Author Q&A: Nnedi Okorafor

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nnedi1Nnedi Okorafor is an American author of Nigerian origin, who is widely acclaimed for her contributions to the fantasy and science fiction genres. Often compared with JK Rowling, Nnedi consistently churns out spectacular titles such as Zahrah the Windseeker, The Shadow Speaker, Who Fears Death and Akata Witch among others; and has been a recipient of several awards including the Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa. Despite having enough new fantastical adventures to put to paper, Nnedi takes out time to chat with us about being border-line dyslexic as a child, having Whoopi Goldberg in her new book, and how she considers many classics to be thoroughly unpleasant.

Which of your child characters is most closely modeled after your own young self? And in what way?

I’d have to say Sunny from Akata Witch. She’s an excellent athlete (I played semi-pro tennis from the ages of 9-19, and won a lot of medals in track and field), she loves ballet (I love ballet and used to dance it when I was kid). When she’s forced to fight, she’ll fight and WIN or at least bring someone down with her if she loses. And she lives between multiple cultural worlds.

What is the first thing you remember writing?

Creatively? That’s easy because I didn’t start writing creatively until I was twenty years old; I was a sophomore at the University of Illinois, U-C. It was short story called “The House of Deformities”. The story was based on an actual event in my life that happened in the 80s and it was set in Nigeria.

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

I don’t wish to write anything but what I write. I can thoroughly enjoy other people’s work without wanting to take it as my own.

What do you consider to be your greatest literary achievement till date?

To me, everything is connected. I don’t see one piece as greater than the others. The small things that lead to and inspire the big things. And the big things lead back to the small things.

Many, if not all, of your books belong in fantasy genre. Why the fascination with the metaphysical?

Actually, I write both science fiction and fantasy. Zahrah the WindseekerThe Shadow Speaker and Who Fears Death are blends of fantasy and science fiction. That said, the mystical and the magic in my work come from the way I naturally see the world. I see the world as a magical place. My stories are a reflection of my own way of seeing. From the very first story I wrote, it has always been this way. I’ve written memoir pieces (including a full yet to be published book) and even in those works, there are magical elements.

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

Win the Nobel. But you have to sell a lot of books to even be noticed and then considered, so these two things are connected.

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

The latter. But I’d like to see my sustained career become “the classic”. Even now, for me, it’s not about just one book. Each book adds to the greater picture I’m trying to present.

zahrahHave you written, or do you plan to write, a book not targeted at children and young adults?

I already have and that book is my most known novel, Who Fears Death. I started out writing adult stories and novels. The YA novels just happened to be the ones that sold first. I’m a YA and adult writer.

Best perk of being a writer?

Having a place to pour it all out (positive or negative) and then being able to create something with it. Really, it’s the same perk that all artists get. Also, having your work be more known to fans than your own face is cool.

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

Spelling- 1. I am a terrible speller and I’ve always been that way. Words become nonsense when I look at them for too long. My kindergarten teachers thought I might be border-line dyslexic. But like when I’m typing, if I shut my eyes and don’t focus too hard, I have no problem.

Punctuation- 5. I’ve never had a problem with punctuation. Punctuation equals clarity; I like being clear.

What book are you ashamed to admit that you haven’t read?

There is no such thing for me. Reading isn’t an ego thing. If I haven’t read it, I’ll say I haven’t read it. No one’s read it all. And a lot of so-called classics are thoroughly unpleasant reads and thus best skipped.

What is your guilty reading?

The Disney Fairy chapter books. I was reading them before I was contracted to write one. They’re fun! They are like reading cartoons and I love cartoons.

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

If a story is boring. I cannot stand boring stories.

If you could bring something from your writing to life what would it be?

The capture station in Who Fears Death that pulls condensation from the sky to creature pure drinking water without giving off any pollution. It’s portable and cheap, too. It’s perfect for nations suffering from a lack of clean drinking water. I’d also like to have my own wasp artist.

What’s next?

Plenty. My compilation of short stories, titled Kabu Kabu, will be released in 2013. It’ll be published by Prime Books. This will include several brand new short stories and a brand new novella that I wrote with New York Times Bestselling author Alan Dean Foster. It’ll also include a brief forward written by Whoopi GoldbergKabu Kabu is an adult book.

