Book Talk

The short story is not a try-out for the novel—EC Osondu

Nigerian novelist and short story writer EC Osondu won the Caine Prize in 2009 for his story “Waiting”. Since then he has released a short story collection, Voice of America and now his debut novel, This House is not For Sale, which focuses on a family house and its many idiosyncratic inhabitants. He talks about the novel and more in this interview. Enjoy!

EC Osondu won the Caine Prize in 2009 for his story Waiting

EC Osondu won the Caine Prize in 2009 for his story Waiting

(First published in Daily Trust, August 23, 2015)

 

Congratulations on the release of your debut novel. You were thrown into the limelight by your short stories. Was writing a novel something you’ve always wanted to do?

You know, I don’t think that writing is something you can really be strategic about in the sense of saying I am going to write short fiction then I am going to take on the long form after which I’d write a memoir- at least not for me- No, it does not work that way. The form or shape is subordinate to the story, I think. And there is something implied by most people-not you- you are a decorated short story writer yourself, that the short story form is a kind of try-outs for the novel, that you kind of use them to limber up for the more demanding form of the novel – I do not necessarily subscribe to this view.

Even though This House is not for Sale is a novel, it has the qualities of loosely connected short stories. What was the idea behind that?

There is a sense in which the word novel implies newness, strangeness-if you will. In Ars Poetica, Czeslaw Milosz says that he has always aspired to a more spacious form. That more spacious form is what I aspire to. Read together they make sense, read alone they cohere. It is funny that people are more concerned with the shape than the content but then again, one is reminded that many of these comments are from people who have not read much. And one must forgive them their severe limitations. How many of them have heard of or read Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch a work that can be read according to two different sequences of chapters and comes with ninety-nine expendable chapters and a suggestion by the author to read the book from chapter to chapter or to hopscotch through it.

I have always been fascinated by the history of unoccupied houses be it the house just before the Third Mainland Bridge on the way to the Island or the one called Zik’s House in Ikeja.

For the most part I think African writers have been writing the received standard version of the novel. And any attempt to stray is met by howls of bewilderment especially by our new breed of failed writers turned critics.

Interesting thought there. I suppose people have always been averse to changes and the case might not be different with experimentations in literature. But reading This House is not for Sale somewhat reminded me of V.S Naipaul’s Miguel Street. What books influenced your approach to writing this book?

This book shares more in common with A House For Mr. Biswas than with Miguel Street just as it shares more a relationship with Children of Gebelawi than it does with Midaq Alley.

The title is interesting because a lot of Nigerians would relate with it. How did you come about it as a title for your book?

In an earlier draft of the book, the narrator who is a writer and is both me and not me begins to write the book because a con-man had tried to sell the Family House, so the book becomes an attempt to preserve the history of the house before the house disappears but it is also the title of a song from the album Love Is Hell by Ryan Adams.

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I couldn’t help wondering if The Family House is symbolic of Nigeria, in the sense in which both take a lot from the people and give little in return, in the way both are rich and powerful at the expense of the people. Was this something you intended?

To quote Samuel Beckett from the novel Watt – No Symbols where none intended.

One of the most intriguing characters in the work, and there are many, is Grandpa, who looms so large in the story yet is only occasionally seen through his acts of brutality and kindness. Was there a reason he was made that way?

I think that to be that way is part of being human. He is generous but also capable of inhuman cruelty. He has an eye for the quick buck etc. but is a loyal friend who often never forgives an insult nor forgets generosity.

I was intrigued by the narrator of the story, as I am sure a lot of readers will be. He is someone who is both in the story and yet distant from it. Who exactly is the narrator?

I worried about the narrator a little bit. I wondered who could tell the story of the house with utmost candor and I realized that only a younger member of the family could have the kind of unflinching gaze or the cold eye to tell the unvarnished story of the house.

How did the inspiration for this novel come? Was it a flash of an idea, lines of dialogue, or did the story come fully made?

The idea of the house came first but as soon as the house was built the inhabitants began to casually walk in.

How long have you been working on it before it finally got out there?

I had the idea for quite a while but it only began to concretize about five years ago.

So what next should readers be looking forward to from you?

Another book on a man I call the Nigerian Prophet. And thanks for the interview and it was nice meeting you at Africa Reads in London over the summer. Best wishes for your forthcoming novel.

Thanks a lot. It was great meeting you too. All the best with yours.

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Abubakar Adam Ibrahim: “Being a writer is hard work.”

Africa 39


Africa39 author, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim (Nigeria).

Abubakar Adam Ibrahim recently attended the 2015 Africa Writes festival (read his conversation with Emma Shercliff, about ‘love, romance and the gendered nature of reading and writing in Northern Nigeria’ at Africa in Words). Ibrahim was kind enough to visit our virtual offices and talk a bit about himself and his work.


What are your 5 favourite novels?

There are many favourites, some for their aesthetic quality, some for their amazing storylines and others for their historical significance. But the more you read the more discoveries you make. At the moment, Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden remains a favourite for its historical depth and the author’s ability, even as an outsider to capture a dying Japanese culture.

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje has a lulling appeal and captures really interesting characters in a difficult situation. The language and storytelling are…

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Mama Furniture: The woman who loves being a carpenter

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Faith Okeikwue, 48, is a famous carpenter in Mararaba,a suburb of Abuja who has earned the nickname Mama Furniture. She has sponsored her children to university working as a carpenter. For her, carpentry is not just a means of livelihood; it is a love affair from her childhood.

