Prof. Okey Ndibe is such a pleasant personality and soul. All I needed to track down the amiable and admirable gentleman who writes wondrously and speaks sumptuously for this detailed interview on writing and more was just a text message. He got back to me barely 48 hours later – apologising for ‘abandoning’ his messages for sometime and again availing me his diary, and asking me to choose my preferred date and time.
Ultimately, we settled for Friday, April 16, 2021 and between the hours of 8 and 9pm. The result of that rare and riveting encounter with the highly acclaimed scholar, writer and author of great books like Foreign Gods Inc, Arrows of Rain, Never Look an American in the Eye, The Man Lives, Flying Turtles, etc is what we have here.
By the way, among the issues discussed and dissected by Ndibe and AZUH ARINZE, Publisher/ Editor-in-Chief, YES INTERNATIONAL! Magazine were writing well, how to cultivate the habit and also have a taste of success as a writer.
My first question would be, what got you interested in writing?
It’s a long story. But I’m going to try and give you the shortened version. I was very fortunate growing up to have parents who insisted that all of us, all their children, they have five of us, must read every day and so I like to play a lot, I like to go hang out with my friends. But in order to earn the right or the privilege, if you like, to go play with my friends, my mother who was a school teacher and a headmistress would insist that I read a book – either a whole book, if it was a small book or that I read a chunk of the book in order to earn the right or privilege; the permission to go play with my friends. At some point, I thought this was hell. But then, they were instilling in me and in my other siblings this requirement, this obligation to read. Ultimately, my parents gave us what I would call a passion for reading, a passion for literature.
So, on my own, I then became; and I have been a life-long voracious reader, as I said. The story of how I turned from a reader to a writer is an interesting transition, which is part of what happened. When I talk about writing, I mean as an author, because I became a journalist in Nigeria by writing. In my last year of secondary school, one day, I had the fancy to write an opinion piece for the Daily Star newspaper, which was a big newspaper in the south eastern part of the country at the time. So, I wrote something in my hand writing, in my long hand and sent it off and one day my father called me and said, ‘Did you send a piece to the Daily Star?’ I actually wanted to deny, because I thought that what happened was perhaps that the newspaper had written my father and said tell your son not to send us his puerile or juvenile pieces; that he can’t write!
So, I was about to deny it, because you know, of course, growing up, we were caned when we behaved badly. But my father said to me that a piece had come out in the day’s Daily Star and that it had my name. At which point I told my father indeed that I had sent the piece to Daily Star and I got a hug! So, rather than the big cane for doing something wrong, I got an embrace from my father. And so this was a very emotional turning point for me to see that writing was good and that I was capable of writing at the level of the newspaper and that it was something that was pleasing to my parents and that I will be rewarded for it and so I continued to send pieces to different papers. So, in the end, I wrote for The Punch, I wrote for The New Nigerian, I wrote several pieces for The National Concord, Abiola’s paper, but I wrote more for the Daily Star. And when I finished my studies – I studied Business Management, at both Yaba College of Technology (Lagos) and IMT (Institute of Management and Technology), Enugu. When I finished, I was invited by Ray Ekpu to be on the editorial board of The Concord. I served with people like Ray Ekpu himself, the late Dele Giwa, Lewis Obi… So, it was an editorial board of really accomplished writers. And I was honoured as a youth corp member to be on that editorial board and the day I finished my youth service, I had four job offers from different newspapers, because I had made a name at this point as a writer. So, the rest is history.
What an interesting story! So, what was the title of the first story ever that you wrote?
