In many of your plays and poetry, you tend to address development issues and advocate for change, what prompted this literary engagement? There are instances of these thematic preoccupations in such works as Songs of Hope, Do-Gooders (Poetry) Nights of the Mystical Beast, Naira Has no Gender, Dark Times are Over, Wheels (plays) etc
I grew up in an environment in a state of inequity, injustice, which was passionately abhorred. My parents brought us up along with many other children and we did not receive any special treatment. Thus, from childhood, my antagonistic reaction to injustice was natural. Now, with that kind of early sensibility and consciousness, becoming a writer meant deploying my creativity and craft as a weapon of combat, advocacy, engage and witness. What options did a committed writer in Nigeria have with the level of pervasive inequality, disproportional distribution of resources (in which less than 5 percent of our population control over. 90 per cent of our revenue, wallowing in filthy opulence in d midst of crass poverty and mass want? Our society is crippled by corruption, decadence, misgovernance and dysfunctional leadership. A writer, as a society conscience carries the burden of advocatory enlightenment. This is what compels my creativity right from the first play, Pestle on the Mortar, staged in A.B.U Theatre Workshop in 1974. You have already identified the trend of the preoccupying vision of my works in other plays
How do you succeed in blending artistry/entertainment with activism in these works?
Creative writing in any genre, and the dramatic genre for that matter, given its capacity for social intercourse, cannot afford to function as a tract, a mere propaganda stunt, sheer doctrinaire. It will be lifeless and trite. The creator must make. The art must be crafted to the aesthetic delight and pleasure of the target audience. The writer is an artificer who weaves the story of the journey of life at various locations and sites. Yet, in giving pleasure, he must never forget the enlightenment dimension: the meat of the story, the didactic intent. This was the difficulty that writers of my generation faced: to be aesthetically profound and at the same time to be politically pointed and correct. In my writing, I’m conscious of the fact that writing is a social contract. You have a duty for leisure/pleasure as well as for instruction/conscientizing. It is a balancing art/act that all writers must contend with and succeed in. I don’t know how successful I have been in staging a story that provokes laughter and thought at once
In Naira Has No gender, your idea of modern marriage must not be conditioned by extreme monetary demands. But how can we reconcile that with the kind or match-making marriages that most rich Nigerians organize for their wards/children today? We can cite the example of Otunla and Aina’s wedding in the play.
Yes, the sub-plot of marriage is about the most debated after any production of Naira Has No Gender, even by western audiences in Britain and USA where the play had been staged. Given the decline in values in our society, ceremonies have become social markers, status symbol. We are caught in the morass, almost inexorably, I’m afraid. But some sanity is still possible. This is the point Otunla and Aina are making. That against intimidating pressure from society, marriage ceremonies of the white wedding sub-set could be shunned or at least toned down: that you don’t have to break or rob banks to wed. I have myself, in real life, being a victim of these weddings as status ritual rather than a virtuous rite of passage. Every stage of the wedding exercise of my son and my daughter, the admonition and example of Aina and Otunla gave me a languid nightmare!
The story of Beatrice who is raped by cultists in Dark Times are Over reechoes return of vices on our campuses. In what specific ways can violence be curbed especially now that the Boko Haram insurgency is welding its stick and threatening to spread beyond Northern Nigeria? How can we prevent further insecurity on campuses?
The issue of Cultism and other violent social malaises on campuses and society is the dominant theme in Dark Times Are Over, as you aptly observed. How do we curb cultism on campuses? First, the law of the land has to empower school authorities with the instrument of reprisals. Cultism must be combated by punishment. I faced this situation when I was Dean of Student Affairs in the early 1990s at the University of Ilorin. . Our laws and statutes have no jurisdiction over crime. Cultism was regarded as misconduct with limited penalty. Happily this has been addressed in part. The elite, men and women of power in politics and in uniform, even academics, have been found to encourage, even sponsor, cultism, just as they fuel Boko Haram today.
An example is the judge bribing law enforcement in the play. Government must grow the political will to apprehend and punish sacred cows who bankroll and fuel insurgencies and insecurity in our country. Intelligence must be upped and shared by security operatives. The citizenry must wake up from its present criminal passivity and fight perpetrators of crime, corruption and violence. They are in the powerful minority of our schools and country.
How do you see the role of a writer in Africa compared to his or her counterparts in the West?
