Once in a while, one comes across people who from a very young age have attained what only long years of hard work and persistence can make possible. Paul Liam is a young man with a voice currently echoing loudly around the walls of the Nigerian literary sphere. This rare gem is making a name for himself. In this conversation with Saddiq Dzukogi, Paul Liam the poet, essayist, book reviewer, and columnist talks about his new book, Saint Sha’ade and Other Poems. He talks about emerging writers from the North as well as why Nigeria is polarized along ethnic and religious divides. Paul Liam is the Assistant Secretary of the Association of Nigerian Authors, (ANA), Niger State chapter, and also a Mentor at Hilltopart Centre.
Saddiq Dzukogi: Your name is gradually becoming a strong voice in contemporary Nigerian poetry, especially Northern Nigeria. For the sake of those who are yet to know you, could you tell us who Paul Liam is?
Paul Liam: Paul Liam is a product of the Association of Nigerian Authors, (ANA), Niger Teen Authorship Scheme which discovered a lot of us back then as students of secondary schools in Minna. I love writing with inexplicable passion and I aspire to attain a certain level of perfection in the art that is beyond reason. I am still struggling to get there though. I am in my late twenties and Tiv from Gwer East Local Government Area of Benue State. I lived the most parts of my life in the barracks in Minna, which is responsible for some of the themes in my works. I like to see myself as a product of my experiences. I started writing ten years ago and I have remained faithful to the calling of poetry albeit working with the other genres as well. My first work of poetry Indefinite Cravings (Leobooks) was published two years ago and I just published my second collection, Saint Sha’ade and Other Poems (Kraftbooks). I am an essayist with many essays to my name in the national dailies and currently, I am managing two columns with the Niger State Government’s weekly Newspaper, Newsline. I review books and sometimes people refer to me as a critic. I am a creative writing mentor and the Public Relations Manager of the Hilltoparts Centre Minna, founded by B.M. Dzukogi. I am the Chief Coordinator and Anchor of the centre’s Teen Authors’ Flash; a monthly interactive programme for aspiring teen writers who have written a book or more. I am equally, the current Assistant Secretary of the Association of Nigerian Authors, Niger State Chapter, and I am with the Niger State Book Development Agency where I am also the Head of Interpreter,a government publication that analyses the Governor’s speeches. I am a lover of quality music, it is my stimulator. Well, this is the little there is about me.
Saddiq Dzukogi: Your new book, Saint Sha’ade and Other Poems, is out. With two bold collections of poetry in the space of two years, could you share the secret of being a productive writer?
Paul Liam: Are there secrets to being productive? I would rather think it is an open secret since we all know that the road to success is determination and hard work. I don’t think I can attribute it to anything other than my sole resolve to succeed as a young writer with several impediments on my pathways. Passion and the sheer desire to become a success story in the future drive me to function maximally. Aside these obvious reasons, I don’t have any secrets responsible for my productivity. And we may also say that divine intervention is responsible.
Saddiq Dzukogi: How would you view your progress so far?
Paul Liam: To be candid, I wouldn’t know if it is proper for me to assess myself when I have mentors who have seen and nurtured my growth all these years. Maybe you should put the question to them, instead. However, if I must respond to this question, I would like to say that I have grown just like everyone else, both in age, wisdom and understanding of what the world of man is and I am still struggling to find my place in the scheme of things. I have grown to the admiration of my mentors, I believe. My writing has grown too and you know experience bakes the best bread.
Saddiq Dzukogi: Nigeria is surviving on an active volcano. What is the extent of the role of literature in mending broken ties and healing old wounds especially in the case of the Biafran war and other agitations across the country?
