a library and hopefully when it’s finished I hope it will be well stocked. You can’t grow writers unless they have access to good books. I saw some universities have book stands at the book fair but the books on display there, if that is representative of the books they have on their shelves, then I really despair. There is a huge problem. Where I lived in Belguim, in Turnhout, it is a small city but the library was well stocked. It was where I saw [Buchi] Emecheta’s book in English and in Dutch. So if little cities elsewhere in the world can do it, why can’t we do it in Nigeria? There is nothing stopping the Nigerian government or the education ministry from making well stocked libraries a priority. And it shows that we don’t read enough. You pick up a Nigerian newspaper and nine out of 11 articles are poorly written you wonder if this people went to school at all. And it’s not just poor grammar, it’s poor construction, using words wrongly and this is totally inexcusable.
That is indeed a problem. And at the same time, there have been talks about writers needing to take things by the scruff and . . .
But these things need money. I don’t see how a writer who is struggling will do this. People are saying writers shouldn’t write for money, so if they don’t write for money how are they going to build structures. It is not a writer’s duty to build libraries same as it is not a doctor’s duty to build hospitals where people can come and get free treatment. It is not the car owners’ duty to make sure roads are tarred. There are things that are the government’s duty that’s why people pay taxes. There are things the government should provide. It may not be a basic amenity like power and the likes, but reading is very, very important. It’s just that in Nigeria things are so dysfunctional that we end up doing things ourselves. There is no power so you buy a private generator; the roads are bad so you tar the road in front of your house, the universities are bad so people build private universities and people with money send their children there. We are not holding the government to task for things they are supposed to do and we are doing them for ourselves so that when one governor tars a road people will start praising him.
What should writers do in view of the challenge thrown by a prominent person here urging writers to challenge the people in power with their writing?
That person hasn’t read enough. Writers have always been holding up the mirror. If you read any book coming out of Nigeria, the theme might not be bad government but it will always feature there. Look at Igoni [Barret’s] short story collection. He doesn’t say I am going to write about corruption in the civil service but you see it. That person hasn’t read enough or is ignorant. People say if you want to know about a country, read their writers. Just pick up any contemporary Nigerian literature and you see all this social issues. Look at The Spider King’s Daughter, it’s a love story but you have all these issues in it.
Interestingly, you are mentioning recent books by Nigerian authors; you are very connected to what is happening here even though you have been living abroad for close to 20 years. How do you do that?
There is the internet. The world is not as big as it used to.
But you are busy writing, going to residencies and writers’ programmes. How do you find time for all these writers sending you manuscripts?
I try to make out time because that sort of encouragement was important to me while I was starting off. So while waiting to build the residency, which requires money, this is something I can do on my own and all it requires is time and patience so why not? Depending on how much time I have and how good the story is I can’t always be as detailed as I would want to. There are people that I simply can’t help and those that I can, I do what I can. I see writers as a kindred community and it is important that we encourage each other, especially young writers who have no idea where to go to or who to turn to.
From the huge sampling of work you have looked at, how would you assess the potential of writing coming through?
Most people who write to you are people who are genuinely interested in writing. But like in every profession, some are good and some are not. Some require more than mentoring and a few require mentoring and that is what I try to do.
Do you get this impression that there are too many people interested in writing; that there are too many writers?
I don’t think there are too many writers, I don’t know where the impression is coming from, I don’t know if the impression is coming because there are so many self published books, or self printed works not even self published. When I am talking about writers, I am not talking about people who have gone and printed 20 copies of their works. When we are talking about people who are real, real writers, there aren’t many of them. I don’t think we should be afraid of being overrun by writers because that isn’t going to happen. Even if there is one writer for every two people in Nigeria, it wouldn’t matter because people have different tastes.
We have all these writers coming up, we have the absence of publishing houses and we have talks of book going out of fashion and it’s not the e-book generation . . .
I don’t know if books are going out of fashion. My kids are younger than I am and they still read books.
Do you think the book in a printed form will continue to have relevance?
It will always have relevance. This is not the first time that someone would say the book is going out of fashion. The book will still be relevant for many, many years to come. There is something about holding a book in your hand that you can’t get from holding a kindle so if a 12 year old will tell me he doesn’t want a kindle and prefers a book, then it means the book is alive and well. Even in schools that are technologically advanced, they still ask children to read books. The e-book is going to be out of reach of many people.
You don’t see the e-book totally dominating the landscape anytime soon?
No, I don’t.
Is this for practical or sentimental reasons?
I just think there is something about the book, it’s not just about the printed words, it’s just what it is and it will be a very long time before we start thinking of the book as something we can scroll through on the e-reader rather than physically turning the pages. There is no reason why both books can’t coexist. We have had the audio book for long and all you have to do is to play it and lie down and listen and that hasn’t pushed traditional book out.

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9 thoughts on “‘Winning the NLNG prize has changed my life’

  1. Pingback: ‘Winning the NLNG prize has changed my life’ – Y! Art

  2. Pingback: MEET THE CAINE WRITER: ABUBAKAR ADAM IBRAHIM | Su'eddie in Life n Literature

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