In this riveting interview with Paul Liam, Odoh Diego Okenyodo, a trained Pharmacist, Journalist, Development Communication Expert, Managing Director of Isu Media Ltd, Executive Director of AkweyaTV, a former Literary Journalist, Poet and author of the 2009 Nigeria Literature Prize shortlisted book, From A Poet to Its Creator, speaks about his writing journey and other topical issues surrounding Nigerian literature today.
According to Okenyodo, the new generation of Nigerian writers are pursuing personal agendas hence lack a collective vision for their writings like the older generation whose sense of communality fuelled their artistic vision. Okenyodo submits that “this is a generation of very inward-looking writers paying attention only to their craft and career achievements,” thus hinting at a charge that has been used too many times in describing the writings of the “newer” generation of Nigerian writers. He also talks about the challenges of publishing in Nigeria today and the leadership crisis in ANA.
LitVo: Thank you for considering our request for this interview despite your many busy schedules.
Diego Okenyodo: It’s my pleasure to have been considered worthy of being interviewed.
LitVo: It has been 13 years since the publication of your first collection of poems, From A Poem to Its Creator (2008). It is a wonder why you are yet to publish another book after these outrageous years. Do you mind sharing your reasons with us?
Diego Okenyodo: Well, before I published the collection you referred to, From A Poem to Its Creator, it probably had been ready for 7 years, somewhere around 2001 or 2002. Creatively, I grew up under the tutelage of Mu’azu Maiwada and my father, the late Akpallah Okenyodo, both of whom were craftsmen that believed you should give your best at any time you choose to put your foot forward. Of course, my immediate elder brothers, Amed and Rapmans were huge influences too. What all these people had in common were a dedication to the art, some kind of desire to offer what you consider your best at any point. In this age and time, not many people see this as a virtue, but I guess that if I were a computer, this app is one that I am unable to uninstall! [Laughter.]
LitVo: Many of the things that publishers ought to take care of are now to be done by writers themselves, as most publishers are confining themselves to the printing and packaging component of the vocation. Most publishers are so small they do not have the luxury of in-house editorial and marketing staff, and the authors are often so much in a hurry that release dates have been set—often in a matter of weeks—by the time they are contacting the publisher. So, for me, my process is to share pieces and some of the collection and have comments, to see what resonates or not with audiences. That’s why we are yet to see the works. But that is actually one part of the story.
Diego Okenyodo: The second part of the story is that of some form of despondency with the limited copies of books writers-turned-publishers can produce and distribute. We are most times producing 1000 copies, at best, and of those 1000, about 300 copies go to family, friends, co-workers, journalists, reviewers, mentors and so on. Of the 700 copies, the cost of distribution comes to about N100,000 as you send 10 copies to one university, 20 copies to a dozen bookshops in faraway cities, and you log your books with you in bags as you attend book readings, fairs and exhibitions. Many of these would be sold and the monies wouldn’t come back. So, I have always asked myself why I should go into another strenuous exercise that won’t scale up? For a population of over 200m people, I am always thinking that 20,000 copies should be the most dismal minimum any writer ought to target. I might be over-ambitious to many but this is what keeps worrying me. This is not a reason for other writers to fold their arms, but just what is holding me back. I can’t have another collection that remains in the booth of my car!
LitVo: If there is no perfection in art as it is often said, why are you obsessed with perfection as can be seen through the stylistic nuances of your collection?
Diego Okenyodo: I don’t strive at perfection in the sense of the word but I strive to give my best. I detest proofreading errors, copyediting errors—for instance, page numbers being mixed up—things that I can take care of before we go to press. I also think that collections should be slim and every poem, every word, should earn its place. I remember how I was almost going to press with my work and I had Ahmed Maiwada read it, and in addition to other incisive contributions, he told me the original title “Words From A Poem to Its Creator” was a bit verbose for a collection. He suggested I kick out the word “word” and that was how we arrived at what I considered more apt, “From A Poem to Its Creator”.
