Ahmed Maiwada is one of the leading voices in contemporary Nigerian literature. Based in Abuja where he practises law, Maiwada gained attention with his two collections of poems, Saint of a Woman and Fossils, and further acclaim with his novel, Musdoki. In this interview he granted ISMAIL BALA, a lecturer in Bayero University, Kano, the Zaria-born author explains the background to his creative genius and dissects the current status of our literature
Did you set out to become a writer or did you just gravitate towards writing?
This question is akin to the asking: “Egg or hen, which one came first?” I grew up in a home of books, story books most especially, in both English and Hausa languages. It wasn’t always that someone was at hand with the skills of telling us folktales. But since we could read, we formed the habit of clustering around the kerosene lamp at night, taking turns to read, or listen to readings, from story books. I can readily remember story books such as Iliya Dan Maikarfi, Gandoki, Tauraruwa Mai Wutsiya, Magana Jari Ce, Dare Dubu Da Daya. Now, there is this thing about story books: they are so infectious! Therefore, I became infected with the notion of writing my own stories when I grew up. I attempted starting very early, only to be frustrated by the inability to write beyond the first few lines. I was always lacking in imagination. So I gave up trying, but never gave up reading, until when my imagination became matured enough to carry my desire through. Now, I will say, simply, that I did set out at first to be a writer. But I gave up after the failed attempts, until I could naturally gravitate towards it. A writer had always lurked behind those frustrating periods, waiting patiently for the voice saying: take up your pen and write!
Which were your most memorable books?
My most memorable single book is Iliya Dan Maikarfi. I read it several times, wondering about its fantastic storyline, the hero of the novel, Iliya Dan Maikarfi himself – the battles he fought against men, demons and spirits, and his heroic horse, ‘Kwalele, and so on. I was also taken by Abubakar Imam’s Ruwan Bagaja, and the book’s hero and villian, Alhaji and Malam Zurke. Magana Jari Ce contained some memorable stories for me, but not as a single book because there were some stories in the three volumes that I found to be either prolix or too didactic.
To what degree did your childhood memories get into your writing?
I think my childhood readings have influenced my writing, especially in the prose genre, in the area of characterization. The books I found more interesting were the ones with the most interesting characters, especially protagonists. No wonder, therefore, that my first novel, Musdoki, exhibits a protagonist that contends with forces outside of him, in the person(s) of Rita/Christine. As in Iliya Dan Maikarfi and Ruwan Bagaja, my protagonist encounters several stiff obstacles in the course of the story, some of which are life-threatening, and overcomes them at the end. But then, outside the influence of the books, I grew up in Zaria City, where I was born. There were all these superstitions flying around us then: stories about a witch in the neighbourhood; how the other witch died – tearing off his skin with his teeth, eating it, screaming and confessing about the people he had “eaten” in the past, who had all died suddenly; folktales about Gizo, the spider, and his wife Koki; stories about Dodo, or demons in the forest, and so on.
No doubt I believed those stories were real. I have also observed live Bori performances in the city and its precincts. Now, the sum total of this experience is that I grew up to believe in the existence of some beings that cannot be seen with ordinary eyes, which can interact with human beings as they well please. This you can see in my prose, especially Musdoki. I believe, therefore, that stories written by someone with my kind of childhood experience should not be labeled as magic-realism. No. Such stories are real, because they are believable within the environment that has birthed them.
How do you contemplate your childhood and your parents? Which is your first and most vivid childhood memory?
I grew up in a very large family, with brothers, sisters, cousins, uncles, aunts, neighbours and so on, often packed in the family house at once, especially during holidays. It was so much fun. My father was a pharmacist. My mother was a retired school teacher, who ensured that a timetable was in place for us to do almost everything on each given day: sweeping the floor, washing the plates, grazing the cattle, calling the goats back home after a day out in the fields, taking the calabash of corn to the mill for the evening’s dinner, reading the storybook at night and so on. We worked with the clock. Football was the only aspect of our life in which my mother had no hand. But still, one was expected back home before dark, regardless of how sweet that day’s football session was, otherwise my father would take charge, with his four stokes of the cane on the palms. And that hurt, so we tried to avoid it.
Everything was well ordered in that house, despite our large number: you must not pick a share of anything ahead of your elder, you must not receive alms from strangers outside, you must not tell strangers what was for dinner, or whether your father was in town, or if he had travelled. Looking back, one can still remember the strains of a regimented homestead. But, still looking back, one appreciates the discipline and independence that those old folks had inculcated in us. And that, for me, is the most cherished memory of all, even though playing football comes as a close second best experience.
