by Troy Onyango
With about a dozen novels to his name, Chuma Nwokolo is one of the most prolific Nigerian writers of his generation. His trademark writing style, injecting humour into even the most tragic of situations, is one he says is elemental to him as life is grim already. A slender man, with a height that dwarfs everyone else’s in the room, grey hair and a dress code that places him firmly in his West African origin, he is difficult to miss. When he speaks, his voice booms, his eyes radiate and his hands and body are not left behind, something that draws you to listen to him.
His first novels, The Extortionist and Dangerous Inheritance were published in 1983 and 1988 respectively. These were then to be followed by African Tales at Jailpoint (1999), Diaries of a Dead African (2003), One More Tale for the Road (also in 2003), Memories of Stone (a poetry collection published in 2006), The Ghost of Sani Abacha (Short stories, 2012), How to Spell Naija in 100 Short Stories (2013), The Final Testament of a Minor God(Poetry, 2014), The Extinction of Minai (TBA) and How to Spell Naija in 100 Short Stories, Vol II which he was in Nairobi to launch.
This interview happens at the Nairobi Transit Hotel on the second morning after the launch, and goes on for one hour. Perhaps I should add that it was not mine to conduct. You see, Gloria Mwaniga who writes for the Nation newspaper asked me to tag along and sit pretty while she interviewed Chuma. Being a fan of Chuma’s, I agreed to it. And for the most part, I sit and watch their conversation which is more interesting than any other interview session I have ever been to. It is after forty minutes, when Gloria declares that she is finished, that I jump at the opportunity to ask Chuma Nwokolo a few questions. The result is this insightful interview. With every answer, Chuma Nwokolo pierces the veil that is African writing and this illumination is the product of a mind so brilliant, I am still left in awe.
Mine perhaps would be to ask: You have written about ten books or so. For someone who has such a large collection of work, you must have a writing process. Is it ritualistic? Do you, like for example Toni Morrison, get up before dawn then wait for the sun to rise and start writing? Or do you, like Ernest Hemingway, seclude yourself and just write for a whole period? What is your writing process?
What I do is, I have a reasonably fecund imagination and so I don’t really agonise over what to write. I have a lot of things that I am supposed to be writing. I think when I die I’ll have vast amount of half-written gems on my hard drive. So, all I do is to create an opportunity to write which means I do seclude myself, I wake up early. I usually work in the early hours. So my writing is rarely in the daytime unless I am on a deadline. I usually write in the small hours. I wake up and write till I am done. I usually write obsessively while I have a project on. Which is, I disconnect from the world as much as possible and just shut myself in and write.
Beyond that, I write everywhere, wherever I am. I do quite some travel. Anywhere I find myself, I write on paper, on tablet, on computer. Whatever means. I am not really hung up on particular rituals beyond that preference for time for writing and doing it obsessively.
For that kind of obsessive writing and considering you have a career that you pursue passionately (as seen with the Bribe Code) where do you find that time? How do you structure your days to make sure that between certain times you are focusing on writing and not some submissions to be presented somewhere? Is it discipline that has developed over the years or do you just have to create time?
I think life happens to writers and you have to embrace it. If I was a disciplined writer, I probably would have thirty books not a dozen. Well life happens and we have to embrace it. We write about life. We don’t write about writing. It’s not a tragedy if you have to have a career, if you have to have a family. These are all parts of life. This is what gives writing flavour. I think the writer has to embrace his career, whether he is a lawyer or whether he is a caterer. Whatever he does, is part of grist for the mill, so to speak. So I do not think I practice any superhuman degree of discipline. If anything, I probably have a lot more to show for the time I have applied.
What I can say is that I do enjoy the process of writing, which is why for me it’s not really work as much. There is a point at which it becomes agony, when you are looking for a certain perfection in it and when you cannot quite touch it, it moves from joy to agony. It’s more or less like the agony of the woman at childbirth. You can carry the baby for nine months and it’s not a problem but at the point of birth, yes there is pain. You cannot deny. All that is part of the process. You will enjoy the writing until a time when it is almost ready to come out. At that point you have to go through the greatest agonies to make sure it is coming out as well as it should.
To my second last question. Literary prizes and the controversy around them, with Binyavanga Wainaina telling us to stop giving legitimacy to the Caine prize (which he actually won in 2002) and 2015 winner Namwali Serpell splitting her winnings and saying that writers ought not to compete amongst each other. And the Etisalat Prize being castigated for not having self-published books as part of their submissions. I mean, there is just so much controversy around these prizes when they are actually supposed to be bridging all these gaps between African writers and their readers. What is your opinion of all this?
Well, my opinion should always be taken with a pinch of salt because I haven’t won any prizes. I don’t submit to prizes. I used to when I was much younger but now I don’t submit my work to prizes. So you should always take my opinion with a pinch of salt. As that of a frustrated writer who is speaking with some sour grapes.
