An established Nigerian poet whose new collection For the Love of Flight was recently published by Cassava Republic Press.
Being a mother of four and a wife with a full-time job, how do you find time to write at all?
My children are a wonderful distraction, but they have come to understand that when Mum has to write, she has to write. They are very forgiving and I hope they know how much I appreciate their patience. Luckily for them, my husband, Olaokun, is a fantastic father. They prefer to hang out with him anyways, because he‘s so creative, so random. He buys them clay, he paints with them, and cooks with them. This works well for me because it gives me time to write. Like most writers, I prefer to write at night-time. I give myself deadlines and work towards them. That‘s all the self-discipline I can handle.
What books are you reading presently?
I am reading African Psycho by Alain Mabanckou. He‘s a Francophone writer, and I keep telling everyone about him. His novel, Broken Glass, was one of the funniest I‘ve ever read in my life. I‘ve lent the novel to a few people and we all have private jokes now, jokes relating to incidents in the novel. That‘s the mark of excellent writing–– something has got to stay with you. I now go out of my way to look for Francophone writing in translation because it‘s so much more exciting. We are much too inhibited in Anglophone Africa.
In a recent interview, you talked about how you started writing poetry by composing naughty limericks in boarding school. Those funny beginnings have morphed into your poetry today. Can you comment on this transition?
People would feel sorry for me if I was still writing those limericks (actually I still do), but I think it‘s all down to growth—emotional growth and an increased awareness of the world one lives in. Writing is also therapeutic for me and I learn a lot about myself through my own writing. Sometimes, I will spend a few days writing a poem. I write a little, leave it, return to it, only to find that I‘d been subconsciously expressing my thoughts about something I didn‘t even know was bothering me. There has been a significant movement as far as the themes I am preoccupied with go.
How has living outside Nigeria affected your writing? How would you compare the world of publishing and your reading audience?
The most important thing living outside Nigeria has done for me is to teach me the value of pursuing high standards. In Nigeria, most publishers seem to print without any editorial contributions, which is a shame because authors are missing out on valuable input at the different stages of writing. As a result, the end product is unsatisfactory, and, in a sense, unsatisfying for the author too. In the UK, there is lot of heartache that comes with the publishing world; the desire to be known as an author is not without pain– from getting an agent, to improving your manuscript, to finding a publisher. In the end, one cannot but feel a great sense of achievement, and of course relief, having been through the rigour of writing and rewriting. I am however pleased that all my writing has been published in Nigeria first. Nigerians are my primary audience.
Your first collection is titled So All This Time I Was Sitting on an Egg, the second, Song of a Riverbird, and now the third is called For the Love of Flight. What is your obsession with birds? Yes, I do have a thing for birds. If I had to return to this horrible world, at least let me come back as a bird, preferably an owl. I love owls. When I look up at the sky and see birds, I always feel a tinge of jealousy. The idea of freedom is very important to me, if not in speech, then at least in thought. Birds enjoy freedom in the way humans can‘t. I wish I were a bird; I try to live my life as free as one.
From your publications, one can almost conclude that poetry is the art form with which you are most at ease. Do you see yourself primarily as a poet?
Well, you‘ll have to read my novel first to see if you still feel this way. Without a doubt, I enjoy the extra challenge of having to be economical with words that poetry poses. When I‘m writing a poem, my mind works differently, it‘s an involved, deeply personal process. I should add that don‘t find writing poetry as easy as it was when my first collection came out twelve years ago. My focus now is on how I express a thought rather than just the thought itself. Having said this, I love writing fiction. It‘s like working with a massive canvas. So all this time I was sitting on an egg.
Your first collection, was largely autobiographical. In For the Love of Flight, the clarity and evocation of poems such as “For Kiitan” leave no doubt in a reader’s mind that you were writing about your life. My question is: how much of your personal life would you be willing to reveal as the price for literary ingenuity?
I‘m glad you used the word largely‘ because I like to step into other people‘s shoes and become them, be a method poet, if you like. For this reason, I love the writing in the first person narrative voice. It works well for me but don‘t be fooled into thinking the poet persona is always me, Lola. This is not the case. Conversely, because of the introspective process that I go through when I am writing poetry, it is difficult not to reveal things which are personal to me. My feeling is that writing about my process of healing, awakening, or redemption will help people in similar situations. Sometimes, when you are going through something painful or inconvenient, there is comfort in knowing that someone else has seen what your eyes are seeing. Yes, some of my poems are personal and this irks my husband who is a very private person. He was telling me a few days ago that he‘d decided to live with my work because the alternative was to stifle my creativity, something he wouldn‘t dream of doing. I am a very lucky woman.
