Author Q&A: Kenechi Udogu

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kenny udogu editKenechi Udogu is a Nigerian author living in the UK. Her novel, The Yam Po Club, chronicles her protagonist’s experiences as a new student in a federal secondary school in Nigeria, and derives mostly from Kenechi’s own memories of her alma mater, FGC Owerri.  Kenechi has published eight novels while working full-time as an architect. And it’s no wonder that she has been praised for her “world-building” abilities – combining the best of her literary and architecture skills. She takes time out of her undoubtedly busy schedule to talk about being trapped in a teenage mind, the sticky middle of plot, and her secret stash of chick-lit.

Your book, The Yam Po Club, seems to draw from your experiences in boarding school in Nigeria. Is Buchi modelled after you, and if so, in what specific ways?

I’ve been asked this a few times. Truth is, she is modelled a little bit on me, but also on a lot of different people I grew up with. In some way we all know a Buchi, a Funke and an Nnenna.

Why did you decide to focus on the boarding school experience – was it an important period in your life?

It was a huge part of my childhood as I attended boarding school for six years from the age of ten. Most children who pass through boarding school in Nigeria are pretty young and impressionable, so it is almost impossible not to have been greatly influenced by the (good and bad) experiences of those years.

The Yam Po Club is your only novel set in Nigeria. Was it a conscious decision to return home?

I guess it was. I’d always wanted to record my experiences from those early years and it seemed apt to do so now, before my memory starts to play tricks on me.

You mentioned Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers a few times in your book. Was it an inspiration for The Yam Po Club? And like Darrell Rivers’ story, will we be reading Buchi’s until SS 3?

I loved Enid Blyton stories as a kid. I just couldn’t get enough of them. So, yes, I guess the Malory Towers series were an inspiration for this book. Again, I’ve been asked about developing the book into a series but I’ll have to see if I can gather enough interesting memories to fill five more books.

Which of your main characters would you like to have as a ‘neighbour’?

Senior Jane was very (very!) loosely inspired by my neighbour from JS 1. She was a lovely girl and I’m glad I got her to help me out when I had no clue what to do.

The Yam Po Club coverWhat is the first thing you remember writing?

I can’t recall exactly what it was about but it was a series of sketches in the back of my primary school note book with a story tagged to it. I should have paid more attention but at that point I had no idea I’d still be writing stories decades in the future.

Where, when or with whom have you been most impressed to see your work?

I recently got a mention on a website stating “If you liked The Other Slipper, you will like…” I was overjoyed that someone thought my book was worthy of being acknowledged that way.

Write one bestseller or have a sustained career of good books?

If one bestseller translates to a sustained career of good books, I’d go for that option.

Best perk of being a writer.

Sharing my crazy ideas with the world.

Worst thing about being a writer.

The fear of being judged negatively. It’s sad to admit but, I like being liked.

Remember your best and worst reviews? Let’s hear them.

The most memorable review for me was an early one for The Other Slipper. The reviewer said he thought the story was “more interesting than the Cinderella story itself” I couldn’t stop smiling for days. The most painful review (probably not the worst, but it still haunts me to the day) was a “Meh…” for one of my other books. The rest of the review didn’t matter to me. That word was enough.

One thing you wish you’d known starting out as an author.

I wish someone had told me how much marketing and promo was involved. Not that it would have deterred me, but it would have been good to understand how much time and energy goes into getting news about your book out there.

Besides good writing what other skill do you think is essential to a successful career in writing?

I’m not sure if we can call this a skill, but I’d have to say patience. Patience in writing, editing, more editing and finally, waiting for your book to make an impact.

Rate yourself on a scale of one to five for spelling/punctuation.

I’d like to say 4 but I’m probably a 3. I always gasp with shame when I read over my first drafts.

What do you think your writing owes your readers?