About your critics—do you read them, usually? Have you ever learned anything from a book review or an essay on your work?
I do not just read my critics, I go in search of them. I love being criticized, especially if the criticism flows from the texts of my works. My reason for loving criticisms is that I have mostly found in them the most amusing and most interesting interpretations of my works. I tend to appreciate my works more looking at them through the eyes of my critics. Nevertheless, it is not to say that all comments on my works were criticisms, or all commentators of my works are critics. There are the mere readers, and there are the hyenas in the flock. I understand that a reader is entitled to his opinion of any work, the least mine and I truly try my possible best to respect such opinions. However, an outright and unjustified attack on any author or his work, including me and mine, can provoke my reaction. This I will do in order to rescue the less informed lovers of literature from a corrupt notion about good writing. Overall, I appreciate critics that confine themselves to the text of the piece of work they critique in justifying any conclusion they may draw on creative works. Those alone are the true critics.
What kind of work schedule do you follow?
I hate to be pinned down by monotonous activities; not even when it is by these things I love to do most, such as writing. Therefore, I do not have a regimented work schedule, as far as writing is concerned. I am always either writing or thinking of what next to write. I use the “Notes” application in my cell phones maximally to trap the sparkling lines that would glide across my mind by day or by night. This is an improvement from the past when I had to keep pen and paper close by in order to store those vagrant thoughts in the spaces of my mind.
Do you find emotional stability necessary in order to write? Or can you get to work whatever your state of mind? Is your mood reflected in what you write? How do you describe that perfect state in which you can write from early morning into the afternoon?
I must look back to the past in order to concretely address these questions: I have written in hot, wet and cold seasons, metaphorically; in noisy and quiet environments, when happy and when sad. I have written when hungry and when full, when thirsty and when not. I have written when in motion and when I’m still. The only time I have found myself unable to write was when I wasn’t in good health, especially when down with malaria – my common illness. Also, I have found myself unable to write new works throughout the years I lived in Lagos—about nine years. The environment of Lagos, I think, is not well suited for my creativity. I cannot say why, but that is what I have discovered. It might be different now from what it was those years past.
My mood is never reflected in my writing; not even when I write sentimental poems. My method of writing is to plan my theme and story well before I set out to write. Once that is done, I try to toe the lines that I set for myself, without drifting to the left or right, regardless of the mood I’m in as I continue to develop the work. In summary, I think I’ve achieved a stoic state of mind over the years such that nothing, save ill health, can stop me from writing whenever I wish to write.
What happens when you finish a book? Is the next book (a novel or collection of poems) one that has been waiting in line? Or is the choice more spontaneous?
I have read a lot of critical works on how to write a book, and the summary of my experience is this: no book is written at the first draft. Therefore, finishing a novel is never, for me, finishing the book project. At that stage, I simply put it away to incubate, sometimes for years. I only share my works with friends and colleagues when I’m almost sure they have matured over the years, as I rewrote and polished to my taste. In that circumstance, you can imagine the relief that comes when I eventually feel that the novel is actually “finished”. At that point I can almost say to it: Good riddance! Writing poetry, however, is a whole different method. I write my poems in a folder, which I tagged: Nursery. Inchoate poems and straggled lines that go into my notes in the cell phone are what fill this folder; and they stay there until they mature enough to pass into my collection. Talking about collections, I deliberately choose a theme and style to work with even at the point of choosing a title for my poetry collections.
Thereafter, I see myself writing individual poems that fit the theme already chosen, until I’ve conclude that a collection is ready. That is when the polishing begins, during which process some poems might be weeded off, some moved forward or backward, some enlarged or reduced, etc. I can write many novels at the same time—and as a matter of fact, I have several prose manuscripts awaiting polish and publication. But, I do not write more than a collection of poetry at once. I think the demand of poetry is much higher than that of prose and I dare not get out of the mood for a particular collection, else I might end up with a failed venture.
Do you keep a diary or journal?
No I don’t, except for my legal practice. The only time I kept a diary was when I was an unemployed graduate, when I had too much time on my hand and, sadly, very little to write.
Have you ever consciously changed your life style to help your work as a writer?
Yes, I have. I moved out of Lagos to Abuja in 1999 in order to break free from the writer’s block that persisted while I lived in Lagos. I avoid social events that gear only towards escapism. I avoid watching television. I read more books of literary criticism than creative works, just so that I can fully understand the nuts and bolts of what I write, with the aim of changing what I have met on ground by what I shall write. But beyond these conscious lifestyle choices, I live and work as naturally as I can.
Perhaps it’s not just a matter of complexity, but I feel your writing generally has become more urgent, even more subjective and less concerned with what could be called “the outward details” of the world.
