The 2019 long listed stories for the Koffi Addo Prize for Creative Nonfiction and the Writivism Short Story Prize have been described by the judges as every bit brilliant and deserving, perhaps even daring. The 20 stories will be published in our 2019 annual anthology. The writers of these stories have undergone a month-long mentoring with authors whose work we greatly admire. All of them have unique histories for their writing journeys. Clarie Gor and Timi Odueso asked them a few questions so you can get to know more about them.
1.What, in your opinion, is Nigeria and Africa at large doing right to help sensitize the community about cancer and how do you think the African states can do better in helping victims?
I think I can only speak for Nigeria here, being a Nigerian and having had most of my experiences from around here. It isn’t hyperbolic if I say 4 out of 5 cancer cases result to death in Nigeria. Cancer is literally a death sentence if you happen to come from around here. If the needless bureaucracy at the hospital doesn’t kill you, then the stigma is gonna take you. And this is not even talking about the poor medical attention you will get at the hospital from either inexperienced doctors or inefficient machines that are either outdated or malfunctioning. You see, a million ways to die in Nigeria. Many people don’t know what to do or where to go to when they notice symptoms of these strange cells. Some end up at the wrong health centers with the wrong medications while others opt for herbal cure. Even though the governments, in partnership with WHO is working to combat cancer, but the numbers don’t lie, according to WHO, Nigeria with a population of 198 million has the highest death rate of cancer in the world.
So it’s like the government is doing close to nothing. The fact that patients have to travel long distances for cancer treatment which they aren’t even sure of getting is pathetic. In fact, many people still believe that cancer is a rich-man-disease and the poor man is immune to it. It is sad, but we look at our country men battling for medical attention at the available hospitals that care for cancer. I stand to be corrected but less than 20 facilities treat cancer in a country that is the most populous in Africa. Nigeria has fewer than 50 medical professionals who are specialists in cancer treatment. Last time I checked, Nigeria has less than one radiotherapy machine per one million people. So no matter how much sensitization is being done I don’t see it going anywhere if the government cannot provide basic health facilities for its people. WHO is working hard enough by actively supporting the government on a comprehensive approach to cancer by promotion of healthy lifestyles, prevention, early detection, diagnosis, treatment and palliative care and they must be applauded. But I am yet to see these campaigns penetrate local communities, sensitize uneducated people and mobilize communities to action against cancer.
I believe the responsibility of saving people from cancer lies solely with the government which has to provide basic facilities to combat the disease and also humbly provide the enabling environment that will encourage private sectors and NGOs to collaborate in handling this menace. The media, the schools, and even community sensitizers should be used to sensitize people even in the remotest locales. The attitude of the government in Nigeria to alcohol and tobacco is also laughable. While other countries are making stringent laws on alcohol and tobacco, the government is encouraging it here by allowing regular adverts on media, affordable excise taxes and even its citizens to access these products tha are major causes of cancer. It is ironic, and not like the government is dedicated to providing good medical facilities that will curb the aftereffect of this lifestyle.
With the right support from the government and sensitization, I believe cancer can be defeated. If government can invest in the treatment of cancer in Nigeria, there’ll be less and less of its citizens travelling to other countries for treatment and developing their GDP. These monies can stay here but we first need to gain the citizen’s support that we have the capacity to handle cancer and fight it to the dust. It is doable, and the West is doing it. Why not us?
2. How would you rate the sensitivity of Nigerians to the gender-queer society? Are Nigerians still living in denial of what is or have they slowly begun to come to terms with reality?
Calling a bird an airplane will never make it one. We can only deny for too long, but for how long? Many Nigerians will rather see the gender-queer society as a circumstantial and situational identity that will come and go and strictly not a category of identity. We still haven’t gotten over the shock that there are and will always be people who don’t fit into what the world consider as normal. We’d rather put people in a box and use labels to circumscribe our identities, but identity is becoming more fluid by the break of dawn.
