The drive to perfect his writing skills compelled the Benue-born writer, Myles Ojabo, to journey to the pacific nation of New Zealand. Seven years later, he has earned an MA and PhD in Creative Writing from Auckland University of Technology, New Zealand. His novel, Black River, appeared early this year to add to his glory. In a bid to offer young African writers a head start in the highly competitive literary world, the author recently endowed the K&L Prize for Literature, targeting budding African writers. The author, in this interview with HENRY AKUBUIRO, spoke on his literary adventures in New Zealand, his motivation for endowing the prize and the added fillip done to the career of a writer by winning a major literary prize.
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You have been away to New Zealand for close to a decade in pursuit of creative writing. How did the journey begin?
I was privileged to have parents who supported me when I first moved to New Zealand in 2011. They had to take a loan to pay my first school fees. I had a lovely cousin who was so concerned about my future, and pleaded with me to study communications/journalism instead of creative writing. At least, the former would be more ideal when it comes to finding a job. I took to her advice and got enrolled in the Postgraduate Diploma in Communication Studies. Halfway through, after one semester, I realised communications wasn’t for me. I remember walking around AUT campus and coming across the Creative Writing building. I went into the office to see the chair, and everything today is history. I have a master’s and a PhD in Creative Writing after dropping out of the communications programme. I worked full time all through my Master’s and PhD degrees to pay my fees and also fend for my growing family.
Did you experience a culture shock the first time you went there?
I remember my first week at the AUT city campus, I said “Good morning” or “Good afternoon” to everyone I came across. Some didn’t get it. It is okay to say that, but the most common form of greeting is “Hi” and “Hello”. Also, I was not used to calling my lecturers by their first names. I had to get used to it. I arrived in winter. It wasn’t as cold as what you might experience in Canada, but it was a good feeling. I hated the heat I grew up knowing in Benue State, Nigeria. It was worse during my youth service in Maiduguri. When I first came in, people weren’t encouraged to carry cash around. I was used to cash. Over time, I got used to making purchases using my bank cards. I had to get used to shopping in malls and big shops such as Countdown and New World. Catching trains, and buses were difficult, too. In Nigeria, if the bus isn’t filled with passengers, it doesn’t move. Here, if the bus is leaving at 7 a.m., it leaves at 7 am. I came in a time New Zealand was hosting the Rugby world cup, and God, I hated the sport! I knew soccer to be the ultimate, but New Zealanders were always talking about the All Blacks, the Crusaders, the Hurricanes, and so on. I had to fall in love with rugby.
Departments of Creative Writing have been gradually overshadowing the departments of English and Literature in western universities, what makes the former more appealing?
I don’t believe Creative Writing is gradually taking the place of English Literature. I believe Creative Writing is getting more popular. It can never take the place of English Literature. Developing writers find themselves in different stages of development. For instance, I had to work on point of views, when I was enrolled in the Creative Writing Master’s. The focus is on writing and one’s worldview. Some of the issues I had with the critical aspects of both my master’s and PhD degrees indicated that my exigences read more like English Literature theses. We should understand that in English Literature, works of prose and poetry, are deconstructed as cultural representations and, hence, could be the study of society. This is the reason, English Literature can easily be categorised under Humanities. Creative Writing may fall under the English department, but it isn’t always the case. You can see scholars in various fields of humanity coming together to do research together. For instance, a professor in English can do a research with another professor in Anthropology. In regards to Creative Writing, this cannot occur. The Auckland University of Technology, where I studied, has about 4 or 5 lecturers handling the Creative Writing programme. At the University of Auckland, you have more than sixteen lecturers employed in the English programme. It is obvious that more teaching opportunities lie in the English departments.
Writers from New Zealand are not that popular in this part of the world. Can you tell us a little about the leading lights in New Zealand?
Before I left Nigerian for New Zealand, I read Keri Hulmes’ The Bone People. She became the first New Zealand writer to win the Booker Prize with the book, and this occurred in 1985. It was one of the most difficult read for me. After coming here, I didn’t hear much about her and she hasn’t been in the light either. I read some of Witi Ihimaera’s works. He is the first Maori person to be published in New Zealand. Eleanor Catton won the Booker Prize in 2014 with her novel, The Luminaries. Along with our own Chigozie Obioma, New Zealand writer, Anna Smaill, was longlisted for the 2015 Booker Prize. You cannot talk about New Zealand writing without mentioning Janet Frame (now late), Katherine Mansfield (now late), Maurice Gee and Margaret Mahy (now late). Pip Adam, who won the Acorn Foundation Fiction Prize for 2017, was my second supervisor during the course of my PhD.
What’s the reception like for African literature in New Zealand?
Prior to my coming to New Zealand, Wole Soyinka visited the country to participate in an event. I was told Chimamanda Adichie was also a key guest at the Auckland Writers Festival. Teju Cole and Nnedi Okorafor have been here as guests in key events, which I missed out on. I had the opportunity of meeting Ben Okri and, also, Ngugi Wa Thiongo in literary festivals here in Auckland. In regards to African literature, I’m aware of only one African Literature researcher at the University of Auckland – Dr. Claudia Marquis. She teaches / researches on Caribbean and African Literature. I will be doing an MLitt programme under her supervision next year – Good news! The reception for African Literature isn’t that great in New Zealand if you compare it to the US, Canada and Britain.
