‘Absence of clout around literature diminishes its cause’

Low patronage or poor reading culture is as a result of a lack of clout around the discipline of literature, so suggests theatre scholar, Dr. Soji Cole, who teaches dramatic arts at the University of Ibadan. He is among the final three in the race for The Nigeria Prize for Literature 2018, with focus on drama. In this interview with ANOTE AJELUOROU, Cole highlights some of the challenges facing creative writing in the country.

It’s just a small step away before victory is assured haven been shortlisted for the prize. Does it seem like waiting for the ‘famous’ godot between the Book Party and October 19 prize announcement date?
Well, I really wouldn’t be so assured about victory, as that would be undermining the quality of other entries. For me it was never a situation of victory and vanquished in the first place. One of the books would eventually be given the prize. My idea has always been that a longlisted entry may be as good as the eventual winning book. By that I mean that all the 11 authors who were longlisted are actually deserving of the prize. The judges have their prerogatives; and they arrived at the last three. So, it is no issue of victory or not. It is about the satisfaction that our books were able to travel this far.

However, I wished that the date of the announcement would just come and go. When the shortlist was announced and Embers made it, I made up my mind not to be bothered. But between then and now I have had a deluge of congratulatory messages. Most of these messages have appendages of expectation. That has caused some anxiety in me. And that is really why the waiting seems long. I just wish this is over.

What are your expectations regarding wining the prize?
While I wish that Embers clinched the prize, I have opted to put myself in a state of indifferent disposition. I feel that I have written a good play. I can adjudge that the play is good because I have this seeming self-satisfaction when I finished it. I have written several plays that I have had to tear up at the end of the day because I didn’t get that satisfaction that comes when you know that you have created things that are worthwhile. For Embers, I felt this innate ambience of accomplishment. So I wouldn’t be surprised if it clinched the prize. But then, I always have it at the back of my head that there are other two quality works which I believe the authors would have had that same self adulating spirit after writing them.

What makes your book unique and why do you think it should be the jury’s choice?
Someone remarked that Embers has a firm depth in terms of dramatic language. I think I agree with this. I was very cautious. In any case, I am first of all particular about language in any kind of literature. I push my creative writing students to have that firm grip of language and then every other thing would come to them. And they are always the first set of critics of my works; so, it is essential that I pay attention to language in my works. That was what I did with Embers. The story itself is metaphoric. I am actually telling the Nigerian story in the play, but I have fitted the locale in a Boko Haram-induced IDP camp.

That background provided the play with the necessary opportunity for verisimilitude. There are things happening in those camps in the northern part of Nigeria. I did some researches before writing the play. In the end, one tries to reflect that some of the things happening in these camps are actually happening in and around us every day!

Then I was intent on the dramaturgy. A drama is just a mere piece of writing when it is lax in terms of the dramaturgical fixtures. That is what makes the story tenable for performance in the first place. I was sensitive to the dramaturgical details as I built Embers. I also feel that the play is capable of connecting to anyone who reads it. These are qualities, which make Embers unique.

Like I said earlier, the judges have set criteria and prerogatives. They determine their position based on these. Those who sent in entries are only concerned about the competition guidelines. We do not determine the literary taste of the jury. However, I am confident that Embers is a choice dramatic piece for any lover of language and literature.

From traditional to social media, do you think the prize has generated enough conversation, good or bad? And is the conversation coming as an informed one?
Yes. The prize has generated some conversation. I know some have been good while some have not been very favourable. My own belief is that the prize has grown to be fundamental in the development of literature in Nigeria. Generating conversation in itself means that attention is directed to the subject matter of literature. I commend the prize administrator that they have kept on with the prize despite some unsavory feedbacks that they get. Whether we like it or not, we must be honest with ourselves that The Nigerian Prize for Literature, sponsored by Nigeria Liquified Natural Gas Limited, is probably that one literature prize that the population of Nigerian literary minds look up to every year after the Nobel and the Man Booker Prizes. That means a lot.

I understand that there are needs for improvement but I feel that the NLNG should have formidable support from other stakeholders in the literary environment. We must understand that NLNG is not a literary organization but they are doling out the largest money prize for literature in Africa! So, we must ask ourselves what kind of support has other literary organizations given to the NLNG in terms of consultancy, advice, outreach, collaboration, etc. As far as I know, just very few of these literary organizations have come close to doing what should be done. It is very easy to criticize but hard to get up and move!

Personally, too, I feel the prize administrator should look into other areas like supporting publishers and writers, especially the younger ones, compensating all authors who make it to the longlist, etc., but the truth is that NLNG is not a literary organization, as I said. They are doing it the best the way they know for Nigerian literature at the moment. Over the years, they have increased the prize money three times or thereabout. They have increased their profile and opened up the judging system the more. They need the efforts and support of other stakeholders to keep improving on the prize.

From the point of writing to the Book Party and to just three playwrights, just how arduous has the journey been?
Haa! The expectation can be likened to that of the evolution of the child. From conception you finished off the first draft, which looks like a scan picture of the baby. Then you polish as the child grows in you. Then you are expectant on the delivery day when you got the first printed copy from the publisher. You look at it like you would a fresh born baby. Then you send the child to school like an entry for the competition and hope that the child graduates with a first class! Already you have received progress report that your child has been ranked among the best in the school but there would have to be a jury to determine if the child would clinch the sole honors badge in the school. You see, all these phases are journeys with their different anxiety and expectations. It is difficult to determine which of the steps is most arduous.

