June 14, 2024
Interview

We forget that there’s a subtle process by which literature brings about change, not carrying knives, shovels and guns, says Gomba

anote
  • September 27, 2023
  • 16 min read
We forget that there’s a subtle process by which literature brings about change, not carrying knives, shovels and guns, says Gomba

‘The problem is not the absence of readership; it’s our capacity in the book chain to cultivate the market space that we want’

The political issues of the day are just too urgent for poet and playwright Obari Gomba to ignore. In his latest dramatic offering entitled Grit, the Associate Professor takes a dig at Nigeria’s fumbling political space. But while others agonise, the academic would rather Nigerians celebrate the modest gains made so far, but continue to organise for a better society that takes a long time to build. He’s convinced literature is part of the steady growth and change society is experiencing and there’s need to sustain it

By Anote Ajeluorou

Grit and Guerrilla Post are both political plays, but in what ways are they also different?

The subject matter is different. Guerrilla Post is about police brutality, abuse of law enforcement, and the revolt against that. Grit is about partisan politics and how the forces within a particular community orchestrate crisis in the family and the community. They are both political plays, but they look at it from two different angles. There is also a sense in which both plays can be read side by side to have a fuller understanding of what the challenges of a toxic political space are.

Every work of art is political, and Grit is not an exception. And in Nigeria’s peculiar situation today, where does that play fit in?

Everywhere! A reader is perceptive enough to understand how literature depicts society and how society, in turn, shapes what literary productivity or content should be. It is my view that as long as society continues to remain the way it is, the work of art that has been produced to depict society will be timeless. But even when there are social transitions that make one era different from another, if the artistic merits of a work of art are such that can enable that work’s endurance, it will endure through time. That is why we still read Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s plays were not written in today’s English, and they were not written primarily for today’s audience, but the human types and social values that are in his works are presented aesthetically. And they have endured through time; every generation of readers can engage Shakespeare and enjoy the artistry and the content.

Literature could be described as a creative piece of historicisation. It’s history, but it’s written in a creative form. For instance, in the play, Grit, Nigeria is mirrored through the lens of a family. But then again, we are in a society where leadership is quite a challenge, and then you look at the amount of creative works that have been written on Nigerian politics with a view for a better society, from Soyinka to Achebe to Gomba, and society hasn’t quite changed yet. Should we really be bothered about literature?

Have you ever considered what the situation would have looked like if those works were not written? It is easy to stand where we are now and we forget that – because the works are not carrying knives, shovels and guns, and they are just tied to paper – we forget that there is a subtle process by which literature brings about change. If you want to evaluate what the impact of literature is, you should also have the capacity to evaluate what the absence of literature is. If we are to relate that to Nigeria, I believe our society has profited more from our creativity, not just the promotion of culture, but the capacity of literature to make commentary about our social space. Where we will go from here to the next 10 or 15 years will depend on how we are able to translate social commentary or literary presentation to a certain kind of political action which will drive change.

I am also happy that in this age and time, there are different media for the transmission of literature. People are now sharing literature on WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter or X, Instagram, blogs, e-magazines and all the likes, and that is something that should enhance readership. I have said this before that many persons speak about the failure of readership in Nigeria, but they do not present the statistics to show they know the number of Nigerians who are reading and those who do not read. In public discourse, we just say that Nigerians do not read books, but statistically, in comparison to the number of Nigerians who are literate, how many persons are reading and how many are not? I believe that there are more persons who have read Grit as soft copy than those who have read the hard copy. I have distributed more hard copies, but the point about soft copies is that if I give them to you, you can share them easily with people. I do not have control over that, and it turns out there could be thousands of people who have read Grit on their phones or computers.

I also believe we have not leveraged on the literacy of Nigerians to sell books. There are more Nigerians who are literate now than we had in 1960. It does not make sense to say that there was a time that Nigerians were reading more than they are reading now. If you have more educated people now, then more persons should be reading. However, our book distribution, publicity, and promotion are not good enough to get books to the people. If you have about 15 million people in Lagos, and that is a conservative figure, you should be able to sell up to five thousand copies in Lagos alone. Lagos itself is a big market, but many of the people who read our books read for free. People want to read but are not willing to buy books; they want to be given free books. Our readership may not translate to sales because our fellow citizens are reading for free. And if you look at the book that we have produced, we will find out that we have given a great number of free copies to people.