Some Nigerians, will agree that such societies exists but they’ll rather not talk about it. We have a history of bottling up our fears and emotions and sweeping it under the rug. We’d rather let sleeping dogs lie than face it in the eye. But it is becoming increasingly likely that the gender-queer society in Nigeria is not giving in to the sustained silence. Artistes are picking this aspect of the society that has been pushed to the nether as canvas for their creativity in order to portray to the society. Writers, artistes, artists, are coming out of their shell despite the stigma to reconstruct this part of the society just the way it is. But judging by our reception of queer themes in art, I don’t think Nigeria is ready for the gender-queer society yet. This is an aspect that Nigerians will be quick enough to write-off as not an important aspect of discussion. But trust writers, they have a way of making the world face its fears, and thread paths that have been thought bizarre.
3. Do you believe that, with the laws against homosexuality in Nigeria and other African countries, most gender-queer and LGBTQI writers are forced farther into the closet or are these simply wake-up calls for more thought provoking write-ups?
Writers write their stories and cover their realities, so I don’t think laws or even society can decide what a writer writes in this century. Some can actually write about their queer realities in the sustained language of metaphors and symbols, but nonetheless, their personal realities, as is the case in Nigeria. Others decide to write it as raw as it is, gritty and unapologetic, as is the fiction that emanates from South Africa. There is only so much that a law can do, but it can never thwart one’s creativity. It can only make it look for possible ways, unimaginable, in which it can always thrive, and this is what I see happening in African literature. Moreover, I see less creative works from LGBTQI writers. And I hope by LGBTQI writers you mean writers who are actually gay. I can’t place my finger on any yet who has come out to say he is in his writings. A writer covering a queer topic shouldn’t actually make him gay. We should begin to draw the line. Literature is set in the society. And writers capture the society, so isn’t it likely that a writer will always write what he sees from his society? We’ve seen writers who have written mental cases but we’ve never heard that they are roaming the streets. At least not yet. Writers have written on wars that have never left the comfort of their villages to the warfront. So, this is a fragile topic to talk about and I wouldn’t want to tag a person what he isn’t. But I have read a lot of thought-provoking write-ups that have queer themes and I believe the larger picture, which we always tend to overlook is, writers are more concerned with subverting fixed categories and uprooting labels than discussing people and what they do in their bedroom. There is certain fluidity and liberality in discourses and ideas that every writer seeks in the society, I think creativity blooms in such environments.
1. How big of a role do you think youths play in Nigerian politics today? Considering the outcome of the 2019 elections, do you think that youths have a better fighting chance come 2023?
Youths play a lot of roles in politics these days, from the good ones to the bad one. From political enlightenment to political apathy, from voting to playing political thugs. The importance of grassroot enlightenment of politics is to imbide in youth from the onset the importance of political participation but today in Nigeria politics is seen as a corrupt process.
Some youths see the process of politics as a waste of time because according to them, the winner of an election is known even before votes are casted. This encourages lack of participation by youths. Considering the outcome of this most recent election and the way lives were lost due to electoral violence, fighting youths have been discouraged to keep fighting. Even though it’s a known fact that things happen when we don’t give up and continue fighting. The fight for full youth political participation will continue if youths are given a chance, if youths are not considered tools for electoral violence, if youths are given an opportunity to taste being in power, if youths.
2. How big of a role do you think social media plays in promoting, exposing and supporting emerging African writers?
I think social media is the best tool for the exposure and promotion of an emerging Africam writer. It’s through social media I always get to know of most opportunities for emerging writers. Social media can also serve as a platform for meeting other writers, emerging and established and inspiration can come from hearing their stories and experience. One of my friends is published today because he posts some of his works on his Instagram page. Social media is like a portal that leads to different portals, it all depends on knowing which portal to open to get where we want to.
3.What writers or books influence(d) your love and desire for writing?
I have always been the kind of person that imagines movie scenes in my head and when I tell people, they would say, “that would make a lovely story”
The first writer I’d love to mention is Ms. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Her book “Purple Hibiscus” was actually what propelled me to try writing. Everything about the book captivated me and the fact it was the first “big book” I read from an African female sparked the zeal to create something similar. I also had a lot of questions about the book and I particularly wished somethings about Kambili had taken a different turn. It was around that time I came across Mr. Chinua Achebe’s quote “If you don’t like someone’s story, write your own”. It sounded funny at first because I actually loved the story but I started writing because there were turns I wished the story took. I didn’t know I would fall in love with writing.
GODWIN UCHE UWADILACHI
1.You believe that African literature is a gateway to a literary era yet, unknown. How would you describe this era?
