Jacqueline Agweh’s schedule is tight as a working class mother, but she remains dauntless in following her passion of creative writing. So far, she has these books to her credit: The Brown Family, A Place for Every Girl (2012), The Colour of My Tears (2014), and A Pelican of the Wilderness (2014). She admits, in this interview that the passion is the overriding factor in her creative enterprise. She speaks on the influence of the environment on her works, and the realistic angle of her writings.
At what point did you take to creative writing and what was the motivation behind it?
I started writing at 10, although writing was a family thing, because my father was a lecturer, and we were born in the midst of books. His office was full of books. Sometimes, after school, we would go to his office to wait for him to take us home after his lectures. While we were in his office, we would pick up books to read, and that was where I first saw and read a book on Shaka Zulu and later read so many books in his library.
One major thing that happened to us was that, every year on our birthdays, we received books as presents, and my father expected us to read and tell him what we had read about the book. Reading fired up something in me. Aside from my father being a writer for other people, I wrote a book entitled The Brown Family in Primary 5 and my brothers could draw very well, so one of them drew the pictures of the family while the other painted the pictures. Quite a number of my classmates and friends borrowed the book to read and, in the process, the book got missing. The book was an interesting book, and that was why my classmates read the book. My father was really proud of me when he saw that book despite being my first unpublished work.
I am an avid reader of books and usually read different kinds of books. I started writing again in 2004, and my first book, The Colour of My Tears, was published. Initially, I started with short stories which I submitted for various competitions. The book is about the challenges family members undergo when they have a member who is HIV positive and the trauma associated with it. The book is about the father of a particular family who was infected with HIV when he helped an accident victim and later the wife was infected and the children were also infected. Everything went wrong and the way the society treated them and also the institutions that were set up to take care of people with HIV and how they failed to take care of the victims. In the closing chapters of the book, there is always light at the end of the tunnel, meaning there is a solution to every problem.
As a writer, which of the authors do you see as a favourite?
I have so many authors I love reading their books. Some of them have not won major prizes, but they are good writers. I remember the day I read Fine Boys by Eghosa Imasuen; I was so traumatised that when I met him, I asked him, “Is that a true life story?” He responded that it was actually a fiction story, but sometimes fiction contained a bit of reality. I also love Chimamanda Adiche’s books – I have read all. As a child, I read the late Chinua Achebe’s books, because I had access to them in my father’s library. I have read Cyprian Ekwensi’s books, Flora Nwapa’s books, South African Rehana Rossouw’s What Will People Say, which is about what happens in the society on a daily basis, Mojisola Aboyade-Cole’ The Stress Test –I am so engrossed with the book. There are so many books written by Nigerians that have caught my fancy and interest.
Your work, A Place for Every Girl published in 2012, has the emotive story of five sisters who became hapless victims of their uncle’s whims after the death of their parents. Why did you relate it to the critical exploration of women and the girl-child in Nigeria?
Quite a number of people have read that book, and they would say that I actually know a family with a similar experience. Something it’s common not to only Nigeria but to other countries in Africa. One thing that happens is that, even the members of that family, like the uncle in this instance, who should know better, are all educated. I deliberately made this so, because people, who should know better, decided to capitalise on the fact that they have financial gains to make under the pretext of wanting to take responsibility for the girls; they knew that the chunk of their father’s wealth would come to them and they could now live the way they want to live without been questioned by anybody. Our society believes that, when a family loses their breadwinner in that way, one of the uncles should take responsibility of taking care of the family, but most of the wealth will also move to them.
Do you agree that Nigerians don’t read?
I would say that Nigerians read a lot. Recently, I went to buy a book in one of the bookshops and, at the counter, there were quite a number of books put aside, and a young man came up and said he had chosen those books, and I said, “I saw the books on the counter, and decided to pick them up”. And he started negotiating with me that I should take other books, and he would pay for them. Eventually, the book seller appealed to none of us to let go of some of the books, which we eventually did. I noticed that, during book fairs, I find people buying books. When there are book events, you would find many people buying books for children and adults as well. I believe that Nigerians read a lot, and the notion is of the past.
How has the environment influenced your writings, and why do writers write about their life experiences in their works?
