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A Witness to these Times…The Akin Adesokan Interview

His voice floats through the waves, slides smoothly into the T-mobile Sidekick 2 mobile device and flows softly into your ears. Here you are chatting with Akin Adesokan, award-winning writer, journalist, critic, university teacher and more. For many weeks, you’ve sought a chat with the soft-spoken novelist. But convincing him to talk has been like employing your bare hands to catch a breathing fish from the waters of the Lagos lagoon. Quite some task. Adesokan isn’t too anxious for a chat, apparently still seeing himself as a fledgling amidst the flock of Nigerian wordsmiths.

But then, not everyone seems to align with that position. Not the folks that awarded him the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) Prose Prize in 1996. Not those who, two years later, named him winner of the PEN West Freedom to Write Award. Not the organizers of the Villa-Aurora Writers in Exile Award who pronounced him winner of their first Fellowship. Not the late dark-goggled tyrant, Sani Abacha, who ‘compensated’ Akin’s literary efforts with a two-month incarceration in a solitary cell. And certainly not former American President Bill Clinton who publicly celebrated Adesokan, among other Nigerians, during a presidential trip to Nigeria in the fall of 2000.

Akin Adesokan (Pix: Sola Osofisan)

Dr. Adesokan is author of Roots in the Sky, a novel, and he’s working on a second. He’s been on a fellowship at the International House of Writers in Austria for a year as well as a visiting scholar at the University of California in Los Angeles.

Since 2000, he has lived in the United States where he, in 2005, wrapped up his doctorate in English at Cornell University in New York. Last August, he moved over to Bloomington, Indiana, to take up an appointment as an assistant professor at the Indiana University where he now teaches Comparative Literature.

Having moved around America, from the West through the East Coast to the Midwest, Akin’s years in Uncle Sam’s country should naturally be impacting much on his writing. But he insists that it’s the story the writer is trying to tell that will determine how to tell it, not really where the writer resides at the time of putting the story down.

“Living in the United States has not influenced my writing per se in a definite way, but I will allow that my experience of living in America is beginning to shape my personality, and that ultimately, it might impact on my writing,” he tells you.

“You don’t even have to be in America or in any country before the place starts impacting on your writing,” he observes. “I have written about India, and when someone saw it, he wondered how long I had been living in the country. He was amazed that I had never been to India. You know the writer, Franz Kafka. He wrote about America, and I’m not sure he ever visited the US.” What is uppermost, he contends, isn’t really where you are at the moment, but how far you can travel mentally, how far your imagination can travel.

Roots in the Sky, the novel that won him the ANA prize in 1996 just got published in 2004, about a decade after it was penned. Adesokan wouldn’t describe what he went through in those days while seeking a publisher for his work as a particularly gratifying experience.

Was it frustrating, you ask? “Of course”, comes the swift reply. “Oh yes, I got a lot of rejection from publishers. One, I had no agent, and the Nigerian publisher who had promised to publish didn’t fulfill his promise. You know, sometimes, writers get hundreds of rejections before being published. And we are talking of places where things are normal. In Nigeria, things were not normal. Publishers were simply not publishing novels. So you could imagine the frustration of going about with your manuscript for eight years before finding a publisher.”

Since the novel got published however, things have been looking up for the messenger and his literary message. Apart from completing his doctoral programme at Cornell (which he ran on full scholarship), and landing a job as an assistant professor at the Indiana University, the author has had some critical, yet positive, reviews of his novel in literary journals around the globe. He’s also been hosted to well-attended readings both in Nigeria and the United States.

Many artists use their works as a channel through which messages are conveyed across to specific audiences regarded by such artists as recipients of their creative product. Adesokan thinks literature differs from that kind of conventional product. The writer, he contends, is not in the same mold neither does he peddle the same message as, for instance, the slightly drunk paraga seller at Ojuelegba who goes about convincing less virile males of the efficacy of his anti-jedijedi drug. “Literature works at the level of language and emotion”, he says, adding that the emotion is contained within the structure of the language. He agrees however that it’s often difficult making a distinction between the language and the emotion.

So why does he write? He waits awhile, and you can make out a slight sigh in the background.

“I think there’s a difference between what a writer sets out to do and what he ends up doing”, he observes. “My writing is an attempt to bear an honest witness to my time, to the experience I have as a human being, as a Nigerian, as an African. The African experience – slavery, wars, colonialism, diseases, neo-colonialism. There are other dimensions of experiences that are perennial, that aren’t easy to grasp historically or as past events, and one tries to respond to these.”  And his audience? “Basically, I write for everybody who can read English. And since that language can be translated into other languages, then I would say I write for everybody.”

