A short story by Nigerian fiction writer, Dami Ajayi, first published here n ZODML. It is read here by the author.
Audio courtesy OratureLab.
art. language. travel
For a lot of young writers and aspiring writers, it was a platform to learn one or two tricks in the writing craft. The reknowned poet, Jumoke Verissimo with support from WriteHouse Collective and PEN Nigeria had opened a creative workshop for poetry last month. The second edition of the workshop which held on Saturday, 20th of September delved into the idea of experience as a vehicle for poetry and the use of metaphors.
Participants were given a class work to write out what ‘experience’ means to them in few words, these lines were analysed by Verissimo. She said during her teaching ‘Deep into yourself, narrate or express experience based on your own personal life’. Referring to the lines of one of the participants, she said ‘now he has dug into his own life, perhaps there are things he wished he could achieve, so those six words analyses his own life’.
Jumoke asserted that there is absolutely nothing like a ‘writer’s block’. She said that if one could generate a first line based on personal experience, a second line would ‘flow from the bones’ and a third line will be accomplished easily. Other participants were actively involved as they contributed to the analysis of each other’s work.
Verrisimo said poetry is not far-fetched, it is borne out of the things that are available to our consciousness and experience. She said ‘usually what comes to mind when you want to write poetry is to look for that which is not readily available’ instead of looking at things that are part of us. She read from the works of African poets like Kofi Awoonor, Jared Angira and Wole Soyinka from the book, Poems of Black Africa, also poems of Caribbean poet, Derek Walcot.
Verissimo delved into metaphors as a form of experience, ‘you need to make a metaphor of your life, you place two things that are different and try to make a connection between them. As a poet you have created that metaphor, and then we will begin to see our lives, through that metaphor. Verissimo said. She also recalled her stint with Farafina ‘I remember working for Farafina, and the day we were working on the magazine and we were trying to contact Mr (Igoni) Barrett to send us a story then and he said that ‘he wrote poetry first before he began to write stories’. She said ‘poetry helps you as a writer of prose, metaphors helps your imagery and interpret an experience’. Participants were also encouraged to create metaphors spontaneously in order to sharpen their creative prowess.
‘You have to express the experience you gather in a way that the reader touches the experience’. In the poem building process that the workshop participants were involved in, Jumoke interjects ‘the poem becomes an experience for the reader and the reader becomes an experience for the poem-People want to interpret their lives but they are lost on how to do it, poetry assists them to do so’
Jude Idada is an award-winning screenwriter, author and playwright. His epic play, Oduduwa, King of the Edos won the 2013 Association of Nigerian Authors’ Prize for Drama and has been short-listed for the 2014 NLNG Nigerian Prize for Literature. In this conversation with Servio Gbadamosi, Idada discusses the work, shares some of the back stories that fuel his creativity and comments on critical national issues.
You have written prose, poetry and drama—the three genres of literature, all with significant strength. How does it feel straddling the three genres? Which of the three would you consider your favourite genre?
I will say that writing for me is first and foremost second nature. The genres of expression is more or less that which best captures most completely the theme I am exploring and espousing, coupled with it having the capacity to enthrall the reader most effectively.
In terms of the feeling it gives me, I will say, it is empowering, like a surgeon who has the choice from a plethora of knives to do his work. It enables choice, and choice of course is a weapon of freedom.
I had primarily started writing prose at the age of seven, completing my first novel at the age of nine. I think it has a foundational sentiment to me, even though that which naturally comes to me is drama, but in terms of my favourite genre both as a creator and consumer, I daresay is prose because of its ability to explore and express without the confines of multiplicity of characters, time and space.
Your epic play, Oduduwa, King of the Edos captures the endless struggle between convention and logic and reflects on man’s continued search for meaning and relevance in the world around him. How much of the book would you describe as fiction, and how much was gleamed from your research into pre-existing origin narratives?
Owing to the time explored in the play and the pre-existing narratives concerning that time, I had to deal primarily with oral tradition which owing to the paucity of facts was itself mythical. Therefore, in the play, there is fiction, which was the thread that weaved the dramatic narrative together and then there was faction, which was the weighted narratives from both parts of the divide, parts being the Edo and the Yoruba belief pantheon.