An escape from the present. Whether it’s taking the reader to a past memory (The Yam Po Club) or to an alternative universe (The Altercation of Vira), or even to a warped reality (Aversion), I would love for my readers to forget the present and be submerged in the worlds I create.

What personal experience of yours has turned up the most in your writing?

Hmmm, not so much experiences, more the exclamations I use in real life. I use far too many.

You have published eight books, many of which have teenage protagonists. Are your books particularly targeted at young adults?

I keep getting told I’m trapped in the mind of a sixteen year old. I’m not sure whether to take this as a good or bad thing but it certainly gears my writing towards young adults.

Which one person has been most supportive of your writing?

Not one person, a group of people – my family. I wouldn’t be where I am without their unwavering support of my work.

What’s the most memorable casual reader feedback you’ve received on your writing?

I didn’t realise this was even a thing until I started receiving compliments on my “world-building” abilities. I’m so used to swapping from real life to out of this world scenarios that I didn’t realise it was a difficult thing to do.

What is your guilty reading?

Comedic chick lit. Everyone disses them but we all have a small collection we keep on the go.

What’s the most challenging part of your creative process?

Like a lot of writers, I struggle with the middle of my stories. I usually whiz through the start, and I’m fairly certain of the end, but everything in-between takes ages to get right. I also struggle with editing as I get attached to scenes and characters and don’t want to lose them.

And the most pleasurable?

Connecting the dots in a story. Pure joy!

What are you likely to be most critical about in other authors’ work?

Drama for the sake of drama.

What is your ultimate motivation for writing?

This might sound cliché but the thrill of writing is enough motivation.

Why your fascination with the fantasy genre?

I’ve always loved the idea of the mystical, the unknown, and the inexplicable. I was a big fan of fairy tales and epic fantasy stories when I was growing up, so when I started expanding my writing field, it made sense to lean towards magical beings and objects.

E-books: have they done more good or harm for literature?

It’s still early days in the e-books phase but I think they are a good thing. I’m reading more books on my tablets because they are easily accessible and, if I’m being honest, more attractively priced.

What one book would you advise everyone to read before they die, and why?

The Grimm fairytales, not the modern (Disney-eque) interpretations. The original stories were much darker and told tales that bore deeper meaning.

If you could bring something back from the past what would it be?

Nothing. I believe everything has its place and time. If it happened/existed in the past, that’s where it’s meant to stay.

What’s next?

The second book in my paranormal series -The Mentalist – is due out soon. It’s called Sentient and I’m really looking forward to sharing it with everyone.

The Yam Po Club is available to Nigerian readers on Okadabooks.com. You can also catch up with Kenechi on her blog

Read others in the Author Q&A Series

A Tale of Two Bookstores

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store front display

Image courtesy Ann Arbor Review of Books

Whenever I visit a new place, I look for the bookshops and wander in to see what is available by way of Nigerian literature. During a visit to London some years ago, after several explorations that yielded nothing, I finally chanced upon a lone copy of One is Enough (1981) by Flora Nwapa in a bookshop in central London. The book was tucked away at the back of the store along with a small selection of African American and erotica novels.

I picked it up, feeling a sense of its misplacement and wondered how Nigerian literature had fallen so far from its ‘Golden Era’ — that heady period immediately preceding and following Nigeria’s independence when praise for the works of Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Amos Tutuola and Elechi Amadi echoed in publications like the TLS and the Observer and labelled ‘timeless’, ‘universal’, ‘excellent’ and ‘bewitching’. How had Nigerian writing fallen into such obscurity?

Fast forward just over a decade — two weeks ago I found myself walking along the high street of a small English town, when the bold red and blue of Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah catches my attention from the store front display of Waterstones. Next to Adichie’s new novel is Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasie (Dare we lay claim to her?) Both beckon invitingly and I draw closer, beguiled by the prominent display.

