What’s inspired you to become a writer? I’d always been fascinated with writing – handwriting more to the point. Dad had this elegantly cursive style which I’d always imitate. This meant I had to find the words to write down. My earliest memories of attempting to write was when I followed in the steps of my siblings who wrote on pieces of school papers folded in half – down to the size of published books lying around the house. Dad had been an avid reader in his time - I'd even read his worn down copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover as early as nine. So I'd write - trying out styles that I'd read – into these lined pieces of paper which I imagined would make a manuscript. I was going to be a published writer. Life happens, other interests kick in, writing becomes intermittent, and although adolescent friends raved about what I'd written, writing never felt cool enough. Perceived talent lay untapped – until verging on early adulthood, and realising I had a lot to say and nowhere was quite right to say it.
How would you describe your work? I'd describe my work as being driven from a place of truth. I'd like to think I tell stories which hold meaning, first to me and then to my readers. To do this, I pick characters in a perpetual battle; with themselves, with the people around them, with the world they find themselves in. I'm not happy go lucky with my work at all but I do sprinkle humour throughout, and not for laughs per se, but to soften the blow of the harsh realities these characters face. I find that my work comes to life when dealing with a character whose perceived injustice ordinarily goes unnoticed by the rest of the world. It is in crafting the narratives around these that I have found a voice I believe to be powerful.
Tell us about the new book? My debut, The Teacher The Seamstress and The Pianist delves into the lives of a woman in her early fifties, a talented teenage boy and a young girl blossoming into womanhood. It is a deep and rich tale centred on the idea of unspoken grief. So each of these characters live together, and on the surface they live peaceably, and this belies the torment in the depths of their souls. The conflict emerges when their desires clash outwardly. The book is set in Nigeria, and takes its perspectives from the early 90s under a fictitious brutal military regime which governs by supressing press freedoms and the early 2000s under a newly democratic government. There are of course clashes with these governments whose actions are not always in the best interests of the main protagonist Onyeka, and in the early 90s, in that of her journalist husband Arum.
What inspires some of your characters and themes? I am inspired chiefly by my imagination, memory and then by people I see every day and those I have encountered in the past - my mother, father an aunty, an uncle, a friend, my sister, myself, a cousin, an uncle, an old headmistress. The point I'm making is that in general I have plethora of places to draw inspiration from. But then I’d narrow it down to the personalities of the characters I’m writing about. I ask, what action would Chidiebere really take, given she is calm or wild or jealous and in that sense the narrative is propelled because her reaction to an event is uniquely hers. But the events in most cases are not unique, which is where themes come in. In terms of themes, I've looked to dissect Nigeria but my mission has not been to portray a certain light, for good or bad. I most definitely have not written an essay on Nigeria. My work is not intended to be political – I have simply thrown light on the country and in doing so, caught whatever is there to be caught that will engage the reader. So I've dealt with childlessness, marriage, divorce, PTSD, suffering, emancipation, bereavement, teenage angst, African art, witchcraft, crime, corruption, the Almajiri system, hope, joy amongst other things.
How would you describe being a writer? I think being a writer is quite like having a screw loose in the head. Something has pushed you to step out of your world in search of another, and no not one which already exists but one you'd have to create first. And in this new world, against all of your good graces, all you do is seek conflict. Conflict between your characters, conflict inside of your character’s head, conflict with the place, conflict with existence. And all the while keeping an eye on your primary responsibility - keeping your reader spellbound by the words before their media-saturated eyes. Fail to do this in a single scene and you've lost your reader for good. So yes being a writer is a little like being a god, with the power to create and un-create, and only the most brilliant amongst us will wield this breathtaking power effectively.
Your main protagonist is a woman, as a male writer, how did you negotiate crafting a realistic woman in your debut? Now whilst it's not entirely unusual for a male writer to write about a woman, I was adamant that I would not fall into the unforgivable trap of writing of a cliched woman – whatever that is – whose thought processes mirror the caricatured view of what it is said men think about women. I wanted to write of a fulsome woman, with desires, wants, motivations and needs not defined by her being a woman, but driven by her practical realities. Onyeka is flawed, but more so because she is human than because she is a woman. When Onyeka fails to speak up for herself, it is not because women are not to be heard but because she has weighed the consequences of speaking to power as it pertains to her in that particular circumstance and decided it was best to remain silent.