From your experience in the prize journey, what are the challenges confronting playwrights and writers in Nigeria and how do you propose they be mitigated?
That is a big question. First of all, I want to ascertain that what we have in Nigeria are part-time literary writers. You can’t be a full-fledged literary writer in Nigeria unless you are going to be dependent on handout for existence. There is no environment for writers to flourish in Nigeria. Every writer you see in Nigeria has some other vocation, which they pay more attention to! That is what feeds them! What pays their bills! Writing cannot sustain your existence in Nigeria. Unless, of course, if we are talking about some first or second generation writers, who have made their marks and now generate some sustenance from talking at international fora, doing international workshops or giving lectures. It’s a big challenge because people don’t buy books in Nigeria. There are just scanty people, who love literature and go out to buy books. Some don’t have money to buy. The cost of publication is high and it greatly determines the selling price. We all do self-publication now. That is the way the system runs or else you’ll never get your works published.

Then how do you market the books? You can’t write and start doing the selling. One will just end up in Death of a Salesman (laughs). In other words, I am saying that these are some of the many challenges confronting writers in Nigeria. My first play Maybe Tomorrow, which was also on the longlist of the 2014 edition of The Nigeria Prize for Literature didn’t get the desired market. I work in the educational environment, but I have a guiding principle never to sell my books to my own students for courses, which I am the tutor. And that ends the prospect of the book’s marketing. I can’t be thinking of writing, and teaching and trying to grow my family and then choke it up with marketing my books. I gave over 500 of Maybe Tomorrow out as complimentary copies.

And that is how it goes. You will see young writers literally forcing their books on people to buy. Most times it is shameful but they don’t have an alternative to recoup the money invested in the publication. There have been arguments whether Nigerians read or not. They do read, of course! But they read sensational stories from the internet, not literature. Even your closest friends just want a complimentary copy of your book as memento. Ask them for feedbacks and they start to scratch their heads!

That is a big problem.
Those who read literary works in Nigeria are adherents of literature and they are still very scanty. We need to find ways to tell our stories. The debasement of Literature and History as school subjects has contributed to this debacle. Maybe if we start by elevating some of these subjects then we could directly encourage the reading culture. Then people and organizations don’t put their money in literature. And that is why I find what NLNG is doing fascinating. Other organisations would rather invest in musical shows or reality TV shows. So there is no clout around the discipline of literature, which also diminishes its cause.

Should you win, is there any social or political or cultural cause/s you might channel part of the prize money?
Most certainly there are. Most of them are very personal to me and they are humanitarian in nature. You know, some things you have dreamed of doing if you had the resources. I can’t state them in public because they are projects, which have some ethical considerations around them. Also, I had come across some set of brilliant young student writers in the past years that I have been teaching playwriting as an Arts Fellow at the University of Ibadan. Most of these students do not have hope of publishing their first series of writings. I have been collecting some of these works and have been in constant touch with even those who have left the university among these students. I hope to have an international compendium of writings for these students. My first literary work was published in an international compendium. I do hope that some of these young, brilliant writers will get such opportunity. Then I hope to help some of them publish their works privately, too.

Your play, Embers, has serious political implications for Nigeria and Africa, especially the politics of security and the humaneness or otherwise of leaders. What is the way forward?
I wouldn’t know the way forward. I am not that gifted as to be able to define the way forward to all these problems. You see, you are right when you say that they are human problems. Human problems must be resolved by humans. And resolutions are often arrived at by finding the cause. We know the cause. We are just not stopping. And the more these problems persist the more we see them as normal! And that is why I am clueless. When we agree that something is inhuman and we still see a large proportion of human beings engaging in such things, then it is a serious problem.

You will see in my works that I never make any pretension at finding solutions to these problems. What I do is to provoke my readers at seeing that these problems are growing bigger than we think and they will consume us one day if we don’t take them serious!

Are young writers rising to the challenge of stepping into the shoes of older playwrights?
No they are not! Young writers cannot step into the shoes of older ones because the older ones are still wearing the shoes. It is a difficult situation, and most times we don’t consider every side of the conversation when we blame young writers as not coming up. Of course, we can’t blame older writers too because writing just inadvertently becomes a pastime to you as you grow and no one has a right to stop you. The issue here is mentoring. I can’t say how effective that has been from the older writers to the younger ones. My take is that we disregard every sense of entitlement. The older writers mustn’t look down on the young ones, who don’t worship them and the younger ones should take responsibility and not expect that they deserve the endorsement of the older ones. Unfortunately, these seeming dislocations are paramount among the ‘young-older’ generations and the generations immediately following. If we take a proper scrutiny, we would find that the first and second generations of Nigerian writers, and the emerging ‘very young’ contemporary writers don’t even give a damn about all these. They are evolving in their own worlds!

And is performance art (drama) marginalised among the genres of literature?
Yes, I think so. I imagined the levity some two years back and I discovered that of all genres of literature, drama suffers the least attention. People prefer to watch the performance instead of reading the play. And some of the writers who write drama in Nigeria are not helping because of the lack of understanding of the technicality and language. No one has a mandate on any genre of literature but at least a work of art must aspire towards certain level of aesthetics in terms of language, style and depth. That understanding must come with writing drama. If attention is paid to these areas I feel people will read more drama.

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