Aishat Abiri, is an optometrist turned writer whose works include television series, ‘Tinsel’ and ‘In love & Ashes.’ She speaks on making the shift to the creative sector and the journey so far.
Weekend Magazine: How did you start writing and then writing for TV?
Aishat Abiri: For me, I started writing because I thought a book could have ended better. I was that kind of child, probably not the most likeable. However, if I felt something wasn’t good enough, I was also certain I could fix it. So, I started writing my own stories–tortoise, hare, moral lesson, etc. It was a hobby. When I got into secondary school, my writing evolved into poetry and in university, blogging. It was all still for fun. Then I watched Ijé’: The Journey. ‘For the first time, I watched a Nollywood film that I had nothing to complain about, and I was like: this! This can actually be done. A friend of mine put me in touch with the Director but things didn’t quite work out.
When I got to Abuja, I started to feel like Optometry wasn’t enough, like there was a portion of me that was atrophying. But writing helped me feel better. I took online courses on storytelling and then on scriptwriting and by the time I got to the Farafina Trust Workshop, writing for screen had become an area of interest for me. Luckily, one of my fellow participants at the workshop is a filmmaker and when he got his first big break with the American Embassy (for a series titled ‘In Love & Ashes)’, he brought me on board. That was my first TV writing job.
I’ve always enjoyed writing, but I guess I started to consider it as a way of life when I joined the Abuja Literary Society (ALS) in 2015. I’m glad I got introduced to ALS, because through it. I learned about the Farafina Trust Creative Writing Workshop and through that I found a network of brilliant young writers who would come to be my creative support system, my friends, my family.
I love to experience life-in reality, in books, in works of art. I am a writer for print, stage, screen and recently, music. I would call myself a severe critic, and that’s probably the hardest aspect of my existence.
WM: What’s the best way to describe you?
Abiri: I wrote a short story where the protagonist was based largely on my personality and I’ll just quote that here: “Sogie is not particular about much. She’d be the last person you’d find obsessing over details like smoking or non-smoking, or the toilet seat, if it’s up or down. But of the things she does get particular, she is rather intense-like her privacy…” So when I’m particular about a certain detail, I’m near obsessive. I guess a simple way to put it is that when I care, I care too much.
WM: How different is it writing for books and for TV?
Abiri: Quite different. I think the first difference is in the levels of interpretation. First, with writing books – a novel for example – it’s a direct channel between you and the audience. You put down your thoughts, the audience reads. But with writing for TV, there are so many factors between you and the final audience, the directing, the casting, the acting, video editing, so that when the story gets to TV, the audience isn’t reading that script but watching the final product which is a sum of how these people in between have interpreted your work. While with a novel, you can leave room for ambiguity – creatively of course – with scripts, you can’t, otherwise your scripts will be misinterpreted and a whole new story will be on screen, with your name as writer.
Also, there’s what I call the Removal of the Narrator with script writing. With prose, there’s usually the voice of the narrator who can explain feelings, thoughts, how our characters got here. With scripts, it’s stripped down: where are they? What are they doing? What are they saying? Sometimes, we hear on TV, what the character is thinking. I have my reservations.
WM: What’s been your most challenging work yet and why do you consider it so?
Abiri: ‘In Love & Ashes.’ Yes, it was my first screenplay. Yes, there was the difficulty of getting accustomed to how their dialogue would play out (there was a lot I had to learn about our culture up North). But the real challenge was that we had to tell a story about love and situate it within insurgency. So it was a difficult truth to confront so closely, to read interviews with people living there. And a part of you feels like a fraud because do you really have a right to tell this story?
WM: You have a passion for writing on gender issues, sexuality and mental health. What is/are your motivation to write on these subjects?
Abiri: Generally, I feel these are highly prevalent issues that tend to take the back seat in conversation, when they do, the conceptions could be worrisome. Like when you hear someone say “all this book and you will still end in a man’s kitchen” or “boys shouldn’t cry” or “sexuality is just urges and you can just ignore them” because sexuality is an expression, not dust that you can just sweep under the carpet. Or “mental illness is Oyibo people’s problem.”
WM: What’s your experience transforming your characters from paper to ‘reality?’
Abiri: I won’t call this my experience. I create the characters on paper, describe them as fully as I can: age, appearance, personality, quirks, likes, dislikes, strengths, weaknesses, etc. Then it’s up to the casting director to use this information when finding an actor to play that role, and the actor to pay attention to the role and nail it. I can make recommendations but I still have to respect job descriptions.
WM: What drives the stories you write?
Abiri: People. Everyone is a story waiting to be told or retold. When I heard Chimamanda’s “Danger of a Single Story”, I realized, it wasn’t my job to tell stories A, B, C, D, etc. I would tell my story as best as I can, you tell yours. I believe that the reason we have single stories is because there are people with alternative stories who are stifled or have chosen to stay silent.
WM: You live in Abuja, what is it about the city that spurs your work on?
Abiri: The lights. When Abuja lights up at night, it fills me with a level of optimism (or pessimism) that makes me want to create. There is also development. The truth is, that steady hum of electricity especially when you’ve not lost some sanity to traffic or area boys is quite spurring.
WM: What is that one subject you are looking to write about?
Abiri: Romance. I might be wrong but it seems, because most of us writers read cheesy romance novels when we were younger, we have sort of written them off-at least that’s the case for me. You will not find a book with “Romance” on the spine in my home (at least for now). But romance is beautiful. I want to write about romance in the way I want to read about it, the way I’d want my daughter to read about it. It might not be a story for everybody but it would be a story for me. A story I’d look at and say “now, that’s romance.”
WM: What are you working on at the moment?
Abiri: Well, there’s Mnet’s ‘Tinsel,’ ‘MTV Shuga Naija’ and a couple other shows which I can’t quite talk about now. I’m working with Buchi Onyegbule on ‘Afi… The Spill Sessions’ which is hosted by the German Embassy. Basically, we pick a book, have a panel discussion about the themes, adapt it into a play and chat with the author. I also have a group writing project where we are telling a story for a novel and for TV. It’s my first time doing both at the same time and it’s an interesting experience. Personally, I’m working on a series which I’m trying to get commissioned, and I can finally say that I’m working on my debut novel.