I knew that Nigerian literature, particularly fiction from the Nigerian diaspora, had picked up in the years since I futilely scoured London bookshops. But it took encountering these books on such front and centre positioning in a town with a population of 50,000 and a very small black community to realise the milestone Nigerian literature had reached over the last decade or so.

There are disparate points of view as to why Nigerian literature is – to put it simply – hot again. A school of thought would attribute it to the re-establishment of democracy in 1999. Since Nigeria’s independence in 1960, Nigeria had been more or less in the throes of malignant military dictatorships. These regimes felt threatened by creative and intellectual expression and had made known their displeasure. Books, like Soyinka’s The Man Died(1972) were banned, writers, poets and journalists were imprisoned — publishing went into a decline.

With the return to democracy, it appears that the collective silence of self-preservation lifted, and people finally felt free to chronicle the political and economic realities of the era. This argument further explains why the majority of the works that were published immediately after that period –Helon Habila’s Waiting for An Angel (2002), Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus(2003), and Chris Abani’s Graceland (2004) – are full of criticism of the former establishment.

A second school is of the opinion that Chimamanda Adichie is the big bang of Nigeria’s literary renaissance. Adichie’s debut novel, Purple Hibiscus, was shortlisted for several international awards and won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First book and she was hailed as the protégé of the great Chinua Achebe. International publishing houses, whose interest had been piqued by the celebrated young writer, began to look more closely at works by Nigerians in the hope of discovering the next Chimamanda. Other aspiring writers, in their turn, seeing the possibility of a writing career, became more ambitious and started to aim for the international market. Supposedly, this spurred authors like Helen Oyeyemi, Adaobi Nwaubani, Chinelo Okparanta and many others.

Another argument attributes the rise of Nigerian literature to the Caine Prize for African Writing, which was established in 2000 and won by Helon Habila in 2001. With its £10,000 prize money and exposure for winners, as well as the fact that many winners debuted internationally soon after, it has provided a platform for aspiring writers to break out into the mainstream. It has further ensured that only the best from Africa has emerged — the Caine Prize winner’s list and shortlists are a near accurate touchstone of internationally acclaimed Nigerian writing. Since the establishment of the prize, Nigeria has produced five winners, including Rotimi Babatunde and Tope Folarin, the 2012 and 2013 winners respectively. And, undoubtedly, these success stories are inspiring many to the craft.

Whatever the reason behind this growth, what is clear is that Nigerian literature has recently achieved unparalleled success. With more than 250 ethnic groups and a population of 160 million, Nigeria cannot have too many voices telling its stories to the world — offering varying perspectives and a deconstruction of age-old stereotypes.

Back at Waterstones in the small English town, I give in and enter to buy both the books. Copies of Americanah and Ghana Must Go are stacked high on the ‘New Bestsellers’ table by the entrance, alongside titles by EL James and Sylvia Day. Erotica again! Democracy and Chimamanda Adichie may have promoted Nigerian literature, but apparently, it isn’t the only genre to have made that long journey from the back of the store.

Updated version of article published on Wasafiri Blog on May 28, 2013

A review of Aime Cesaire’s A Season in the Congo

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Chiwetel stuns as the earnest, wilful Lumumba. Photo:Young Vic

Chiwetel stuns as the earnest, wilful Lumumba. Photo:Young Vic

‘You can have peace. Or you can have freedom. Don’t ever count on having both at once,’ Science fiction writer, Robert A Heinlein, once wrote. And the Young Vic’s production of A Season in the  Congo, brings this sage expression sharply to mind.

While many of the wars fought by Africans have been wars of independence – fought to root out acquisitive colonialists who had hitherto carved up the continent for its oil, its gold, its diamonds, its resources, its land, its humans – arguably none of Africa’s conflicts post-independence has been devoid of the machinations of foreign interests. Had the pan-African pro-independence movements of the 1950s and 60s foreseen the cost of hard-won liberty, perhaps Africa would even now be contentedly subject to the exploitation of the West rather than forever divided in freedom.

