The Sacredness of Earning a Face: A Dialogue with Binyerem Ukonu

THE SACREDNESS OF earning a face

A DIALOGUE WITH BINYEREM UKONU

Binyerem Ukonu is a trained-architect, poet, novelist and publisher based in Winnipeg. He announced his presence into the Nigerian literary scene in 2011 with his book, The Water Was Hot, followed in 2017 with his short stories collection, Things That Start Small but Sweet. His literary journey has taken him from the hinterland of Eastern Nigeria as a bookseller, to the British Library, London in July 2013 where sold more books by the curbside and rubbed shoulders with literary giants such as Kenyan-born Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. That journey has birthed Griots Lounge, which Ukonu manages as Team Lead and is now re-shaping the Afro-Canadian writing scene by providing a platform for African-born writers in North America.  

Emmanuel Nwaneri

BY EMMANUEL NWANERI

This conversation took place in Winnipeg, between the confines of a spare room in a townhouse apartment and the cramped space of a vehicle on a Sunday afternoon as spring was thick and heavy in the air, via Google Meet.

Emmanuel: Thank you for agreeing to have this conversation with me. I look forward to discussing your work as a writer, editor and publisher. In your online biography, you are described as an architect, property manager, poet and novelist. That is an interesting and maybe unusual combination, so could you introduce yourself briefly and share how you are able to juggle all these things?

Binyerem: Yes, thank you very much. My name is Binyerem Ukonu, although almost everyone calls me Bibi. I studied Architecture at Imo State University (IMOSU) in Nigeria. While there, I came across a copy of Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I checked out her publisher and luckily there was a phone number, so I called the gentleman, Muhtar Bakare, introduced myself and told him that I would be interested in distributing his books in the East (of Nigeria) especially in Imo, Abia states and possibly as far as Enugu and Anambra and other neighboring Eastern states. He accepted. Back then, Nigeria didn’t really have many book distributors. The way it worked in Nigeria then was that book distributors would appear for a few years and when they didn’t succeed, they would turn into bookstores.

Muhtar Bakare sent me books and I started hawking them, telling people ‘I have books for sale by Nigerian authors’. I sold the first set of books and sent him the money after taking my cut, after which he sent another batch of books. We continued in this fashion until I left for my NYSC (National Youth Service Corps). That experience made me realise that booksellers are not magicians, so a friend and I then came up with the idea for Griots Lounge. Griots Lounge was just an imprint; a company that we launched under Yagazie Limited. So it was really a media company that took off at its first attempt with publishing. We published our first book, a novel by Andrew Oki, titled Bonfire of the Gods, in 2012. We later shut down in 2014 and had no activity until 2017 when I released my collection of short stories.

Emmanuel: Let me pause you there a bit. I’m still going to come back to the story of your book and how you eventually used it as a launching pad for your company, Griots Lounge, here in Canada. I want to highlight what you mentioned while selling the books of Chimamanda Adichie and other writers. Who is Muhtar Bakare, and why were you selling books for him?

Binyerem: Bakare was Chimamanda’s first publisher in Nigeria. He owned Farafina Books, which was an imprint under Kachifo Limited, the publishing company that first took up Adichie’s work.

Emmanuel: I listened to a TV interview you had with CTV Winnipeg last year, where you described yourself as coming from a family of writers. You spoke about your dad and uncle, who were both writers of religious books. Were these two people your inspiration when you were young?

Binyerem: I think that my uncle played a bigger role in guiding me towards creative writing. Reading my mother’s poems, which she wrote in her private jotters, old school-style, also pushed me towards being a writer. I believe that it has always been in me; I just needed a push, something to bring it out. I was lucky enough to meet a friend who also wrote, and this helped both of us as we would critique each other’s work. His name is Jidenna Aluka and he is currently managing Griots Lounge Nigeria.

Emmanuel: Thank you so much for mentioning that, because my next question was actually going to be about him. I learnt that you and Jidenna Aluka founded Griots Lounge in 2012. In 2020, you established the company here in Canada. How has the journey been for the company from then until now?

