Thursday, 16 November 2017

How Oke won $100,000 Nigeria Prize for Literature

The Prof Ernest Emenyonu-led four-man panel of judges – Dr Razinatu Mohammed, Tade Ipadeola and Prof Abena Busia – has disclosed why it recommended Ikeogu Oke’s The Heresaid, as winner of this year’s The Nigeria Prize for Literature. Last Monday, Oke was announced winner of the $100,000 prize, Assistant Editor (Arts) OZOLUA UHAKHEME reports. 

This year’s Nigerian Liquefied Natural Gas (NLNG) Literary Prize attracted 184 poetry collections. Of these, 101 entries were disqualified at the initial weeding carried out by the board of assessors.
But, at the final phase, the panel examined the strengths of each of the three books: Ogaga Ifowodo’s
Good Mourning, Tanure Ojaide’s Songs of Myself: Quartet and Ikeogu Oke’s The Heresaid.
To choose the winner was not come easy for the panel. According to the panel, the decision was made after diligent considerations and objective application of the guidelines and criteria. The decision, the panel said, is based on “its apt topicality, relevance, artistic heft and the pursuit of artistic provenance. In a world increasingly threatened by encroaching totalitarianism and even bare-faced tyranny and intolerance, the wit, wisdom and message of the The Heresaid are infinitely crucial.
 
“It is our hope and goal that the kind of vibrancy which we have found in the collections of poetry submitted is a vital evidence that NLNG is making unprecedented difference in the intellectual development of Nigeria and Nigerian today,” it added.

International consultant Abena P. A. Busia, in his report, said: “This has been a surprisingly difficult decision as each collection has very strong merits to recommend it for this prestigious prize. The three volumes, though very different, are the work of three extremely accomplished poets who, in fact, have significant aspects in common. I single out as the most salient of these traits a firm belief in the place of poetry in the service of social justice, and the desire, shared by each of them, to forge a poetic form that can contain the often difficult subject matter of the worlds they interrogate, within their structures. I discuss them here in alphabetical order by author.”

On Oke, he said: “This is a bold and wonderful experiment whose great strength also could have been its great weakness. That Oke manages to create a poem that keeps quite strictly over 100 pages to the lyric pentameter and still holds the attention of the reader is a singular achievement. The experiment in lesser hands could have led to a deadening of the senses. The volume itself is structured on a great conceit; a bold venture in defence of the art of poetry itself. The narrator is a griot narrating a great battle between supporters and detractors in defence of the humanities, and has succeeded in creating a modern epic. The mastery of form is a tour de force exemplary of the dedication to the craft the poem is inscribed to defend. It would have been wonderful if this work had not only been published in print, but had been released with an audio version because, indeed, its singular achievement is its sustaining of narrative that displays the arguments of the contending parties, and yet at the same time keeps so clear the voice of the griot. And we can indeed hear the musicality in the rigor of the lines, and the absoluteness of the rhyming scheme of heroic couplets sustained throughout the work.  In the end, if there must be a choice, my selection goes with this collection for the technical feat it performs. The deciding factor was the inclusion of the music, which I attempted playing and in doing that it brought home to me how very carefully the performativity of this work has been thought through; Oke has made ancient forms new again.”

The other finalists are Ifowodo and  Ojaide.

The Nigeria Prize for Literature has since 2004 rewarded eminent writers, such as Gabriel Okara (co-winner, 2005, poetry), Prof Ezenwa Ohaeto (co-winner, 2005, poetry); Ahmed Yerima (2006, drama) for his classic, Hard Ground;  Mabel Segun (co-winner, 2007, children’s literature) for her collection of short plays Reader’s Theatre; Prof. Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo (co-winner, 2007, children’s literature) with her book, My Cousin Sammy; Kaine Agary (2008, prose); Esiaba Irobi (2010, drama) who clinched the prize posthumously with his book Cemetery Road; Adeleke Adeyemi (2011, children’s literature) with his book The Missing Clock; Chika Unigwe (2012 – prose), with her novel, On Black Sister’s Street; Tade Ipadeola (2013; Poetry) with his collection of poems, Sahara Testaments; Sam Ukala (2014; drama) with Iredi War; and Abubakar Adam Ibrahim (2016, Prose) with Season of Crimson Blossoms.

