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Bunmi Oyinsan: I Was Born A Feminist

On Thursday 17 August, 2006, Bunmi Oyinsan, Canada-based Nigerian writer read from her new book, Three Women at the Jazzhole, at Ikoyi, Lagos. The occasion also afforded her the opportunity to meet and re-connect with her old friends and colleagues, especially members of the Association of Nigerian Authors, ANA. Though Oyinsan’s first novel, Silhouette was adopted in a 26-episode serial on the Nigerian Television Authority, NTA, and entitled Dreams, she has gone ahead to demonstrate her skill and interest in script writing and film production with such works as Owuro Lojo, Golden Cage, We The People and Aditulaye-Toyosi. Oyinsan who recently completed a major biographical work on Dr. Abimbola Silva, Nigeria’s first female medical doctor, is currently working on a documentary that is taking her and her husband, Soji, across continents. When SYLVESTER ASOYA met her, she spoke on the degeneration in Nigeria, why she is sympathetic to women in her writing, her experiences in Canada, the gradual desecration of the creative space and why she would want to marry her husband all over again if given a second opportunity

Bunmi Oyinsan

Q: Last week you read from Three Women, your new work. Could you recall how the creative journey to Three Women began?
A: I have always been fascinated by the voices of women and I wanted to do a novel where I would have a multiplicity of women’s voices, though it also occurred to me that different generations of women vocalised issues differently.

That was why I had to create a story around three generations of women belonging to the same family but who lived in different times. And my grandmother was brought to live in Lagos as a child and when I was growing up, she told me all kinds of stories about Lagos of her childhood and I was always fascinated by her stories of Lagos. This inspired me to set it in Lagos.

Q: But why settle for these common female characters who are not exactly the high and professional women. Is that representational enough?
A: How many women are really high in terms of percentages as compared to men? I wanted women who could typify their age. In terms of profession, as illiterate as the grandmother in my story sounds, she is actually a teacher. For you to find a Nigerian woman who lived in the 1920s and who was a professional teacher, I think as fas as professionalism goes, she must have been quite high. And her daughter, Ibidunni actually trained in England, although she studied domestic science. If you followed the history of the employment of Nigerian women you will know that she typifies the women of the early 1940s to late 1950s. Most of them were trained in the so-called feminine professions: domestic science, nursing, teaching and things like that.

Q: Your commitment to feminism shows greatly; why?
A: Anybody who knows me knows I probably was born a feminist. I cannot tell you at what point in my life that I became a feminist, but I come from a line of very strong women. My grandmother, my mother, all of them have always been very strong and feminism has always been a part of me. And I know that I am not capable of writing anything that isn’t feminist in orientation. So, for me to actually decide to write anything that is not feminist would not be true to my nature.

Q: And your language is no less exciting, especially in Three Women. Do you have a particular effect in mind as regards language?
A: When I’m reading a book, I like the characters to be true to life. So, as much as possible, I take my time to find the kind of language that I think typifies the kind of characters that I’m trying to portray. And with some research, I am able to give the main characters the kind of language that expresses so much about them. You know the kind of language you use communicates so much about you. Language is a very strong way of backgrounding a character and that is what I try to do with this book.

Q: Your colleagues in the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) remember you for inspiring the Lagos chapter of the association. What was the motivation?
A: Actually I think Odia Ofeimun was just being too kind. It was not something I did alone, there were quite a number of us, among whom I remember clearly, people like Ben Tomoloju, Tolu Ajayi, Sola Osofisan, Muritala Sule. There were quite a number of us who met regularly and decided we wanted ANA to have representation in Lagos. And I think for me and for everybody else, it was a decision to have a vibrant atmosphere for creativity. One of the things I enjoyed most at the inception of ANA was that it was an avenue where you could actually go and share your work in progress with people of like-minds. Those were the kind of principles we had when we decided we wanted to have a good gathering of writers and we wanted it to be a place where creativity could thrive.

Q: I understand you are doing a doctorate degree. Does that in any way add up to your being, both as a writer and a feminist?
A: Yes, because it is in women studies. I’m doing a Ph.D in women studies and my research interest area is in black women films. I just completed my master’s too in women studies, where my thesis was on international relationship between orature and the works of black women writers. So, you see, there is no getting away from the feminist in me.

Q: You have also done remarkably well in film production. Could you share your experiences?
A: Actually, I must confess that virtually everything I know in film production, I learnt from my husband. So it is right to say that I became a film producer by association. I am married to Soji Oyinsan who is a film producer and director. And when I wrote my first novel, Silhouette, it was accepted for serialisation on the Nigerian Television Authority, NTA network service under the title Dreams, and sponsored by the Ministry for Youth, Sports and Social Development in those days. I think it started running in 1992 and it ran for 26 weeks, but I wasn’t very pleased with the outcome of the adaptation. And I realised that this was something I could actually do if I set my mind to it. With Soji’s encouragement, I started playing around with scripting and some of my earlier script contributions were to programmes like Third Eye and I got invited by NTA to script conferences and I submitted proposals and one thing led to another. And when Soji left NTA, although his major interest and as far as film production goes, is documentary making, I was involved in fiction writing and I think that influenced him a great deal. So by the time we set up our own independent production outfit, we collaborated in the sense that I would write and produce, while he directs. Sometimes, I would produce jointly.