My late dad used to teach us that art mustn’t be served with apologies or excuses. When an artist finalises their work, they should feel it encapsulate what they wanted to say and how they wanted to say it, even if there could be other interpretations. Art is a continuum of our persons and we must strive to let it be shadows of us. That means we should not hurry art. Art can hurry us, but we should be humble enough to allow it to lead, unless we have decided to commercialise art, which, to me, is a justification for speeding up art.
LitVo: Beyond style, what other consideration influences your poetry, and what is a poem to you?
Diego Okenyodo: Meaning. The quest for meaning. And meaninglessness. The fact that meaning is a mirage or a slippery fish that keeps slipping from our hands when we think we have caught it. I’m not sure I’m very much driven by style, as I would by, say, wordplay. I love how words are like pieces of furniture in a dark room; I feel I am the light of the word. The more light I throw on a word or the more I twist the light at angles, the more the meanings begin to alter in your mind until you start feeling the vanity of meaning. For instance, when I wrote “Rebuilding the World Trade Centre”, published in Camouflage, I referred to “How’s A Man Bin Hiding”, many instantly wrote to me that they found that intriguing as it not only found a way to conjure Osama bin Laden, but the new coinage becomes a question about how he could be beyond the reach of all the hi-tech surveillance equipment and systems. So, yes, meaning, as they are mediated by words, is a huge consideration for me.
However, with my involvement in communication for development, I see a greater need for the arts to be involved in improving people’s quality of life. Thus, even though I’m not getting didactic, I am increasingly being influenced by delivery methods. I want to experiment with multimedia forms, and these can shape what is delivered and how they are delivered. I would love to have poems on paper, have a picture illustrating it at a point, then have a stanza or two performed in a short video, and some pieces are performed by a professional voiceover artist or something like that. We had done an experiment similar to this when I was working with UNICEF; we had a ‘speaking book’, which is short fiction with colourful illustrations. The story was read in Hausa, Kanuri and English and the audio was stored in a small chip. The book has a speaker and a person could choose to interact with the book by reading for themselves or pressing a button to listen to the book. I am playing with such ideas too and how we can deliver them more affordably by producing large quantities.
LitVo: Your collection was shortlisted for the 2009 Nigerian Prize for Literature, unfortunately, the prize was not awarded that year. How did the shortlist affect you as a poet, and what were your thoughts when you learnt that the prize was not going to be awarded that year?
Diego Okenyodo: My work being shortlisted did make me feel good but apprehensive. I don’t like superstardom or celebrity status. I always worked with text or audio because I wanted people to know my writings or, at most, my voice, but not knowing my face. Nonetheless, I came to terms with the fact that whether I won or not, I knew I was going to have to face the cameras and floodlights. This made me uncomfortable and afraid that one would be under pressure to produce more works and many other stuff like that.
But when the prize was not awarded that year, of course, we only learnt of it at the award dinner held at the Transcorp Hilton. I already had a disagreement with the organisers, The Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas (NLNG) Limited over what I felt was a disdainful treatment of the writers who were shortlisted. Some of us were never accorded the courtesy of being given an invite neither were we given cards to invite our loved ones. When I called the corporate communication team members, who were former journalists then working in the External Relations department of NLNG, they told me to “just come” as I would be easily recognised and let in. I knew one or two of them as colleagues in journalism, so they were encouraging me to overlook the lapses. I said that wasn’t right. I told them and my co-nominees that I would not attend the event in protest, even though I resided in Abuja where the award dinner was holding. In fact, my friend and co-nominee Nengi Ilagha flew into Abuja from Bayelsa for it. He came to my house, and I dropped him off at the Transcorp Hilton venue of the dinner and turned back.