In the young adult arena, my novel Akata Witch will be published in Nigeria by Cassava Republic next year (under a new title: What Sunny Saw in the Flames). I’ve also just completed the first draft of the sequel to Akata Witch, titled Breaking Kola. This was will be published by Penguin Books and will be released in 2013

Read others in the Author Q&A Series

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Author Q&A Series: Chibundu Onuzo

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chibundu2Chibundu Onuzo is the author of The Spider King’s Daughter. The novel, published in 2012, is her debut, and the first instalment of a two-book deal signed with British publishers, Faber and Faber. Born in Nigeria, Chibundu moved to the UK some years ago, and has recently completed a history degree in King’s College, London. She started writing The Spider King’s daughter at age 17, and was the youngest writer to be signed by her publishers . The now 21 year old author tells of (false?) recollections of life as an infant, her review-specific amnesia, and how an author’s death might be a good thing for a book.

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

Aunty Precious. She’d cook and I’d signal for ships.

What’s your earliest memory?

A pram race between my brother and my aunt. My cousin was in one pram and I was in the other. No-one in my family believes I remember this.

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

I saw a copy at Pataba book shop in Yaba which was very exciting because I didn’t know it was on sale anywhere in Nigeria.

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

Nobel because then it’d help me sell a million copies. Two birds with one stone.

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

You can have both. Classics are usually not counted as such until you’re dead or at least well into the twilight of your career. Moby Dick is an excellent example. So you might have what you think is only a sustained career of good books but posterity may judge one or more as classics.

Best perk of being a writer?

Free books.

Worst thing about being a writer?

Some people think you sit at home all day doing nothing.

chibundu 2Remember your best and worst reviews? Let’s hear them.

I suffer from amnesia when it comes to these things.

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

Publishing takes forever.

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

Good writing is actually not essential to success, at least not in pecuniary terms.

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

3.5: I’m quite bad with words like of and off, unto and onto, to and too, see and sea. Homophone is the First Aid term for words like these.

What do you think your writing owes your readers?

I don’t want my fiction to dull them.

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

Onto.

What is your favourite quote from literature?

Those that know their God shall be strong and do exploits.

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

None. My life is pretty sedate and in my fiction, I am attracted to drama. I blame my Lagos upbringing.

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

Everything Good Will Come by Sefi Atta. It’s not the only notable novel by a Nigerian author in the last ten years but, in my opinion, it’s the most overlooked.

Write a paragraph describing yourself in the third person.

I charge for descriptions. That’s how I make a living.

What one person was most supportive of your writing ambition?

My father, my mother and my sister. The first two are one via marriage and the last came from their union so you can take them all as the same person.

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

‘I didn’t know hawkers had ambitions.’ I quote verbatim.

What is your guilty reading?

I read the Hunger Games trilogy. Every single book.  Entirely guilt free but I have been judged.

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

It depends. Sometimes I find writing a completely new scene very challenging. Sometimes it flows.

And the most pleasurable?

Reading over a scene I like.

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

When there is plot but no finesse.

How do you motivate yourself after a manuscript rejection?

I’ve been quite fortunate in my manuscript to rejection ratio. I’ve only had two. The first one was when I was fifteen for a collection of short stories. I kept the slip of paper for posterity (which I have now lost.) I stopped writing for a bit and then started again. The young  prove elastic to failure. The second was from an agency in London for a first draft of my novel. I didn’t really have to motivate myself to do anything. I was waiting to hear back from my current agent, who incidentally replied with an acceptance exactly a week later.

Tell us your literary process – from conception to first draft.

I don’t plan in the early stages. I start writing and then as the story comes to me, I jot directions the plot can move in. But usually, the story goes another way from what I envisioned at the start so plotting, in my case, is often pointless but makes me feel productive.

What is your ultimate motivation for writing?

Motivation is such a tricky thing to separate. Is my motivation for writing different from my motivation for wanting to be published? All I know is I like writing and it’s easier for me to work at it than to work at learning how to build bridges.

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

I don’t know what a fair depiction of an African country would be. I don’t even know what a fair depiction of Lagos would be. Lekki or Mushin? V.I or Yaba? Everyone wants to see their own particular experience of a place portrayed. Hence we have the middle class fights back movement in African literature, challenging recurring perceptions of the continent that have arisen from a certain style of media coverage. I’m not overly concerned either way. Write what you like.

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

The Bible. You have the gospels which are like eating bread, easily digestible. Then you have Numbers which is like cauliflower. Man shall not live on bread alone.

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

My maternal grandfather who died before I was born. We just missed each other. I’ve read some of his letters and I think we were alike in many ways.

What’s next?

A second book that I’m working on.

Read others in the Author Q&A Series

 

 

Author Q&A Series: Noo Saro-Wiwa

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Noo Saro-Wiwa is a travel writer and daughter of the late Nigerian writer and political activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa. Noo attended King’s College London and Columbia University, New York, and has written for travel publications like Lonely Planet. Her first book, Looking for Transwonderland – which chronicles her travel in Nigeria after a life spent outside its shores – was published by Granta earlier this year and has amassed brilliant reviews. Demonstrating the humour and ease of expression that set her work apart, Noo tells us about spying on fellow bus passengers’ text messages, her fascination with the social etiquette of ancient hominids, and about Transwonderland being chosen as Book of The Week by BBC Radio 4.