The Nigeria Prize for Literature rotates yearly among four literary genres: prose fiction, poetry, drama and children’s literature.

Chinua Achebe: Why the Nigerian author is one of the world's most important modern writers


The late Nigerian author Chinua Achebe has been honoured in a Google Doodle, underscoring his status as a towering figure of 20th century literature.

By creating a doodle marking what would have been Achebe’s 87th birthday, the tech giant is celebrating a writer many consider to be father of modern African literature.

Writing amid a post-colonial movement that saw African nations cast off decades of foreign rule and seek political sovereignty, Mr Achebe lent a voice to a generation of Africans who refused to be defined solely through the lenses of European thought.

Part of that work involved telling distinctly African stories from the perspective of African characters, helping to forge a literature that — like newly created countries — was independent from Europe.

Mr Achebe did so across dozens of novels and books of poetry and essays, leading many to refer to him as “the father of modern African literature”. He died in March of 2013 at the age of 82, having collected accolades that included the Man Booker International Prize.

His oeuvre stood in deliberate opposition to works of European literature that cast Africa as a setting and its people as bit players in the central affairs of Western characters. He denounced novelist Joseph Conrad as a “bloody racist” and called Mr Conrad’s novel “Heart of Darkness”, in which a European explorer plunges into a threatening and unfathomable Africa, as “a totally deplorable book”.

In contrast to European works that allowed Africans only minor or one-dimensional roles, Mr Achebe wrote novels that showed Nigerians as complex characters endowed with agency.

His best-known work, “Things Fall Apart,” remains a staple of school curricula. It tells the story of Okonkwo, the proud leader of his village.

The novel depicts the complex customs of the Igbo people, one of multiple ethnic groups in Nigeria with a distinct culture and language. The book portrays how Okonkwo’s world is upended by the appearance of Christian missionaries, and its closing paragraph — written from the perspective of a recently arrived colonial leader — functions as a haunting allusion to how European observers reduce and dismiss complex African cultures:

“He had already chosen the title of the book, after much thought: The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger.”

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Importance of Editing and Reviewing a Manuscript


One of the most common questions I receive is, “Why isn’t my book selling?”  The answer is usually painful to hear.  Avoiding that question altogether lies in tackling another question early in the publishing process, “What will prevent my book from selling?”

Editing is one of the absolute factors that will influence your book sales. The degree to which you personally edit your thoughts and writing, combined with the degree to which you invest in professional editing will ultimately play a large role in developing reader comfort.  A great edit will not ensure your book sells, but it will definitely eliminate one of the largest potential detractors that might prevent book sales.

Some authors decide against getting their books edited.  It takes time, can be expensive, and can be emotionally invasive.  After putting your heart and soul into something, it can be very difficult to hear what needs to be fixed.  By definition, editing is critical, so it’s not at all uncommon to see authors avoid it like the plague.  When I wrote my first book I did not initially have it professionally edited, and it was one of the larger mistakes I made in my first foray into publishing.  I thought that I was saving money and time, but in the end I was mistaken on both counts.  It did not save me time and ended up costing me more in the long run.

The truth of the matter is that even extremely experienced writers have their works professionally edited.   Traditional publishing houses put every book through a minimum of two edits.

Professional editors, like the ones we work with at Black Tower Publishers www.blacktowerpublishers.com.ng , are trained to put their own personal feelings aside and focus on enhancing your work.  There is a significant difference between having a professional do the job and letting a friend edit your book.  Friends have a tendency to be less critical than is helpful.  Although they may have the best intentions, their ability to ensure the essence of your book is conveyed properly generally falls short.

The two questions that are probably on your mind at this point are, “How much editing do I need”, and  “How much is it going to cost?”   Every manuscript is different.  Fortunately there is an inexpensive way to address both questions: a Manuscript Review Analysis.  Black Tower Publishers offers this professional service; designed to help authors know the type of manuscript editing they would need for their manuscript, and they will also review the manuscript and give tips on how to better the manuscript. The last time I checked, they charge about N4,500 for that service. Manuscript Review will help you know what you are doing. They will let you know if your manuscript is ready to be edited and published, or if you have to revisit the manuscript and do some more work on it.

