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I like stories built around dead characters – Yishau

Olukorede S. Yishau is the author of ‘In the Name of Our Father’, a novel, and ‘Vaults of Secrets’, a short story collection released on…

Olukorede S. Yishau is the author of ‘In the Name of Our Father’, a novel, and ‘Vaults of Secrets’, a short story collection released on October 1, 2020, Nigeria’s 60th independence anniversary. Here, the award-winning journalist who is an associate editor with The Nation newspaper talks about his latest offering and more. Excerpts:

Your debut novel, ‘In the Name of Our Father’ recorded a successful outing and is still doing well in the book market, and here you have already released another book, ‘Vaults of Secrets’, a collection of short stories. Interestingly, you decided to release it on October 1st when Nigeria celebrated its 60th Independence Anniversary. But unlike your first offering, this time you released your work at a time when the coronavirus pandemic has limited gatherings and forced many authors to launch virtually. How would you describe the experience and how successful was it?

I am really not an apostle of holding public launch of literary work. I feel public launch is just an opportunity for people to make promises they do not intend to fulfil. I have seen instances when supposedly responsible people announce donations at public presentations of books and never redeem them. Meanwhile, the attendees would have gone home with the impression that the authors have made millions of naira. There are other instances where the authors would chase the big men for months before getting them to redeem the pledges, so I have never believed in holding public presentations for my books. I did not hold one for ‘In The Name of Our Father’ and neither planned to have one for ‘Vaults of Secrets’, pandemic or no pandemic. What I prefer are book readings and discussions with book clubs and the like. I also do private presentations for individuals I believe can pick several copies for donations to students in tertiary institutions.

But, of course, the pandemic did not allow me plan any reading for ‘Vaults of Secrets’ official release on October 1. I had a discussion around the book on Instagram Live with Ijeona Ucheibe of the BagusNg and I thoroughly enjoyed  it, especially the fact that it was held in Pidgin English, which more people in Nigeria understand than Queen’s English.

What did it take to write ‘Vaults of Secrets’? Can you share about your writing journey?

What eventually became the collection of short stories called ‘Vaults of Secrets’ was an attempt to write a second novel about three politically exposed individuals who found themselves in prison for treasonable felony and decided to keep diaries to record how they got to the prison and what was happening to them. That started in late 2017.

I wrote voraciously every day for months. Sometime in 2018 after writing about 53,000 words, I was not convinced that the diaries had been well-put together to make a novel. I felt something was missing. I left it and started working on another manuscript. A year or so later, I went back to it and was convinced the diaries would work better as a collection of short stories so I started dismantling them so that they could work as individual stories. I had to do more work to breathe life into each of the three characters. I added some other stories that had nothing to do with prison and I also reworked a story that I had intended to be part of a novel but was advised to take out. Eventually, I had eleven stories, which I turned in to my editor, Femi Ayodele. His editing was brutal and he asked the right questions, which eventually helped to make the stories better. He rejected one of the stories. I agreed with him and allowed the story to die out of the collection. However, I went back to it later and totally turned it around but it was late for this collection. My publisher, Azafi Omoluabi-Ogosi, did the second editing and made valuable contributions. So, if you like the book, two factors are responsible: I poured my heart into writing the stories and we polished them until we felt we were wasting the polish we were applying to make them sparkle.

Your short stories are layered with intriguing sub-plots. Does this happen organically or is it a favourite pattern of yours?

A friend, who is also a novelist, once remarked that I seem to have a talent for sub-plots. However, I will be a liar if I tell you I have a pattern of ensuring my stories are layered with sub-plots. I must add that I enjoy reading intriguing plots so maybe I look out for intrigues so as to make the reader to keep turning the pages.

Even when I look out for intrigues, I will also play safe by saying there are times when this pattern of layering stories with sub-plots happens more organically. At times, I think some stories even hijack themselves from me and decide the directions they want to follow. There were those I was writing and something would happen and I would incorporate those things. In such a situation, you cannot claim to have a favourite pattern. The best I can say is that it may be innate.