Which of the characters in Looking for Transwonderland would you like to be accompanied by on another country tour?

The travel writer Maurice Archibong, or my aunt’s daughter Mabel. They were both excellent company and full of curiosity.

What is the first thing you remember writing?

A story about a magic bicycle when I was 10 years old. I had just received my first thesaurus and thought I was being clever in using big words like ‘phenomenon’ and ‘dilapidated’.

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

Being selected as BBC Radio 4 – Book of the Week was a nice achievement.

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

Well, the Nobel is worth $1 million dollars before tax. And winning it would boost my sales. So you get money AND prestige AND a sales boost. But if the prize money were small I’d rather sell a million copies – one million readers is as good an endorsement as any literary award.

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

A sustained career of good books. If you write one classic, the rest of your life will feel like a horrible anti-climax.

Best perk of being a writer?

Attending literary festivals in various cities and making new friends along the way.

Worst thing about being a writer?

Having to write. It’s a painful process.

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

I don’t google myself, so I’m oblivious to non-newspaper reviews. The best reviews have focused on the nuances of my observations and travel. The one poor newspaper critique was from someone who fixated on my identity as a diasporan while ignoring all other aspects of the book.

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

If you think writing the manuscript is hard work, wait until you start promoting the damn thing.

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

Self-discipline.

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

4.99: I have worked as a copy editor on several newspapers and magazines. And yes, I have checked this document thoroughly!

What do you think your writing owes your readers?

Clarity, honesty and engagement.

What is your favourite quote from literature?

JM Coetzee describes a character in Youth as “waiting for destiny to arrive”. It’s a brilliant way of summarising the act of having ambitions but not being very proactive.

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

Being a travel writer means my experiences are my writing.

If you were to award a prize for a Nigerian literary work published within the last 10 years which book would it go to?

There are many Nigerian novels I haven’t read yet, so I’m not qualified to answer.

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

“The prose isn’t flowery enough! And there’s too much historical context!”

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

This email: “All I was left with when the book came to its close was the thought ‘I can’t wait to read her next’, you know, the same feeling one has after a bloody excellent meal.”

What is your guilty reading?

Other people’s text messages on the bus. And Hello! magazine.

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

I write non-fiction, so I don’t have a creative process. But trying to weave background facts into the narrative can be tricky.

And the most pleasurable?

Finding a nice turn of phrase gives me the biggest high.

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

Style of prose is very important to me, and I’ll give up on a book if the writing is inelegant, pretentious or dull. I don’t care how interesting the subject matter is.

What is your ultimate motivation for writing?

I feel it’s what I do best and I have something to offer. Plus it’s an occupation that doesn’t require formal qualifications – I hate exams.

Tell us your writing process – from conception to first draft.

I take an interest in a country. I then travel around the country and talk to people, constantly scribbling notes or recording things on my Dictaphone. Every evening I type up my notes and transcribe my recordings, no matter how tired I am. Then I email them to myself. I also write a diary as it’s a good way of chronicling my feelings (emotions can be surprisingly easy to forget over time). Once I fly back home, I transform my observations into prose. My writing is most prolific after midnight.

Why travel writing?

It combines my two loves: travel and literature. I love reading books that transport me to another place and teach me things about it, so I want to do the same for others.

What were the high and low points of your tour of Nigeria?

The high points were the dog show at Ibadan, the Durbah in Kano, and eating plantain and goat non-stop. The low points were seeing young kids having to work for a living, as well as visiting Port Harcourt Zoo (the conditions were so bad I was too embarrassed to write about it).

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

They’re a force for good. They ensure that a certain level of quality is maintained, otherwise  standards might fall (you only have to compare our newspapers of today with papers 40 years ago to see how easily writing standards can drop).
Foreign prizes also lend prestige and financial support to a profession that’s not lucrative. This is important in places like Nigeria where financial hardship causes many youngsters to overlook literature as a vocation.

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

I think African writers portray Africa fairly and in a rich variety. If people don’t like the realism they should criticise the politicians and criminals who create that reality. There’s no point shooting the messenger. Writers should worry about accuracy rather than positivity. Good literature must come from an honest place; it’s not a form of propaganda. Besides, most foreign perceptions of our continent aren’t actually based on novels – they’re based on television news.

What other books on travel would you recommend? And why?

