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ANA should do more to promote Nigeria’s book industry – Yakoob

Habib Yakoob is the author of ‘The Oath,’ a novel under the Nigerian Writers Series. In 2014, the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) published 10…

Habib Yakoob is the author of ‘The Oath,’ a novel under the Nigerian Writers Series. In 2014, the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) published 10 works under NWS in a bid to follow the footsteps of the iconic African Writers Series. He explains why his novel remains unknown, his love for political thrillers and more.
Bookshelf: Last year, your novel, ‘The oath,’ was published under the Nigerian Writers Series. Before then you had been active as a writer. What is your story?
Habib Yakoob:
I  began making attempts to  write as far back as  my primary  school days  when I read text book  stories  like ‘Mr. Giwa is a Trader,’ ‘Ahmadu  Lives in Makurdi Beside the River Benue’ and other stories. These made astounding impact on me and I began to craft stories in that mould, many of which ended up somewhere I can’t remember now. My parents were teachers, and I remember reading these stories to them, and they critiquing and encouraging me to keep writing. I had churned out stories and plays through my university years, most of which were unpublished. It was in 2004 that my first play titled, ‘The Ugly Ones Refuse to Die,’ was published. Though it has never won any award, it is memorable to me; one, for being on the recommended list of secondary schools in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) for a couple of years, and now, as a reading text for Junior Secondary School students.
Bookshelf: Can you remember some of the stories you wrote?
: I remember one in my post-primary school days. I had carried it in my head, as if I was going mad. It was about a poor farmer who was addicted to eating biscuits, and tried to experiment on planting grains of them to save them from extinction because he felt he could not live without biscuits. Then he worked hard at his farm for several years, yearning to see fresh green leaves sprout from the ridges, but all to no avail. The theme was of struggle, folly and failure. Some of my close friends then found the story quite enthralling, but as I developed more interest in reading, I realised how stupid and immature it was. So   I deliberately refused to save the manuscript when the pages began to peel off one after the other in a wooden box under my mother’s bed where I had jealously guarded them. 
Bookshelf: ‘The Ugly Ones refuse to Die’ is the only play you have ever written. Why?
Playwriting is interesting, but its appeal is more on the stage than in the text itself. The rigours and technicality of its performance have inherent challenges that ruffle my interest. Besides, if we say that reading culture has plummeted globally, I think it should be worse for play texts, because unless it is recommended for students, many people don’t really want to sit down reading through some boring dialogues. So I quit and embraced some other creative genre.
Bookshelf: So ‘The Oath’ became your first novel and a political thriller for that matter. Why did you choose this genre?
My journalism days were spent mostly around political events and so I have interesting records of the intrigues, struggles, legal dramas, shenanigans, fraud, deceit and other features that characterise our local politics. So I tried to fictionalise these themes.
Bookshelf: In the book, your central character, Ojeiva Jumbo, a poor school teacher who realises he needs to get involved in politics in order to impact the life of his people finds himself in the grips of a godfather. This is characteristic of Nigeria. What do you hope to achieve through such a plot? 
I wrote to entertain my readers, first of all, and to espouse that in the midst of the self-serving pressures from the powerful godfathers who try to enforce a dangerous grip on their ‘sons’ at the expense of state or national development, there can emerge a strong moment of determination and discipline to fight on the part of the downtrodden.
Bookshelf: Writers are at one point or the other influenced by the works of authors they respect. Can you give a list of five who impacted your writing?
Well, I read a lot of John Grisham, Sidney Sheldon, so when it comes to my interest in thrillers; they influenced me, especially in the way they thicken their plots, present courtroom drama and suspense. At other levels, Achebe, Ngugi and Oscar Wilde also influenced the way I write satirical works.  You can find a semblance of the witty Wildean dialogues in my published play and the simplicity of language in my recent work of fiction which I think I owe to my exposure to some of the works of Ngugi and Achebe.
Bookshelf: Still on godfathers, did the relationship between former presidents Goodluck Jonathan and Olusegun Obasanjo and other scenarios in the states come to mind when you were writing the story?
: Well, when I began working on the novel and up to the time the structure of the plot was cast, Goodluck Jonathan had not become president, so that scenario never flashed in my mind. As for the political crises in the states, yes, a lot of them did.
Bookshelf: What actual events contributed to the development of the work?
I would say the political crisis in Anambra State then, where Chris Ngige and Chris Uba were at loggerheads. Though the phenomenon of ‘godfatherism’ in the Nigerian political context is as old as politics itself, that crisis was a sad turning point, and I attempted to work a creative loop around it. Then there were crises all over in our democratic experience in virtually all the arms of government. All these events were useful contributions towards the development of the novel.
Bookshelf: How challenging was the plotting? 
Writing is actually a tortuous mental activity. Since I was dealing with political realities that were not unfamiliar to Nigerians, having to fictionalise them without seeming to write a history book was challenging. I needed to create an engaging plot in which readers can reenact what happened, feel the suspense and also fresh believable dimensions. 
Bookshelf: Do you think the NWS has succeeded in modeling itself after Heinemann’s African Writers Series?
: Maybe it is still too early to tell. In a way, its intended support to the growth of original works by 10 emerging Nigerian writers was a commendable effort, particularly in exhibiting the features that made Heinemann’s African Writers Series tick in the 1960s and 70s. But the prospects of the NWS appear dim. These 10 published works are still largely unknown in the Nigerian literary world. And I don’t know whether the ANA’s publishing wheels are sustainable. But what I know is that to reasonably fill the yawning gaps in the publishing industry in the country, ANA needs a lot more work and commitment.
Bookshelf: How successful will you say your novel has been in the book market so far?
I am a bit disappointed in the marketing network. Many of my friends ask that they want to read the book, but they can only be found in a few bookshops. This is a minus for the book and also the association. But this challenge is partly a consequence of the unfortunate demise of Mr. Austin, the owner of Jemmie Books, which ANA commissioned to publish and market the book. However, I must particularly commend ANA vice president, Alhaji Denja Abdullahi, for taking much interest in the work and for having made singular effort to ensure that the book reaches some bookshops. I learnt that they are working on other marketing strategies to push the works farther into the market. I hope that such actions would assist in getting the book to many interested readers. 
Bookshelf: How do you make out time to write, aside your day job at the University of Abuja?
Ordinarily, I don’t keep any strict writing schedule. Maybe I am not disciplined enough in that regard. When something drops into my consciousness, I just write it down, and if it doesn’t cease I continue to write. Then I task myself to organise the snippets of images in my head to give structure and flesh to my work.  
Bookshelf: Aside political fiction, what genre do you look forward to exploring?
I am trying to widen my literary horizon. Some ideas are growing.
Bookshelf: Since you are more attuned to politics, what themes will you like to cover in the near future?
I have not given much thought to that at the moment.
Bookshelf: Have you been in any writing contest recently?
: No
Bookshelf: Why not?
There is no particular reason, perhaps soon.
Bookshelf: What are you writing at the moment?
I have just completed a satirical novel which addresses the theme of sit-tight leadership. I am looking forward to getting it published. I am also working on a collection of short stories.

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