The landscape of my imagination is very much rooted in Port Harcourt city, says prize winner, Jowhor Ile
‘…Part Of My Writing In This Book Was A Lament’ JOWHOR Ile was award the winner of Etisalat Prize for Literature 2017 for his novel, And After Many Days, two Saturdays ago in Lagos. In this revealing interview, Ile spoke to the Assistant Arts Editor, ANOTE AJELUOROU, on a number of salient issues regarding his favourite city and his craft
Congratulations for winning the Etisalat Prize for Literature, Jowhor! You were in apparent shock when you were announced winner of the prize. Describe your experience? What was on your mind before the announcement? How did you fancy your chances?
Thank you! It was already an intense week leading up to the main event that Saturday. I refused to think about what the final outcomes might be. It felt better to just enjoy being on the shortlist. It was a very strong shortlist— Jacqui and Julie wrote very good books as well, and the nature of the prize is that there would be only one winner; thinking about it wouldn’t affect the outcome. I guess what I’m trying to say is, I wasn’t prepared for it and my reaction was what it was. I was definitely pleased. I still am.
After winning the prize, what has changed? What is changing for you?
I have received tons of messages from family, friends and readers across the country. It feels good to have people celebrate with you, and claim the prize as our own. I definitely felt this in Lagos. The cheering in that hall when I was announced winner. Port Harcourt is rejoicing that their son has done the country proud. I am currently doing a lot of media interviews and have become more active on social media since the past week. It’s all very exciting.
You are the first Nigerian to break what some have called a jinx to win the prize in its fourth year. What does this mean to you and other Nigeria aspiring writers? What is your winning formula?
Prizes are good. It is encouraging when writers have their work recognised and supported in this way. There should be more prizes; there should be grants, residencies and fellowship. Writers don’t write for prizes but encouragement and support are welcome.
You are not only a Port Harcourt city boy, but Port Harcourt is your canvas for And After Many Days. What is your relationship with that city?
I grew up in Port Harcourt. The landscape of my imagination is very much rooted here. I write stories set in other parts of the country and the world, but I tend to return always to Port Harcourt. I might fall asleep in a flat in London or Boston but my dreams pack up and happen in Port Harcourt. I can’t seem to help it. It is also important to note that the Port Harcourt in After Many Days is not the Port Harcourt of today. Like every other city, it has evolved, and I am keen to see where things are going. I moved back to the city in early 2015, after being away for a while. I rented a flat and unpacked, with the aim to just sit, write and just live there again. It is the one place in the world I feel most at home (my oldest friends and my family are here mostly).
I am also most frustrated here, or perhaps I should say easily frustrated. I want the city to be more, to do more, to rise to it’s potential, but it seems to disregard my wishes. So yes, it’s a complicated love. It is also true that it has been through rocky times in the past 10 years, but I want it to do better. When you love something you want it to succeed in all sorts of ways. When I was growing up, Port Harcourt had the reputation of being serene and green, a cultured and cultural place. I like to think we are finding our way again back to that. Also, it is the one place in the world where you can find the meanest, tastiest catfish pepper soup! No questions.
You don’t live in Port Harcourt anymore. Any likelihood of another book being set in the city?
I have spent the past eight months in the U.S. completing an MFA in creative writing. I wouldn’t say I don’t live in Port Harcourt anymore—it sounds too final. It is perfectly fine to leave and return or whatever. My family and friends are here and I’m engaged with what is going on. If a story I’m writing wants to be set in Port Harcourt, I won’t resist it.
Too few creative books would seem to have come out of Port Harcourt that focuses on the city. Only recently did Chinelo Oparanta base her novel Under the Udala Trees in Port Harcourt. Do you think the city is under fictionalised even if it has been in the headlines for the wrong reasons - kidnappings, militancy, amnesty?
You are right about the city being in the headlines for the wrong reasons. I believe things can change. I was a huge fan of the Pacesetter’s Series when I was growing up. I remember reading Mark of the Cobra by Valentine Alily, a detective novella. I still recall the thrill when I found out it was (set) in Port Harcourt, with locations I could recognise. Port Harcourt is rich with stories, and it is definitely worthy of novels being set in it. I expect to see more stories set here.
The police come under the spotlight through Paul’s disappearance. What kind of reform are you proposing for that institution?
Better training. Better remuneration. The slogan ‘The police is your friend’ is laughably ironic; at least, in my own experience. Like most of our institutions, we need them to do what they are actually there for. A word like ‘corruption’ has been hollowed out of any meaning; so, I will refrain from using it. The police are meant to protect citizens. Let them do that work. Where do we start? Do they even have a database? I was in a car crash a few years ago, happy to get out of it unscathed but I was in shock, as you would be. The police got there and began to hassle me for a bribe. I can’t get over the inhumanity of that. They could suggest I go to a hospital for a check up, even if they won’t drive me there. When I made it clear that no change would leave my wallet, that I would rather die than part with any money, one of them said I was ungrateful to God for saving my life. Sigh. I’ll leave the matter there!
Your book also reads like activism manifesto for problems in the Niger Delta. Is this art in defence of the people, the environment? What impact do you envisage this would have on all concerned?
I used to shy away from words like activism, but maybe I shouldn’t. If we value life then we should protect it. The world we have been born into has a lot of beauty in it. If we cherish that beauty then we should look for ways to conserve it, not just for ourselves but also for our children. The reckless destruction of the environment in the Niger Delta should make everyone angry. It fills me with a lot of sadness to see this beautiful place brought to its knees. So, after we are done spoiling the land, the air, the rivers and forests, where will we go? Where will we call home? I suppose I was thinking about all these things when I was writing. The world of my childhood has completely past away, and I’m not even that old. It might sound dramatic now, but I was in mourning for that world, part of my writing in this book was a lament; it was also a plea. It was my attempt to say, ‘wait, watch, listen, do something.’ I suppose I’m political to that extent. I also wanted to celebrate that beauty. There is something incredibly nourishing about being in a forest teeming with life; our rivers and streams are a thing of beauty. I wanted to say that.
Your eye for details is intense. How did you achieve this feat?
I am drawn to writing that is vivid and rich with detail. It’s also the kind of writing I aspire to. Writers pay attention to the world. Attention is the highest form of generosity; it is the pathway to deep empathy; it is devotion, a kind of worship. I am happy if that shows in my work. Thank you.
You choose a period of less restiveness in the Niger Delta, in the 1990s. Why did you avoid the restive years?
I was more interested in the question, ‘How did this happen?’ I was trying to understand how we got to where we were. To do that you have to go to the roots. Also, just in a creative way, I didn’t find the ‘restive years interesting. All you need is a newspaper article to give you a picture of what’s happening. Understanding the causes might, at least, offer something, or give clarity about what to do.
You were first published abroad. Did you attempt to get a local publisher first? How did it go? Describe the publishing trajectory for And After Many Days and what others can learn from your own experience...
I finished writing this book, and started approaching agents. And, as usual, the rejections came, loads of them. I sent short stories out too, and some of them got accepted in publications. An agent agreed to represent me, and that was really it. An American publisher bought the novel first for the U.S. rights, and then Farafina made an offer, I believe, for the rights to publish in Nigeria.