Paul Liam: Well, I wouldn’t know if I have the liberty to corrugate any assertions on the Biafran myth, but in terms of how literature can mend broken ties and heal wounds I would like to posit without contradictions that, the role of literature in peace building has been undermined by partisan interests, understandably of course. Otherwise, the educated elite know the functions of literature for they are direct consequences of its implications on the human mind. Holy literatures such as the Holy Bible and Holy Quran have continuously preached peace and understanding across humanity but do we heed to these teachings? The answer is no and the results are the crises that have continued to threaten our collective existence. If the citizens were educated enough to read and understand the literatures that have been churned out since the end of the Biafran war, they would understand the dangers in stirring a new war and would learn to forgive each other for a common good. Literature has a very vital role to play in the lives of children especially as it teaches them how to communicate in inoffensive manner to each other; it helps them grow a greater understanding of life and positive virtues. To avert future conflicts and opening of fresh wounds, efforts must be made to ensure that children are properly educated and peace-literatures must be encouraged in schools to help students understand the intricacies of conflict and war. Literature can save humanity if given the chance, I am convinced. It has all the potentials to tame the most reckless mind and foster greater understanding. An informed mind has no time for irrelevances and that is the function of literature: to curtail the mind and abhor evil. So, yes, literature has a lot to do in peace-building amongst aggrieved persons; all it requires is the opportunity to function.
Saddiq Dzukogi: I was a witness to a Facebook conversation where you had a small brawl with Ahmed Maiwada, your mentor, over a short story you posted. Have you improved in that area since that event or are you sticking to just poetry?
Paul Liam: Hahaha… a brawl with my mentor? Since when did children begin to engage their parents in brawls? There was never a brawl over a short story I posted on Facebook. Perhaps you mistook the conversation for something else. It was a mentor discussing with his mentee in strong terms to send home a point. I take Ahmed Maiwada’s corrections seriously and I have always taken his corrections very seriously because, over the years they have helped my craft and I appreciate him for those frank criticisms of my works all the time. And again, no, that conversation has never stopped or discouraged me from writing stories and in fact, I have over sixteen short stories now waiting for attention which I hope to give to it when I am less occupied with other engaging activities. Stories are like new brides who need special attention and I just don’t have that time at the moment. Poetry only comes to me more naturally, that is why I create time for it and it is more exciting to me than prose.
Saddiq Dzukogi: In your latest offering, one sees the poet romanticising with death. What informed that type of poetry?
Paul Liam: My relationship with death is one of nature’s designs. I lost my mother at a very young age. She died around the mid-90s and since then I have lived with the pains and fear of death. If you look at the situation of the country at the moment, it is impossible for you not to want to talk about these happenings. The fact that you could become the next victim is enough reason for you to live in constant fear of the unknown and death is our greatest enemy. So, the life of a motherless child stolen away by death, and the realities of today’s world of deaths and maladies inform my notion about death.
Saddiq Dzukogi: Judging the content of the book, would you say you have found your distinct voice as a poet?
Paul Liam: Yes, I think I have found my voice and I actually did that a long time ago. You may need to read Ahmed Maiwada and Kamar Hamza’s comment on my first work and peruse my second work to get what I am saying. In fact, when I gave my second collection to Tade Ipadeola when it was still in manuscript form to review he said that I would soon find a voice for my writing but unknown to him he was actually looking at my second work. Even Steve Shaba my publisher could not hide his feelings on my work and it all points to the fact that I have a distinct voice. So, I know I have a voice already; perhaps, I need to master that voice so it becomes my identity as a poet. Even you, have recognised my having a distinct voice before.
Saddiq Dzukogi: You are a mentor at the Hilltoparts Centre, Minna. What exactly do you do there?
I am surprised you are asking about what we do at the centre when you were once a president of the centre. Well, for those who may not know, the Hilltoparts centre is a nursery for the propagation of talents in creative writing, photography, painting, craft and every artistic endeavour of interest to a child, with the purpose of influencing a better society through the arts. The centre provides mentorship to the aspiring writers/artists for free. We believe that if a child is tamed early enough, chances are that he will live a responsible life that will impact positively on the larger society. The centre encourages young people with interests in creative writing to develop such interests into realities and we have success stories at the centre such as Deborah Oluniran, Hauwa Nuhu Shafi and Richard O. Jacob. We are working on publishing some of them soon since many have written books already. Some of them are going to be published through the Niger State Book Development Agency. Hilltoparts Centre is probably the best place for idea cultivation in young people who will become role models to their peers. It is a place for everyone interested in a better society of peaceful co-existence. To get a better understanding of the activities of the centre you need to either watch our documented programmes or visit the centre itself.
Saddiq Dzukogi: How has your interaction with the young ones affected you as an artist?
