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Maik Nwosu: My Influences are a Collage of the Crossroads

maiknwosuSola Osofisan interviews Maik Nwosu, poet, novelist, journalist and associate professor of African and world literature at the University of Denver, Colorado. Maik Nwosu is the author of The Suns of Kush, Invisible Chapters, Alpha Song, Return to Algadez and Markets of Memories: Between the Postcolonial and the Transnational. A Fellow of the Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart, Germany, Nwosu won the Association of Nigerian Authors, ANA, national awards in 1995, 1999 and 2002. His short fiction and poetry have appeared in Agni Online, Okike, Fiction International, Drumvoices Revue, etc. His scholarly essays have been published in books and journals such as English in Africa / Versions and Subversions in African Literatures / Texts, Tasks, and Theories / Research in African Literatures, etc. Nwosu also co-edited The Critical Imagination in African Literature: Essays in Honor of Michael J. C. Echeruo. As a journalist, he has received both the Nigeria Media Merit Award for Arts Reporter of the Year and the Nigeria Media Merit Award for Journalist of the Year.

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Sola Osofisan: You were born in Nnewi, right? Did you grow up there? Give us an abridged story of your childhood and how you acquired your foundational love for writing and intellection. What kind of background did you have that spurred the creative state to produce the kind of writing you do?

Maik Nwosu: Nnewi is my ancestral hometown, but I was born in Onitsha. I grew up in Onitsha and didn’t quite spend as much time in Nnewi as I would have liked. My father didn’t go beyond elementary school, but he was a first-generation Christian and he understood the importance of Western education in the new dispensation shaped by British colonialism and Christian evangelism. My eldest brother was fascinated with books and owned the first private library that I ever knew. He only had a hundred books, more or less, locked up in a glass cabinet. I was intrigued. But it was my mother who really made me begin to see more in narratives than I had previously done. She had a way of telling stories that transformed them from the ordinariness of common experience. She couldn’t read or write, so I helped teach her. She had storybooks for that purpose and what she really wanted was to learn to read the stories herself, which she was eventually able to do. She was so enraptured by many of these stories that I realized I was dealing with something quite powerful. And then I discovered Aesop’s Fables in my school library and I was inspired to write my first story. My school was a village grammar school, so the library wasn’t much. But I went in there one day and picked up a book for no particular reason and began to read. And I remember thinking that if my mother could write those were the kind of stories that she might write. I wasn’t satisfied with the ending of one story, and I decided to rewrite it. That was the first story that I remember writing, a critical response to Aesop in the form of a counter-narrative. From then on, I wrote for different reasons and occasions. From high school through college, I wrote about four novels and one play that now belong to my “Not to be Published” collection and I read almost everything that I could lay my hands on.

Sola Osofisan: I’ve never heard you speak of your influences. Are there specific authors you once wanted to be like when you started writing? What was it that attracted you to them? Did you have different influences across genres?

Maik Nwosu: My influences are like a collage of the crossroads, where different artistic temperaments converge or collide. There are writers that I admire, not because I don’t question some aspects of their work but because I consider their art altogether elevated. When I arrived in Nsukka (the University of Nigeria) to study English under some of the most outstanding teachers anywhere, I was introduced or further exposed to a significant number of writers, some of whom fascinated me for different reasons – including Wole Soyinka for the poetic density of his works, Chinua Achebe for the rhetorical accomplishment of infusing an African sensibility into the English language, Gabriel Okara for the cadence of his poetry, and Christopher Okigbo for his sense of form (plus it’s difficult to listen to the late Professor Donatus Nwoga who taught us poetry at Nsukka, read Okigbo in his deep voice and not be moved). Over the years, that list has grown quite a bit. I’ve been influenced by the works of various writers, but my work is usually not an extended homage to a particular writer. What normally attracts me to a writer or book is not simply the ability to tell a story in fiction or a basic capacity to express emotion in poetry but a bold sense of form. It’s not so much a preference for a particular genre (although I read more novels and poetry than anything else) but a gravitation toward the sort of aesthetics that reveal not simply information about a sequence of incidents or emotions but a new and nuanced vision of the world. In his Nobel speech, William Faulkner spoke about creating out of the material of the human spirit something that did not exist before. I question some aspects of Faulkner’s own vision, but he highlighted well enough what I admire in a writer or text – the creative renewal of form. However, I don’t cherish creativity at the expense of narrative or insight.

sunsofkushSola Osofisan: At some point in a writer’s development, he may realise he has outgrown his models – as in he does not require anymore the crutch that they can sometimes be. When did this happen for you personally? Do you recall the poem or book you were working on when you realised you’d found your voice?