That being said, the existence of the main personages and locations of the play would by and large be accepted as real, since oral tradition in itself is not completely fake, and thus was a mode of storing and transferring information in the days of old, sometimes surviving to these times in the forms of the storytelling of the griots of Gambia and Senegal.
In the light of this, the comparative dramatic analysis of both narratives of the Oduduwa personage was done using the “what if” model… what if you believe this, because of this… and this was a two–sided exploration using widely accepted beliefs as the base information or knowledge pool.
Suffice to say that the ratio of veracity and mendacity of the play is a grey area, being that the play is an amalgam of cultural truths, anthropological truths, and archaeological truths. It also contains accepted truths, believed truths, assumed truths, common truths and dramatic truths.
The play was awarded the 2013 Association of Nigerian Author’s Prize for Drama and has been short-listed for the 2014 NLNG Nigeria Prize for Literature, what would you say has been responsible for the success of the book?
I would humbly posit that it is the humanity of the play and the believability of the characters, their motivations, challenges, strengths and weaknesses. It does not pontificate or pick sides but dramatically forwards a “what if” analysis of two competing belief systems, asking the reader or the viewer to think deeply and widely with an open mind.
I ask this because of the play’s attempt at drawing congruence between the diverse oral narratives on the origin of the protagonist, Oduduwa. Could it be that the age-long debate and controversies surrounding Oduduwa’s ancestry have somehow drawn attention to the book?
The controversy itself as occasioned by the stormy reception accorded the writing of the memoirs of the Oba of Benin, I Remain, Sir, Your Obedient Servant birthed the writing of the play, so since it is a debate that will rage for time unknown, there will normally or naturally be interest in any material that sheds more light or espouses the contending issues of the argument. So, yes, some of the interest in the play surely stems for the debate concerning the origin or identity of Oduduwa, but I hope that the play in itself would overtime rise above the debate and hold its own as a piece of good theatre, both in the written form and as performance art.
An earlier version of the play was staged at the Arts Theatre, University of Ibadan in December, 2007; are we going to see the play on stage again anytime soon?
Yes, there are advanced plans to stage a command performance that will hopefully tour some cities in Nigeria, but before that, a stage reading is being planned in Lagos.
At the beginning of the play, we are confronted with the language of judgement, war and bloodshed while at the ending, we are filled with peace and our faith in humanity’s ability to redeem itself is reassured. At this turbulent period in our national life, what does this portend for our nation?
Primarily it seeks to reassure us that we are not bound to the failings of our past, neither is our future wholly predicated on the worst in us. But if we band together, learn collectively from our mistakes, we can through tolerance, understanding and love for one another, find a way to the light of redemption through the darkness that has befallen us.
It shows us that traditions and cultures that are hinged on the learned experiences of the past has its value, but these should also be subject to the dynamics of change, because that which does not work should be set aside for that which works- notwithstanding the sentimental value it holds to the people. Since culture itself is a total way of life of a people that is dictated by the demands of the times, when the time changes, culture should follow suit. Therefore, for us as a nation to be able to shout Uhuru, in the foreseeable future we must look inwards and weed from ourselves the cantankerous habits or practises that has pulled us behind, divided us and caused us to fall into a developmental inertia. We must embrace the inclusiveness, oneness and pragmatism that are hallmarks of a successful nation, so that at the end of our struggles, we can say, yes our past had its pitfalls, but through our logical reasoning and progressive introspection we have surmounted that which has hindered us, and now our future is secured, because we have learnt who we once were and its failings, we know who we currently are and our challenges and are assured with a certainty who we want to be and its infinite possibilities.
I ask because of the argument about the role of literature and the arts in society. Beyond the essential duty of interrogating our past, present and forging a vision for the future, how else can writers and artists help in driving change in developing countries like Nigeria?
I believe it transcends the creation of art, but the living out of our creative postulations. We must not only use our pens as warriors but also use our lives as examples. As Professor Wole Soyinka and his likes have done, we must step into the ring of social discourse and engage, we must march with the oppressed and champion the marginalised; we must defend the rights of the ostracised and engender the culture of tolerance of the individual natures and the collective desires.