This is more pronounced in Musdoki. Was the novel a deliberate attempt to write a “poetic novel”? Or is it just a long poem?
Glad that you noticed some movement in my writing, from when I started writing. It is a testimony for me that I am on the right track for I believe that my writing career is more like a marathon race, so the need to run it tactically in order that I do not only run a good race but also emerge amongst the decorated at the finishing line. That said, the subjectivity of my writing might have much to do with my deliberate attempt at broadening its interest across cultures and climes. In both my prose and poetry, I attempted to simply appeal to the emotions of the reader—for good or for bad. I do present personal experiences: love, hate, fear, courage, and so on, which are as personal as they are universal. I do not share the view that Musdoki is less concerned with the “outward details” of the world, knowing that I went through the most arduous writing experience in order to be as realistic to the settings of that novel as any writer in literary history. Testimonies abound in almost all the reviews I have read of Musdoki, in proof of my success in that direction. Of course, I employ symbols in my writings; but even those symbols are as concrete and universal as to aid in the appreciation of my works. I do understand that our diverse cultural experiences have made us unable to appreciate the purely local products, not least books. Therefore, in writing about the local experiences of my characters and personas, I try to democratize the reading experience by the use of universal symbols. And, yes, Musdoki’s prose is rich in poetry. But that doesn’t make it a poem. Poetry has its form and other demands, such as brevity, which the language of Musdoki has not met. But if you consider that the novel was written in the “first person” narrative style, then it is easy for you to understand the reason for the poetic prose in the narration. The writer is Musa Maidoki, who is a lawyer as well as a poet. He is therefore, in his natural element writing in that deliberately poetic narrative as against the simple, colloquial style that non-poets write in. Poetry has always helped prose writing, and that you can see in the prose of writers such as William Golding, Katherine Mansfield, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, etc. I’m not the first; sure won’t be the last of the poet novelists.
Which of your books gave you the greatest trouble (difficulty) to write? And which one gave the utmost pleasure or pride?
My first published collection of poetry, Saint of a Woman, easily gave me the most trouble. This is because, as an upstart, I had serious difficulties with form and substance.
I can say that after studying poetry at school, I had enough poetic tools to see me through the project. But the theme that could form the base of a worthy collection did pose a serious challenge to me. Then I had trouble with the title; I struggled with quite a few titles before settling on Saint of a Woman. So it is that even now, when I pick up the collection to read, I feel the need to change the title, the cover design, colour and picture, the blurbs, substitute some poems for others and possibly have a more united poetry than the rather straggled ones in the collection. The book that gave me the most pleasure writing, however, is Fossils. I wrote the poems over a few years, but I was always delighted with the individual poems that made the collection; I was excited by the comments I got from readers and other poets with whom I shared the poems. Furthermore, a couple of the poems in the collection were accepted for publication in electronic and print journals and other media. I knew right then that the collection would be well received. And even though I still think Fossils could have done better with a little improvement, I am thoroughly pleased with its contents and form.
For whom do you write—yourself, your literary friends and interlocutors, the “public”? Do you in any way imagine an ideal reader for your writing?
I write for the public, of course! Yet, in so doing, I still try to exhibit my gifts for the written words to my readers. I am never mindful; I wish my readers to be either pleased or annoyed or to feel any kind of emotion while reading my works, just nobody should be left cold after reading my works. Writing for oneself is foolish and counter-productive, I think, except if one doesn’t wish to publish the book and share his thoughts with others. I think “literary friends” and “interlocutors” constitute a part of the public for whom I write. I shall never write for myself.
Do you think you have any obvious or secret flaw as a writer?
Life has taught me that strength is also weakness; therefore I am very much aware of the weakness in my area of strength, perhaps more than anybody else can ever imagine. I am the kind of writer that believes in following laid down literary traditions, and in so doing, I am aware that I sometimes elevate my works beyond the reach of a section of the public for whom I write. In the thick of that dilemma, I wonder whether I should compromise a little, for the sake of the uninitiated. I have since resolved in favour of keeping with the traditions, while challenging my readers to rise up from their disadvantaged level and meet me at the level of my works. Beside this, I am also very much aware that I sometimes get very careless with grammar. But that is one luxury I will always appreciate to keep, basking in the knowledge that my editors should take care of that when my scripts get to their table.
Do you enjoy writing?
Very much! I enjoy writing; especially when I know that I am writing something good—a self critic always knows. I hate it when I write rubbish! I can cry when, by whatever reason, a line is lost permanently to me after coming into my mind.
Considering what you have done in your novel, Musdoki, what sort of possibilities do you see for those novelists who are trying to break out of the conventions of the realist tradition?