“Your life can start small but end up sweet and meaningful; good can come out of something small and difficult.

Binyerem: You know, in the midst of life’s challenges, endeavours and pursuits, there are some mornings when you wake up and you just don’t want to do it again (Laughs). Then there are mornings where you wake up to good news. Sometimes I tell myself that I’ve gotten myself into something I cannot easily run away from because Griots Lounge is a member of the Manitoba Association of Publishers and also a member of the Association of Canadian Publishers.

I started the company with private funds, working and setting aside money for the business. Within a period of two-and-a-half years, we had managed to publish 20 titles. This was before we ever got any type of funding in the form of grants and before we received recognition from the Manitoba Arts Council. There is also a program by the Department of Arts and Tourism in Manitoba which supports publishing companies in Manitoba. 

Although I am the main representative of Griots Lounge in Canada, my team has grown and we work well together. Our authors also work very hard. I believe that the business has been progressing well since we started in 2020.

Emmanuel: What do you look for in writers or in their books before you decide to publish them? From a business perspective, what do you look for before you decide to take on someone’s manuscript?

Binyerem: I am interested in books that move me, books that may affect my emotions and force me into deeper thought about a particular topic. Some books may bring up experiences I encountered before reading the manuscript. If your work is able to move me in the first or second chapter, then I’m in.

I believe that authors should become part of the literary life (circles) in their local communities. They should become members of the writers’ guilds, attend book events and develop their own networks. I receive calls and emails from bookstores in different cities asking to order books by writers who are making efforts to be visible in the literary environment in Canada.

We have a sales team that works with Ampersand Inc., a women-led organisation with sales representatives all over Canada. They make sure that our books are in major bookstores all over Canada. 

Emmanuel: Are there any genres that attract you more than others? Maybe poetry, or fiction? Autobiographies, or science fiction? Are there any genres that you look out for when scouting for new work?

Binyerem: We focus on poetry and fiction (novels and short story collections). We have recently expanded into children’s literature and picture books. Over the next few years, we will be publishing at least two children’s literature books. We believe that children also need to read stories, especially stories with characters that look like them. I’m talking about the children of  immigrants, or people of colour, reading about characters that look like them, reading the names of people and places where their roots are found.

Emmanuel: Okay, so when you decide to work with a writer, do you consider their geographical or ethnic background before you decide to take up their books?

Binyerem: The geographical pattern that we defined for Griots Lounge is African-Canadian (otherwise known as Afro-Canadian, or Canadians of African descent). I’m Nigerian, so we tend to work more with Nigerian-born authors, though currently I’m editing the work of a South African-born author. 75% of what we publish is written by African-born writers,  but we have 25% of our works which we always reserve for international authors who are also Black writers. We have published US-based Nigerian-born writers Ukamaka Olisakwe, Echezonachukwu Nduka, and Professor Uche Nduka, amongst others. We want to introduce writers from Nigeria, Ghana and everywhere else in Africa to the Canadian market. 

Emmanuel: In the same interview you had with CTV, you mentioned that Griots Lounge planned to publish five titles in 2023, including books by Michael Afenfia’s Leave My Bones in Saskatoon and Sons of the East by Ifeoma Chinwuba. Did you achieve those targets and also, what are your targets for 2024?

Binyerem: We did not meet our target of five books. We published three books in 2023. We successfully published those two books you mentioned, as well as The Rights of Indigenous People Explained by Summer Okibe. 

This year, we have already published Ukamaka Olisakwe’s Don’t Answer When They Call Your Name. We released it on April 1. We are currently editing Professor Nduka Otiono’s Unbound, which is an anthology comprising the work of Nigerian poets under the age of 40. He has 75 poets in that collection. One of the poets is Tolu Oloruntoba, who won the 2021 Governor-General’s Prize for Poetry as well as the 2022 Griffin Poetry Prize.

