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Sanya Osha: Doing Violence to the Idea of the Novel

Sola Osofisan interviews poet, novelist and philosopher Sanya Osha, author of Postethnophilosophy and Kwasi Wiredu and Beyond: The Text, Writing and Thought in Africa. Osha is also the writer of the novels Dust, Spittle and Wind (joint-winner ANA Prose Prize), Naked Light and the Blind Eye, An Underground Colony of Summer Bees, and the poetry collection A Troubadour’s Thread.

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Sola Osofisan: I have been reading your poetry since the late ’80s – more than two decades now. (Wow, we are getting old, aren’t we?) Why are you only just getting a first book of poetry out?

Sanya Osha: Well, as you mentioned, Sola, we are really getting old. But back in the day, there were virtually no publishing opportunities on the sort of scale that we have now, at least for me. A great pity.  Some of us took to self-publishing but I didn’t. I probably regret it now. In the last three  or so years, I have been publishing some of my prose work and that eventually led to my poetry which I began much, much earlier than the other forms of writing. Better late than never, I suppose, would apply to this case.

Sola Osofisan: Yes, I noticed the recent flurry of activities from your end. Between 2005 and 2010, you published two books. But in the last three years alone, you have published five – in fiction, philosophy, poetry and a co-edit. What’s going on? What accounts for the new prolificity? What changed?

Sanya Osha: I suppose I simply discovered more publishing opportunities. I have always tried to be productive in terms of writing even if it meant having manuscripts gathering dust somewhere. But lately, doors just seem to be opening.

Sola Osofisan: Open doors…Sounds like it is your time in the sun. Some writers need to see a manuscript published somewhere to be consistently motivated. You’re not like that?

Sanya Osha: Well, I would say half and half. When I wrote my first novel in the early 1990s, the one that jointly received the Association of Nigerian Authors’ (ANA) prize with your work, I almost immediately began writing another one. However, I wasn’t eventually able to get the first work published even though I had thought Heinemann (Nigeria) would have wanted to release it. After that, I didn’t do any more extended prose work for a very, very long time. Instead I started to learn another kind of writing which entailed for me, a very different kind of protocol – academic writing. But at the back of my mind, I always wanted to return to creative writing. It took me far more time than I had anticipated to get back.

Sola Osofisan: So what other books should we be on the lookout for in the next few years?

Sanya Osha: Before the end of the year, I expect a slim book of philosophy to be published in the Netherlands. I am also in the final stages of editing a volume of essays written by scholars based in different continents reflecting on the Arab Spring and its fall out. This too, I expect to be off the press by this year or early next year.

Sola Osofisan: I’m glad you brought that up. The role of the Internet in the impact of what is now known as the Arab Spring is still fiercely debated by scholars everywhere, which begs the question: are you channeling social media in any way to write or promote your books? Are you books available digitally?

Sanya Osha: Yeah, all my books are available via Amazon and have been reviewed on some online outlets. I know for sure that Postethnophilosophy is available digitally and perhaps also Dust, Spittle and Wind.

Sola Osofisan: Let’s talk about the book in today’s technological world. Things are a bit chaotic right now…Publishing houses are being replaced by P-on-D services like Amazon. Books are being side-tracked by e-Readers. Book stores are going into extinction. What do you think the future holds for books? Is the author next in line to be replaced by new technology?

Sanya Osha: On the question of technology…oftentimes old technology doesn’t completely disappear with the appearance of new methods. I love the look of well designed books, l love having them around me and savouring the singular aesthetic pleasures they provide like so many, many other people. The market and audience for books might get smaller and less hegemonic but I don’t think they are about to disappear entirely. Recently connoisseurs of vinyl have been setting up record labels to preserve the technology in the age of MP3s, digital downloads and what have you. If old print technology that has taken the human civilisation centuries to develop and refine were to disappear entirely, the whole of human culture would be worse off. And no, I don’t think the author is about to disappear altogether because you still need people to write e-books.

Sola Osofisan: I’ve heard other 3rd generation Nigerian writers – you don’t mind labels, do you? You have no issue with being called a Nigerian writer or an African writer, right?

Sanya Osha: Labels can be convenient up to a point. The thing is to be sure about what kinds of baggage they carry at different moments. So their applications are always fluid depending on how reductive, confusing or all-encompassing they are. But let us go by your usage for the sake of convenience.