Oh my gosh! (Thinks) This was the piece I wrote when I was in secondary school – my last year of secondary school. I can’t remember, I don’t remember the name and sadly the newspaper is defunct and unfortunately we have a poor history of archiving materials, so that piece is lost. In fact, I was in Enugu some years ago and I wanted to know if I could go to the paper and find that piece, because I would have wanted to read the piece that I wrote as a secondary school kid. But since I can’t remember the title of the first piece I wrote, I’m gonna tell you a story of the first major assignment I did as a journalist, as an official journalist. When I finished my youth service, at The Concord, I was hired by African Concord or Concord Weekly, as it was called at one point. Which was the weekly magazine of The Concord Newspapers and Lewis Obi was my editor. Before I started the job, I visited a friend of mine in Ogidi (Anambra State) and I was raving to her about Chinua Achebe; I said I wished that I was from Ogidi, so that I will say that Chinua Achebe was intimately related to me in some way and so this young woman had a bright smile on her face and she said to me, ‘Do you know that Achebe is my uncle?’ I thought she was joking. I said you don’t mean it! And she said he is. And she said his house is around the corner from my house and she told me that he happened to be home from UNN (University of Nigeria Nsukka) where Achebe was a professor at the time and asked, ‘Would you want to go meet him?’ So, she took me to Chinua Achebe’s home and Achebe was just wonderful and gracious. I remember he offered me a bottle of Coca-Cola and some biscuits. And so I told the man I had just finished my youth service, I had been hired by The Concord Group to work on their magazine and that I would like to interview him. He gave me his telephone number at Nsukka and said whenever you are ready, I will give you an interview. So, when I resumed at The Concord, as a full time journalist now, I told Lewis Obi that I had met Chinua Achebe and he had agreed to give me an interview whenever I wanted. So, Lewis said that’s gonna be your first assignment. So, I was sent to Enugu to spend about a week, go to Nsukka and interview Chinua Achebe. And so Achebe and I met at his office, at UNN and for almost three hours I asked him questions. I returned to Enugu where I was staying at Hotel Presidential. Some of my friends in Enugu came to my hotel room and they wanted to hear Achebe’s voice and so I brought out my tape recorder since I was the one who had that voice. And so I pressed play and there was silence! I put in another tape, I pressed play and there was silence. So, I had interviewed Achebe for close to three hours, but got nothing! The tape recorder had malfunctioned! And so I had to call Achebe in panic and when I got him, I said, ‘Please, I’m sorry I wasted your time. Just give me 25 minutes let me return tomorrow and do a 25-minute interview.
But Achebe was such a generous and gracious man. He said to me, ‘I’m busy tomorrow, but if you can come the day after tomorrow, I will give you as much time as you wanted.’ So, two days later, I returned to do a second interview with Achebe and I went, I borrowed three tape recorders for that encounter to avoid a repeat.
Wow! Yet another interesting story. We are still going to come back Achebe. Now, to write well, what must one do?
What I tell students and what I tell any writer, any person who really takes writing seriously, is first of all, be a good reader. For me, it’s actually inconceivable that you could be a good writer if you don’t read and so, sometimes when I encounter young people, whether it’s in America or in Nigeria, who tell me that they want to be writers, I say what are your favourite books? Or tell me the interesting books you’ve read in the last six months. And some of them just stare at me. They haven’t read, and I say to them, you can’t distinguish yourself at any rate as a writer unless you read. Because reading, in a lot of ways, is part of the raw material that you use – you have to have a good story to tell. So, what I tell potential or would-be or budding writers is to form the habit of reading, to be passionate about reading. When you read, you find where the competition is. So, you take a measure of the competition and you then know what it must take for you to either meet their standard or indeed to excel and to exceed their standard. That’s one.
The other thing is to recognize that you can’t settle for the first sentence that comes to your head; that writing is an art and it’s a craft. That what you do with stories begins at that level, at the granular level of the sentence. There’s a chiseling that has to happen. So, you chisel the sentence so that it becomes, it begins to sing. It acquires resonance, it becomes poetry and then you go to the next sentence. And this same kind of wrestling with your material is what you do with the entire story; that’s part of what you get when you read a lot. It’s more like the process of osmosis; almost through an osmotic process. You sort of imbibe the technology that great writers have used to tell their stories. So, these two things are important – to read a lot and when you write, not to settle for the first mediocre sentence that comes to you or to settle for the first, perhaps merely competent draft of the story that you are able to do.
Revision is also critical. So, those are the different tips that I give to budding writers.
To have a taste of success as a writer, what must one do?
It depends on how you define success. There are some people who want to go into writing to make money. So, when I encounter such people, I say to them, find a trade, leave writing because writing is not guaranteed at all to make you money. So, if money is your thing, find something to buy and sell.
But, for me, to be a writer is a passionate vocation. It is for you to say to the world, the republic of letters is impoverished and will remain impoverished unless and until it receives your own offering that you are adding to this great harvest of stories, of writings, out there.
