Igoni Barrett is the author of two collections of short stories, From Caves of Rotten Teeth (2005) and Love is Power or Something Like That (2013), and a novel, Blackass (2015), which was longlisted for the inaugural FT/Oppenheimer Funds Emerging Voices Awards of 2015. He is an important writer of understated brilliance. His pithy response to my call for short prose responses to the death of Chinua Achebe in 2013 became the most read of all the entries submitted to the now defunct LitMag. He has always struck me as not only one of Nigeria’s most committed writers (he dropped out of the University of Ibadan to pursue farming and writing), but also one of the most incisive. When news broke that he was the judge of a new manuscript prize sponsored by Graywolf Press, I wanted to talk to him. Here is that conversation:
I am interested in this new Graywolf Press Africa Prize, of which you are the judge. What is the motivation behind it, and why now?
Graywolf Press has been my US publisher since 2013. I think they do important work, both in poetry and prose. For an independent press they punch above their weight. They also have a track record of introducing foreign writers, whether in translation or in English, into the American literary space. They were first to publish Binyavanga Wainaina’s memoir, and they also translated and published the poetry of Tomas Transtromer before he won the Nobel Prize. Going by my experience with them, I’m assuming their motivation for starting this prize is not much different from what convinced them to publish this unknown Nigerian writer all those years ago. And it makes sense to think that the “why now” is answered by the flowering of writing talent that’s been happening for over a decade on the African continent.
There is a flowering of writing talent that’s been happening for over a decade on the African continent.
Being in the position of a judge in a manuscript contest is like being in the position of an editor or a scout. What type of literature are you as a person interested in?
My reading tastes keep growing and evolving. As a reader I’m still learning to silence my presumptions and let each book speak for itself. But I know what I like when I see it.
Having been around the African (and global) literary space, what type of writing do you think we are not writing yet?
I think the pool of talented writers is growing deep enough to satisfy anyone’s taste in literature. Where there is a shortfall on the continent is on the production side – the paying publishers and the experienced editors to commission the stories that matter to local readers. This failing is most evident in the pages of our newspapers and magazines. That’s the type of writing I would like to see more of: longform journalism about the way we live today.
I’m interested in your opinion about prizes in general. At the reading we had for Ogaga Ifowodo in Surulere on Sunday, you and Odia Ofeimun went back and forth about the usefulness of prizes to writers (his angle) and the importance of using prizes as a way of increasing book sales rather than just money for the writer’s pockets (yours). I found the conflict interesting. What is the perfect balance, if any?
Give the writer a pot of money and take the readers a good book. That’s the perfect balance. It’s easier said than done, I know, but my issue with the Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas (NLNG) Prize for Literature is that the organisers don’t seem to be doing anything other than “spraying” money. If you can afford to give US$100 000 to the writer, then you owe it to the readers to ensure that the winning book is reviewed as widely as possible; that’s it’s available in bookshops and libraries and schools; that it is discussed for reasons other than how much it earned the writer in prize money. After all these years the NLNG should have learned that Nigeria doesn’t lack writers; what it needs are readers. That’s what the greater chunk of money and effort should be directed towards cultivating.
Your name came up a few times in 2013 when, in a conversation with Aaron Bady about the use (or uselessness) of the Caine Prize, he insisted that you were a name he often looked forward to seeing on such an important shortlist for fiction. Are prizes an incentive to writers or a reward for their efforts?
There’s the art of writing, and then there’s the business of writing. Prizes and other rewards fall into the business side. I’m not so wealthy or pure in spirit that I can say no to doing business with the Caine Prize, but I’m an artist first. My writing is my incentive and my reward.
The NLNG should have learned that Nigeria doesn’t lack writers; what it needs are readers.
I know it’s sometimes tricky to ask a writer what they’re working on at the moment, so instead I’ll ask this: What is it typically like between one book and the next; between the highs and lows of a book tour and the mounting pressure and expectation of a new one?
A full-time writer is a part-time reader, so I use that period to catch up on my reading. But when I’m not distracted by books, this time can feel like day upon day of hell at my writing desk, facing the blank, devilish stare of the bottomless page. Eventually I just start writing.