TONY NWAKA’S fiction is based on social reality that describes how to navigate societal nuances and emerge tops. The author of Mountain of Yesterday and who is in the race for the USD$100,000 price money for The Nigeria Prize for Literature reflects on some aspects of his writing and why he should win the prize
Where were you when you heard the news that you had been shortlisted for the NLNG-sponsored The Nigeria Prize for Literature 2020?
It was on a Sunday afternoon in Asaba, Delta State. I had returned from church and fallen into a nap in my sitting room. I woke and was skimming through my WhatsApp page when I saw the messages from my friends about the shortlist. It felt like I was in dreamland.
Why do you write?
Hmmm! This is interesting. Well, for me, writing is an exercise that springs naturally from my passion for clarity in expression of thought and elegant construction of the written word. But in articulating my motivation for writing in the genre of fictional prose, I will say it is driven primarily to entertain the reader and, in the process, invite attention to some societal realities that are deserving of deeper reflection, empathy and remedy.
What would you say writing has done for you and what do you hope that writing would do for you?
I have written four novels so far and, I must say that I am profoundly delighted seeing the responses they get from the reading public. I hope that my works would bring wider recognition to my voice and, more importantly, actuate a deeper public evaluation of the highlighted themes.
Why do you think your book should be the one that emerges the winner of the prize?
Mountain of Yesterday has continued to receive glowing tributes for its artistic construction and thematic relevance to contemporary issues. I pray that such iterations of excellence would take the book victoriously across the finish line of this competition.
What do you hope to do with the $100,000 money that comes with the prize?
A hundred thousand dollars! Wow! My dear, that is huge. Well, first, I’ll pay my vows to God, maker of the heavens and earth, whose unquantifiable grace has brought me this far. Then I will explore the option of endowing a literature prize in perpetuity, to further encourage budding writers and complement the noble efforts of NLNG. And, of course, the various pecuniary pressures that have been tormenting my soul can now be moderated by the immensity of the windfall.
How does your book reflect contemporary challenges and what ways out of them?
Yes, I believe that one of the strengths of ‘Mountain of Yesterday’ is the lucidity with which it captures today’s societal dysfunctions. These include the intermittent religious conflicts and a broad foreboding of insecurity that compelled Udoka and Amina to flee their location. The cultural inhibitions against the feminine gender as was the fate of Amina’s young daughters. The geo-ethnic preconceptions and hostilities as typified in the adversarial propensities of Chiefs Ikuku and Edordu. The cultural indignities perpetrated against widows as experienced by Amina. The pernicious political practices of the time, illustrated in the malpractices that plagued Amina’s election. And, in each of these cases, you find characters and alternative dispositions upholding the noble virtues of the human spirit. So, ‘Mountain of Yesterday’ is a multi-themed narrative which vividly underscores the fact that despite the turbulence in our society, we can draw strength from our spiritual depth and the springs of our common humanity.
What vision of society is espoused in your current work?
Well, I want to believe that by “current work” you mean my latest book, ‘Shadows and Nothings”. Yes, unlike ‘Mountain of Yesterday’ where the element of romance is peripheral to its composition, ‘Shadows and Nothings’ is basically a love story. But despite taking a different trajectory, ‘Shadows and Nothings’ still espouses a vision of society devoid of harmful preconceptions. It imagines a society that’s anchored on conscientious conviction, empathy, industry and inter-ethnic harmony, as are also visibly signposted in ‘Mountain of Yesterday’.
Who and what are your influences?
I am an avid reader who relishes the art of lucid prose, as exemplified in the captivating narration of Chinua Achebe, the sublime erudition of Wole Soyinka, the elegant diction of Henry James, the intellectual flair of George Eliot, and the graceful fluidity of Kazuo Ishiguro. But, interestingly, I didn’t start writing prose fiction until six years ago when I turned 50. As I said, I have always read widely, having personal libraries in my residences in Asaba and Ogwashi my hometown, yet I didn’t give much thought to writing a novel. But when people who were reading my political commentaries on social media, repeatedly expressed their fascination with my narrative style and were urging me to write a book, I felt it was time to exercise whatever was the hidden talent that had elicited those responses. It also became an opportunity to ventilate those thoughts about the contradiction in our character that had long agitated my mind. I started late, but I thank God that, within a space of six years, I find myself today on a national stage of honour. To God be all the glory.
How much would you say The Nigeria Prize for Literature has energised writing in the country?
Oh, wonderfully so! The Nigeria Prize for Literature is the most prestigious literary prize on the African continent. The fluorescence of acclaim it brings to shortlisted writers virtually elevates them to the firmament of deities. This effervescent ambience cannot but naturally inspire the writing spirit and energize the broad culture of literature in the country. One can only pray that NLNG is continually given the enablement to sustain such an exceptionally noble service to humanity.