So whether you’re just starting your work or wondering why it isn’t selling the way you would like, it’s always a good time to think about editing.

Happy Publishing!

See Why Every Writer Should Publish Online In Nigeria



Most Nigerian authors have been searching for publishing companies to help them publish their books. They expect the publishing houses to review their manuscripts and then offer them publishing contracts where the publishing house handles the cost of publishing the book. Well, as long as it’s in Nigeria, that might never happen because most publishing houses in Nigeria don’t operate that way. They can only offer contracts to well established writers like Chimamanda, Wole Soyinka or promising up and coming writers like Charles Umerie. These are people they think they can make profit off their books even if it didn’t sell well. Nobody wants to invest their money into an unknown author; and not just that, Nigerian literary business isn’t as hot as that for unknown authors to break the market just like unknown music artists do all the time. That’s the simple truth.
A lot of young authors have figured that too, and they don’t depend on publishing houses to give them contracts. Rather they resort to printing their own books. That’s a totally brave move, but very unwise. Unless you have people requesting your book before you print it, and also have a perfect channel to distribute it after publication, you shouldn’t think of wasting money by printing it.
Well don’t be discouraged by this post because I have an amazing solution on how you can achieve your literary dreams. Have you heard of online publishing? Most people have, but if you haven’t, I think you should really pay attention.
Online publishing can be the answer to the problem young Nigerian authors face today. With online publishing, your book would be available for purchase worldwide! That’s one thing printing your book can’t give you. You can’t distribute it worldwide.
We live in an advanced age, and if you look around, you will notice that printed books are starting to lose value. Everything is read digitally these days. If you go to church, pastors are using iPad as bible. Even newspapers don’t sell that much again! Why purchase bulky papers when you can read them online- for FREE?!
That’s the world we live in, and young writers should adapt too. My advice to them should be they should publish online first. When you publish online, and maybe you are lucky enough to break the internet with your online published work, you will notice how publishing houses would be calling day and night to publish your work because you have proved that your work worth the risk.
Now let’s talk about how you can publish online.
Publishing online is just like printing the book. Both of them are still read. That’s what most online publishers forget. They think since it’s mostly free to publish online, they can treat their work anyhow and put it out for people to see; and still at the same time expecting to sell thousands of it. If you don’t prepare your online work professionally, it will never get anywhere. It would be available to the world, but only to be rejected by the world too.
With my research, it costs about N200,000 to print about 500 copies of your book, and still, most people won’t sell about 50 copies of that book. But do you realize that with just.. let’s say N50,000, you can have your book professionally published online? If you can handle the processes of publishing it yourself, starting from editing the manuscript, formatting it to kindle format or epub, designing the book cover and uploading it online, then you do it yourself. But if you can’t, I suggest you meet a professional to help you do it. There are a few publishing houses that help people publish online at a very cheap rate. Check BLACK TOWER PUBLISHERS NIG  www.blacktowerpublishers.com.ng and contact them.
After your work is available to the world, all you have to do then is promote. As a person, you have friends and families. Share the link to your book to them through Whatsapp, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc, and also ask them to share with their friends and relatives too. Then connect with them and build yourself some fanbase.
There are many platforms to publish your book online. They include Createspace, Amazon Kindle, Smashwords, Lulu, etc. Createspace offers you a chance to publish your work, but it cannot be downloaded and read digitally. What they do is print-on-demand. That is when people order a copy or copies of your book, they print the book and ship to the person. Amazon Kindle can be downloaded digitally, but that is mostly for international sellers. Most African countries (including Nigeria) can’t purchase kindle books on Amazon. But you can still publish there if you still wish sell to international audience that reads mostly kindle books. Then the best one for Nigerians is Okadabooks and Lulu. Okadabooks is easier, and it has over 100,000 readers on their site. Readers can easily purchase your eBook just by recharging their Okadabooks account with airtime. The minimum withdrawal limit on Okadabooks is N10,000, and you can withdraw straight to your local bank account. Lulu offers two options. You can publish it as Print-on-demand or just as ebook.. or even both for the same book! People can easily buy your book with their ATM cards, download the book and then read it on the phone with an ePub reader!
You can visit these sites and find which is best for you! Or contact Black Tower Publishers and request how they can help you publish online.  Good luck!

