Depolarizing the Mind: A Dialogue with Job Okwudiri
Job Okwudiri is a writer from the Nigerian city of Ohaozara, in Ebonyi State, but is resident in Umuahia, in Abia State, where he is currently teaching physics and mathematics.
He studied Medical Rehabilitation at The University of Nigeria, which is where he started writing manuscripts, believes strongly in the power of the pen, and thinks of Africa as ‘a beautiful sweetheart.’
BY DAVINA PHILOMENA KAWUMA
This conversation took place between Ohaozara and Kampala via Google Meet and email.
Job’s manuscript, ‘The Masses on Ashes’, is in his own words ‘a bold condemnation of dysfunction.’
Job speaks about making a difference in the lives of his students, submitting not one but TWO (!) manuscripts to the James Currey Prize for African Literature, why he won’t be employing elves to do his writing anytime soon, the beautiful ones who are not yet born, ensuring an equilibrium of essence between intent and aesthetics, reading Chinua Achebe’s ‘A Man of the People,’ and using flat characters to keep a story going.
Davina: Your mother and some friends are aware of, and as jubilant about, your new status as a writer shortlisted for a continental prize.
With whom else did you share the news?
Here, some groups of people are extremely careful about patrolling the boundaries between the arts and the sciences—the consensus seems to be that the two shouldn’t be mixed ‘unnecessarily’—in case one’s brain ‘gets confused’.
Do some people patrol the boundaries between your creative writing and science teaching?
Job: Yes, I did share the news with my mother and colleagues, plus my boss. Mother was proud of, and she congratulated, me. My boss, too, had felicitations for me.
Nobody here—at least not openly or directly—peddles any reservations about ‘mixing’ arts and sciences. And neither do I think there’s any dichotomy in scope between the two fields of knowledge. Any idea or ology could be artistic or scientific, or both. To minimize or eliminate confusion during learning, one has to depolarize their mind while each topic or study lasts. One could confine his or her interest to purely art or science and still get confused and dazed.
Davina: (Laughs.) “One could confine his or her interest to purely art or science and still get confused and dazed.” I’ll be sure to say this to the next person who expresses concern about ‘confusing’ my brain with literature yet I studied sciences!
You mentioned that teaching is hectic, but also referred to it as “a blessing.” You also spoke of wanting to instil a sense of confidence, and a love of learning, into your students. And of your faith in education as a major path to success. How did you come by this “unique albeit unplanned experience?”
Job: A high school classmate, Chinedu Emeto, came to my house on the first Monday of March this year. I was outside manuscripting. He said to me, “Ogbo, there’s this private school in Ohiya; I would love for you to go there and teach…”
I categorically told him I wasn’t interested in teaching and that I didn’t know anyone who was looking for an opening to teach. Chinedu said, “Ok,” and left. I didn’t know he had a surprise up his sleeves. Guess what he did next?
He gave the proprietor’s wife my contact, and she persuaded me on the phone to come and “help our school rebuild.” I wouldn’t accept her offer, and in a week’s time my friend returned. She had sent him to come talk to me. He saw me at the usual spot, writing on the desk. He reminded me how I taught my classmates and juniors at school back in the day. Coincidentally, my chemistry textbook was on the table (I had made reference to it vis-à-vis what the head of a match is made of, i.e., antimony sulphide).
Mother saw us talking, and when Chinedu was gone, she told me to go and “help” them. When I got to the school premises that morning, I was overwhelmed with concern as I saw the look and shape of the school, and how eagerly the students and pupils were receiving lessons.
The proprietor’s scholarship and panache impressed me, too. He said, “You must be the Ababio my wife told me about.” And, without further ado, I accepted the job. The next day I got the schemes of work for my subjects, and after preparing a few notes, plus getting some orientation, I started teaching.
Midland International School, Ohiya, has since been my priority. I’m not sure I have added a word to the manuscript I was writing since I started teaching. That’s how I got into teaching. But it’s going to last just one year.
Davina: You mentioned other manuscripts. Are they works of fiction, and if so, do they explore issues similar to those in The Masses on Ashes?
Job: I have four other manuscripts—Things Get Funnier, A Diadem for this Damsel, An Iranian Veteran, and Yuckland—all of which are works of fiction.
