Solomon Awuzie is a talented writer in the field of African Literature. He obtained his Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) degree from Imo State University, Owerri, his Master of Arts (M.A.) degree from the University of Ibadan, and his PhD degree from the University of Port Harcourt—all in Nigeria. He is the author of the plays: The Born Again Devil (2004), The Last Revolution (2010) and A Policeman Also Dies and Other Plays (2017). He is also the author of a collection of poems captioned The Taunts of the Flesh (2004). He has not only written short stories, but also children fictions. In 2005, his short story, “Your Epistle” won the ANA-IMO/YOUNG WRITERS CLUB prize for literature, and in 2015 his children fiction, Oluyemi and the School Fee came second at the ANA-IMO state literary competition. He teaches Literature, Literary Theory and Creative Writing at the Department of English, Edo University Iyamho-Uzariure, Edo State, Nigeria.
This conversation happened in person at Awuzie’s office in Edo University.
INTERVIEW BY EMMANUEL CHIBUZOR OKEREKE
Emmanuel: How did your avid interest in writing develop?
Solomon: That is a long story. I was not born a creative writer, but I was born an imaginative person. I started putting my imagination to work at a very tender age. At about four or five years of age, I had already developed some abilities in the act of drawing. What I mostly drew were pictures of white men; and women fighting with one another. Maybe that could be linked to my interest in Hollywood action movies as a child. With time, I started using the pictures I drew to tell imaginative stories. I would fill some booklets with pictures of warring white men and women, and narrate the story I was telling through those pictures to my peers who would listen with keen interest. Some children at school soon found interest in my drawings and started asking me to sell some of them to them. I continued drawing until I wrote my Senior Secondary School Examination. After my Senior Secondary School Exam, it was as if my peers lost interest in watching the cartoon drawings I produced; it was also as if I lost interest in drawing generally, and somehow I started trying to tell the stories I drew through writing.
My first story was The Adventure of Udo. The story is about a teenage boy who was mistakenly arrested for a crime he never committed. He was soon sentenced to death, and then taken to prison. Luck shined on him when he was enlisted among those who were to go on a rescue mission. He accepted to go instead of facing the bullet. When they got to the town where they were to rescue a boy, many of his colleagues lost their lives but he was among those who made it home alive.
After writing the story, I gave it to one of our neighbours, Mr. John, who was a Jehovah witness. He read through the story and told me it was good. But his trouble with the story was that it was more-or-less like the Hollywood action movie. He advised me to write about things that were happening around us and not about crimes and war like the Hollywood movie. Even though The Adventure of Udo was my first story, it was not my first published story.
Reflecting on what Mr. John told me, I tried writing another story that would capture the Nigerian socio-political reality. So, I wrote Igbokwe. It was difficult creating the story because I was used to war stories. After writing the story, I took it to Mr. John, he read through, made some corrections and suggestions. I went back home, noted the corrections, and then worked on the suggestions. When I was done, I took it to a publisher named Functional Book Publishers, which was situated near my former school, Gaskiya College. To my surprise, the Functional Book Publishers accepted to publish the story on royalty. That was how I started writing stories.
Emmanuel: How did your interest in drama develop?
Solomon: My interest in drama started on my discovery that some stories are better expressed dramatically. There was this story I heard from one of my kin brothers in one of the times we travelled to the village for Christmas. The story has a lot of missing parts, so I felt it would be a better story for a drama. I started writing the story as a play, but could not finish it; that play was titled The Unsatisfied Ghost, and it has been published recently. When it became very difficult for me to continue the story, I abandoned The Unsatisfied Ghost and started The Born Again Devil. Even though I wrote The Born Again Devil in 2001, I was only able to publish it in my third year in University in 2004. That same year, I published my controversial collection of poems entitled The Taunts of the Flesh. That was how The Born Again Devil became my first published play.
Emmanuel: In what sense is The Taunts of the Flesh controversial?
Solomon: When I was in the university during my undergraduate days, I was strongly involved in writing and other writing related activities. The Taunts of the Flesh reminds me of the controversy I got myself involved in at that time. You may consider it extreme, or some sought of madness. Because each time I cast my mind back I laugh. At that time, I tried to see if through writing I could change someone for the better. During my undergraduate days, I lived all alone in a community called Orji that is close to the university. In that community then, I found this young lady who at that time was promiscuous. Whenever she passed, people said all sorts of things like: “oh this is the prostitute of the community.” One day, I called the lady and asked her about her parents. She told me that they were divorced. After getting every necessary piece of information I needed, I then decided to see if I could save this lady’s life through writing. I published The Taunts of the Flesh and handed her a copy, and that’s when trouble started. The collection was like a mirror to her. But, you know, people do not want to look at the mirror especially when they know they are very ugly. She took it home to her mother, and her mother was also mad at me. They said they would do this and that, but I did not worry because I did not mention any person’s direct name in the collection.
Emmanuel: As a young playwright, what is your view of drama?
Solomon: As a young writer, I became particularly interested in drama; with drama, I felt a playwright could manipulate human experiences as he wanted. Well, this is also linked to my perception of human experience. At this time, I feel human experience cannot be adapted in full because it is fragmented. I feel the novel form does not completely capture it the way it is, and that drama is one genre that can judiciously do the job. To me, drama is one form of literature through which the real human experience can be captured in full.
