‘…All (four) categories can be awarded same year, every year, to give more leverage, stature to the prize’
‘…Prize can support at least one international literary festival in this country’
Prof. Remi Raji is no newcomer to The Nigeria Prize for Literature. He’s among the 11 longlisted poets vying for the USD100,000 prize money with his collection, Wanderer Cantos. In this interview with ANOTE AJELUOROU, Raji addresses some of the nagging issues in the country’s literary landscape
Congratulations for making the longlist of The Nigeria Prize for Literature. What feeling does it engender?
THANK you. It was a joyful feeling being in the longlist, a certain déjà vu which engenders a fulfilling sense of being part of the tradition.
Of course, this is your third time for this prize. What are your expectations this time around? Do you still regret 2009 when the poetry prize wasn’t awarded?
Yes, you are right, it is almost my third time but the first appearance in 2009 was as dramatic and strange as it happened. I wouldn’t know why Gather my Blood Rivers of Song was disqualified after it was mentioned in the longlist, momentarily. But no, I wouldn’t talk of regrets. A competition must have its own rules, and like a footballer in the field of play, submission to yellow and red cards is mandatory.
What’s the thematic concern of your collection, Wanderer Cantos? How much of current socio-political realities does it reflect, if at all?
Wanderer Cantos is about the expressions of journeying, of challenges, trials and triumph in precarious time and space. There is an unmistakable and intimate engagement with social and political realities through which the patriotic resolve of the poetic persona never wanes or falters.
You’re among a strong cast of poets vying for the USD$100,000 worth The Nigeria Prize for Literature. Apart from the money, what’s special about the prize anyway?
For me, the imprimatur of a laureate is crucial. The Nigeria Prize for Literature is undoubtedly the biggest on the African continent and it holds the real potential of becoming a dividend marker for the literary tradition even beyond the continent. Of course, there is value in the money, but there is a greater value in being listed among the NPL icons.
Over 250 poetry collections in a span of four years in a country where reading habit is said to be low, with public universities shut for over five months. Who exactly are poets like you writing for? How does this poetic effusion help correct the reading anomaly?
I should guess that the number of collections submitted must be a record for any literary competition anywhere in the world. I can also give a reason apart from the increasing population of writers of all genres, especially prose and poetry, in the country: the past two years (2020 and 2021) have been the pandemic years, with the potential of inspiring reflective and speculative writing about events in the society. Also, the available technologies of social media have democratised printing and publishing that allows for the proliferation of writing of various qualities and sensibilities.
Who do I write for? My field is broad and varied. I write for those who cannot write, or those who cannot speak, so to say; I write to those who can read, and understand; and I write about those who can read but may not read. How does poetry help reading? When properly channeled, poetry can help to produce and mobilise a literate community, poetry can inspire individual and group imagination, and poetry can develop new interests, new tastes, new aesthetics among new audiences.
You are among senior university teachers on the longlist. What does this mean for students of English and Literature Studies? How much of the literary works of these lecturers are literature students exposed to compared with older lecturers like Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, JP Clark? Do you see a gap in terms of relevance to socio-cultural and political realities?
Being on the longlist helps to affirm the point that teaching literature and writing literature can go hand-in-hand. In fact, one industry is the flip side of the other. It is also a source of inspiration to students in the faculty of humanities including English and Literary Studies, Linguistics and Communication for teachers to be recognised as practicians. I have had the opportunity of teaching generations of students and I am constantly inspired by their commitment to writing in the same way that I have tried to encourage them to sustain the literary tradition.
In terms of literary works, the incremental pattern of reading that I expect students to be exposed to is receding rather than increasing. This is unfortunate. I have conducted random tests in this respect and I have found out that a number of titles that my generation of students was exposed to are no longer the staple texts in the classroom again. Yet, there is little or no gap in relevance to socio-cultural and political realities.
You and two other poets on the longlist can be described as veterans – Ogaga Ifowodo and Obari Gomba – having appeared at this stage and last three before without winning it. What does this say about the attraction The Nigeria Prize for Literature generates?
Whether you are a veteran or not, it is either a work is good or not good enough, or it does not cut the mark, or it doesn’t make any impression on the judges. Not winning the prize should not take anything away from the devotion of the author to his or her writing. It is plain to say that a competition is a competition, a competition with its own rules, measures and mission.
What would say is the state of creative writing in the country? Is it healthy enough? And how has it matched the socio-political space in terms of defining it for the understanding of future generations?
I believe that the state of creative writing in the country is slightly healthy. It can only be better with more support to the writing arm of the creative industry. One cannot but stress this more: endowments, writers’ resorts, literary academies and creative writing grants are the sauce of a very healthy intellectual and cultural system. I am afraid that we cannot formulate on the future without properly defining the present in robust terms.
You have followed the prize’s activities for some time now in its 18 years of existence. How would you rate it? What areas of improvement do you wish to see?
I think that, over time, the Nigeria LNG has listened to the constructive criticisms of the literary circles in and outside of the country. There are still rooms for improvement towards excellence and achieving greater impact. I think that the NPL will do well to improve on pushing the visibility of the winning books more than it presently does. An endowment of The Nigeria Prize for Literature with all categories awarded in same year, every year, will give more leverage and stature to the prize. The NPL is in real vantage position to support the establishment of at least one international literary festival in this country. I will like us to invite other writers to this country the way we have been invited to other international literary festivals (litfests). The socio-cultural, even economic, dividend will be huge for Nigeria.
Only one female writer made the longlist, the second in the prize’s history for poetry. As a teacher, is that a poor testimonial about female writers and writing in the poetry genre?
I am sure you know that one of my academic interests is the study and promotion of female writing across the African continent. As a literary community, it is in our best interest to have more female writers across all the genres, especially in poetry. We need to expand the horizon and perspectives, and overcome what I have referred to as the “sexclusion” of the female agency in our literature. But no, the presence of only one female, this time Iquo (DianaAbasi), does not translate to the absence of the female poet in Nigerian writing, gender and genre There is an increasing number of female poets dating back to the 1990s, from Toyin Adewale-Gabriel, Promise Ogochukwu, Maria Ajima and Unoma Azuah to other writers like Hannatu Abdullahi and Jumoke Verissimo. There are other female poets who are doing great work deserving of attention.
Your city Ibadan alone has produced two previous winners of the prize – Tade Ipadeola (poetry) and Soji Cole (drama). If you were to win it, that would be a proud record. Should anyone be surprised at such feat from Ibadan?
Oh well, that would be a sweet addition to the laureates from Ibadan. But nobody, or very few people, will be surprised because Ibadan has been the foundry of many laureates from Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka to Femi Osofisan, Niyi Osundare, Tanure Ojaide, Odia Ofeimun, and to Rotimi Babatunde, Tade Ipadeola and Soji Cole. As for the cultural significance of Ibadan, it is either you have studied there, taught in the University, or you have worked, lived or slept in the city. There must be something about the waters and the winds of the city that inspires the literature that endures.