Book Talk, Thoughts on Things

Soyinka, Achebe and the Irreverent Generation

2016 is the year Nigeria’s “irreverent generation” have taken on literary giants. Wole Soyinka has been infuriated and heckled by social media critics over his vow to tear up his American Green Card should Donald Trump with the US elections. Chinua Achebe has had his place in the literary temple questioned and the year is closing with debates about who is a better writer between Achebe and Adichie.

Soyinka, Achebe. In the Nigerian and African literary arenas, these names have been sacrosanct, revered and ascribed the status of demigods. This is no doubt as a result of their hardwork which has placed Nigeria and Africa in global literary reckoning. One is a Nobel laureate. The other should have been. (After all, Bob Dylan did get it)

But in the last few weeks of 2016, there has been an increasing irreverence, if one may use that word, in the veneration of these literary deities. It started with Soyinka, not for his literature but for something as banal as comments he made vowing to tear up his American Green Card should Donald Trump win the US elections. Mr. Trump won and young Nigerians on social media were eager to see Soyinka keep his words. He dallied. The consequence was that Soyinka has been heckled by hordes of what he himself, in his characteristic candour, described as “imbecile and morons.”

What was shocking about this episode was that some of these Nigerians on social media, mostly young people, some not even born when Soyinka won his Nobel in 1986, questioned Soyinka’s literary credentials. They queried if he won the Nobel for his literary prowess or for his political activism. It goes without saying that Soyinka isn’t as widely read amongst this generation, and perhaps among many Nigerians who have come to revere the myth that Soyinka has become but have been in awe of his political heroism. And when that one thing they have venerated him for, if they ever have, is questioned by his refusal to tear up his Green Card, the issue of his literary merit will come up naturally.

“I should not be exiting the United States but Nigeria because the people on behalf of whom one has struggled all one’s life can be so slavish in mentality as to start querying the right of their champion to free speech,” an angry Soyinka said.

The fact that these young people managed to infuriate a man in his 80s, who has played a huge role in shaping the history and perception of Nigeria in the world is to say the least unfortunate, that they have managed to drag him to the public arena to showcase this infuriation is something that takes some guts, not of the good kind.

And if Achebe thought by dying he had escaped the clawing fingers of this irreverent generation, he might have another think coming. Since he is not as celebrated for his activism as Soyinka has been, the one thing that has given him credit across generations (since ‘Things Fall Apart’ was published in 1958), his literary integrity has been splayed by the road side and the mortals of social media have taken pot shots at it.

Most people think ‘Things Fall Apart’ is the next best thing after the holy books, and questioning the ‘masterpieceness’ of the work is akin to blasphemy in the literary realm, those with contrary opinion about the work have been forced underground, to launch isolated verbal attacks in small private conversations amongst trusted friends, where they can express their bafflement at the greatness of the book. Any public discourse claiming that TFA is not as great a book as is being projected is met with a virtual mob justice, as the writer Onyeka Nwelue, discovered. In an interview with Premium Times he had said, “I think ‘Things Fall Apart’ should be buried and never made to resurrect.

“If you’ve read ‘Things Fall Apart’ and have read what young people write these days… you would know that Achebe’s writing of Things Fall Apart at that age was not intelligent; he was not exposed.”

Naturally, for questioning the merits of a literary deity, Onyeka unwittingly submitted himself to a barrage of insults and his own credentials as a writer were questioned in return. Not to mention the many unprintables he was called.

Of recent, social media has been awash with discussions over comparisons being made between Achebe and the writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The bases for this comparison are as baffling as the comparison itself. That Adichie might be a better writer than Achebe should not even be the subject of intellectual engagements (this does not preclude readers’ rights to preferences). It is almost as if saying mayonnaise is better than butter. The two are infinitely not the same. The parameters for comparison between Achebe and Adichie simply do not exist. It was Plato after all who said that the bases for any disagreement and comparison should be the parameters.

There are, of course, no bases to say that Achebe’s literary credentials should not be weighed and measured, (that is what critics are devoted to doing and something readers are entitled to do) but weighing it against the works of another writer like Adichie is inherently unfair on both writers.

Is Achebe the greatest writer ever? Is ‘Things Fall Apart’ the best book ever written by an African? These questions are inherently faulty because there is no universal parameter to adjudicate and determine an answer to them.