Sola Osofisan: I was going to ask you about the ‘Thursday People’ period of your creative life at the University of Ibadan. I’ve heard other writers of your generation speak warmly of that period and how much it impacted their writing and elevated its quality. What was that time like for you?

Sanya Osha: The legend of the “Thursday Group” surpasses its actual achievement. The group, which met to read poetry in a room at the Faculty of Arts, University of Ibadan during the ‘80s – which, in my opinion, was its peak – was made up of a loose collective of literary hopefuls. I have a great deal of respect for authors like Obi Nwakanma who is doing the kind of work the “Thursday People” should be doing but aren’t.

I think there was a conflation, among members of the group, between the idea of adoring the writer’s life and actual writing itself. Most in the Thursday Group fall into the former category which meant at the end of day, there wasn’t much work of considerable stature produced. On the other hand, people like Uche Nduka and Maik Nwosu who were not part of the core group but were friends with some its ‘members’ have managed to establish some kind of practice with regards to their art in the face of quite daunting circumstances. I truly admire their courage in doing so.

Also, it is interesting to observe that the major voices of current mainstream Nigerian literature have not emerged from the “Thursday Group”. By these new voices, I mean Chika Unigwe, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Sefi Atta, Helon Habila, and a few others.

However, a few patrons and associates – mostly older – of the group like Isidore Okpewho, Femi Osofisan and one or two others in that sort of group, managed to produce work of impressive quality and in sufficient quantity. Also, many members of the group ended up becoming established academics but I don’t know what of good that has been as we haven’t seen scholars of the calibre of Abiola Irele, Dan Izevbaye or Michael Echeruo emerge as at yet.

Sola Osofisan: Why South Africa, Sanya? The vibrant bunch of writers you used to haunt the literary circuits in Lagos and Ibadan with are mostly in the US. Why are you so far away in SA, all by yourself?

Sanya Osha: I came here for the simple reason of finding work and was happy to discover that I could get some writing done which is a huge incentive. It also has stunning landscapes which are visually stimulating as well as excellent weather.

Sola Osofisan: You’re widely traveled. Are people pretty much the same wherever you go, no matter the colour of their skin?

Sanya Osha: I would say people are pretty much the same, motivated by different desires and aspirations, constantly seeking something they feel is absent from their lives, be it love, money, honour and respect, or whatever.

Sola Osofisan: Describe the book and intellectual culture in South Africa, as opposed to what exists in Nigeria and several other places in Africa where the book seems to be dying a lonely death…

Sanya Osha: There are quite a number of South African authors who publish through different major publishing houses in different countries and languages and it wouldn’t have mattered whether they were based in Amsterdam, Paris and New York or in some obscure hamlet in South Africa. South Africa has a fairly developed infrastructure with access to global circuits of ideas, knowledge and commerce, so it is fairly easy for a writer to assemble the elements necessary to do good work. Also, in South Africa, there is means and avenues for extensive press coverage of literature and the arts, elaborate book festivals, various prizes for literature in different South African languages which, I think, make the country the one with the most robust literary culture on the Continent.

Sola Osofisan: Nigerian writers located elsewhere are increasingly telling the stories of their adopted location, even if it is still taken from the “comfort zone” perspective of the immigrant. That seems to be Jerome Akpanta’s lot in “An Underground Colony of Summer Bees”. What was it like for you to resist the attraction of writing about home from memory, choosing instead to confront the fresh realities your new environment offers? Did you do so consciously or did the story unfold with little prompting from you?

PostethnophilosophySanya Osha: An Underground Colony of Summer Bees is a book I had always wanted to write. It deals with a specific set of experiences, and a precise locale that struck a chord and which I find remarkable. But this does not mean I wouldn’t return in my future writing to a memory bank that has nothing to do with my current base. And of course, drawing from memory is a novelist’s stock-in-trade.

Sola Osofisan: The tough streets of South Africa don’t seem to be any different from the tough streets of Nigeria or those of America. Do you think the hard life is a commonality all cities share or writers just tend to project it that way?

