Monthly Archives: May 2012

Author Q&A Series: Jude Dibia

Standard

Jude Dibia is the author of three contemporary works of fiction –  Walking With Shadows, Unbridled, and Blackbird. What sets this Nigerian writer apart is his dedication to raising taboo issues in his works. His novel, Walking With Shadows is, so far, the only Nigerian book of fiction that addresses homosexuality as its central theme. Jude tells us here about his deep seated need to reflect emotional truths, a young writer’s stubborness, and one bookshop attendant’s epiphany.

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

It is tough to choose because I am attached to all my major characters, however, if I am hard pressed to do so, I will say Nduesoh from my last novel, Blackbird. Nduesoh had a lot of layers and she was dealing with so much anger; anger I can relate to, sometimes. It would be nice to have a conversation with her regarding that.

What is the first thing you remember writing?

I believe I started out drawing out my stories in a comic book fashion. Later on, I did mimic some of the writers and books I was reading. I went through the Enid Blyton phase and then there was the Judith Krantz phase and some other phases before I became more confident in my own style.

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

I went for the launch of the One World anthology (I had a story in there) in Oxford and met up with another writer friend who I had never met prior to then (expect via email and online forums), Sarah Manyika. She gave me a copy of her novel In Dependence and I felt I needed to reciprocate with a book gift. Not far from where we were, there was a Blackwell bookshop. I went in to find a nice little gift and to my surprise they were stocking my novel Unbridled. It was nice paying for the book with my credit card and seeing the look on the shop attendant’s face when it dawned on her that I had the same name with the author of the book.

What one book by another author do you wish you’d written?

Oh dear!!! There are quite a few. But I wish I had written Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, and instead of Afghanistan, I would have situated the story in Nigeria. I’m a sucker for books and stories that have a historical context. My mum studied history and I used to pore over her note books and helped her copy notes from one notepad to another when I was younger. History fascinates me.

Achebe or Soyinka?

I’m not getting drawn into that discussion! They are both brilliant and so very different in their literary style.

Sell a million copies or win the Nobel Prize for literature?

Can’t I have both? One cannot ignore the prestige that comes with being a Nobel Laureate, and at the same time as a writer, my greatest wish is to be read by as many people as possible.

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

Hmmm. I’d rather have a sustained career of good books.

Best perk of being a writer?

Being recognised in the most unlikely places.

Worst thing about being a writer?

Being recognised in the most unlikely places.

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

I’ve a few good and bad reviews, but as a rule, I never comment on reviews done on my work, neither do I keep count of them or go out of my way to find them.

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

Not all advice is good advice, sometimes you have to trust your instincts.

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

I always tell people reading. A keen sense of observation and the understanding of human psychology are also good skills to acquire.

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

3 for spelling and 4 for punctuation.

What do you think your writing owes your readers?

For me it has always been simple honesty. When I read a book, I am looking for emotional truths, new insights as well as a level of excitement. I hope my readers can say the same for my writing.

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

Goodness, I have no idea!

What is your favourite quote from literature?

I’m horrible with quotes, however, there’s a Toni Morrison quote I adore:  “If there’s a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”

What would your 20 year old self say if he were to meet the writer you’ve become?

“You sure are stubborn! You wanted to write novels and you did.”

What one person was most supportive of your writing ambition?

I have benefitted a lot from various people, that it would be unfair to give just one name. I would say, though, that my readers have been most supportive of my writing.

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

I once got an email from a lady who thanked me for writing Unbridled. In her own words, Ngozi’s story was her story, and it was almost like I was in her head telling her story.

What is your guilty reading?

I still enjoy reading good thrillers and fantasy genre books.

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

Finding the time and space to actually write.

And the most pleasurable?

The A-ha moment, when all the pieces comes together.

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

Don’t assume your readers are stupid; give them room to figure things out without over explaining things. Everyone enjoys a bit of a puzzle.

How do you motivate yourself after a manuscript rejection?

I tell myself that a lot of books that were rejected multiple times eventually end up becoming classics. So, maybe that publisher or agent wasn’t the right one for my book.

Literary talent: how much of it is really talent and how much of it is painstaking determination and effort?

First of all, you must have the gift for writing and storytelling, without it, there will be no writer. Then you have to spend time honing your craft. The amount of time one writer spends honing his/her craft varies.

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

I wonder if American, European or Asian writers are asked this question! The way I see it, we all have different realities and each writer writes what he perceives to be the truth about the reality he or she portrays in their works. We should not forget that fiction simply means ‘make-believe’. There is a lot of room for experimentation; however, the emotional truths and human truths should be honest.

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

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison. The beauty in her writing and the theme of personal identity and one’s roots is simply awesome. This is a book I will read over and over again.

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

My innocence, or should I call it my childhood? No one ever tells you when you are young that being an adult is overrated and nothing is free.

What’s next?

I am reading and observing this new world we are in. Somewhere in it is my next novel.

