‘We encourage publishers to start publishing the traditional way’
Bayelsa State-based Engineers EMMANUEL FRANK OPIGO is passionate about ANA, having had a glimpse of the association’s formative years as an undergraduate at the university town of Nsukka where it was formed 40 years ago. He suggests adoption of systems and institutionalization of ANA operations, so elections will be rancor-free in future and asks publishers to go back to the traditional ways of publishing to help overcome the challenges of self-publishing both old and young writer face to get their works out. He spoke with Anote Ajeluorou
ANA is 40 this year. What are you looking forward to at the anniversary celebration in Abuja from November 3-6, 2021?
WHAT we’re expecting… You know, 40 is a biblical number. Even in the bible, there are biblical numbers and 40 is one of them, and so it is a very special celebration for ANA, from 1981 – 2021. I expect a lot of things to happen this year, and the significance of it is that for all these years, we’ve been hosting this convention in different states, but for the first time we are taking possession of the land that Mamman Vatsa gave to ANA 25 years ago, and we have a lot of activities planned out. So, it is specifically a groundbreaking celebration.
On the personal level, when Chinua Achebe started this organization in 1981 at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, I was also a student there. I was also a standing member even though I wasn’t inside the meeting. I was a student and I remember hearing that Chinua Achebe is hosting some national writers, and then the association was being formed, and now, we are the people who are moving the association forward.
So, for you this is a very personal celebration, isn’t it?
Yes. Apart from being a part of the national body, I was also a founding member of Rivers State chapter in 1990, with writers like Ken Saro-Wiwa of blessed memory as members. They were the pushers and stakeholders in Port Harcourt. We formed the Port Harcourt chapter, and then in 2006, I left Port Harcourt and came to Bayelsa, since that’s where I’m from. I relocated and joined Bayelsa chapter.
Which area of the association’s activities would you want some positive changes that would help move ANA forward?
There is a difference between the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) and other major associations and societies in the country, like the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) or the Society of Nigerian Engineers (SNE) to which I belong, and the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA), etc. In ANA, we have multiple professionals as members; in the NBA, you have only lawyers; in SNE, we have only engineers and so on, but in ANA, we have all professions. Anybody can be a writer, and that has been an advantage and a challenge. People have to have like minds to move the association forward.
You are aware there are some organizational challenges, and the fact that the structures of registration in ANA are not well defined as that of, maybe the engineers association or the medical association. To be in the engineers association, you have to pass through a university education, and after that you have to have a tutelage of four years before you can become a corporate member, and you have to take exams to become a corporate member, and then you will be registered, your name stored in a computer with a number. So, when you come to a convention, and it’s time to vote, accreditation is very easy; they just go to the computer for your information and you can go and vote.
But it isn’t so in ANA. There is that challenge that we are all coming from different professions; some have also suggested that we should look at how we should register people. We cannot fix exams in ANA like we do for engineers or medicals, because we are not in the same profession, but we can have a way of registering people, minimum standard, and after the setting of the minimum standard, either by publication or whatever, you give the person a number, which the person has until death, and then we have a database of the membership of ANA. That way you don’t go to conventions and start quarreling about who should be accredited or not. Going forward, I think we can strengthen ANA by doing this.
Which demography do you think is underserved in ANA? We can look at women and children, for instance; it could be anyone that ANA has not quite served well. What would it be, and what should be done to improve things?
Women are taking the bull by the horns; they are not asking for any special treatment and they are excelling, maybe not in numbers, but in terms of quality of contributions. I think the women are doing quite well, and I think the organization too is trying to catch them young, especially the current executive, and also giving the young ones a platform to express themselves, so that when the older ones depart, they can take over. I think the demographic issues are being addressed, and women are taking it upon themselves to take their rightful positions.
What about children?
Children need assistance, so we’re giving them a hand. Every year, we have the literary challenge; books given to ANA are distributed to the states and targeted at secondary schools. So, we engage them in competitions and give a report to the national body and this helps the children improve their literary and literacy capacity.
Good you said you were in Nsukka in 1981 when ANA was formed, even though you didn’t know you were going to be a writer back then as a student…
No, I was a full-fledged writer then. I was in the students’ association called Nsukka Conference of Creative Artists. In 1981, I was 21 years old and I started writing when I was 14, when I was still in secondary school.
Back then, ANA was very much involved in national politics, in terms of activism at the national level it put out press releases on burning national issues, whether on economic, political or social that were bedeviling the country, like when Achebe, Soyinka and Clark went to plead on behalf of Vatsa and Saro-Wiwa. But that seems to be lacking in the last couple of years. You never hear of ANA on the national stage unless when there is a convention like this. Are you comfortable with this?
