Culture ministry seems focused only on entertainment, as opposed to developing arts, creativity

Lola Shoneyin

Lola Shoneyin is not new to Nigeria’s culture community. She spares no punches when she needs to pull one. With two festival experiences tucked under her belt, she just knows what to do and more. In this interview with ANOTE AJELUOROU, Shoneyin speaks on a wide range of issues in Nigerian’s cultural landscape

Do you find willing collaborators or collaborations in the work that you do, or is it a lonely walk in the dark?
Finding collaborators is always a challenge. We’ve been very fortunate to be able to find funders and sponsors to support our work, both with organising the festivals, but also with the Right to Write Project Nigeria, which is largely funded by the European Union (EU) Trust Fund. We spent a long time with Afri-Cultures perfecting the concept note and really trying to articulate what our goals are and the process that we want to use to achieve these goals, of getting books out there and supporting individuals who want to start telling their stories. Where we’ve been less fortunate and the part that is sometimes quite sad is the fact that one very rarely finds local companies and organisations to support cultural work, not even government institutions.

For instance, one would expect so much more from the Ministry of Information and Culture at this time, but it seems, at the moment, to be very focused on entertainment, as opposed to really developing creativity. Sometimes, there seems to be a little bit of confusion in what actually constitutes The Arts. So, I would like a situation where we have more local collaborators.

Well, congratulations on your new outfit, Ouidah Books. The name is intriguing. Why did you choose Ouidah over Ake for your publishing concern?
Ake is related to the place. I like the idea of festivals being named after the city or the immediate vicinity. This way it’s easy because the truth is, when you try to be creative when you’re naming a festival, it can get very complicated. We wanted Ouidah to be completely separate. First of all, Ake festival is run by the Book Buzz Foundation, which is an NGO. So, it’s a non-profit and we wanted to actually set up a side business where we can continue to publish books and promote great writing. We love Ouidah because it’s the name of a slave coast in Benin Republic but also, there is a fabulous bird with a very long tail, sometimes two, sometimes four and it’s also beautiful, such an elegant bird. So, we’ve got a word that signifies or means two things and we’re quite happy with that.

What gaps did you see in the publishing scene you want to bridge that prompted you venturing into it?
The biggest gap is simply that there still aren’t enough publishing houses. We’ve seen some great work being done by Farafina, Kachifo, Paressia Books, Cassava Republic and there’s always room for more because there is a lot of great writing. So, it’s just a question of “the more the merrier.” The more publishing houses exist in Nigeria, the more we’ll be able to publish work that is grown and nurtured right here in Nigeria. That’s what needs to be happening within the publishing sector; we’ve got to grow our own market. We’ve got to discover talents in Nigeria ourselves and we’ve got to share this work with Nigerians and, of course, with Africans and we’ve got to create our own writing superstars. It’s one of the few ways that we can truly grow this market in a way that sees to it that our work is published but also, we create and develop our own standards in terms of what we like and the kind of literature that we enjoy on the continent.

You have two authors already on Ouidah Books’ stable – Odafe Atogun (Taduno’s Song) and Ayobami Adebayo (Stay With Me). What was the experience getting them on board?
It’s been wonderful working with Odafe Atogun and Ayobami Adebayo. They’re both such easy-going authors. We put a great deal of work into organising a book tour for them and they complied and they were wonderful. We sold a lot of books; we’ve already sold close to a thousand copies of both books, which I think is a real feat. We’ve also found lots of ingenious ways of getting the books out there and getting people to engage with them and the results have been phenomenal, much better than we expected.

What kinds of books do you look out for? What determines your publishing decision?
We are looking for good fiction, but I’m also looking at speculative fiction, which I think is coming into its own on the continent. And I can see a lot of fascination with sci-fi, which is only natural or at least fantasy, which is very natural for us as Africans and I’m really excited about the sorts of manuscripts that we get. So, it’s not just literary fiction; we’re also looking for readable work, stuff that is engaging. But more than that, I’m just excited about being able to introduce Nigerians to new writers but also to new reading experiences, new genres that they might not have picked up before and I think you’ll see that in some of the choices that we make.