At the end of his bachelor’s programme at the University of Ibadan, Akin emerged the best student in the Theatre Arts department. He also pocketed the Faculty of Arts prize as well as the National Council of Arts and Culture Prize. “They even said I was entitled to some money, but up till tomorrow they never gave me the money for any of the prizes”, he says with a mild chuckle.

In Nigeria, Adesokan started out as a journalist, writing for such newspapers as The Guardian, Post Express, This Day as well as The News magazine. And indeed, his first novel was written while working as a correspondent for The News magazine. You wonder if he was able to successfully perform both tasks without injecting some fiction into his news reporting.

“I think both are different,” says he. “In journalism, you are writing on specific events. Things that happened. Like when Tai Solarin died, and I went to cover the burial. That was an event that happened. I followed an event and wrote on it. Then when I got home in the night, I went and sat behind my desk and started writing my fiction. So there was a transition. So when you write fiction, you are following ideas. You are creating things. In journalism, you have materials in front of you. Writing is basically an attempt to wrestle with language. And there are writers who have employed the method of journalism to write fiction.”

There’s one big advantage which he’s been able to derive from his stint as a journalist. “In journalism, the reporter works under a deadline. For me, that has been very helpful. I can set a deadline for myself and finish up under that deadline. Even when I was doing my PH.D, I was able to write under a deadline. There was a time when we used to say that journalism would weaken our prose. But with my experience, the discipline has been very helpful.”

For him, an interest in writing developed right from his early age, propelled by a chance reading of D.O. Fagunwa’s Yoruba classic, Ogboju Ode Ninu Igbo Irunmale. Hear Akin: ” My experience as a reader was unique. When I was in Primary two or three, at the age of seven, I picked up a copy of the book and started reading it. I started reading from when we went on break in school, at about 11 a.m., and I kept on reading it till I completed the book at about three in the morning. I couldn’t sleep till I had finished reading the entire book, and that took about 16 hours. From that moment, I started trying to write.”

Right from then, the young boy read voraciously whatever book he could lay his hands on, from the Bible to books on literature, biology and indeed on any subject. Later, he started betraying a passion for literature. The fact that he lived in Lagos (Ajegunle) and Ibadan also provided him an easy access to newspapers and books. From Wale Adenuga’s Ikebe Super magazine to books by Wole Soyinka, Femi Osofisan, Ola Rotimi, Chinua Achebe, Adesokan read all and determined he was going to be a writer someday. His knowledge of literature in those early days, he recalls, usually fetched him a number of presents from his impressed and often stunned teachers. “I started school very early, so all my mates were older. I had no close friends since my classmates were older than me. So I had to rely on books for company”.

In his days as an undergraduate at the University of Ibadan, there were no writing classes or programmes. You could study Theatre Arts, English, or Communication Arts. Akin settled for the first but took classes in journalism and English. He became exposed to writers within and outside Nigeria and was able to interact with some of those seemingly mythical authors whose works he had fallen in love with. Names like Osofisan, Osundare, Mabel Segun, Bode Sowande, Odia Ofeimun metamorphosed from distant names into intellectuals that he could relate to. “Writers like Osofisan and Osundare encouraged me to do the work”, he recalls. “My relationship with them was decisive. They lent me books, and I drew inspiration from their works.”

Which writer does he consider his idol, a role model? He hesitates a trifle. “I can’t say I have a model,” he states. “It’s not always easy to pick someone as a role model”.

He admits that there are writers whose works have fired in him the passion to write. One of such is Wole Soyinka whose shorter and less complex plays -like The Swamp Dwellers and Lion and the Jewel – Adesokan had been privileged to read as a teenager. He in fact confesses to having a deep, psychological love for Soyinka’s writing. “I pay homage to his works. They give me much aesthetic joy”, he says.

His adoration for Soyinka has more to do with the Nobel Laureate’s embrace of complexity in his works. Soyinka, notes Adesokan, doesn’t shy away from complexities but plunges into them and bravely confronts them. “I don’t call him my role model, but his works have had a great influence on my writing in ways I’ve not quite figured out. I have no idols, but I have favourite writers.”

In his days at the University of Ibadan, Akin’s poetry, alongside others’, adorned several notice boards on campus and glazed the pages of many student and departmental magazines. Since leaving that institution, however, his imaginations have tilted more towards fiction. And you wonder, has the bard lost his kindred muse?

“Right now, I gravitate more towards fiction,” he admits. “For most writers, poetry is a form of apprenticeship. It is the most easily written form. Indeed, I was writing a lot of poetry. I still do write very occasionally, like when I have an intense experience. But my prose has tremendous poetic undertones.”

Last year in an interview with the Sunday Sun, renowned novelist, Professor Chukwuemeka Ike had jeered at young Nigerian writers who tend more towards poetry as literary laggards. Would Akin support that tag?  No way, he declares.