Joe Wright’s wonderful adaptation of the 1966 play by Aimé Césaire, chronicling the rise and fall of Patrice Lumumba, Congo’s first elected Prime Minister is, beyond artistic achievement, an indictment of colonialist and neo-colonialist powers.

When we first encounter Patrice Lumumba, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, the year is 1955, Congo is still a Belgian colony and he is still a beer salesman, glibly encouraging his audience to put aside their ethnic rivalries and ‘drink to Congo’.

In 1960, when we next meet Lumumba, he has set up a political party – Mouvement National Congolais – been jailed, released and elected prime minister.

The rise of Lumumba, we realise, hasn’t happened in spite of foreign interests but rather because of it. At a conference of Belgian investors, depicted by giant puppet heads speaking in rhyming couplets – ‘To be president is great, prime minister fine; but hold out dollars and they’ll form a line’ – it is decided that elevating Lumumba might better serve their interests than imprisoning him. ‘Bring him to Brussels’, they agree.

Newly elected Lumumba is no willing puppet, however. On the day of the Congolese handover by the Belgian King, he forcefully interrupts proceedings to rail at the former colonialists, ‘welcome Congo — child of our sleepless nights and struggles’. This first faux pas is immediately followed by several others as Lumumba falteringly attempts to find his feet.

Chiwetel stuns as the earnest, wilful Lumumba who, eager to bring change to Congo, makes one audacious decision after another — he sacks Belgian officers from the army, appoints Maurice Mpolo as Chief of Staff then quickly displaces him for his disgruntled friend and crowd favourite, Joseph Mobutu and eventually turns to Russia at the height of Katanga’s insurgency to the alarm of the USA. ‘Congo is not a country, it’s a curiosity’ marvel foreign investors in Belgium and I daresay the audience shared their sentiment…

Continue reading my review on Wasafiri

A Season in the Congo continues until August 24 at the Young Vic, London. Book tickets here

Resuming duty

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My sincerest apologies to the readers and followers of MissOjikutu blog for being AWOL the last few months. Many waters have passed under the bridge since I last put up a post. A wedding, some travel, some re-evaluation and new writing opportunities have kept me away.

I am riding the changes now, and am back to make up for lost time. I will be continuing with my literary interviews, reviews and news. Recently, I began writing a blog for Wasafiri Magazine, so I will be publishing my Wasafiri posts on MissOjikutu for you all to enjoy.

Many thanks to all those who have continued visiting or leaving comments while I have been absent.

 

Author Q&A – Tolulope Popoola

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Tolulope4Tolulope Popoola is a Nigerian writer and blogger living in the UK. A few years ago, she decided to re-explore her love for literature by launching an online fiction series with a few other writers. The series, In My Dreams It Was Simpler, took off and became hugely popular among Nigeria’s online readers. In 2008, Tolu decided to quit her accounting job and focus on her literary career. She has since written short stories, flash fiction, and articles for several print and online magazines. Nothing Comes Close, her debut novel – and a spin-off of her online fiction series – was released in November 2012. Tolu talks here about losing her way in the number crunch, the epiphany that changed her life, and years spent conquering her fear of the blank page.

Tell us a bit about your background and how it has informed your writing.

I was born in Lagos, Nigeria into a family where reading and academic pursuits were positively encouraged. As a child, I was a real bookworm; the introvert who preferred burying my head in books to going out and partying. After secondary school, I went to university to study Accounting and Finance courses, where I lost my way. Five years and a light bulb moment later, I realised that my true love was for reading and writing.

Which of your major characters would you like to be trapped on a desert island with?

I would love having Lola, my novel’s heroine, with me; she and I would get along great.

What’s the first thing you remember writing?

I remember writing a story that I made up back in Primary 2, complete with little illustrations of the characters.

Where, when or with whom have you been most impressed to see a copy of your work?

I had a “wow” moment when an elderly English lady told me she wanted to meet the characters in my book.

