By Anote Ajeluorou
The simple Short Message Service (SMS) seems telling and a clear summation of the reading event: ‘Thanks for coming today. We are really grateful. It was a great event and it showed the potential for literature in Naija.’ That was multi-faceted Mr. Toni Kan expressing appreciation for attendance and optimism for the future of literature in Nigeria. Earlier on last Sunday, he’d read with artist and writer Mr. Victor Ehikhamenor at Rele Gallery behind National Museum, Onikan, Lagos, in a session that promised a literary bout but delivered great conversation instead.
Both writers read from old and new works, with Kan’s Nights of the Creaking Bed and Ehikhamenor’s Excuse Me leading the way. Kan also allowed the audience a glimpse into his forthcoming novel The Carnivorous City by reading delightful excerpts from it. With Wana Udobang, as moderator, the two writers sat with a large mosaic of abstract painting of multiple heads jostling, like the writers, for attention behind them.
Perhaps, of immense significance and take-away for most writers at the crowded hall of Rele Gallery, which was holding a reading session for the first time, was Kan’s charge to some writers, whose avowal or calling is fixated on saving society from itself, to also embrace ‘ghost writing’ if only to add value to their craft and make a decent living. For the journalist and PR expert, if it took a comedian like Julius Agwu about 40 minutes on stage to earn N500,000 or more for making people laugh why shouldn’t a writer make as much to help a rich folk with too much money to spare write his memoir or biography?
He noted that while it’s a great idea to keep the creativity going, it was expedient for a writer to be able to pay his bills, which creative writing alone was yet to accomplish. For instance, he said although Nights of the Creaking Bed might have sold 10,000 copies in six years since publication, what has come to him as a writer was less than N1,000,000. and wondered how he could have lived on that if he didn’t have other things doing besides writing.
He said, “Let’s make our writing a value-creating enterprise. Writing is not an easy occupation. If you must do it (writing), do it well”.
But, of course, the reading also highlighted fiction and non-fiction writing as explorative genres in the Nigerian creative environment and how the latter was still at its infancy compared to fiction that attained prominence long ago. The show took off with Ehikhamenor reading from his collection of essays Excuse Me, a piece he dedicates to his late mother, but which he wrote while the woman was still alive; then Kan also read from Nights of the Creaking Bed.
For Kan fiction derives its strength from the non-fictive environment that provides it a backdrop and canvas to thrive. As he put it, “Fiction won’t exist if you don’t have non-fiction. Fiction springs from non-fictional situations”.
Ehikhamenor also agreed and added a metaphorical comparison, noting, “Fiction is a masquerade and non-fiction is when you take the mask off the masquerade. Writers research fiction in the real world. In fiction, there is more liberty”.
So, why has fiction flourished at the expense of non-fiction in the country whereas it seems a booming business in other environments? What could be responsible for the lack of ‘liberty’ Ehikhamenor alluded to that prevents Nigerians from writing their true-life stories for others to read? Why is there so little non-fiction with the amount of sleaze recorded in high places? Why are people so mum about such thing even when they are subjects for explosive reading and instant sellout?
Ehikhamenor was also forthcoming on the probable reason for the loud silence. “Whoever admits to having smoked hemp to his mother?” he asked. “Here, we have things that will make for great non-fiction, but we are not exploring them well enough. We lack the ability to tell the deeper truths about ourselves, our lives that are really explosive and can make for good reading”.
However, Kan said such reticence was gradually giving way “where people tell personal stories truthfully”.
Author and founder of Abeokuta-based Ake Arts and Book Festival Lola Shoneyin argued that cultural restraint was at the heart of a stunted non-fiction writing in the country, adding that many people hiding under fiction to tell those sordid things about them or people they know. According to her, “Our culture makes us conscious of the notion of shame and that constrains us telling about our flaws, but we may be getting there. People are feeling the need to tell the truth; we rather hide under fiction instead”.
To which Kan also agreed, saying, “We hide under fiction”.
Ehikhamenor’s story ‘Love letter’ caused uproar in the house, as a piece that resonated well with those raised before the advent of Global System for Mobile (GSM) and the Internet. Ehikhamenor fleshed out all the nuances of letter writing, especially a love letter to a sweetheart and its possible bittersweet outcomes for the naughty, letter-writing schoolboy.
With GSM and the Internet replacing that favourite pastime of young people, how have these new tools rubbed off on writing skills of young people and the emergent creative writing? Sadly, it was observed that most people writing on the Internet have dispensed with the needed rigorous editing traditional publishing requires before materials are put out for public consumption.
Ehikhamenor was emphatic that “SMS and tech language were ruining use of English language among young people”.
Kan took further it when he said, “Bloggers are giving Nigerians a bad name. Millennial youth are not using language properly. We had good writing without the Internet; it’s not the case now. The freedom it allows is being abused. 140 characters (as twitter allows) may be fantastic, but what happens after the 140 is the problem”.
“The immediacy of it is good but people need to hold back a bit before pushing their stuff online,” Ehikhamenor argued. “There must be reread first before publishing”.
Responses from the audience showed that while Internet makes for accessibility, affordability and quantity, a lot of bad stuff with poor quality gets pushed out to the public. How to sift through becomes the problem of the gullible and untutored.