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Tolu Ajayi: How BBC short story prize transformed my LIFE

71-year-old Tolu Ajayi recently celebrated 50 years as a poet and writer. A trained medical doctor, his foray into creative writing has yielded an impressive oeuvre: The Year (1981), The Lesson (1985), The Ghost of a Millionaire (1990),  Eyes of the Night (1991, a short story collection with his 1990 BBC World Service winning story “Family Planning”, Images of Lives: Poems for Everyone (1991, Motions and Emotions: Fumes of Poetic Feelings (1993), After A Bad Moon: a Sh-to-vel (1995) and his most recent work, Mystery at the Ministry (2017). Damiete Braide interviewed him recently in Lagos, and the pioneer chairman of the Association of Nigerian Authors (Lagos chapter) takes us on a voyage of his works as a writer, how he felt when his work won BBC World Service short story, his advice to young writers, among others.

At what point did you take to creative writing, and what was the motivation behind it?

When I was in secondary school, I was good in both English, Literature and Biology, and most parents wanted their children to become doctors, engineers or lawyers in future. I scored high marks in class, and was marked by my teachers as a potential doctor. At the same time, I enjoyed poetry so much. After my secondary school, I studied Medicine in London, but was sad that I left my poetry for a while. Sometimes, I would go to the library to read books on poetry during my spare time. Poetry kept on coming into my head and one day, (March, 1967), I got up in the middle of the night to write poems in a book, which I still have till now. I was  studying my medicine and reading my poetry and there was no interference. I had written so many poems in the exercise book that my classmates told me the poems were good, and that made me to also write prose as well.

One of the first stories that I wrote was entitled The Scabrous Road to Power, in 1967, and my classmates told me, I should do something about it. Therefore, I sent it to British Broadcasting Service (BBC). At that time, they had a programme called Writers Club where they read stories by African writers, and the story was accepted, and I was paid five pounds for it –that was my first earning as a writer.

There was a lady working with BBC then, Veronica Manoukian, and when she saw my potentials in literature, alongside with the man who read the story on air, Edward Blishen, they encouraged me to continue with my creative writing. I later wrote a book of poems, The Muse, and I sent in some of my poetry works like Dreadful Love, which was accepted to be read on air. That was how I began to write. Also, I read about writers and found out that many writers, particularly in Europe, were doctors, and people encouraged me that I should continue with my writing, that I have a future in writing, and that it encouraged me. As a medical student, during my spare time, I used it to write and wrote two novels as a medical student, Love and Conflict, Before The Sun Sets; and I sent them to publishers in England, though they were not accepted, because it was mid-cultural between Nigerian and British. Later, someone suggested that if I should write a fully Nigerian culture, and that they would accept it, and that was how I started writing.

To what extent has the environment influenced your writing?

The Nigerian environment, particularly, influenced my writing. The Nigerian environment stimulates writers to write, because, once you have learnt the forms of writing, the material will be there to write about. You go to an office to get what is your due, and you won’t get it, because officials there are asking for bribe, and you have to give it to them; but, in England, it is not the same. In Nigeria, the person will tell you, “Go upstairs, and report to my superior, and you will be surprised that the superior would even tell you that you should do what the junior officer had told you to do.” As a writer, when you write about these situations, you are helping a lot of people, and not just yourself alone. In Nigeria, a writer will have a lot of things to write about, and the environment stimulates the writer to write.

Recently you celebrated 50 years as a writer; what has kept you thus far?

I am very happy to celebrate 50 years as a writer. One of the things that I discovered as a writer in those days was that some of them died very young. Some of the foreign doctors that I knew were writers, but they died in their 40s. They were lucky to have carved a niche for themselves before they died. But, these days, it’s very difficult for a writer to carve a niche for himself/herself when the person is still young. I am very glad that I lived long enough for people to be acknowledged as a writer.

