Salvaging Writing In Nigeria: A Dialogue With Oris Aigbokhaevbolo
Oris Aigbokhaevbolo is a writer and critic living in Lagos, Nigeria. He holds a Doctor of Pharmacy degree from the University of Benin, and has attended Academies for Film Criticism in Germany, South Africa and the Netherlands. In 2015, Oris mentored film critics at the Durban International Film Festival. In the same year, he became the first winner of the All Africa Music Awards prize for Music Journalism. He is the West African editor for Music in Africa, and his works have appeared in Chimurenga, BellaNaija, This is Africa, The Africa Report, Catapult and the Guardian UK.
BY JENNIFER CHINENYE EMELIFE
After a few Facebook likes and comments, my first engagement with Oris was on a date, with another friend, at a local joint in Lagos where I watched him drown his enthusiasm for words and food over four wraps of pounded yam and a bottle of beer. What followed was a series of informal conversations on separate occasions and an itch to interview this man whose love for English language is like nobody else’s I know. Little wonder he shares a birthday with William Shakespeare. I moved to Abuja and my hope to interview him was truncated, but technology intervened as we corresponded via email in April about his work and his visions for writing and music in Africa.
Jennifer: You’ve been an essayist/critic/editor for as long as I’ve known you, which is about four years now. How would you describe the connection among these three? And how are you able to separate them as individual professions?
Oris: I’ve never really thought of the first two as separate entities because the basic element connecting all prose is the sentence. Perhaps, it was naiveté but from the start, I reasoned that if somehow you could learn to write readable sentences, using punctuation correctly then you have had half the job done. And I mean this even for fiction writing.
As for the separation, which I would have to assume you are asking about individual pieces, it comes down to the purpose of the piece. I should first say that in a sense, the critic is really an essayist—at least the good ones are, in my mind. If you are called upon to write a long piece that is not fiction, almost automatically you are working somewhere within or at the periphery of the essay. The real distinguishing factor is the literary tone, which takes several form but you know it when you read it. The possession of this hard-to-define-thing, in my head, is what separates the essayist from the journalist.
In my own work, one rubs off on the other. Some of my journalist colleagues used to say my writing sounded happy. I don’t know much about that unless they meant entertaining, which, I admit, is one goal of my writing. As both reader and writer, I like for words to be alive on the page, for one sentence to propel you to the next just by force of the way its words are arranged. I also think highly of clarity and insight. Now, if you add all three—a certain kind of entertainment, clarity, and insight—with the judicious use of punctuation, you will find that there is little else that a piece of prose writing needs, be it a story, an essay or a review. Of course, as a writer one pays attention to the context. For instance, the story needs a narrative in the way a review doesn’t; the review needs an argument; and you can’t be over-literary in some types of journalism.
Jennifer: And your role as the West African editor for Music in Africa, how do all of these come in? Could you talk about what the job entails and what a typical day is like for you at Music in Africa?
Oris: I wake up and enter into the ridiculous Lagos traffic. At the office, in Hemingway’s hyperbole, I sit at a table and bleed. There might be an event to attend, concerts, conferences and so on. There are usually articles to edit from contributors and some I have to write myself. As you can imagine, making a living means all you do isn’t all you might necessary like to do as a writer.
“As both reader and writer, I like for words to be alive on the page, for one sentence to propel you to the next just by force of the way its words are arranged. I also think highly of clarity and insight. Now, if you add all three—a certain kind of entertainment, clarity, and insight—with the judicious use of punctuation, you will find that there is little else that a piece of prose writing needs, be it a story, an essay or a review.“
Jennifer: In the course of your work, what major changes have you identified from the state of music as it is now in Africa, particularly Nigeria, as against what it used to be?
Oris: There is the usual sentiment that our music has gotten worse in terms of that strange word, content. I think they mean lyrically. What our artistes are saying isn’t very sensible. But really awful lyrics is the way of the pop music world. Every generation gets the pop music it deserves and I don’t think ours is so much worse than what has gone before. “Sex sells” wasn’t coined yesterday.
To my mind, the real difference is not quite lyrical richness as much as overall ambition. Our bad songwriters are as bad as any generation’s bad songwriters. The question is: Are our good songwriters as great as the previous generations? I have to say I don’t think so. For instance, we still haven’t produced a songwriter as good as Fela.
Jennifer: Would you then consider music literature?
Oris: This is tricky. Music isn’t literature but I concede that there are songs that approach the poetic if you set them down in writing without musical notation. But approaching poetry doesn’t mean replacing poetry. We already have the genres making up literature. I’m not keen on including music. I am one of those who believed Bob Dylan shouldn’t have gotten the Nobel. Sorry I had to bring that up. It rankles still.
Jennifer: Ha ha ha. Do you want to vent a bit on that? I mean, Bob Dylan’s win.
Oris: LOL. Not at the moment. But I already answered that in saying music isn’t literature, as the latter already has distinct genres. Poetry. Play. Prose.
Jennifer: I’m wondering if there are ways that you think the book, film and music industries can merge to push the narrative of African writing and arts in general.
