Sola Osofisan interviews E.E. Sule, a.k.a. Dr. Sule Emmanuel Egya, a poet, novelist, short story writer and associate professor of English at Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida University, Niger State, Nigeria. His first novel, Sterile Sky, emerged winner of The 2013 Commonwealth Book Prize (Africa Region). A widely published scholar, Sule is the author of Impotent Heavens and Dream and Shame (story collections), Naked Sun, Knifing Tongues and What the Sea Told Me (poetry collections).
Sola Osofisan: What’s with the name? How and why did Sule Emmanuel Egya become E.E. Sule? Isn’t it confusing having to explain to everyone repeatedly why your identifications say Sule Emmanuel Egya, but E.E. Sule was invited to a function or fellowship? How do you prove you are E.E. Sule?
E.E. Sule: Interesting that you too are curious about the names I go by. You know, I must tell you that sometimes I find myself asking, why the two identifiers? I could simply have used one. Now and then I have to explain to someone the difference between E. E. Sule and Sule Emmanuel Egya; and complications could arise when I have to sign official documents with one name where I’m known with the other name. Sule Emmanuel Egya is the official name – used in official documents, and preferred in the professional circle. E. E. Sule, which in fact is an abbreviation and reordering, so to say, of the official name, is my preferred style name for literary writing. So, in the academic circle I’m Sule Emmanuel Egya, but in the literary circle I’m E. E. Sule. It may interest you to know that I have a way of ‘wearing’ the names to put myself in a psychological state. I’m conscious of the name E. E. Sule when I write poetry and fiction; when I find myself reading what I’ve written, criticizing myself, I do so as Sule E. Egya!
Sola Osofisan: You entered the big leagues with the winning of the Commonwealth 2013 Africa Region book prize. Why don’t you have a website? Or are we to conclude that the Internet and modern technology are not impacting you as a lecturer, critic and writer?
E.E. Sule: Of course the Internet profoundly impacts me as a writer and scholar. In fact, the fellowships and workshops and festivals I’ve attended outside Nigeria could not have been possible without the Internet. I sure want a website. But I thought I should work harder and achieve more before ‘showcasing’ myself through a website. I often feel hoodwinked when I visit some writers’ websites and I see no concrete achievements. It’s fashionable for young writers to proudly present themselves through the website when, really, they should be busy writing something important. As a writer I would want to be made famous by my work not by my website. I think there is the wrong notion that being overwhelmingly present on the Internet would make one famous.
Sola Osofisan: What changes after you win a major award like that? Do you still put on your trousers one leg at a time? What becomes easier, harder? Do you write more, less? How is your worldview different?
E.E. Sule: Oh sure, putting on trousers is still one leg at a time! Well, the award gives me a great sense of worth. At the same time, it puts a burden on me; that I have to keep writing, that I have to write something, not to waste the goodwill and opportunities that come with it. I write less because I have more work as I climb higher professionally. Postgraduate teaching. Theses and dissertations to read. External examinations and assessments. Journal editing. Fellow writers want you to read and do blurbs for them. As regards my worldview, I think the award has changed nothing.
Sola Osofisan: When you wake up in the morning, what do you wake up as – a writer, teacher or a critic?
E.E. Sule: A teacher. Besides the fact that I earn a living as a teacher, I love teaching; I love tending young minds, sharpening them. Writing is something I do as part of my profession (research writing) and as a hobby (creative writing). Criticism of course is part of my life; it is hereditary. Before training as a literary scholar, I inherited the critical sense from my mother. She is highly perceptive and passes critical comments on everything she sees. I find myself criticizing without even meaning to. I have lost friends, run into troubles, incurred people’s wrath because of that nature. Sometimes I wish I could simply let things pass without criticizing. But my students have openly admired and benefitted from my rather acute sense of criticism.
Sola Osofisan: What is it like having the combined perspective of a writer, critic and teacher of writing? Are you ever satisfied with what you write? Is there a burden on you to get it right? Tell me what it is like for someone with a critical mindset such as yours to write something creative and not rip it to shreds immediately as inadequate?
E.E. Sule: I often do so: wipe out the entire thing written from the computer page by highlighting and angrily hitting the delete button. I start the business of writing at the re-writing stage, and could go on re-writing, and end up deleting the stuff. Especially poetry. I’m quite ruthless with myself. I hate going back to read what I have already published, including my scholarly articles. There must be something that I didn’t do right, and I’d be sad that I could not go back and get it right. The burden to get it right is always there with me – how could I be quick to criticize people’s work and yet mine is nothing worthy? Truth of the matter, of course, is that it is easier to criticize than to create. However, every creative piece needs a criticism.