Incidentally, Achebe himself did not necessarily think that ‘Things Fall Apart’ was his best work. He is on record as favouring ‘Arrow of God’. If Achebe wrote ‘Things Fall Apart’ in 2016, I hardly think he would find a publisher. There are issues of literary aesthetics, among others, to be considered. This is in no way questioning the greatness of the book (which has almost been made sacrosanct by African and other intellectuals). But he wrote the book in the 1950s, with scant exposure, in a period where there are no precedence to fall back on.

The greatness of ‘Things Fall Apart’ therefore rests in the period it was written and in response to what it was written. Achebe might not have been exposed when he wrote that book but that is not a minus but a plus, that with the scarce exposure he had he was able to churn out something with this much staying power, a book that has influenced generations of writers and intellectuals worldwide is a testament to its glory, whether earned or ascribed (debates about the originality of the work will not be a focus of this piece).

Whereas a critical mind should never shy away from questioning the essence of the literary deities, that is after all what it means to be discerning and not be bound by dogma. We must not forget that they have suffered to earn their place in the sun, among the oracles. There are ways to critically engage with them and their works with some decorum. Some comparisons have no place in the arena of the discerning.

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Book Talk

First published on Daily Trust, July 10, 2016

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Book Talk

‘Protest poems are my responses to social injustice’

Efe Paul Azino is one of the outstanding spoken words poets making a name for himself in Nigeria. His debut publication, “For Broken Men Who Cross Often” a book that comes with a CD of his recorded poems, is garnering rave reviews. He is also the director of the Lagos International Poetry Festival. In this interview Efe talks about, the poetry festival, the future of spoken word in relation to written poetry and what poetry means to him. Enjoy!

 

Efe Paul Azino

Efe Paul Azino


Your first poetry collection, For Broken Men Who Cross Often, is coming some 15 years after you set out as a performance poet. Why did it take this long for you to bring out a collection?

I think it was primarily an issue of timing between having a ready manuscript and a publisher willing to take the risk. I had been writing actively for about 17 years. But few presses were publishing poetry and I wasn’t going to self-publish. Besides, I had my sights, in Nigeria, on two publishing outfits and I was willing to wait until the elements aligned. I was also pretty much preoccupied with the stage at the time so that kept any publishing anxieties I had at bay for a while.

One of the foremost performance poets in the country Sage Hasson has said that he doesn’t believe poetry was meant to be written down. To what extent do you agree or differ from this view, especially seeing that you have just published a collection?

There was poetry pre-literacy. Before Guttenberg there were griots, bards and troubadours. The Iliad and The Odyssey came to us, originally, in oral form as did The Canterbury Tales. The oral tradition predates the literary. But these are just mediums. Each with its own convention. None superior to the other. Essentially, poetry is not defined by its medium. Both traditions have given us great works of beauty, truth and rigour. Our dance is to the song, not to the vehicle that brings it to us.

Publishers across the world are reluctant to take on poetry, forcing poets to self-publish their works, yet Farafina, through its Kamsi imprint, decided to take on your collection. Can you tell us what led to this deal? How did it come about?
I have had a relationship with Kachifo since about 2010 and we have had on and off discussions about producing an audio compilation of my works since there weren’t publishing poetry at the time but were tinkering with the idea of audio books. We resumed discussions again in 2013 and I sent in a query letter. I guess there was a stronger business case for it this time. Spoken Word Poetry was gaining mainstream appeal and I had built a fan base over the years so there was a ready market as it were. We could marry both traditions. Do what Homer couldn’t do. Have the poems speak aurally and in text. A year later, we reached an agreement, signed a contract and here we are. Time will tell how sensible a risk it was to take on the part of Kachifo, but if the early signs are anything to go by, I’ll wager that it was a good one.

One interesting thing about this collection is the mix of strident social criticisms, such as in “Justice Has Been Kidnapped” and the immigrant experience like “Yesterday We Ran”. What informed the choices of the themes that went into this collection?
I have built an oeuvre of protest poems over the last decade, or more, because it was the only way I felt I could respond to the persistent social injustice and structural dislocations perpetuated by Nigeria’s broken democracy. There’s a certain level of socio-political engagement I consider necessary under such circumstances, one that does not preclude artistic rigor or sacrifice the beauty of form and content that poetry demands, one that sometimes spills out from the page and stage to the streets. But if For Broken Men Who Cross Often has any overarching theme, it is liminality, particularly the exploration of the liminal space between dreams and their actualization.

Often poetry is personal and relative to the experience of the poet. How much of yourself did you invest in this collection?