Just as we see Arundhati Roy stand in front of the fray and confront the institutions of power in India, or Nadine Gordimer not only talk the talk but also walk the walk in South Africa. Gabriel Garcia Marquez also confronted the engines of capitalism on behalf of the poor in Colombia, we as writers or artistes must do same in Nigeria. We must not only be seen basking in the glow of the success of our works but actively living out the fight for the preponderance of the best in us and the success of our socio-political and cultural realities, as we want to know it.
As a documentarian, you will agree with me that there is paucity of documentaries made by Africans. Most of what we have as documentaries of our past, and even our present, are made by people and firms outside the continent. Ironically, our movie industry keeps flourishing. What are the factors responsible for this and how do we begin to bridge the divide?
Documentaries unfortunately do not enjoy the mass appeal of fictional cinematic narratives and thus exist as a scholarly or educational pursuit, which in itself is a niche industry, which implies a very low return on investment. This explains why the consumption is low and the practice is even lower in the Nigerian landscape.
Funding for documentaries is also largely external and primarily provided by Non Governmental Organisations who are more interested in exploring issues that pertain to us, than we are about ourselves. This is a sad commentary but a very truthful one. In cases where it is funded locally, it is commissioned by corporate bodies and the subject matter revolves around their own activities, ambitions but rarely on issues of national concern, thus the consumption is limited to their clients, shareholders or employees, this does not grow the field of national consumption.
To bridge the gap, we have to realise that the funding has to be non-profit geared, be both government and private industry generated. Quota systems have to be created in the broadcasting policies which includes television and cable, so that there is a home for the documentaries produced. Censorship of such documentaries must be informative and not punitive, so that relevant issues can be explored.
Companies must begin to be assess and promote documentaries by their social corporate governance and how they engage on issues that do not necessarily reflect on their products but on the collective well-being of the society, so it is not enough to sponsor talent shows but what you do to educate and enlighten the citizenry.
It will be foolhardy to believe that people will gravitate towards documentaries as they do to fictional motion picture, because there is nowhere in the world that this obtains. But there is a dearth of documentaries in Nigeria and this is an anomaly that must be addressed, but the salvation rises squarely on the government and private institutions, for once funding and platforms of distribution are created, the filmmakers will gravitate to this medium of artistic expression.
How has technology and new media impacted your creativity? Have you any fears that the growing adoption of mobile hand-held devices will impact negatively on our reading culture and social interaction?
I can no longer write long hand neither can I physically go through a dictionary or a thesaurus… the ease of writing is phenomenal and very well welcomed… research is easier, collaboration is done with much ease… the mode of sharing and distribution of your work is right there at your finger tips and you do not face the constraints of time or space… the world has become my oyster… it is a golden age to be a writer.
That being said, there is no gainsaying the fact that there is a reducing number of readers of traditional literature because of the competing mediums of entertainment. The challenge however is that the fad of “being scholastically dumb is cool” and that is being championed by the youth of today.
Hence as a writer while I am exploring the use of multi-media to make my work interactive, I have to also make sure my works transverse media, genre and the issues and language are accessible and relatable, knowing full well that the ones who must read will read, the ones who have not been exposed to the joy of reading might read, and the ones who do not read or have no interest in the power of the written world, will not read.
What authors have had a major influence on your writing career? What advice do you have for young, upcoming writers?
Being that my writing began at an early age, my formative writing skills were formed by voraciously consuming the works of Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl and the multitude of writers of the Pacesetter series. I then advanced to the Heinemann African Writers Series. That being said, I discovered a new academic level of interest and cultural congruence in the prose of Chinua Achebe, the drama of Wole Soyinka and the poetry of David Diop, but I soared as an eagle when I first read Ben Okri’s Famished Road and discovered a unique voice and the world of magical realism. When I read the works of Marie Correlli, I discovered the genius of combining high art with accessible art. Through several years of reading Ian McWan, I found the electricity of live dialogue and slowly began to find my own voice, a voice that has resonated through all the media I have used.
