BM: First Congratulations on winning the Nigerian Prize for Literature (NLNG)! I am starting with the prize because apparently it is the most lucrative prize for an African writer today. $100,000 sounds indeed a huge amount. Tell me, how was it to win this prize? Did it bring more prestige? New literary agents scrambling to seduce you from your agent? Beyond the cash, what else did the prize come with?
CU: Thanks. I am not a confident writer, so winning that prize (with Prof. Irele and co. as judges) was a huge ego boost. I think many writers need validation that they are (reasonably) okay at what they do and for me, this was the validation I needed. On Black Sisters Street cost me sweat and blood to write. For that sweat and blood to be rewarded in this manner was awesome (and I am not referring to just the money).
You are the mother of the Awele Creative Trust, the awesome initiative meant to support younger Nigerian writers, under the age of 26. Tell me more about Awele. Why only that age-group, why have you chosen the type of activities you have chosen and where will the initiative be in the next ten years?
When I met the governor of Anambra State (my state) at the NLNG award ceremony, I told him I wanted to set up a centre for writers. The idea is that the centre hosts both Nigerian and foreign writers for a few weeks at a time, who, in return, run workshops in schools and at the centre for emerging writers. There is also talk of having Awele writers do residencies abroad with a sister centre in return for foreign authors at Awele Centre. The governor promised us some land but we still need money for the infrastructure etc. The Awele Award is what is feasible right now, with the resources we have.
The Board of Awele is made up of Prof. Akachi Ezeigbo and Prof, Femi Osofisan (writers and scholars); Ichie Nnaeto Orazulike and Engr, Kanene Dieobi (entrepreneurs and lovers of literature) and myself. The Awele Award we hope will continue to run alongside whatever else we are able to put in place. We hope that in 10 years time, we can offer more money to the winner (right now its N50,000). We chose the age group because we figured that that was the demographic most in need of direction (and less likely to be paid for their writing in Nigeria as they are most probably still in school or unemployed).
Let us talk about your book, Night Dancer. I first received a copy of the book from Samira Salwani, a friend, and read it in one sitting, because even though my father was and is still relating with my mother, he was to an extent absent from my childhood so I felt and feel some of the things that the book’s main character goes through, although in her case she does not know that her father is alive somewhere till later. Tell me about it, is the story based on your own experience? A close friend’s?
Thanks a lot! I am sorry to hear of your own experience. Mma’s story was inspired by many stories but particularly by the story of a relative whose husband’s desperate desire for a son made him blind to everything else. Her children are still young and so Night Dancer is perhaps an imagination of how their lives might unfold. I have always been interested in stories of women, particularly women in patriarchal societies who struggle with subscribing to certain rules. The title comes from an Acholi term which means “witch.” And we know that through out history, “witch” has been used to refer to women who do not abide by the rules.
When Richard Ali came to Kampala for the Writivism Festival, and brought copies of Night Dancer published by Paressia, I did not just dance, I danced in the night too. Paressia is a Nigeria-based publishing house. I know that Night Dancer was first published in the West. How did the Paressia dimension come in?
Thanks 🙂 I am very happy that Parresia acquired the Nigerian rights to the book. I am very proud of what they do and remain supportive of them. As you know, writers have little say in who acquires their books but I would like to think that Nigerian publishers would be interested enough in my projects to bid for the rights.
I do not think I would have known about the existence of a language called Flemish, if not for doing a background check about you. Now, I am guessing that you know Igbo, not really guessing because there are Igbo words in Night Dancer. Plus Dutch, those are four languages, if we separate Flemish from Dutch. I know that you have creative work in the European languages mentioned. Do you also have a book, a short story, children’s story, anything literary in Igbo? If you do not, do we expect any in the future?
Flemish and Dutch are basically the same language (except in Flanders, it is called one thing and in Holland it is called the other). My Ph.D is in English Literature English, so I speak only three languages, not four. I have nothing literary in Igbo. Our local languages in Nigeria (except for Hausa, perhaps) are not used for teaching in schools, thanks to colonization, which elevated English above native languages. What this means is that one does not learn to write or read in one’s local language even though one might be fluent in speaking it. There is very little writing done in Igbo and a very small market for it (as those who read Igbo also read English). A long time ago, there was at least one newspaper published in Igbo but that too is gone.
I want to ask about the Caine Prize: Prizes again. Of late, writer Binyavanga Wainaina has been very critical of the prize, saying that it does not deserve the legitimacy we (African journalists and commentators) give it. Of course after he made the first comments, people wrote back and some insinuated that he was burning the granary, so he shot back saying he is self-made, that he has had to work harder to make his name than just win the Caine. As someone who was shortlisted for the prize, attended its workshop, contributed to its annual anthology etc., what do you make of Binyavanga’s comments?
I think that the legitimacy of the Caine Prize comes from what it does (and has been doing since its inception) and not from African journalists writing about it once a year when someone wins. The Caine Prize does a good job and can exist alongside our own homegrown prizes. I am particularly fond of the Caine Prize because it is probably the reason I still write. Just before I was shortlisted, I was thinking of giving up on writing, and concentrating instead on getting my Ph.D. The shortlist provided me with the boost I needed to continue. It told me that maybe I could write, make a career of it.
What the Caine Prize does that goes beyond the money and the ego boost is that it gives the writers (all 5 shortlisted) access to agents and publishers and useful networks in the industry. I met my previous agent, David Godwin, at the Caine Prize event; there were publishers of reputable literary magazines who handed out their complimentary cards and said, “send me a story.” We had lunch dates with other writers; we met with publishers and so on. When one gets shortlisted (or wins), there is sudden interest from agents and the like, as Caine Prize has consistently provided winners who are worth their salt. Therein lies their legitimacy.
It has been really nice talking with you Chika. And I am forever grateful to you for having written Night Dancer and look forward to more of your work. Thanks also for what you are doing to support other writers, through Awele and other things you do.
Thanks a lot! Honestly!