TS Eliot considered the best poetry to be impersonal and that the poet’s responsibility was to find the exact words for thoughts and feelings, put the reader or listener in touch with it, and disappear from the picture, personal feelings, biography and all. I agree. Somewhat. But there is a sense in which fixing precise words to ambiguous moods requires you to be in touch with your feelings, to mine the personal, trusting it converges, universally, with the human experience. So yes, there is a lot of the personal in the book and there are one or two poems, like Dream Country, that give up their biographical slant.

Most performance poets would have been ok releasing just CDs of their spoken word. Why was it important for you to have a book to go along with it?

I have always wanted a hybrid output that marries both the oral and literary traditions. Not all spoken word poems need to pass the test of the page. A good poem is not defined by how well it sits on paper. That said, I think it’s important to master both mediums, to understand their conventions. Getting the poems across to people in the medium most convenient for them was important to me. So there’s a book for those who would rather read poetry and a CD for those who prefer to listen.

Indeed. So why do you think spoken word is all the rave now?
The audience for poetry is declining and increasing. What is being lost on the page is being gained on the stage. You are most likely to find an open mic venue where poets gather before an eclectic mix of enthusiasts in almost every city in the world. It’s the immediacy of it. It’s poetry in all its power demanding no particular level of cultural capital or competence to access it. It’s the urgency of its themes. How it’s direct yet sublime. And of course it comes with its challenges, as with every other genre of literature and performance. Part of which borders on quality, on a low bar of entry that permits every person able to make two sentences rhyme to don the toga of poet, affix it to their names on Facebook and Twitter handles and tag the universe in every post. But hey, let a thousand flowers bloom…

Do you see foresee spoken word dominating poetry in the traditional sense that we know it, especially as poetry collections are mostly read by poets, whereas spoken word appeals to even non poets. Is spoken word a threat to traditional forms of poetry?

I think both forms will always exist side by side. But poetry is reaching a larger audience through spoken word and this, most likely, will continue. There will be more audio CDs, accompanied with videos, coming out. But books will endure. Their numbers may dwindle but there will always be those who access poetry via the page and its attending conventions. Will this affect the quality of poetry in the long term? Yes and no. There will be a lot more dross. But every generation will throw up its Homers, its Seamus Heaneys, its J.P Clarks, Its Okot p’Biteks, its Warsan Shires. Both traditions will endure. But spoken word poetry will expand the audience for the art form more than the page.

In your poem “This is Not a Political Poem” the poet offers to lead the people to march against the corrupt government. Do you subscribe to the view that writers should be the vanguard in the fight for social justice?

Writers are citizens too. If they feel so aggrieved then by all means, yes. Fight! Most writers have a heightened sense of justice, of fidelity to truth and equity. This finds expression on the page. But there are urgent moments that require a certain kind of strategic engagement with the forces of oppression and repression. I feel a sense of responsibility to engage politically. But this is personal. If writers, as citizens, on an individual level, feel a compulsion to engage, great. But you won’t find  me  judging  passivity.
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You are the director of the Lagos Poetry Festival. Can you tell us why it became important to organize this festival?
Myself and the poet Titilope Sonuga had just concluded teaching a workshop for a Dutch based organization called Waza Africa and somehow veered off into a discussion about the growing army of young people engaging with poetry and the attending dearth of quality, a common complaint. So my plan, initially, was to do something about it, to run a three day workshop, throw in about two panel discussions and round off with an evening of performances. But I started to feel like I was cradling the head of an idea, one I wasn’t going to find satisfaction pursuing until I embraced its full form – a festival, something on an international scale. This was a thought I had flirted with in 2013 but balked at. This time I decided to go for it. What we set out to do was to create an annual point of convergence, in Lagos, for poets and artists from across Nigeria and the world, to engage the art form and its interaction with society, cater to the growth needs of young and established poets alike through master classes, create shared performance spaces, engender collaborations and hurl our songs at the wind for three days. There was no international poetry festival in West Africa prior to this. It had to happen. And it did.

Inevitably, yes. What are the places of festivals like this in furthering discourse on literature?
Festivals promote creativity and diversity. They bring a range of writers, poets, and artists into dialogue with themselves, the consumers of their works and society at large, and put a necessary spotlight on particular books and authors. There is a certain energy and drive you leave a space like the Ake Book and Art Festival with. There is buzz around literature these festivals generate that positively affect book sales as well. There are necessary conversations that linger. It’s exciting to see what’s happening with the growing number of festivals now running across the continent. We must continue to encourage and support this trend, not gripe about who was or wasn’t invited.

One challenge with staging festivals like this is continuity. What plans are you making to ensure that this festival continues for years to come?