I am 71 years old now, and am also thanking God for giving me long life. The life expectancy of Nigerians is about 50-55; many people who are writers may have the talent or potentials, but some may become famous in their 60s or 70s. At that point, many people may not know them. Things don’t just happen so easily for most writers, such as frustrations from their manuscript being rejected, and they are not known, so they need to do something like keep learning and writing, which I did. After a while, the writer will become good enough to be published, and that’s why an average writer needs to live long so that he/she can be fully acknowledged. I am very happy, and that is why I am celebrating. I am very happy that I associated with many writers, both within and outside the outside the country. These things make my life been fulfilled.

When I came back to Nigeria after spending 14 years in London, I taught my patients the essence of family planning when they visited the hospital. You pick up a budget, and you have to plan your population as well. People in the country just believe that because the Bible says, go ye into the world and multiply, and I knew that it wasn’t going to happen like that. There’s government budget which cannot cover all these things, so, I attended seminars to educate people why they should plan their families.

I wrote an articles in Daily Times that our population needed to be planned in 1978, and, from time, I began to write articles for different newspapers. If I had not become a doctor, I would have become a journalist, because I liked writing on different issues, and I associated with journalists.

Before you retired as a doctor, you had a busy schedule. What time did you find convenient to write?

I believe the mistake many writers make is that they sit at their desk at a particular time and believe they must write something. It is essential for a writer to go outside and garner experiences, like the markets, see how people are feeling, and you will be able to write about it. This is why many of our young writers sit down for hours, and are not be able to write anything. As a writer, go outside and garner experiences and later you come back to write about what happened. I live my life and interact with people and something happens, I put them down in my writings.

Mystery at the Ministry is your last book, what informed your decision about the book?

The book is a true story, but I put the act of the novel into it. A Nigerian family gets a British lawyer to sell a house in London for them and the lawyer sells the house, and the money disappears into the thin air. The family contacts the British Police to investigate the matter; they later traced the money to a bank account in another country in Europe. But the country is saying no; it won’t allow the British Police to investigate further while in Nigeria. The case was petitioned to the federal government and it was investigated but the country is saying, they have no treaty with Nigeria, thereby making the family to lose the money. The story exists as a lesson for Nigerians that they should not have too much faith with British lawyers and fall in the same trap of losing their money.

What inspired your collections of poems, Motions and Emotions and Images of Life?

Poetry exists as a song, that is, lyrical poetry; and it also exists as a puzzle (imagery poetry). The average Nigerian doesn’t understand imagery poetry, but are used to lyrical poetry. I would say that Images of Life is a collection of poems for everyone. It is very simple and lyrical in nature. It is about love, every day things, which anybody can pick up to read. While Motions and Emotions is imagistic poetry: it is for poets and intellectuals. I deliberately separated them so that Nigerians will not be discouraged when they look at one poem which they don’t understand; they will pick the other book to read.

Among the different genres of literature, which is your best when it comes to writing?

As a matter of fact, as the mood carries you, the time you want to read some good poems, dig into them, you want to solve the puzzle in the poems, if you are in the mood for poetry as a song. Writers should know the demand for a particular genre when writing. In Nigeria, there isn’t much demand for poetry or plays, but the demand for prose is very high. I have seen artistes rehearse for two weeks for a play, and, on the day the production, only five people attend the play. But prose is the most accessible to Nigerian public, and I spend most of my time on prose, because the public understands a good story, and that is why Nollywood is so popular, because there is a story that they can understand. For prose, it should not be too long; it should be about 150-200 pages. If it is up to 500 to 700 pages, most Nigerians wouldn’t read it. You have to understand your readership and write it in a simple way that they can read and understand.

You were the founder of Nigerian Circle of The arts (NACTA), what informed your decision to set up a theatre outfit?

I founded Nigerian Circle of The arts (NACTA) in 1985, because I observed at that time that writers wrote complex literature which people found difficult to understand. I founded it to enable Nigerians read something that they could understand and, later, made it into a play. I placed an advertisement for audition, and many people turned up for it, and one of the former directors with Nigerian Television Authority, Deinde Gilbert, who had a programme called Sunday Show then. I wrote playlets for him, which we performed, and it was well received by Nigerians. Gilbert told me that he loved the way that I wrote, and he put me on a weekly basis on the show and with that, we became well known. Every Sunday, the show ran for two years, and I directed people concerning the play.  One of my works, Eyes of the Night, contained playlets that were acted, and later I converted them into prose.