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

INTERVIEW: Miriam Walker on her debut novel, Overthrown


Some time ago, we had an exclusive interview with Miriam Walker about her upcoming book titled Overthrown. But today, we are proud to announce the book is finally out!

Miriam Walker has a lot to say about Overthrown and has granted many interviews to discuss her inspirations, thought process, and takeaways from the book. By reading this interview, you might be able to get to know Miriam and the book a little more from the interview.

 

We interview Miriam Walker and discuss her debut novel, Overthrown.

On ourprevious interview with you, you promised us Overthrown would be ready this year; and you surely delivered. Now this is your debut novel. How does it feel?

Miriam:  I feel happy and fulfilled; it’s my debut novel after all. After dreaming about it and surmounting all hurdles, it’s finally here!

Some of our readers might not know much about Overthrown. Are you able to tell us a bit about it?

Miriam: Overthrown is a story that delves into the past; it takes readers back in time. It talks about ancient rulers, kingdoms and how people probably lived their lives then. Many events unfold in the book but ultimately, the story revolves round the protagonist, Oroma – who she was and the series of events that played a part in shaping who she became. But I would stop here, it’s up to readers to discover what lies within the book. (*winks and smiles*)

The book is written from the perspective of your narrator, Oroma. Had you always planned to write the novel in this way? 

Miriam: Yes, I had always wanted it to be from her perspective. I did that because I wanted my readers and I to be able to relate with the main character, to see from her perspective, to feel the way she felt. I wanted it to feel like the protagonist was talking to the reader.

Once the decision had been made to use this style, was it a challenge to maintain it, or was it just something you adapted to?

Miriam: Once I decided to write the story from her perspective, it began to flow naturally and easily. So yes, I adapted to it.

Some readers would suggest Wami should have ended up with Oroma after everything. But do you feel he had a bigger role to play as an independent chief than just ending up as Oroma’s husband?

Miriam: Right from the beginning, I always knew Wami and Oroma would not end up together because Oroma had always seen him as a friend and brother, even if he had feelings for her. As some people would say, he had been ‘friend-zoned’. I just knew I wanted him to play a different role aside from marrying her. What I didn’t know initially, was what he would finally be and do in the end.

Let’s not get into the book that much and spoil the fun for future readers. Tell readers what they would expect from Overthrown.

Miriam: Readers should expect some African history and culture, that we may not be too familiar with. And of course, there would be that blend of adventure, action, romance and suspense.

After this, what next? Any plans for another book?

Miriam: Yes, I hope to publish more books after this one but that may be much later. Hopefully one day, Overthrown could be made into a film. For now, I just want people to read it and for as long as possible, ‘reign’.

Final question; do you have any advice for the yet-to-be-published writers on how to get published?

Miriam: First, writers who want to have their works published someday, should write. They should keep on practicing to become better writers without relenting. They should have that passion and desire to write.Secondly, they should always have that dream of having their books published without giving up on it no matter how long it takes. I’ve always wanted to be a writer and publish my book ever since I was a child. Thirdly, they should look out for publishers. The internet has made this easier. In fact, that was how I discovered Black Tower Publishers. After finding publishing companies, they should contact them and send those publishing companies their manuscripts. It doesn’t matter if they are rejected; they should keep on trying until at least one ‘clicks’. Finally, have mentors and role models. Such people are important because they have been on that same road before, so the advice they give could help them in becoming better writers and getting published one day. If they know a published writer personally, it would be a great advantage to them. If not, they could take on a role model that would inspire them. Personally, writers like Elechi Amadi, Chibundu Onuzo and Chimamanda Adichie always inspire me and make me believe that this dream of telling my story and publishing a book really is possible.

That was our interview with young talented Miriam Walker. Her book, Overthrown, was published by Black Tower Publishers, and you can order your copies for schools, libraries, prisons, and other public places. 

Sunday, 22 October 2017

We have sacrificed much for Nigerian writers – BM Dzukogi



BM Dzukogi, writer and literary activist, has again thrown his hat in the race to be elected president of the Association of Nigerian Authors at Next weekend’s convention in Makurdi, Benue State. In this interview, he speaks about what derailed his chances in the last elections, his scathing assessment of the present administration and what he intends to bring to the table and lots more.
 