We had a reasonably successful first outing and there is a confidence that gives going into the next. The key thing is to keep creating value, value for the artists, attendees, sponsors and the city at large. A festival or event that creates and sustains value will perpetuate itself, all other things being equal. Our sponsors are happy, more organizations have indicated interest, we have poets sending in messages from across the world who want to get involved. I believe we are unto something. Lagos International Poetry Festival 2016 will definitely be a more robust and exciting affair.

Shall we talk about you now? How did poetry come to you? How did you first encounter poetry?
Poetry came to me via books. Interestingly, through prose. I read and still read more prose than I do poetry. So I started out trying to write short stories. But each short story I wrote wanted to become a poem. But language, generally, has always fascinated me.

What next should your fans expect from you?
I’m currently working on a book-length poem called The History of Clothes. Also on touring a spoken word theatre production called Finding Home which I’m producing and performing in and which is directed by Femi Elufowoju Jr. across Accra, Nairobi, Jo’burg and Cape Town.

 
First publish in Daily Trust, Dec 26 2015

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Book Talk

Samira Sanusi: Giving hope through her book and foundation

Samira Sanusi, writer and founder of a sickle cell foundation that bears her name is one of the winners of the Marine Platform Prize for writing in Northern Nigeria. Her book S is For Survivor is an account of her ordeal with sickle cell, which included a seven-year stay in a hospital and undergoing 28 surgeries. I met the woman and talked to her about her writing, her foundation and what her life is like now that she is free of the disease.

 