Sanya Osha: City life has always been, and would continue to be challenging because everything is up for grabs. New identities are constantly being created, new kinds of relationships, new opportunities as well as disappointments. This naturally provides ample material for a writer. But because the pace within cities is so fast and everything seems so random, chaotic and transitional, it can get overwhelming for the sensibilities and perhaps that’s why writers tend to project the hardness you mention.

Sola Osofisan: I knew you as Sanya Osha, the poet before I met you Sanya Osha, the novelist. You and I know the danger of being both. As you succumb to the natural urge to employ poetic language in your novels, you run the risk of that language getting in the way of the narrative and characters. What has your experience been as a poet writing prose?

Sanya Osha: For many years, I read and wrote quite a lot of poetry. But the channels for publishing were closing up and I got disillusioned by all of that. But poetry taught me a great deal about writing, connecting apparently disparate elements and scenarios to form new combinations. I suppose some elements of the craft are transferable to other forms of writing. I imagine I do a lot of violence to the idea of the novel but the form has always been one that is amenable to disfigurement.

Sola Osofisan: Are you a better writer/poet because you’re a philosopher or is the reverse closer to the truth?

Sanya Osha: On first impressions, being a poet/writer and philosopher, for me, are two different things. As a philosopher, I am compelled to think about structure in a more formal and rigorous sense. As a poet, I go in the very opposite direction. In this sense, I go for a looseness. So, at least on the surface, there is a dichotomy there. I don’t think being a philosopher, in my case, has been helpful to me as a poet/writer. I’m sure there might be some underlying connections between the two preoccupations if I care to look very closely but at first glance, they appear to be quite antithetical.

Sola Osofisan: As a philosopher and novelist, are you more tempted to want to write what you academics call “philosophical fiction” – or you consider fiction as a genre intrinsically philosophical anyhow, and this question is moot?

Sanya Osha: As a philosopher, there are a few basic questions I always return to; identity, the interactions between modernity and Africanity, questions like that. I also try to trace how these questions are addressed by other philosophers like V.Y. Mudimbe, Kwasi Wiredu and Paulin Hountondji. So my questions and focus are quite specific, I would think. But I don’t think I would want to write a philosophical novel in the conventional sense. That doesn’t quite appeal to me.

And as a novelist, I am not concerned with the novelist’s ordinary understanding of structure. Instead I am drawn directly to notions of texture, rhythm and cadence which are in turn derived from other forms of creativity, namely music, film and art (painting and sculpture). I never read a certain novel and go oh, I want to write one like that. Instead the experience I want to convey dictates its own rhythmic structure which I have mentioned often comes from other art forms or not at all from them. So every novel I write is about conveying a body of experiences, not necessarily autobiographical, and images that are often unrepeatable.

Sola Osofisan: What book do you reread the most? And why?

Sanya Osha: I often read a book on Marcel Duchamp, by Dawn Ades, Neil Cox and David Hopkins, over and over again. What impresses me about Duchamp is that he was able to do his work outside the received channels of official art making. He chose not live on his art and often ignored the avant-garde which repeatedly used his work for its validation. I also admire his employment of the notion of gratification. Instant legitimation by the art establishment was not the objective of art making. The concept of delay was in fact, for him, far more important. In that way, he was able to create stronger work because it represents “a rage against the machine”.

Sola Osofisan: What book do you think everyone should read?

Sanya Osha: Things Fall Apart.

Sola Osofisan: Which African writers are you reading currently? Which ones do you think deserve more attention than they are receiving and why?

Sanya Osha: V.Y. Mudimbe, philosopher and writer, originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo. He says a lot of conceptually stimulating things about Africa. There is Wim van Binsbergen, a Dutch philosopher/writer who has made Africa his spiritual home. He works on issues of interculturality and has just released a new book on Africa’s pre-history that promises to create a paradigm shift in how Africa is perceived from both internal and external perspectives. Van Binsbergen is also very radical in thought and practice. A true force of nature and if one could have fruitful interactions with his sort in one’s lifetime, then one would be fortunate. He thinks and operates totally outside established categories. He is also absolutely fearless. I can’t say enough about him.

Sola Osofisan: Is there something that you do or say subliminally in your writing that no reader, reviewer or critic has caught on to yet?

Sanya Osha: There haven’t been terribly many reviews of my work to conclude not much isn’t left out by the critics! There has to be a great deal more reviews to comment properly.

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