Musdoki, in my considered view, did not break out of the “realistic tradition”. In my view, the novel is absolutely a realistic narrative. Yes, a few people have branded it “magic-realist”, and yet others “fantasy”. I will allow them to have their views, as long as they have concrete evidence in text of the book to support them. But my view is that Musdoki is a realistic account of the life of Musa Maidoki over a period of about two decades. I think all the major characters are realized: Musa Maidoki, Rita/Christine, Iyabo. I also think the setting is as real as it can get: it is set in some parts of the north and south of Nigeria. The story one might think is rather fantastic. But I do not think an African, nay a Hausa reader, will ever accept that Western scientific notion that spirits are unreal or that they do not interact with human beings from time to time, as they deem fit. That being the case, the story is real, and very likely to have happened within its given settings. Nevertheless, I will not encourage any writer to break from the realistic tradition, which, in my view, is the best tradition in which human experiences can be shared. I would rather encourage any writer to improve on the realism that exists, which I am trying my best to do.
The American writer, Joyce Carol Oates once said regarding convention that “There are no conventions or traditions, only personalities”. Novelists broke away from the conventions of realist tradition for many years, and of course the history of the novel form can, as it were, be seen as a series of rebellions against previously “established” forms all the way back to the beginning. But aren’t those rebellions still going on? And if it isn’t one writer rebelling against a “tradition”, maybe it’s a personality rebelling against another personality; or simply any writer working to find something new to keep from boring himself to death.
I disagree with Joyce Carol on the non-existence of conventions or traditions in literature, but personalities. Literary history is precise in pointing to these conventions or traditions, and in grouping such personalities that wrote according to such conventions and traditions. There is simply no writer alive that is free from the influence of another. Earlier still, in English Literature, it is recorded that Chaucer had displayed his knowledge of French and Italian writers. Spenser attested to having been nourished by a “vernacular tradition” that dated back to Chaucer. Milton claimed to be the heir of the “sage and serious” Spenser. William Wordsworth described his sense of intimacy as a Cambridge undergraduate, with “the spirits Chaucer, Spenser and Milton, and the dizzy libations drunk to the memory of the sober Milton in the poet’s former “lodge and oratory”.
This alone shows that tradition supersedes the individual. Also, I would rather say that the realist tradition was not the one that was broken away from, but rather it was indeed the breakaway tradition from the Gothic novel: the Gothic novel having been introduced to English Literature in late 18th century, while the realist English novel was introduced in the 19th Century, through George Eliot. Be that as it may, I agree that literary history is full of incidences of rebellion, which in many ways contributed to the growth of the novel. But in my view, when one writer rebels against another, the result is always an inter-textual piece, hardly the root of a new literary convention of tradition.
History has shown us that no one writer carried through a literary convention, or tradition, but rather a group of writers writing deliberately in line with a theory or theories deduced from a group of writers that set out do something new within a particular literary genre. Not all writers set out to be different from the rest; most writers are simply contented with being compliant with a set conventions or traditions. Very few set out to do something different; and even amongst these few, few still succeed at doing the avant garde.
Could you say what is your concept of characterization? Or rather your ideas about characterisation?
My concept of characterisation is the same as the regular concept, which is the sum total technique employed by a prose writer in painting the unique qualities of a person or an actor in his story. The technique includes what the writer says about such actor, what other actors in the story say about that particular actor, and the actor’s actions, whether directly portrayed by the writer or indirectly, through another actor in the story. As an author, I prefer to keep myself detached from telling the reader who the character is, but rather to let the story and its actors reveal the character. One common theme that I think runs through my prose writings is freedom. It will therefore be absurd for me to descend into the scenes of my stories and begin to tell about who my characters are, when they or other people in the story, who know them better than I, can tell about them better. Besides, I imagine myself being found guilty of bias by the other characters about whom I may have failed to write. I think it is always safe for a writer, while characterizing the people in his story, not to get unduly meddlesome.
Your reputation was achieved as a poet, therefore the inevitable question is—how do you view the relationship between your poetry and your fiction?
I think poetry helps prose avoid diffuseness; it aids in sharpening the precision of storytelling; it enlivens and energizes the narrative. It is a very healthy relationship indeed. Writers such as John Steinbeck and Catherine Mansfield used poetry to great advantage. Mansfield’s narrative method is even described as “oblique” by virtue of her resort to poetry in painting her pictures. There is nothing as hateful as a writer with ordinary method of storytelling. Always, such writer’s product ends up being so boring to the reader that many details must necessarily be missed by the reader who is forced to fish them out in vast and rambling seas of wordiness.