So, you have to believe that your story is essential. And so, when you write at your best level, then you become successful as far as I’m concerned. So, money is not it, prices are not it. Much as some writers are very fortunate and make a lot of money from writing, and some writers are very fortunate and get a lot of prizes, but if you look at literature itself, there are writers who got prizes and who became forgettable; writers who got a lot of money at one point and nobody would want to read them one or two years down the line, because their writing perhaps served puff that was the flavor of the moment. So, a lot of people went for it. But once there’s that satiation, people just move on because you know, this becomes tasteless, if you like. But there are writers who come to fame years after their own death. There are writers who are discovered many years after they’ve written a work of genius. One of the stories I tell my students to illustrate this point is of a novel called A Confederacy of Dunces. It’s a novel written by an American writer from Louisiana; John Kennedy Toole was his name. He finished this novel, he sent it out to twenty-something publishers and all of them rejected the manuscript. He was wrestling with other kinds of demons in his life and he committed suicide. His mother was cleaning out his room and saw this manuscript, that the son had written. And she sat down and read it. And the woman was so impressed by the power of what her son had written that she began to disturb the great American writer then, Walker Percy. She wanted him to read this book by her son. He was trying to sort of send her away, but she kept bothering him. So, finally, he said okay, I’m going to read this book, this manuscript. But the first moment when it bores me, I’m gonna throw it away and I don’t want you to come harass me anymore. So, she agreed. This guy read the manuscript and was blown away by its power and he then sent it to his publishers who published it and it became the first novel in America’s history to win the Pulitzer prize post-humously. So, I tell writers, this is a book, this is a manuscript that twenty-plus professional publishers rejected! It took a lay person, a lay reader, his mother to recognize the power of it. So, when people say success, there are mediocre novels and poetry and drama published every day. In the end, the longevity of work, the way that it speaks to readers across different epochs will determine its relevance and its staying power and so when we talk about success, that’s the way I look at success. Is your work gonna endure and is it gonna speak to people beyond the present age of its composition?
What is the commonest mistake that most writers make?
I think that the commonest mistake that a lot of writers make, and especially the new, inexperienced writers, is to think that it’s easy. A few years ago, there was some debate by some misguided Nigerians who were saying that Chinua Achebe was not a good writer, because they read Things Fall Apart and then the opening, the language… I mean, Things Fall Apart begins: Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond. His fame rested on solid personal achievements. As a young man of 18, he had brought honour to his village by throwing Amalinze, the cat, down. Amalinze was a great wrestler who for seven years was unbeaten from Umuofia to Mbano. He was called the cat because his back will never touch the earth. It was this man that Okonkwo threw down in a fight which the old men agreed was one of the fiercest since the founder of their town engaged the spirit of the wild for seven days and seven nights. So, this is the most lyrical, but also assessible writer. But people who do not understand writing dismiss it. So, I will say technically that the biggest mistake that some writers make is to think that if it looks organic, it reads the way people talk, that it’s assessible on the first surface level, that it’s poor writing. And so there’s this attempt by some people to become pretentious and to be inorganic and to obfuscate in their writing and they think that, that is profundity and I think that that’s a big mistake that a lot of writers make. The other mistake is to settle for the first sentence that comes to them or for the first draft that comes their way.
What are the necessary ingredients needed to cook a good story?
Hmmm! I think that the story has to have dilatations. The first thing that you have to recognize as a writer is that your job is not to feed whatever you like to readers; that you have to enchant readers.
So, I’ll say that literature is an art of enchantment. You have to seduce your readers, and the way you seduce your readers is with just beautiful language and a beautiful voice. All of us have great stories in us. But there are friends, there are particular friends that we have who when they say you don’t believe what happened yesterday, everybody shuts up because you know this person is a great story teller. And it could be that several, ten of you saw the same event. But everybody says, you, tell the story because this person is a great story teller. So, the shaping of a story is important. The aesthetic; the aesthetic ingredients are essential.
So, once you get that done, once you understand that, even when you are telling a reader a tragic story, you tell the story in a way that makes the reader want to listen to it; it’s not like some sort of the What’sApp culture that we have where you get sent videos of beheaded people and so on and so forth. When you are telling a story, even when there’s tragedy in the story, it’s a human and complex story. It’s not all tragedy, there’s humour there, there are lessons there, so that it’s not just the darkness that you admire in the darkness.