Maik Nwosu: I don’t think I ever had that sort of model, but the parabolic significance that intrigued me when I first read Aesop’s Fables is still present in some measure in what I write. I’ve always loved books, so my writing tends to reflect the nature of my experiences and my literary memory. When I first started writing, I wasn’t quite sure that my work deserved to be published. With each new book, I gained a bit more confidence in my ability. I think that the first novel that I wrote and thought that it should be published was my third. I sent the manuscript to Longman (Drumbeat). I received a rejection letter that also contained useful criticism, which I applied to my next novel.

Sola Osofisan: You completed two manuscripts at the Akademie Schloss Solitude in Germany — your now published novel, Alpha Song, and a poetry collection. Was that poetry collection meant to be the follow-up to your first collection, The Suns of Kush, which was published almost two decades ago? Whatever happened to it?

Maik Nwosu: I’ve completed three books at the Akademie Schloss Solitude, and I’m grateful to the director, Jean-Baptiste Joly, for inviting me back a number of times. The poetry collection, Stanzas from the Underground, is still unpublished. Its form is comparable to Suns of Kush, but I like to think that it’s an improvement too and that the poems reflect where I’ve been and how I’ve grown since Suns of Kush. Hopefully, Stanzas from the Underground will be published soon. It’s already more than ten years old, and I’ve been writing a line here and a stanza there that might one day become a third poetry collection.

Sola Osofisan: Have you ever consciously considered how a poem comes together for you? I mean is each poem composed of disparate fragments that you whip into a whole — like a basket woven from strips of cane by a craftsman — or do the poems slam you in the guts fully formed and sentient?

Maik Nwosu: More often than not, I write long poems, so I don’t normally start and finish a poem in a sustained burst of inspiration. Usually, I have to weave the strands together – sometimes beginning with an image or experience. When a Nigerian soldier, Private Umoru Shantali, was detained during a UN peacekeeping mission in Somalia, there was something about the incident that moved me to use his experience to consider the troubled state of the world in “Ballad of the Peacekeeper.” When my elder brother died in a vehicle accident, I simply had to write “Like an Angelus” to try and make sense of that loss. For me, poetry comes from deep down and it responds only to certain kinds of invocation.

Sola Osofisan: Do you subscribe to the idea that many writers are fueled by (and often write from) some sort of obsession, starting probably with the compulsion to read which leads sometimes to telling stories? It must require a level of obsession to work on a manuscript for several years, not knowing if it will ever be published. Is that the case with you? What would you say is your obsession? Or as Stephen King would say, “what’s the monkey on your back?”

Maik Nwosu: I write to contribute my vision or meaning to a world that is forever in transition. Perhaps I’ll like to grasp the ungraspable or express the inexpressible, to truly capture the incandescence of the world as well as its agonies rooted in human experience. The epigraph to my collection of short stories, Return to Algadez, is a line from J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians: “There has been something staring me in the face, and still I do not see it.” That’s the sort of thing, that elusive but significant story within a story or language within a language, that I would love to capture or transform as a writer. For me, writing is not simply a career; it’s my life.

Sola Osofisan: You write prose with an intensity and density that easily advertises your poetic roots, but you don’t seem to have a problem (as some poets do) keeping a narrative going long enough to produce novels like Alpha Song and Invisible Chapters. Was this ever a struggle for you, putting down enough words to complete a novel even as the word economy monster of poetry circumvents your efforts?

Maik Nwosu: I started writing novels first. I think the first poem that I wrote was when I was a freshman at Nsukka. One of our teachers, J. V. Landy, was an American Jesuit priest and a very interesting man. In our first year, he asked us to write a poem, which he then kept until a few years later when he gave our poems back to us to critique. It was supposed to be one measure of how much we’ve learned as English majors. At some point, I wrote a poem for Omabe, our literary journal. I’ve been able to utilize both forms since, modifying my approach according to what I consider important in each genre.

Markets of MemoriesSola Osofisan: You’ve written before of how you’re not exactly a fan of solitude – to quote you — “because I carry enough of that in me” — preferring instead the company of others as can be found in a metropolis like Lagos. In your poem, ‘Song of the World’, you speak of “the stories of men” told in “beer-parlours at road terminals…” I know you haunted a few beer parlours of your own in the ‘90s like Taneba in Alpha Song who “roared” with the night, drinking, partying, womanising… You, Obi Nwakanma, and often Uche Nduka night-crawled with Ely Obasi and Odia Ofeimun back then. What spurred you lot to seek your own “corner of the night” like Taneba? Fun? Escape? The notoriously rigorous debates often powered by alcohol? What kind of stories did you guys share at these beer-parlour congregations? What called you personally to these communions and in what way have those gatherings helped to shape the Maik Nwosu we encounter today?