It is a popular believe among scientists and researchers that modern humans as we all are have a single origin – Africa. This, I can say is the basis for my assertion. If it is true, which personally I believe it is, it means that Africa is home and home is where we always look back to such that no matter how far into the world one has gone, they do not forget home. They always find themselves drawn to it. Also, I believe that despite the diverse negative views about Africa, the continent is the representation of everything good which makes me hold this strong notion that in the near future, the world as we all know it will be caught up at puzzling crossings that it will have to look back far to where it started from for the way forward. And being that literature is a powerful tool that has been used and is still being used to shape and reshape the world, all I can say is that African Literature is the key to this soon to come revolution.
2.There’s this rhetoric, that homosexuality is too complex a topic for children to be exposed to. In that regard, was writing this story deliberate? Was having the protagonist be a child deliberate?
I had always wanted to write a story about a boy who growing up finds himself having attraction towards his fellow boys which to him is just as normal as having attraction towards girls. But when I first set out to write this story, I don’t think that was what I had in mind to write, because considering how controversial the topic would be, I hadn’t the courage to write it at that time. But later, I discovered that the story I was writing had no focus, it had nothing to tell. Then on a rewrite, that story I had always wanted to write came down naturally, freely on its own accord, tainting all odds and fears I had and making me understand that as a writer, I don’t have to hold back. So, talking about whether or not writing the story and having the protagonist being a child was deliberate is something I would say yes to because I chose to continue writing even when I found out where the story was headed. This then boils down to the rhetoric as to whether homosexuality is too complex a topic for children to be exposed. I would say it all depends… Children can’t be separated from feelings, even between same genders – and as adults have attraction towards one another, children are not exclusive – but they can be separated from the sexual act itself because the truth is, sex is not meant for children. Though, the protagonist of the story took his feelings a bit far by wanting the touch of his friend, this is not what I intend to advocate, because sex is an act amongst children that should seriously be frowned at. That being said, there is no gainsay that there are children who go through same process of finding out they are attracted to friends of same sex and would eventually grow up to know that this, indeed is their sexuality.
3. Why did you choose to tell this story from the perspective of a child? What did it make possible?
Well, I strongly believe that, even if this story does not make anything possible now, it will, in a little way create a path for something. I thought about many things while writing this story, but most importantly when I decided to tell the story from the perspective of a child I wanted to break stereotypes. I wanted to reform norms. Most especially within and around Africa. We have been inflicted by these believes that homosexuality is something that is learnt (if it is, this is only rare) and not something innate. The old and even the young alike believe that it is a dirty act their children and maybe friends have acquired as a result of bad association in schools, most especially, and other spheres of their lives. But they fail to see that most people who turn out to be homosexuals as adults have only naturally grown to see themselves like that, but then mesmerized with the non-acceptance and hostility of the society in which they live in.
4.Cliché, books that you wished you wrote?
Haha, God! There are many books I wished I wrote, but I would name just a few:
- a) The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born by Ayi Kwei Armah (read it when I was fifteen, and loved it).
- b) A Man of the People by Chinua Achebe.
- c) Okay, believe it or not, I wished I wrote Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, but I would have written it in the next decade. (Laughs).
- d) Finally, Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Kambili is my Secret Lover (please tell no one, huh!). I would have been in the best position to write her thoughts and feelings.
It’s an irony though, that the themes of these stories are not what I explore in most of my writings.
5.Oh really? What themes do you explore most in your writing?
I mostly explore sexuality and its grief and the woes that come with discovering the meaning and purpose of living.
- I think your use of language made this possible. Would you agree? Was that a consideration?
I believe that first and foremost, the language I choose and how I use it defines me as a writer and shapes my writing in many ways. But above all, I believe it can make or break my intention as an artist. As an African writing in the English expression, I find it important to exploit the flexible bounds that this language provides and try to use those bounds to fit local expression and thought. It is a delicate balancing act, but one that is necessary if I have to come out as an authentic, believable writer. And then the other person I mind a lot about is my reader. I do not want to present a couple of superfluous make-believe sentences. On the contrary, I want my reader to find commonplace structure and conversations, and this is only possible through a balanced consideration of the nature of language use. Sometimes I sacrifice correctness, and whenever I do so, my intention is to make my characters more believable, more familiar, more like us. In writing my short story, this indeed was a vital consideration.
