At just thirty-five Uche Peter Umez (fully known as Uchechukwu Peter Umezurike), a senior staff of ABC Transport Company, Nigeria, has earned himself a reputation as one of Nigeria’s leading post-military era writers. Given the colossal challenges Nigerian writers face in getting their voices heard Umez strikes one as remarkable with the publication of more than four books, numerous Nigerian and global awards, grants and participation in prestigious writing programmes such as the Commonwealth prize for short fiction and the Iowa Writing Programme, USA. His first book, a poetry collection titled ‘Dark through the Delta’ earned him a review as ‘a poet distinguished not only by the easily demonstrable honesty of the compassion and social commitment he expresses, but also by the highly evocative powers of his language, his inventiveness and the compelling lyricism of his poetry.’ In this interview with Henry C. Onyema, a teacher turned freelance journalist, Umez provides insights into his writing career and other issues related to the literary enterprise in Nigeria. Excerpts:
How and when did you become a writer?
How did I become a writer? That’s one good thing I have to say about Abacha’s dark regime. His era was fraught with lots of ASUU strikes and other anomalies, but during this period, I think in 1994, I stumbled upon Shakespeare’s sonnets and his complete works in an omnibus version in a late uncle’s library. And I was instantly drawn into poetry and literature. I can’t quite remember exactly when I started writing, but I am sure I became very keen on writing in 2001 when my first poem was published in Daily Champion.
How and when was your first book published? What were the challenges?
My first book was published in 2004, a poetry collection titled Dark through the Delta. It was a self-publishing effort, sadly, as is almost the norm here in Nigeria. The challenges I faced then are still the same challenges many aspiring Nigerian writers at home face even today. You know, the publishing industry for creative writers is practically absent: no established publishers, insufficient professional editors, no literary agents; in fact, the entire structure that aids, facilitates, and promotes creative writing in Nigeria is not there – although we are beginning to experience a very few attempts by some indigenous publishers but still these are a mere scratch on the surface.
Who and what are your literary influences, both Nigerian and non-Nigerian?
By literary influences, I suppose you mean literary greats. I don’t have any particular literary influence because I am a sucker for any good writing, whether fiction or non-fiction, poetry, whatever literary piece of writing I happen to lay my hands on. As one established writer once told me, read wide, read deep. I have been particularly inspired by some contemporary Nigerian writers.
You seem to have a flair for short stories and children’s fiction. What does it take to write for children? How can an adult enter the world of kids and teenagers and write what appeals to them?
I wish I had the flair you speak of. But writing remains a struggle for me in many ways. As you know, writing in any form or genre is tough, so children’s literature – for instance, writing for children within ages 8-12 – is no exception. I am of two minds when it comes to writing children’s fiction, anyway. Sometimes, I think it’s just fun to write; other times it is a grind, maybe because you have to relive some childhood memories while writing, or maybe because you have to filter your diction so that it becomes much more accessible: a little less full of nuance.
For me, what it takes to write for children is interest and delight. You have to be interested enough in their own world, regardless of how simple and bare it appears and to throw yourself into that fantastic world, and be barefacedly delighted by their own ideas and viewpoints in that world. In this world, imagination is much more essential than logic. I feel strongly that if you want to write for children you must first read a good deal of children’s literature and be attentive, as well as observe children in action. Also, it would be helpful if you could draw on some of your childhood memories as you plot out your scenes and write your story.
Do you think Nigerian writers of children’s fiction are doing a good job? Why don’t we have a Nigerian writer of children’s fiction in the class of JK Rowlings of the Harry Potter series or the venerated Enyid Blyton?
I think they are doing a good job, considering the stack of odds against the Nigerian writer at home. The odds are quite immense, where do you start from? Now, I don’t know why we don’t have writers in the class of Rowlings or Blyton. How many writers are in the class of JK Rowlings anyway? What you should know is that every writer has his or her own distinctive thematic engagement and dream.
In recent times post-military era Nigerian writers’ blazing success at winning accolades seems to have dimmed. In the most recent Caine outing we did not win. We made the shortlist in the various categories of Commonwealth prizes yet won nothing. Are we losing our bite?
I don’t think prizes define the strength of Nigerian literature. And not winning any of the prizes on offer at last year’s Caine Prize and Commonwealth competitions by a Nigerian does not diminish the richness of Nigerian writing. The important thing to note is that there is a strong tide of young Nigerian writers embracing writing, becoming much more keen and expressive, and that is what uplifts my spirit any time, any day – not the prizes. As some writers would say, prizes are merely added incentive, perks that may come your way or not.
