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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Onyeka and I

Around August last year, when this blog had just about started to gather some momentum, I posted a really cheesy poem without giving much thought to it. As the blog didn't quite elicit too many comments, I was rather surprised to see a comment coming all the way from Nigeria.

That comment, the first of several since then, came from my friend Onyeka Nwelue, who at the ripe old age of 21, has got his debut novel "The Abyssinian Boy" , released by Dada Books. I haven't had the opportunity to read it, but I can tell you this: the man is undeniably, unbelievably talented...(check out his superb blog here)

Onyeka lived in India for six months on a "self-imposed" exile a few years back, where he was taken in by Abha Iyengar, the eminent Indian writer and social activist. The influence shows in "The Abyssinian Boy" which is the story of a child with a Tamil father and a Nigerian mother.

Over the past year, I've had the pleasure of interacting with him over several issues, both literary and otherwise :)Not only does he have a keen intellect, he has a self-effacing way and a child-like sense of wonder which make him special.

Recently he was at at a book reading at Abuja(the capital of Nigeria), talking to secondary school students. (The photos that you see are taken from another reading session at Abuja) . Also present there was Felix-Abrahams Obi, a writer based in Nigeria. He wrote this piece which I'm reproducing here... along with my response to it.

The Unsung Nigerian Writer in a Hip-hop World
- Felix-Abrahams Obi

She was staring at the computer when I grabbed a seat beside her to rest my tired body after a long stretch of activities to mark the World Book Day in her school; Regent School Abuja. With her right hand on the mouse, she clicked and navigated through various websites and top on the list was a social networking site. To kids in her generation, social networking, instant messaging, and music websites are the most popular because they are the shapers of today's culture. They are designed to attract and hold the attention of the young and even the older generations. We are now in a world where everyone aspires to become a celebrity; a kind of super star with the rare privilege of walking down the red carpet with the flashing lights of the paparazzi forming a halo around them. But it seems the contemporary Nigerian writer is seemingly wary of enjoying the spotlight like his peers and pals in the music/movie/comedy industry whose shows and concerts pull the crowds into opens fields and overcrowded halls. Yet the writer is as much an artist as all others. Upon whom the burden of recording of history and transmission of knowledge and wisdom rests upon their weary shoulders. This young girl was clad in a costume depicting her favourite book character like other pupils in the school. It was a special day to celebrate writers and lovers of books, and the school had opened its doors to some writers and lovers of books. As I settled into the chair, I engaged her in a short chat and asked if she would love to be a writer. She answered, 'Nope! I just love reading books'. Then I quipped, "But if no one writes a book, what then would you be reading?" She then got my drift and the message berthed in her heart, I supposed; that it takes a writer to write a book that others would have to read. And books are created and made by writers who have to depend on the goodwill of their literary agents, editors, publishers and the general public to remain afloat in today's world.

Most Nigerian writers and authors are not so well-celebrated and the economy has been harsh on their art. Many manuscripts are lying still in the hard drives of their computers, and many resort to self-publishing after series of rejections by the mainstream publishing houses. Unlike the 'full-time' hip-hop musicians, the Nigerian writer has to keep a 9-5 job to keep hunger pangs at bay. He has no access to government or private funds to attend literary conferences, arts residencies or fellowships where he can develop his art of writing. After a prolonged haul of frustrations, many give up their dreams and take up a career that ultimately leads them to the boardroom like the Toni Kan's of this world, and many others who are working in banks, Telecom andIT firms, the Oil Gas industries and many more.

To Mrs. Chiamaka Kalu-Uche, the librarian of the Regent School Abuja, the Nigerian writer needs to be encouraged and his books should also occupy prominent slots in the school's unique library that boasts of books that range from Greek classics to modern English and western writers. The children's costumes showed that they knew little about African writers as only a few dressed like Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Cyprian Ekwensi, Niyi Osundare, Tanure Ojaide , Mamman Vatsa or our female writers like Zainab Alkali, Chika Unigwe, Chimamanda Adichie , Akachi Ezeigbo , Mabel Segun etc. To domesticate the World Book Day which is celebrated internationally on the 4th of March and in the UK and Ireland on the 5th of March, she desired to have Nigerian writers read from their works to the kids at Regent School Abuja.

Top on my list was one of Nigeria's youngest novelists, Onyeka Nwelue whose trajectory as a writer has been on the rise since his maiden novel titled 'Abyssinian Boy' was launched couple of weeks back. He had made a strong impression on me when he eloped with another teenage friend from his home in Imo State to attend a literary meeting that was held at the National Theatre Lagos as a 17years old boy sometime in 2004.His passion to write was palpable to all and I wasn't surprised when he chose to go on a self-imposed 'exile' in India to write the manuscript of his novel, rather than proceed to the Senior Seminary to continue his training as a future Catholic priest. I contacted Onyeka and his publisher about the possibility of featuring at Regent School and the idea made sense to them even when the librarian could not promise any stipends or 'appearance fees' to any featured writer due to funds constraints, Onyeka still showed his willingness to attend the world book day event on self-sponsorship. And on Wednesday the 4th of March 2009, Onyeka landed in Abuja, proving yet again how far he can go to promote the cause of writers and writing in Nigeria.