Your work, The Year, explores at length the cancerous effects of corruption in the society…

The work was written in 1979, and it was an experience that I had. I had a job offer at University of Ibadan Teaching Hospital, and there was so much traffic in Lagos State at that time, so I thought that, if I got a job in Ibadan with the mindset I wouldn’t experience heavy traffic there. As it happened, I wasn’t given accommodation there, and I came after a year frustrated. Although they needed the services of a doctor, I wasn’t given any, because I wasn’t known nor had recommendation from a highly placed individual in the society.

Did you have it at the back of your mind that you wanted Nigerians to learn about a lesson when writing The Lesson?

I wrote The Lesson in 1982. It is about high bride price in certain parts of the country. At that time, I saw a friend of mine in a restaurant in the company of his wife, and he wasn’t eating, but his wife was. I asked why he wasn’t eating, and he said, “I got married recently, and cannot afford to eat.” I felt that it was bad to take so much money from people because of marriage. Also, in another situation, I met a newly married couple in the hospital, who had spent so much to marry his wife. Later, the wife was pregnant, and blood was needed to be transfused into her, but, because the man was not able to afford the money to buy the blood, the wife died –and that was motivated me to write about the situation.

Tell us about The Ghost of a Millionaire .

The book is a thriller about widowhood. A woman’s husband dies, and his relatives wants to collect all the properties of the man from the woman. I wrote about the things widows go through in the hands of their relatives, which is a terrible thing, and the act should not be discouraged.

In 1981, your manuscript of your bestseller, The Year, was accepted by Macmillan Publishers in London. How did you feel then?

That was the greatest day of my life. As a medical student, I wrote two novels and sent them to publishers in London, but they never accepted them. After I graduated to become a medical doctor, in 1972, I wrote another novel, The Agony, and it wasn’t accepted. I was a little bit frustrated. Then, I travelled to different countries in the world to compare what I saw in those countries, and it helped me in my writing. I gave the book to Macmillan Publishers in Ibadan and, three months later, one day, I saw a white man standing in front of my house, and he was looking for me. He said he was from Macmillan Publishers, they they liked my story, and were going to publish it. I started writing since 1967 and, in 1981, my work was accepted by a big publisher, and that was the happiest day in my life. I was very happy that my work had been accepted at last. Later, I was taught the rudiments of writing and the processes involved in published a book, and with the training, it made to become a better writer.

Some years later, your work won the BBC short Story award in 1990. Was it a landmark for you?

An award is a landmark for any writer, because it shows that it is a measure of a standard that you have improved in your writing. I wrote short stories for Nigerians, because I observed they liked short stories, and they don’t like books that are too lengthy. I love writing short stories, because it is very easy for Nigerians to pick it up to read, and they will give you a feedback that they enjoy the work.

Each book that I wrote, I knew that I had learnt something, and I had improved in my writing. The various foreign cultural centres in the country really helped me, because I made use of their libraries, and it improved my writing skills. I knew that I and achieved something great when I won the award.

Which of your book do you consider the best ever?

I have written between 12 and 15 scripts, but have published 10 books. I learnt more and more from each book I had written. After a Bad Moon and Mystery at the Ministry are two of my best books that I had written. The books I had written before were not as good as the ones I wrote later when I was trained by Macmillan Publishers in the act of writing.

Why did you describe young writers as the unlucky generation, despite showing more enthusiasm for literature than their older colleagues?

When I wrote The Year, in 1981, Macmillan published a series called Pacesetter, Heinemann published another literary series, and they came to Nigeria to look for young writers, and so many writers in my generation learnt a lot from them. Publishers today are interested in publishing text books, because money is their objective. They are not looking for creative writers. There are so many young writers who have written poems, and other creative works, but publishers are not ready to publish them. This has made some of them to go into self-publishing, and that is why, I said they are unlucky.

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