2. I felt the same way reading Yvonne Adhiambo’s Dust. What books would you say have given you this feeling, if ever?
Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” comes immediately to mind. With him, you walk with the characters like you have known them all your life. South Africa’s J.M Coetzee is another writer whose works give me that feeling. In “Disgrace”, there are many moments you say, “I knew this character would do this all along” or “this character reminds me of my mother”. You see, I believe the measure of the real strength of a story is whether it can appeal to those who have never had shared experiences with those in the world of the story the same way it does to those who have.
3. You’re working on your first novel, how has that been so far? How’s it different from writing a short story?
My novel writing project has been as exciting as it has been liberating. I started out strictly as a poet. I was used to “the best words in the best order”. Writing the novel has demanded that I free myself a bit from the confines of condensed writing (something the short story really needs). The short story has little room for error. One sentence might do such a big damage to the story to the point of it being beyond redemption. The novel is not like that. There are many things to tie together, there are certainly more characters to help build others. But I also think in the end it is about the story you want to tell. How credible will it appear? To what extent will it affect your readers?
4. Your story was quite funny. Is humor an important of the kind of writing you want to do?
This may be hard to believe but I never strive to inject humour into my writing. However, I hardly write anything without funny incidences and funny characters. I find their integration into the story rather seamless. It is as if humour and fun is part of my thinking process. Even for committed literature, laughing through it all is an important trait. I do not aspire to be a comedian, but I certainly would not mind being remembered as “the writer who made us laugh”
Thank you for the best wishes. Hoping to win!
1. You are a writer of both poetry, fiction and non-fiction. Does any medium inform your writing of the other?
I can’t clearly say if they inform one another, but I notice that I tend to write on similar themes in all three. There are poems I have written only to find that they would do better as stories and vice versa.
2. Why this story?
I chose this story because it touches on a topic I rarely read about. So I decided to write it because it is something I would love to read and have more discussions on.
3. What are you hoping to get out of the Writivism mentorship program?
4. I hope that the quality of my writing improves. I hope to learn better ways of expressing myself with words.
I am positive that the Writivism Mentorship Programme would be of great help to me in that aspect.
5. Favourite books?
The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch
The Small Backs of Children by Lidia Yuknavitch
Measuring Time by Helon Habila
Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi
Watermelon by Marian Keyes
I love the first two because Lidia Yuknavitch harnesses language in unexpectedly beautiful ways. She tells the stories that our fears won’t let us tell.
I love Measuring Time because it is raw and honest and it opened my eyes to a different view of Nigeria. It is a book that makes me nostalgic, it makes me yearn for a rural life.
I love Freshwater because it opened my eyes. Violently. I have read it four times already and I cried each time. It is a must read for every person that is on a quest for truth.
I love Watermelon because it makes me laugh out loud. It talks about serious issues in a humorous way without being insensitive about what is being said.
1.You run a book club for kids. What has that been like?
What has been particularly amazing to see is vocabulary development and the inquisitive nature that children develop from reading a book. It sounds simplistic, but it really is magical. The wide eyes and the endless questions like – So why is the sky blue? or Where does my food go? after reading a book is always a joy. Parents call and say I was driving and my 3yo old pointed at the people walking and said look, “Pepestrians”
2. You are a collector of books. What would you say is your most treasured book?
This is difficult to decide actually. Hadn’t thought of that before now. I think books are special in independent ways. With the number I have, I wouldn’t quite be able to pick a treasured one. It would most likely be in the fiction category though, if say a gun was put to my head ad I had to choose. Good fiction is the truth.
3. How does writing stories through the lens of loss influence your process?
It can get exhausting. I mean internalising this state of grief for a long period of time so that it can translate well in the final draft of a story. But that’s also part of what I’m trying to say with these stories, that loss and grieving are integral parts of living and we have to come to terms with that. So whether it’s the loss of a baby, loss of trust, loss of property or friendship, loss of a loved one, no two loses are the same but that grieving process is pretty much the same.
4.Your first novel, any spoilers? Do you promise heartbreak and melancholy?
I promise nothing, yet. But I have promised myself a one month trip of sleep and food when its done. Well hello there, Singapore.