Samira Sanusi

Samira Sanusi

In an Abuja Café, where Latin music was playing in the background, Samira Sanusi, 27, sat behind a table looking at the menu. She ordered a latte and smiled. Her head was draped in stripped head scarf in the fashion that has become her trademark.
Her reputation and work have grown larger than her slight frame. Only a few weeks before, she was awarded the Marine Platform award for writing from Northern Nigeria. She was the only non-fiction writer in the list of five awardees and her debut book, S is for Survivor, is a brutally honest account of her lifelong struggles with sickle cell anemia including a seven-year stay in a hospital and undergoing some 28 surgeries.
“My writing usually reflects what I am going through in my life whether it’s dealing with PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] from the experiences of pain or trying to find out who I am now that I no long have the disease. Trying to find out what it is I am capable of doing now because my whole life used to be just about surviving, overcoming, fighting illnesses and everything like that,” she said.
In the 101 pages of the book, Samira unravels herself and tells a story that is at once touching and yet inspiring. It chronicled how she overcame the illness and now has an AA genotype thanks to a bone marrow transplant. The disease having had an impact on her physique, stunting her growth and hampering her education, it has a positive ending. But it was not an easy book to write.
“It was hard writing the book because it was about me and about the things I have gone through and things I didn’t want to remember or didn’t want to face,” she said.
Now she feels naked walking down the streets because she feels those who have read the book know everything about her, her pain and weakness that she was keen to hide from her family and the world.
But she has no regret doing that because there was a message she wanted to share, something her father Dr. Harun Sanusi encouraged her to do. After her return from seven years of treatment in an Austrian hospital, Samira thought of putting her journal entries into a book. Her father told her if she wanted to make the desired impact, she had to be open about her struggles.
“The book has been a long time in the making because I have always been a writer. I was always buried in books and then eventually I started writing as a form of diary because my dad would give us a diary every year. He writes as well, he has a few publications. I guess I got that from him,” she said.
The impact of her father in her life is immeasurable. Samira hardly talks without mentioning him and one gets the same impression from reading her book. He spared no expenses in making sure she got the best treatment available and ensured she was permanently rid of the ailment. And this Samira would not forget.
But what stands her apart is the recognition that she was privileged to have a father who had the resources and resolve to help her get back on her feet. But the trauma has scarred her indefinitely.
“Sometimes I feel guilty for being cured of a disease that so many others are dying of. I have lost so many friends to sickle cell and I keep questioning God why he chose me to be cured while there are others who are dying,” she said.
She dunked some scoops of sugar into her latte and stared into the distance. There was a glint in her eyes. She shook her head and distracted herself by stirring the latte. Eventually she smiled and confessed that she liked sweet things too much. Her blood needs all the sugar.
Growing up with intermittent sickle cell crises, Samira’s greatest challenge came when she was 15. On a family road trip to their village to see her relatives, Samira was struck by another crisis. They stopped in a hospital in Zaria for reprieve but complications from that treatment made things worse.
After prolonged crisis and a worsening situation, Samira was flown to Saudi Arabia for treatment. A few weeks later, doctors there wanted to amputate one of her legs. Her father refused. The doctors said she was going to die anyway and there wasn’t anything else they could do for her.
That was how Samira ended up in Austria and her medical trip that was supposed to take all but a few weeks stretched to seven years. In that period, she never had the opportunity of visiting Nigeria.
As if dealing with the pains of the treatment wasn’t enough, Samira was deeply hurt when some Nigerian students in Cyprus started spreading rumours about her, that she had refused to return to Nigeria because she considered the sun too hot for her.
“There I was fighting for my life and people were busy spreading rumours about me, calling me ajebo,” she said, her eyes clouding over.
What many people didn’t realize was that she was looking forward to returning home, to Nigeria. And when that finally happened, Samira was elated. But her prolonged stay in the hospital had not only interrupted her education, it had left her bereft of ideas on how to cope with life. For one whose formative years were dominated by surgeries and medications and doctors directions on what to do and what the next few months of her life would be like, suddenly being free of all that left her adrift.
“I feel like real life is strange and odd for me,” she said, “If you put me in a hospital I will be fine. I can go to a hospital in a foreign country and be fine by myself. I just found out it’s hard to readjust to normal society.”
On her return to Nigeria in 2010, Samira tried to volunteer in an orphanage because of her love for children. Eventually she realized she should set up a foundation for people with sickle cell.
Today her life is dedicated to the Samira Sanusi Sickle Cell Foundation. Through this foundation, she provides relief and assistance to sufferers of the condition because she realized not all of them could access the health care she had.
“I never thought I would have a foundation. I never knew what an NGO was. Growing up, I always wanted to own a business empire or design cloths. I even started studying business administration at the university but when I moved back to Nigeria because I was away for seven years, I realized that my dreams and priorities shifted. There is a passion in me and what I wanted to do was to help people who are going through what I have been through. Who were going through what, if I hadn’t had a dad who fought for me, I would have been a long time ago.
“There are millions of people who are out there and are having it a lot worse than I did and I wanted to make it easier for them. I had a bone marrow transplant and it was successful but it’s not everyone that can have it,” she said.
At the moment, she was preparing relief materials for internally displaced persons from the Boko Haram Conflict who are also suffering from sickle cell. The harmattan was approaching and Samira knew from experience that that is the worst period for a carrier of sickle cell. And she knew just what they would need.
She speaks affectionately about the people her foundation has helped and is helping. She calls them “our soldiers” because as far as she was concerned, they are gallant fighters in a tough frontline.
“Sometimes they just need someone to talk to, so sometimes they call at midnight, just to talk to someone who understands what they are going through,” she said.
She had to put back her plans to take a break towards the end of the year because so many of her soldiers were having crises and like a determined general, Samira throws her body, frail as it is, into the fight yet again.
“I feel like this is the path God has chosen for me. Earlier, while going through what I was going through, my dad told me that everything happens for a reason. It was only two years after that I realized what that reason was, that maybe I needed to go through all that to be able to be strong for others. I feel like that’s my only purpose in life and that’s why I carry other peoples struggles and their issues and I feel responsible for making it better.”
Even though she doesn’t get paid for her efforts, there was nothing she would rather do than that. That was why she wrote her book, she said, as a message of hope for other people.
“Every day I would write about things I couldn’t tell people, couldn’t tell my dad. I didn’t have many friends then. So writing became my only escape,” she said, dunking more sugar into her latte.
The book came from a place of deep pain because she had always pretended to be strong and had learnt to smile through her pains. She wanted to be strong for others but her pain was so deep she started to question herself.
“I was very confused. It started with me thinking there was something wrong I did that God was punishing me for,” she said.
And again it took the intervention of her father to assure her that things like that happen to people without them having done anything.
After discussing her experience with a friend, he encouraged her to share her story with the world because it would inspire a lot of people. And that was how S is for Survivor was first conceived.
She wrote most of the text in an Abuja café, on her phone and in a notebook. “I am probably the only writer who doesn’t own a laptop. I hand wrote all my passages except some that were written on my phone. Yeah, I’m weird like that,” she said and laughed.
And for her, winning the Marine Platform Prize was in her favourite word “awesome!”
“I wanted to be recognized for what I have done because I felt like I have missed out on a lot. I finished my secondary school online and my whole university education has been online so I never had any merits or awards in life and it felt sad that because you have a condition no one awards you or recognizes you. It felt beautiful. It really means a lot to me.”
Even though she feels like her life is completely open to strangers who have read the book, she would do it again. In fact she is doing it again as she has started thinking of writing another book, one that would carry further the message of her first book.
Writing was not only a way to remind herself of the things she had achieved and how far she had come, it was also a way of opening herself to be understood by people who never saw beyond her pain.
“I don’t regret doing this. For the longest time I felt misunderstood because people didn’t understand why I did certain things,” she said.
Today, Samira goes round schools and gives public talks on her ordeal and being a messenger of hope and her story resonates with people going through all sorts of challenges in life. She wants to inspire people and give them hope.
Interview over, Samira walks to her car parked outside the cafe with the help of a walking stick, thankful that her father had refused to let the doctors amputate her leg. Her car is big, like her wristwatch, which covers her entire wrist.
“Maybe it’s because I am small but I like big things,” she smiled.
Don’t you need a big car to carry a big heart like that?