Maik Nwosu: Yes, I usually don’t care much for solitude. Sometimes though, I find that it’s quite useful because it allows me to take a step back and look at things with greater clarity. As for the communions you referenced, I think it’s a matter of spirit. The beer probably helped, because it inspirited us in revelatory or affective ways, but it was never as important as the fellowship and the lively debates. And we debated everything imaginable. The Ely Obasi that I remember wasn’t just the best kind of editor, one who insisted on insightful reporting and strict deadlines, but also the guy I once had quite an experience with around 2am on the streets of Lagos. Some of those experiences helped me imagine Taneba’s world in Alpha Song. As journalists, we often spent one or two “production nights” in the office. We wrote or finished our stories then and also spent some time in lively fellowship at a neighborhood bar. Sometimes, we went beyond the neighborhood. So, over time, the night began to reacquire a special character and textural familiarity for me. I say “reacquire” because there was something about the night that spoke to me in a voice that had always been there – ever since I listened to the chant of the night masquerade, ayaka, almost outside my window a long time ago.

Sola Osofisan: I noticed you did not elaborate on the 2am “experience” you and Ely Obasi had. I hope you’re aware Obi Nwakanma gave us a hint of it in an essay that’s still available online. This is your chance to tell your side of that funny story o…

Maik Nwosu: I’ll probably get to that, the real or actual story, someday.

Sola Osofisan: How about ayaka? That’s one of the great Igbo masquerades, right? What happened? Did you leave a light on on the night the spirit was walking?

Maik Nwosu: Yes, ayaka is the night masquerade. Masquerades added color and drama and mystery to my life in Onitsha and Nnewi in those days. On that night, the ayaka apparently paused as it passed by our house beside the road (although we didn’t have the lights on) and the night seemed to come alive in an eerie manner because of its chants. With my active imagination, the experience gave the night a character that it didn’t previously have.

Sola Osofisan: I used to read The Sunday Magazine, TSM, with its marriage of fine prose and research. I liked its radical approach of hitting the newsstands a day before the Monday deluge of newsmagazines. You and Ely Obasi and Obi Nwakanma and Zik Okafor… I wonder how you found your way to that publication… Do you miss those days? What happened to Maik Nwosu, the award-winning journalist and editor? Or was journalism a necessary diversion in Nigeria, one that may not be so necessary here in the US?

alphasongMaik Nwosu: TSM was a remarkable place, with its gathering of fine reporters and writers. We called ourselves “All Round” because we believed that we could accomplish anything. And, more often than not, we did. After I completed the NYSC program, I had tried publishing a newsmagazine called Heartbeat in Onitsha. I didn’t know anything about journalism or publishing, but that didn’t faze me. I managed to produce two issues before I had to shut down. I then traveled to Kano to explore northern Nigeria for about two years. I returned to Onitsha briefly and then traveled to Lagos to explore southwestern Nigeria. A few years later, while I was completing my MA program at UNIBEN, I saw an advert that began with a question: “Can you write like Dele Giwa?” “Of course,” I said (and I had a lot of respect for Dele Giwa) and sent an application. To my surprise, I did not receive an interview invitation but an offer of employment. So, I traveled to Lagos, a bit unsure about that letter, and that was how I found my way to TSM. A few factors were at work. I had responded to a previous advert that I didn’t even know was for TSM. Ely said he invited me for an interview then (but I did not receive the invitation, probably because I was moving around so much) and he had also seen a copy of Heartbeat. It was never the distinguished magazine that I had hoped to publish, but Ely was someone who was appreciative of boldness. Still, I had to pass a test before I could actually start work. My plan had been to teach at Auchi Polytechnic after my MA program (and while enrolled in a PhD program at UNIBEN). I’m thankful that I went into journalism at that time instead. Those eleven years are among the best years of my life so far. So, journalism was never a diversion. Once I got into it, I was almost certain that I would be a journalist forever – until I made an unplanned visit to the US and decided to go to grad. school. Journalism prepared me very well for what I did then and what I do now, especially research and writing, that I feel there’s still a link between the two. And I haven’t entirely stopped being a journalist.