Having said that, I think that a literary prize is a gift. It doesn’t have to be given. When it is given, you accept it with grace. If you don’t want it, walk away with grace. Nobody compels you to take it. So that’s one given. Having said that, the reality in our market place is that a prize can make a difference in a writer’s life. For example, to win $100,000 in the NLNG can transform a writer’s life. Because of that, such a prize has an impact in the writing of their generation. It is idle to say that people will not be enticed to compete for it.
Now, once you begin to compete for such prizes, something happens to the literature. It can have a transformative impact on the literature of that generation because everybody writing, who is enticed by the prize will have his eyes on what will fit into the prize. For instance, Caine Prize has a 3000-word limit. And I had a conversation with a writer whose work was, I think, about 2800 words. The question was how to extend the work to fit to qualify the prize. How to pat that story. Now, for any reader who is going to read that story later, he is going to feel that the story is a bit too stretched. And that’s at the basic level. More fundamentally, we talk about tone, subject matter, material, shock treatment. All these are things you can look at the last winners and decide, this is a story that can win this kind of prize. And then all of a sudden you find that even though only ten people are on the shortlist and only person wins, you could have one hundred thousand stories sounding the same. Published by the best writers in their generation. This has a damaging effect on our literature. Not damaging in the sense that it spoils the literature but damaging in the sense that it reduces the natural variety and the natural adventurousness in our literature.
So, it is very liberating for a writer to say for instance, “I am not writing for a prize or writing for an audience, I am writing for my people. I am writing for myself. I am writing for my inspiration.” It is liberating. What it does for that writer is to give him a sudden freedom to do what comes naturally to the inspiration and without having anybody looking over their shoulder. For instance, like a shy child who is writing and his parents are alive and he knows that anything he publishes will be read by his parents. There is a kind of self-censor that goes to work and you are suddenly checking everything you write to make sure it fits within the prism of what your parents would like to see. That is the impact of prize-writing. Prize-writing, you may not it know when you are doing it, but because you are hoping to win a prize you’d naturally do the things that your “prize parents” would want to see on the book; would approve. Even your publisher might say, “Well, I have seen your three submissions, I will only take this one because I think it would win a prize.” All these are impacts of powerful prizes on the writer.
So, I would go back to what I said at the beginning of this answer, that prizes are wonderful things. They are gifts. They are not compulsory and they help the winners but if you look at the volume of writing in a good writing country, you find out that prizes are like lotteries. One, there is no objective way of getting the best absolutely (you will get a good winner) but there is no objective way of getting the best winner. It’s not possible. When you have like thirty excellent stories, one person will win. Then you see that obviously it’s a kind of lottery among the best. So, it’s a little bit unfair but that’s what it is. That’s why you have the longlist which gives some prominence to as many people as possible. Then of course you have the winner who walks away with the prize.
But, having said that, we have to always concede that because of the impact, people who want to benefit our literature should not focus on prizes. I’m now talking from the point of view of benefactors. It may be glamorous to set up a prize and to endow it with a million pounds and all that – wonderful. But, that on its own does not help literature as much as, for instance, the impact of education. Because, I’ve ever edited submissions and I know that there is a lot of talent on the continent but the failure of craft, the failure of training. It’s not just about going to do MFAs but it’s more about the basics. Which comes back to good governance. I’m not saying that we should start giving money to schools but we should focus on good governance. That’s one. So, education, publishing structures, like publishing, distribution, retail. These all have a greater impact on writing than just the prizes. Because a lot of the prize winners, if you ask them a year after the prize, “Have you sold up to five thousand copies?” the answer would be, “No.”
In an advanced country, if you win a prize you could sell a hundred thousand on the strength of that prize. It’s not so in Africa because the distribution, the publishing, the marketing, the chain is not there. So, it’s better to look at those structures that would actually improve our literature by helping people who have simply gotten on the longlist to get better distribution and to make a living from their work as opposed to just this lottery that goes to the winner at the end of the day.
Final question. If you were to give advice to seventeen-year-old Chuma Nwokolo who is just maybe starting to write. What would be your advice to him?
Very difficult question. Seventeen-year-old. Where is he, for instance? Just about to study law. Should he go and do something else? Studying law is very good. Law is a very good course. You know, that’s the amazing thing. I think I did all the right things. I probably would have advice for my twenty-year-old. Risk more. Take a lot more risks. Seventeen-year-old. I think my seventeen-year-old did everything you should do. He should have worried less. He was afraid of too many things. But, generally speaking, he did exactly what he was supposed to do. I would certainly have gone on to do my degree. I would certainly have been writing. Even though the manuscript was not perfect, I would certainly have submitted it. I think I would not have been able to write a perfect manuscript at that age; I didn’t know enough. But, to the older me, I would say, take more risks. Leave the beaten track. Create a new track. That would have been my advice to my younger self. But that’s a very good question.
Thank you so much.
That went well.
© 12th August 2016.