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Kayode Kofoworola: Nigerian writers now write for prizes

Dr Kayode Kofoworola is a poet, literary critic and lecturer in the Department of English, University of Lagos, Akoka,  where he teaches English Literature, Literary Theory, World Literatures. Recently, he moderated a session on “Is the Critic Dead in Nigeria’s Literary Firmament?” at the 2017 Lagos Books and Arts Festival (LABAF). He was also a judge at the maiden edition of Quaramo Writing Prize where talented young writers were discovered and winners groomed for the future. In this interview with DAMIETE BRAIDE, he spoke on why some writers write for awards and his belief that African literature is not dying but undergoing a renaissance.

Recently you participated in the recent Lagos Books and Art Festival (LABAF). What’s your impression of book festivals in Nigeria?

In a strict sense, LABAF was not just a book festival but a festival of the arts. In that sense, making the idea of books to be appreciated is a fine and laudable one. Generally, book festivals in Nigeria have become emasculated, because they are just simply about selling books and not discussing the impact that books have on the people, and on the nation, and how books can be a mechanism for change. LABAF can be said to be a success: not only books were discussed, it also provided a forum for an interaction between participants and discussants to look at how the idea of book industry has impacted the country socially, economically and politically.

Nigerians still love literary events, as the turnout indicated. I think what is missing is the avenue for opportunities to be harnessed by ordinary people. It is a welcome development that LABAF was able to use Freedom Park at no cost. If this type of events are done in different parts of the country where people can have access to literary events, there will be an opportunity of people participating in literary events when is free. There is a nexus between the literary and music industry in Nigeria, and such an avenue provide opportunities for Nigerians to show their love for arts.

Do you think that books festivals in the country have impacted positively on the reading culture of Nigerians?

It is neither here nor there, because, when we talk about these book festivals, they are still highly limited to a certain audience and, because of this limitations, they have not been able to have the same impact that other book fairs like the Zimbabwe Book Festival or Frankfurt Book Festival, where thousands of visitors all over the world visit to buy books at very affordable prices. Our book fairs have always been a place where books are displayed, authors are not met, and most of the books are expensive.

In my own opinion, I do not think that book festivals, as presently organised in the country, have improved the reading culture. The other side for that is the kind of books that are displayed during the festivals. It looks like book festivals have more often tilted towards academic books rather than general reading books which is what ordinary people needs. It helps them to connect to their environment, society and events happening around their world. Many of the publishers seem to be more concerned about profitability which includes textbooks for secondary schools which students would buy and, in that wise, it has not really improved the reading culture. Also, publishers have skewed students towards passing examinations, which makes it difficult in that sense.

What is your writing regimen like?

My writing regimen is very eclectic. I write when I feel like writing, and I do so mostly in the night, because I have to leave home very early in the morning for work, arriving at work and working all through the day and later go back home late. When I get home on time in the evenings, I take a little rest and wake up in the middle of the night to do my writing. For me, the most convenient time to write is between the hours of 11pm to 5am, because that is when everywhere is quiet and the atmosphere is serene.

You were one of the judges during the maiden edition of Quaramo Initiative where talented up-and-coming writers were discovered. How true is it that judges are partial sometimes?

The Quramo Writers Prize is a welcome development, because it is a writer’s prize that is largely concerned with new writers who have not been published. It is the first of its kind in Nigeria, and I am very proud to be appointed as one of the judges and proud about the quality of work that we did in arriving at the final shortlist and eventual winners. What the organisers bring to the table is that it functions as a hub for young writers to be discovered. Ordinarily, most writers in Nigeria are not discovered: they are either self-publishers, which has its own consequences. Also, some of them are contracted to notable publishing houses who do not have their welfare at heart. Sometimes, it is even difficult to have access to these publishing houses at the initial beginning. The organisers provided a platform for young writers to be discovered and to be mentored. It is not just about winning the prize, but the winners receiving mentorship programmes and exposure for their writings.

It will not be out of place to say judges are humans, and they can be partial in the selection of winners. They don’t fall from the sky. So, they have sentiments.

What are the consequences of self-publishing you mentioned earlier, and do you encourage writers to go into it?