My perspective was that I didn’t need to be there to be given the award if my book was chosen. In fact, the embarrassment that such a gaffe would cause should make someone sit and do their jobs well. The award dinner at the time only seemed to be a PR stunt meant for the political bigwigs than the awardees in whose honour the dinner ought to have been served.
LitVo: As a celebrated literary journalist with Weekly Trust and later Daily Trust, what were your highest moments as a literary journalist, and how would you describe literary journalism in Nigeria today?
Diego Okenyodo: I wouldn’t call myself “celebrated” by any standard. I did my work and knew why I was doing it, serving as the curator of the works of whole generations of creative people, many of whom had no literary journals and magazines to turn to, no publishing houses to harness their creative products in any structured manner, and so on. This meant that what I was doing, following in the footsteps of Ibrahim Sheme and Sumaila Umaisha, was a service that needed to be delivered in honour of a whole generation and class of creative people. If I left it open to a non-initiate to do the work, it would have flopped or become a wishy-washy exercise.
And this is where literary journalism seems to be heading now. Save for a few persons that are still dedicated to the craft such as Henry Akubuiro, Evelyn Osagie, Abubakar Ibrahim Adam, Awwal Gata, you can’t see many investing enough time and energy into it. For literary journalism, you have to be dedicated and a big multitasker. Often, you are the only one on your desk, so you have to be your reporter, editor, book reviewer, page planner, intern, researcher and everything. You are entitled to running mad, I tell you. In this poor economy and in a society that is more inward-looking than ever, not many people want to put in the labour of love, because literary journalism does not pay. That’s the frank way to put it. Literary journalists are usually underpaid and under-resourced.
LitVo: With the benefit of hindsight how would you describe the literary culture in Nigeria today in comparison with what was obtainable fifteen or twenty years ago?
Diego Okenyodo: Hmmm… This is tough. I can’t say nothing has changed. A lot has changed. The landscape is different. Many organisations exist now to promote literature, not only to the usual literary audiences that often encompasses writers and academics but also to general literary enthusiasts that have no desire to write or critique a piece of literature. In the last 10 or so years, we have Simply Poetry curated by Dike Chukwumerije; we have the hugely successful Poets in Nigeria (PIN) and its prizes and activities, which includes Festival Poetry curated by Eriata Orhibabor; we have the indefatigable Baba Dzukogi’s Hilltop Creative Arts Foundation, HIASFEST, Nigeria Review and LITVO. We have more avenues to buy books, ranging from AMAB Books, through the online platform Okada Books, and bookshops like The Booksellers, Adams Pages and more. Okediran’s Ebedi International Writers’ Residency is doing a lot. Niger State had the first-ever Book Development Agency in Africa. During the Jonathan era, we had a Bring Back the Book and READ campaign. We had Port Harcourt chosen as the World Book Capital by UNESCO, owing to the efforts of Koko Kalango and her Rainbow Book Club. That was in 2014. Lola Shoneyin has got a lot of festivals going too.
But the major things that should move the literary need in significant and sustainable ways have yet to see the light. There is no national or state-wide endowment for the arts which should give grants to promote all of the above. A national endowment for the arts could have been a boon to what we do. Worse, the conditions for book production remain harrowing without subsidies on inputs like paper, ink, and such. Writers that have gone into the policy making space such as Okediran in the House of Representatives and Shehu Sani in the Senate tried their best but must have been outgunned by the disinterests of colleagues. And literary journalists are more brazen than ever in putting material gratification first, so there is no one committed enough to put these issues on the table. To deal the final blow, even the writers themselves are unable to come out with one voice and demand change. So, you see why, as positively as one would like to view the situation with our literary culture since we are winning laurels and getting books translated in many places abroad, we cannot be jubilant.
LitVo: There are new crops of younger Nigerian and African writers making waves globally today; Saddiq Dzukogi, Romeo Oriogun, David Ishaya Osu and others have become “international poets”. What are your thoughts on the newer writings from Nigeria?