Davina: Four? Oh, for the love of God! Where did you find the time to write four manuscripts when I’m struggling to finish the first half of mine?! You must have paid a drove of elves to help you! Confess all now, Job, when there’s still mercy to be found!
Job: I can’t give elves no writing contract; their ears aren’t adapted to the kind of stories I tell. No, I’m only joking. I always try to find time to write manuscripts by myself because I’m wont to do that.
I wrote those manuscripts when I still had time to spare i.e., before I took up the teaching job, since which I barely have time to breathe. That was this Spring.
In 2013, alone, I wrote over two thousand songs. I had the time then, but don’t now. In 2019, I wrote three manuscripts, two movie scripts, and poems. In 2020, I wrote A Diadem for this Damsel.
Davina: Two thousand songs is lots! Did you write them for yourself or someone else to perform?
Job: I prefer to be called a songwriter rather than a musician. I hope to pass the songs over to some person(s). I have to commit my resources—time, energy, and focus—to writing, to really consolidate some of the things I have learnt during our chats. I need a new set of skills, new exposure, new pep, and new enthusiasm.
Davina: What kind of movie scripts do you write? How does your movie scripting process differ from your fiction writing process?
Job: I write thrillers and fantasies. The first script is entitled The Territory Of Mékunè. It is set in the Caribbean. The second one, which is set in Africa, is Irate Sister Irene. I find no significant difference between writing movie scripts and writing prose.
Davina: Have you submitted other manuscripts to competitions?
Job: I submitted Things Get Funnier to the Inaugural James Currey Prize for African Literature alongside The Masses on Ashes.
No other manuscripts of mine have ever been submitted to a competition, local or international, formally or casually. Only Yuckland follows in the footsteps of The Masses on Ashes; in fact, it is more-or-less its sequel.
Things Get Funnier is about an innocent taboo boy who flees his homeland to escape lapidation for breaking a ‘kernel-crack law,’ a fiat that is put in place by Birth Mother, the deity of the land. This ‘interdict’ is a punishment for their foremost ancestor’s failure to offer her ambrosia at a certain time.
The fugitive of a boy becomes wealthy and successful in exile after several years of trying to find his footing in destiny.
Back home, his people begin to question their traditions and superstitions. Most of them agree that they need to ‘unbelieve’ certain credos and disabuse their minds of many myths which hold them back from desiring growth, innovation, education, and civilization, of course.
“To minimize or eliminate confusion during learning, one has to depolarize their mind while each topic or study lasts. One could confine his or her interest to purely art or science and still get confused and dazed.“
Davina: I sometimes catch myself thinking that ‘civilization’ is overrated, Job.
Job: I agree with you. ‘Civilization’ receives undeserved plaudits, mention and attention, and, most heartbreakingly, from the ‘educated.’ The bastion of civilization is manipulation of some other people under the guise of western culture/education/advancement, which are not bad in their own rights, though. That was what colonization was all about: it made some people believe they were not good enough and that the only way to have goodness was for some birds of passage to show them how to live. It’s a shame!
‘Civilization’ has an eternal shortcoming: it believes that some continents need reorientation while some others are the reorientation embodied. Until the world points out those responsible for The Dark Age, without undermining the Black race, ‘civilization’ has no real meaning.
But, until then, and given that a greater percentage of the world’s population is accustomed to that word and its loose meaning, I will retain its usage here.
Davina: Between The Masses on Ashes and Things Get Funnier, which manuscript did you think would fare better with the judges, and why?
Job: Most difficult thing I have got to do, as unbelievable and counterintuitive as it can be, is to make a synopsis of any of my manuscripts.
Davina: (Laughs.) That is neither unbelievable nor counterintuitive, trust me! I’m one of those writers for whom the writing of a synopsis equals a version of writer’s block! Heh! You’re in good company, don’t worry! Now, let me hide under the table while you carry on.
Job: And now to say which, of The Masses on Ashes and Things Get Funnier, ‘would fare better with the judges’ is some puzzle, honestly. I derived and still derive maximal thrills reading and re-reading each of my manuscripts.