Author of Grit, Obari Gomba

How damaging is that to the economy of the writer?

If you look at the writer as an individual, you can say it does not make good business sense to give out free books like that, but it makes a fantastic cultural sense because you remember the Bible says: ‘you should spread your stuff on many waters and you would get it back.’ It is better for someone in Ibadan to read Grit than to have an unsold copy in my house because I am mindful of making profit from every copy the book. Of what use is a thousand copies in my store? Why should I insist on selling every copy when I can have two or three persons read the book and recommend it to others and get visibility for the work? Selling and giving! Both things must go together, and that is why established publishing cultures know that a certain number of what is produced goes into publicity. Once a publisher produces books, they set aside copies and send them to specific readers who can make commentaries or reviews to increase the publicity of the book. Here, our publishing houses are small, we do not do so much of that, but self-published authors do so because they have more control over their books and they do not have distribution network anyway. The publishers are a bit careful about how they give out books; they think about what every copy means to their businesses. But individuals who have self-published are a lot more willing to share books.

So, I can say that Nigerians are reading, but more Nigerians have to read. And for more Nigerians to read, the entire book chain must be transformed to a point where we can move books from production to the hands of people. We are not doing that enough. The problem is not the absence of readership; it is our capacity as people in the book chain to cultivate the market space that we want.

Of course, we talk about the economy generally, even the economy of the reader, which also ties with politics. The economy and politics are twins, so to speak, which is something your book addresses tangentially in our flawed political system, and then Pa Nyimenu takes matters into his own hands. Is that something you recommend?

Let me go back to the issue of the economy. You know that if you have to decide between a book and a tuber of yam, you will buy a tuber of yam, right? The economy affects every sector of our lives, and because the book business is in the economy, it will also be affected by the economy. That is why you are likely to find higher readership in places where there is more economic stability. That is why many people here do not want to buy books; there are other things they want to spend the money on. If they have money, they will buy books if there are no stronger competing items or issues. We have remained brave as creative people in Nigeria despite all those difficulties. Across sectors, the people in the film industry have braved the difficulties of the Nigeria economy. People in the music industry have also braved the difficulties. In fact, there are a lot of lessons to learn from those in the music industry. We need to pay attention to what they are doing, because many of them are making money on their personal platforms, which are similar to what we call self-publishing. If the music industry is doing it, then what other platforms of distribution for literature can we explore to make our books sell?

To the issue of politics in Grit, the most difficult portion of Grit to write, for me, was the end. As we say in drama, the end is everything. It is the end that determines whether a play is a tragedy, a a comedy, or a tragicomedy. It is the end that determines what the final impression of the reader is going to be. I agonized a lot about how to end that play. I think that it ended in the best possible way, to bring about a crisis at that point and leave a room for hope – the potential for regeneration in public space despite the wave of anarchy.

It was Prof. Niyi Osundare who said “seek ye first the political kingdom, and the economic kingdom will be added unto you.” And so, Pa Nyimenu, in a desperate move to save his family and the community, because his family and the community are tied together, had to do something. Have we done enough to right the wrongs in our political space?

I will not recommend that a particular approach should be a guide to every political situation, or even to the Nigerian situation. Pa Nyimenu’s decision, at that point, stems from anger and concern for his family, but the political space in Nigeria is much more diverse, and the problems can be a lot more diverse than one book of literature can portray. To what you said about Niyi Osundare, the point is that politics shapes everything in any given social space. Politics is inescapable and is at the root of everything we do. If a politician wakes up today and decides to tax everyone who owns a borehole, and a law is passed to that effect, you either have to change that law, or obey it, or you break the law and go to jail.