You have made a point which is not entirely correct. The instances you sighted are landmark situations, where life and death was involved, as well as high-profile personalities, in the case of Vatsa and Saro-Wiwa, but I don’t think ANA has been that silent. ANA has been making statements, maybe not as much at the national level, but it has been expressing itself, maybe not on the pages of newspapers, but in their own writing concerning national issues, and it’s all over the place. So, yes, it may not be very visible, but I think ANA has been making statements concerning national issues.
The complaint is that Nigerians are not reading enough, they don’t buy books and all that. What would you propose that ANA should do to help address problem of reading culture among Nigerians?
This is a very important issue, and it is not only ANA that will do it. It is a market situation of buyers and sellers. ANA is delivering books. You cannot force people to read; you can only encourage people to read. Last year, when the lockdown started, I did a talk in Port Harcourt, and I addressed this issue. It is a shock to learn that sometime ago, Nigerians used to read in the 1970s and 1980s. In the 80s, Macmillan started Pacesetters Series and young people were also reading Longman’s Drumbeat Series, but I don’t know how this began to collapse in the 1990s, and then maybe when phones and social media came in, people completely abandoned reading.
What ANA can do is continue to advocate, but then again, the other thing is the publishing industry, and this is linked to the Nigerian economy. How many publishers can publish in the traditional way? Somebody sent you a manuscript, you review it, and if it is good enough, you publish with your own money, as a traditional publisher and pay him royalty of 5-10 per cent. But that’s not the case anymore; almost everybody is self-publishing, because the readership is not there.
If you ask me to suggest how to overcome this challenge right now, I cannot, because it is totally beyond me and everybody must come to the roundtable to say: ‘how can we get our people to read again?’ It’s difficult. We call ourselves writers. I’ve written so many books but I don’t care to sell them. I put them in the bookshop; whether people buy or not, it’s fine; I have my own job that gives me income.
Technology is the in-thing now. How can writers leverage on that to encourage people to read, especially the young ones who are always online?
These days, the good thing is that even if it is a hard copy, writers are encouraged to publish the online copy. Online copies are usually very cheap, less than a dollar, so people can just buy. The younger ones also prefer reading from their phones; I cannot do that. You have platforms where you can introduce things to others, books also, and tell them to buy online. Having platforms where we can share among ourselves, where they can locate these books to buy is key. That is all we can do for now.
The landmark event this year is holding the 40th convention not just in Abuja, but in ANA property. How would you want that property to be put to use, so it serves writers beyond the three-day duration of the convention?
The plan is actually very good. We have run into some issues, but the original plan is very good. Incidentally, when this executive came on board, they appointed a Land Use Committee, and I was the secretary. So, I have access to some of the details about that land. So there are so many things to be done on that land. For now, it was done on a rush. Where the conference will take place is small, but there is enough land where every state in the federation can be allocated a portion where they will build something for their state, in terms of, maybe accommodation, and so on. And then, part of the development is also a hotel, and that will generate finds for ANA, which will take care of this cap-in-hand situation whenever we want to hold convention.
So if that hotel is there and running well, all the challenges will be a thing of the past and ANA will not be a poor organization anymore, and with that we can now promote our projects for schools, publishing for ANA members and so on. In fact, in the coming years ANA can also have a publishing outfit to help up and coming authors publish their works.
You mentioned that very soon ANA will no longer be poor because the facility will be yielding money. That will also ensure that the politics to get into ANA will be very intense, because there will be money which people will set eyes on. Wouldn’t that complicate the factionalisation already on ground?
In fact, what you have said is simply the truth. The current so-called factionalisation that emanated from the last convention is simply because of that. People have seen money ahead.
So how can the situation be mediated so it doesn’t become explosive so that there will be unity?
Just as I said earlier, it’s to have a good membership directory, to have a proper system and institutions in place for succession, for election; it should not be haphazard where before you go to election, the president asks you to raise hands if you support someone, and you raise your hands; we shouldn’t do that anymore. We should have a proper membership directory concerning elections and qualified members should run for election, and everything should be transparent, so we will be able to identify those who are coming to work for the association and those who are coming for other ulterior purposes. Rules and regulations can take care of things like that.
What more would like to see happen to ANA in the next few years?
What I would like to add is that ANA will grow from strength to strength. In fact, in this 40th celebration, what we are having in Abuja is just the climax. We have been having celebration activities at state levels. It started in Ibadan, and the second one was right here in Yenagoa, and what we presented, the president was here himself, and he watched a local choir and wants it to come to Abuja for the convention for a repeat performance of what they did in Yenagoa.