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‘Why I’m publishing a short story collection after 12 novels’

Congratulations on the publication of your latest book, ‘Keepers of the Tribe’. It is your 11th book. So how do you feel bringing out the…

Congratulations on the publication of your latest book, ‘Keepers of the Tribe’. It is your 11th book. So how do you feel bringing out the book?

Every book is different. And every story has its own peculiarities and this is my first short story collection because in the last few years I have been publishing short stories in newspapers and in journals and have been thinking that one of this days I will publish a collection. Today, I have over 30 short stories and said let me take a stand and come out with a short story collection. I sent out the 30 stories to my publishers, Nelson Publishers, who published ‘Tenants of the House’ and they selected the 15 stories that have gone into this collection.

Why were your publishers the ones who selected the stories to go into the collection instead of you?

I think over the years I have learnt to allow my publishers to take over the marketing and publishing part of my works. It is one thing I learnt when I did a creative writing course and we were advised that as writers, we should see the production of a book as a joint venture between so many people; the writer, the editor, the illustrator and the publisher. Right from my first novel, I have allowed my publishers to make decisions. Sometimes they even change the title. I can recall that out of my 10 novels, the titles of five were given by my publishers. They make changes because they think the title is not catchy enough or not suitable to the market and because they have an eye on the market, I let them make the decisions. A writer’s job is finished once he has got the manuscript ready. So even in the selection, some of my favourite stories were left out; I just let them carry on.

Was it difficult letting go of these favourite stories?

Over the years I have learnt to create distance between me and my work to be able to be dispassionate. Perhaps in the early stages of my writing life I was very emotional about what I write. I believed what I had written was cast in stone and shouldn’t be touched but over the years I have seen how editors have improved books.  Sometimes when you look at books produced by Nigerian writers and writers abroad, it is just the editorial input that marks the difference. There is a lot of input from editors which is usually lacking here because publishing houses here don’t have the staff in-house to edit some of these works to the required standards. I have learnt to allow others to have a say so those stories weren’t difficult for me to let go.

So the ones that went into the collection, are they tailored towards a particular theme or are they a selection of the best based on random themes?

I think they are the best they picked. Some of these stories have been published 10 or 18 years ago in journals or newspapers in Nigeria and abroad. For instance there was Short Story International that was published in New York, it was very famous before it went under, they published about 15 of these short stories and the themes ranged from drug trafficking to nepotism in government to military government to love and sometimes it pokes fun at religious charlatans. There was one that I called ‘The Missing Organ’, which was written many years ago when there was an epidemic of people complaining that there organs had suddenly gone missing. I was a medical doctor in full-time practice at the time and I saw many things I felt were being used by tricksters. So I wrote a short story about it and unfortunately, the publishers didn’t pick it as one of the stories that went into the collection.

You have endowed the Abubakar Gimba Short Story Prize and here you are, after 12 novels, publishing your first short story collection. Why didn’t this come earlier?

I think it has to do with Alice Munroe who won the Nobel Prize for Literature a few years ago. If you know the history of the short story, it waxes and wanes. There was a time it was very popular, particularly in 19th century Europe and people followed short story writers like Chekov and the likes and then after a while, maybe because of marketing problem, the short story went out of vogue. And then when Alice Munroe, who is noted for her short stories, with more than 10 short story collections, won the Nobel Prize, people said, wow, I didn’t know there was something good in the short story and people ran back.

Abubakar Gimba was the ANA president when I was the secretary, and even though we followed the trajectory of his illness, we thought he would get away with it. When he died, it was really painful. So I thought of endowing an award in his honour and we looked at the prizes available and discovered there wasn’t any for short story collections. That was why I initiated this prize for short story collections.

It is the most lucrative of the ANA prizes. Why did you feel the need to make it that lucrative?

As writers we need to encourage each other and give ourselves some inducements to keep writing. Inflation will soon catch up with these prizes and that is why I took it on the high side so that in the next five years, it will still be in good stead. It is the same idea behind our decision to give weekly stipends to the Ebedi residents because when we were trying to float the residency programme we invited some of our colleagues who have been on residencies abroad and they told us that all over the place, residencies are not totally free because you are either given free board, free transport and we looked at the situation and said let’s give a little extra to the writer.

How do you recover what you expend on this literary philanthropy? What do you get out of it?

We just discovered that if I have to wait for support from donor agencies, it may never happen. It’s not like the money is there. It’s not, but I just realized I need to do this thing and that is where the idea to put money into these things arose. I make a little money from writing biographies here and there and from other small ventures. I could spend that money to pamper myself but I decided to do this. Because when you hear of fantastic foundations, they were started by people who took off from somewhere. They didn’t wait for someone to help them take off, that is why we decided to kick off from where we are. Sometimes the money doesn’t come but I am lucky because I have friends who are well connected and I call them and say, O’boy, come, this is something we have to work together on, so come and put in something. And I believe that before you can get help, people would like to see how far you have gone.