Was it difficult writing about Nigeria from London? I spent much of my formative years in Nigeria and I have since lived in London for over 15 years so naturally I worried about crafting a Nigeria which is both real and slightly contemporary. I have relied much on my memories and then on a dose of imagination. Now, imagination is a most important tool for a writer; more so when events occur before a writer has the requisite consciousness to have acutely observed real life events. Yet, re-imagining is a great asset which frees up the writer to focus on the story. The cars may be older, but the story lies in what happened in the car journey which changed your character for worse or better. Still, in my quest to balance fiction with some accuracy, I visited Nigeria twice in 5 years, and on each visit, I kept my eyes wide open, listened intently, engaged actively and travelled widely across the country.
Tell us more about the Almajiri system In some parts of Nigeria, a failed system of child rearing called Almajiri is practiced, with precarious outcomes for young homeless boys who roam from street to street, from dusk till dawn, begging. Originally, the Almajiri system made Islamic scholars of these children, but now failing them, the children are mostly left destitute, at the mercy of several maligning elements. My debut, throws light on the entrenchment of Almajiri through Musa, a lowly gateman, who worries that his estranged son, Yabani, has become an Almajiri boy. Musa is afflicted by a deeply held belief that he is supernaturally cursed, and fears that this curse has pushed Yabani, into his predicament. However he lacks the agency to do anything about it. Dealing with this phenomenon in my work is a clear eyed attempt at furthering discussions towards securing better outcomes for the young children at the brunt of it.
What can you give away about a character in your debut? Well there is Chidiebere, a young ambitious girl on the verge of womanhood. She is also a house maid whose life ambitions are not of her own choosing. A tragic incident in her far away family home in the hinterlands of Nigeria’s eastern region spurs in her, an awakening. She strives for a future in which she has a voice, leading to a clash of desires between herself and her benevolent madam. I chose to tell Chidiebere's story in part because all too often, and as Chimamanda Adichie ably pointed out in her Single Story TedTalk, the journeys of the bottom classes are too often regarded, at face, inconsequential. Yet, the world over, when their stories are suitably told, they evoke a useful crisis of conscience and a renewed strive for goodness in humanity.
How did you handle the issue of the freedom of the press in your debut? My debut, plays out across the 90s and early 2000s. The earlier period saw a military ruled Nigeria with a shackled press. Arbitrary arrests and prosecution of journalists before kangaroo tribunals were rife. I shed light on this maligning aspect of 90s Nigeria through the plights of Arum, the journalist husband to Onyeka (The Teacher). Arum's fight for his freedoms to tell the truth, to ply his trade, to eke out a living doing so, chronicles the real life misadventures of Nigeria's journalists in the face of military juntas who used the proscription of press publications as a form of governance. Sadly, at a particularly ugly height – and this remains a stain in the conscience, if not of the nation, then of select individuals – a letter bomb was surreptitiously delivered to a young budding journalist by the name of Dele Giwa, fatally wounding him.
How do you see the current state of African contemporary literature? It is rich. Really rich. I'd caveat that by saying that not all writers of African descent are writing African contemporary literature. Some stories are set in Europe, Americas, yet experienced by African characters. I don't wish to get political or describe other writers in ways different to how they see themselves so I'd answer simply by saying we are blessed with a new generation of writers of African descent. This follows on from the glorious eras of Chinua Achebe, Buchi Emecheta, Wole Soyinka, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, Ahmadou Kourouma, to mention a few and then the generation of someone like Ben Okri. In my opinion first off the later stable is Chimamanda Adichie. I have always loved her writing and I fairly recently discovered how eclectic a writer she is when I read her brilliant New Yorker short story centred on Melania Trump. On a deeply personal note, her work has inspired me a lot and I daresay, it has inspired my work a lot too. Reading her novels always left me with a yearning to pick up the pen, the laptop, a phone and just write. And of course there are a lot of other writers off this promising stable, doing great things. Ayobami Adebayo had an impactful debut. There are Taiye Selasi, Yaa Gyasi, Chibundu Onozu, Nnedi Okorafor, Helon Habila and Chigozie Obioma, all producing phenomenal works. Note that many of these wonderful writers are female and so there is a challenge of sorts to male African writers to produce work of matching prominence.
The market for African literature is huge both within the continent and internationally - how is your work being received? I have yet to release the debut so watch this space. Of course the hope is for it to be received rather well.
Tell us what you love most about Africa and your home land Nigeria in particular. The sun of course. How we seem to say it is scorching but you would never hear anyone talk about giving it up. This applies to both Africa and Nigeria.