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Patrick Oguejiofor: The Nigerian writer is overburdened

Patrick Oguejiofor is the author of the novels, Sin of a Father and Fast Track and the poetry volumes Drums of Curfew and Maiduguri Requiem. The later shortlisted for the 2017 ANA poetry Prize. His children literature include Cobwebs in the Sky, The Great Hunter, On the Laps of the Gods and the Secret Place. He has been longlisted twice for the Nigerian Prize for Literature. HENRY AKUBUIRO interviewed him in Abuja, where he revealed his breakthrough in book marketing, his involvement with the Okigbo Foundation, of which he serves as the Executive Secretary,  and his latest poetry collection, Maiduguri Requiem.

Your latest poetry volume, Maiduguri Requiem, is a lament predicated on the violence in Borno State.  What set the tone for the lachrymal evocation?

Maiduguri Requiem is a meditation on killings, atrocities and tragedies that have been going on in the Northeast in the last 8 years –the Boko Haram insurgency. Incidentally, I lived in the Northeast for 8 years –I married from there, and I have relations there. So, it is a city I have an attachment to. In this work, I am shocked at the magnitude of the killings to the extent that humanity could descend. I have to lament the waste of lives. The book, in its entirety, is a lament –Blackman against Blackman. It also tries to bring up the issue of identity and cultural colonilisation and misguided enthusiasm of importing religion from a different part of civilisation to another. I am glad it was shortlisted to the ANA Poetry Prize.

Yours is another work of poetry with socio-political concerns. Ben Okri is one of the writers complaining about the surfeit of socio-political themes in new Nigerian writings. Are these theme really over-flogged?

I disagree with him, because a writer must deal with contemporary issues; otherwise, he will become irrelevant. That is the truth. For example, Boko Haram is there. I have to deal with the problem in my work. I can’t pretend it is not there. We have the issues of unemployment, political instability – many social issues. So, it is the duty of a writer to portray them, because, tomorrow, such works become historic. In fact, literature documents history more than history. Take a Tale of Two Cities or Oliver Twist, for example, by the time I read these book, am being reminded of England of two, three hundred years ago. What the writer is trying to do is to respond to the socio-political situations of the day. In my work, Emeka and the Kidnappers, I deal with the issue of kidnapping and in another work, in Secret Place, I deal with fake drugs. A writer must respond to contemporary issues.

But some of the critics of African literature say writers from the western world have since moved away from social discourse. Do you think it’s high time we moved away from such thematic preoccupations?

The fact is that they have their own texts; we have ours. Writers have to follow the trend of readership. The average Nigerian reader wants to read the writers interpretation to what is happening today. For the writer to remain relevant and for people to identify with their works, they have to respond to the situation on ground. The way the western writers respond to their own situations differ from ours. In the case of Boko Haram, there are many causes to it. But, look at the way they responded to it through religious fanaticism! In the Northeast, they have problem of marginalisation, so they are responding to it by agitating for a caliphate. People respond to issues differently. In the Southeast, they are agitating for a country of theirs. That explains it.

Is it possible for the contemporary Nigerian writer to make good money out of his work, given rampant complaints to the contrary?

To begin with, I have made money from my writings. I have publishers, but am not impressed with the money being remitted to me. So, together with my friends, we set up with a publishing firm, Mazaria Books Limited. It now issues my works, and we control distribution and sales. Take Secret Place, for example, which came out in 2015, we have exhausted two editions. The same thing goes for Emeka and the Kidnappers. For The Great Hunter, another of my children’s work, which came out in 2016, the first print is almost gone.

So, what’s your marketing strategy?

First of all, I write mainly children’s literature. I don’t put them in the bookshops; I take them to supermarkets, and they pay me. Booksellers have been paying me, too. Only few booksellers don’t pay, and when I notice you don’t pay, I don’t take the books to you again. I distribute my books myself, and I get my money.

Yes, we often hear writers hardly get remittances from some of bookshops they send their books to. How do you handle such cases?

That is a major problem. The bookshops don’t pay; the booksellers don’t pay. If you know a particular bookshop don’t pay for books sold, stop giving them your books –take your books to only bookshops and supermarkets where they make payments. Booksellers, Abuja, is a good example. They have paid me twice. Last year alone, I made over a million naira from children’s books alone. So, it is all about distribution network. Nigerians read.