The Ebedi Residency has been going on for six years now…

Yes, six years and over 70 writers from different African countries have come and what makes me happy is that people who have gone to the residency have given testimony on the kind of works they were able to do while there. We have professors who have come and said, I was able to clear my desk within those six weeks, or I have dusted up my abandoned manuscripts. Interestingly, too, out of the stipends we give, some writers have been able to save and had some little money to start poultry or some small businesses. But most important for me is the mentorship we have been doing for students in the town. That one came by accident. When we started the programme, after the first year, some community elders in Iseyin were saying, look, Dr, you are bringing writers from all over the world to come and enjoy themselves. What is the benefit to our own people here? Initially they were saying out of three writers, we should pick one from Iseyin, and I said, no, we don’t want to water down the standard. One of my friends suggested the idea of mentoring the students and that has been well received. At the end of every mentoring session, we bring these students to present what they have learnt and when their parents and journalists see them, the effects have been dramatic. We have also been doing a lot of networking. We have about seven Ugandan writers who have participated in the residency and surprisingly in April this year, I was invited to Uganda to take part in a writers’ programme. So we are taking this residency to create linkages among writers on the African continent.

But considering the state of the economy and the massive recession we are suffering, how sustainable is the residency?

Yes, we have been working earnestly to source for support from donor agencies and well-meaning people and we hope that our effort will be successful. You are right. Sustainability is a big issue, especially in this economy. But whatever happens, I still believe we are going to continue that residency.

So there won’t be any compromise on the standards or the number of people you will invite?

No, we won’t do that. In fact, sometimes, depending on the number of applications, we stretch ourselves. The usual thing is to have three writers at a time, but if we find that the numbers of applicants are many or we want to encourage some people, we extend to have four writers and so far, we have not lost a month when we didn’t have a writer in residency. The current set are all male and when they finish at the end of this month, we will bring in an all-female set. We are trying to encourage female writers from the north to come. For many reasons, female writers from the north have not been attending because sometimes their parents don’t give them consent or the husband’s don’t give them consent. This year we are encouraged by a massive amount of application from the north and because of that we want to give them four slots in the coming session. 

Speaking of the state of writing in Nigeria and the Association of Nigerian Authors, how relevant would you say ANA still is, considering that there have been conflicts where you had to step in and negotiate peace pacts?

I believe that any writers’ organization is very welcome. Writing is a very lonely profession and can be very frustrating and sometimes not very popular, particularly on the African continent. Writers need that group of like-minded people for help and support and assurance that all is well. And all over Africa, I think it is only Nigeria, Uganda and Ghana that have been able to sustain their writers’ association. Writers, as you know, are very independent-minded people and can be erratic and troublesome and they don’t like being directed to do some things. So putting a group of such people together is not always easy and that is why when we have conflicts in the association, it is not too unusual. And once we step in and calm nerves, you see that writers go back on line. So despite all these challenges, I think ANA is still very relevant because on a daily bases young writers call me asking for guidance or wanting to join the association, showing real passion. That is why I believe all we need is to admonish our members to work on their skills and attend workshops, read, write so they can be relevant. I don’t want people saying they are writers without quality writing to their names. These are some of the things that cause conflict because people feel they are not being recognized but if you ask them what they have been doing, they can’t show it. When I was president, I made it a requirement that every state chapter holds a monthly reading session so that writers can evaluate what they are doing and hopefully generate a body of work.

Unfortunately in many of these states now the reading sessions don’t hold anymore…

Yes, this is unfortunate and I think these should be resuscitated.  We don’t need money to hold monthly readings. I think it is a problem of leadership at the chapter levels. In our days, when we held these readings, all we needed was for someone to buy groundnuts; we shared groundnuts and some fruit juice and exchanged readings. Once in a while we brought in a guest writer from another state to come and share his experience and this went a long way to boost writing.

Talking about being productive as a writer, you are a politician, a medical doctor and a literary activist. You have all these interventions going and yet you are still producing books. How do you manage to do this?

I think the first thing is to have the passion. Once the passion to write is there, then everything else falls in line so that whether you are sick, or hungry, you will write. The second thing is to realise that writing is sacrifice, which could be the hours you spend watching television or the hours you spend seeing your friends, or on social media. As good as these places are, when you put all the hours you spend on them on writing, it is enough for a novel. So you have to have a vision and manage your time. For me if I don’t write for two hours in a day, I believe I haven’t done anything in that day no matter what else I may have done. Even if those two hours are just to correct some of the previous things I have written.

Going back to this book, following on the success of ‘Tenants of the House’, did you feel pressured to write a better book?

Yes, it is always a burden once you bring out a successful book because the society expects you to bring out something better and if one is not careful, he may have a writer’s block. That’s why I pity some of my colleagues who are one-book writers.  I don’t want to mention names so I don’t embarrass them but I usually talk to them when I see them. They write one book and it wins a big prize and the writer is overwhelmed he doesn’t know what to do. That is why I believe it is always good to have more than one manuscript at the same time so that once you are finished with one book, you can go back to the other. I have an outline for a sequel to ‘Tenants of the House’, but I don’t want to start writing until the movie adaptation is out because there might be other areas to improve. Then again, there are books you can’t repeat and ‘Tenants of the House’ is like a gift from God because it surpassed every expectation I had. I wonder if I can repeat that success, which is why I said let us have a diversion. [laughs].

Speaking of literary prizes, the Nobel Prize was recently awarded to Bob Dylan. Any thoughts?

Fantastic decision! I love that decision because creativity is always endless. I know a couple of my friends were angry that the prize went to a singer. I am not a big fan of Dylan but I have listened to some of his songs and for me, I believe that music is the highest form of art because music is the only artistic venture that cuts across social divide and language. The moment the music hits it, the language doesn’t matter, you just jump up and start dancing. And for someone to have put together lyrics for over 50 years that have created fantastic songs, that is creativity. And poetry is music in its own way. I believe Dylan deserves that prize.

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