If you could identify, perhaps single out a particular artistic intent for your work—poetry, fiction—what would it be?
It would be either to please or to annoy. I hate to leave my reader the same person he was before he picked up my work. I set out to hit the reader’s emotions with my words; and, depending on the strength, weakness, knowledge or ignorance of the reader, evoke some feelings that will precipitate some change from deep within. So, my intent is always to touch emotions in a way that either pleases or displeases.
They tend to raise issues in terms of you rather than in terms of a character. Would you, then, say that your poetry is your more “personal” medium?
I think I have been in writing long enough to allow myself interfere with the subject of my work. My writings are like the onion; they come in several layers of meanings, and the reader can only get the meaning that his own experience and knowledge permits. An ordinary reader may see only the “you” in them. But a more experienced reader can see the whole broad universe through the “you”, which means that the “you” factor is only the hole through which the reader can unlock the universe of meanings in my writings. There is an advantage in choosing this method of writing: every level of reader can take something away from it; it alienates nobody; it is very open and democratic; and titillates just about all shades of interests, even as it may negate them all.
Your first book of poems, Saint of a Woman like most debuts, was a collection of “things”, with a mixture of temperaments and tones. But in Fossils it seems to me you have created a suite of poems, with a single strident tone, and a voice at once more settled and more personal.
Saint of a Woman was like a mix-grill of what my poetry would be all about; it was a foreshadowing of how the race would be run. Despite that, I still think the collection can be seen, at a certain level, to have a single temperament and tone: the jeremiad. It can be seen as a catalogue of complaints, which range from the private to the public. Fossils follows in similar direction, only that instead of being satisfied with spewing out complaints, it proceeds to explore the chances of redemption. But the two collections deal with the personal and the public, which in my view, is what life is all about. Fossils is indeed more settled, because I think I had seized the handle of things when I sat down to writing that collection, as against when I sat on Saint of a Woman. I experienced growth as a poet from when I started, and it is my resolve to keep on improving on each collection.
Your two collections of poems do share a preoccupation with “the imagination of passion”, the metaphysics of love. Love seems to be the test of authenticity of your sensibility. Would you agree to this?
Yes, a section in each of the collections is centred on love. But such emotion is simply a drop in the sea of several other subject matters. In the two collections I have dealt also with the themes of politics, domestic and communal violence, betrayal of trust, and most especially Nigerian politics. In Fossils, there is a finer blend of the mix. But that doesn’t rob and claim to unity by Saint of a Woman. Love, like I’ve said before, is only a part of the project. I am not a romantic; I’ve grown out of that movement since I managed to shed the influence of Wordsworth in my poetry. Now I draw more directly from life itself; from the society, and when I offload, it isn’t a mess of hallucinatory porridge. No, it is a plate of solids, even though of many different parts of my immediate society. I do not despise love themes. But I do not have a fixation to them in my works. And whenever you see them, then look carefully and see whether or not they stand for some symbols of some things I’m trying to cast on the imagination of the reader. This happens especially in Fossils. The love story that runs through the collection, in my view, symbolises the north/south relationship within the Nigerian nation. Many a times one section had breached the trust of the other or others. This had brought about many reactions, some quite unpleasant and unforgettable, just like the personal experiences of the characters in the poetic story in Fossils. But then, I closed on the point of forgiveness and reconciliation. And that is indeed my wish for the Nigerian nationalities that might have caused one another some grave harm: seek for and obtain forgiveness, bury the hatchet and let’s get to move this nation forward.
Could you speak about the differences (formal, thematic, tonal) between your two collections of poems? Your last collection feels a bit more “freer”, more metaphorically sensitive.
Saint of a Woman is jeremiad in tone while Fossils is optimistic; Saint of a Woman is more of an expose than the more responsible Fossils. Thematically and structurally, Saint of a Woman is rather loose and rambling; giving credence to my earlier admission that it marked the difficult start to my writing career. Yet, I did try to experiment with a form which I call the “template”. It is evident in titles such as “Tom and Jerry”, “Joshua” and “Job”. I’m still working on the theoretical aspect of it for public presentation as a new form in poetry. But suffice it to say that it is close to parody, without the cutting too close to the bone; it is open to a greater degree of originality than parody. In the second collection, I tried to use more poetic license than I had the nerve to dare in Saint of a Woman. And I expanded the scope and range of my figures of speech to include even the symbol. These may have contributed in making the collection tighter and freer all at once. At one time I had also thought the collection is nothing but a postmodern epic poem, being a single long poem, indeed, telling a love (mis)adventure story in which the hero passes through stiff challenges and emerges finally as victorious, being able to conquer all his/her demons to reunite with his/her estranged spouse.