So, I take it that the ANA house is not ready yet for our practical contribution to the Nigerian literary space at that level. You know how Nigeria works, especially when it comes to elective offices. So much retreat to little enclaves. So many considerations for material, and so little for evident results. Otherwise, how could we have been beaten with our enormous contributions to the development of literature in Nigeria?

You are again contesting for president this year. What makes you think the outcome will be different this time?
You are always hopeful that the result will favour you. If you win, you win. If you lose, you lose. What is important is that, there is always a next time. The next time is here. For me, losing or wining is the same from a sportsman perspective. Our loss, last two years, didn’t affect our productivity. We returned to our Art Centre and did great things that even the national ANA didn’t do. The impact of our initiatives, programmes and book development are evident.

You had a comprehensive manifesto last time. Has this manifesto been updated, what changes have there been in your plans for ANA?
Not much has changed. The only addition is that we now have a national festival of teen authors called NIFESTEENA. Seven or so states participated in the maiden edition this year. We hope to stage the next one in Kaduna. We hope the wife of the governor will take up the challenge of hosting it. If I become the president of ANA, like we exported the Nigerian Writers Series and the national Teen Authorship Scheme there, we shall take this one there too. There is also a programme called Naija Book Hunt and Harvest which is a national book collection activity for onward distribution to schools. Our state chapters should be able to adopt these programmes for a holistic national book development plan we hope to launch in conjunction with state governments.

Everything in the former manifesto is alive. Even some of you who are wining prizes up and down, we shall persuade all of you to establish a national endowment fund for publishing teen authors. Win a prize, give the child-writer small. Simple. Annually, we shall select five states to benefit. By the end of two or four years, we should have introduced new little writers to the scene for which ANA can say, this is what we have done. With all sense of humility, I think we have the ideas that can work. We do not shy away from espousing them publicly because we have more, given the necessary resources. Our central focus shall be on young writers. Adults have their ways.

What is your assessment of ANA in the last two years? How do you think the administration has performed?
Because I think I can do better. I have not seen much from them other than trying to maintain the balance they met. We need adventures. Nobody grows in an atmosphere of mediocrity. We are not ANA president yet, but we have introduced NIFESTEENA that is gathering teen artists around the country for a festival. Who are the sponsors? ANA members and the Niger State government. Now, listen. Because of NIFESTEENA, Akpoveta and another girl from Bayelsa who attended the maiden edition and won trophies got a chance to meet Pa Gabriel Okara and the commissioner of education there. Can you quantify how much morale boosts it is for them, for their art? Our adventure led to that result. The same thing for kids from Kebbi State. This ANA leadership is not adventurous. They seem to be contented with the usual.

Development has begun on the ANA land finally. Is this something that has impressed you or do you think there could have been another way of going about it?
If development has started, that’s great. We all started it. I had to leave because of the book agency we got in Niger. I am happy to hear that it is on. All state chapters should seek to have theirs too. Niger has but left undeveloped.

One of the ANA projects you have been heavily involved with from inception was the Nigerian Writers’ Series. From publishing 10 books in the first series, the second has only three books. How do you think the project has fared?
That’s evidently a backward movement. You don’t need any serious mathematics to know that this is not progress. The first set of books came from the purse of Niger State government. There is no Nigerlite on the list because none qualified for it. We have sacrificed much for Nigerian writers. When the current leadership came on board, I thought they would be magnanimous enough to say Dzukogi, let’s go back to the Niger State government for the continuation of the series and teen authorship scheme. They didn’t. In fact, they sought to ban it. Even to visit Talba, who gave them the money, they didn’t. They should have gone to thank him in Abuja, they didn’t. To come to the current governor to say thank you, this is what the previous governor did, please, could you do the same? They didn’t. They just abandoned me because I contested against them. In Nigeria, an opposition is an enemy. Funny people. Now, they didn’t come to our governor and they didn’t get their governors to do the same. What has the president’s governor done for ANA, that Kogi State governor, since Denja became our leader, what has he done for ANA? It’s only Camilus. He is the one. The business of leading ANA is a bag of volunteerism in which any lack will retard the gains others have achieved in the past.