Bad Times in Buenos Aires by Miranda France is highly subjective and biased, but the prose is flawless, funny, and her observations on Argentinian society were very prescient. I also like Bombay by Suketu Mehta. I haven’t finished reading it (it’s a huge book), but it encompasses politics, gangsters, Bollywood, business and more. It sets the standard for single-city travelogues.

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

Ancient hominids. I’d love to know if they could sing or dance, and whether they had any etiquette.

What’s next?

I’m still undecided, but possibly a book on my travels around South Africa.

Read others in the Author Q&A Series

Author Q&A Series: Billy Kahora

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Billy Kahora was one of five shortlisters for the 2012 Caine Prize, and the managing editor of Kenyan literary journal, Kwani?. He is the author of a non-fiction book titled, The True Story of David Munyakei, and is currently working on a novel, The Applications, and a non-fiction narrative on Juba, South Sudan as part of the Pilgrimages project established by the Chinua Achebe Centre. The Kenyan writer tells us here about his fascination with bad behaviour, being mentored by Binyavanga Wainana, and his stint as a quantity surveyor.

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

Humphrey Karoki, the patriarch in my work in progress.

What is the first thing you remember writing? 

A pretentious rant that pretended to be a story with cardboard characters that failed to flex my puny intellectual muscle.

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

I once saw my non-fiction book, The True Story of David Munyakei, with a Kenyan Minister.

Sell a million copies or win the Nobel?

A million copies.

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

A sustained career

Worst thing about being a writer?

People think they can get away with not paying you because you are getting free PR or marketing.

Best thing about being a writer?

Nobody gets very surprised at your strange behaviour.

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

Best- My work smells of Nairobi; Worst – I’m obsessed with bad behaviour.

One thing you wish you’d known starting out as a writer?

To respect time and utilise it well.

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

Having a bullshit-detector to determine what’s important and what’s not.

Rate yourself on a scale of one to 10 for spelling and punctuation.

Spelling -4; punctuation -2.

What do you think your writing owes your readers?

It should respect their intelligence.

What is your favourite quote from literature?

“The heart empties as the belly fills” – Saul Bellow, Henderson the Rain King

“There is always dirt, you just have to go find it.” – Robert Penn Warren, All the King’s Men

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

Bad behaviour

What is the best book you’ve read in the past year?

Feast of Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa.

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

Don’t take yourself too seriously.

What one person was most supportive of your writing ambition?

Binyavanga Wainana.

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

This feels like my life.

What’s your guilty reading?

Crime fiction.

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

Sustaining writing for more than two or three weeks.

And the most pleasurable?

The new thoughts that come every other day

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

Laziness. Not rewriting (I am critical of that in my own work writing too),

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

Anna Karenina – Tolstoy takes two key aspects of humanity, love and death, and does a pretty good job of writing about them.

The Caine Prize – how can it be improved? 

By bringing more local writers to the events and having a conversation with them.

How did you decide the story you would enter for the Caine Prize competition?

It was the only eligible story I had.

How would you have spent the £10, 000 prize money, had you won it?

Buy some writing time… dropped other jobs to write.

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

Aspects of pre-colonial life, to disprove the false perceptions that it was all peaceful, loving and respectful.

Tell us a secret.

I trained as a quantity surveyor

What’s next?

A novel.

Read Billy’s Caine Prize shortlisted story, Urban Zoning

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Author Q&A Series: Unoma Azuah

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Unoma Azuah is one of the important voices in Nigerian Literature, having earned acclaim through her work on poetry with Sentinel Quarterly Online Magazine as well as on her essays and research on sexuality issues in Nigeria. Unoma, who holds an MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University, has published a collection of short stories, Length of Light (2008), and two novels –  Sky-High Flames (2004) and Edible Bones (2011). Unoma talks to us about a childhood spent questioning God about her father, her guilty fix of children’s fiction, and having her words ‘taken to the bank’.

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

It would be Ofunne, in my novel Sky-high Flames. We’d have a wonderful time talking about the short-sightedness of her parents and about her obnoxious mother-in-law.

What is the first thing you remember writing?

I remember scribbling a poem of some sorts called, “Questions for God,” at the age of six or seven. My mother couldn’t give me a
straight face answer as to where my father was.  He had died in a car accident with some fellow soldiers.

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

It was surreal. The most recent I remember is being in Makurdi, Benue state for a reading. I had run of cash and had to dash into the nearest First Bank.  I was in queue when I saw a man waltz by with a copy of Edible Bones. I found myself snickering. I had no idea why.

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

Both wouldn’t be a bad idea. LOL!!!

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

I’d like to have a sustained career of good books.

Best perk of being a writer?

Being treated like a star sometimes.