I would not be voluble in my advice, here I go, writers read widely and voraciously, write incessantly and rewrite even more. They develop a thick skin and believe in themselves because many a disappointment will people your way. Trust your voice and polish it. Find your style and champion it; find your conviction and live it out. Most importantly embrace the dynamics of the age, and use it to your advantage, for no one fights a battle in these times without the ferocity of a bayonet.
I have admired him from afar for a very long time, especially since he blossomed into our television screens towards the end of the last century as the director of Mainframe Films (Opomulero). However, his work and reputation extend way back to the history of television in Africa. As he told me recently on the movie set of a series of multilingual recordings of Public Service Announcements (PSAs) on the Ebola virus raging around the continent, he was there near the beginning, in Ibadan, when the then WNTS (Western Nigerian Television Service) was established. The station was founded in 1959, when he was still in primary school.
At that time, when the foresight of Western Nigeria’s first politicians brought television technology into the continent and sited it in Ibadan, a new industry of imaginative artists was created. And years after that innovation, the first set of broadcasters, technicians, scriptwriters, stage workers, costume and set designers, etc went on to become innovators of their own in various fields of endeavour. (My own father was one of those, joining the Western Nigerian Broadcasting Service (WNBS) in the late sixties as a reader and later, producer). Tunde Kelani became employed at the station as a trainee cameraman on September 20, 1970. According to him, that was when his career trajectory began. He later went to a number of film schools around the world in order to gain sufficient experience. In 1993, his first film as the director of Mainframe Ti Oluwa ni Ile, a trilogy, was released to critical acclaim.
At his Mainframe office in Oshodi, Lagos, the feel of a decent but relaxed artistic environment is prevalent. In a house that doubles as a studio with an editing room and other offices, TK holds court, providing needed input during movie shoots, and coordinating artistic directions where necessary. At 66, he shows no signs of slowing down. On this set, I’m an almost invisible adjunct, present to provide input about the multilingual scripts I worked on translating into the various Nigerian languages, while the actors come in and out to interpret and act their roles on set and against the blue screen. And while the recording goes on, and in-between takes, other light-hearted discussions take place. On set on these couple of days of shooting were Toyin Aimakhu-Johnson, Femi Sowoolu, Joke Silva, Kunle Afolayan, Yomi Fash-Lanso, Tonto Dikeh, Kabirat Kafidipe, among many others.
But being around this legend of Yoruba cultural expressions in film, animated conversations ensue, taking us from one fascinating subject to the other. It has been said, for instance, in western media that Yoruba (or Nigerian) movie industry grew “out of nothing”, or out of little. That reiteration brought out the strongest rebuttal from TK who pointed out, correctly, that the Yoruba culture carried with it an element of theatre that thrived way before television came, and continued through the TV medium in the 50s to the current day. After all, there was Herbert Ogunde, and Moses Adejumo (Baba Sala), and Adeyemi Afolayan (Ade Love) way before the current crop that made what is now called (not to everyone’s satisfaction) “Nollywood”.
Animated even more by the presence of my British-Jamaican friend, psychologist and filmmaker visiting from the University of London, Dr. Julian Henriques, conversations moved from the challenges of movie production on the continent to the inevitable transition from old recording equipment to today’s modern cameras. Julian who was visiting Nigeria for the second time had, earlier in the day, visited with me the Kalakuta Museum in Ikeja, sharing an afternoon of conversation and wonder in the court of the late Afrobeat founder. His interest, Dr. Henriques, in sound as well as cultural movements and productions collided perfectly with the Kelani encounter, as their short but substantive conversations showed, and a happily saturated guest went home with a signed poster of the host’s new production. Julian’s feature film Baby Mother (1998), co-written with Vivienne Howard has been called a “vibrant and delightful” work, buzzing “with vitality and colour.” Baby Mother refers to what Americans call “baby mama”: women saddled with the responsibility of raising children from their unwed partners. The film is more than that though, touching on a number of relevant themes in black, British, and Caribbean popular culture. Here’s a brilliant YouTube clip.
