July 19, 2024
Interview

Odili Ujubuonu: 60 Years of magic and memorable aesthetics’ celebration in Awka

anote
  • June 21, 2024
  • 14 min read
Odili Ujubuonu: 60 Years of magic and memorable aesthetics’ celebration in Awka

* ‘The Nigeria Prize for Literature gives gold standard weight credibility to winner’

*‘The impact of my kind of writing on the African society of today therefore is to stimulate progress’

Multiple award-winning novelist and advertising expert Odili Ujubuonu recently clocked 60. And he will be celebrated tomorrow in Awka, capital of his home state,‘where blacksmiths and wordsmiths meet’ as Awka Literary Society, event organiser, describes itself, with a lecture that has as theme ‘Odili Ujubuonu: 60 Years of Magic and Memorable Aesthetics’. And it’s ‘When the Stream Turns Yellow’ for Ujubuonu and his fellow travellers, as they reflect on the life of this unassuming but asturte writer, whose works mirror Africa’s past with a view to unearthing gems buried therein capable of shaping the future. Ujubuonu shared with ANOTE AJELUOROU some of his thoughts on African writing and what the future possibly holds for Africa’s sons and daughters who are scattered all over the world writing the continent into the sunlight

Some critics have declared Nigerian literature to be dead. Do you agree? And if you don’t, how alive is it?

IT is important to first understand why those who made such assertions did so, what expectations they have of Nigerian literature and what they meant by Nigerian literature. If I were in their shoes, would I be quick to make such a sweeping statement? My answer definitely will not be ‘Yes.’ If we look at the concept of ‘Nigerian literature’ as literary works by Nigerians across the globe, my answer will be ‘No’, because of the large oeuvre of literature on the country published in seasons across the seas by Nigerians. If measured by the level of literary works published annually in Nigeria by writers based here, I will still find it almost impossible to say that our literature is dead.

I have followed keenly The Nigeria Prize for Literature awards and the ANA prizes for a period of over 19 years and the metrics have not pointed in the direction of paucity of entries annually. Instead there has been a constant increase in the number of entries. So mathematically, we can’t say there’s a reason to certify it near dead not to talk of dead. Interestingly, there have been very young and new writers submitting their works and, in some cases, winning these awards. So one cannot even argue that it’s the old writers that are being recycled. New voices emerge annually in prose, poetry, drama and children’s literature, therefore pivoting Nigerian writing graph upwards.

We may not be where we hoped to be but that does not qualify one to consider Nigerian literature being dead.

African writers pander to European literary tastes and so thet write poverty porn. How true is the assertion? Is there a counterpoise?

I doubt if there is any African writer who would on her own choose to pander to the literary taste of the collective west as you have asserted without very concrete reasons. Such, if I may say, could happen under peculiar circumstances. And in each of these situations, the writer’s choice is deliberate. A Nigerian writer born and bred in the west will definitely be influenced by the sensibilities of the west. The same goes for the one who was trained and brought to fame by a western publishing house or a university. It’s uncharitable to expect such writer to aim her poisoned arrow at the heart of her benefactors unless the writer is bold enough to take the repercussions that would follow. We write for different reasons and we must respect that. Writers must first survive to be able to write. If you choose to write in exile, you must behave yourself or else you’ll be thrown into hunger. Every writing is intentional. It is either for purpose or for profit. Though sometimes one gives way to the other, and other times they collapse to become a mix of purpose and profit. For me, I write for purpose. That does not mean that those who write for profit write the so-called poverty porn.

Having said that, I think it is unfair to isolate this kind of writing to those who live abroad alone. So many writers here draw their inspiration from what happens in the west and make very deliberate efforts to sound like they live abroad. Some hold views and sometimes promote ideas that are distasteful to our cultural sensibilities in the guise of being modern and dispassionate writers. Do I blame them? Why would I? A writer must first of all be comfortable with what she writes about before caring about the world. If their comfort zone is found there, I have a choice either to walk in there and stay with them or just walk past, throw a greeting as we do in Africa, and move on.