So, once you get those aesthetic aspect of the story done, I think that ultimately the story falls or stands on the strength of what I will call, the gravitas. It has to have certain heft to it, it has to be something that provokes thinking. I, personally, I’m not interested in puff, I’m not interested in candy. I want a little bit of bitter, I like bitter-kola a little bit, because it has a complex taste. So, it distills different complex notes in your tongue and in your sensibility, when you need a well done story.
What excites you most about being a writer?
What excites me is the ability, which musicians do best – the ability to touch another soul. In a lot of ways, as an artist, I’m envious of musicians. The art form that I would have found most congenial is music, because you could be in any culture. You could go to China and you don’t speak a word of Chinese or you could go to Germany and you don’t speak any German and then they put on good music and you can’t help, you start either shaking your head or stamping your feet or swaying your shoulders and so on and so forth. So, that ability, a writer also has it. But a writer has it in a different way. A writer makes you enter into his universe – the imaginative universe he’s created, which is a universe where there are moral contestations happening. And what the writer does is to make you, the reader, invested in this moral drama that he’s staging. And so, if at the end of a story or at the end of reading a novel, or at the end of reading a memoir, you feel that I have been spoken to, that this writer has sent me a love letter, that’s the most beautiful thing that I get as a writer.
And especially when it comes from readers who have read your work and they say wow! It took my breath away.
What don’t you like about being a writer?
First of all, I like everything about being a writer. I will do it again if I had a million lives to live.
Maybe if I have a billion and one lives to live, then I might change and become a palm wine tapper or something. But what I don’t like about writing, so to say, is that once your book is published, there’s a certain finality to that. So, you’ve made a complete statement and it’s final. You’ve sent it out to the world. I’m a perfectionist, which is why I find it difficult to read my books, because when I start reading my own books, I say I should have weaved it in this sentence, I should have used a different kind of method, I should have used a different word here, I should have cut this one and so on and so forth. So, I’m very punishing of myself, even when I write my columns. Sometimes if I re-read my column, I rewrite the entire thing because I’m not happy with the way it comes out. And even when I’m happy with the piece of work, I sleep over it and I wake up in the morning, I feel oh, this is terrible and then I start all over. And so that’s why it typically takes me a long time to finish a work because when I sit down to do new writing, I read what I had written yesterday and I end up just re-writing the whole thing. And then I’m happy, until tomorrow, I read it again… So, my writing process is extremely, extremely slow and when I encounter writers; I mean, there are writers who have great momentum. The late Nedir Ne Demek was one. She will write a novel in a few weeks. But she also told the story that let the story gested in her mind, so that she’s thinking about everything – the character, the plots and so on. Even what characters say to one another. So, when she sits down to write it, she’s thought about it for several years and so it’s almost a process of transcribing what’s already complete in her brain. And there are writers who have written – Nuruddin Farah wrote what I consider his best work, From a Crooked Rib; he wrote it in a month! It takes me typically four years to five years to finish a novel. So, I don’t have that force.
What is the greatest thing that being a writer has done for you?
Being a writer, the greatest thing by far, is again to bring me friends from all over the world. Friends from all over the world! I’ve always been gregarious, I’ve always been greedy for friendship and so wherever I travel… I mean, I went to Italy to speak at a conference and a group of students came to me and said excuse me, you look like Okey Ndibe. I said yes, I am. They say oh, we read your novel, oh, we love it. I receive emails… I just received an email two days from somebody in Canada and she said that she decided to read one book by an author from every country in the world and she picked up my memoir from Nigeria and she said oh, she was enjoying it so much, she was on chapter four, she just wanted to write to me and say how much she was enjoying it and she said I had made her want to be a writer. So, for me, that is far more than giving me a billion Dollars, trust me. So, that friendship that you get, and again touching somebody’s soul and enlarging it is the biggest gift that writing has brought to me. And I travel, I travel a lot. I’ve always loved traveling and I tell people that I live a dream because I get invitations all over the world to come talk about literature and it’s a blessing.
What would you have wanted writing to do for you that it hasn’t done yet?