We’re very excited to be publishing Nnedi Okorafor’s book Who Fears Death and we’re also thrilled to be publishing Tade Thompson’s book, Double Wahala. These are two excellent writers and for all the people who perhaps wouldn’t have picked up a book of fantasy, science fiction, crime fiction or even speculative fiction, I think it’s a wonderful opportunity.

At a recent reading, your two authors carpeted Nigerian publishers for lack of faith in local writers and their unwillingness to take them on. Ouidah Books seems to have fallen into that old trap of waiting for Nigerian writers to be published abroad first. When will you publish a local writer who hasn’t been published abroad first?
I think the authors might have been looking at their own experiences in terms of trying to get publishers for your work locally first and, I think, as part of their journeys and it’s sad to think that perhaps they couldn’t find a publishing house to take on their work initially but somehow, a western publishing house and, in this case, it’s actually Canongates with both authors, who took their work on, took them through the editing process and eventually published both books to critical acclaim. That’s probably the story with a lot of Nigerian authors, who have found success internationally.

However, we look at the work first; don’t forget that sometimes you don’t see the book for the first time after it’s been published in the west. Sometimes, you have access to it in manuscript stage; sometimes, you have to do a deal with the publishers there, who may be discovered it first. In which case, they have to publish the book first and then you publish yours after. There are all sorts of different factors that determine the process by which a book is published. It may not be best to simply jump into conclusions. We’re always looking for new stuff; we’re a very small team, but we’re growing and, to be honest, it is easier in the first instance to kind of publish books that already have an audience. Don’t forget that publishing is not a charity; publishing is a business and profitability is very key and I think you’ll find that that’s why a lot of publishers first publish some of the Nigerian writers who have found success internationally. It’s really because first, you want to make sure the book is accessible in Nigeria, but also it’s because a lot of work has gone into getting that book into the level that it has which is a lot of editing, lots of people looking into it and commenting on it and helping to make the book into a great read. So, it’s been through that process and admittedly, it does make one’s work as a publisher easier.

However, we have to look inwards and we’re doing a lot of that at the moment, trying to find new talent here. It’s simply not easy because one does worry that there aren’t many people who have the patience or skills to power through the editorial process. It’s very time-consuming and I think we’ll get there eventually, but we need to go back to the drawing board and maybe get trainers to come and support people, who actually want to be editors.

In your estimation, why do publishers have such little faith in local writers and wait for their validation from publishers abroad before securing secondary rights to their works?
Like I said earlier, I think it’s very much about business. It’s about the fact that you need to sell a book; you need to make profit to keep your business going. It’s not so much about the fact that the publishers here have disdain for local writers. I won’t agree to that at all. I think they’re looking at the fact that they’re trying to run a business and look, for instance, you have a book like Toke Makinwa’s autobiography, which was published here and it did amazingly. We have a very exciting project; we’re actually doing some work with a famous musician, who has decided to turn his hands to writing and that’s what I’m saying; that’s looking for local content.

Isn’t such attitude a validation of western cultural hegemony – that the west still determines what is good for us, our cultural tastes? Is this a good thing?
I definitely do not subscribe to us waiting for validation from the west. I don’t think there’s a publishing house operating in Nigeria, which is not thinking about publishing local content, but it’s very expensive getting the kind of skill that is needed and the stories need a lot of work. But a lot of publishing houses really are committed to trying to get the best fiction that is available and sharing that with the continent but what’s also interesting is that we can’t totally discount or disregard the coincidences. The fact is, sometimes the writers, who are very hardworking, are also the ones who find publishers in the west. A lot of the authors whose books are published to critical acclaim are often very dedicated and have put in a lot of years into it and maybe that’s why they found the success wherever they did find it first.
You boasted that Ouidah Books are printed 100 per cent locally. This looks like a challenge to your colleagues, who still go to India, China to print, isn’t it?