Sola Osofisan: Your generation of Nigerian writers… (yes, I know that includes me, but let’s focus on you right now). Omowumi Segun, Chiedu Ezeanah, Sola Olorunyomi, Tony Nduka Otiono, Remi Raji, Angela Nwosu, Akin Adesokan, Ike Okonta… We are mostly middle aged now. Are you happy with how we have fared? Tanure Ojaide got a lot of flak for saying in an interview a few years ago that you and Ogaga Ifowodo and other poets of your generation have not really done enough to carve out an identity and voice of your own. Even Sanya Osha wondered the other day about the minimal critical attention our handful of books are receiving. What books by the way? Or a generation’s productivity should not be measured by its (non)prolificity? Are you happy or disappointed with how we have fared?

Maik Nwosu: Nigerian literature has progressed in phases, which are often related to historical experiences, with some writers writing across these phases. But that does not mean that there are no distinctions or variations as we go from one phase or generation to another. Our literary development has not been static, and Tanure Ojaide’s argument elides that fact. It’s impossible to simply mistake the works of Ogaga Ifowodo, Obi Nwakanma, Uche Nduka, and Maik Nwosu for the works of Tanure Ojaide, Odia Ofeimun, Chimalum Nwankwo, and Niyi Osundare. I’m not sure that it’s even easy to mistake the works of any of these writers, regardless of generational categorizations. There are affinities, of course, but the voices are different. It’s not so much that the issues that these writers address are worlds apart, but the stylistic signatures are not the same. How then can the poetic identities be the same? Even the literary kinship between writers who share the same sort of experience, upon which we can theorize generational identity, is not undifferentiated. But writers in the same generation often tend to have closer affinities, and Nigerian poetry is not different. Between the two generations that Ojaide focuses on, the sense of form and the texture of experience are different.

On the question of how our generation has fared, I certainly wish that there are more literary and critical texts that point up the work we have done so far. The world can sometimes be a dispiriting place, and it seems that we’re at that point in our lives when we have to try and make peace with the choices we’ve made or the hands we’ve been dealt. But I don’t like to dwell too much on what could have been. The work we have already done is significant, regardless of the critical reception so far. Hopefully, we have a few more decades ahead of us to produce more significant work. Art is a life-long commitment. Jose Saramago’s Blindness was published when he was 73 years old, Naguib Mahfouz’s collection of stories, The Seventh Heaven, when he was almost 94. And there are other instances. Every generation must face the challenges that confront it and in doing so define or redefine itself.

Sola Osofisan: Okay, before we wander too far from the subject of how writers are faring, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has further entrenched in the world’s imagination the fecundity of creative writing from Nigeria, thereby sustaining the work started by several writers before her time. As a scholar who has given this kind of thing some thought, what do you think it will take to facilitate a fertile environment for the emergence of the Adichies of tomorrow in today’s Nigeria?

Maik Nwosu: There are many things that I want for Nigeria and Nigerians so that we can actualize our potentials – good schools, sane governments, life-affirming hospitals, decent neighborhoods, the freedom to exist and to thrive, so many things. As journalists, that was practically all we did for so many years – discuss and report and re-envision Nigeria. A few things have changed, but the Nigerian ideal and the Nigerian reality are still very dissimilar. But those who will write often do so regardless of the circumstances – as long as they have the ability and the freedom to write, especially the freedom to write whatever they want (regardless of government propaganda or a prescriptive critical junta). Outstanding writers have emerged in all sorts of circumstances, including or even especially difficult ones. What I think a writer should do at the outset is to try and master the form in which he works. To do this, he needs to thoughtfully study the examples of several other writers – that is, he has to read with an uncommon passion and he has to privilege the art or craft above everything else. And I’m not suggesting that the subject is inconsequential. There are lots of literary activities (readings, prizes, workshops, book festivals) in Nigeria today and there’s already a new generation of Nigerian writers that’s apparently doing well, having fashioned its own road map as every generation has to. But there’s still not significant literary publishing going on in Nigeria, and that void is very unfortunate. It’s telling that a country with the size of Nigeria’s population, the number of its schools, and its relative wealth does not have a single high-capacity literary publisher.

invisiblechaptersSola Osofisan: The acknowledgement page of Return to Algadez, your collection of stories, in referencing the passage of Sesan Ajayi and a 1994 guest writer slot at ANA Edo, suggests the penning of “The Grey Hairs of Gafaru” and “The Legend of Jonah” may have been a struggle for you – akin to climbing the mountains of Gafaru itself in search of renewal. Did it have something to do with the loss of your friend?