There was a buzz of activities at Regent School and the excitement among the kids was palpable. They grinned from ear to ear, and like models clad in colourful costumes, they filed out to the blue-draped assembly hall for the session with writers and celebrities. Earlier they had a parade at the school's field and had fathers read favorite books for the kids in their respective classes, made bookmarks/door hangers, juggled with cross word puzzles and book character games. Some were made to be on the 'hot seat' to answer questions from their peers as a book character to elicit the emotions and thoughts of each character in their favorite book. The children also visited the book stands set up by Bibi Bakare-Weate, the founder of the publishing house, Cassava Republic, and was the official judge of the writing contest for the kids. Mrs Emem Okpashi's "All for Kids" outfit also displayed their educational products at their stand, as well as other exhibitors. Jerry Adesowo who reports for the nearly-launched NEXT Newspaper was on grounds to cover the event.

The expectant kids sat calmly on the rug-covered floor of the hall with their teachers flanking them on both sides like a defense shield. After an introductory speech by Mr. Robinson, a Briton and Head Teacher of the school, Mrs. Kalu-Uche introduced the special guests; Chief Chukwuemeka Chikelu (erstwhile legislator and Minister of Information and Communication), Mr. Collin Connelly (Deputy High Commissioner of Trinidad and Tobago, Mr. Onyeka Nwelue and I. In an earlier session Hon. Nike Oshinowo and Mr. Denja Abdullahi had read book excerpts for the lower primary pupils in the same hall. In this session for the upper primary pupils, Mrs Kalu Uche publicly recognized a little girl, Azume Ajayi , and a boy , Ogechukwu Flagg-Igbo respectively for their avid interest in reading books, and they were asked to recommend their favourite book to their peers.

Chief Emeka Chikelu read excerpts from his all time favourite book, Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, and another inspiring book titled 'Say it Like Obama" by Anna Lee, while Mr. Collin Connelly read excerpts from the book, "The Little Blue Boy". During the authors' interactive session, Onyeka Nwelue talked about his debut novel, Abyssinian Boy while I gave a synopsis of my short story, "A Date with Area Boys" which was featured in an anthology of short stories titled "Eko ni Baje" by Nelson Publishers in 2008. The kids asked questions that bothered on writing and there was the issue of what gains as an individual from writing. In my opinion, the writer has the rare privilege of documenting history and etching himself on the hearts of living long after he's dead and gone. We still read and interact with dead writers through their works and travel with them to remote climes and milieus that their astute minds had created.

Onyeka added a new dimension by reminding the kids that it is a hip thing to be a writer, and being hip is no longer the exclusive preserve of hip-hop stars and other celebrities. The writer is also a celebrity in his own right, and to 21 years old Onyeka, the older writers had adopted bland and unattractive lifestyles that may have seemingly made the young not to see writing as a hip thing. I may have been one of the culprits in Onyeka's as I was dressed formally like most writers in one of my best fitting suits. To engage the young and feel their kindred spirit, Onyeka made a fashion statement with his afro hairstyle. He also had a nice short-sleeved green top over his blue jean with a brown bag strapped across his shoulders and wore colourful beads on his right wrist. And it was this image of the writer as a hip celeb that he wants to project to the world and he has in some sense made that impression in the hearts of kids at the Regent School a personal cost with no one sponsoring his long trip to Abuja.

After the authors' interactive session, Mrs. Kalu-Uche had promised the kids a surprise, and from behind the curtains that shielded him from their bated eyelids, Jeremiah Gyang emerged and the kids roared in excitement at the sight of the popular singer and multi-instrumentalist whose debut album "Na Ba Ka" had hit the top charts few years back. He strummed his guitar as the children and their teachers, and guests clapped and sang the song 'Allah Na Ba Ka' along with him. He then read excerpts from the Cinderella story to the delight of the kids, who asked as well as answered questions that on the Cinderella story. It was obvious the children also want to be stars like Jeremiah Gyang as they asked him questions about his music career and none bothered to ask if he also writes, for Jeremiah writes passionately and this is evident in some of his blogs that I have read on facebook and hi5 in the past. The event ended on a celebratory note after the kids sang 'Happy Birthday" to their amiable Head Teacher Mr. Robinson who said that he has grown old enough to not answer the kids, the quizzy part of the song that goes " How old are you now..?

