‘…Hold candidates accountable for library, education provision, Ibrahim tells writers’ bodies’
By Ozoro Opute
UNITED in their commitment to promoting artistic expressions, Nigeria Liquified Natural Gas (NLNG) Limited, promoters of The Nigeria Prize for Literature, and Goethe-Institut Nigeria came together on Wednesday, June 22, 2022 to promote diverse works in photographic and literary art at Art Twenty One gallery at Eko Hotel & Suites, Victoria Island, Lagos. It was a rare opportunity for these two institutions affiliated to two governments to join hands in a common cause – promoting art and projecting artists from the two countries.
Indeed, NLNG and Goethe-Institut Nigeria have become synonymous with promoting arts and artists of diverse ranges. While Goethe-Institut Nigeria promotes diverse artistic expressions and artists, NLNG specialises in promoting literary art and writers, particularly by awarding a huge prize to deserving writers every year worth USD$100,000.
While NLNG had two past winners of its literary prize – Abubakar Adam Ibrahim (Season of Crimson Blossom – 2016) and Jude Idada (Boom Boom – 2019) reading from their books, with the culture curator and communicator Jahman Anikulapo moderating, Goethe-Institut Nigeria had the photographic works of Germany’s Wolfgang Tillmans titled ‘Fragile’ providing meditative, photographic background to the evening of conversation between the two writers. It was indeed a rare moment when two disparate artistic expressions converged in the same room to delight the audience.
Remarkably, both institutions had their respective senior officials in attendance. While NLNG had its General Manager, External Relations and Sustainable Development, Mr. Andy Odeh in the house, Goethe-Institut Nigeria had its Director, Dr. Nadine Siegert to represent the respective interests of their establishments.
Although the two writers dealt with dissimilar issues in their books, they are issues still as relevant and fresh as can be in contemporary society. While Ibrahim’s Season of Crimson Blossom deals with an unusual intimate relationship between a middle aged woman and a young thief, with Nigeria’s political chicanery and violence thrown in-between, Idada’s Boom Boom deals with sickle cell anaemia and its sufferers and the depth of pain the disease inflicts on sufferers and those around them alike. Coincidentally, Ibrahim and Idada have had encounters with sufferers of sickle cell anaemia and recounted to the audience how horrendous the pain can be. This prompted both of them, including the moderator Anikulapo, to sue for stiff legislation that provides penalty for parents who enter into relationships with genes that could lead to offspring that could be vulnerable to the disease.
In responding also to the political undertone in his book, Ibrahim took writers’ bodies in the country to task, wondering why they were not asking candidates across the political divide questions that pertain to their writing vocation: the provision of good libraries and quality education for the populace. He lamented that writers’ bodies were not agitating for things that relate to their craft, but rather were engaged in mere politicking that does not benefit society.
According to Ibrahim, “We had a discussion on World Book Day and we said we have people who are coming out now to contest for president; this is an opportunity to hold these people accountable and ask them, ‘what plans do you have for libraries in the country?’, ‘what plans do you have to build and develop schools?’ Even if they don’t have, make them make commitments, so that you can go back to them later to make them accountable for the commitments that they made. But unfortunately, the writers bodies go into the kind of politics that doesn’t demand anything in return for the community.”
On whether winning such a huge prize dulls the creative pulse, as many past winners have seemingly retired from writing, Idada said this was not true in his case since he sees writing as work and thus still writing.
“Winning the prize you have to fight to remain who you are, because of the demands from all sorts of people for monetary assistance. I still want to be able to jump buses and not feel the weight of the money,” Idada said regarding the change the prize has wrought in him since winning it in 2019 for children’s literature with Boom Boom.
“I keep working,” he continued, “I keep on writing. I’ve written four works since winning the award. I go to the gym every single day. I keep on working; I keep on writing. I have to look at writing as work, as going to work. I have to look at it diligently. I have to look at it like that; every single day I woke up I have a story to tell. I have the voice that has a message to send out. Money comes and money goes, but your work remains forever. It’s your imprint on the sands of time.”
Like most rebellious young people, Idada had a running battle with his father for not toeing the career path he wanted for him, arguing that he has to justify that rebellion by the sheer excellence he is duty-bound to attain in his writing vocation.
“And it answers the question: why are you a writer? Why did you fight your father not to be a medical doctor or lawyer but chose to be a writer? That was my situation. So every time I think about that, I remember the pain on my father’s face when I told him I wanted to be a writer, and I tell myself $100,000 is not enough to stop this train from moving.”
Ibrahim too came under such pressure for winning the prize, saying people of diverse hues made monetary “demands on you to the point where they see you as a money-dispensing ATM.”
However, the knotty issue about encouraging NLNG to go beyond maintaining the literary prizes and also extend a hand of fellowship in support of literary/writers’ festivals to give ample platforms for its prize-winners and other writers alike to showcase their works came up. While such proposition, according to Anikulapo, would keep winners of the Nigeria Prize for Literature on their toes and help sharpen their appetite to create more works rather than falling off the radar and fading into oblivion as has become the fate of some past prize-winners, Idada and Ibrahim saw things differently. Anikulapo anchored his argument on the necessary symbiosis between the literary craft and a book festival, saying that since NLNG already has the promotion of writing as one of its core Corporate Social Responsibilities (CSR), supporting book festivals across the country naturally fits neatly into the same package as giving prizes to deserving writers. He cited the example of the BOCAS Book Festival in Trinidad & Tobago, as one good collaboration between a national gas company and a national literary project.
But Ibrahim and Idada argued otherwise, saying that the gas company was already doing enough with the prize and sued for its continuity. They said the gas company should not be over-burdened with another task such as supporting festivals. Rather, they enjoined other companies operating in the country to take up such responsibility. Idada specifically called out generator-selling companies that profit from the darkness plaguing the country such as Mikano and all the rest to invest in cultural festivals and the literary arts. He chided companies that support frivolous but popular culture that corrupts the minds of youths such as BBNaija to look the way of supporting literary art. He said BBNaija and such programme add little or no value to the social engineering of society other than celebrate and promote nudity and slothfulness.