You have a novel, The Secret Lives of Baba Segi Wives, coming out soon. Can you educate us on the challenges of juggling between art forms, because I am well aware that there is a difference between doing fiction and poetry?
The only difference for me is that fiction captures the other extreme in my character –– the chatty, gregarious, humorous side. It is very difficult for me to flit between the two forms. I find I can write prose on demand, force myself into the required frame of mind. With poetry, I have to be inspired.
You are a Fellow of The Iowa International Writing Program, what we refer to in Saraba as the “Mecca of writers”, how did the creative writing programme influenced your writing?
I had good fun. I put on about a stone because there was so much amazing food there. I met some great writers and I am still in touch with some of them. I was the only African there that year so it was quite special. It‘s not an experience you can ever forget.
What are your impressions about the Nigerian literary scene, the rise of some publishing houses to fill the vacuum created in the military era, noteworthy among which are Cassava Republic, Farafina and Dada books etc.
Cassava Republic Press is publishing my novel and I feel very lucky. They approached me and asked to see my manuscript. They read it, we met and the rest is history. Bibi Bakare-Yusuf, my editor, is an amazing editor. Apart from the energy that she exudes, she is also intuitive and very smart. We work very well together. She is not only interested in profit, she is interested in books themselves, and more importantly, the writers of the books. Farafina publishes Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Sefi Atta. I hear they are also going to publish Maik Nwosu. This is wonderful news as it shows that they are focusing on giving the new generation of writers the exposure they deserve.
I want to believe that every body of work is borne out of questions and the need to answer these questions or be it as it may, ask new ones? What were the questions that inspired your upcoming collection, For the Love of Flight?
What is the significance of love and how is it manifested in our lives? What is the place of religion in our every day existence? Why are Nigerian rulers bent on eroding the integrity of the entire population?
Has your style of poetry been influenced by an earlier poet(s) and if yes, who and how?
When I first started writing, I loved reading Maya Angelou, Mabel Segun, Alice Walker and Ntosage Shange. Maya Angelou, I believe, writes popular, accessible poetry. I liked this quality in her work. I love the way she uses words provocatively, the girl power. I much enjoyed Once, a little known collection of poems by Alice Walker. I think she wrote it when she was about 23, after visiting Africa for the first time. It remains one of my favourite book of poems ever. I liked the noise‘ in Shange‘s work, her complete disregard for rules. These days, I read Phillip Levine, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath. I also have Nigerian poets that I love like Odia Ofeimun, Remi Raji, Tade Ipadeola, Niran Okewole, Chiedu Ezeanah, and there‘s a wonderful young poet called Richard Ali.
Is there any place for literary magazines in the writing and publication process?
I certainly hope so. Even in developed countries, these publications can only exist because they are supported by universities and government endowments. In a place like Nigeria where, year on year, the government has systematically destroyed the educational system, you can‘t help but ask who would read such publications when most people can‘t read at all, or would rather read tabloids. This is what our rulers have done to us; it will be decades before we can regain all the lost ground.
There is a section in your new collection that examines known government officials. What do you really think of the current leadership in Nigeria?
A sham! A disgrace! A farce! A bunch of ignoramuses who have lost all sense of what it means to serve their country! They are there to serve themselves and their families, at all costs. There must be consequences for this kind of behaviour.
Do you see yourself becoming a full-time writer, and how soon? I really don‘t know. When the time is right, I‘ll know. I don‘t think it‘s something you plan. For someone like me, there are all sorts of financial implications. I‘m not quite at that stage yet.
What do you set to achieve with your writings?
I hope that I give people pleasure. I hope I can make people laugh. I hope I can make it hard for certain people to live with themselves. I hope I can bring peace to the hearts of those who deserve it. I hope I can speak for those who have lost their voices.
Do you have any advice for budding writers?
Live hard, read hard, write hard.
And finally, a question that has evoked very diverse answers, why do you write?
I derive immense pleasure from it and like I have said before, it beats ironing and all other domestic endeavours.
Photo: Paul VanDerWerf