I can’t think of any. Really! I can’t think of any. To bring me more readers. Somehow, my books have not been as widely translated in other languages as I would like and there’s a history to that, which makes me sad, because it could have been different. But the two times that I sold novels, I sold them without an agent and so, you need an agent to sell your works. So, both of my novels have done exceedingly well. But I sold them without an agent and it takes agents to sell your work in different languages. So, that’s a lesson I’ve learnt. Luckily, I’m finishing work as we speak on editing a novel that I finished late last year and so, one of the expectations that I’ve told an agent that I’ve spoken to is that I want to be able to sell a lot of rights. So, I would say that that’s the one thing… But again, I tell people that writing is a long race. So, if you look at somebody like Dan Brown; Dan Brown who wrote Da Vinci Code had written two or so novels before Da Vinci Code, which didn’t sell much. But Da Vinci Code sold in excess of twenty million copies and then the other novels which hadn’t sold much now sold a million or two million each. And so, the way I look at it is to keep writing. Don’t focus too much on whether this book has done well or whether it’s giving you the quality of readers that you would like, which in my case, I want all the world as my readers. But the important thing is to keep writing. Sometimes it’s after you pass on that people say wow! This novel is amazing and everybody starts reading it.
So, part of the fame that comes from writing comes accidentally. There are hundreds of thousands of people who if they see a book in Obama’s hand would go and buy the book. Okay! Obama is photographed with the book, they go and buy the book. So, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a good book or not, people who love Obama, and who want to read what he’s reading will do that. There are stars, Hollywood stars, musicians in the world who if they hold up your book, or they talk about your book, you become a bestseller. Anyway, I don’t worry about all those things. What I worry about is to do excellent work so that whatever literature is important; if somebody presents your novel, nobody holds their nose in disgust.
Prof, who is your favourite writer or author and why? Just one person.
I’m going to tell you why I won’t say – and the reason I won’t say that is because I have favourite for different reasons. Everybody knows that I had a special relationship with Chinua Achebe and I have read Things Fall Apart so many times that I can quote all parts of it and whenever I read it, I learn something new. So, I could say Chinua Achebe. Right? But then those who know me also know I have a special relationship with Wole Soyinka and Soyinka has done so much for me and Soyinka has been so generous. Not just in what our people think of generosity, but in terms of his ethical and moral examples, and also in terms of his courage. So, when I read his prison memoir, The Man Died, and Soyinka says the man dies in all who keep silent in the face of tyranny and elsewhere in the book he says justice is the first condition of humanity. Those have become my guiding ethical light. So, I could say Wole Soyinka. Now, Ngugi Wa’Thiongo, for me, is a total writer and again I’m very close to him. He’s very generous to me. Ngugi is a writer who has excelled in so many different fields – in fiction, in the memoir, in poetry, even in music, in drama and he’s just a terrific person to know and to talk with. Whenever he and I attend a conference, we spend hours over breakfast, maybe spend two or three hours at breakfast, talking.
For me, it’s the biggest gift to just be in the presence of Ngugi. So, I could say Ngugi Wa Thiongo. I could say Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whose novel, A Hundred Years of Solitude, just taught me a different way of telling stories. I could say Shakespeare, I could go on and on. There are so many different authors that I could name. So, I’m just gonna say different authors mean so much to me.
Before the legendary Prof. Chinua Achebe died, you were quite close to him. What was the greatest lesson you learnt from him?
Achebe was real and organic. Achebe did not have two faces, so that when you are in private with him you saw one face and when he came out in public it was another.
Achebe was a totally organic man, so that when you read his work, the way that Achebe wrote his books is the way he spoke and he spoke out of conviction. He didn’t sit down and say okay, let me dazzle people and give them the impression that I’m an extraordinary intellectual. Because as Achebe said to me in one interview, that real expertise lies in being able to talk about the subject that you are an expert in, in such language that even lay people will understand you. That’s real expertise – and that means a lot to me. That, my writing has not achieved or that level of ‘Acheberian’ ethic of absolute accessibility and that’s what I’m straining for. I have friends who want to strain for difficult and they think if people read my book and they don’t understand it, then I’m big, I’m important. Achebe had a different ethic and so, just to be a real human, without pretensions, without airs and yet being self-possessed, knowing yourself, I think that’s what Achebe gave to me, above all.
