One Book Into A Writing Career: A Dialogue With Nnamdi Oguike
Nnamdi Oguike is a Nigerian writer. He was selected as The Missing Slate’s Author of the Month for March 2016 and was a finalist in the 2018 Africa Book Club Short Story Competition. His writing has also appeared in The Dalhousie Review, African Writer, Brittle Paper, and The Wrong Patient and Other Stories. He lives in Awka, Nigeria.
His first book, a collection of short stories titled Do Not Say It’s Not Your Country is filled with fascinating characters such as: an opinionated South African woman and her children crowding an iron shack in Blikkiesdorp; a Madagascan slum boy who gets a job as a cook in Antananarivo; a shy Sierra Leonean girl who falls in love with a sly fisherman; a wily Nigerian prophet whose tricks are exposed; a Kenyan couple back in their old ways after confirmation in church – and many more. With themes such as love and innocence, terrorism and slavery, his book takes the reader on a tour of Africa and beyond, to meet humanity in its beauty and its pain. It is published by Griots Lounge and will be available as from March, 2019.
BY TEGA OGHENECHOVWEN
Our conversation took place over email, Facebook and Twitter in February. When we began, Nnamdi’s book cover had just been unveiled and was receiving warm welcome on social media and some notable literary spaces. He gave thoughtful and modest responses to my questions on writing in Africa and his journey so far.
Tega: Congratulations! You are now one book into your writing career. How do you feel about this?
Nnamdi: I am excited. I am also wondering about the next direction my writing will take.
Tega: Would you say that African writers are obligated to tell some kind of stories?
Nnamdi: I feel African writers, like writers all over the world, are obligated to do one thing: Tell a story and tell it right. Such stories must hold a mirror to humanity. As an individual, I’m drawn to any story that throws new light on the human condition, whether it be Caribbean or American or Asian or European. I am also drawn to stories about African people, but as long as they are not portrayed in a clichéd manner that fails to capture the complexities of human life.
Tega: I am happy you share my aversion for clichéd storytelling. That reminds me, I stumbled on your story “A Nice Job in Antananarivo” on African Writer and I couldn’t stop loving it. It deals with familiar themes like poverty and low life but you wrote it in a way I find so stirring and new. Your characters have their dignity intact and they beat against their cruel and unforgiving conditions. For example, Veloraza makes and tries to sell wonderful scrap metal toys; Rasao is a wannabe cook, and there is a seller of used clothes who, in the spirit of community, gives a suit to Rasao when Rasoa is seeking a job in Antananarivo. How did you come to write that story? Did you look inward to draw from some personal experiences?
Nnamdi: I think it can be very easy to write a story that is one sided, say about poverty or misery or negativity. It can be very easy to write about utopia too. But the big challenge in writing a true story is in gathering, as much as one can, the complexity of human existence and phenomena. In other words, it is a harder task to tell a story that speaks about interfaces — if you like, that speaks of different realities at play in human life. One cannot truly say that a place human beings live is wholly evil or poor. One cannot also say another place is wholly Edenic. So in the story you referred to, “A Nice Job in Antananarivo,” I tried to show poverty in Ankasina as well as the goodness there. I believe every good story finds a way to string up the different threads of realities that fill our lives.
Tega: Do Not Say It’s Not Your Country is a spectacular title for a book— your book, and the cover design is so spirited and calling. I guess that the idea behind the collection is the renewal of faith in nationhood, then the necessity of social justice and freedom because of the beret the cover character is donning, and love too because of the rose flower in his hand. Am I wrong to think this way?
“But the big challenge in writing a true story is in gathering, as much as one can, the complexity of human existence and phenomena. In other words, it is a harder task to tell a story that speaks about interfaces — if you like, that speaks of different realities at play in human life.“
Nnamdi: Book cover artists are always free to let their imaginations go wild in order to seize the attention of book lovers. That said, the book speaks to our shared humanity. It invites readers to identify with many, different countries and situations. It admonishes readers to never discriminate against countries. A country may not be your country of birth but you belong there because you are human, and because humans are there. Of course, there are peculiar situations with countries, but essentially, we are all caught up in the same human condition in one way or the other. And it is a full baggage: the beauty in our lives and the ugliness, too; the happiness and the grief; the freedom and the slavery; the war and the peace. It is a full baggage of contradictions.
Tega: Writers mostly surface in the book world with novels, and publishers are often reluctant to publish short story collections of fresh writers. I read somewhere that you are done with a novel. Why did this collection come first?
Nnamdi: Well, I have finished a novel, which I hope will follow my short story collection and even do better than it. The novel is the darling of readers, but I do not wish to abandon the short story for it. It is my first love in fiction. I started writing short fiction before venturing into longer fiction. I spent a long time trying to master the short story form by reading writers like Maupassant, from whom I learnt a great deal. But I was also working on novels, many of which were either dead on arrival or were marred in the process of crafting them. There was a novel that I wrote but didn’t have the confidence to put in anybody’s arms. But with the stories in this collection, I had acquired a reasonable level of satisfaction and confidence, and so I had to bring them out for people to see.
Tega: Can you talk about the labour involved in putting the collection together? Also, did you shoot the stories toward a particular subject matter or did you write them freely, as ideas came?