Worst thing about being a writer?

The isolation can be gruelling sometimes. Sometimes, it feels like a labour pang. For example, in some cases when I am supposed to be on a routine job or it can happen in the middle of my lectures, characters keep jeering at me to bring them alive.

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

I remember Ikhide’s review of Sky-high Flames. He came short of saying that the novel with all its technical and structural flaws is repulsive.  However, I love Tade Ipadeola’s review of Edible Bones. I think he was most insightful and objective with the review.

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

Nothing really because it is something I enjoy doing. It’s been fulfilling so far.

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

Hard work, patience and tenacity.

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

I think I am pretty good in both, but I’d give myself 4/5 in punctuation.

What do you think your writing owes your readers?

Telling them stories that resonate with their reality as human beings, entertaining them and being honest in the telling

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

LOL!!! I love the word “Breeze” and I know I over-use it.

What is your favourite quote from literature?

I actually have two favourite quotes from literature and they are both from C.S Lewis.

The first one goes: “Literature adds to reality, it does not simply describe it. It enriches the necessary competencies that daily life requires and provides; and in this respect, it irrigates the deserts that our lives have already become.”

And the second: “Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring two pence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.”

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

My secondary school experience which I mostly used in Sky-high Flames.

If you were to award a prize for a Nigerian novel which book would it go to?

Nigeria has so many literary talents that it would be difficult to just pin point only one book. Several Nigerian novels come to mind, not just one.

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

Wow! It was worth it after all! Didn’t know we could make it this far.

What one person was most supportive of your writing ambition?

My mother, Constance Azuah, nee Nsugbe and of course my secondary school teacher, Dr. Joe Ike Ogugua of the College of Education Ehamufu. He really pushed, nurtured and lifted me. I owe him my literary career. There is also Leslye Maria Huff who was my guardian during my university years in the US.

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

It was during one of the regular workshops in my MFA in Fiction classes. One of my classmates was so moved by my short story, “Season of Scorch,” that he said under his breath, “Classic!”

What is your guilty reading?

Sometimes I catch myself reading my childhood favourite stories like Achebe’s Chike and the River, and Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and Secret Seven.

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

Squeezing out time between my regular job and social life to create a conducive space to write. Often I stay up late at night to write. During the day sometimes, I am sleepy because I didn’t get enough sleep.

And the most pleasurable?

Seeing the book on bookshelves or in people’s hands.

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

Pacing. I also prefer being shown rather than being told.

How do you motivate yourself after a manuscript rejection?

Keep at it till I get it right.

Tell us your literary process – from conception to first draft.

I carry stories in my head for months, sometimes years. Then I make an outline and create a plot. I follow this plot from chapter to chapter till the book is done. Then I step back and read through again. There may be areas where I may need to flesh out or thin out depending on what is needed.

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

I am not sure I have an opinion about that. In general terms though, prizes can be affirming for writers.

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

Some contemporary African writers do not depict Africa fairly in their writing but different strokes for different folks. They may have ulterior motives to achieve something or to make a statement. Either way, honesty beats propaganda at the end of the day.

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

There are two books I have in mind: Joys of Motherhood by Buchi Emecheta then Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. I’d recommend the first because it captures the irony that is wrapped around some of our cultural expectations. Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, I admire because it expertly mines the human mind and delves into the recesses of the protagonist’s psyche. The author’s skill and message in that novel is extra-ordinary.

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

Nothing that comes to mind at the moment.

What’s next?

I am starting work on some sort of memoir/faction about the first 40 years of my life.  It’s been such a challenging journey and I hope I can capture its essence well enough.

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The £10,000 Caine Story

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2012 Winner, Rotimi Babatunde with Caine Prize Founder, Baroness Nicholson

When British-Nigerian writer, Bernadine Evaristo was announced as chair of the Caine Prize, she stressed the urgent need for writing that does more than reinforce the already warn perceptions about Africa: “War-torn Africa, Starving Africa, Corrupt Africa – in short: The Tragic Continent”. She posed the question of whether too many African writers are writing for the approval of non-African literary decision makers such as International publishing companies and prize bodies, a question that had been preoccupying members of the Nigerian literati.