Oris: They can and they have. Apparently, Nollywood is seen across the continent and beyond. Ditto our music. And our famous authors have done their part in making us look better than the world thinks we are. It is the quality of our artistry that I’d like to see change and for the more average Nigerian life to get some attention without condescension or censure.
Jennifer: In terms of artistry quality, not many writers in Nigeria particularly fancy your constant critique of their crafts online. Do you think it’s a misconstruction of your style or do you intentionally set out to annoy via your writing?
Oris: I’ll have to say I don’t think your question is right, but perhaps you speak for yourself and those you know. As you can imagine, I don’t think I annoy anyone. I certainly don’t intend to do so. Or maybe the people who do get annoyed don’t bring it my way directly because, at the risk of self-defence, I do get messages from people who not only agree with some of my sentiments or want to talk about it. Maybe they tell other people about their annoyance but convey only commendations to me. I wouldn’t put that past humans.
It is a case of passion. I really like to read and when I am not seeing good stuff to read locally, especially if the fault strikes me as a basic flaw, I think it’s only fair to say something about it. I’ve written on social media about the need for writers to learn how to punctuate, how to convert their mundane experiences into prose, how to write better generally. These are hardly controversial statements to make. The problem is laziness. We are reluctant to make things better. And when we are told, we think we are being scolded, which might be true but it is not unfair scolding. I hardly mention names on social media but I guess the guilty feel guilt. For instance, I once said Nigerian writers are yet to figure out how to use the semicolon. My solution was that we either learn to use it well or we leave it alone. Some felt that it was harsh, but I don’t think anyone thought it was untrue. All of this time later, I think I have seen changes in specific writers. Of course, no one would trace it to some random social media post I made. If they will, I’d like to hear it. But I can’t be holding my breath for that.
Jennifer: Talking about social media, what do you think of the emergence of this new crop of writing spread over the internet (and in books too) and how do you think writing here can be genuinely improved and sustained?
Oris: Some think of it as literature. I don’t, except for a few posts here and there. But I do think there is something that can be used—chiefly the freedom—in our books and magazines and other “serious writing”. The sustaining can only come from reading and reading and reading. Better editing is the other thing that we need to be able to take the writing on social media to something more professional. Can money be made of it, I honestly don’t know. I’d like for that to happen, but only after the writing gets better. I admit to having a problem with bad writing getting rewarded.
Jennifer: What then would you consider the best form of writing?
Oris: Anything well-written and edited. I am partial to prose, and to the essay form. The novel is still the most prized form though. If I am not quite sure what I consider best, I know what I consider the worst form of writing: writing filled with clichés.
Jennifer: I’d like to believe that a critic’s work is to improve what already is. What is your utmost vision for writing in Nigeria, and Africa as a whole?
Oris: We need better prose, better magazines, better books, and better pay. Perhaps, in that order. A richer variety of paths younger writers can follow. There are times when I think only the Achebe-Adichie style is rich enough for anyone to follow, in that that path has two giants. I’d like for other paths—especially in terms of humour—to open up.
Jennifer: I think literary festivals, workshops and mentoring programmes open doors to such variety of writing. What are your thoughts on these activities?
Oris: The community is important. I like talking shop with other writers. As for mentoring, I’ll advocate for writers to read well-edited works. These people you can’t see, because they are dead, of a different race, or because they are famous, have a lot to teach if you read them with a pen in hand. That should be the first step before one goes on to seek a direct intervention. I imagine that a would-be mentor is flattered to receive a mentee who has done some homework prior. Then again, there are stories of unsavory mentorships, so a part of me thinks it might not be so necessary.
Jennifer: Perhaps, the reader may want to find out how this graduate of Pharmacy went from dispensing medications to writing about books, films and music.
Oris: To avoid giving a long account, perhaps I could direct you and the reader to an essay I wrote about visiting Hemingway’s first house in Paris? Brittle Paper published it.
Hemingway’s Paris Review interview opened my mind to the possibility of writing; Time magazine made me crave sophisticated prose; and an anthology called The Experience of Fiction gave me insight into short stories. These books ruined my life as one thing and made it as another. This was at the University of Benin. At some point, based on teenage/early twenties bluster, I thought I might be able to plug in the review gap I noticed in Nigerian letters.
After I got out, I got a book review published in the defunct Sunday Sun Revue, which was edited by Toni Kan. Months later, This Day carried two of my album reviews. And while I worked as an intern pharmacist, I got film reviews written on the European Union festival published in our Guardian newspaper. I was later able to use all of these to get a freelance job writing the culture pages in Abuja’s Metropole Magazine. It, too, is defunct now.
There are smaller things here and there but these are the events I remember. At that stage, I wanted to try my hand at writing for a living. Still I needed a big push. That came when I applied for three film critic academies: in South Africa, Germany and the Netherlands. When these academies all accepted my applications and invited me within my first year in Lagos, I thought it was time.
Jennifer Chinenye Emelife writes fiction, nonfiction and poetry. In 2016, she participated in the Writivism Creative Nonfiction Workshop in Accra and the Short Story Day Africa Flow Workshop in Lagos. She’s co-founder and lead correspondent at Praxis Magazine for Arts and Literature.