“I didn’t read that interview, but I know there are many people writing prose just as there are many writing poetry. Poetry is easier to get out. And there are so many organizations giving out prizes for poetry writing. Poems get published in journals, etc. Maybe more people are into poetry in order to win these awards. So I wouldn’t describe poets as lazy.”

The pervading atmosphere in Ike’s days was quite propitious for creative writing, he observes, unlike what obtains these days. “The professor was a WAEC director working between 9 and 5. As such, he had a lot of time to spare. And in his days, there was a market for African writing. So there was demand for the writing, however limited. That demand is no longer there. When you carry a manuscript that has won an award around for years looking for publishers, then you know the market is no longer there. So I don’t see poets as lazy or as less gifted than those writing fiction”.

Writers have varying sources of inspiration. Many claim they get inspired by nature – staring at the soft sway of leaves, watching a brook flow slowly by, listening to the songs of excited birds. Others have acknowledged that their creative genius usually gets fired after one or two shots of liquor. And a few writers have confessed to being in their best faculty moments after a passionate romp with an exotic lover. From what source does Adesokan’s inspiration flow?

“I really don’t know,” he confesses. “Inspiration is not something I understand too well”. He pauses, while a clock ticks in the background. “What I know is that reading encourages writing. I think inspiration is not something that comes in a rush. It is something that you prepare your mind towards developing. You develop a certain attitude towards writing. Inspiration will come through the way you observe things, through looking at certain ways of putting ideas together. You develop a subject matter, open your mind to recall certain circumstances and make such amenable to your style. Develop a habit of developing such images and putting them down. I think inspiration will flow from that.”

Has he ever been bogged down by that phenomenon called writer’s block?

He ponders for a few seconds. “I don’t think so. The major problem that I have faced as a writer is having personal time. When I first started out, I was working as a journalist. So finding time to write became a major issue. But talking about being blacked out and not knowing to write, I don’t think that has been a problem. There are moments of course when I don’t feel like writing. But I don’t think that’s having a writer’s block. I think that’s a question of sensitizing yourself, putting yourself in a proper frame of mind for writing. And as I told you, one thing that I have gained from journalism is the ability to be able to give myself some kind of deadline, as if I am in the newsroom. So even if the ideas do not flow, it’s not that I am struck by the writer’s block. It’s just that I’m trying to find an appropriate way to write what I’m writing.”

Writers, Adesokan contends, shouldn’t see themselves as having answers to all situations. In fact, they should do more of asking than answering. He confesses to being impressed by the perspective of the Canadian novelist and poet, Michael Ondaatje, who says he doesn’t set out to answer questions but to ask them.

Another habit the writer should constantly put on like a perpetual garment, according to Akin, is researching. Indeed, stresses he, research is a tool the writer cannot do without in the course of his literary voyage.

“For instance I’m writing about politics in the late 50s and early 60s in Nigeria. Post-colonial politics, the Lagos and Ibadan politics in the late 50s and early 60s. This was a period I knew about in the historical sense, you know, the history of the nationalist movements. But as a writer, I’m not interested in the history per se. I’m interested in the historical moment, how these historical players acted out their own roles and what motivated them. Now I have to read a lot of materials from that period, you know, newspapers published in those days. I actually had a vague idea of what I wanted to write, but I needed to know the political mood of those days. How it was, having to take over power from the British. So I was doing research not necessarily to get the facts right, but also to get to the minds of the characters at that time.”

On November 7, 1997 while returning to Nigeria from a fellowship in Austria, Adesokan was arrested by Abacha’s goons and held incommunicado at one of the late tyrant’s notorious detention centers, alongside his friend and fellow writer, Ogaga Ifowodo. He remained in the gulag until January 1 1998. Did that experience in any way shape his personality? He’s silent for a while, apparently recalling the galling breeze of those harsh harmattan nights.

Adesokan says, in spite of himself, he still feels a deep sense of disappointment whenever he remembers his travails. For someone just coming back to his country after spending some time abroad to be forcefully hurled into jail was certainly not the kind of welcome he was looking forward to. “I had called my family on Tuesday morning that by Thursday, I would be in Nigeria. By that Thursday evening, I was already in jail and that would continue for the next two months. You can imagine the effect that would have had on my family and friends who in any case didn’t know where I was or what had happened to me. Some of those who had been detained actually died. My colleague at The News, Bagauda Kaltho was tortured to death in jail. Yar’Adua died about three to four weeks after I was jailed. So that feeling was there all the time that you were not safe while in jail. Then there was the Diya coup. And remember that during the earlier coup of 1995, some journalists were roped into the alleged coup. So there was also the fear that the same thing might happen”.