Diego Okenyodo: The new writings are rich. I am hesitating to use the superlative because if I say they are richer, I am conscious of the fact that I am referring only to the best of the generation. And if you do compare them with some of the fine writers like Ahmed Maiwada, Ismail Bala Garba, Toni Kan, and the ‘international’ ones like Helon Habila and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, you would say there is an attempt to compare oranges with pawpaw. I love what Saddiq has become, heavily leaning toward romanticism in a contemporary way. I don’t know if he sees his works in those lights, but the heavy leaning on his experiences from which he carves deep poetry is something that fascinates me, given that personal experiences can sometimes limit one’s creative horizon. I have seen brilliant pieces from Romeo and Ishaya and I consider them fine poets, though I am yet to read their collections.
Nonetheless, since we are in an age where writings have not been fully separable from their writers, my comments would be on how the new writers have been hesitant about using their successes to create or challenge systems to benefit the larger generation or a successor one. There is a sense in which I would say this is a generation of very inward-looking writers paying attention only to their craft and career achievements, and doing it very well. I don’t intend this to be as negative as it may sound right now, but to say there was something grander and more communal about how the writers in my generation saw themselves. Again, that may erroneously imply that every writer of my generation aspired to such a scale of influence, which isn’t. But, if you study the works and lives of the Ifowodos, Dzukogis, Otionos, and more, they wanted to effect changes in society by applying themselves directly to create systems, and their works and social interventions tended to create systems or structures to benefit either other writers within their generation or a successor generation. Whether it was Chimamanda getting involved with the annual writing workshop with Farafina, or it was Dzukogi and the teen authorship engagements, Ahmed Maiwada’s one-on-one coaching and sponsorships or book projects and prizes, to Lola Shoneyin’s festivals, there was and still is a sense in which that generation believed in the community through the instrumentality of their writings, their fame and contacts that I don’t see now. Many of the current generations are single-mindedly honing their crafts, which is a good thing for the craft. We need to see their best before they try to share. That would be a preliminary thought about how I see the new generation. I need to spend a long time clarifying my thoughts.
LitVo: Fifteen years ago, you and Nduka Otiono coedited Camouflage: Best of Contemporary Writing from Nigeria (2006), and you have just completed work on the revised edition, what was the idea behind the anthology and its reissue?
Diego Okenyodo: The idea behind it is similar to the point I just touched on. We were worried about the dearth of avenues for publishing many brilliant writers that we saw. Nduka and I shared similar backgrounds in terms of being literary journalists and we both were in the same executive committee of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA). From where we stood, we had similar experiences of writers sending you raw works either to edit before they would publish or for you to review for publication in the newspapers we worked for. Some wanted blurb comments, and more services. The traditional publishing outfits were dealing with huge economic challenges.
As the ANA EXCO prepared for one of its meetings to be hosted in Ilorin by the then President, Prof. Olu Obafemi, Nduka and I did speak on the phone about tabling an anthology project as one of those the Association should embark on. We argued that it would give more visibility to younger writers, and as they would be in the same volume with some more established names, their styles and fame would rub off on one another. Well, it happened that, at Ilorin, ANA didn’t have much money to spend on the project; at least that was the consensus among the EXCO. But Nduka and I believed in the idea and it was pitched to Nengi Ilagha, the founder of Treasure Books, based in Yenagoa, who is also a poet. He was excited and jumped at the opportunity.
That was how many months of gruelling work began. I used to take long bus trips from Kaduna, where I was based, to Lagos, for Nduka and me to edit the entries together. I’d stay in his guest room for days on end and he would burn fossil fuel all through the nights, and in the daytime, we would go sit under Abegyi at the National Theatre Complex in sun and rain, to ensure everything came out right. We called all our networks to ensure we had an anthology representing all the new voices that could be captured. We wanted something that could be said to be a snapshot of Nigerians writing in the space of the 90s into the new millennium. Many of them were being published in an anthology for the first time. We achieved our aim.