There are consequences for self-publishing, but it is difficult to discourage people from self-publishing, because the publishing industry is not mature enough as it presently stands for publishers to take the responsibility of publishing, distributing works to a wider audience. The danger of self-publishing is multi-faceted. Some of the dangers are the poor quality of language, the lack good proof-reading, disparity in the printing quality –most of the self-published works have so many defects and does not allow for checks and balances. All these things are not found when the books are published by renowned publishing houses. When an author does self-publishing, people would not be able to tell them that the quality of their work is not good, because they have paid for them; but when they submit their work to a publisher for review, the publisher has the right to accept or reject what the author has written, and it enhances the quality of what the author has done. Self-publishing does not guarantee the work from being plagiarised when compared to when a publishing firm should publish that work.

These days, there are so many literary awards in the country which are financially rewarding.Do you agree that writers now write because of these awards?

I agree, and that is the reason why many of the submissions are of poor quality, because these writings lack poor passion, quality and depth. That was why I said during the Quaramo Prize that one of the reasons I love the prize was because it was an attempt to discover writers with passion. When writers write for prizes, they structure their writing towards the requirements of the prize, which is usually structured for a particular genre. For example, some writers who have won the NLNG Prize for Literature structured their writing towards that genre of literature for that year. Many writers today are actually writing for the prize, and that is why most of them are turgid in their writings. Good writings take time to write and some writers complete their first novel in a couple of months, and they have not had all the opportunities to look at the characters, plots or idea to see if there is a connection in the text that they have written. Many people are writing for the purpose of money, and that is why there are a lot of poorly written works in the country.

In your paper, “The Court Jester in Nigerian Drama”, which you presented during a conference in England what was at the back of your mind?

In my paper, “The Court Jester in Nigerian Drama”, I was trying to establish that, unlike the assumption that the court jester was limited to the traditional setup and the idea of the court jester was basically of oral form that we have the court jester in textual examples, and the actual text that have been published, we have elements of court jester reproduced in actual texts that are published within our literary hub, I took the reader through the memory lane and mentioned that it is relevant to the discuss. In that work, I tried to trace the origin of the court jester, formation time, the origin as well as the functions of the court jester in traditional settings and I talked about his functions in terms of performance, his costume, use of language, and certain Nigerian selected texts.

The court jester can be seen as someone who used it as a tool to rally around against social injustice. The arguments that I made is that the court jester is not ordinary person, because even though he is assumed to be a fool, he is very intuitive, smart and wise, because, by virtue of the traditional protection that he has, he is one of the few persons who is able to look at the king in his face and tell him the truth in a humorous way that seems that he is not making meaning, but the people who are at the receiving end of his jokes knows exactly what he is saying. The court jester is strategically positioned to put the royalty in check in relation to issues of social injustice abuse he is protected by tradition to speak.

In “Landline and Booby Traps, Multilingualism and Translation in Nigeria”, you affirmed that we have to be conversant with various languages in the course of translation…

In the work, I was concerned with the way people engage translation of literary texts, especially in a society like ours that is multi-lingual, where a word can have various meanings among different tribes. I was concerned about how importance it is that in engaging in translation in a multilingual society, the translator does not engender a situation that leads to strife and chaos. I also looked at the language policy, publishing industry and translating in a multilingual society itself. I took the reader through the varying levels of translations. For example, if you want to translate a word from Hausa language to Igbo, you have to first interpret that world to English first before translating it to Igbo language that will make it easier for people to understand. I enjoin people that each time they make a translation; the original word still has its own potency, and this can be seen in Wole Soyinka’s Death and the Kings Horsemen. I advised people that there are many booby traps when they want to engage in translation and they must be watchful and mindful not to do a translation that is not acceptable to the audience that it is been translated to.

You have a collection of unpublished poems, when should your readers expect the published poems and which do you prefer to write: long or short poems?

I write a combination of short and long poems. I believe that the short poems are harder to write, but sometimes more fulfilling than the long poems which depends on how I feel moved to write about. Some of my poems are emotional, philosophical and some of my personal experiences. I hope to publish my collection of poems next year.

As a lecturer with specialisation in African and American literature, would you say that African literature is dying?

I wouldn’t say that African literature is dying, but African literature inspires of all its weaknesses. It is experiencing a measure of renaissance. Now, we have more people in African literature perhaps. Because of the atmosphere of poverty, lack and unemployment, we have more people willing to engage the arts to write, express themselves and to put it on paper. There is also a lot of going back to the roots with oral assets being deployed in writing. For example, in Prof. Niyi Osundare’s poems, you will see how complex his deployment of oral arts in his poetry.

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