 

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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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Book Talk, Thoughts on Things

Mutiny at Oxford

The 16th Caine Prize for African Writing was awarded to Zambia’s Namwali Serpell. In an unusual gesture, Serpell decided to “share the prize” with her fellow shortlistees. What does this gesture mean for the prize?

 

Namwali Serpell winner of the Caine Prize

Namwali Serpell winner of the Caine Prize

The annual Caine Prize Dinner had moved. A change of venue from the old Bodleian Library built in the elegant English Gothic style in 1602, where the award ceremony for Africa’s most prestigious literary prize has held over the last 15 years. The new venue is the New Bodleian, just across the street from the old one, a sprawling modern building with glass walls and electronic displays.

Perhaps it was indicative of the shift that would happen that night, 16 years after the Caine Prize came into being when the winner of the ₤10, 000 prize for short story led what was in effect a mutiny against the establishment.

Zambian Namwali Serpell, with her cherubic looks and innocent eyes, which belly an enormous self-assuredness, does not strike one as the rebellious type. And when she was announced as the winner of the prize by the enchanting Zoe Wicomb, Chair of Judges, one immediately thinks, that would be the perfect poster girl for African literature.

But on mounting the podium, overwhelmed at first by her triumph, Namwali took little time to make an impression. She did something that had never been done before. She invited the other writers who had been shortlisted alongside her to join her on the podium and declared that she wanted to “share the prize with them.”

“None of us wants to compete against each other,” she said, “we just want to be honoured.”

This she said was as a result of a pact she had made with the other writers; Elnathan John and Segun Afolabi from Nigeria and FT Kola and Masande Ntshanga from South Africa. The pact that whoever won would call up the others and share the prize with them was not unanimous among the writers but it was still a powerful statement.

Namwali said she hoped it would “restructure the prize”, an ambitious statement if ever there was one.

In the last 16 years the prize has always been structured like this: Five shortlistees emerge, the five go to London, read their stories, engage in promotional activities, eat and wine and in the end, one person goes home with ₤10, 000. This year, there have been changes. The other shortlisted writers, who in previous years would have gone home without a dime, are leaving with 500 pounds as consolation. Apparently this was not enough for the shortlistees this year and they decided to take things into their hands.

The choice of Oxford as the setting for this mutiny, if you like, is telling. After all, it is here, not too far from where Namwali, made a statement that Zimbabwe’s greatest writer to date, Dambudzo Marechera made a name for himself as a self-destructive genius. He made an even more violent statement when being awarded the 1979 Gaurdian Fiction Prize when he started to launch dinner plates at a chandelier in protest over perceived wrong. It was from this same Oxford that his anarchist conduct led to his expulsion after threatening to set the school ablaze.

Namwali is by no means an anarchist. She is an associate professor at the University of California, Berkeley English Department and is on the prestigious Africa39 list of the most promising African writers under 40 (And I am not just saying it is prestigious because I am also on that list), and there is a method to her mutiny.

She will share the prize money with her fellow shortlisted writers but to what extent will she “share the prize” with them?

It was only Namwali that posed beside the bust of Michael Caine, along with Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne, not the other writers. The media have announced Namwali winner of the prize, despite this grand stand. It will most likely be only Namwali going to  take up a month’s residence at Georgetown University as Writer-in-Residence at the Lannan Centre for Poetics and Social Practice, as well as get an invite to the Open Book Festival in Cape Town, the Storymoja Festival in Nairobi and the Ake Festival in Abeokuta, Nigeria. Those are some of the perks associated with winning the Caine Prize.

In reality, as some would argue, were the shortlisted writers competing against each other? Technically, not really. The prize is awarded at the discretion of the judges; the writers have nothing to do to affect the outcome of the prize, they can’t improve or enhance their chances of winning it, neither will any misconduct cost them the prize. The days of reading and public engagement in London do not in any way give extra points to the shortlistees. The judges and the shortlistees are not even allowed to interact or engage the same space in a way that could influence the outcome of the award.