Nnamdi: Yeah, the labour that went into achieving the collection was onerous. I would have preferred writing stories that originate purely from my mind. But with these stories, that was not the case. It took a period of six years to do this. There’s a lot of research into the landscape, names of people, male and female names, common expressions, beliefs and social situations in different countries that I found captivating. I read different journalistic reports. But I tried not to let too much of actuality overwhelm my stories. A number of the stories in my collection take origin from actual situations in their respective countries. For example, Blikkiesdorp in South Africa is real; slave trade in Libya and the ousting of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe are real events. What I have done in these stories is to let fictional persons talk to us. In other words, we don’t hear the detached voice of a journalist reeling off statistics; we hear the voices of the people.
Tega: Quite a few of my writing friends say Nigeria, and largely Africa, is not an ideal space for artists to build their careers, and that there are little opportunities here. They want to jump out because, for example, the MFAs are in the West, the big stages, the writing residencies, fellowships and grants too. And if you look closely you will observe that a huge number of our glorified writers aren’t home based. Do you share this feeling?
Nnamdi: What I can say is that an MFA might get you a writing related job, but it won’t really teach you how to write. Writing, as Doris Lessing observed, is a hard craft taught by extensive reading of the best that has been written. So it’s not the degree that will make you a writer. It is rather sad that the structures that might enable a vibrant literary climate in Nigeria are either insufficient or absent, but we have to do what we can. We have to see that wherever we may find ourselves in this world, there are infinite stories to tell. We have to have the eyes to see them, and the courage to believe that they are worth writing about.
Tega: Producing art is such an emotional and imaginative engagement. Writers are mostly elsewhere, traversing fictional worlds of their design, chasing or waiting for the big explosion, in, sometimes, unbearable conditions. Some face depression, become delusional or get eaten by their dreams. If not that, there are the everyday pressures of life to deal with. How do you balance the writing dream with reality?
Nnamdi: I face the same troubles, especially as a Nigerian. The hardship involved with living in a developing country such as Nigeria always gets in the way of my writing. The electricity problems, the outrageous bills to pay, the sheer suffering around us, the unflinching rascality in the streets, the bad government, the sense of insecurity, the litter and the other unpleasant things. But there’s the miracle of survival, the success stories that appear every now and again around us, and the startling complexities that surround our lives that make for great stories. What I haven’t been able to come to terms with, however, is when I am busy writing on my computer and there’s a power cut and I have to clatter away because I know my battery is soon to die. But these frustrations, fortunately, empower my writing.
Tega: Publishing gets harder and easier by the day. Harder because the number of people who write is always on the rise and the few traditional publishers around only want to invest in what they can sell. Easier, because people can now publish their books from their homes without interfacing with gatekeepers. Did you consider self-publishing?
Nnamdi: I didn’t consider self publishing. Perhaps, I’m old fashioned. But I’m not against self publishing. Some great writers self-published. I think Walt Whitman did that at some point. It might be a way to say to the world: well, since nobody believes in me, I’ve got to believe in myself and do it my way! Which can be a great thing to do. But I suspect that there may not be sufficient scrutiny when one does that. And that’s why a lot of self-published books are either poorly written or poorly edited. But there are some that just stand out.
Tega: Books get published every day in screaming numbers, your work will be a drop of that raging sea of options. From a financial perspective, how does this make you feel?
Nnamdi: I am uncertain about how my book will be received. The world is full of books and myriads of choices of storytellers and genres. If I found someone in the oddest of places rooting for my book, I’d consider myself pretty lucky. Who knows, he might be the bearer of my gospel.
Tega: The African literary scene gets more vibrant by the day with the arrival of new writers. How important is it for these new writers to collaborate, and which of them do you particularly admire?
Nnamdi: I’m not sure what collaboration means here. Of course, writers can come together and package a thing or two to promote literature. It is a good thing. They can set up reading and residency arrangements, and things of the sort. Writers sometimes form cliques. And sometimes they can act like gangs. I don’t know how that helps anybody’s writing. New African writers I admire: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Petina Gappah and Noviolet Bulawayo. They are all women. Wow.
Tega: The writers you mentioned have been around for years. Almost everyone loves them. Can you talk about the very fresh writers out there whom you may have read?
Nnamdi: Then it should be Romeo Oriogun. His poetry is amazing. Also, Fiston Mwanza Mujila is phenomenal.
Tega: Is there anything you know now that you wish you had known at the start of writing your book?
Nnamdi: Definitely! There are new discoveries about the places I have written about that I did not know at the time I was writing the book. It can be endless. I have discovered more names and new possibilities for my stories. No wonder someone said something along these lines: ‘A book is never finished; it is only abandoned.’ But I had to stop tweaking my stories and then hand in my manuscript to my publisher.
Tega: Can you share the unexpected lessons you have learnt on this journey?
Nnamdi: My biggest lesson should be patience and hard work. I have worked real hard. And I encourage every writer to do the same. The biggest toil is in the writing, in having the courage to tell our own stories, to fill the blank page. Editing is great, but it is secondary. You can’t edit a blank page. I learned to know what to hold onto tenaciously. I learned to give room for the opinion of others too.
Tega: Nnamdi Oguike, thank you for sharing your time with me. I wish you a beautiful writing career.
Nnamdi: Tega, thank you too. It’s been wonderful interacting with you.
Tega Oghenechovwen is a Nigerian writer. He is interested in psycho-trauma, social justice and the battle between innocence and experience. His works have been published in Litro Magazine, Black Sun Lit, Arts and Africa, Ile Alo, the Kalahari Review and other literary venues. Tega loves looking at vintage pictures, listening to conscious music and traveling in long, creaky buses. He tweets @tega_chovwen.