One of the major challenges of ANA has been funding. Do you think this administration has done enough to raise funding for the association or is there a better way of doing it?
Of course not! If they did, where are the tangible results? Where are the books facilitated? We published 11 books in 2016 alone at the art centre. No state chapter has ever done that. For the past two years that we lost the election, there are three unmatchable feats we have achieved with little funding: the 11 books; NIFESTEENA; and establishing branches of our foundation in states of the federation. Little money can do great things, especially if it is about young people.

Is there any plan you have for improving the Nigerian Writers’ Series?
Sure man! I am not only going back to the Niger State government, we shall position the programme at chapter levels. We shall pool money from organisations, individuals, governments and institutions to build capacities of writers and publish their works. Anything short of fifteen titles annually, forget it. That’s how my colleagues in ANA Niger were showing concern that I was carrying too many bags on my head. I told them that my head is not my head; my mind is my head.

What is it that the mind does not carry? We shall do more for teen authors and young writers. Mine shall be a heavy dose of publishing. Sorry, enough of the old guards. These boys and girls must move to the centre stage. You can only achieve that when you are publishing the good ones en masse. They too would have to bear with the little ones that are sprouting behind. This is growth and development. It’s a movement in the offing, man! A movement has sprouted from Niger State. The movement is unstoppable whether with ANA presidency or not.

You have been instrumental in capacity building for writers, especially among young ones in Niger State. You have mentioned how keen you are to take this to the national level. How do you propose to do this?
I just mentioned them. We shall revive all we did before and push them further. We have the credibility, we have the diplomacy, and we have the heart. What you love to do, what you have interest in, is not a burden. It is all about volunteerism. That’s the unmatchable spirit of our operation and existence. This spirit now lives with many children.

You are a key figure in ANA Niger, the state chapter has suffered serious political crisis recently, some of which, it was said, contributed to you losing the elections last time. What caused these divisions in ANA Niger?
Brother, I am tired of that mess. A stranger came and scattered us. They almost killed our peace. Recounting that s**** is not for me again. We are re-positioning the chapter. Only writing writers would be our members, henceforth. We are drawing up a bye-law. We are making progress. Alhaji Dangana is handling the situation. To be ANA president is not compulsory. It is only a means to accelerate your vision for the writers’ community and Nigeria. Otherwise, we are already achieving a lot in many directions.

Do you think that now you can fully count on the support of ANA Niger at the congress?
Yes.

Speaking of Niger and one of your major achievements, the Niger State Book Development Agency has devolved from a great idea to a typical government agency that hasn’t delivered much in the last two years. What went wrong with that idea?
I think those who are there now lack ideas. They can’t even do a thing to get the attention of government. In fact, they are losing ground. Other agencies have come to snatch away the offices because of their idleness. They have no D.G who will probably talk to the governor directly or use other ways of creating impact. They are just there. They allocate funds annually to the agency but the complaints I get is that the ministry of finance doesn’t release the funds. I think it has more to do with uncreative leadership there. Why is the governor listening to the Art Centre?

Why is the chief of staff listening to our programmes? Why did the former commissioners of education, madam Madugu, and Ramatu of Investment listen to us? The leadership at the book agency must wake up because government has been supporting our adventurous programmes from the Art Centre. The agency is in the right position to get more support than us. Let the leadership of the agency become pro-active.

You mentioned before that you had plans to replicate the Book Development Agency across the states if you become president. How do you intend to achieve this and crucially, if done, how do you hope to sustain it so it doesn’t go the way of the one in Niger?
Through advocacy visits to the state governments and getting a commitment from governors. Katsina State government is planning one right now. If we get governments to do it, are there no writers in the state to sustain them? If you look at that of Niger, it is not that it is dead, it is only in coma. It means it can be revived. But what are the writers there, who are staff of the agency doing? Why are they allowing it to die? Everyone comes to build on what has been established, that’s how society grow. You say that it becomes my sole responsibility to initiate and give it life forever? All the chapters of ANA will have a duty to sustain what is theirs. Our duty shall be to convince governments to have it.