After I published my third book, A Pelican of the Wilderness, one of my former bosses in the office asked me after I gave him a complimentary copy, “Does this book pay your bills”, and I replied, “No, sir. Not really, but writing is a hobby that I love doing. The environment doesn’t really encourage writers to live off their writings. In Nigeria, there is nothing like a grant that allows a writer and gives him/her time to write one year and he/she wouldn’t need to work, because the grant pays his/her bill for that year while he/she is writing.
Aside from NLNG and 9mobile literary prizes that are huge for writers to write and win substantial amounts, there are no major organisations coming forward to encourage writers. Most of the time, you find out that many writers are self-published, because publishing houses are not having it easy as well to publish books, in addition to the writer writing and leaving off his writing for his royalties, because there are heavy financial implications here, and who is funding them? There are writers overseas commissioned to write, and they leave off writing, but it is not so in Nigeria.
Much of what our writers write about are things in the environment that they have observed and seen.
Though quite a number of people will say that some of the themes of African writers are based on the woes, problems, wars, poverty, hunger, etcetera, in Africa. If you look around you, what do you see most often? These are the things you see often, and they influence the writer’s mind; they keep the writer awake at night.
For instance, when I wrote about the family orphaned by HIV AIDS, I actually know of a family who went through something like that. So, it’s actually a reality but being told as a fiction. In my second book, I actually read a story about a death in the family, where the educated mother had five daughters when the husband passed on; the husband’s people came with the intention of collecting the man’s property. It got to a point that she had to actually call the police, because they came into the house to take some of his things to walk away. I am sure that if she had a male child, they wouldn’t have done what they did, because they would have felt their brother’s legacy lives on. Just because she had five girls, that was what actually made me to write the book, A Place for Every Girl. And that was what influenced my second book.
Despite your busy schedule as a mother and insurance practitioner, when do you find time to write?
It is not really easy, especially when you are so busy in the office, and you close late from work, and you have traffic congestion to contend with; you later get home, and you have domestic issues to take care of, there is no really time per se. What I found out that when you love doing something or you have a passion for it, you will create time for it. I learnt that you have to create your own time or know when you are productive to write. When I start a project, I usually write at night for one or two hours on Fridays or Saturdays when my family members have gone to bed. Sometimes during the day when I am less busy, the ideas will flow, and I have a journal near me that I jot such ideas.
The point that I made is that, if, as a man, you find yourself in that situation, there are certain things that will happen. Don’t assume that everything will go on fine, have a will, protect and take care of these girls. Also, if you end up being the uncle of the girls, don’t take it as an opportunity to take what rightfully belongs to the girls under the guise of taking care of them. Also, there should be institutions where families in such situations can turn to get help.
Your third work, Pelican of the Wilderness, came out in 2014. How did you situate the crux of the matter?
The idea for that book started while having a conversation with a friend, and at that time, there was a major crisis in one area in Niger Delta. In the conversation, I said, many of those guys working in those areas were impoverished, and that was why they were ready to take arms, and she said I would be surprised that some of the people who fund them were well educated, people you think would ordinarily not be involved in such thing. It got me thinking that some of their arms were not cheap, then how did they acquire them? I did my research by travelling to the region, and talked to some people, saw their challenges, and I wondered why, with the amount of oil the region was producing, they remained impoverished. I decided to do something new, and created these militant group as being corrective rather than destructive. I hope that, one day, the book will be produced into a film, which will enlighten Nigerians on the issues faced by people living in the Niger Delta region.
How did you feel when you featured as author of the month during Farafina’s book reading at You Read Library, Yaba, Lagos?
I felt great, and whenever I am invited to such an event, I feel humbled. My work appeals to Nigerian audience, and that was why I was invited for the reading. I would say that Farafina is encouraging Nigerians to read and authors to write during the reading session. I was so happy with the turnout, and hope they will have more opportunities for other writers so that they will feel that whatever writers write, it is not in vain, because people read the books; they get interested in the books, and learn a lot through reading. There were so many young people in attendance, and some of the participants wanted to become writers, and some of the challenges bothering their minds on writing were resolved.
When should your readers be expecting another creative work from you?
After my recent book reading, I was really challenged to write another book. I was very busy with office work, but am currently working on a collection of short stories that will be published before the end of the year.