What impact has being a finalist in the 2007 NLNG Literature Prize had on your literary career?
Whenever I look back on that time, I always feel a sense of privilege. Yes, I was indeed privileged and honoured to be shortlisted alongside Mabel Segun and Professor Akachi Adimora Ezeigbo, two Nigerian literary greats. For such a privilege coming up especially early in my writing career, just six years after I had decided to take writing a little more seriously, I think that was a mighty big boon.
Contemporary Nigerian writers like Jude Dibia and yourself are unafraid of taking on ‘taboo’ subjects in your work. Dibia’s first novel ‘Walking Shadows‘ is a searing expose on homosexuality among Nigerians. The same applies to your short story ‘A Night So Damp‘ published by Farafina in its short story anthology in 2008 and ‘Fragile’ published in Daughters of Eve, another short story anthology in 2010 by CCC UK. Are you an advocate of gay fiction in Nigerian literature?
I have to commend Jude Dibia for his audacious debut novel. He’s one writer I so respect for his commitment and craftsmanship in writing. Beside that, I think writers should not be afraid to explore and tackle any theme. Writers should not feel constrained or self-censor themselves while writing. Our writing should be able to at least throw up issues that can engage the public and society at large.
Is it possible for a Nigerian writer to live solely on writing?
I wish. Even in developed countries only few writers actually live solely on writing.
Your views on Nigeria’s publishing industry, especially with the efforts by companies like Cassava Republic and writers collectives like Jalaawriters.com.
The truth is that there is no publishing industry in Nigeria, if there really was one we will not have a rash of self-publishing. Many up-and coming writers in Nigeria long to be published by traditional publishers, but where are they? Even the efforts of Farafina, Cassava Republic, though much appreciated and encouraging, remain a flicker in the dark, minute. Jalaa Writers’ Collective is still new and doesn’t intend to fill the vacuum of a traditional publisher. However, as a collective, probably the first of its kind in Nigeria, we can only appreciably appraise its efforts in a few years’ time, so I think.
A personal note: You are married. How, when and where did you win Madam’s heart? How many children do you have?
I am married, happily, and my wife and I are blessed with two charming children. Now, if you crave more details, you would have to wait for my memoir or autobiography, which I hope to write someday.
It is well known that writers tend to be eccentric, especially when they are creatively aroused. How does your family cope with your writing?
Whether you are married or not, whenever you are writing you just don’t need anyone around, not even your lover! It’s certainly not easy writing at home where you have two children who are both curious and adventurous. There’s this short story by Igoni A. Barrett which vividly captures a writer’s experience. My wife is very understanding anyway, even when I am stuck in one of my grumpy moments. All the same, I try to find a balance between writing time and family time. I have to write at dawn most of the time, that is.
There must be more to such a handsome young man like you than writing. What is your social life like? How do you relax?
Do I really have any? I live in Owerri, and the social life there is just about eating and drinking at bars or point-and-kill joints. I wish there were theatres, parks, trails, museums, cinemas, but this is Nigeria, and of course our government doesn’t give a damn about such niceties. It is so shocking that some people in government amass so much mind-boggling wealth and yet these same people are so unconcerned about leisure and recreation in their home country. As for relaxing, I tend to watch a lot of films, listen to music, and read as much as I can.
What is your latest book? Is it in the bookshops?
A children’s novel titled The Runaway Hero, about a 9-year-old orphan boy who flees the orphanage because he can’t stand being picked at and bullied any longer, but unfortunately for him he ends up in the hands of kidnappers. Much as I am an enthusiast of fantasy stories I like to write stories of children that give a picture of the gritty aspects of urban life in Nigeria. As for the distribution of my latest book, Jalaa Writers Collective is making concrete efforts to get all its titles – recent novels of Odili Ujubuonu, Akachi Ezeigbo, Abimbola Adunni Adelakun and Jude Dibia –into bookshops across the country. The Runaway Hero should be available before long.
Advice for aspiring writers; any suggestions to incoming government on how to boost the arts and literary creativity in Nigeria.
For writers, read and write. Read and write. As for the government, they know what to do. One problem with Nigeria is that we all know what to do to make things right, the National Assembly especially. Anyway, the government should follow-up on its Bring Back the Book project, set up an endowment for Arts, a book trust, create reading campaigns and institute national essay competitions from grassroots to the capital, set aside a national Reading Day or Week, appoint a national poet laureate on a term-basis, as you have in US and UK, etc, and build an artists’ village in the six geo-political zones, for starters.