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?
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.
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.