You are also quite close to our Nobel Laureate, Prof. Wole Soyinka. What would you also say has been the greatest lesson you learnt from him?
The greatest lesson I have learnt from Soyinka is his humanity. His humanity and his courage. It’s become fashionable today, for young people to be critical of Wole Soyinka, to say hey, Buhari did something, you have not spoken. Why haven’t you spoken? And what I say to them is that Wole Soyinka in his late 20’s, in his early 30’s, had done things that our fathers did not dream of doing, and so when young people who are in their 20’s and 30’s and 40’s are saying to Soyinka, go and do more, we didn’t see you at a really against Buhari, you are a traitor and meanwhile they are sitting as they are writing this in a joint and drinking their beer and ‘chopping’ their pepper soup, I say please, go and live first. Go and do a fraction of what Soyinka has done before you criticize him. So, his moral courage for me stands out. And also, people don’t know this about him – he’s a very private person, even though he takes on so many public roles. Soyinka essentially likes his wine and his good food and just a tight company of perhaps fellow writers. That’s what gives him the greatest joy. So, to be in that circle and to see how many writers Soyinka has helped without making any noise about it – even my career; the publication of my first novel, Soyinka found out that Heinmann UK was considering the novel, he said do you have an address for them? He sent them a letter, saying you will regret it if you don’t publish this young man, because it’s been awhile, he says, since I’ve sensed creative promise on this level. I met him at the university where he gave a talk, during Abacha’s regime. He was on exile and I had taken my manuscript to him to read. But when I got there, I felt a sense of guilt, I said this man is on exile, for the second time in his life, he’s traveling around the world, denouncing Abacha and so on and I’m gonna foist my novel on him. So, I said no, I’m not gonna do it. But when he finished talking and I went to him, he said ah, Okey, you came? He hugged me and he said one of your professors told me that you’ve written a fascinating novel. Can I get to read it? I said oh, I happen to have a copy in my car. He said no, don’t give it to me here. Send it to Emory University (in Atlanta, USA). I sent it to Emory University. On Christmas day, Soyinka called me and said, Okey, I’ve finished reading your novel, your manuscript. He said this is highly evocative, and he said I’m calling to congratulate you. That level of generosity…because he was drawn everywhere. He was in Australia today, in France the next day, in Germany the next day, in South Africa, speaking about Abacha. So, for him to find time, and he’s not just done this for me, he’s done this for so many people. There’s a young woman that he spoke to me about – that he’s been mentoring and just yesterday she told me she’s got full scholarship to come do her MFA at a university in the U.S. So, the man’s generosity is amazing.
What stands Okey Ndibe out as a writer?
Oh boy! I would leave that for the scholars who study my works. I don’t want to jump in and sort of prejudice that conversation. But I can tell you what I try to do – what I try to do is to write from a place of organicity’, that I am a student of Igbo culture, and when I say student, I mean in a literal sense. So, when I go to my home town or when I go to Nigeria… I’m a student of culture. Period! But typically, when I’m my home town, I go to elders and I pay a little school fee to them by giving them a little money as some gift and I sit down with them and I ask them questions and I learn. So, when you sit down with these elders, you find so much that is beautiful and that is poetic, that is elegant about your culture. You find there’s a wellspring of moral values that animated Igbo life and still animates it today. So, that sort of investment, that sort of attempt to chisel this little culture that produced me – a culture that I’m a student in, hopefully, is something that comes through. I was speaking earlier about tragedy and my take on tragedy. So, I tend to be drawn to tragic stories, but I write tragedy out of an Igbo and Nigerian temperament that insists that we have to laugh in the face of horror. I kind of define laughter so that people find my novels very funny even when I’m writing things that are sad and so I don’t know if that distinguishes me, but that’s one element of my writing that I’m particularly fond of.
What puts you off in a story?