All things considered, what would you say are your chances at the forthcoming elections?
As always; hopeful! It is in their interest to elect me. They are the ones to benefit because we do the thing we say. I am a sportsman. The spirit is dynamic. There shall always be a next time if there is life. But for this one, the hope is even higher than 2015 for the fact that what we have done at the Art Centre in the past two years is an exemplification of the potency of our fertility to be agents of genuine development.

Friday, 13 October 2017

My poetry is a reflection on the intimacy of evil – Ogaga Ifowodo

My poetry is a reflection on the intimacy of evil – Ogaga Ifowodo
Ogaga Ifowodo, (Ph.D) taught poetry at the Texas State University in the US before he took up appointment as the commissioner representing Delta State in the Niger Delta Development Commission, NDDC. The renowned poet and author of several poetry collections is shortlisted for the 2017 NLNG Nigeria Prize for Literature for his collection, A Good Mourning. He speaks about this book, the prize, his detention by the Abacha government and his foray into politics.

What is the sensation like being on the shortlist of the NLNG Nigeria Literature Prize, especially as the announcement of the winner draws nearer?

That I might be the winner - but is that a feeling or sensation? Just that the wait will soon be over, I suppose.

There were criticisms of the longlist for the 2017 NLNG Nigeria Prize for Literature. But the critics have gone silent since the shortlist was announced. Do you think the criticisms were fair to start with?

I never followed the criticisms, which, I understand, were mostly on social media platforms, so I don’t know which might have been valid and which were totally misplaced. At any rate, I’m glad to know that the critics have ceased fire since the shortlist was announced! 

How important is the prize to poets in Nigeria considering how much poetry, as an art, has suffered in the hands of both poets and those who read them?

It is not clear to me how poetry has suffered in the hands of poets themselves, not to mention those who read them, but I’m quite certain that the prize is important to poets as to Nigerian literature in general. Literary prizes are a way of validating writers who, more often than not, labour in obscurity, and sometimes penury. The attention that a prize brings to a writer - and in this instance of the NLNG prize, a poet - becomes by the same token attention to his or her work. And literature, to the extent that it is a socially produced thing and so reflects its society, its world, can be one of the more enduring ways of empowering the poet’s more humane vision of his society. 

Your book, A Good Mourning, plays on an everyday expression but in a wickedly witty manner and the poems in the collection are at once introspective and playful as they tackle serious issues. How hard was it to work this playfulness into the collection?

Considerably hard, because one has to be careful not to let the ludic or playful moments take away from the solemnity of the experiences and thoughts that form the subjects of the poems. In each case, the extent of playfulness was determined by the experience or impulse of the poem in question. I’m afraid this makes it seem very practical, as if one can know, before or even while writing, the precise extent to which humour would be a vehicle of giving fuller expression to the thought or feeling that spawned the poem. I guess the difficulty lies in listening to one’s inner ear and ensuring that any playfulness does not make the poem tone-deaf to its inner or inspiring reality - by which I mean the experience of the poem as grasped and re-presented by the poet. 

What was the inspiration for the collection?

The core poems of the collection are differing instances of my reflections on the intimacy of evil. At the personal level - that is, of the dramatis personae - the title poem, which is about the June 12, 1993 political catastrophe, recalls the tragic drama of betrayal by a friend. I think I more explicitly explore this theme in “A Rwandan Testimony” where a traumatized friend tries to confess to murdering his childhood friend and her two children before an imaginary truth and reconciliation panel but is led to the conclusion that evil or what menaces the world, that which “secretes the slow brooks of bitter blood” resides in an “auxiliary organ hitched to every heart.” This thought began in my mind when I visited the Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1999, as a guest of the German PEN Centre to that year’s international PEN Congress in Warsaw. One of the poems in an anthology of poems written by inmates which I bought there expressed the view that if Auschwitz had been in England, there would have been willing English men and women to do the biddings of (the English version of) Hitler. And, of course, there have been many books on the phenomenon of ordinary, supposedly innocent, citizens as collaborators in the evil of pogroms, ethnic cleansing and other horrendous persecutions of stigmatised groups and communities. Usually, it is a friend, a neighbor, a colleague, who betrays him or herself first, and then humanity. Having published my reflections on the Auschwitz visit in the poem “Where is the World’s Most Infamous Plot?” about four years after, I knew that I would return to that troubling question.  In the result, the tragedy of June 12, 1993, provided the unhappy inspiration for the collection.  