Could you tell us something about what you are working on now?
I am working on two projects: a novel and a collection of poems. It is the way I work; not doing one thing at a time. The novel is historical, and I think it is an epic story as well. It is likely to be about one of my biggest projects, at least in terms of volume. It is set in Kano city during the Maitatsine uprising. It has a mix of Nigerian and non-Nigerian characters, in realistic reflection of the Kano mix. It resonates with all the noise, pains, hope, despair, heroics and intolerant attitudes of that period in our history. The collection of poems takes a critical look at abuse of power and its consequences.
How do you relate to the past in your writings?
I studied History in school, up to the Advanced Level, during which I learnt about several epochs around the world that changed the fortunes of many a people, nations, continents and the entire world. That knowledge has equipped me with an alarm system that comes on at the slightest hint of a slide down into the abyss where man had fallen once or twice. And I have always taken action by doing the little I can do in order to stall that drift from taking effect. Now, I am aware that many people did not have the same privilege of studying mankind’s history as I; I’m aware that many people has passed, and will continue to pass historical events before their very eyes without noticing them and thereby losing the benefits that issue from identifying them. Therefore, I sometimes become a historian for them. But, unlike the concrete historians, I document my histories in fiction, or I attempt to interpret the already documented hardcore histories in my fiction. That is how I relate with history in my works: either as a keeper of it myself, or as an interpreter of what hardcore historians have kept. And I think this is more obvious in my prose works. This is because I write with the purpose of guiding my readers toward the side of caution, patience, tolerance and restraints in their general and particular intercourse even as I try to do so in an entertaining or annoying way.
Would you say you have learned more from books or people? I refer particularly to books by others, but probably also to your own books, or writing them?
I think I’ve learnt more about man and his ways from books than I ever learnt from real life. There is no better teacher of life as the book. I’ve mentioned the titles of the earliest books that I encountered. Abubakar Imam’s Magana Jari Ce is almost second to none in teaching life lessons in human intercourse. It opened me up the world of other people’s experiences in life. And I discovered that the more I read the more I got to know more about man and his ways. I encountered race relations and their strains in books from America and South Africa. I encountered the theme of appearance and reality in Shakespeare and William Golding. I discovered in books that regardless of man’s colour of skin, there is an intrinsic darkness inside his heart. I have read about saints and traitors in books; their kinds I’m yet to encounter in real life. Books are the greatest teachers of the subject called life. All other things are distant second.
How do you balance writing and your work as a barrister? Does your work help you as a writer?
The irony is that I didn’t know that I was training to be a writer when indeed I was also training to be a Lawyer! I studied Literature in English in school. It was one compulsory subject one must score a credit in to be admitted into the law faculty. History and Government were compulsory subjects in either of which one must also score a credit. I studied all the three subjects while studying toward an admission to read Law. History, as I mentioned earlier, is a fertile ground for creative writing; so is Government. Literature helps out with the tools even as it infects one with the interest, belief and confidence to write. Now, it was with this strong background in Literature that I went on to study Law. The bond that started with studying Wordsworth, Okara, Shakespeare and Achebe was too strong to be broken by the rigours of law studies. I coped with the lectures and exams very well, even as I researched into the archives for historical materials for my fiction and wrote actively. Having therefore made it through school as a pupa-writer struggling to burst into life, it became so normal and less stressful carrying on with that tradition after graduation. Now writing has become a part of me that I do not see it as anything different from eating or sleeping or doing any other thing that I am supposed to do normally in life. Therefore, it is easy to see that if doing other normal things do not get in the way of my legal practice, how can writing ever get in the way?
Do your literary peers influence you in any way? Do you read as much now as you did before? Do you read differently now?
No, none of my peers influence me. In fact, except the earliest influence of Gabriel Okara in my earlier poetry, I do not have any Nigerian influence in my work. Also, now that I think I have found my feet, I think I write devoid of any influence, except perhaps that of John Steinbeck, in whose awe I may forever remain.
As a writer do you experience life as it happens, or not until a “residuum” of it is transcribed onto the page?
I experience life in both ways: as it happens and afterwards. One cannot get a hold of everything under the sun. Besides, it is not everything that has occurred or is occurring that has the potential of attracting my attention. I select the episodes in life to give my attention to. Except the commonplace pliable enough for transformation into the extra-ordinary, I have no time for it. So, I think the obvious thing is that I experience life, which is suitable enough for me to experience, as it happens or as it is recorded. The only yardstick is the episode’s potentials for evoking the interest of my reader. I think it is good courtesy on the part of a writer not to bore his reader; and that is done easily by serving the reader the commonplace, whether from the past of present. These Nigerian writers are masters of; they do the bandwagon writing: one writes about the civil war and wins an award, then everybody else writes about the civil war, one writes about the Niger Delta crisis and wins an award, then everybody writes about the Niger Delta crisis! That is lack of courtesy to the reader, for whom I think all writers should write and not for awards!