Jeremiah at my humble behest had agreed to Mrs. Kalu-Uche's request and invite to feature at the World Book Day for free, and he did that for the sake of the children ; an event that would have featured the Abuja-based R & B trio, StylPlus had they agreed on time. Jeremiah thereafter toured all the respective classes to read, sing and play with the cheery kids. The free appearance and alliance between writers and musicians must have made a strong impression on the children, and it wouldn't come as a surprise if these kids in the future turn out into hip writers and musicians. Though it's a lot more attractive for the kids to end up as musicians, they would really see writing as a hip thing when they can see politicians, business moguls, models, musicians, movie actors and other superstars also making exploits in the literary world. They would then realize that the culture of reading is a hip thing and they won't have to wait till another March 5th to wear the costumes of a favourite author or book character on World Book Day.

Though the reading culture is on a downward spiral nationally, writers must find a way to engage the teeming youthful population if we must remain relevant. Jumoke Verissimo, an eclectic poet and journalist with The Guardian last week lamented at an event hosted by Abuja Writers Forum that the gathering of writers oftentimes has writers as the audience. So we cook our literary food and consume same among our selves whereas arts should be shared with the public for whom the menu was designed.

We may have to find more creative and innovative ways to translate our writings from the present height to such a point that book reading will become fun like it used to be in the past. We may have to recruit premiership starts, supermodels, TV goddesses and music stars to cross over and become novelists and writers to have their fans root for our writings. For instance, once a music star crossover into acting like Will Smith, Jennifer Lopez and Beyonce Knowles, the movies charts at Hollywood. In Nigeria, our movie stars would rather crossover to music to gain more popularity.

I would have wished they crossed over into writing to show how creatively versatile they truly are, or is writing such a hard job that only a few have been able to tap into the mastermind of the Muse? If the playwright and dramatist, Tyler Perry could become a multi millionaire by turning his writings into movies, maybe writers should start thinking of diversifying their creative expressions to match the changing trends in our changing world. Most of the blockbuster movies and academy award winners have been adaptations of writings of novelists of the classical and modern era. And in today's hip-hop culture that is ruled and governed by the dictates of celebrities, the writer has to somehow find a way to become as relevant as the other mainstream artists. The time for a sequestered lifestyle is over for the writer belongs to this modern era. The 21st century writer has a duty to either write what will make him popular or write about what makes others popular and influential without compromising his creativity, intellectuality and more importantly, his spirituality.

Onyeka asked me what I felt about this particular piece..... here's my reply:

Hi Onyeka!

Obi does put forward several valid points. His chief concern is the poor health of the reading habit across youngsters in Nigeria. I, for one would take this one step forward and say that this is a global problem, and not just restricted to Nigeria or, for that matter, India. Soothsayers point at the rising number of young novelists coming from the subcontinent. This phenomenon has two explanations:

a)If you look closely, many of them are either foreign-educated or working abroad... or both. Look at Mohsin Hamid, Daniyal Muenuddin, Rana Dasgupta...
b)When you look at our sheer numbers, you get more of a perspective about the whole issue.

But I digress... Obi suggests that part of the problem is the image young Nigerians get when they think about professional writers. And from what I gather, you seem to share this opinion. The logic being, writers are just not upto scratch when seen from the judging eyes of your typical westernised pre-teen. They are mostly introspective, even the young ones, seldom flamboyant, and not all that gregarious. Adoloscents are more likely to be drawn towards actors or pop stars. Hence, Obi thinks you made a conscious decision to dress and present yourself in a certain way..... and you yourself think that "writers ought to live more popular lifestyles"

The thing is, I'm not sure if this can really happen, or if this is even the right thing to do.

In an interview, the Indian journalist and author Raj Kamal Jha once said two things which really got me thinking.... The first was "The few people who are damaged enough to love reading are essentially those who are comfortable with solitude..." and continuing in the same vein, he said, "People who feel the need to read will read. It's personal. Even a writer who is very full of himself will never say, "There are 150000 people who need to read me." With regards to this issue, I would especially stress the latter point.

So, while I'm not saying that any effort made to get youngsters to read is ultimately futile; I do think that trying to package writing and writers in a certain way is certainly pushing it a little.

And to suggest that actors or movie-makers should take up the pen in order to popularize reading is just wishful thinking.... to date, the only readable thing I've heard of in that direction is Ingmar Bergman's collection of screenplays...... and even he lamented the fact that he wasn't a novelist per se..... he thought that the novel was inherently a superior art form. (a view I don't subscribe to, by the way...)

By all means, encourage local writing, especially writers who practise their craft in their native tongue. There are few better ways to tell youngsters about their rich heritage....a seamless, coherent record of everything worth knowing about their past.

I can understand the fears of people like Obi and Verissimo..... I have seen some unbelievably talented regional Indian writers languish in oblivion simply because.........well, they never really left oblivion. But pragmatically speaking, trying to make writing "cool" can only be successful upto a certain limit.I'm sorry if I'm a wee bit pessimistic... but from what I've seen and felt...this is my opinion. For what it's worth, I think you did the right thing by presenting yourself the way you did at Abuja :)

Your friend,

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