Emmanuel: In The Last Revolution, you seem to lay much emphasis on tribal consciousness, what is this tribal consciousness? How did it come about? And how can it be aborted in Africa?
Solomon: Well, tribal consciousness brings me to this: I was born in Lagos and as you know, Lagos is a cosmopolitan state. I was brought up in a community in Lagos where one tribesman expresses his hate over another. The Igbo man has a nickname for people of the three major tribes, the Yoruba man has his, and so does the Hausa man. The Igbo man calls the Yoruba man onye ofe nmanu, meaning “someone of oily soup,” and the Hausa person onye ugwu meaning “someone from the north”. The Yoruba person calls the Igbo person aje okuta mamumi, meaning “someone who swallows stone without drinking water,” and the Hausa man aboki, which its meaning is merely to deride them. The Hausa man calls the Igbo man yamiri, which its meaning is also deriding. Just as you rightly asked, “how did it come about?” This came about as a result of the mistake of the founding fathers of Nigeria. Majority of them were tribalists. In my search for a storyline to use in tackling this issue in dramatic form, it clicked in my mind that I could adapt the first Nigerian coup into a play of warning.
Though it did not occur to me to do a play on this situation until 2004 when in a discussions with my friend, Chukwuma Ibezute, we identified tribalism as the problem of Nigeria. I decided to write a play where this tribal consciousness among Nigerians would be emphasized. I didn’t do it immediately because of school work. The opportunity soon came when we were asked to submit topics for our first degree project. I submitted a topic that would allow me to adapt Adewale Ademoyega’s Why We Struck into drama. The topic was approved, and I was able to write the play under the watch of Prof Isidore Diala then Dr Isidore Diala.
The play was not published the way it was. After my master’s degree programme at the University of Ibadan in 2010, I took a look at it again. I added some scenes to it and also removed some expressions. The title of the play on a manuscript form was “Why they struck”. It was at this time that I changed it to The Last Revolution. After that has been done, I sent it to my publishers. They sent it out for review, and when it returned I was told that the play was good for publication as it was. So that was how The Last Revolution was published.
You also want to know how this tribalism thing can be aborted in Africa. I think Africa is too big to discuss here. Let’s come home to Nigeria, because charity begins at home. As the situation is now in Nigeria, it will be difficult to abort. The foundations of the founding fathers have been built upon and it will be difficult to correct. But we can try. Maybe through campaigns at all levels, and through producing more plays and stories that would tackle this issue and show that it is really the cause of the trouble in Nigeria, then the change would come.
Emmanuel: To turn to The Born Again Devil your first play, looking at your characters, the female ones seem to be receiving unfair treatments from their male counterparts. Could you explain?
Solomon: I expected this question! It’s not the first time I have been asked this. Back in my undergraduate days, majority of my friends were males. So, when I was writing the play, I had it at the back of my mind that drama is for the stage and not just for the page. To save myself the stress of having to beg females who were not close to me to join in the performance, I included a few females in the play. I contacted the then president of English and Literary Studies Association drama group in the department and showed him the play. He was two years ahead of me. When he read the play, he asked me the same question you have asked: Why are the major characters in the play male? What about the females? The young man was able to pull both male and female students, even my level mates, to partake in the drama. However, in performance, every male character and female character has his or her role to play. Both male and female characters are meant to learn from their mistakes. But where a character fails to know what is right to do, she will be put right. That is what I did in The Born Again Devil.
Emmanuel: Again, you embellished your story with Igbo proverbs, why?
Solomon: Yes, every story has its makeup. The Born-Again Devil is set in a typical Igbo community; it is only necessary that the elderly characters use proverbs to add colour to what they have to say. They use proverbs to stimulate the consciousness of their audience and, of course, to make them reason out meaning.
Emmanuel: In A Policeman Also Dies and Other Plays, especially the play entitled “The Haunted”, you wrote that art preserves time. Could you throw more light on this?
Solomon: Yes, what I mean is that it is in art one can find vestiges of past generational experiences, stored and permanently preserved. That is simply what I mean by that expression and nothing more.
Emmanuel: Still in the same play you wrote you were a writer and not a storyteller, what did you actually mean?
Solomon: Of course, it is not me that speaks in the play. It is a character. Like a human being, doesn’t a character have the right to say how he should be addressed? He does. The reason why the character insists he is a writer and not a storyteller is clear. The storyteller can be anybody: everyone tells stories. If it is not the story of what one sees on his way to somewhere, it will be the story of what has happened to one. As T.S. Eliot rightly observed, such stories have chaotic, irregular and fragmentary experiences as their sources. A writer is different. He tells stories through the resources of language. To reproduce his stories, he relies so much on his separate experiences that have accumulated in his mind over time.
Emmanuel Chibuzor Okereke was educated in Nigerian university, University of Port Harcourt, where he studied English and Literature, and obtained his BA, MA and PhD. He is the author of the short story entitled “The Harmful Woman”, published in Kafla Intercontinental Journal. He has also written a collection of short stories entitled The Mistletoe, which is awaiting publication. Currently, Okereke is a Lecturer at the Department of English and Literary Studies, Obong University, Obong Ntak, Akwa Ibom State, Nigeria.