Paul Liam: In several ways. Firstly, you improve in knowledge when you try to make someone better because you need to be better to be able to make someone better, right? So, my experience with the young ones at the centre has affected me in many ways, I may not even realise it myself. It is a challenge to work with younger people when you are also young because in a lot of ways your challenges are almost the same. It is inspiring working with them and I hope to continue to contribute the little I can to influence them positively.
Saddiq Dzukogi: You are the current Assistant Secretary of ANA Niger. What was the recent brouhaha over leadership about and what is the situation now?
Paul Liam: Well, the ANA Niger situation is a peculiar one because it is difficult for anyone to change a system that has benefited a lot of people for decades especially if that system is a positive one. The congress of ANA Niger has never been awash with the type of autocracy and arbitrariness witnessed during the tenure of the former chairperson who alongside a few others turned the association into a private business. The congress decided that it could no longer trust the EXCO to administer its affairs again so they clamoured for and got a new Exco team being ably led by the amiable Mallam Nma Hassan Mohammed. The chairperson also couldn’t protect the association when an outsider attacked its credibility. She opted to become an accomplice. Peace has returned to the house even though the brawl has not been totally resolved because of the ways of man. The house is better and happier now than it was two years ago. The situation is calm yet we are all calculative and ready to wrestle with anyone who wishes to privatise the association. And again, it may interest you to know that the former chairperson has taken some of us to court for some reasons she understands better as a result of her removal alongside her Exco team of which I was a member.
Saddiq Dzukogi: What is the talk about Niger being the intellectual capital of Nigeria?
Paul Liam: This is an interesting question because it raises several issues. First, if you look at the foundation, you will agree that nothing starts from the top but from the basics and in terms of building an intellectual power house, only Niger State can boast of such a foundation now. For over twenty years our Annual Schools Carnival of Arts and Festival of Songs (ASCAFS) has continued to discover talents in creative writing and the other arts. You and I are parts of those discovered talents and there are several others like us. Talk about the teen authorship scheme that is grooming pen soldiers who are starting to dominate the literary cycles. Look at the organizational and administrative impetus backed by the establishment of a book agency by the Niger State Government of Governor Mu’azu Babangida Aliyu. Look at the impacts of the MBA International Literary Colloquium on the Nigerian literary space. Niger State sponsored a national programme geared towards the discovery and cultivation of talent in creative writing through the Association of Nigerian Author’s National Teen Authorship Programme that has benefited over five states in the country. Niger State also gave a grant of ten million Naira for the establishment of the Nigerian Writers’ Series which has begun already. We have a hand in this because it was the programme of our mentor when he was contesting for the National Secretary of ANA. What can you compare to that? All these things I am mentioning are rough itemization. If you need to understand the full impact of that declaration you may have to come down to Minna for a proper research that will provide you with the adequate information that you seek on this subject. But, I am assuring you now that Niger state is the emerging intellectual capital of Nigeria. And we are the one driving it along with Prof. Kuta who leads the pack.
Saddiq Dzukogi: There is a new crop of interesting writers springing up from Northern Nigeria. Writers such as Vershima Agema, Maryam Bobi, Gimba Kakanda, Halima Aliyu, Samson Abdalmasih, Jimo Olawale and you. What does the future hold for these emerging writers?
Paul Liam: A lot. More than self-actualizations they must realise that they have a burden on their shoulders and this burden is to cast light on the path of the region and ensure that they contribute to the emancipation of the region from the grips of dysfunction and ignorance. They must endeavour to carry others along; it is only in that way that they can impact a perpetual legacy on the region. They must see themselves as the representatives of the rest of the region and must protect that interest. Ironically, you are also a part of them and you own the region the same allegiance. (Laughs)
Saddiq Dzukogi: Nigeria has always been polarised along religious and ethnic lines. What do you think is responsible for this trend?
Paul Liam: Absolute lack of trust. The polarisation has taken a dimension that only divine intervention can salvage, and it is solely the making of the elite politicians who feed from the people’s woes. Religion has since become a political tool in the hands of selfish individuals who must eat from where there is chaos and because of the poverty of the mind that is affecting the people, everyone seems to be culpable in the crimes, because, by our statements or silence we are contributing to the woes. Without trust and respect for our collective humanity, we will remain the same people of a divided nation united by poverty and perverted inclination towards each other.
Saddiq Dzukogi: Thanks for your time, Paul.
Paul Liam: Thank you for interviewing me.