Some of your minor characters are so interesting that one wonders why they didn’t play a much bigger role. A typical example is Nonso who is the boss of the main character in ‘This Special Gift’. Are you ever tempted to do more with such characters?

Nonso is a character many people can relate with, either because they have had dealings with his like or they have heard about him. I was not tempted to do more with Nonso because doing so would have disrupted the essence of the story in the first place, which was to talk about someone’s rare gift. Incidentally, Nonso’s story was yanked off another manuscript because after an assessment by a world-renowned novelist and associate professor of literature, I had no choice but to take it out as one of the distractions in my novel-in-progress. Maybe, just maybe, I may one day return to minor characters like Nonso and make them play a much bigger role. But I simply obeyed the muse while writing ‘Vaults of Secrets’ and the command I had was to make them minor but interesting.

From your two books so far, it’s apparent you have a burden when it comes to how Christian clerics conduct themselves, or is this simply a coincidence?

I am a Christian by choice and it pains me that so many are on the pulpits soiling our Father’s name, so subconsciously these clerics return to my work from time to time. The question many asked me after ‘In the Name of Our Father’ was published was whether pastors had attacked me and my response was a capital no because genuine pastors know that there are fraudulent characters using the pulpit not to the glory of God. I know at least three pastors who read the book and told me it was good.

I certainly am not out to fight anyone but to let our people know that we do not need prayer contractors masquerading as clerics to get to Jesus. We all have mouths and can pray and God in His infinite mercy will listen. So many of us have sublet our lives to them and we cannot take any major decision without them.

Incest, rape and abuse of minors by step-parents is no longer news in Nigeria and even across the world. You took matters into your own hands, albeit in a different way in ‘My Mother’s Father is My Father’. What was the particular trigger for this story?

I really cannot remember the trigger for ‘My Mother’s Father is my Father’ other than my subconscious rebelling against the evil of incest and its cousin, rape and abuse of minors. I am sure I will forever be baffled about what an adult enjoys in having carnal knowledge of a minor or a father enjoys in sleeping with his own daughter. Kaduna and Ekiti governments have strict laws to deal with the menace and I hope they are diligently implemented. Whatever misgiving about the laws should be addressed and efforts should be geared towards ensuring the implementation of the generally-acceptable punishment for these animals in human skin.

You build a character like Omoniyi in ‘When Truth Lies’ and, although dead, use back story to make readers feel the loss his wife experiences by showing how opinionated he was and his views about Nigeria, its politics, romance with corruption and so on. Do you have some of these layers in your stories all mapped out or do you write off the seat of your trousers?

I like stories built around characters that are dead as at the time stories are taking off. I like stories built around tragedies from the get go. These two must have been at the back of my mind while conceptualising this story. For stories like this, back stories are inevitable since the person you are writing about is already dead. Let me also confess that the back stories are also my clever way of voicing opinions about matters in my country, where the more things change, the more they remain the same.

All in all, that story was an attempt by me to write a story in which every reader takes part in concluding the story. I did not want a definitive ending. I wanted every reader to ask questions and come to their own conclusion about Omoniyi and his lookalike. If you like, you can conclude that they are twins separated at birth; if it suits you, you can say it is a case of doppelganger; and if you like, you can say it is all about faking death or something like that.

What are you working on at the moment and how soon should readers expect something new?

I am conceptualising a novel around the amalgamation of Nigeria. It is going to span 1914 to 2014. I am still working out the details and will start writing when it is fully formed. I am acquiring and reading books about that era so as to be able to get the atmospherics and other details correctly.

However, I have concluded writing what will most likely be my second novel. I first wrote it in third person but after assessment by a friend, I agreed with him that more impact will be made if the two women involved narrate their experiences from their own point of view. It is being edited at the moment. I cannot say how soon readers will have access to it. It may be two years or more because we are still at the early stage of edits and, rushing a literary work, especially the editing process, is something I will never encourage.

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