When I was shortlisted for the prize in 2013, an unforeseen situation occurred. By some coincedence, the shortlisted writers and one of the judges ended up attending the same event, a public lunch that included a tour of the gallery of the British Museum. The instructions came in thick and fast. No conversation. No eye contact with the judge. No moving close to her. No gestures to draw attention. Nothing. She is expected to do likewise.

And so we spent the awkward evening wandering the gallery of the British Museum suddenly changing direction each time this judge was sighted. And she spent the evening doing the same. A beautiful woman had suddenly been made a Medusa to us.

So in reality, it is hardly a contest. The judges sit, read the stories and decide which of the stories will be awarded the prize.

As Zoe Wicomb, chair of this year’s judges said while announcing the prize, “From a very strong shortlist we have picked an extraordinary story about the aftermath of revolution with its liberatory promises shattered. It makes demands on the reader and challenges conventions of the genre. It yields fresh meaning with every reading.  Formally innovative, stylistically stunning, haunting and enigmatic in its effects. ‘The Sack’ is a truly luminous winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing.”

But even she admits that the story is a difficult read saying they had to re-read it to get it, and she knew readers would have to reread it again. Not everyone will agree with the decision but almost everyone ought to respect it.

Alongside Zoë on the panel of judges are Neel Mukherjee, author of the award-winning debut novel, A Life Apart (2010) and the Man Booker Prize shortlisted The Lives of Others (2014); Brian Chikwava, author and former winner of the Caine Prize (2004); Zeinab Badawi, the prominent broadcaster and Chair of the Royal African Society; and Cóilín Parsons, Assistant Professor of English at Georgetown University who has written on Irish, South African and Indian literature.

Namwali winning the prize is also a huge validation for the Africa39 list, which has identified a number of talented writers on the continent, among them several past winners and shortlisted writers for the prize as the future of writing from the continent. Namwali’s winning story ‘The Sack’ is from the Africa39 Anthology and one could see the obvious pride on the face of the anthology editor, Ellah Allfrey, who got emotional after Namwali’s triumph and unusual gesture.

How this statement will shape the prize remains to be seen, but no one should underestimate the power of idea. And with this act, Namwali has embodied an idea that some writers may have nurtured over the years.

 

This article was first published in Daily Trust newspaper of July 11, 2015

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Book Talk

It’s great being signed by a major publisher at 19, but…

 

Chibundu Onuzo

Chibundu Onuzo

 

Chibundu Onuzo is the youngest author to be published by Faber and Faber. Her debut novel, The Spider King’s Daughter is a love story between two teenagers, one the daughter of a rich man, the other an enigmatic hawker. But at the heart of the story lurks a dark secret.

In this interview, Chibundu, with her cutting wit and humour, talks about her writing, her forthcoming novel and literature on Africa

Your first book, The Spider King’s Daughter, which you wrote while still a teenager focused on the relationship between two teenagers from very diverse backgrounds. And your next novel, as excerpted in the Africa39 Anthology revolves around soldiers, wars and killings. How far has Chibundu Onuzo come from that girl who wrote that first book?
I don’t know. I don’t think of myself in the third person very often. I think Chibundu Onuzo has grown taller. Not by very much, because she was seventeen when she began The Spider King’s Daughter and already at the end of her growth spurt. But judging from old photos, I would say she has grown by about half an inch.

Ok. Let me put it this way. How far has Chibundu grown as a writer, from that person who wrote the Spider King’s Daughter?
Sadly in this case, clarifying your question won’t really help. I can’t tell you how much I’ve grown. It’s like when you’re a child and someone says to you after they haven’t seen you in two years, ‘You’ve grown.’ You don’t feel like you’ve grown but then, slowly, incrementally, night after night, your cells have divided and you have. So it’s for outsiders to assess growth and those on the inside, to keep eating their beans and other growth inducing proteins. So Abubakar, when my next novel comes out, you can tell me how far I’ve grown…if I have.

I look forward to that. Clearly you are a fan of Nollywood, and I think you aspire to someday feature in a Nollywood film, so is it deliberate that SKD had Nolllywoodish qualities?

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I think this is where we declare that we are friends because I have never made my aspiration to feature in a Nollywood film public. So the only way the interviewer knows this, is because I have told him personally. And yes, I’ve wanted to act in a Nollywood movie for a long time (shoutout to any director that wants to make my dream come true). Having said that, what are Nollywoodish qualities? The way I end some chapters on a cliffhanger and switch to another scene is a technique I borrowed from Nollywood. Also, people keep asking for a part two, so perhaps it’s more Nollywood than I realise.