Maik Nwosu: Sesan Ajayi was a wonderful person. I had been thinking about writing those stories and Sesan’s death made me realize anew that I did not have all the time in the world to think about the stories, so I finally sat down and actually wrote them. Sesan was also one of those who believed in me then, which became like a challenge that I had to rise up to. In a similar manner, I saw my invitation as the ANA Edo guest writer as both an acknowledgment and a challenge. These events or occurrences are not written into the stories themselves but help explain the urgency I felt at the time to finish my collection of short stories, Return to Algadez. Writing “The Legend of Jonah” was easier because the character of Jonah, once created, mischievously or even triumphantly led the way.

Sola Osofisan: I keep seeing your name associated with something called A Gecko’s Farewell. Sanya Osha informed me that you declined the offer to have it released by the publisher of his own Naked Light and the Blind Eye. What is A Gecko’s Farewell about and when will it cease being more Invisible Chapters from Maik Nwosu?

Maik Nwosu: Counting beyond the manuscripts in my “Not for Publication” collection, A Gecko’s Farewell is my third novel. It’s still unpublished. It would have been published by Farafina. We already had a contract and we were working on the cover design and proof when I was told that Farafina had too many books in its warehouse and would not publish any new books for some time. I had a chance to have it published at the same time as Sanya’s Naked Light and the Blind Eye, but I had an agent at the time who had other plans. So, when I received the publishing contract from Future Fiction London, I declined to sign it.

Sola Osofisan: Speaking of Invisible Chapters, I misplaced my copy of that novel and I tried to buy it on Amazon before this interview, but it seems to be out of print. As a matter of fact, your books are all pretty much unavailable right now. These are works that received critical acclaim when they were initially published. Is this by design or do you have plans to have them reissued for a larger audience, even if only as digital files?

Maik Nwosu: A revised version of Invisible Chapters will be out soon. It’s been invisible for too long. I’ve written 11 books so far – five novels: Invisible Chapters, Alpha Song, A Gecko’s Farewell, Zero, and Lion-Hearted Cedar Forests; one short story collection: Return to Algadez; two poetry collections: Suns of Kush and Stanzas from the Underground; a play: Characters; two critical texts: Markets of Memories: Between the Postcolonial and the Transnational and A Poetics of Laughter: The African Comic Imagination. Of these 11 books, only five have been published, including the ones that are out of print. I’m currently working on a new novel, my twelfth book. I expect that all 11 or 12 books will be in print or available within the next three years or so.

Sola Osofisan: In a 2001 essay on Nigeriansinamerica.com, you wrote of an immigrant, “This fellow was no longer in exile. He was at home, sort of -in America. For people like him, the question of returning no longer arises. Not because he no longer romanticises about it, but the will he now needs to travel from the romance of the here and now to the romance of the there and then is far greater than the tempo of remembering and forgetting from a distance.” Is that you now? At home in America? Are you still at the at-risk-of-becoming-like-him stage? Or to paraphrase a question I recall from elsewhere, what is Nigeria to you nowadays?

Maik Nwosu: I am deeply connected to Nigeria, and that will always be the case. When I first came to America, I didn’t really expect to stay very long – just long enough to get a PhD and perhaps a bit of experience. Then, it was Nigeria or America. Today, it is Nigeria and America, but I’ll always be at home – without qualification – in Nigeria.

returntoalgadezSola Osofisan: I haven’t seen any recently written publication to make this question less generalized, so forgive me. How has living in America affected the themes you write about?

Maik Nwosu: I mostly write about Nigeria, but I also write about Nigeria and the world these days. A Gecko’s Farewell is set all over Africa and Europe. Zero is set in the US, Italy, and Nigeria. Lion-Hearted Cedar Forests begins in Las Vegas and then travels back to southeastern Nigeria via Boston, London, and a Congolese village. My writings reflect where I’ve been, both physically and metaphysically, because that’s a part of who I am.

Sola Osofisan: Do you still work in translations — Igbo to English?

Maik Nwosu: Not really. The few translations (or subtitling) that I did in the past sometimes didn’t turn out well. The subtitles that were eventually used did not always reflect my own interpretation or phrasing.

Sola Osofisan: On a final note, you’re in an exclusive gang of writers married to other writers – in this case Angela “Maya” Nwosu. What is it like in a creative household like yours? Do you share ideas, work, minds, a competitive spirit? Or are both of you just crazy together? How do you function when you both have deadlines?

Maik Nwosu: We’ve always been interested in each other’s work, and we still are – not in a competitive sense. I read everything that Maya writes and she reads everything that I write. She’s usually my first and most important critic.

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Additional questions by Sanya Osha.

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