While one mightn’t say that the effort by the 2012 Caine Prize to find “exciting, provocative” short fiction has yielded the very best it can – the shortlisted entries still contain copious references to racism, homophobia, poverty, disease and the need for escape – the handling of the stories have been more nuanced than in previous years. Of the five stories, which I had read countless times to prepare press materials, a couple stood out in my mind. And it was with delight, if not surprise, that I witnessed the announcement of Rotimi Babatunde’s ‘Bombay’s Republic’ as fourth Nigerian winner of the Prize – after Helon Habila’s, Segun Afolabi’s and E C Osondu’s works in 2001, 2005 and 2009 respectively

‘Bombay’s Republic’, described as “darkly humorous and soaring prose”  tells the story of a Nigerian soldier drafted to fight in Burma during World War Two, but Babatunde wasn’t preoccupied so much with the usual: The victimhood of Africans made to fight a war that they had no business with – “Colour Sergeant Bombay… would quickly find that someone had confused his nation’s frontiers with a place half the world away” – or the racism meted out to the soldiers, with propaganda making the rounds about them being tailed cannibals capable of ressurection. Instead Babatunde focused on chronicling the gradual shattering of stereotypes and assumptions, and the liberating effects of a traumatic experience on his impressionable Sergeant.

Questioned by Ellah Allfrey, Deputy Chair of the prize, about why Bombay did not return to promote the independence efforts in Africa, Babatunde replied that, the former’s illusions having been shattered during the war, he could not return to “do the usual or predictable”. Instead, Bombay’s republic ends as an allegory on a self-perpetuating leader, like Allfrey’s own “dear president Mugabe.”

As I read and enjoyed Rotimi’s “Bombay’s Republic” for the umpteenth time, two things struck me: It was quite ‘genre’, and was easily expandable. This impression was further re-inforced when Ben Okri, Man Booker Prize winner and new Vice-Chair of the Caine Prize, in explaining the importance of a short story prize, likened the prose form to a seed, while citing examples of longer works- Don Quixote and Ulysses – that began as short stories.

A self-professed history enthusiast, hence the time and place setting of his story,  Babatunde is currently involved in writing a stage play Sugar, a collaborative effort with four other writers, and a retelling of “the journey of Yoruba culture and religion, as it moved through slavery from West Africa to the Americas, a powerful story of exploitation, resistance and survival”.  It is to be produced by World Stages London next year. So perhaps in answer to Evaristo’s query – “What about crime fiction, science fiction, fantasy, horror, more history, chick lit?” –  the stage is finally being set for the diversification of African literature.

Also, besides being a stepping stone into longer form, the short story, in this internet age, holds infinite possibility of re-introducing the continent and portraying its present circumstances both within and without. And platforms like the Caine Prize, while facing their own peculiar challenges, create avenues for renewed discourse. And slow progress is being made, this year’s Caine anthology, African Violet, has been released in partnership with six African publishers, and is available in book stores and in e-book format.

The Ten Thousand Pound Man

Babatunde, who is also a poet and a playwright, is no ingénue, having already achieved some level of success in creative writing – his fiction and poems have been published internationally, and his plays have been staged in places like the Halcyon Theatre, Chicago.

However, on arrival in London, his manner had been shy and earnest.  There had been an almost palpable nervousness about him. When he spoke at interviews and readings, it was with a hesitant intelligence, and he was given to frequent disappearances from the group. He appeared almost incongruous with his witty, tongue-in-cheek and articulate creative alter-ego.

Instead, quite like the character, Bombay, from his prize winning story, “Bombay’s Republic”, who bore with equanimity the probing stares of white natives, Rotimi exhibited very little emotion as he was ushered from his table with Ben Okri to the podium to give his winner’s speech. He spoke of his honour at being awarded the Prize, but mostly of being in such “good company as my fellow shortlisted writers”. Faltering slightly at the end of his memorised speech, he said a simple thank you to all and came down to congratulations and picture taking.

Though he will be the last to admit that winning the Prize and the £10,000 prize money has validated him in any major way, to my careful eyes, by the end of the media circus that surrounded him afterwards, his demeanour had changed slightly. His manner had become more self-assured. He still chose his words carefully, but they were delivered with the manner of one who had realised that people were eager to lap them up. And they were; he had granted no less than fifteen interviews in about two days, some well into midnight. Yes, he admits that it has been a fascinating experience, the importance of which will take some time to sink in, but he maintains that “writing is not about winning prizes but about writing well.”

As he recalls, his first memory of writing was when he created an illustrated story book around age six, but his craft did not actually take off until the early to late nineties when Nigeria was in the throes of military regimes. It was his awareness of events and need for self-expression in the stifling political atmosphere that led him to explore world literature by writers like Leonard Tolstoy, William Faulkner. Tolstoy, he said, “showed me what fiction should be like”. Closer to home, his inspirations came from Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, and Amos Tutuola. These early influences still govern his craft till today.