 

 

It was almost noon. The sun was hot and in the resultant heat, traders and artisans along Mararaba’s Old Karu Road, just outside Abuja, retreated into the shades of their business premises or under sun-beaten parasols, watching the cars drive pass.

Under a tattered patchwork of an awning, shredded in parts, a young carpenter was hard at work, hammering nails into a piece of fitment while a woman in a pink vest and a yellow wax wrapper leaned on a table watching him casually. She could pass for a customer, or one of the women selling things nearby. But in fact, she is the business owner, a woman who as a child dreamt of being a carpenter. She became one eventually, earning the nickname “Mama Furniture.”

Faith Okeikwue, who hails from Delta State moved to Abuja 15 years ago and has been earning her living as a carpenter. With this trade, she had managed to put six children through school; five of them have earned their degrees.

“It was my father’s job, that’s why I took interest in it,” Faith said, sitting on a bench in front of a stack of woods in her shed.  “Because I loved the Job, I would always be by my father’s side right from my childhood.”

As a child, the allure of playing with dolls or with fellow girls never appealed to her as much as that of playing with hammer and nails.

“When my friends would come in and ask me to come out and play when I was with my father working, I would refuse and they would tease me and call me daddy’s pet,” she said. It was up to her father to send her off to play with her friends.

It was during those days that the passion for carpentry was deeply ingrained in her so that she knew that was what she would love to spend the rest of her life doing.

But her days of apprenticeship were short-lived. Her father, died the year she completed her primary school education. Despite the years that have passed since, Faith has fond memories of shaping woods and hitting nails with her father.DSCN1499

And thirty years or so ago, she decided to go professional, despite never learning from anyone else other than her father.

It was a decision that she had been scolded, ridiculed and told off for. Her late husband, a civil servant, was not particularly enthralled by the idea.

“Hmmm, he wasn’t very interested,” Faith began, “but he had no alternative because I was in love with the job. Sometimes he caused me problems. Sometimes he left me alone to carry on. He said it made me look older than my age.”

But she didn’t think it made her look older. And even if it did, she really wouldn’t care as her love for the job supersedes anything. “Well, I don’t know. I can’t do without doing it. So if I begin checking that, it would wear me down,” she said.

Her business had properly taken off at the Kugbo Furniture Market where she earned the nickname Mama Furniture. She is still popular there. But she had to leave when the El-Rufai demolition train caught up with her. Now her business is located in Mararaba, an outskirt of Abuja, in a shed bothered by piles of wood, with finished furniture on display at the front.

Not too far from where she was sitting, her acolyte was busy sawing and hammering nails. The smell of saw dust and shaved wood filled the air.

Faith thrives here. This place, this space, is home to her where she has found not only herself but a sense of fulfillment.

And when a customer walked in, a young woman in her twenties, who playfully whined about an unfinished couch and wanted to claim someone else’s furniture as hers, Faith explained that the quality of the wood and the cover fabric were totally different from what she had agreed to with the young lady.

The client called her ‘Mama’. Faith called her ‘my daughter’. And laughing, the lady left, promising to return. It was all done in good humour.

But sometimes the encounters aren’t as pleasant. Some people are taken aback when they discover that the carpenter is actually a woman.

“Most times I get challenges from some men who come looking for the owner of the place and when they see me, they say, we want the carpenter, you are a woman. Sometimes I feel bad. Sometimes I pick courage. That’s the way it is,” she said.

But not even the objection of her husband, the ‘challenge of some men’ or her children’s unfavourable opinions could deter her. Excited, one of her sons had sauntered into the shed with some news. Seeing a journalist, he turned and beat a hasty retreat.

“They grew up and saw me doing it, they had no alternative but to accept,” she said about her children.

This is her son hadn’t gone to the university like her other children. He wanted to be an artisan and after graduating from secondary school, he had told his mother not to waste her money trying to send him to school because he wanted to be an electrician. The others had chosen otherwise but none has chosen carpentry, at least not yet.

“None of them wants to do it, except perhaps my last daughter. She seems to love the job,” Faith said. But her voice trailed off towards the end of her statement.

It picked up again when talking about women and what they could, or could not do. For her, there is no limit to what women could do and clearly, she would be happy if her daughter took after the trade. She would be happy to see women get more creative, more daring in taking on traditionally male dominated businesses. But above all, she would want women to just get up and do something.

“We [women] have to struggle to succeed because we can’t depend on men alone,” she said.

It was a lesson that served her well. When her husband died nine years ago, an event she still speaks off with evident sadness in her voice, Faith had to become the bread winner for herself and her six children. Her skills as a carpenter came to the rescue and helped her pay through her children’s education, an accomplishment she seemed very proud of.

But the business has had its ups and downs. She used to have about 10 people working for her. Now she has only one.

“Things aren’t moving anymore so I had to reduce their number because I can’t keep people’s children without giving them something,” she said.

And having first been forced out of Kugbo due to the FCT demolition exercise, Faith now has to relocate from her present space as the piece of land she has been occupying over the years has been sold off. She is not moving far as she pointed at a locked red-door shop just across the street where she would be moving her business too in the next few days.

The idea of quitting or changing profession does not appeal to her. Not in the least. “I will do this job for as long as I can continue. I can’t stay without doing anything. I will fall sick,” she said.

If she could be a child again and choose a profession, Faith said she would choose carpentry all over again.

“Yes, I would do that,” she said, her passion coming through her voice like a gust in the night. “It gives me joy, doing it. That is the greatest joy I have got out of it. And since my husband died that is what I and my family rely on.”

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