Q: What are your impressions about the Nigeria of those productive years and the Nigeria of today?
A: I haven’t been away that long so I wouldn’t say that I am shocked. But all the same, it is sad that over a period of just two years, there has been so much change. Take traffic for instance. I haven’t been able to drive since I’ve been back. It has gotten so terrible, even as a passenger in a cab I regularly find myself screaming. It is a whole different ball game and I guess it is a true reflection of the level of degeneration in terms of our social psyche. It is just too aggressive, too many negativity.

Q: Beyond doing a higher degree in Women Studies what else are you doing in Canada?
A: I’m doing what I have always done, writing. I just completed a biography of Dr. Abimbola Silva, the first Nigerian woman to graduate as a medical doctor. She was the first woman to actually graduate in medicine and her biography which I have just recently completed will be out next year. Again it is being published by Oracle Books.

Q: Doing a biography must have come with its own challenge. What were these challenges?
A: Funny enough, the kind of research I did writing this biography was not the kind of research I did when I was writing Three Women. She just turned 80 on 17 May and so I needed to research into the Lagos of her childhood. But Three Women had prepared me for that period of Lagos. Other than literature, one of my greatest areas of interest is history. I love history, especially African and Modern history. So it wasn’t so much of a challenge because I thoroughly enjoyed doing the work. And Dr. Silva is still very much active and I enjoyed the few weeks I spent with her, interviewing her and going through family albums. It was a lot of fun.

Q: Now that you have completed work on the biography, what next?
A: Who knows? I am leaving that to God. But it is nothing I can really talk about now. However, Soji and I are working on a documentary and that is one of the reasons we came. That is something that is still occupying a lot of my time right now. We have shot in Osogbo, Akure and Lagos. When we get back to Canada, we are going to continue shooting there and go and spend a few weeks in the United States to complete the documentary, then editing and post-production. That is my immediate preoccupation right now.

Q: How does it feel when one is married to a man who shares the same profession, or rather artistic vision, like you and Soji?
A: First of all, I have never been married to anyone else, so I have not tried anything else. But going by this experience, I think I will do it all over again. There is nothing like having somebody with similar interest. He sometimes wakes me up at 2.00a.m. to discuss an idea he has and woe betide me if I am not paying attention. He is somebody I can call up at 5a.m. and ask him what he thinks about an idea as a sounding board. There is nothing like having this kind of similar interest with your spouse. And in terms of dealing with the ups and downs of your profession, you have someone who knows what it feels like. When you are being turned down by a publisher, you have somebody who can actually empathise with you. So it’s been fun and I know I couldn’t have thrived in another marriage outside the man I married.

Q: You seem to be having a lot of excitement, writing and producing films. Could you recall the greatest challenge you have faced in this creative endeavour?
A: Every time you sit down and pour your energy, your imagination and money into a venture and you come against the kind of mediocrity that we tend to find in the arts, it is a huge challenge. I will give you an example. When Soji retired from NTA and we decided to set up our own independent production company, we invested every penny we had into making pilots and then one major production, Owuro Lojo. Now, it took 18 months for us to find somebody to put down money for that production to go on air. It was 18 grueling months. Eighteen months of drinking garri and dry fish. It was 18 months of turning the children down when they needed money for books. I remember my son who at the time was about seven .We had gone to pick him in school one afternoon and he asked me if I had sold my film because he needed new shoes. He knew that the family’s livelihood depended on that film. Thank God, eventually it did extremely well. But it was difficult before we could actually find a proper audience for it. Before Owuro Lojo, there had been so much emphasis on stories on babalawos and witches, and things like that. But these things are not in Owuro Lojo, so that your average marketer in Idumota would look at you and say, there is no babalawo or witches. And at that time, there were very few well known Yoruba actors. If they were not there, nobody was prepared to look at the content or the quality of the work. Thank God we proved them wrong.

Q: What is your impression on Nollywood, Nigeria’s fledgling movie industry?
A: I’d rather not talk about that. Many of them are professional colleagues.

Q: Do see hope there?
A: Yes, I am a very positive person

Q: What actually prepared you to establish a school mainly for the less privileged?
A: My parents were middle class in terms of income. But at one point in my life, my mother who was a very industrious entrepreneur had a setback in her business. And for the first time in my life, I found myself as a teenager, anxious about where school fees was going to come from. And I think the contrast from what my life had been before that setback left a very strong impression on me. So I guess that is one of the reasons I’m a little more sensitive than others.

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