The new edition of the anthology is celebrating 15 years of its debut. We are giving it a bigger and more international platform to breathe. Now you can buy Camouflage on Amazon, Lulu Books and Okada Books. You can order hard copies and soft copies alike. We have a new short story in it from Ike Okonta, who is one of those writers we missed in the first edition but we are fortunate to have in the new edition. You would love to read his story, and anyone who didn’t know that Chimamanda first publish Half of a Yellow Sun as a short story before it became a full novel can read the story in Camouflage, which we are all proud of. If one orders the book on Amazon now, you can get a 20% discount before the end of October.
LitVo: There is no doubt that the hard-economic realities have affected publishing generally in Nigeria, is vanity publishing the new norm?
Diego Okenyodo: Publishing is still evolving and a lot of categories of publishing will cohabit the space for a long time. With the rise of hi-tech printing, publishing cannot remain the way we knew it. There are print-on-demand approaches now that can make a post office a part of every publisher’s business. Imagine if all we had were e-copies of books and if anyone ordered a paperback copy from the internet, the 3D printer in your NIPOST office in Yenagoa could simply print a copy, bind it in one hour and deliver to you right there in Yenagoa. That means we won’t be shipping huge chunks of books across borders but transporting raw materials only. What I see, therefore, is that the industry is just facing some rumbles. It will settle and then we can determine what kind of publishing should speak to the type of demands our audiences are making.
I’m thinking of something like a merger between Nollywood and the writing community. We have about 150m mobile phone lines and a large number of those are connected to the internet, at least 50m of them. Most of them don’t love paperback books for many reasons. With the advent of things like ROK TV, is there a possibility of an app to deliver Nigerian books interactively? The future is still an open sky; nobody knows if it will be windy or stormy or still.
LitVo: The internet has revolutionised publishing all over the world, African writers more than ever before have access to foreign journals and other publishing opportunities. How would you describe the impact of the internet and online publishing on African writing today?
Diego Okenyodo: As you can see from my response earlier, online publishing is a good opportunity for writers. There is still a lop-sidedness in the industry that is quite discriminatory. Some renowned foreign journals require you to pay exorbitantly to be published in them, and when African writers are unable to pay, their contributions remain in the ghetto of academia. So, you can liken it to some kind of hegemony that places the global north above the global south. And you can see this in how, as an African writer, you must get endorsements from the global north to be considered worthy of your name. This means the internet is an opportunity, but we Africans must band together to tap into the opportunity.
LitVo: This relates to the question I wanted to ask. Many have argued that African writing published in foreign journals pander to western ideologies doctored by editors of the various journals. What are the implications of these arguments or suppositions on the independence of African literature and writing, and has African literature truly been independent of foreign influences?
Diego Okenyodo: Does African literary culture need to be independent? That would be my question. Literature, in the written form as we have it today, was largely brought to us. Our name Africa was given to us. Nigeria was given to us. It is up to us to determine what we want to do with what has been given to us. I wouldn’t, therefore, argue for independence in a bifurcative manner that the word independence tends to connote; that of one with a distinct identity leaving another. I would say that we should continue the negotiation of space that globalisation has thrown us into. Am I more an African writer than an Elnathan John based in Germany, or a Chika Unigwe, or a Chimamanda Adichie who straddles all the worlds? I would argue that we continue shaking our rattles into the world, and like Ahmed Maiwada, contend that there should be nothing like African to qualify literature. Let Africans write and forget independence. Write your story so distinctly that, as Abubakar Adam Ibrahim does, we can hear your voice without a heavy requirement for collective branding in the omnibus sense that African literature connotes.
LitVo: Talking about the politics of writing and literary administration, you have been in the centre of the crisis in the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) which has led to the emergence of two factions claiming legitimacy over the leadership of the association. Would you be kind enough to share your thoughts on what is happening to the acclaimed largest literary body in Africa, and what you think might be the solution to the imbroglio?
