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E.C. Osondu: A Writer must come to the blank page with humility

E.C. Osondu

E.C. Osondu

E.C. Osondu is the author of Voice of America and This House is not for Sale. His works have been featured in acclaimed journals such as AGNI, The Atlantic, and Guernica, and he has edited/co-edited poetry collections and special literary journal editions. A critical player in the Lagos/Ibadan literary circuit in the ‘90s before he relocated to the US, Osondu’s short story, Jimmy Carter’s Eyes, was shortlisted in 2007 for the coveted Caine Prize for African Writing; a prize he once described in an interview as “not just the prize you win and get monetary compensation but a Prize that you win and it actually works towards giving you a literary career.” In 2009, Osondu clinched the Caine with Waiting, a story that depicts life in a refugee camp from the perspective of Orlando Zaki, a child. He received his MFA from Syracuse University and now teaches at Providence College in Rhode Island.

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SOLA OSOFISAN: E.C., I knew you in Lagos as a copywriter who wrote fiction on the side. Now you’re a college professor, but better known as an award winning writer who writes his books in the summer months – still arguably an avocation. What accounts for the job change in America, and why is writing still something you do on the side?

E.C. OSONDU: First off, thank you for your patience, Sola. As you know we’ve been playing this interview thing for a while now. I used to be a copywriter and it is a way of thinking that never leaves you even when you leave the profession. I still follow ads religiously. I don’t miss the Super Bowl commercials. I recently started reading the works of Augusten Burroughs-though I am a bit late to the party-he was a copywriter too, like me.

Coming to the second part of your question; how many writers with the exception of the Stephen Kings and the James Pattersons of this world can live on their income as writers? I teach Creative Writing so my work and my vocation kind of feed off each other.

SOLA OSOFISAN: You’ve spoken in interviews about the bigger doors recognition opened for you. I wonder if you could talk about the creative before and after of that specific turning point: creatively, what has changed? Do you still follow the same writing procedures? Are you more or less productive? How is the E.C. who sits at a desk to pen a story today different from the E.C. before the international recognition?

thinfsE.C. OSONDU: As you know-being a writer yourself-we must come to the blank page with humility like callow acolytes. The blank page has no respect and does not remember your past accomplishments. Every work is a new road that we travel on -armed with fear, trembling, uncertainty and doubt. Having said that, I think that what has changed is the anxiety to want to publish quickly. I don’t mind letting it cool off somewhat these days. Sooner or later it will find a home. My writing procedure has changed somewhat in that I typically have more than a couple of projects going at the same time these days. I see nothing wrong with plodding away on a novel while working on a short story and even scribbling a poem on the side. I have also become a bit of a slow reader. These days too, I am less likely to continue with a book that bores me; just don’t have the stomach for trudging on anymore. When it comes to books, one must not follow the Beckettian injunction-I can’t go on-I must go on.

SOLA OSOFISAN: I just reread Julian Barnes’ A History of the World in 10½ Chapters and all the while, I kept thinking of This House is Not for Sale, wondering, was E.C. doing something similar in that book, with the Family House as the ark, and Grandpa as some kind of crazy Noah herding all sorts into it, especially the bruised and broken and the ones just a little unhinged? Have you ever viewed THINFS from that perspective?

E.C. OSONDU: I loved that book even though I read it many years back. I think that writers like him expanded the parameters of what the novel can do and can be. Funny about the religious imagery but that only became clear to me after the book was done. This idea of Grandpa as both malevolent and benevolent-I think it is both celestial and mundane-humans have a great capacity for good and evil. We can produce the greatest art and commit genocide on our fellow humans.

SOLA OSOFISAN: The Family House evokes comparisons with Nigeria and other dysfunctional states out there, understandably because the House seems to be at war with itself, with its denizens often using their own hands to perpetuate its notoriety and do things that lead to their own eventual destruction. Is this a fair correlation? What other interpretations of the book are you aware of?

E.C. OSONDU: You are familiar with the saying about Lagos-Eko gbole, o gbole-Lagos welcomes both the thief and the slacker. Nigeria is like that in some ways-producing world renowned writers including a Nobel laureate in Literature and producing great letter writers of a different kind who ask you to send a little money and you can have all the stolen wealth of a former dictator. I had all the characters but wanted a place that could accommodate them all and then the Family House showed up and I knew I had found a home for them.

SOLA OSOFISAN: Perhaps the most harrowing line for me in THINFS is in Oluka’s story where in describing him and his wife’s childlessness, the narrator says “a certain silence and quietness seemed to follow them around…” In the context of the culture within which the story exists, loud conversations have been known to become whispers when a woman in Miss’s situation walks into a room. You didn’t have to look far to write that bit, did you?

E.C. OSONDU: Not far at all. Barrenness is seen more as a woman’s burden. Male infertility is hardly talked about or recognized. It is always the woman who has to run from herbalist to white garment church to native doctor in search of a solution to her childlessness. Again, ours is a society where the unspoken can be very loud. Take for example the name ‘Miss’ now there is something in the name that also suggests that she has no child otherwise she would be Emeka’s Mother the school teacher.