One of the strongest things that our political class has going for it is that politicians have succeeded in diverting the attention of citizens from politics, and some of the things they have done is to dirty the space so much that good people do not want to get involved. And the truth is that as long as good people do not get involved because they are not willing to take risks or suffer any kind of difficulty, the political space is not going to be right. Politics is something everyone must take personally. Whether you are going to get a job, sleep and wake up in your house or travel from point A to point B safely, it is about politics. It is the person in a political position that will order the law enforcement agency to do its job or fire those who are not doing their jobs. Politics is tied to everything we do in a social space.

One of the things you must know is that, as said in Grit, evil does not go to sleep when good people retire. Pa Nyimenu was a man who at a point in his life decided to leave politics and face his family, but the very evil he fought as a young man came back to haunt him at the end of the day when he was an elderly person.

It would seem as if our socially and politically conscious writers are sleeping while evil is walking abroad. Don’t you think so?

In terms of participation, we are not as involved as we should be, and one of the reasons why we are not involved is because most of us have become appropriated by the system. I am not one of those persons who romanticize the office of a writer. Writers are human and all the follies that can be seen in people of other professions can also be seen in writers. However, you can find writers that have conscience and dignity, and a sense of purpose towards the wellbeing of their society, like you would find doctors and lawyers. But what we need to do is to note all the forces to the point where we can engage society and push forward because no society changes without the capacity of people to push things. It does not matter whether people fail, it is worse if we are not doing stuff at all.

The people I celebrate the most in this political dispensation are people who had the courage to get into the ring even though they felt that their chances were slim. You need a certain kind of contention to take place for the narratives to change, even if it means just by an inch. I was asked to speak at a forum the other day, and there were many young people who were disappointed about the last election. I said to them, “I remember what Rev. Jesse Jackson said when he came to University of Port Harcourt. He said on the day that Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, they all gathered in a room, grieving and mourning. Then at one point, they told themselves that they were not going to allow one bullet to end the movement. And I asked the young people: Are you going to allow one ballot to end your movement?”

A country is a very difficult thing to change. It takes resilience, tenacity, and sacrifice. You need consistent vigilance and advocacy. Nigeria’s civil society folks are not as strong as they were under the military because they allowed democracy to quieten them. They are not engaging the space. We knew the groups that were behind activism in those years, the civil society groups. Where are they today? The people who ran those groups in the 1990s were people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s. What are people in those age brackets doing now? Why do we keep looking up to people in their 60s and 70s to speak for the system when we are the ones with the longer time to live in the political space? The challenge before all of us is to get involved. Are we going to get it right all the time? No. Are we ever going to get it right if we do not get involved? No. We stand a better chance of getting it right when we get involved, even if we fail sometimes. We need vigilance. Look at the women in Grit; the political class blindfolded them. They thought they were working for good but did not know they had been sold out. But the crisis blew everything open, and the community would be wiser. There is also something to be gained after every conflict or failure.

Obari Gomba

Are we any wiser after 2023?

I believe we will be wiser. As a people, we will be wiser. Some people who promoted certain kinds of candidates in 2015 did not get what they wanted, and they would have realized now that they did not take the right decision. Now, we have a new crop of people in 2023; some of them were there in the past and have a lot working for them and they have been able to perpetuate themselves to some extent in politics. Many Nigerians have come up and have wrestled with the system to change things. Many have failed but some progress has been recorded. Across the country, there are individuals who have been elected to office who would not have stood a chance if Nigerians did not have the kind of awakening they have had from #EndSARS in 2020 to the election in 2023.

Many of us did not get the presidential candidate we wanted to elect to office. But, if we look at the big picture, a lot of progress has been made. What we need to do is to learn from where we succeeded or failed and improve on that. I told people after the election that you do not win an election because you are right; you win because you can. If we understand that, what we need to do going forward, not just at the national level but at all levels, is to know that we can only win when we can. Good people need to develop their capacity to win, and not count on their goodness alone to make them win. It does not work like that in any polity or country in the world.

* Gomba is shortlisted for The Nigeria Prize for Literature 2023 in the drama category

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