All of them, writing them, gave me fun-oriented stress, hwyl, and a sense of fulfilment. I’m going to have to say, therefore, that any judge’s choice between the two would depend on the criteria for and context of the competition in question.
Davina: ‘Fun-oriented stress?’ Hmmmn. That’s such a curious expression. I wonder how, if at all, it has evolved within the context of these precarious COVID-19-infested times.
Some writers have spoken of finding it easier to write during lockdowns; in The Art of Intentionality and Thriving in Difficulty, Michelle Chikaonda speaks of making an active choice to see lockdowns as a “blessing”:
“I can’t control the pandemic, and I can’t control the fact that I have to spend most of my days indoors in order to keep healthy and safe. But I can choose to make something of my time indoors, and to reinterpret all this extended time alone as possibly being a blessing, rather than an oppressive curse. I recognize the limitations of this—I’m also an introvert by nature, so these enforced limits on social interactions have actually been really good for me—but this works for me, and so I’ll continue to follow this philosophy until it [or] life changes to the point that it doesn’t fit me anymore.”
Other writers have complained about added stress, and an inability to stay focused enough to write consistently. What’s it been like for you?
Job: I’m naturally a different individual. Everything about me is unconventional, if that’s the right word. I couldn’t do even kitsch during the lockdown (which came under force from March 2021, and was relaxed a few months later).
I was at home but couldn’t concentrate on writing. Ennui and boredom had me. But when I’m not restricted, my mind is replete with muse and brain waves, and I write without knowing tiredness.
Davina: There’s an instructive dimension to The Masses on Ashes: this is the way to national development; this is how to empower citizens rather than impoverish them; and so on. Did you ever worry that this might interfere with the aesthetics, the art, of your storytelling?
Adebayo Samuel touches on this in Arts and Literature are Sine Qua Non to Nation-Building – about writing with ‘a clearly defined intent,’ and ‘communicating a definite message so very loudly,’ while simultaneously ‘retaining the aesthetics of fine poetics’ in his work.
How did you ensure a balance between the two?
Job: I was not worried at all. To ensure an equilibrium of essence between intent and aesthetics, I, first off, hold my ear with one hand and my waist with the other hand for five minutes. Secondly, I see to it that the message is pertinent to the plot.
Thirdly, I make sure that too many instructions or messages are spread apart across the story so that they do not clutter the soul of the story. Fourthly, and finally, I see to it that the characters who convey the messages are dynamic and fluid enough to flow right back into the story proper.
Davina: One of many things we discussed is chronic mismanagement—what you referred to as ‘the laziness, reluctance, and corruption that characterize our governance’; how, despite being a place of outstanding cultural and natural resources, much of Africa remains ‘under-developed’; you said you couldn’t wait for africa ‘to stand tall’ and take her ‘rightful place’ in the world.
I’ve always wondered whether, perhaps, the trouble doesn’t begin with the word ‘development.’ Might we need to re-think its popular meanings?
I know several people here who insist that the root of Africa’s ‘under-development’ is ‘a curse,’ and that therefore corruption is ‘a spiritual matter’ – if we want to overcome it, we must spend many hours praying and fasting.
(The other day, someone was explaining that because we descended from Ham – who didn’t only see the nakedness of his father but also went on to jazz his brothers about it! – we are paying, through ‘generational curses,’ for his bad manners. I thought people had long moved on from such narratives, but clearly some haven’t! It’s a strange thing to still be hearing in the 2020s!)
Job: We sure need a new ‘concept’ of development, yes. But we can’t bring ourselves to pretend that we are not terribly trailing other continents, people who should be coming to us for assistance (they admit this in their hearts). This has to be rewritten by Africans.
Never have I believed in mysticism, whether atavistic or modern. Corruption in Africa is not spiritual. And Africa is not under any ‘curse.’ A continent where Christ was preserved and saved from Herod’s ill-intentions cannot be accursed.
The new shift in paradigm which we need, with respect to ‘development,’ is a continental reorientation. In Africa, we do not need to become a new people; rather we have to appreciate the people we have been, and proudly. We have been a sui generis and successful people.
I tried to refute a classmate’s crude claims that Africans are a people of ill will on Facebook and he would no longer let our friendship – if it wasn’t actually acquaintanceship – continue. We must begin to give our minds empowerment with the endowments we have got. That’s how we can clamp down on corruption and fix our independent states, not by ‘fasting and prayer.’
