It’s a chilly February evening as I make my way across the Golden Jubilee Bridge to the bewildering sprawl of the South Bank Centre. I manage to find the Level 5 Function Room without getting lost, a first for me; and find myself in a wide open room with windows looking out on to the Thames, the blue lights of the London Eye, framing the delicate outline of the Houses of Parliament, forming a stunning backdrop. There are perhaps fifty or sixty people seated around a dais with two chairs on it. Soon, a man and woman emerge from doors at the back and take their place on the dais. The pair are the writers Bernadine Evaristo and EC Osondu, in conversation at this event to launch EC’s debut collection of short stories Voice of America.
There is a brief introduction from a manager at the South Bank Centre who talks about the long association that the centre has had with the Caine Prize for African Literature, hosting an annual reading for the shortlisted writers. He expresses his delight at being able to host the launch of a book by someone who has twice made the shortlist and once won it.
Bernadine starts by confessing that she was in a dilemma a week before when approached by the Financial Times to review the new book. Knowing that she was due to host this event, she panicked that she might not like the book and that a bad review from her would then make the conversation difficult. In any event, she loved the book and so begs our indulgence to begin by reading out her short review.
Review over, Bernadine opens with her first question, an observation-there appears to be a lot of explaining in the book and whether that’s because he is writing for a western audience. EC takes the question in good grace, admitting that he knows many of his Nigerian friends will take issue with this. He explains how after moving to the US for a creative writing degree, he found himself during writing workshops, needing to explain. He admits the limitations of this approach, pointing out that translating ogogoro as moonshine doesn’t quite work, but hopes Nigerian readers will just skip the explanatory bits.
Responding to a question about his creative process, he says “Some of the stories came to me whole Letter from Home, for instance. It just came one day and I sat down and wrote it all out with no need to change anything. “Many of the stories, he says, he wrote to interrogate his experience of America- to look at Americans in Nigeria, as well as Nigerians in America. In response to a question on the breadth covered by the collection, he says “The stories came from a lot of places and one story couldn’t contain them”
Bernadine remarks on how some of the stories read like parables- not judgmental, but with a strong sense that they are meant to be didactic. In response EC explains that coming from an oral culture, he is conscious that the role of the storyteller is to entertain and instruct.
The next question focuses on a story in the collection, in which a Nigerian prostitute kicks out her American husband, who has been living with her in a down at heel neighbourhood in Lagos, which Bernadine describes as unusual. In response, EC details his fascination at the consistent portrayal of the White man as a powerful conqueror in Africa, he argues that this isn’t human, and so he was keen to show the other side- a vulnerable white man in an African context.
Asked about rejections, he admits that he had his fair share, sometimes leading him to question what he was doing wrong. Now he says, he keeps all his rejections in his basement in a bag, to remind him of the tortuous journey he has faced; including the frustration of experiencing multiple rejections having left his successful career in advertising in Nigeria to go to graduate school to study creative writing in the US, a decision that many friends and family thought “mad”. He admits that his career as a copywriter has helped in making him focus on the tightness of the images he wants to convey.
Bernadine asks if any rejected stories are included in the collection and he confirms that the title story Voice of America was rejected several times.
EC talks about the pervading image of America as a dreamland and a fantasy and says that he wants to convey the reality of America, as experienced by many immigrants, and acknowledges that he is influenced by his experiences as an immigrant, making his way on “unaccustomed earth”
Bernadine remarks on the wide range of women’s voices, the portrayal of womanhood, which she finds quite unusual in a male writer- do you have a feminist streak she asks. EC smiles, shifts in his chair and responds “Nigerian men are very testicular, very macho- and one of the things living in the west has taught me is that you are a stronger male if you recognise and acknowledge the feminine”. He is very “conscious” of the unrepresented voices of women and children in Nigeria and he pays tribute to his mother, to whom the book is dedicated; and for whom he says every occasion was an opportunity for her to tell her a story. So instead of saying don’t open the door to strangers, she would say “Once there was a boy who opened the door to strangers….” Is he a feminist? Ultimately, he says, the answer is yes.
The next question raises the stories written in the voices of young people- EC says he is fascinated by the honesty of children. He cites how children in America will say to him “why do you have an accent?” and the mothers will say hush, don’t say that, arguing that it is sad that as adults, we constantly have that internal voice saying hush.
Does he feel a burden of representation, the African, Nigerian community expecting him to speak for them? “The audience laughs as he retorts “I think the person who should speak for Nigeria is the Ministry of Information- not me”. Answering the question, he recounts how at the Caine prize, someone said you are performing Africa and he said “Yes, I am performing Africa in the way that Dickens performed Victorian England in Oliver Twist” The interesting things in fiction, he argues are the difficult things and the writer ought to be the person with the unflinching gaze.
Is he working on a novel? Yes, he says, the tentative title is “This house is not for sale” drawing laughter from the Nigerians in the audience.
He then reads a brief poignant but humorous excerpt from Waiting, his Caine Prize winning story from 2009, set in a refugee camp and then receives question from the audience.
Someone asks how important the canon of contemporary African writing in English is to him and he says it is important to know what has gone before and to know what the competition is, he has heard complaints about contemporary writing not being as politically engaged, but feels that it is beautiful that several different voices are being heard. Bernadine emphasizes the value of the Caine Prize pointing out that very few books by Africans in the UK were published from 1990 to 2000 compared with the last decade.
EC then jokes that African writers are the only ones who start as something and become something else, citing how Doris Lessing started as an African writer and then by the time she won the Nobel Prize she had become an English writer.
Chuma Nwokolo, publisher of African Writing, the journal asks- Is publishing Voice of America part of your project to become an American writer? EC says “I don’t wear my Africanness light, so it’s highly unlikely that I will ever become an American writer, and I think that is no bad thing”
There is the ubiquitous question about the usefulness of creative writing classes and EC’s response is that the classes were useful to him for one reason- coming from a different culture- he had a story to tell and in the programme, he learnt how to revise and hone and get his story told. However he says, if you don’t have a story, the creative writing programme won’t give you one.
How has he been received in Nigeria? “The book will be published by Farafina in Nigeria in March, but many of my Nigerian friends are in the audience this evening” EC adds that they are often tougher than the Western critics- asking, why are you explaining so much? Why are you tarnishing our image? However, he tends not to think about it when he’s writing, and focuses on the story instead.
Asked about where the stories came from, he says that the seeds of the stories were mostly planted in Nigeria but the distance helped, helping him to distil them into the form in which they were subsequently published. Asked if living in America has changed his worldview, he admits that it has, adding that you don’t realise it until you go back and then you realize how much you have changed.
Questions over, EC is mobbed by his Nigerian literary crew- there is Nnorom Azuonye of Sentinel, Nengi Ilagha, Luqman Sanusi, the poet Afam Akeh, Anietie Isong , my colleague Dipo Salimonu from TEDxEuston and many others. As I leave the South Bank Centre, slipping past the queue of fans waiting for him to autograph their books, back into the cold evening, I am filled with a warm sense of fellowship.