He’s however gratified that several groups within and outside Nigeria fought for his release, though he wasn’t aware of their efforts while he languished in jail.

He agrees that the experience had a strong impact on his life. “In fact, until Abacha died, I found out that I was suspicious of everybody. When I saw a car driving by, I would become jittery, thinking the State Security Service people might be coming. Whenever I was talking to people, I was never too open with them. But overall, it made me believe that dictatorship was evil. And it made my writing more political in a very profound way”. He was also advised by some close friends to quit this “journalism thing that keeps putting people in jail”. But his immediate family, especially his parents, were very understanding and gave him their full backing.

Soon after his release, Abacha suddenly passed on, and democracy was restored. But then, many allege that the country’s rulers are yet to shed the military toga, maneuvering the people however they choose. Adesokan insists that the present ‘democracy’ in Nigeria doesn’t yet give any cause for cheer, and the writer has an obligation to combat the menace of tyrannical civilian rulers with considerable aggression, just like he did in the days of Abacha. Akin would also want every Nigerian to be “constantly suspicious of political power”, because political power is very corrupting. “And I’m not advocating any type of quietism. I’m not saying people should run away from politics. Far from it. I’m saying that we have to be on our guard and remain critical of how politics is played in Nigeria. Obasanjo was in jail like all of us. And we had thought that would bring out the new Obasanjo, a man that could identify with the people. But we were all wrong”.

Adesokan is not too happy with the organizers of the Nigerian Liquefied Natural Gas Prize for Literature for excluding writers based outside the country from the award. “It shouldn’t be a question of where you are, but what you write,” he asserts. How did he feel when no work was considered good enough at the award’s premiere? Adesokan says he was put off by the organization of that initial outing, which was poor and porous. He however says that there are many good writers in Nigeria who are not yet popular and whose talents are waiting to be explored.

Does he see any Nigerian winning the Nobel again? “Why not”, he queries, adding that there are several people in Nigeria meriting the prize. “Whether there would be more in our time is what I don’t know. Don’t forget that the Nobel Prize is for writers all over the world. And it’s not always the best that gets it. At any time, maybe it’s 3,000 or more writers who deserve the prize. And you can only have one per year. Sometimes, very rarely, two. I think it’s possible for another Nigerian to win the Nobel again. When that might happen again is what I don’t know.” He advocates the institution of more literary awards that could better showcase African writing.

When former American President Clinton publicly applauded Adesokan as one of the writers that fought for Nigeria’s democracy during the former’s visit to Abuja in 2000, not a few of his friends were marveled that Akin could be recognized by such a personality. How close is he to Clinton?

“Are you kidding,” he asks, his voice rising a little in mock alarm. “We have never met,” he continues. “There was a time I saw his motorcade in Los Angeles, when he was still president. That was the closest I ever got to him. It was even after the motorcade had passed that someone told me that that was the president that just passed. When he came to Nigeria, I was already in the US. I didn’t even know that he mentioned my name until people started sending me emails and someone forwarded the speech to me. I wouldn’t know how my name got in his speech, because people like Abiola, Kudirat, Enahoro and co, those were the activists. I mean, who was I? Maybe his speech writers did some research and found the name of one Akin Adesokan. ”

Many writers in developed countries survive solely on their works. Adesokan does not see such happening in Nigeria at the moment. “I think it is desirable, but I don’t think it’s possible now in Nigeria. A few writers have actually done nothing but write in the last few years. But they’ve been outside the country on fellowships. Even in America, you have to be a best seller to be able to live solely on writing.”

Adesokan is excited by the movie industry in Nigeria, now tagged Nollywood. In fact, parts of his doctoral dissertation were done on the industry. He sees the industry’s growth as “fantastic”. He is however worried that many of the practitioners are mainly in it for the profit, and not for the development of the arts or the cinema. “It’s like people selling pure water. Once you have your money, then you can go into it. It’s an all comer’s affair. That is worrisome”. He would want the government to support organizations like the Nigeria Film Corporation in Jos, and the Independent Television Producers Association of Nigeria so that quality could be brought to the industry.

Akin is in every way an eligible bachelor. With a novel, a PH.D and a good job in an American University, he definitely should be thinking of tying the nuptial knot. So you ask, when will the wedding bells ring?

Silence, while he ponders your words. Then he bursts into a prolonged laughter, and, infected by the mirth from the other end, you too start to chuckle.

“Is that part of our chat,” he asks.

“Sure it is”, you assure him.

“You can’t be serious, Tope”.

“Oh, I am. Trust me.”

He hesitates again. “Well, I’ve been thinking about it really. And that will happen as soon as I find someone who accepts me,” he laughs. “But seriously, I intend to settle down soon. The pressure from people like you has been intense and I hope to settle down very soon. I will let you know. I promise.”

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