There are follicles in our minds where corruption breeds and thrives. I call them follicles of follies, and we need to deflate these bubbles, because they have really plagued the heart of our beautiful sweetheart, Africa. And folly, for me, is just some misappropriated fun.
Davina: Does Opara Omenka, the protagonist of The Masses on Ashes, share your views (or lack thereof) on mysticism?
Job: Yes. He so convincingly does. His refusal to bow to his father’s preference for where the woman he would marry should come from, for instance, supports this claim.
Davina: Which woman? Do you refer to The Beautiful One Who Is Already Born?
Job: I’m splitting my sides now. No. ‘The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born.’ And they’re not going to be born any time soon.
Davina: Dammit! Just when I thought that pun was going somewhere! Sigh. Oh, well. You lose some and win some, I guess.
Let me try again. Have the lawful ones been born? This is in reference to the story you told about how you ended up writing poems in a recording studio. How your conversations with the producer led you to conclude that ‘…the easiest job to do in Nigeria is to be a lawmaker…’
Job: Our lawmakers pocket some dirty great sums monthly, beside some allowances. Compare what they do at the National Assembly with the state of the nation, you would realize they literally get paid for doing no job.
What kind of bills do they bring up? What sort of laws do they pass? How many people-oriented policies are made annually? As an arm of government, how do they check the presidency, to ensure the lives of the citizenry are improved upon? They are just on a sinecure albeit lawmaking should be a serious, sensitive and sacred national assignment.
Davina: The Masses on Ashes reflects on a range of issues, most of them results of a mismatch between our daily expectations and our monthly realities: the value of our currencies, the unconstitutionality of our constitutions, undiplomatic diplomacies, economic master plans that are neither quite economic nor masterful.
National building is an important theme in the novel. One of my favourite pieces on the subject is an old one by Henry Barlow – a poem titled Building the Nation, which satirizes differences in our perceptions of and contributions to nation building.
I like to think of Barlow’s poem as an entryway to the anxieties within your novel.
Job: ‘Fried chicken with niceties’ got me drooling like Pavlov’s dog, but ‘a luncheon at the Vic’ being ‘an important, urgent function’ for a congressman lends credence to the issues explored by The Masses on Ashes.
Making laws that will spur economic prosperity for the citizens should be the important function, not going for sumptuous meals with taxpayers’ money and at the expense of the same taxpayers.
Davina: What is it about A Man of the People that has anchored your reading and/or writing practice? And which other books have influenced your reading and writing journey?
Job: Reading Chinua Achebe’s A Man of the People blessed my imagination. Put simply, it was a thrilling treat. The climax and resolution of the book are jaw-dropping. How Odili and Chief Nanga developed bad blood for each other, and how a new dawn happened in the book, are both intriguing. Also exceptional about the book is the author’s consummate connection of characters inter alia.
Amma Darko’s Faceless, Chukwuemeka Ike’s The Potter’s Wheel, Jerry Agada’s The Successors, Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart have shown me how to develop a framework or skeleton for manuscripts so as to have sustainable plotline and basis.
Davina: I haven’t read Amma Darko, Chukwuemeka Ike, or Jerry Agada, so I’ll add them to my to-read list.
Regarding sustainable plotlines, writing full-length prose often requires that every detour, every interruption, strengthens the story. Any tricks in your plotting tool kit that you relied on for this purpose?
Job: I employed a composite ‘flat character’ ‘trick.’ For example, the emergence and diminishing of characters like Ogu, Dede Awo, and Omenka’s classmates, whom he espied at Akelu, especially his graduate-hawker classmate, buttress this.
Again, this cliché, ‘Wonders are beginning to end,’ helped me stay within the theme and objective.
Davina: Wonders are beginning to cease. Hah! Are they, though? You’re clearly very fond of wordplay. (I LOVE puns; if I could write a story that is one extended pun, believe me I would!) Do you, of the blessed imagination, use word play in your poetry, too?
Job: Yes, but, of course, only where and when necessary.