Diego Okenyodo: We have a leadership crisis in the Association and we have been unable to resolve it. We have failed at it, almost two years on. But, if you think of it in terms of when it started, it was long in the making. As an association that was unable to create an authentic membership register and use it as a basis of decision-making, we should guess where the problem could have been. We used what was expedient each time to move ahead. And when human beings feel they can do something without getting caught, they would continue doing it, unless there is some self-reflection. This is the reason I declared that we have failed in leading ANA aright.
Since the impasse in Enugu, I became very involved in what was happening in the Association, unlike the kind of basic membership role I chose to play before that convention. I had thought I was going to Enugu to just cast a vote and leave, of course. But, all of a sudden, I was nominated into the electoral committee and all my ambitions of having a quiet convention fell through the window. For all that happened then, without narrating every detail, the one that requires telling is that when the power went off around 10 PM and the university asked ANA to leave, the members present at that congress agreed that the Electoral Committee meets with the committee of Chairmen of Chapters to decide the way forward on the association’s behalf. I say this, not to lay claim to being right or wrong, but because that is one piece of detail that is nowadays omitted in many narratives relating to why the Association got so irritable.
That said, whichever faction that has won should know that its next task is that of unifying the Association into one umbrella. That is the task of leadership; the true test of it. Whether I like the other party or not, as a leader, I have to reach out; I have to be willing to make concessions or apply fair sanctions if I feel I can. So far, both sides have tried the latter, having tried to reconcile without success. But I wish more efforts were put into the reconciliation process. Unfortunately, even those who should support a reconciliation have not shown interest in it, for whatever reason. And ANA is not realising that it is conceding ground very fast to the newer organisations, most of which came from former leaders of ANA. I would have loved to see ANA as a mother of them all and not a competitor for space and relevance on a turf it literally created.
LitVo: Writers are regarded as the conscience of the society, people who speak truth to power, however, so many happenings in Nigeria today particularly as a result of the kind of leadership system in the country, there seems to be a division even amongst writers who have chosen to align with ethnic agitations or popular politics. Many on social media have become mouthpieces of divisive and derisive politics. If writers become divided as it were, what do you think would become of the society?
Diego Okenyodo: We ascribe too much to writers, too much powers. We almost create an image of writers as superhumans who cannot be trapped by the failings of human beings. Writers produce porn, they write any and every form of debauchery mankind ever knows. Writers are not special beings, in the sense that they are also human beings; and the prevailing situation in the country has already revealed that. In my view, writers should lead society, but every society has its own identity or identities, the writer would take on those identities and write to defend them. The task before us is to chart a national identity that the majority can strive to defend and project. It is the absence of that in the society that has percolated into the writers’ body.
LitVo: Tell us, are we to expect another book from you soon or should we continue to wait for the appointed time?
Diego Okenyodo: Or should you forget it? [Laughter.] Creative works are coming, I can assure you. In what form is what I cannot guarantee. I feel creativity is a continuum, a river. You can fetch it upstream as a song, or midstream as a book, or at some other point as a stage play or video production. Blessed are those who wait, for they shall inherit the good wine.
LitVo: What would you tell a mentee who wishes to attain excellence in writing?
Diego Okenyodo: What we have always been told: Read, and write frequently. Not everything you write is for publication. Some things are just raw materials. Comfort does not help writing, so as a writer you have to move from your comfort zone. Good writing happens in a state of disorder. Shake tables. Visit communities that you wouldn’t normally visit. View the world lying upside down. View it as your cat or as a lizard. Show us what you see.
LitVo: Thank you very much for your candid responses to our questions, we look forward to chatting with you again soon.
Diego Okenyodo: Thanks. It’s been fun.
Paul Liam is a published poet, author and literary critic. He lives and works in Abuja as the Head of Operations for Isu Media Ltd.