So will there be a part two then?
No. Not in the near future. Some writers write sequels later on in their careers. So perhaps, in the distant future, I might feel like returning to the lives of Abike and the hawker. But for now anyway, this is not likely. Too many new stories to tell.

Being Faber and Faber’s youngest ever author must be quite a feat. You signed a two-book contract. You are a very confident person, but what kind of pressure did this put on you, especially in regards to writing this second novel?
Well I’m their youngest female author, which is kind of a made up prize because before me, they hadn’t been religiously checking the ages of their female authors. So I don’t think anybody actually knows who is the second youngest female author signed by Faber.  I was 19 when I signed, which was great because it meant there was a lot of publicity around the signing but after the book came out, I realized that writing is not like tennis or athletics or football where you have junior and senior division. You’re not reviewed as the youngest this or that. If a reader doesn’t like the book, they don’t care that you were eighteen when you wrote it. And also, you don’t want people to say, “This is good….for a 19 year old.” So you have to focus on craft and not get carried away by being the youngest this or that.
As to pressure for my second novel, I want it to do well and do better than my first as every writer wants their next novel to be better than their last. I don’t think this has anything to do with age.

Since the publication of SKD you have been prominent in activism, participating in protests over the Chibok Abductions among many others and your story in Africa39 hints at taking on the human rights abuses by the Nigerian military. What burden does writing place on the people who write to make a stand on these issues?
I don’t know. For me, the actual act of fictional writing, is just so sedate and dull that to talk about burdens, just makes it sound so heroic and melodramatic. I write out of anger sometimes. I put these things on my blog or in my comment pieces for the Guardian. But when you actually sit down to create this fictional place, with characters and back-stories, and plot, you’re not really thinking of burdens.

You are also a talented singer and have launched a campaign alongside your sister, Dinachi, using a song to ask Nigerians to choose wisely. How did that idea come about?
It was all Dinachi’s idea. She wrote the lyrics (apart from one line. I’m sure you can guess which line is mine), wrote the music, arranged the studio session. I just rocked up on the day and sang.

I have an idea and I think that verse has something to do with eating and what follows. But on a serious note, how much traction do you think that campaign got?
It got carried on quite a few websites, SaharaReporters, bellanaija and so on. So we were very happy with that. We’re just two people adding our voices to a wider focus on good governance.

That sounds to me like someone using her talent to impact on society. And you wanted to be a concert pianist when you were younger. Is this something you still think of doing at some point?
I still play the piano. I play in my church, which I love doing. I do want to do more with my music so we’ll see.

The future of African literature is said to be bright, and considering you are one of the 39 writers selected by the Hay Festival as those who will define writing trends on the continent, what are your thoughts on this? Where do you see African writing going to?

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I don’t want to define African Literature. I’m not a dictionary. And African writing can go where it wants to go. I’m not the driver of the train. Nor am I the conductor of the bus. Those that have given themselves that work, good luck o.
We have had publications by writers like Ben Okri saying African writers are bound by some restrictions in publishing in the West, and another by Adaobi Nwaubani suggesting that Western institutions determine which African writers to place on a pedestal or which African stories to promote. As someone published in the West, what do you make of this?
Where is the West? So if you live in Nigeria, the West of you is actually Brazil. I’m sadly not published in Brazil yet so I can’t comment about being published in the West. If you’re taking England as my starting point, then West of England is Canada. Again, I’m not published in Canada so both from my place of birth and my place of abode, I have no experience of being published in the West.
Ok. Let me break it down. By the “West” I refer to, as most people in the literary circle do, publishers in the UK and the US. But how important do you think it is to develop publishing structures in Africa?
Eheeen. Writers have to be precise in our language. Now I think it’s very important for there to be better publishing structures in Africa. But at the same time, I think we also have to be innovative. So because American and British publishing is still largely a paper affair, doesn’t mean that this has to be our trajectory. I’ve seen some very interesting apps for reading, Okada Books, World Reader etc and they are connecting with readers who have smart phones and want to use them as books. So the distribution network for books needs to be strengthened but not only along the lines of traditional publishing.
I would also add, there really is a need for more pan African, cross continent publishing. I only read French West African authors when they’ve been translated into English abroad. And they are literally next-door to Nigeria. So more collaboration would be great. In this internet age, people don’t have to meet for translations to happen. So hopefully, we’ll be seeing more of those partnerships in future.

 

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