Best perk of being a writer?

Not having to commute to work.

Worst thing about being a writer?

Feeling guilty if I haven’t written something for a while.

Remember your best and worst reviews? Let’s hear them.

Not technically a review, but my best compliment came when my dad called me to tell me that he absolutely enjoyed reading my book. I try not to take notice of bad reviews.

One thing you wish you’d known starting out as an author?

That I’d need bucket loads of patience. Writing and publishing a good book takes time.

Besides good writing what other skill do you think is essential to a successful career in writing?

Listening and observing. Having an active imagination also helps.

tolulope1What do you think your writing owes your readers?

To entertain, inform and make them pause for thought.

What word or phrase, if any, do you overuse in your writing?

“Actually”

What is your favourite quote from literature?

“Don’t you think it’s better to be extremely happy for a short while, even if you lose it, than to be just okay for your whole life?”― Audrey Niffenegger, The Time Traveler’s Wife

What personal experience of yours has turned up the most in your writing?

The places I’ve lived: mostly Lagos and London

What would your twenty year old self say if she were to meet the writer you’ve become?

“Oh good! You finally discovered what you should have been doing all along.”

What one person was most supportive of your writing ambition?

My husband

What’s the most memorable casual reader feedback you’ve received on your writing?

A comment on my blog. The reader said: “I so enjoyed it, and sort of lost myself in it. Had to wake up when it was finished.”

What is your guilty reading?

BellaNaija, especially the wedding section.

What’s the most challenging part of your creative process?

Conquering the fear of the blank page. And then finishing what I started.

And the most pleasurable?

Having a lightbulb moment and the frenzied rush to get it written there and then.

What are you likely to be most critical about in other authors’ work?

Terrible spelling and bad grammar

What is your ultimate motivation for writing?

I write to challenge and entertain myself, to produce something that no other person can.

Do you think Africa is being fairly depicted by contemporary African writers? And is this portrayal something that should necessarily preoccupy writers?

I think every writer tries to portray their own reality, whether they write about historical or modern Africa. I don’t think it’s fair to place the burden of depicting a whole continent on one person’s shoulders.

What one book would you advise everyone to read before they die, and why?

I don’t know if I can recommend just one book to everyone, people have such different tastes. But one book that touched me was The Help by Kathryn Stockett. It reminded me of how far we’ve come as human beings, and how far we still need to go.

If you could bring something back from the past what would it be?

Nothing really comes to my mind at the moment.

What’s next?

I’m working on my next book and a collection of flash fiction.

Read more about Tolu’s life and writing on her blog

Read others in the Author Q&A Series

Author Q&A – Victor Ehikhamenor

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victor-3

Victor Ehikhamenor is a Nigerian writer, journalist, poet and visual artist. His poetry collection, Sordid Rituals, was published in 2002, while his latest effort, Excuse Me, was released in December 2012. Excuse Me is a collection of satirical non-fiction pieces that began as a weekly column of the same title, while he was Creative Director at Nigerian daily newspaper, Next. Victor also tries his hand at fiction and has published several short stories; his art has also been exhibited in major exhibitions across the world. Victor welcomes us to the new year with views and anecdotes about misquoting the Bible, steering clear of Islam, and the art of letter writing.

Tell us a bit about your background and how it has informed your writing.

I grew up in a city-like village, where we had pretty much everything, including no-nonsense uncles and aunties, and prayerful grandmothers and grandfathers. At age ten, I started writing letters for old village folks who didn’t have Western education – which meant I had to translate Esan to English. I guess that can be said to be the beginning of my writing life. 

Why satirical nonfiction?

Villagers are very satirical and cynical, I probably picked it from there. It’s also a style I feel comfortable using; it is my anaesthesia for telling painful truths.

Where, when or with whom have you been most impressed to see your work?

Honestly, anywhere I see my work, anytime I see my work and anybody I see my work with, I am grateful.