Sola Osofisan: It looks like you were trying to throw every single issue that’s ever struck a nerve in the North into your novel, Sterile Sky: religious excesses, mob violence, VVF, corruption, superstition, poverty… Yet, literature seems restrained compared with the reality sometimes on the ground. Can fiction – however graphic – ever surpass the reality of life in Nigeria?
E.E. Sule: I don’t think fiction can surpass the reality of life. It shouldn’t even attempt to do so. It should provide an alternative reality. I’m attracted to fiction that has the amplitude to home a lot of issues surrounding its main subject. Sterile Sky is a story of a destitute family in a time of ethno-religious crisis. I consciously ensured that a lot of issues associated with destitution and ethno-religious crisis are included. I had to be very careful, though, not to bore my readers. For me, fiction is more interesting when it is inclusive, when the writer is not eager to exclude associative issues, when it can present what one may see as a total world.
Sola Osofisan: Do you think we’re sometimes too hard – as writers – on the characters that we create, by piling on so much misery? Some characters are swamped by an avalanche of horror in African fiction…Could it be that we are enjoying this in some perverse way? Or have we grown jaded by the daily horror we sometimes witness?
E.E. Sule: Coming from a background where I was confronted with diverse horrors of life, I do think that African writers are even mild in capturing the misery in Africa. When I hear or read about the notion that African writers are pessimistic in their portrayal of Africa – that they exotically present to Europe and America what they want to see, I conclude that everyone says their opinions depending on their backgrounds, their upbringing. Sterile Sky is a sad novel set in Kano; I lived a sadder life as a child growing up in Kano. If I were to put in the novel the sad life I had, perhaps no one will find the novel interesting. Do you know that in this twenty-first century, there is a primary school beside my house in Keffi where children, wearing tattered uniforms, sit on potholed floor to receive lessons? There are even worse conditions. You put that in a novel and someone somewhere says, hey you’re inventing misery that is not there in Africa! I recall that when I was presenting scenes from the manuscript of Sterile Sky at the Per Sesh Writing Programme, my co-fellows could not believe some of them. And they were Africans. They did not believe that in that huge country called the elephant of Africa such things could be going on. Perhaps if I had grown up as a son of a bank manager or a politician, if I had lived a protected life in GRA (Government Reserved Area), if I had attended the best private school, if my parents had had resources to take me on holidays to Europe and America, I would be incapable of writing the misery of Africa. As I said before, a writer’s background will certainly inform the position the writer takes in portraying Africa. There is huge wealth in Africa; there is also the most devastating kind of poverty in Africa.
Sola Osofisan: Talk to us about what you once called the “poverty of literary language” in our writing in Nigeria, sometimes due to an over-infusion of social commitment. What about the risk of language becoming so flowery, it loses the audience… I mean it is easy for beautiful prose to transform into poetry, a genre we’re constantly complaining is in desperate need of an expanded readership… Or is it your position that accessibility should not be an excuse for pedestrian language in our writing?
E.E. Sule: At one extreme is the intense use of literary language that could, as you put it, transform a prose piece into poetry; at the other extreme is a language of prose that is so banal that it sounds journalese. I think a good fiction writer should be able to strike a balance between the two extremes. What makes a creative writing literature is largely dependent on the skills of the writer to deploy literary language – a language flowered with what I call speech-wisdom. Language that is moving, that is stirring, that is enchanting, that is beautifully musical. Pedestrian language has a way of undermining creative writing, of reducing it to dross. All of us have stories to tell but not all of us know how to tell our stories; knowing to tell the stories entails having a great skill for literary language.
Sola Osofisan: Have you always wanted to write a novel, or did you write one to conquer new territories? Can you speak to the short story writer feeling “pressured” to write a novel just to become a “serious” author?
E.E. Sule: Yes, I’ve always wanted to write a novel. I do in fact have the ambition of being known as a novelist. I’m working on my second novel.
Sola Osofisan: What has the transition and reception been like for you as you switched from being a short story writer to a novelist? What conscious changes did you have to go through to push “Sterile Sky” to 286 pages when the natural inclination may have been to stop at Page 6, the end of the first chapter?
E.E. Sule: I must admit that it is tedious writing a novel. Sterile Sky came rather easier for me because I was secluded in a seaside village for nine months doing nothing other than working on it. I intensely concentrated on it. I think that is the kind of thing a novel needs. If I hadn’t the fellowship to work on the novel, I would probably have stopped at page 6 or I would still be writing it today.
Sola Osofisan: Don’t you think the book market and critics pay more attention to the novelist than they do the short fiction writer?
