By Anote Ajeluorou
EASILY the most humorous short fiction writer in the country, Chuma Nwokolo, who trained as a lawyer, brings a certain performative breeziness into his reading events that endear him indelibly to his audience. And he was his usual theatrical self last Saturday at Quintessence book and art shop at Parkview Estate, Ikoyi, Lagos, when he read from his latest collection of 100 short stories, How to Spell Naija.
Although a well-known bookshop that only recently relocated from Awolowo Way, Ikoyi to its precent location, Quintessence, according to Nwokolo, had lost its former bookshop vitality, as there were far more other articles on sale other than books fro which it derives its fame.
But Nwokolo wasn’t too surprised at the new turn of affairs at Quintessence and other such outfits, as the country’s book culture continues to receive sundry economic and philistine assaults. For there to be a change, the short fiction author, who started out his writing career in London, said the book sector, especially publishing, needed entrepreneurial, business people to drive it to achieve the success it lacks at the moment.
Nwokolo recalled the glorious 1980s, when Nigeria’s book culture was at its peak and such series as Longman’s ‘Drumbeat’, Macmillan’s ‘Pacesetters’, Heinemann’s ‘African Writers Series’ and a few other smaller series dominated the literary scene with titles that nurtured a generation of young and adult readers. These series eventually disappeared in the heat of Structural Adjustment Programe (SAP). But Nwokolo singled out Macmillan’s ‘Pacesetters’, as the commanding series at the time for young readers, a series he also contributed a few titles. He said ‘Pacesetters’ impact was phenomenal, as writers from across Africa contributed to it and it gave that generation of readers a cross-cultural taste of continental writing that was lacking at the moment.
However, the author of Diary of a Dead African, The Ghost of Sanni Abacha and Other Stories and other titles stated that although the ‘Pacesetters’ novellas were apt at the time for their audience, they were no longer so today, as such modern gadgets such as mobile phones, computers, iPhones and iPads were not in vogue back then as now and so young people might not relate to the limited socio-cultural setting well enough.
But he was full of praises for the titles back then, particularly as Macmillan deployed an effective marketing strategy to get the books to every nook and crannies of the country. In this wise, Nwokolo charged that it would take people with business ingenuity to achieve what Macmillan achieved back then, noting, “We need ambitious publishers to do what Macmillan was doing for the ‘Pacesetters’ series. We need to have the right books for the right audience. We need entrepreneurial, business people into publishing”.
Nwokolo was responding to what makes a writer a truly fulfilled person since there was no money, so to say, in writing, and how he combines writing with law practice. He stated simply, “You have to be a man of modest desires. Many writers have their heads in the clouds, and don’t have entrepreneurial skills. You have to be a missionary writer and not a purist depending only on writing but you take on other functions as well to survive”. It’s for which reasons, he argued, that there was need for ambitious publishers to give writers a measure of financial sucour for their writing.
All his short fiction collections are self-published efforts.
Nwokolo, who read from a couple of stories in How to Spell Naija and an excerpt from Diary of a Dead African, said the short story rather than the full length novel works for him, as explanation on why he has produced more short stories as against the novel. He also stated that his stories derived from emotional truth, noting, “There’s emotional truth in my fiction. When you read it you feel it. Usually, true life is not as interesting because it’s still unfolding. But in fiction, you try to end it and get some sort of closure for it. Only emotional truth is what I give my fiction. True life doesn’t end. The short story works for me because of its intensity. I write it seamlessly in one stretch. I persuade my inspiration to fit a short story. Periods of estrangement come to me in longer fiction (novel), where I lose trend of what had gone before”.
Family life and all the drama that go with it feature recurrently in Nwokolo’s stories, which he attributed to the value he places on the family unit, as having a strong place in society, pointing out, “Human relationships are very important to us in every sense”.
Humour is Nwokolo’s strong forte, and he said, “My life is not funny, so I try to make my stories funny to amuse myself. If you crack the same joke many times you try to make it funny. I try to look at the world from a funny perspective; I don’t want to die young. I hope to write stories that are redemptive. I can’t do stand up comedy, but I only write humourously in my room. I’m not a comedian but a humourist”.