Best perk of being a writer?

When a total stranger bursts out laughing before going, “You are that guy…”

Worst thing about being a writer?

When people think you have the solution to every single problem that is wrong with your country or continent.

One thing you wish you’d known starting out as an author?

None.

Besides good writing what other skill do you think is essential to a successful career in writing?

If reading is considered a skill, it is a number one essential. Then, a writer must learn to observe things and situations from a weird angle and file them away as material.

What do you think your writing owes your readers?

Clarity of message and a pinch of humour, life is too serious to be taken seriously all the time.

What is your favourite quote from literature?

One of them is by Pablo Neruda – “While I’m writing, I’m far away; and when I come back, I’ve gone.”

What personal experience of yours has turned up the most in your writing?

Village life: like from a river, I draw a lot from my childhood memories there even when I am painting. Those memories and invaluable and inexhaustible, I keep going back for more.

Which one writer has had the most influence on your writing?

E.C Osondu. Not just through his writings, but his constant nuggets of advise, they are like a carpenter’s varnish. And he knows my work more than anybody, and I respect his views because he doesn’t mince his spare words.

If you were to award a prize for a Nigerian literary work published within the last ten years which book would it go to?

Too many to name, and a prize is not for more than one writing/writer at a time.

victorYou are an artist as well as a writer of both fiction and nonfiction. If you could keep only one of these creative forms, what would it be?

Visual art. The time I use in writing and editing before publishing one short story is enough for me to paint works for  two major exhibitions. But then again, I would probably keep all like I have done over the years.

What’s the most memorable casual reader feedback you’ve received on your writing?

It was from my elder brother who reads everything I write. In one of my columns, I quoted a popular saying and credited it to the Bible. “Where is that in the Bible?”, he queried in a phone conversation.

What is your guilty reading?

Hmmm…for a writer every reading is necessary o. But I read fashion and business magazines a lot.

What’s the most challenging part of your writing process?

Entering a story. It is so important that I can actually abandon a great idea without an interesting entry point.  That first paragraph is what I call the PIN or Password of a story or article. If you enter the right story wrongly, it clams up.

And the most pleasurable?

When I find an interesting narrative structure to tell a story.

What are you likely to be most critical about in other writers’ work?

When a character can not be properly accounted for in the end. It’s like a warden counting his prisoners in the evening and totally ignoring the fact that one is missing.

What is your ultimate motivation for writing?

It is an enjoyable exercise whenever I have something to say, and also the hope that it might effect a small change somewhere, somehow.

Many of your essays in Excuse Me are criticisms – of governments, society, and even modern life – is there any subject you would be reluctant to satirise?

Islam. The result is usually devastating and those that criticise it know their actions would cause unavoidable mayhem but still go ahead and poke the bees’ nest.

Foreign literary prizes: have they done more good or harm for African writing?

I can point to so much good they have done and not one harm. Prizes are good for the winners, those who think otherwise have their reasons too.  But remember that if a dog jumps up to pluck a bone from the hands of a hunter and was unsuccessful, be sure that dog is going to say “I wasn’t hungry anyway!”

Do you think Africa is being fairly depicted by contemporary African writers? And is this portrayal something that should necessarily preoccupy writers?

This can also be said of America, Asia or any other continent for that matter. I believe most writers write mainly from their experiences, so the issue of fairness in depicting  Africa in that sense becomes relative. To prescribe to a writer is to sensor a writer.

What other nonfiction books would you recommend to the Nigerian reader? And why?

One Day I Will Write About This Place by Binyavanga Wainana – because it is one well written creative non-fiction which is different from ordinary non-fiction. There is a difference.

If you could bring something back from past traditional life, which is so idealised in your writing, what would it be?

My father and the art of physical letter writing.

What’s next?

A novel.

Listen to Victor’s interview and reading on BBC

Read others in the Author Q&A Series