SOLA OSOFISAN: My favorite voices in the book are those of the neighbors. As the book progresses, one begins to see them as very real and distinct characters in their own right. They transcend stories and situations and read like your go-to voices whenever you needed to say something no character was equipped or positioned to say. Were they designed to be so critical to the narration from the outset or did they just evolve?

voaE.C. OSONDU: The neighbors are the Greek Chorus of the book-observing, commenting, judging, analyzing, wailing, laughing, predicting, and prophesying. They helped me to bring the marginalia into the center of the text. They are of course drawn from the typical Lagos neighborhood where the idea of minding one’s business is unheard of and poking your nose into your neighbor’s is the norm.

SOLA OSOFISAN: You’ve lived abroad for more than a decade now, but Nigeria appears to still be your muse. Is that the way it is with all migrations or do you at some point become settled enough in the found land to start telling its stories?

E.C. OSONDU: I am in a way writing about the people who straddle both cultures. My characters would always be Nigerians who live here or live in Nigeria or are Americans of Nigerian parentage. Funny thing is the more I live here the more Nigerian I become. I was telling someone recently about my relationship with Fela’s music-it wasn’t until I came to the United States that I began to have this heavy and deep relationship with Fela’s music. I did visit the Shrine a couple of times but it was just something you did on a weekend. I doubt that I will write that kind of American novel with white characters who have lived all their lives on a farm in Iowa.

SOLA OSOFISAN: I was at the NY introduction of your previous book, Voice of America. I know your old friends from back in Nigeria sometimes travel long distances to identify with you at these book readings you do all over the world. Do you get a kick out of seeing familiar faces at these sessions? What’s the highlight of a typical event like that for you?

E.C. OSONDU: It was a huge surprise seeing you at the book launch. Afam Akeh, the poet, Lookman Sanusi, and many other friends from way back in Lagos were at my reading in London. A familiar face in the audience is always a great thing to see.

I think the only sentiment is gratitude. The highlight is the kind of questions that you guys ask me on such occasions-great questions showing that- you sabi me reach house-so to speak.

SOLA OSOFISAN: Your response to a “best decision in writing career” interview question from Temitayo Olofinlua sometime ago was attending “Syracuse University for graduate studies in creative writing.” Can you elaborate on that response please? What did graduate studies in America teach E.C. Osondu that he didn’t already know from years of writing literature in Nigeria? Is it something you recommend?

E.C. OSONDU: Not so much about what you might think as it is about the business of writing-Agents, Editors, literary journals, submissions, etc. These are things that one needs to be savvy about and this knowledge I gleaned in the Syracuse program. With the advent of the internet today, some or most of this information is available to all.

I was signed on as a client by the Wylie Agency while I was still in graduate school. My first major publication in Agni happened when I was still in Syracuse.

I am not trying to in any way put down the informal structures we had in Lagos-you introduced me to Vonnegut, Straub and King many years ago in Lagos. We met and read and critiqued each other’s work in Uncle Eddy Aderinokun’s Surulere bungalow years back.

SOLA OSOFISAN: I still have my autographed copy of For Ken, For Nigeria. You have a poem in that collection. As someone who spent so many years writing advertising copies, with its partiality for conciseness and using a little to say a lot, how come you did not write more poetry? Or did you?

E.C. OSONDU: I have recently returned to writing poems. Certain urgent matters, especially such issues as American racism, police brutality and the continued treatment of black people as third,fourth and anything but full class citizens of this country can only be tackled by poetry.

SOLA OSOFISAN: What’s your take on the current surge of interest in African literature, and to what do you think it should be attributed? The internet and social media? Or due season, since it’s about damn time?

E.C. OSONDU: No surprise there. Africans have a story to tell and the world, I think it is in the interest of the world to listen.

SOLA OSOFISAN: In conclusion, you’re in the exclusive club of writers who have been short-listed for the Caine twice, so we’re going to ask you the question everyone’s been too polite to ask: What’s your secret?

E.C. OSONDU: I was shortlisted for the prize and then won the prize a few years later, so yes I know a little bit about it. I have not done a typology-but I think there were a bunch of stories with child narrators that were somewhat topical in a certain sense that won. There has been a reaction on a shift towards more experimentation and all that.

My tuppence is to write and submit your best work-the kind of work you read and you realize that this could have only be written by one person. If it wins, great. If it doesn’t, you have created unique art.

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2 Comments

  • Thanks for this interview, I have been reading Osundu and I have always liked the way he is intellectually relaxed.I believe that God will give him energy to write more.He need to reduce hours spend on teaching for the purpose of writing.Sola thanks too for the standard of literary dialogues you always hold and share on this platform, I am blessed to day to learn that one only has to come to a plank page with humility, then great writing may follow later.Cheers.

  • I love E. C Osondu’s unpretentious, simple works, particularly his “Waiting”. And I totally agree with everything he said and writing here. Keep it up and keep it on, Mr Osofisan.