We are also sure of publishing A Place Beyond The Heart by Ireh  Iyioha, a Law Professor at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. Iyioha was notably on the longlist of the 2021 CBC Short Story PrizeBefore the summer of 2024, we plan to have released three books. In the fall season, we plan to publish a children’s story book by Michael Afenfia

We have non-fiction by James Yeku, who schooled in Saskatoon and is currently a Professor at Kansas University in the US. There are many other writers whose manuscripts we are still reading as a first step. We hope to also expand into the US market in the future, because if you’re in Canada there is a possibility that your book will be distributed in the US as well.

Emmanuel: These are all very interesting moves and plans. One of your writers, Uchechukwu Umezurike’s book, Double Wahala,  Double Trouble was published by Griots Lounge in the fall of 2021 and was a finalist for the 2022 Short Story collection award. The book was also nominated for the Mary Scorer Award for Best Book by a Manitoba Publisher. This is not an easy award, so what did this nomination do for Griots Lounge? What is the effect or the impact of having one of your writers be nominated for this award?

Binyerem: To be honest, it gave us a face. There are people who are now following up on every announcement regarding the books we plan to publish. It gave us a platform to be known, to be heard. I met Alice Oswald, who happens to be one of the biggest poets in Canada, at the awards ceremony.We had a conversation and shared jokes as she encouraged me to keep doing the work I do.

We are now active members of the Association of Manitoba Book Publishers and get all the publishing support that is encompassed by active membership. The award made them look at Africans and African stories in a new way and with respect. It has also taught them the meaning of “wahala”. (Laughs)

Emmanuel: You published Things That Start Small but Sweet in 2017, which I believe is a collection of short stories. I have read a couple of reviews about the book and how it tells stories about people who are based in the rural, riverine parts of Nigeria and the challenges they overcome in their daily lives. This book landed the second position in the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) Abubakar Gimba Prize for Short Stories.

Do you think this was an eye-opener for you; perhaps the prize somewhat told you that you could make a success out of being a writer yourself?

Binyerem: Of course. It made me ask the question, “Why did we stop growing?” Life is all about growth. I switched to a project with a humanitarian organisation, Justices of Peace. Their mission was to look after the people of Makoko – a coastal abode in Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city. The local government of Lagos pulled down the houses of large numbers of people who were then forced to relocate to Makoko and the place became overpopulated. This also led to the people living there getting involved in all types of vices. The organisation was devoted to uplifting the people of this displaced community by providing an outreach there; they believed that goodness could still come out of the place despite the hardships.

I visited Makoko and stayed there for three days. My book was based on that experience. After my stay, I went back to Rivers State where I was working and then fell ill. I was inspired to write the book as a way of presenting their challenges and struggles. I wrote it through the voices of little children of Makoko, which I felt was the best way of doing it. The title, Things That Start Small But Sweet was a reference to the fact that your life can start small but end up sweet and meaningful; and that good can come out of something small and difficult.

Emmanuel: Thank you for your precious time. You and your team at Griots Lounge are making huge strides in the Canadian literary space despite starting small. It is so special that you have tapped into a fertile market of Afro-Canadian literature, which has a potential for incredible growth. 

Binyerem: Indeed. I believe so too. Thank you so much for the opportunity to have this conversation.

Emmanuel Nwaneri

Emmanuel Nwaneri is a journalist with about 27 years of writing, travel and journalism experience in Nigeria, South Africa and Australia. He moved to Johannesburg in South Africa where he spent 10 years as a writer, journalism tutor and commentator. His time in South Africa afforded him the chance to observe the fast-changing dynamics of a country popularly-known as the “Rainbow Nation.” 

He moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba with his family in 2018, where he has since found interest in the Administrative and Customer Service industries. He actively writes news stories for the New Canadian Media, as well as the highly-respected Winnipeg Free Press.

He is the author of Once Upon A Woman and is working on a second work of fiction.

EMMANUEL NWANERI

GUEST INTERVIEWER

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