What puts me off in a story is when it appears to me that a writer has rushed a work; that there is a good story which a writer has done little or no justice to, or perhaps done grave injustice to, because of the rush, because of indolence, because of the laziness. Sometimes you find a work that in reading it you recognize the great potential in that story, but that potential has not been served by the writer. That there’s a dissection between a great voice, a great narrative voice and also a kind of energy in the story itself. You are hearing a great story, but the story is enlivened by the beauty of language. That keeps me riveted and I like that in the rare writers. So, there are a few novels that I’ve read in one day, because truly, you can’t leave them. I mean, you are called to come and eat, you don’t want to leave the story to go and eat. You almost feel like you need the permission of the author to say okay, can I keep this story down for a minute and go and eat food and come back? And usually, there are writers who have beautiful tonnes of phrases and also are telling you a story that in the end enlarges you. So, you read a story and you wake up and say I’m a different person because I read that story.
Now, of all the books you have read, which one has left the most indelible mark and why?
Hmmmm! You see, I think you are sneaking back the question you wanted me to answer before, which I deflected. So, I’m going to tell you that Gilgamesh, I’m gonna tell you that Things Fall Apart, The Man Died, Mating Birds by Lewis Nkosi, A Grain of Wheat by Ngugu Wa Thiongo, The Hermit by Shakespeare… These are stories that have touched me deeply. And then a lot more.
What would be your advice to upcoming writers?
So, my advice is read, try and read a lot, make a point of reading. Reading is essential. The other thing is make no excuses, write! I meet some people and they say to me I want to write a book and I say write that book! There’s nobody, no commission in the world, that gives people permission to go and start writing. You write without permission. So, I’m saying that there’s no tribunal that gives permission to people to write or withhold permission from writing. There are governments that don’t want their citizens to write unless they are commissioned to write some sort of hagiographies of the leaders, of the rulers and so on. But often, I just tell young people, be sure that what you want to do is not an act of vanity, that you are ready, that you have an important story to tell and every human being has at least one; but often several important stories to tell. So, I say once you have that sense, that you have an important story to tell, go ahead and tell it. But be sure that you have the equipment to tell the story – and one way of having the equipment, I can’t emphasize this enough, is to have a passion for reading. If you don’t read, I’m afraid, you are not gonna be much of a writer.
How soon should we expect another book from you?
Okay, in a lot of ways, it’s out of my hands. But I just finished a novel in August of last year. Actually, I have been re-writing and re-editing that novel since August. I’m very close, I think I’m within a week or two of finishing with the edit. Then, I will send it out to my agent, who would then try to sell it to publishers and so, hopefully, very soon. In the next year or so. People should know that it takes between a year and a year and a half, after publishers acquire a book, for them to bring it out. So, when I tell people I’m finishing a novel, they think oh, so, in a month it’s gonna be out? I say no! The earliest would be at least a year. A year to a year and a half. But then, the good thing is that I have other things that I’m working on. But for my Nigerian readers, finally, Bookcraft, which has published my second novel, Foreign Gods Inc. as well as my memoir, Never Look An American in The Eye, and the original publishers of my book on Wole Soyinka called The Man Lives – A Conversation with Wole Soyinka on Life, Literature and Politics. So, Bookcraft is in the process of publishing my very first novel, Arrows of Rain, which is my favourite book. It’s been missing in Nigeria. It was originally published by Heinemann in the UK. It became their bestselling novel in 12 years, but it’s never really come into Nigeria in any substantial way. Just a few copies here and there. But finally, Bookcraft is about to do an edition for Nigeria. So, they should be going to press within the next two weeks. I’m actually just reading the proofs, which they sent to me to make sure there are no mistakes. It looked beautiful, just the cover design and so on. And so, that book should be in bookstores soon. Then, I’m also thinking to come to Nigeria, later in the summer, to maybe do a book tour, once that book is available, featuring my book on Wole Soyinka and my first novel, which is coming out in Nigeria for the first time.
You omitted the title or working title of the new book. Do you mind sharing that with us?
That’s actually something strange. Usually, when I start a novel, I know the title. So, my first novel, I knew it was Arrows of Rain. My second novel, I knew it was Foreign Gods Inc. My memoir had a different working title. In fact, my publisher suggested Never Look An American in the Eye. This book has been so complex for me – when I started it, I gave it a working title – Native Tongues. Because I had a certain conception of the story. From that conception, the story took me in a different direction. I have been wrestling with so many different titles, but for now, the working title that I have given it is Art Written on Water. But I don’t like it. So, it’s most likely going to change. But it’s just something to keep me going so that I can finish the edit.