While he doesn’t want to be immediately catapulted from Nigeria – as in his last few days in London he makes no secret of his longing to return to his home in Ibadan, there is a limit to the level of success that he can boast in Nigeria, especially as it concerns his work with theatre. “I do not write for Nigerian theatre“, he admits. “Nigeria stages do not have the facilities to support my work”. But he insists that a major achievement of literary bodies like the Caine would be to reduce the distance to Africa, to organise awards within the continent that will be a force for change rather than, as Evaristo puts it, merely “sprinkle fairy dust on a single, lucky writer every year”.

The Five Shortlisters. From left: Stanley Kenani, Jenna Cato Bass, Billy Kahora, Rotimi Babatunde and Melissa Myambo

Five Strangers from One Very Diverse Continent

This year’s shortlist boasted what Jan Hart, Caine Prize facilitator for twelve years calls a “young crowd”. Jenna Cato Bass, who wrote as Constance Myburg, is a twenty-five year old South African film maker, and a publisher of pulp fiction. She infuses this cinematic element into her story, “Hunter Emmanuel”, which is set in Cape Town. In “Hunter Emmanuel” an ex-cop follows the mysterious trail that begins with the discovery of a woman’s amputated leg. Bass, a retired magician with an eccentric dress sense and a passion for collecting odd knick knacks, felt somewhat like Alice in Wonderland on this trip. She admits that it is the first time she has seen her fiction published in any media besides her own Jungle Jim, a magazine she co-founded.

I had spent two futile hours frantically scouring Google Images and Facebook to match a face to the name I was expecting on the morning when I welcomed Melissa Myambo to London. The only thing I knew about her at the time was her gender. I was later to find out that she has a loathing for having her images published online. During the process of the Caine events we took great pains to film her in profile or not at all. Chatty, and with uproarious humour, she could always be counted on to break the tedium of panel discussions with a quirky observation. And she had often maintained that “by far the most interesting thing about me is that I am aerobics instructor, and I teach Zumba dance classes”. Her story, “La Salle de Depart” was inspired by an elegant, dignified Senegalese house keeper she met during her stint in Senegal, and is dedicated to women like the latter who do not have the opportunity to see the world.

Billy Kahora’s “Urban Zoning” is one story whose place on the shortlist I had wondered about. But to hear Billy explain this story of a drunken bank worker who manages to outwit his bosses just when they should be giving him the boot, one realises that it is replete with meaning and references that would be missed if you did not possess local knowledge of Kenya, or were not conversant with terms like “Peri-urban”. Slight, and with the mild irritation of someone who never slows down, Kahora is an editor at Kwani?, a literary outfit established by Binyanvanga Wainana, or The Bing, as Kahora fondly calls him.

Stanley Kenani has been on the Caine shortlist one too many times, he complains. He was shortlisted in 2008 and has seen and done it all before. But as an accountant for the UN, the experience was another opportunity to network with literary types. He lives a kind of sectioned existence, he explains. When he is away from “all the writing stuff” he is just a stuffy collar, who has no one to share his literary interests with; and oftentimes it is just when he is busily “crunching numbers” that his fictional characters come to tap him on the shoulder and request an audience. Writing, for him, has been a means of escape. It earned him a scholarship that has enabled him find a way out of the Malawian village he lived in till he was in his teens. His story, “Love on Trial“, is about a homosexual man discovered in flagrante delicto with his lover in Malawi. What follows is the persecution and prosecution of this character. Kenani confesses to having written this story solely for advocacy purposes: “I wanted to speak for a section of our society – gays. Some are friends, they are can’t come out or even post their pictures on sites like Facebook; and many of them are some of the best people I’ve met. Why are we denying them the freedom we have?”

The Caine Prize brought together five strangers from one very diverse continent, and positioned them as the representation of our varied literary accomplishment. The journey from their respective countries had seen their stories reviewed by twenty-odd blogs across Africa, some of them very scathingly (cue Ikhide Ikheloa and Ayo Olofintuade, two Nigerian bloggers, whose review made for many hilarious interludes among the writers), interviewed by a myriad of UK media outfits, defending and explaining their works at panel after panel discussion.

There were merry parts too: A midnight pub crawl in Soho London, the networking avenues with agents and publishers, and the upper class accommodation at Royal Overseas League, a Commonweath private members organisation, and being feted at the UK House of Lords by Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne, member of the House and founder of The Caine Prize. Only the baroness’ declaration that she single-handedly chose the national anthem of Kenani’s Malawi ruffled a few feathers within the group. That and the “less-than-minimum-wage” per-diem.

First published in The Guardian, Nigeria, July 15, 2012

 

 

Africa’s Leading Literary Powerhouse – South Africa or Nigeria?

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African prize-winning authors

Summer 2012 and the eyes of the world turn to the city of London, England. People across the globe sit in beer parlours, shebeens, pubs, washing unhealthy snacks down with tankards of beer and cheering as the healthiest specimens of our nations run, jump and swim faster, higher, stronger.

