I see a very bright future for Nigerian Literature, says Akachi Ezeigbo
By Chuks Oluigbo
Prof (Mrs) Akachi Ezeigbo is a name that readily comes to mind whenever and wherever Nigerian literature is being discussed. She is an endearing mother, a model of African womanhood, an erudite scholar, university teacher, and accomplished and multiple award-winning writer. Recently, she spoke to Chuks Oluigbo on a wide range of issues including her writing career, venture into children’s literature, Feminism, and the future of Nigerian literature. Excerpts:
GOOD DAY, MA. PLEASE LET’S MEET YOU.
My name is Akachi Ezeigbo. I am a professor of English at the University of Lagos. I have been teaching there for quite some time. I teach literature, African and English literature and theory. I also teach women studies and gender studies. I write too.
SO, WHAT BASICALLY DO YOU WRITE?
I write in the various genres of literature. I have written novels, short stories, and children’s stories and novels. I have written plays and poetry too, and I have about twenty-five published books.
YOU HAVE TWENTY-FIVE PUBLISHED BOOKS. NOW OF THESE TWENTY-FIVE BOOKS, WHICH ONE DO YOU THINK IS THE BEST?
I cannot say, honestly. I am not able to answer that question because I look at all I have written and they have different statements they are making; they are written from different perspectives and also focusing on different issues and themes, and they are all important to me. So, I cannot say. But if you are asking me what critics say, then some think it is House of Symbols, which is the second part of a trilogy. Some also say it is The Last of the Strong Ones, my first novel which was published in 1996. So, it’s relative.
THAT’S WHAT CRITICS SAY, BUT AS THE WRITER OF THESE BOOKS, WHICH ONE IS CLOSEST TO YOUR HEART?
Well, maybe House of Symbols because the model there is my mother, and she is a woman I respect so much. There is a major character there called Ugonwanyi (Eagle Woman) and I modelled her after my mother; not everything about my mother but some aspects of my mother’s life and experience are subsumed in that character.
TWENTY-FIVE PUBLISHED WORKS, QUITE INTERESTING! HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN WRITING?
I have been writing for so many years. Even when I was in secondary school, I had started writing, though I wasn’t published at that time. The first published book I had was a children’s novel, The Belled Treasure, and it was published by Heinemann of the UK in 1992, but I had published short stories before that. While in the university, we had a students’ journal and I was publishing poems and short stories in the journal.
YOU ARE A MOTHER AS WELL AS AN ACADEMIC, SO YOU MUST HAVE A VERY TIGHT SCHEDULE, IN THE FAMILY AND AT WORK. SO, HOW DO YOU FIND TIME TO WRITE?
Well, you just have to be organised, plan your life well and prioritise what you want to do at any given time. But some of the things I have written I wrote abroad because I do have time when I travel abroad than I do in Nigeria. But I must also say that my children are grown now, so I am able to write more. When they were much younger, I wasn’t really able to write. I think this is one of the problems that women have everywhere, especially in Nigeria. When we are married and have children, and our children are little, it is very difficult for us to find time to write because writing requires concentration: you have to give it time; you have to have your privacy, a place you can call your own; you have to have a space to write; and you also have to have time and money. Many young women who are in their child-bearing age are not able to manage these things well. So, much of the writing I have done actually is recent, in fact, after I have become a professor. And now I write more. There is hardly any year that passes that I don’t have something published because I have more time now to write.
SOME MONTHS BACK YOU PRESENTED FOUR BOOKS TO THE READING PUBLIC. HOW DID YOU MANAGE TO COME UP WITH FOUR BOOKS AT THE SAME TIME?
Well, they were not all published the same year. I launched four books published within a period of two or three years. The books were all published between 2007 and 2009, so it’s a period of two years.
YOU HAVE ALSO DONE A LOT OF CHILDREN’S BOOK. WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO WRITE FOR CHILDREN?