Some say that the most important writing in Nigeria, nay Africa, is coming from diaspora writers. How true is this?

I am worried by the term most important. I am extremely disturbed by it. Are we saying that the stories that emerge from Africa daily are less important than those coming from the diaspora? What metrics are we using to judge this importance? Many of the so-called diaspora writers work with materials from Africa, either through memory or research. Ultimately, their stories are about Africa and by Africans. Unless what you mean here are “books” and not writing. We know that our publishing industry is near non-existent and we understand the impact this weakness has on the development of talent from this clime, but that does not in any way pale our writing here to the level of non-importance. Every writing speaks to and speaks from society is important. As long as our writing is doing this, it is as important as the ones coming from the diaspora.

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Odili Ujubuonu

How would you rate the writing coming from African diaspora writers?

The opportunities created by some western universities, residences, foundations and publishing houses have really helped Africa tell its stories in the Twenty-First century. I have just highlighted the challenges faced by the publishing industry in Africa and its attendant impact on writing here. Africa diaspora literature practitioners who have enjoyed the benefits of better book publishing infrastructure have used this opportunity to ensure that there is no break in the cadence of African voice in the global literary conversation. Diaspora writing continues to interface with a teeming number of young writers in Africa ensuring that the sacred art of story telling does not die. But it’s not all roses because as long as there is a relationship there is bound to be a clash. The clash of values promoted, imported from and sometimes gloried by diaspora writing seems to impact negatively on how some of the voices of the talents here are being shaped.

The Nigeria Prize for Literature is 20 years’ old. How would you assess its impact on Nigerian writing?

When The Nigeria Prize for Literature was born 20 years ago, nobody believed it would last for as long as it has. The prize has seen ups and downs, but has consistently improved itself and, in more times than not, delivered on its promises. Today, it is the prize with the highest prize money, most prestigious and the most subscribed literary prize in Africa. To assess its impact on writing is simple. Every four years each genre of literature, namely drama, poetry, children’s literature and prose get a chance to be assessed. In each assessment, each judgement and each awards you have over 150 books on the average receiving attention, 11 writers enjoying national limelight, three of those promoted to the roofs and the winner going home with a huge prize money that is real money in every currency. The impact annually is immense. Think of the opportunity that triggers the desire to win, the desire that triggers the impetus to write and then forces you to write well to compete and good enough to win. The impact is organic in the life of a writer.

I think Nigeria LNG has used the prize to live its brand proposition of ‘Building a Better Nigeria.’ Annually, a winner emerges. The winner could come from any part of Nigeria, any part of the world, she could be a woman or a man as long as the work is judged good enough to win by an advisory council which is always chaired by highly respected scholars. So from the point of credibility, it gives gold standard weight to everyone going home with the prize. Its impact is quite positive. My hope is that Nigeria LNG will continue to ensure that the prize does not lose its allure.

What’s the nexus between brand marketing and literature, the two spaces that you ply your creative trade?

They both belong to the creative industries. Creative advertising, especially copy writing, trains your senses. When you write copies for radio you write for the ears; when you write for television you write for the eyes. Every advertising writing is customer-centric. You want to leave a print on the mind of the customer. You want to create an aspirational world and help the customer take action. You are taught to tell the customer the truth all the time, so that when she experiences the goods she would love the product, love her judgement and remember the advert. You are writing purely for purpose to sell the goods and build a relationship between the customer and the brand. Because you are working on the behaviour of the customer with your words, you become responsible and careful to respect his or her sensibilities. To achieve this efficiently, you rely a lot on researching the product and entertaining the customer. You offer a credible story laced with a feel-good factor. To achieve this, you need your imagination. It is in the use of the imagination to create a beautiful, make-believe and aspirational world that creative advertising finds its nexus with literary writing.

I have depended a lot on these skills while writing. I research my projects a great deal before telling the tales. I try as much as possible to recreate from imagination that which research has verified.

Your novels Pregnancy of the Gods, Treasure in the Winds, Pride of the Spider Clan and Crows of the Yellow Stream are mostly on pre-colonial Igbo subjects. Why the obsession with the past?