As I’ve canvassed in lectures, it is difficult for a Nigerian or African, postcolonial writer to be neutral or to be cavalier in his/her society that is in a permanent state of flux and incoherence. The history of the independent states of Africa is bedeviled with crises of both identity and ideological consciousness. The writer is inevitably caught in those crises and he/she must interrogate them and join in seeking solutions. May be his western counter-parts who live in a relatively more stable, more secure and better economically cushioned society can afford to go too sleep or practice d art of neutrality or escapism. Not the African writer at this point.
In your play, Pestle on the Mortal, there’s a strong consciousness for issues that seek promotion and empowerment of women. As a male writer who has equally promoted female writers through other media, what is that factor that propels you? Can you also be seen as a feminist at certain levels?
I’m a writer who is persuaded that we can struggle as humans to achieve a humane and humanized society and world. We are first of all humans before we are male and female. I know that patriarchy from whichever angle of its origination- scriptural or ideological- prefers the superiority of the male to the female. But all of us writers of my generation- Osofisan, Sowande, Fatunde, Jeyifo, Ojaide, Omotoso etc believe- and recreate in our works the essence of the historical imperative of gender inclusivity in societal transformation. Osofisan recreated Moremi in Titubi (Morountodun, after whom my first and only daughter is named. He created Yungbayungba, a near total female change vanguard. I re-enacted Ajon, the Kirri heroine who literally installed the pristine Oluate of my land. I created my theatre, *Ajon Players around her. Women remain dominant in my witness literature. There’s Jolomitutu in Sowande’s Farewell to Babylon, and so on. These para-sympathetic identification does not make us contenders for feminist identities.
Chinua Achebe died recently and I remember you reacted to his last book in an article last December, can you recollect your views and pay a tribute to the legendary story teller?
Achebe’s last outing, There Was a Country, as far as I’m concerned, was far less than an edification of the ultimate Achebe as a Pan-African cultural nationalist, a partisan pan-Nigerian politician and the universal sage of contemporary letters. I agree with Odia Ofeimun and Ibrahim Bello Kano that we were too busy valorizing and eulogizing the great storyteller that we forgot to interrogate his art, polemics and literary focus and vision. Hence, he got cavalier and rather unconscionable in his offerings as a Pan Africanist degenerating into an ultra-ethnic nationalist. In spite of this my view, I’m firmly committed to my assessment of the Eagle on the literary Iroko as one of the most notable constructors of Nigerian and African letters. Achebe died as perhaps Africa’s most terribly comprehensible wordsmiths. His passing into ancestry greatly diminishes the world’s literati.
In your own views, what is the essence of Achebe to humanity and how can his life influence the younger generation?
Achebe lived and died as one of the most prominent inspirers of African literary creators from as far back as his generation (Ngugi as example) to the emergent generation of Adichie, Helon Habila and so on.
How lonely have you been as a writer? Which of your plays has been most engaging/tasking and why?
I have been writing. All kinds since secondary school in the mid sixties: as student- journalist in Dekina Provincial Secondary School, as a newspaper reporter in the opening days of The Herald in the early 70s till I became a creative writer shortly after in ABU. Nights of a Mystical Beast is my most challenging. It is experimental, historical narrative from the pre-colonial to the post-colonial. It is an epic narrative with Brechtian dramaturgical framework. An ambitious early play.
As the former President of Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), can you reflect on your tenure and the changes you want in the body of writers? In what easy way can new writers get published?
Being ANA President was a privilege, an honour and a cherished sacrifice. We need publishers who are creative writing-sympathetic and whose outfits will engage in publishing gestation and professional competence. Young writers must endure and seek editorial counselling and older writers mentorship. ANA should strengthen their guild and compel the State through creative activism to support writers and endow the arts as the constitution enunciates.
There are other plays of yours such as Suicide Syndrome, Wheels, What Else, Gani.etc? Why are they not produced frequently despite their relevance in thematic significance and aesthetic potentials? Do you intend to produce them in any form?
I’m not in very active directing and stage production right now but the plays get produced. Unijos recently did the award winning Ogidi Mandate, which was also restaged and prepared for touring by the English department of Unilorin. University of Abuja produced Naira has No Gender late last year. As to the unpublished plays- by the way Suicide Syndrome is published and produced, even in two East African universities. What Else Gani? has been published after a number of productions as Scapegoats and Sacredcows. This is not excusing the painful fact that live theatre is on a fast retreat as Nollywood blossoms as favoured by economic and other sociological imperatives.
What would you consider your greatest achievement as a writer and why?
Writers don’t measure or quantify their achievements. How do they know the success of their social contract with ultimate humanity? It will be nice if they succeed on jolting mankind through their witness art.