I was in the UK when Heinemann of the UK called for manuscripts from African writers and somebody told me about it. It was a rigorous exercise. We were expected to submit a story line; if they like it, they commission you to write it, and after everything they pay you to publish it, and then pay you royalties thereafter. So, that was how I came about writing that novel, but before then I had nursed the ambition to write for children because I didn’t see the kinds of books I wanted my children to read in any of the bookshops. My kids were reading Lady Bird series, Janet and John, Hardy Boys, The Secret Seven, and all that. You know, these books were written for British and American children, and I didn’t think it was the kind of literature I wanted my children to read. They could read them but I also wanted them to read something that had some local colour, something African, and something very Nigerian especially. So, as I was toying with the idea of writing the kind of thing I wanted my children to read, Heinemann came up with that publicity that people should submit their works. I saw that as a very good opportunity because I also noticed that down here, sometimes when you write, you don’t get them published, and here was Heinemann providing the opportunity for people. Like many other writers, I tried and they chose two of my titles. One of them has been translated into Swahili and the other into Xhosa, a South African language.
MANY WRITERS BELIEVE IT IS MORE DIFFICULT AND TASKING TO WRITE FOR CHILDREN THAN FOR ADULTS. HOW TRUE IS THAT, AND HOW HAVE YOU COPED?
It is very difficult, honestly. Writing for children is a specialised kind of writing. If you are writing for adults, you will just put down anything you like, go back to it, edit it and rewrite it, and your job is done. But when you are writing for children, you have some specific ideas and guidelines you must follow. Some of the best publishing houses that publish children’s books usually give their authors guidelines, like vocabulary control. That’s what Heinemann does. So, children’s writing is not something you just dabble into. If you can attend a creative writing workshop for children’s books, it will be better for you because there you will be taught some basic requirements for writing for children. That’s why many people might think it is too difficult because of all these control measures. But if you have the skills, then it is not too difficult because you can write a children’s book in a week or less. Because I have been able to imbibe these ideas over the years through the guidance of Heinemann, I am able to write children’s books more easily. In fact two of my children’s books have recently been released under the Lantern Books label: Ako the Story-teller and Zoba and His Gang.
PROF, THIS IS GOING TO BE A DIRECT QUESTION. YOU SAID YOU ALSO TEACH WOMEN AND GENDER STUDIES. SO, ARE YOU A FEMINIST?
You know, sometimes people ask you this question, and I want to make sure that people who ask this question understand the meaning of Feminism. The point is that many people, when they hear Feminism, they become combative. They think Feminism is a war. Feminism is actually a principle that posits that women should be given equal rights with men. It demands a kind of emancipation for women, women empowerment. This is the kind of definition I believe in, and to that extent, I regard myself as a Feminist. But my Feminism is of course guided by my culture. I am an Igbo woman and I have to build my brand of Feminism around my culture. Feminism is a very wide ideology. It is culture-based; it is culture-centred. It has its own agenda depending on where it is coming from. My brand of Feminism definitely differs from that of an American or a European woman, or a Feminist in Islam, or a Feminist in Asia. But one thing that holds all hues and shades of Feminism together is the desire to improve women’s life, to empower women, to emancipate them, to help them to come to self-actualisation. That is what every Feminist does, but doing it from a different agenda based on the culture they are coming from. Sometimes people make so much noise about nomenclatures. As far as I am concerned, we are all pursuing the same agenda, to help women; that’s part of what I have been doing. Even where I work, I try to support young women to realise their dreams. It is not combative; it does not fight men; it is just helping women to also become self-actualising, emancipated and empowered in society so that they can also contribute to the growth of their families and communities and complement what men are doing. But if you want to know strictly the kind of Feminism I advocate, it is what people have described as African Womanism because I believe it is the closest to our lives as African women. I have also come up with my own brand which actually describes my life and the lives of the women around me, what I call Snail-sense Feminism. This theory is based on the lifestyle and habit of the snail. Our society is highly patriarchal, and for a woman to survive here, she really has to be hardworking, resilient, tolerant, and accommodating, and that is the life of the snail. If you watch a snail, it moves over rocks, boulders and even thorns with that lubricating tongue that is never pierced or hurt by these jagged objects that it crosses over because it has learnt to lubricate its tongue to help it negotiate and crawl over sharp and rough edges. I believe this is what women in this country should be doing. We are trying to help build our society, our families, but we don’t have to be confrontational. Any woman who thinks she can confront men will certainly fail. No one can go it alone. We need men just as they need us. The relationship is basically complementary. There is need for men and women to work together to achieve a better society, in the family, at work places, in politics, everywhere. Besides, our culture does not allow confrontation with men.