I have said it times without number that I am a conscript of the muse. I write for purpose and not for money. There are more stories buried in history than there is today. You can never tell them enough. They are more difficult to tell because you have to rely heavily on research to do so. Every generation is charmed by the past. Today’s life is tomorrow’s story. If you believe that because your yesterdays are gone that they can no longer be, then you don’t know the power of literature. If you’ve ever sat beside your grandmother and heard her tell a story you’d know that our kind of writings are far modern than the universe from which core African tales emerged from. Think of the Tortoise series which starts with creation, lives in the animal kingdom and reigns in times man and animals cohabit.

But that’s my choice. People can explore the future, hit the meta-verse of mulit-verses or even settle for the universe of today. For me the more we use our imagination, the more we create opportunities for progress. When that happens, writing achieves its ultimate purpose, in my opinion.

Some critics describe your last novel Crows of the Yellow Stream as ‘a convoluted and complex weaving of characters and themes that collide at a critical junction in the lives of a community.’ How much at play are the preternatural forces you invoked present in Africa’s societies today and what impact do they still have on the living?

Hahahahaha. Critics don’t fail to amaze me. When you do four dimensional writing, the preternatural theme becomes an opportunity to explore. Storytelling from an African perspective is huge in the fourth dimension. Because a story like the news is an outstanding thing that happened which the author is eager to share with others; fourth dimension is a constant canvas of this art form. Imagine your grandmother goes to the market and sees two women fighting and also sees seven women walking with their heads. The likely story to be told is the unnatural one. As a writer, my aim is to help my reader shed his or her blinkers, join me climb up the Jacob’s ladder of imagination. If your sense of imagination is not challenged then I have failed as a writer, and one of the ways of creating non-existent world in your existing one is through preternatural forces. The question now is: why border with tasking the imagination of the reader? Art can only be useful to society if it creates a road map for science to follow. Through the ability to visualise, Leonardo Da Vinci invented the bicycle without ever seeing one and predicted photography with the Monalisa masterpiece. To imagine is to create, to create is to make be, to make new things be is progress. The impact of my kind of writing on the African society of today therefore is to stimulate progress.

This is critical even in my life as a public servant. I strive to keep creating new opportunities for progress. I may not have succeeded as I would love to but we are making progress.

At 60, what’s the next big project on your menu? What piece of work do we expect next?

I have a lot of years to live and a lot of stories to tell. As always, I am working on one. You’ll read it when it is out.

Pregnancy of the Gods, Treasure in the Winds, Pride of the Spider Clan and Crows of the Yellow Stream. There’s a sort of rhythm to the titles of your books. Is there something in particular you want your readers to pay attention to when they come across your works?

The answer is both No and Yes. No because I don’t intentionally give titles my books end up with either before I write them or at the end of the writing. Most of the titles come in the course of the writing. Pregnancy of the Gods was actually titled by Maxim from a line in the story. The other titles emerged in course of writing the books. I will say Yes, knowing in all honesty that I had to reject some titles which also emerged in the course of writing the novels which I felt sounded either trite, weightless and may be easily forgotten. I think in deciding the titles sometimes my job as a copywriter comes into play. Does it have a zing to the ears? Does it promise something to the reader? Can it stand out in the mind of the book lover?

In fiction, some writers pay so much attention to the development of their characters that at the end, they gift us personages that literally leap out of the pages of their books and assume their own lives. For instance, the Centre for Memories hosted a conversation on Unoka ofThings Fall Apart in Enugu recently. Do you pay any special attention to your characters or do you just allow them to evolve with the plot?

I believe that in the universe of a book characters emerge, like the spirit mmonwu from the ant holes. It is possible to start a novel and a character would emerge and take a full form before the writer notices. Some characters are not that endowed. You’ll have to panel beat them into the shape you want them to take. In course of editing, a whole lot is done to work on the mannerisms and voices to make one different from the other. However, I must state that for characters like Unoka who in my opinion, is a diplomat, a successful artist, an economist, a negotiator, mystic and father to the greatest man in Umuofia, they don’t get shaped, they come fully made!

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