But I keep hearing Nigerians don’t read, yet you are making millions of naira from your books. Do Nigerians read?

Yes, Nigerians read. But we have a problem of distribution. We don’t have an organised distribution network. Imagine if I don’t have the energy to be distributing my books, I won’t be selling. So, it is like the Nigerian writer is overburdened: he has to do the writing, look for an assessor, a good editor, a good publisher and, at the same time, has to do the marketing and distribution. This is too much for one person to handle. If you have the energy to do that, you will sell. Nigerians read a lot; they buy books. If Secret Place could sell more than 2,000 copies without any form of publicity, within a year, what does that show you? Even when Okigbo’s Labyrinth was re-issued, readers came to pick. In my own case, only two or three schools had it on their reading list, but they books sold out in the open market. Having said that, we have a problem of distribution: getting the book to the final user.

The Okigbo Prize has just been resuscitated. As the executive secretary of the Okigbo Foundation, how big is this prize going to be?

As you aware, the prize had been in existence before now. It was Professor Wole Soyinka who floated it. But, after three editions, it was rested for many reasons. Now the prize has been resuscitated, and Odia Ofeimun has accepted to be the judge of the maiden prize. Soon, the Okigbo Foundation will issue a proper call for entries where the modalities and the prize money involved will be specified. This time around, it won’t die. That is why we have taken our time to repackage it.

Who is going to finance it?

The Chris Okigbo Foundation is going to finance it. Of course, there are some other financiers. The details will come up later.

Is it going to be an omnibus prize?

For now, it’s going to be a poetry prize. Before, it used to be  the Okigbo All Africa Prize for Literature. Later ,it could be focused on other genres. But, for now, it is going to be only poetry.

Professors Wole Soyinka, JP Clark and Alex Ajayi were some of the big names who attended the recent 50th anniversary event that held at the University of Ibadan. What do you think makes Okigbo an unforgettable writer that he has continued to enjoy a cult following from far and wide?

First of all, Okigbo was a fantastic poet. There is nobody like him anywhere in Africa. As far as I know, he has been rated one of the 10 greatest poets writing in the English language. 10 years ago, Harvard University held 40th anniversary to mark his death. The greatest writers in African literature were present to honour the greatest poet from the continent and one of the greatest writing in the English language. Okigbo was an outstanding poet and a humanist. Secondly, Okigbo became a cult hero, because he died for what he believed in: he died for justice; he died for peace; he died for equity; he died for an open society. These were what he fought for and why he died for. These things put together made him immortal. The 50th anniversary we held for him was not to immortalise him. By virtue of his work and the life he led, he has immortalised himself. However, it was an opportunity for us to bring his friends together, lovers of Okigbo, and to release the 50th anniversary commemorative edition of his collected poems.

I saw the new edition of   and Other Poems, well packaged….

Since we were celebrating the 50th anniversary of his legacy, it was the opinion of the Okigbo Foundation that it would be incomplete without bringing out a commemorative publication. Already, Heinemann had already issued the famous Labyrinth and the Nigerian edition had been published by Apex Books. So, we now chose collected poems, the one published by Heinemann London in 1986 with an introduction by Adewale Maja-Pearce. This time around, it was repackaged, with paintings and drawings by Professor Obiora Udechukwu of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, and Obiageri Okigbo, architect and daughter of Chris Okigbo, who is also the president of the Christopher Okigbo Foundation. Then, Abubakar Ottman, a poet, critic and scholar, wrote a fantastic introduction to the book. All these went into the beautiful book published by Book Kraft, Ibadan. We are getting requests from all over the world. What we have now are limited edition for the 50th anniversary celebration. In a matter of time, Book Kraft will make it available to the reading public.

In that conference, the iconic poet, JP Clark, wasn’t impressed that his bosom friend, Okigbo, went into a war that had changed nothing. There are many others who thought he made a mistake by fighting for Biafra rather than probably serving in another capacity as an envoy like his contemporaries. How noble do you think that gamble was?

The way I look at it, a man should be able to die for what he believed in. Okigbo had a strong conviction to protect and promote equity and fair play. It was that conviction that made him to drop his pen and every other thing he was doing to go into the battlefront where he died and became a martyr. I think you should be able to die for what you believe in. He had that conviction and courage. All these put together succeeded in pushing him to immortality. I don’t think there is any other African poet who shares that cult followership he has.

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