HAVE YOU ARTICULATED THESE IDEAS IN ANY OF YOUR LITERARY WORKS?
If you look at my works, you will see that my female characters are not usually combative, but of course they are highly principled characters who know what they want and how to go about it, and they go for it. My women are strong and very resilient; they are not weaklings, but their strength is not in violence or confrontation but in being principled and self-controlled, in collaborating with other people around them. But of course, if this collaboration brings about confrontation, they will move away and chart out their own survival. That is how I have always visualised my female characters, especially my protagonists.
WOULD YOU SAY YOU BELONG TO THE OLD OR NEW GENERATION OF NIGERIAN/AFRICAN WRITERS?
I have never really believed in this generation thing because I believe that a writer remains a writer until death. If you look at it, some people who are in their eighties or nineties are still writing. So, where will you place them? They are all contemporary writers. And if you look around the world, you see people like Nadine Gordimer, who may be in her eighties, and Nawaj el-Sadawi, who is in her eighties too, both highly respected and award-winning writers. They are still writing. But when you begin to pigeon-hole writers into generations and you want them to begin to behave in a particular way, I don’t believe in that. So, I cannot say I belong to this or that generation. All I know is that I am writing on contemporary issues. Some of my books also centre around the history of my people in the 18th and 19th centuries. I also explore issues like the civil war, and politics in the present day. If critics decide to place me in any generation, well, they are welcome. After all, it is their job. They are free to interrogate literature, evaluate it, and assess it from their own point of view. There is some element of subjectivity in there.
OKAY. NOW LET ME DO AWAY WITH THE WORD GENERATION AND TALK ABOUT YOUNGER, UP AND COMING WRITERS. THE OLDER WRITERS THINK THAT THE YOUNGER ONES ARE NOT DOING WELL. DO YOU ALSO SEE IT IN THAT LIGHT?
There is no doubt that many people are not writing well. And they are not writing well because they are impatient. You see, writing is not all about producing a manuscript and rushing to the publisher or the printing press to print it out. There is a kind of programme that any work must pass through for it to come out well. That’s why there are publishers. Overseas they have literary agents and editors before the publisher comes in. A book really has to go through these processes if it has to come out well. But when you just produce a manuscript this year, and you are in too much of a hurry, three months you go and print it, no matter how talented you are, that book will suffer some disadvantages. Many people may be having this problem because they are too impatient; not because they are not writing well, but because they are not following due process. There is due process in writing too. There are trained editors, and you need to let them see your work. There are publishing houses in Nigeria which have good editors, and if they publish you, they are not in a hurry. So, I think the writer should be more patient and tarry a while to edit and re-edit before publishing.
NOW AS A LITERATURE TEACHER, HOW DO YOU SEE THE FUTURE OF NIGERIAN LITERATURE?
I see a very bright future for Nigerian literature. Our literature is very vibrant and dynamic, and of course I am talking about both our writers within and in the Diaspora. There are some of our writers abroad who are doing well, just like many of them here are doing quite well too. Some of our writers are also winning awards both locally and internationally. But just as the former president of Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), Dr. Wale Okediran has said, people should not write with prizes in mind. That is not what we should be doing. But winning a prize is also one way of saying that the work is good. Sometimes too a piece of work might not be good just because you are in a hurry to submit it for a prize and you don’t do your best in it. All the same, I think there is a great future for Nigerian literature because the established writers are still writing. Wole Soyinka is still writing, and they are bringing out books, and this is Nigerian literature. There are also new writers, upcoming writers that are quite good. So, I think there is a great future for Nigerian literature.