By Anote Ajeluorou
Last Sunday at Freedom Park, Lagos, before the final shortlist of three writers was made midweek, 10 writers faced the scrutiny of the literary public to talk about the work and themselves in the CORA-organised Book Party. The 10 writers included Onuora Nzekwu, (Troubled Dust), Vincent Egbuson (Zhero), Lola Soneyin (The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives), Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani (I Do Not Come To You By Chance) and Jude Dibia (Blackbird). Other writers were Chika Unigwe (On Black Sister’s Street), Olusola Olugbesan’s (Only A Canvas), Ifeanyi Ajaegbo’s (Sarah House), E. E. Sule’s (Sterile Sky) and
Ngozi Achebe’s (Onaedo: The Blacksmith’s Daughter).
However, only Ngozi Achebe’s (Onaedo: The Blacksmith’s Daughter), Chika Unigwe (On Black Sister’s Street) and Olusola Olugbesan’s (Only A Canvas) now stand a chance of winning the US$100,000 prize money of the LNG-sponsored The Nigeria Prize for Literature. Reproduced below at Freedom Park are what the writers said concerning themselves and their novels. Interestingly, only one of the authors, Olusola Olugbesan was in attendance by proxy; eh was represented by his wife, Mrs. Nike Ougbesan. Unigwe and Achebe, who live abroad, could not be present at the Book Party.
WITH Deji Toye moderating, the conversation truly got underway with the seven authors giving insights into their person and their works. First was Vincent Egbuson (Zhero), represented by Steve Shabba, his publisher, who said the work was a true reflection of the many knotty issues confronting Nigeria at the moment – fraud (419), corruption, kidnapping, crime. However, Egbuson’s character is a young man who chooses to remain untainted as he walks the narrow path and eventually climbs to the top in his chosen career. It provides a moral compass through which to navigate through the murkiness that the country has regressed.
Tricia Adaobi Nwaubani traced her writing career to an earlier period in primary school when she won a prize for her writing. However, in 2006, she turned attention to her craft properly and wrote I Do Not Come To You By Chance, a thriller on the nefarious activities of 419. She confessed to living in the world of her book, especially in Aba, Abia State, where the book is set. Nwaubani insisted that she was not being moralistic in her work. Also, she would neither blame government nor those who engage in such criminal activities but instead, she said she uses her work to shine a light on people’s lives and on society with the aim to better understand them.
Jude Dibia (Blackbird) grew up with books. While other children got strokes of the cane as punishment for erring, Dibia had books to read instead as punishment. So, he read authors most adults would struggle to comprehend at an early stage. Dibia’s interest is “Who we are as a people; why is he or her that way? What influences the passion in people to do what they do?” He is also interested in the laws of opposite – beauty and ugliness and such other contradictory forces! Also, his thoughts are about people who are internally displaced rather than those who go outside the country.
Ifeanyi Ajaegbo (Sarah House), who is a basketball fan and player, said there is a merger between his daytime work and his writing to a point where the line between them becomes blurred. Also, he noted that his work is on the objectification of women, especially in Port Harcourt city, where he said women are playthings in the hands of those who can afford them. “60 per cent of what is the book”, he said, “happened to real people, is an extract of what happened to people. In Port Harcourt where I live and work, women are treated like objects, real objects. Despite living in our small spaces, there is a very dark world out there and people need to take care”.
Elder artsman, Onuorah Nzekwu (Troubled Dust) traced his writing career till date and said he was raised up in Kafanchan, Kaduna. His first published work was Wand of Noble Wood in 1961, then followed by Blade Among the Boys in 1962; this was followed in 1964 by Eze Goes to School. He said he publishedEze Goes to School because, although Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka and others had written books, nothing had been written for Nigerian children to read up till then.
He said, “All we had were books for European children. So, I thought I should write something about our own surrounding for our children’s understanding”. He also went on to write two other books, one on the way Onitsha lived, entitled Faith of Our Fathers. Soon after, the Nigerian Civil War came and he was forced to relocate to be on the side of Biafra after leaving Nigeria as a civil servant in Nigeria. He became the editor of the famous Nigeria Magazine after the war ended. After the war, Nzekwu said he then put together his experiences during the 30-month long war. The result is Troubled Dust.
Mrs. Nike Olugbesan, who represented her husband, Olusola Olugbesan, attested to her husband’s versatility both in architecture and the arts. She referred to him as a multi-talented man, who also composes music, with a once popular tune to his credit. She said Only A Canvas is a book about society, with a view to correcting the obnoxious osu caste system found in some Igbo communities of South Eastern Nigeria.
Lola Shoneyin said The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives was her first novel to be published after two had been rejected by publishers in London. She said the dejection she felt after being rejected was enough to cripple her enthusiasm in writing but she persisted and the result is the current work for the race for the $100,000 prize money. Emphatically, Shoneyin said The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives was a response to her father-in-law, Wole Soyinka’s play Lion and the Jewel, a play that glorifies masculinity. She said she needed to deflate that masculine image and ego, “a kind of bouncing off on Baroka (the old, extra virile man in Lion and the Jewel), to take away his pride and peacock ego. Well, it’s a nice story for me to write”.
Shoneyin stated that she based her work on a story told her by her brother’s girlfriend when she was14, but of an Igbo polygamous family. Combined with her soft spot for women issues, it’s becomes understandable why Shoneyin took on a subject that always generated heated debate each time it came up for discussion. Last Sunday was no exception, with some congratulating her for seemingly giving men the license to experiment on the polygamy turf.
However, the authors had read excerpts each from their novels before speaking about them to properly set the tone for the discussion.