One of the other gems dropped in the conversations is the news of Tunde Kelani’s new project: a theatrical adaptation of Amos Tutuola’s The Palmwine Drinkard into Yoruba as Lanke Omu. According to TK, it is one that carries, for him, an immense personal satisfaction for its transmission of the text’s original intent into a new cultural medium. But that is not the only project on his hands. He had also just recently completed work on a film adaptation of a novel Dazzling Mirage written by Olayinka Egbokhare, which has already been screened for selected audiences. From his reputation and the artistic scope of his earlier works (Koseegbe, O Le Ku, Ti Oluwa Ni Ile, Saworoide, Yellow Card, and Thunderbolt come to mind), these two new projects promise even more, cementing a career that is as dynamic as it is emblematic of the best of African artistic and cultural expression in a world dominated by other global influences.
Though meeting him this time for the first time at close proximity, conversations illustrated that the trajectory of my creative and professional life has passed through courses in TK’s neighbourhood. I remember, for instance, his presence at the launch of the African Language Technology Initiative (ALT-I) in Bodija, Ibadan, in 2004 where my friend, mentor, and occasional collaborator Dr. Tunde Adegbola, burst into Linguistics all the way from Engineering, in a public way, during the WALC 2004 conference. It turned out that the link between Dr. Adegbola and Baba Kelani went even further back to many years pre ALT-I days in Lagos. Another friend, teacher, and mentor, Dr. Larinde Akinleye (now deceased), was a prominent cast in many of TK’s earlier movies. And the author of TK’s recent work, Olayinka Egbokhare, is a personal friend, as one of my teachers of Communication while in the university. It was like a reunion with a friendly but famous uncle you never knew you had, in an environment of mutual respect and admiration.
Also, a fascinating encounter.
In one of the stories in the latest issue of Saraba Magazine (#16), the author goes to movie cinemas because of the opportunity provided by its dark and quiet space to rest hands on his partners” laps. In another, a writer paints a harrowing picture of solitude expressed best through “writing her bones”, as she puts it; a painful but therapeutic process where every experience is an opportunity for reflection as well as escape, and where artistic output and expression is a solution as much as a problem. In another, a writer describes the haunting experience of a domestic accident with a little child that ends with a quirky and sardonic anti-climax, while another piece recounts, in a series of verses like enchanted incantations of many stories, a journey through a writer’s head during “a decade of madness”. And through the work that populate this edition of the magazine dedicated to the concept of solitude, the reader is taken in a multiplicity of mental directions.
In the poems and accompanying artworks, the editors’ selections show adherence to the widest interpretation of the theme. A disabled on woman on a wheelchair, with sample selections of food recipes all around her (Rosi Martez) portray solitude as much as a middle-aged black man sitting on a distant chair in an otherwise social environment (Moustapha Dime). So does a young man holding an open book, and a pen, pondering what next to write in an inconclusive paragraph, or a gypsy woman with a musical instrument or walking staff. What they have in common, beside their aesthetic appeal that invites the beholder to further exploration of ideas beyond the first contact, is a simplicity that complements everything else in the issue. This is a familiar style for Saraba issues: a minimalist approach that projects brilliance in its modesty and understatement of its internally throbbing energies.
To have put this together as the editors have from across their physical distance from each other is a feat creditable to today’s electronic bridge of solitude: the internet. Dami Ajayi is now a jobless medical doctor in Lagos, while Emmanuel Iduma is on the road with the Invisible Borders roadtrip from Lagos to Sarajevo. Together, they have created a thriving brand and a viable platform for new voices in creative and artistic expression around the continent.
I skimmed the poems, but not all. Even a most perfunctory glance, conditioned by a short attention span, or a recent conditioned apathy to poetry reveals gems in stanzas like this:
To ask a poet about solitude
is to speak about lost moments
and untold stories of life
scribbled on brown sheets, old letters
hanging on the wall
As he plays the piano for his departed lover
in a room where cobwebs hang like portraits on old walls;
where cockroaches exchange dreams with old manuscripts
beneath the mattress where
a suicide letter lies
waiting to be read:
only the words survive
as time carries the burden
of memory like a scarf on a cobra’s head
And with that, the feast is complete, deliciously served. Not in the least diminished by sharing, the rest are thus left, best repackaged as it should be, by the selfless re-gifter of all good things. You will take it slow, as I did – to the consternation of my pressuring editors, and enjoy in soluble bites. There’s something for everyone.
The Issue can be downloaded here.