New Zealand isn’t a popular destination for Nigerians, unlike neighbouring Australia. What keeps you going in this pacific nation?
New Zealand is the best country in the world. We have one of the youngest and most proactive prime minister in the world. Poverty rate is very low. Government is ensuring that every resident can own a home. Healthcare is free for children and subsidised for adults. Education is superb. Wonderful weather. Auckland is fast becoming a very multicultural city. Africans are the lowest in population here. The Chinese and Indians are increasing massively in population. New Zealand is the best place for me to raise my children. I will consider a move in future in regards to career development.
Do you still find time to write?
My novel, Black River: An Account of Christmas Preacher, a Slave Freed, appeared early this year. It narrates the life of the fictional character, Christmas Preacher, covering five decades of slave experience in the United States. His master, Mr. William Preacher, adopts new Quaker doctrines and eventually sets him and two other slaves free. The narrative also incorporates a battle in an external realm between an ageless mermaid-queen and a resurrected ancestor over the life of Christmas. As an emancipated African, he faces the choice of either making Kentucky home or nurturing the sacred revelation that he would one day levitate back to his village in Oli’doma. I attempted to extend the slave narrative discourse into the imaginative or speculative realm of a hyperreal lifeworld with the hints of lycanthropy associated with African folklore.
Submissions for entries for the K & L Prize for African Literature are still ongoing. What inspired the establishment of this prize?
I remember childhood, when attending primary school in Makurdi. I used to be very curious. I was also very quiet, confused and unfocused. I used to look at what others were doing so I could emulate them. I didn’t have my own mind. When I discovered the library, and started spending time reading Nigerian children’s fiction like Chike and the River, my life turned around. I took interest in literature. I spent a lot of time reading some of the fictions my dad kept. I remember reading The Ninth Man by John Lee and The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth quite early in life. I wasn’t a studious person. As soon as I discovered my interest, my life started to take shape, and my academic performance started to improve. At secondary school, I failed Physics and Chemistry, but would always pass English Literature. I kept reading, and was inspired by successes of writers like Jude Dibia, Chimamanda Adichie, Uche Peter Umez, Chika Unigwe, and many others. My love for Global Literature birthed my passion for Creative Writing. Same love for literature inspired the K & L Prize for African Literature. The Prize is named after my children. K for Kyle, and L for Leona.
In limiting the age category of the applicants to 25, what was the yardstick?
When I first attempted to write fiction in my early twenties, I loved it. But I lacked certain creative writing skills – I used to struggle with point of views and structuring. My reason for doing the Masters and PhD studies in Creative Writing was to develop my writing. I came to New Zealand when I was 27, and by the time I finished, at 34, I realised I missed out on something. I realised I hadn’t achieved the dream I nurtured as a kid. I hadn’t won any major literary prize in my twenties. I always desired this as a child. Then, I said to myself, if I couldn’t win anything in my twenties, I can provide opportunities for writers between 18 and 25 to win something. I believe, winning a literary prize gives one a sort magnificent push and confidence to pursue and fulfil a writing dream.
What explains the choice of the short story as the genre for submission?
For a period of time I wrote a lot of short stories which were published on the platform, Naija Stories, founded by Myne Whytman (she also goes by the name Nkem Akinsoto). She is doing a great job. Her platform used to be a place of study for me. I remember getting a lot of negative feedback on the first short fiction I published on the platform. I embraced the feedback, and my writing improved. Eventually, I started getting some positive feedback. Some of those writings I published on the platform were submitted along with my application when I decided to study creative writing. I think short fiction is vital in preparing younger writers to undertake that gruesome journey of writing a novel.
Can you explain your choice of History as the theme for this year?
Possible participants in the K & L Prize for Literature would just fetch one of their forgotten short stories to submit for the competition, if I wasn’t specific regarding what I really wanted. I’m sure most entries would be written in response to the call. I love challenges. My PhD research comes out of a desire to fill both a literal and a symbolic gap in my family history. For this reason, which sort of became my obsession, I wanted entries that focused on historical events.
How do literary prizes contribute to the acceptance of a writer, against the backdrop of recent accusations that Nigerian writers now write for prizes?
If a new novelist gets a novel published today in Nigeria, no one, aside friends family and perhaps those that look up to him/her, would buy the book. Reviews and adverts may help get a few copies out for people to buy. The prize does the magic. Fellow writers are always looking out to learn from success. Readers are always interested in reading stories of excellent quality. Newbies in the literary world or perhaps people with no interest in literature can easily be lured into reading good works. Can you tell me of any writer in the world that would hate to win the Booker? Perhaps the most established ones or those that have won it before. My friend and brother, Su’uddie Agema, established Sevhage Publishing Press while I was out of Nigeria. He is a passionate young man. Some of his great works were published under this imprint. If he didn’t take home any ANA prize, his innovation wouldn’t be attractive. Sevhage, today, is attractive. Aspiring writers are drawn to success. Every writer writes for prizes. It depends on the prize they want. You don’t always get what you want. Some of the prizes people want may be fulfilment – few writers are fulfilled. Another prize might be wealth. Again, few writers can claim to have become wealthy from their writings. Awards, fame, recognition, and many more are prizes.