Could you talk about revision? Do you revise a great deal?
Yes, I do. I do not think good literature can be birthed in a hurry. One must respect his readers by interrogating the words he sells to them. Any part of the text he writes which, upon interrogation, fail the test of courtesy to them must go. The reader is king, and revision is an act of service to the one that wears the writer’s crown. However, by this I do not mean that the writer should pander to the reader. Pandering for whatever reason (and many of us do pander for awards!) amounts to playing the harlot; it amounts to selling one’s soul to the devil. And any writer that sins with his soul, that one shall die. It may be sooner or later, but it shall come to pass!
How does a novice writer perfect revision skills?
He needs to learn to leave it alone for a while to steam before picking it up again to look at it a second, third, fourth time etc. That method has helped me in condemning a number of my works that I would have otherwise thought as masterpieces. Stepping away from the mirror, standing there for some breathless moments to watch, do make a lot of difference. I read that Tolstoy rewrote his magnum opus War and Peace about seven good times! Now that can take a whole lifetime to do. But the book is rated by some critics as the best book ever written
It is possible to revise too much?
It is not possible to revise too much, as long as one has the tools at hand while revising. I do not advise the uninitiated to dare it; I do not advise them to even venture into writing in the first place. But the one who knows where to chisel and where to knock can never destroy his piece if he does that in a hundred years. He can only improve on it. The only other consideration may be perhaps the work may go out of relevance if he waits on it for too long. But then, any literature that is time barred is indeed worthless. Literature worth its mettle is forever.
Is this a healthy time for Nigerian literature?
Nigerian literature that has been quite healthy before the 90s, but which became strangulated during that period when the military rule in Nigeria was at its worst, has somehow managed to get on the path of recovery. For this, we thank the opening up of Nigeria and returning her back to full membership of the international community. Because of this, Nigerian writers have competed for literary prizes within the Commonwealth group of nations and elsewhere. Since then, Nigeria seems to be in a stiff competition with the more developed South Africa for first-place position on the medals table. Within the country, there has been the introduction of some literary prizes such as the NLNG, the Soyinka Prize in Literature and so on; the ones that the Association of Nigerian Authors has been running have been improved. All these provide platforms for competition amongst Nigerian writers. But a writer needs to publish before he can compete in most of these competitions. The multinational publishing houses have since left our shores, leaving our talents and us at our own mercy. Thanks to the brave response by the few who believe in Nigerian literature. The small presses trickled into existence and started production, which were generally poor. But then, things have improved over the years. We are not there yet. The men and women saddled with the responsibility of rewarding excellence amongst our writers are the only ones that need to buckle up and join in this revolution; they need to be forthright and focused when taking decisions one way or the other concerning which book or writer deserves which prize within a given period. In my own opinion, only the best among the pack should be crowned.
What advice do you give to young writers?
Young writers must read. They should try and find one or two mentors who will guide them in reading and writing. Hard work is the only way to success. They must adopt the attitude of learning and avoid considering themselves as knowing it all. They must learn to take as much criticism as possible, keeping their head level when chance has brought them about a sudden fame, otherwise they will lose it and find themselves on the ground.
For which of your books do you most want to be remembered?
I love what I have achieved and what I am still achieving with Musdoki. It is by far more popular than everything else I have done. On the other hand, Fossils is a product of a free spirit. Now, being a true disciple of freedom and a true poet, I will always like to be remembered for Fossils. And this is as far as now is concerned. I suspect that my future works will change my view.
Has there ever been a good book, a good work of art that you read and wished terribly to alter or change in some way?
If it is good by my own standard, then it doesn’t need to be changed at all. And I have read many of such terribly good books, not hyped trash or mere award-winning junks. Books like The Old Man and the Sea, As I Lay Dying, Of Mice and Men, A Passage to India, Rites of Passage, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovic, Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, Fiesta, The Sun Also Rises, Miguel Street, Disgrace, God’s Bits of Wood, Midaq Alley. These are perfect books in their own right. And the more they are perfect the more I do not think of altering or changing anything. I allow the good writer his right to write what he wishes to write, and I accept his opinion even if it accuses me. However, I do not even have the patience of reading a bad book, least to contemplate altering or changing anything.