What is the cost implication?
Indeed, our intention is to publish and print our books in Nigeria; we do all our artwork, typesetting in Nigeria here, tapping into local talent. We also try and use Nigerian printers and it’s been a very difficult journey and I think that a lot of publishers have alluded to this already. It’s all about quality control. You’ve got a beautiful manuscript and you want it to be a beautiful book, but somewhere along the line, the printer makes mistakes, people end up having to return a lot of books that you end up having to exchange sometimes. That happens, but if we don’t stay the course and continue to encourage these printers; sometimes, it just means you’ve got to take the bitter with the sweet.

I have nothing against printing books outside the country because the truth is, it’s cheaper. It’s so much cheaper and, fortunately, you can count on the quality.

I think it’s a question of equipment, the sort of equipment that is used there, which is a lot more sophisticated. A lot of the stuff that is still being done by hand in Nigeria will just shock you. However, you understand also why some of that equipment isn’t as easy to come by in Nigeria because once you bring that sort of equipment to Nigeria and you start publishing, you have to think about our biggest problem: electricity, which can sometimes triple the cost of production. So, you end up with a product that is sometimes a little more expensive than what you will get if you decide to print elsewhere. It’s really demoralising and it’s discouraging for publishers. I know that most of them will like to publish in Nigeria if it’s easier, but the truth is, it is time-consuming and sometimes the product isn’t as beautiful as you’d like it to be. You look at the binding, the gluing and all that; it’s just unfortunate!

You had a collaborative book festival with Kaduna State Government. Could you enlighten us about its significance?

We had a fantastic time in Kaduna. It was a collaborative effort between the Book Buzz Foundation, Gusau Institute and the Kaduna State Government. It was a wonderful time to bring writers and creative people from Northern Nigeria together. For us at the Book Buzz Foundation, we are happy to work with state governments, which seek to organise festivals; it’s what we do. I think we have a lot of experience and we’ve become quite good at it and we’re more than willing to help because we are called the Book Buzz Foundation. The idea is to develop writers, to develop the reading culture in any way that we can and to get people to engage in cultural dialogue, which I have found to be extremely effective in just getting to understand how other people think.

There is a huge level of intolerance in Nigeria and a lot of ethnic and religious intolerance and I think that these conversations go a long way to have the opportunity to listen to the other side. It’s sometimes missing within the cultural space and sometimes even within the media to have these constructive conversations between two parties that are actually ready to sit down and thrash out issues and when you listen to the other side, you listen to other perspectives. You find that once you understand how the other side thinks, it does help in developing tolerance and the understanding that it’s okay for people to be different in whatever way that they choose to be. And if it’s not affecting you negatively, then what really is all the brouhaha about?

The idea was to have the first really big Arts and Book Festival in Northern Nigeria and I think we achieved that. There was a lot of enthusiasm; the mood was beautiful. People were really elated to come together and I think they enjoyed the experience immensely, so much so that the governor has promised that he wants to have a second edition, which will be even bigger. The hall that we used was full to capacity and from the first day, even the spill-over hall was full, which I think is a testament for how thirsty people have been for this sort of event and we’re very proud to have been part of that.

You wrote The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives a few years back. Another book is long in coming. Any time soon? Or is your festival foray getting in the way of your creativity?
Absolutely! It’s not just the festival that gets in the way of my writing; it’s also the other work that I’m involved in. So, apart from the festivals, there’s the publishing house. Book Buzz Foundation also does other work like the Right to Write Nigeria Project, where we’re the implementing partner. So, there is a lot on my plate personally, but I am writing a second novel but it’s slow because I have four children and this comes with responsibilities, many of them financial. At this stage and writing for me hasn’t been particularly lucrative. I don’t think we are quite at that stage yet in Nigeria, where you can say you are a writer and that’s all that you actually do. Many of the writers that I know also have other work that they do and hopefully we will get to the point, where we have a viable arts council. That means that you can apply for some funding that will allow you to not have to worry about your wallet and you can just focus on your creativity. We’re not there yet but hopefully, we will get there soon, as a country.