In that regards, how important do you think poetry is to the preservation of memory especially of a struggle like June 12, which you touched on in your collection?

Very, very important. Those who cannot remember the past, the philosopher George Santayana, famously warned, are doomed to repeat it. And closer home, we are all familiar with the aphorism on the importance of knowing “where the rain began to beat us.” Poetry as the literary form that exalts the most in mnemonic devices - repetition, rhyme, rhythm, imagery, not to mention economy of words - is for that reason a perfect vehicle for the preservation of memory. 

How much of a validation would winning this prize be for you?

I can’t say. It will no doubt be quite considerable, considering the growing interest it has been generating, many thanks to the prize money! In a different context, in Europe and America, for instance, a prize like the NLNG Nigeria literature prize would instantly catapult its winner to global literary fame. But that is due to a long-established culture of respect for writers, writing and books - in short, for intellectual labour - with institutions dedicated to promoting its value. 

In Nigeria, unfortunately, the cultural infrastructure to optimise the validation conferred by a prize was not only weak to start with, but is now in total shambles. It is going to require even more interventions that go beyond prizes - radical interventions, for instance, in the educational sector, the book publishing industry and in the revaluation of cultural work - to be able to speak of the true extent of validation conferred by a literary prize in Nigeria. 

You have been known as an activist for many years and were at some point detained by the Abacha government. Was prison life important to your writing life? Has it inspired any works from you?

It has. The poems I wrote in prison are part of my second collection, Madiba. Moreover, excerpts from my detention memoirs, more than half complete, have been published - in the seminal anthology Gathering Seaweed: African Prison Writing, edited by the poet Jack Mapanje; in the New Writing Anthology NW 14, published by Granta in collaboration with the British Council, and on the online platform african-writing.com. It is one of the works-in-progress that I hope to bring to fruition next year.  

We look forward to reading them. What are your thoughts on the state of poetry in Nigeria at present? Do you think the volume of work being produced has the required quality to define a critical period such as this?
I think that poetry is very much alive and well in Nigeria, as well as in any other epoch. It is, of course, the case that the number of books published anywhere and in any genre is never matched by their quality. It is precisely why prizes, among other means, act as literary gate-keepers or arbiters of taste. I liken this to panning for gold: a horde of “miners” and a great deal of dross, but few and far between the lucky instances of gold nuggets!   

Your foray into politics in 2014, aspiring to be a legislator, proved futile. Could you tell us what happened? And from your experience how different would you say poetry and politics are?

Simply, I lost. Because I had no money. When I solicited donations, as little as N10,000, as is done in more respectable climes (though I doubt I can use this word with what happened in the United States of Trump and with Brexit in mind), I was mocked as being unsuitable for the office I sought: “He doesn’t even have a kobo, and he wants to run for the House of Representatives!” What happened was that my opponent, arrested a few days before the primary election by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) on suspicions of being a 419 scammer, was released on the very day of the election and escorted by a police convoy into the arena, with him waving triumphantly to the delegates from the back of a pick-up van. 

On the strength of tall promises of personal rewards in cash and kind - and, as I heard, of even flying some delegates to Dubai - he beat me hands down. Only for him to disappear the very next day. Such that the party leaders summoned me back from the United States where I had gone to lick my wounds to return home so I might be substituted for the victorious flagbearer who, curiously, was never seen nor heard from again, until he learnt of efforts to substitute my name for his. Well, that didn’t happen, INEC’s window for substituting candidates having closed by that time. 

As for the difference between poetry and politics? Between night and day, I’d say! Two totally different preoccupations and I don’t think this needs to be explained beyond saying that one is entirely an activity of the mind, practiced most often in the solitude of contemplation, while the other is the most public of human activities, where the mind, or more precisely, mindlessness, of others, determines the outcome. 

Oh, one more thing: you don’t need money to write a poem, while money is just about the only thing you need to have any hope of being taken seriously as a politician. At least, as tends to be the case generally with the brand of electioneering politics we practice in Nigeria. I hope that changes very soon.