But why stop at sportsmen? Why not pitch our countries’ plumbers against the world’s, our street-corner hookers, our brain surgeons? Why don’t Liberians sneer at Sierra Leoneans: “The barefoot kids hawking peanuts in your Kroo Bay slums are nothing compared to the former child soldiers weaving through traffic selling groundnuts in the misery of our West Point”? And why not stand our writing ‘athletes’ up against each other in a sort of literary Olympic Games and see which nation ends up on the podium?

And the last was just what we did. The rules: We sourced our data by analysing the winners of major international literary prizes, filleting out all African winners and noting their country of origin. We limited our scope – and therefore our resultset – to awards for English language literature, with a deliberate bias towards prose fiction. Where a writer has dual nationality, as in the case of Zimbabwean-British author Doris Lessing, we favoured the African nation; with Mauritian-South African novelist, Lindsay Collen, we plumped for Mauritius, as this is the country she identifies with.

The following awards were prestigious enough to make it onto our list: the Nobel Prize for Literature, the Booker Prize, the International Booker Prize, the Pulitzer Prize and the Costa/Whitbread Prize (neither of which has had any African winners), the Caine Prize, the Orange Prize, and the various flavours of the Commonwealth Prize.

Divvying up the spoils of these awards by nation certain facts became immediately obvious. South Africa and Nigeria are the 800 pound gorillas of the English-speaking African literary world. Between them they account for two-thirds of the prizes won by Africa. South Africa, though, clearly takes the gold medal, leading Nigeria by 5 awards (including double the number of Nobel prizes). Zimbabwe takes the bronze medal, limping in a distant third.

There may be a conversation to be had about the racial split of southern Africa’s winners. (They are disproportionally white.) Or maybe not: an African is an African is an African.

Analysing the awards by date throws new light on the health of literature in the various countries. Nigeria is currently enjoying a rich renaissance, kicked off by Helon Habila’s triumph at the 2001 Caine Prize. Its near neighbour, Ghana, on the other hand, is caught in the jaws of a terrible slump; the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize Benjamin Kwakye’s The Sun by Night won in 2006 is the nation’s only showing in close to 15 years. And if Ghana is in a bad way, Egypt is even worse; Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz is their only international prize winner. And Naguib Mahfouz died in 2006.

Mahfouz isn’t Africa’s only Nobel laureate; Nigeria’s Wole Soyinka preceded him in 1986, Zimbabwe’s Doris Lessing won it in 2007, and in between it was won by South Africa’s literary giants, Nadine Gordimer and JM Coetzee.

JM Coetzee is, to borrow an ugly American phrase, Africa’s “most winningest” writer, our Usain Bolt: Booker Prize followed by Commonwealth Prize followed by Booker again and followed by Commonwealth again. Oh, and of course there’s that Nobel Prize.

Dicing the data by author throws a different hue on our leading countries: JM Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer cast huge shadows over the South African scene; Nigeria is a little more democratic – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Helon Habila are undoubtedly the leaders of the new Nigerian pack, but the pack is not far behind.

Viewing the data in this way also reveals the huge flaw in our experiment: where are those grandees of Nigerian literature, Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe? Between them, they have a Nobel Prize and an International Booker respectively, but authors such as Karen King-Aribisala loom larger than them with her clutch of Commonwealth Prizes. Ms King-Aribisala is undoubtedly a gifted author, but few would argue that she should eclipse Soyinka and Achebe so easily. Perhaps our analysis would have benefited from weighting being assigned to awards, showing that the Nobel is worth more than the Caine? Everyone knows Usain Bolt won the 200m at the Beijing Olympics – but who remembers who won gold in the 20km walking race? (It was Russia’s Valeriy Borchin. No, I’ve never heard of him either.)

Literary prizes won by African countries

Despite this flaw, we should not throw our results away; they give us a good picture of the health of African literature and of the way literature fits into the larger political and historical jigsaw puzzle. South Africa leads the way and has done so since the end of Apartheid.  And the revival of Nigerian literature coincides almost exactly with the rebirth of democracy in that country. Zimbabwe is also experiencing a second wind, despite (or because of?) its financial and political problems.

And the future? Nigeria seems to be on course to overtake South Africa as Africa’s literary powerhouse. And perhaps Kenyan literature will experience a “Binyavanga bounce” the same way Nigeria had a “Helon boost” a decade ago. And maybe – hopefully – Ghana will rescue itself from the quagmire it has been trapped in for so long.

We will look at the data again in five or 10 years and let you know.

View our data.