interview by Samuel Okopi
Can you tell us briefly about yourself?
Name is Sodiq Oyedeji Alabi; I was born and bred in the peaceful city of Iwo, Osun state where I attended schools, both secular and religious. I hold a degree in Plant Biology from the University of Ilorin in Kwara State, home state of Esiẹ Museum, the first museum to be established in Nigeria (in 1945). [The City of Ilorin, ca 300 km north-east of Lagos, accommodates reportedly the only standard baseball court in West Africa and Africa’s biggest cashew processing plant.]
I’m a Muslim, Orthodox Sunni, a liberal to a large extent too — live- and-let-live kind of thinking, you know.
It was my more adventurous brother who introduced me to the world of books when I was ten or so; we together ransacked our dad’s library. Reading brought me to writing which is how it is supposed to be.
Presently, I write poetry, nonfiction and once in a year I turn out a short story or if I’m not too lazy, which is rarely, I turn out two. In my two decades plus on Mother Earth, I have been a teacher at primary, secondary and religious schools, a co-founder of Islamic Cultural Group (2003), Youth Liberators Forum (2006), The Transformers (2011), a broadcaster, an actor, a performance poet, a student leader, an editor and — most importantly — a talkative guy.
When I grow up I want to become a poet and a scientist, then a writer, then a millionaire and then retire to politics. Sounds like a plan, doesn’t it?
What inspires your writing?
Anything and everything. But most times, I have discovered, anger motivates my writing. There a lot of things to be angry about in this country so I always have stuff to poeticize about. However, I focus more on what some critics might dismissingly call political/protest poetry. I protest in serious ways and satirically too. My essays are usually about failures of our government, political leaders or religious institutions.
Not only anger propels me, however. I always work best when I am in love. This is a scientifically proven fact, you see. Presently, I am helplessly in love and I’m writing almost every day: mostly love poems.
A literary icon from Nigeria of world fame Chinua Achebe passed on recently. How do you think his writing and politics can influence young Nigerian writers?
For aspiring Nigerian writers, we need to be true to the arts, we need to be painstaking in our craft, in respect to Chinua Achebe if not for anything else we shouldn’t put out a badly written book. We should strive for excellence while never coveting award or praise.
His politics, however, is another thing. On the one hand, we have a man who participated in politics at the highest level of a political party — a fact not known to many — so I think that should inspire young people to go into politics for the right reasons and try to effect changes. Unfortunately, he was frustrated by politics, by the rot and corruption he had to personally witness even in his own progressive party.
On the other hand, we have a man who never compromised. He never took an appointment, he twice rejected the national award, his name was never associated with scandal, he was true to his principles and he gave back to the society. I think my generation has a lot to learn from him in that regard: values the two immediate generations after him were unable to successfully imbibe. Achebe was fearless and we need to be fearless. He was focused, we need to be focused. He was selfless, we must be selfless. Of course there are aspects of his politics that I strongly disagree with but I’m not dwelling on those here.
Do you think Achebe left a void that should be filled by a young or some young Nigerian writers?
The last thing anyone should strive to be is Chinua Achebe. It is impossible. It is a waste of time. It is a disservice to a certain young writer that people keep comparing her to Achebe. I don’t want to walk in anyone’s shadow. It will be too dark, anyway.
Achebe, Soyinka and Okigbo were pioneers and unless the world starts all over again we are not going to have pioneers in modern Nigerian literature again. On whether there is a void to be filled by a single writer or by a group of writers, I think we should rather face writing and stop thinking about who will be the next big one or the next Chinua Achebe. We should imbibe some of Nigeria’s renowned authors’ values but remain ourselves. They were themselves and that was why they became great.
If you are opportune to present your work to a global audience, how will you capitalize on that to sell Nigeria to other countries as a place to visit and do business in?
I abhor the single story, but propaganda writing or arts also irks me. I just want to write, I’m not so much interested in selling Nigeria to the world. I don’t think the arts should be reduced to that level of ‘selling’.
However, I may engage in other projects that have little or nothing to do with literature which may seek to ‘sell’ Nigeria to the world. But I refuse to avail my literary work to cheap propaganda.
If my work reaches a global audience I will trust my readers enough to make their own fair assessment without me trying hard to influence either positively or negatively their assessment. I will write, I will be sincere, I will not pander. So help me God.
How do you think writing can influence the Nigerian society and economy?
Well, when Nigerians read more of Nigerian literature it only follows that our writers will make more money and that in turn will allow them to devote more time to writing instead of hustling. And this could also help stem the tide of our brains draining to everywhere including Ghana.
If our writers are comfortable, something that depends on their commercial success here, then there will be lesser incentive for them to flee to countries from Eritrea to USA. I think that will be great for our economy and our society. Instead of Nigerian readers donating money to India and Australia by buying their publications we can help our writers by buying their works–original copies not pirated– and we are in turn helping ourselves, the economy and our society.
Our writers should also produce well written, excellently edited, brilliantly packaged, and reasonably priced works that not only engross their readers but also elicit their devotion to Nigerian literature. It is all cyclical.
I cannot tell people what to write or how to write but I do think some –certainly not all — of our writers should seek to raise awareness of our populace on issues especially on leadership, evil of religious dogmatism, government and corruption related issues through their writing. In other word, we still need thought leaders of writers in our society.
Some Nigerian authors could also write to promote and ‘sell’ Nigeria to the outside world: about how great the motherland is, if only to counteract the negative effects of the single story.
In the face of an explosive growth in social networking and internet access by many on the globe do you see great promise for the Nigerian writer in putting his work out there to the world?
Absolutely. God bless the internet and her daughter, the social network, they both have done so much for the young Nigerian writer. I can reel of half a dozen young writers who are now published authors who started off publishing on the internet and sharing their works over the social networks. Emmanuel Iduma and Richard Ali readily come to mind. My generation has to a large extent bypassed the largely clueless publishing houses; we are even setting up our own more resourceful publishing houses now. Parresia is a proud example of such effort.
What are the constraints you have experienced as a young writer in regards to this?
A lot of responsibilities come with that writer tag, I don’t know if I qualify. I don’t think I do. A ‘poet’ is better. But maybe I should just assume, with serious misgivings, the position of a young writer so I could answer your question. Not many constraints. I haven’t had much rejection since most of our online magazines do not send out rejection notes, which is very unfortunate.
I started putting up my work on the now defunct Poetry.com of Lulu.com. It was a site that attracted global attention. Then I joined poemhunter. I was in hiatus until I joined naijastories and Facebook publishing. And those two have been great for me. The major constraint is just the level of insightful criticism you can attract. Not nearly enough. Too much of fraternization, and once you become someone’s friend they expect you to always kiss their ass. I find it easier these days to critique a stranger’s work than a friend’s. But I still find my way to be a pain in the butt sha. So no much complaint. It has been a roller-coaster ride.
How do you think The Green Heritage can use its platform to directly and indirectly promote Nigerian literature?
I really want to send a message that we shouldn’t, I wouldn’t, engage in propaganda writing. Allow me to be selfish here. If you want to promote Nigerian literature don’t go about promoting Things Fall Apart or The Interpreters. Promoting Purple Hibiscus doesn’t count either. You may promote Americanah. Promote new authors, new books that are not getting enough attention. Write about them on your site, drop their names in your articles, and quote from them. This may cause someone in New Zealand to ask something like ‘Who is this Nwilo Bura Bari guy from Nigeria?’ And maybe she can end up buying Nwilo’s book. Interview them, the new authors, promote them vigorously, their works are an indispensable part of our heritage.
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