Davina: In his discussion of flat characters and round characters in Aspects of the Novel, E. M. Foster has this to say:
“Flat characters were called “humours” in the seventeenth century, and are sometimes called types, and sometimes caricatures. In their purest form, they are constructed round a single idea or quality: when there is more than one factor in them, we get the beginning of the curve towards the round. The really flat character can be expressed in one sentence such as “I never will desert Mr. Micawber.” There is Mrs. Micawber—she says she won’t desert Mr. Micawber, she doesn’t, and there she is.” (p.48-49)
He writes that two advantages of flat characters are that they are easily recognizable and easily remembered.
But, then, he adds a caveat:
“All the same, critics who have their eyes fixed severely upon daily life—as were our eyes last week—have very little patience with such renderings of human nature. Queen Victoria, they argue, cannot be summed up in a single sentence, so what excuse remains for Mrs. Micawber?” (p.50)
I now turn to you, Job, to offer an excuse for Mrs. Micawber, and by extension for Ogu, Dede Awo, and Omenka’s classmates.
Job: I have to talk to Mrs. Micawber first, and establish what it is about Mr. Micawber that she finds very joie de vivre ish.
Davina: Hah! Good one!
Job: Every novelist tries to deliver the protagonist over the bacon on time to ensure there’s no sharp comparison of them with another character. That was what I meant. Ogu, Dede Awoh, et al. help keep the story going; they wane for Omenka to remain relevant towards the resolution. But I sure have to check up what a flat character means again.
Davina: Foster also writes of the ‘very mixed lot of ingredients’ that a novelist must handle:
“There is the story, with its time-sequence of “and then . . . and then . . .”; there are ninepins about whom he might tell the story, and tell a rattling good one, but no, he prefers to tell his story about human beings; he takes over the life by values as well as the life in time. The characters arrive when evoked, but full of the spirit of mutiny. For they have these numerous parallels with people like ourselves, they try to live their own lives and are consequently often engaged in treason against the main scheme of the book. They “run away,” they “get out of hand”: they are creations inside a creation, and often inharmonious towards it; if they are given complete freedom they kick the book to pieces, and if they are kept too sternly in check, they revenge themselves by dying, and destroy it by intestinal decay.” (p.48)
Has any of your characters ever tried to live their own life and in the process gotten ‘out of hand?’ And were they ever tried for treason?
Job: Yes. Adaure did. She was, too. She was ‘tried’ and taken out of the picture, even though she wasn’t found guilty. Nobody gets to hear about her anymore, except in passing mention somewhere.
Davina: This is the same Adaure who would have married Opara if she’d made different choices, right? Surely, you could create some room for her in Yuckland, couldn’t you?
Job: Yes. No place, however, for her in Yuckland.
Davina: Oh dear. It’s a sad, sad, day for us here in Adaureland. I suppose the only way you can make it up to us is to assure us that you’ll put the prize money to good use.
Job: ‘Adaureland,’ indeed! If I win the prize, I will cement my footing in writing. I will commit the money to growing my scholarship of literature and honing my mastery of the art of writing.
A publication deal with a major international publisher is something I’ve always needed, and that will be the real prize for me, and I will be eternally grateful to everyone behind the James Currey Prize.
Again—and this will make me feel fulfilled—I will use some of the money to install white (marker) boards in all the classrooms of the school where I teach, and I will gift my brilliant students with calculators and mathematical sets.
Davina: Awesome! By good fortune, may your students receive those and more gifts!
This conversation was conducted prior to the announcement of the winner of the 2021 James Currey Prize for African Literature.
Davina was born in a university teaching hospital in Lusaka and raised on the grounds of Uganda’s oldest university in Kampala (from where she would later receive a BSc in Botany and Zoology and a PGDE in biological sciences). Her MSc (Zoology) research assessed the abundance and richness of forest-dependent birds in two tropical lowland rainforest fragments in central Uganda.
She writes poetry and short fiction for children and adults. Her short stories, Of Birds and Bees and Touch Me Not, were short-listed for the 2018 Short Story Day Africa Prize and the 2020 Afritondo Short Story Prize respectively.
She’s interested in the intersection between literature and science, will read anything with an arresting title, and writes about topics that interest her.
She’s writing her first novel, The Other Side of Day.