Read more of Jude Dibia’s writing on his blog

Read others in the Author Q&A Series

Advertisements

Review: Voice of America by EC Osondu

Standard

Voice of America by EC Osondu

215 pp

Granta Books (2010)

Rating: 3/5

The thing about a short story collection is that, unless you are Jumpha Lahiri, it’s a gamble. African novelists like Chimamanda Adichie and Helon Habila have staked their reputation on writing or editing a collection in short form to mixed reactions. And EC Osondu, though so far unburdened by previous acclaim for long work, again illustrates the peril of the short story with his debut collection, Voice of America.

Published by Granta Books, Osondu’s collection of eighteen stories focuses mostly on the immigrant life in America, and culls, no doubt, from his own experiences. Like Uwem Akpan’s Say You Are One of Them, the stories in the collection favour child protagonists or narrators, and use this as an avenue for satire, but also, somewhat like childlike natter, they yo-yo from the inspired to the passable to the dreadful.

Osondu is a master of openings and sequences but closings are an entirely different matter, as he appears to lose his way in the anecdotes he copiously works through his stories, and then hurries to take the first exit he chances by when needless, but nonetheless enjoyable, digressions have blinded him to plot.

But it isn’t all bad, Osondu uses a language that doesn’t aspire to anything but its  most important function: communication; with its crisp, simple language, this book is one of the easiest books to read. Also, this collection can lay claim to structure – at least regarding story length – and I was quite content knowing that each story would be tidily set between eleven and eighteen pages. It is something that other collections like The Granta Book of the African Short Story could emulate next time. But knowing, with most of the stories in Voice of America that the end is bearing down when a story still has a ways to go, and finding, as you read a hasty conclusion, that you are right does not quite make for sated reading.

Osondu opens the collection, fittingly, with ‘Waiting’, the story that earned him the 2009 Caine Prize, and the recognition that might have afforded Voice of America publication by Granta. ‘Waiting’ is a quiet story of war, told in a child’s matter of fact, yet understated voice.  He introduces us to the world of refugee camps, where children are named after their relief donation clothing, and where survival itself is a waiting – for food, for water, for adoption – and a struggle against others as desperate as you when it does arrive. This story showcases the harrowing effects of war on children with subtlety, and as it reads like a novel excerpt, it possesses potential to be expanded.

After this great start, Voice of America promptly goes into hiatus, with stories like ‘Bar Beach Show’, which while rich in historical resource, gets lost in jagged dialogue and a hurried climax. We experience this same brilliant set off followed by a settling into triviality with our ‘Our First American’ and ‘Jimmy Carter’s Eyes’ until finally ‘A Letter from Home’, which I would rank the best piece of the collection. ‘A Letter…’ is a monologue by a mother who tries to persuade her son, amid threats and exhortations, to return home to Nigeria, like his peers in the village, with the riches of America. It is no wonder that in 2006 it was said to be among the top ten most popular stories on the internet. And the only thing I might have enjoyed as well as this piece, would be the son’s own reply to his mother.

There are other brilliant stories too: ‘Welcome to America’ is about that time when one is newly arrived in a country, like the new kid in school  before he begins to know which cafeteria seats are taken even when they are vacant, and which cliques to avoid if he isn’t after instant initiation into the ‘loser’ club. It is a story that every immigrant will identify with. ‘The Men They Married’, in four short parts, explores the desperation and resignation of Nigerian women who realise that being a wife in America isn’t all that it is cracked up to be. ‘Miracle Baby’ –  about a woman’s desire for a child, driven by her mother in-law’s expectations – explores in hilarious detail Osondu’s disdain for religiosity as is obtainable in Nigeria. Osondu’s baby market scene is brilliant: “Are you married to a white man? Don’t worry, we have many half-castes among us here who can give you a very yellow baby… or is it the money that you are worried about? We accept instalment payment.”

The weakest story of the lot is ‘Stars in My Mother’s Eyes, Stripes on My Back’. I’ll summarise: A normally frugal father (with a proclivity for domestic violence) takes his son to a departmental store, he tells the boy he can have whatever catches his eye, and gets embarrassingly talkative when the substantial bill comes up at the till. Luckily, the woman behind him on the queue is gracious enough to come to his rescue, vouching for him as she picks up the tab, “I know you’ll do it for someone else”. Father then pats son on the back for this imagined victory as they saunter home with the freebies [End]. Is this story about subtle trickery? Was this supermarket run the manhood-test for the son as earlier proposed in the story? Perhaps Osondu himself understands this story, but he doesn’t do a great job of telling it.

The strength of this collection is in the range of the themes that are harnessed from the immigrant experience. ‘Janjaweed Wife’, ‘Jimmy Carter’s Eyes’ and ‘Waiting’ are a few stories different in setting and subject but which help break the monotony of shuttling between the two predominant settings.

Voice of America is a marriage of the Nigerian and American cultures and climes, and the stranglehold in which this tug of war between old ties and the new vistas hold those caught within their bounds. Osondu’s collection is funny and perceptive, yet it could have offered more than it does with greater dedication to structure and idea.

Nonetheless, this collection is a reminder of the reasons why the short story remains my favourite form of literature – brevity, impact, and the knowing that one can be transported to a myriad of places and situations, in the time it takes to go through one novel. And Osondu achieves these admirably.