E.E. Sule: Yes, I think so. But short stories have a number of awards and opportunities that give adequate visibility to short story writers worldwide. It is easier to get a short story published than to get a novel published.
Sola Osofisan: Do you think every short story writer has a novel in him waiting to blow out?
E.E. Sule: I don’t think so. But most novelists start with short stories. I did hone my skills while writing short stories.
Sola Osofisan: Share with us your publishing story again from where it started at the conference in Berlin. Someone spoke to someone about someone…leading to a book deal?
E.E. Sule: I had the Alexander von Humboldt Fellowship and was a resident scholar at Humboldt University, Berlin. Just as I moved to Berlin, the Department of African Studies was to hold a conference on African literature and culture. The organizers were wondering what I could contribute to the event, and thought that since I was a poet I could be part of the writers’ evening, to perform my poetry. When the time came, I decided instead to read from the manuscript of Sterile Sky which I had been carrying for the past one year (it had been rejected by publishers in Nigeria and I had had the temptation to self-publish it). It was obvious that the audience was gripped by the portion I read. Lynn Taylor of James Currey walked up to me after the event and asked if I had got a publisher for the manuscript and I said no. She told me that African Writers Series was being revived and they were scouting for manuscripts. She gave me an email address through which I promptly sent the manuscript to James Currey who was consulting for Pearson, the new owner of AWS. I think in about three months I got a call from them that they had found my manuscript publishable and they would start work on it immediately. A couple of months later I was in the UK, had a meeting with James Currey and Alex Moor of Pearson in Oxford where we finalized the contract.
Sola Osofisan: If a conference led to you getting published in the African Writers Series, does that mean you would encourage other writers to attend similar gatherings and share as much of their works-in-progress with audiences everywhere, just in case lightning strikes again…?
E.E. Sule: Absolutely. If I hadn’t read from it at the conference, I’m sure it would still be gathering dust somewhere in my study! Many people who read it, including my instructor at the Per Sesh Writing Program Ayi Kwei Armah, told me that it was a strong story. I convinced myself that this was not a manuscript I would mess up by self-publishing – I had self-published before and the experience was not nice. Indeed, rather than rush to self-publish themselves, emerging writers could take the option of presenting their writing at events. But I think there is something terribly wrong with the publishing terrain in Africa; if I had read my manuscript at an event in Nigeria, for instance, it might not, I guess, have attracted any publisher. If the publishers in Nigeria had the entire manuscript to look at and they found it not worthy, I don’t know how listening to a reading would attract them to it. It does appear to me that Nigerian publishers are looking for names, not manuscripts; they favour those writers who are in what you call “the big leagues”, with whose names they could rake in money; or, as absurd as it sounds, they favour their friends. And this is sad for us, very sad. There is potentially good fiction being produced in Nigeria, trivialized by poor editing and self-publishing.
E.E. Sule: Getting the right tutelage. Getting mentored. Getting manuscripts read by the right persons. Above all, getting published. Working with Ayi Kwei Armah for nine months greatly improved my skills. Sterile Sky would not be what it is today if I hadn’t had the Armah experience. I suppose every upcoming writer needs that kind of experience. So, let me reiterate the point I made earlier which some people found offensive or used against me when I was on the NLNG longlist. Huge literary prizes such as the NLNG Prize for Nigerian Literature do little to help African writers (of course I do not mean we should not enter our work for it). Such amount of money could be used constructively, meaningfully, logically, by organizing workshops where younger writers are mentored, by establishing residencies, by organizing editorial services, by equipping library with literary stuffs, and a host of other things that would directly benefit the upcoming writers. The quality of literary works being produced in Nigeria remains poor, regrettably poor.
Sola Osofisan: You did not shy from listing the handful of books you published before Sterile Sky in your profile on the back of the novel. The tendency among some of our writers in Nigeria is to call that first international publication their “first book”, neatly ignoring the fact that they published others prior to that. Is it something about the local publishing industry that makes it hard for us to consider some books first released in Nigeria “published”? Or, as someone once put it, is what we have in Nigeria “printing”, not publishing?
E.E. Sule: Well, I find it funny that someone would shy from listing his earlier books, even if they are badly written, or produced. Sterile Sky is my first novel but not my first book. If I were to choose my favourite, it would not be Sterile Sky. But it is the best edited, the best produced of all my books, because it is done outside Nigeria! The problems with my earlier books are not really my problems, they are Nigeria’s problems! Almost all books published in Nigeria have similar problems. So, instead of running away, so to say, from our problem by not listing our poorly produced books in Nigeria, we should face the problems!