To a person who has not known the pleasures of reading—someone who suddenly wished to read—what books would you recommend, and why these?
I would recommend all of those books I have listed above. I would do that because they are sublime books; they represent about the very best that man has ever written. Reading them, a reader learns about man and the extremes of his emotions, and how man is able to tame himself and his environment.
You have known a good many writers. Is there anything to get from knowing other writers, personally?
The good writers I have known have helped me one way or the other with critique on my works, for which I remain very grateful. I think I have a team with which I go about my writing business. I share my works amongst the members of this team. There are, however, some other writers I have known that are simply enemies who have shown clearly their displeasure with my successes. Those too are good assets to me, because they have made me to work extra hard in order to prove more and more points to their utter shame. So, I think there are many things to gain from knowing fellow writers. In my own case, I harnessed both the good and the bad to my advantage.
How do you start a poem?
I have no single way of starting a poem. What I know is that I have what I call “Nursery” in my computer and telephone sets where I trap all poetry-worthy line that cross my mind. I have always worked on one collection at a time. Therefore, it is much easier for me to sift from the several lines begging for attention in making my poems. I can have a poem working in my brain for quite a while. I will not sit to write that poem except I have found its rhythms in my head. Oh, yes, the poem’s sound is as important to me as its existence. But it will be futile to actually find out how I start a poem. I have several methods, none of which is within my conscious control; even though I know that I will not write any poem outside my current poetry project.
How do you edit? Is it difficult to go and cut down your imagination and hunches? And do you try and get back to the same place you were as you originally wrote (letting your imagination take over); or do you approach with a more critical and conservative eye?
When I started writing, I cared less about editing my works. I was under the notion that the editors should do their job when my manuscript eventually gets to them in the process of publication. This notion changed after Saint of Woman was published. I was mortified to see the grammatical errors in the collection. That helps me in taking extra care with Fossils. I did the editing myself before letting other editors have their say. And I am happy to say that the collection came out much better than its predecessor. I did the same with Musdoki, except that some accidents still happened in the process of transferring the texts from one computer to the other. And I have discovered that it is so very easy to edit my works when I return to them after some time. Then, I can look at the works with the eyes of a stranger; it doesn’t seem as if the same work is mine at all. And with that emotional detachment, it is much easier to butcher through it and accept only what works as against what had gushed out from the imagination. A more critical eye always works better than the sentimental one when one edits any work, the least his work. It is either that way or not worth doing it at all.
What are you reading now?
I have just finished reading Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee. A wonderful piece! I have seen, for the very first time, a method of characterization by juxtaposition. Splendid. Now, though, I am reading Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s Path to Nigerian Freedom. I am particularly interested in Obafemi Awolowo because I have a draft novel that points a finger at him for the backwardness in most sectors of the northern Nigerian societies. It is tough argument. But I am still gathering my facts and marshalling my arguments.
More often than not, you hear the idea that nothing new can be said, that there are only new ways of saying something.
Do you agree we can only find “newness” in language? To you, what keeps language new?
As a student of History, I do not agree that there is nothing new under the earth; or that everything said or written have already been said and written. There are new products, new societies, new ideas, new nations, new technology, etc, which man comes in contact with, which change the man who comes in contact with them. These experiences of man with the new things around him necessarily implies that man’s story of those new experiences are new stories indeed. It is my view that language is about the stagnant part of the new literature; quite contrary to the assumption that language is the sole driver of the new things in literature. But then, literary language can be updated; it can be made new; it has been made new by those writers, such as Katherine Mansfield and E.E. Cummings, who cared to present their readers with some icing on the cake of their craft. And the way to do it; the only way, it by tasking the imagination some more in order to refresh the phrases, the sentences and the single words. Without the imagination, it is impossible to reinvent; and fresh language is an invention as worthy of our praises as all those other inventions that brought about civilization to mankind.
Should novels offer discernible arguments?
I think novels should, first and foremost, offer at least one story to the reader. Story is the basic requirement, and in offering story, the novel must offer the reader a new story, a new experience in order for it to interest the reader. There is no story in the old tale. The new story must also be about human beings, because the novel is the story of people. There are times that the novel offers the story of animals, but they have always stood for some human beings, which the novelist set out to portray by that allegorical style. Now, it is only after the novel has satisfied these basic requirements that it may aim at other things. And I think it is an added prop for a novel to challenge the reader so much that he can argue over its contents one way or the other. The novel can still be a novel even without offering any argument. Argument is never an aspect of the novel. But its presence can enrich the novel.
The interviewer, Ismail Bala, teaches in the Department of English and French, Bayero University, Kano.
Culled from www.sentinelnigeria.org