‘Nigerians Have Poor, Retrogressive Orientation About Their Languages, Cultures’
Jekwu Anyaegbuna, winner of the 2012 Commonwealth Short Story Prize for Africa, with ‘Morrison Okoli (1955-2010)’ recently returned from the Sozopol Fiction Fellowship in Bulgaria. He tells what his experiences were
HOW did you win this fellowship in Bulgaria? Who were the organisers and what were their aims?
The Sozopol Fiction Fellowship is awarded annually by the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation for Creative Writing to writers of all nationalities on a very competitive and objective basis. It is a major literary establishment in that country that draws the attention of the literary community and fiction aficionados. Only five English language fellows are appointed every year based on their creative portfolios. To apply, the author must submit a statement of purpose, a creative biography detailing previous records of writing achievements and a fiction sample that represents the author’s best creative output.
Of course, the award committee receives massive applications from around the world, and these submissions must be brutally pruned for the most outstanding to get the honour. Luckily for me this year, I got the award. For the fellowship, one is expected to spend some time in Bulgaria, both in Sofia (the capital city) and Sozopol (an ancient town located on the coast of Black Sea full of screeching white gulls). The major aim of the fellowship is to equip the participants with creative tools to write and publish exceptional novels and short stories.
Describe to me what took place, the reception and acceptance of you as a writer from Nigeria?
It was an extraordinary event, with laughter all the way, and assorted wines and toothsome Bulgarian dishes. For the creative part, we had fiction engineering and advanced workshops, joint seminars with international writers, readings, one-on-one consultations with editors, publishers, translators and reviewers.
For the community outreach, we visited the American College of Sofia and had a productive session with the brilliant students there, who are budding writers themselves. There was also an event at Sofia University where the techniques and challenges of literary translations were thoroughly discussed and digested. And not forgetting the CapitaLiterature Festival with poetry and fiction fussed together. It’s very rare to find a gathering of this sort where a lot is achieved in an atmosphere of conviviality.
Honestly, Bulgarians are intelligent, beautiful people, superbly organized and hospitable. I was greeted with intercontinental love and acceptance in the country. I got everything I asked for, met new writing platforms and networked with other professional writers. After reading one of my short stories set in Lagos, the people became curious about Nigeria. They wanted to know more about the pulse of African stories, about our writers and publishing infrastructure.
Give details of some of the things you were taught; how relevant were they to your writing?
Fiction is a giant tree with many birds. Its dynamism lends itself to continuous learning, development and practice because there are really no clear answers to obvious questions of approach and quality. We navigated through the various elements of fiction such as setting, plot and character development, point of view and tone of voice, theme and style. And the uniqueness of execution and originality of vision were emphasized. Every ingredient of creative writing, no matter how important, should not be overused.
For a pot of African soup to have a taste, you need salt, oil, meat, fish, water, vegetables and other condiments, each in the right proportion, not in excess, otherwise the cooking ends in a culinary calamity. At the end of the advanced seminars, I started to conceive a multidimensional methodology to storytelling, knowing that this creature called fiction is actually a scientific art without proven formulas.
What kind of writers did you meet and what did you learn from them and their countries?
Awesome fellows. Writers extraordinaire. Architects of amazing imagination. In terms of personalities that graced the events, we had the American novelist Elizabeth Kostova, author of the internationally acclaimed novel The Historian. She led the seminars in English language and was one of the jurors in the selection committee. There was another American novelist Claire Messud, author of The Emperor’s Children, who gave ground-breaking lectures in both Sofia and Sozopol. There was Georgi Gospodinov, author of The Physics of Sorrow, who anchored the workshops in Bulgarian. There were lectures by Hristo Karastoyanov in Bulgarian, too.
Other faculties included Peter Blackstock, an editor at Glove Atlantic Publishing, U.S. There were Eric Becker and Kaija Straumanis, both from the U.S., who specialize in editing and publishing literature in translation, and not leaving out Jeremiah Chamberlin who is the Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of the online literary journal Fiction Writers Review.
International translators such as Bistra Andreeva, Boris Deliradev and Angela Rodel were on hand to provide translations when necessary. The English language fellows were exceptional in their various approaches to fiction analysis: Blake Sanz, Erica Martz, Lara Palmquist, and Tiffany De Vos.
After listening to oral translations of literature, I learned and concluded that international literature is also alive in foreign languages. I became somewhat jealous of Bulgarians and their love for their language and culture, saddened that I must write in English in order to find readers. I asked myself: “Why can’t I write in Igbo language and find a reading audience in Nigeria, and later have my writing translated for international audience in English and other languages?”
Nigerians, we have a very poor and retrogressive orientation about our languages and cultures. And this is the catastrophe of our existence as black people. Igbo and English are equal languages. All of us should be encouraged to speak our local languages and English in equal measure. I love it when I hear our local languages (Yoruba, Hausa, Ibibio, among others) spoken on radio or television.
Rate the state of Nigeria’s literary scene in terms of its capacity to groom emerging writers that can bring laurels to Nigeria.
It is an evolving scene, and you know that rating can be very subjective. Let me say there are pockets of literary infrastructure. The Farafina Trust Creative Writing Workshop has become a reputable institution for spotting promising talents. The Ebedi Writers Residency in Iseyin, Oyo State, is quite commendable for its programmes. The Awele Creative Trust is also remarkable for its prize for young writers. There are literary festivals such as the Portharcourt Books Festival, Ake Arts and Book Festival and the Lagos Book and Art Festival.
These establishments create awareness about books and fiction writing. But we need more. Creative writing should be taught in primary and secondary schools. It’s very unfortunate that out of over one hundred universities in Nigeria, public and private, none offers a dedicated degree in creative writing either at undergraduate or postgraduate level. There is no MFA (Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing) programme in any of the acclaimed universities here. And writers have to look abroad for such a programme.
In spite of these challenges, Nigerian writers have done creditably well on the international literary scene. They can do better if they have profound support from our government at all levels and well-meaning individuals interested in the creative arts.