In which other ways are you intervening in bringing books, knowledge to the people?
It’s probably worthwhile to mention some of the work that we’re going to be doing with the Right to Write Nigeria Project, which involves developing authors from Northern Nigeria. We’re going to be working in five states that: Adamawa, Bauchi, Borno, Kaduna and Katsina and the idea is to develop culturally sensitive local stories, stories that resonate with children. So, we’re going to publish 20 books, which will be class appropriate.

I think the problem with the teaching of literacy in Nigeria is the absence of class readers, the absence of story books that are well produced, that are beautiful, that have meaningful stories that help children to develop their minds and to develop their dreams and aspirations. I feel that reading has a huge effect on the way that people think. What you read has a massive influence on the way that you think and the way that you see the world and what we are doing is that the 20 writers and five illustrators from Northern Nigeria will be mentored over a period of 12 to 18 months and then the manuscripts will be printed.
We’re going to publish nearly 10,000 copies of each one. These books will then go into primary and secondary schools in the five target states.

At that point, we’re going to produce teaching guides for the teachers so that they know how to use these books, especially during literacy hour. The idea is that we are looking to help children, to support them into developing a love for reading, not only to see the value of reading but also to get their own creative juices flowing when they see that the writers who actually write these books are just people like them. With some of the devastation that has happened in Northern Nigeria, I know that so many people must have stories, incredible stories to tell. So, this is an opportunity to support the writers in getting those stories out there but also to manage the process so that the books are well produced, edited properly and they receive the necessary attention. This is one way that we’re hoping to put books in people’s hands, especially children. Once a child engages with books at an early age and learns to love to read, I think it has a massive impact on how they see the world that they are growing up in and they very quickly develop a sense of what they want to change, what’s valuable and what’s important.

What is the worst nightmare you have had in the work you do? And the most memorable you’ve had also?
I think I’ve had a pretty successful run. This partly has to do with my personality. I’m not one to shy away from controversy. I think it’s very important to choose your battles and the worst sort of battles to engage in are battles with people who, for whatever reason, are bitter and people who will hide behind this false moral rectitude when it’s really about personal attacks. A lot of the time it’s also political, too. I think when I was much younger I was ready to put up a fight at every moment. I was ready to fight very hard and dirty for what I believed in when necessary, but these days, I realise that there are a lot of people out there, especially with the rise of social media, who will inevitably just waste your time. They waste your time and they waste your energy. They stir up controversy where it shouldn’t be; they will lie to pander to their minions. They will attempt to slander you and some of them hide behind Twitter handles run by organisations that they are not even a part of anymore, and it’s just sad.

The lies are hurtful, but the attacks are best ignored because they waste your time. And I think that these days anyway, when such people decide to run down the work that you do or to disparage some of your noble goals, there are other people on the other side as well, who will naturally just fight for this cause that you believe in and that’s not to be sniffed at. That is what could be a nightmare for me, but really it’s because I just don’t engage with time-wasters.

In terms of most memorable moments, I feel very blessed by the fact that I have so many, especially with the festivals, when people are speaking or when we have panel discussions and book chats, I very much enjoy just looking into the audience and looking at people’s faces and seeing how they respond to what they are listening to and seeing the enjoyment, the surprise. Sometimes, you can almost see their brains ticking. When people are completely immersed, they allow themselves to be immersed in this cultural experience and you can see that; that, for me, is wonderful and it happens so often, so many times at different festivals.

The other thing that I find wonderful and memorable is also being able to get the calibre of authors that are important to us as Africans to the festival. So last year, for instance, Ngugi wa Thiongo came to Ake Festival and performed and talked on panel discussions and it was just really wonderful. Unforgettable really is the word!



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