Discussion over Tea: On Oxford, Publishing and the Writers Life: Ikenna Okeh In conversation with Oche Akor

Ikenna Okeh is a Member of the James Currey Society, at the James Currey Center, University of Oxford, Oxfordshire, United Kingdom. He is the author of Six Books, Three collection of Poems,  A Crime Novel and Two Children Books. His lastest Novel, Deportee is a Longlist for the Island Prize for Literature and is set for Release in April 2022 from Abibiman Publishing, UK. He is a Volunteer at the Oxford Literary Festival 2022. He is a Co-Founder of Ubuntu FM and Fiction Editor at Hotazel Review. Ikenna holds a Bachelor of Science Degree in Food Science and Technology from Imo State University, Nigeria and was an MSc student in Media and Communication Studies at Cyprus International University before dropping out to chase his literary Career. Ikenna has lived in Port Harcourt, Nicosia, Antalya and the United Kindom. He buys books as a guilty pleasure. In this interview, Oche Akor speaks with him on Writing, Publishing, Lifestyle and International Literary Concerns.

OCHE AKOR: This interview is for LITVO, www.literaturevoices.com.ng. LITVO is an online magazine owned by the Hilltop Arts Foundation, Minna, Nigeria and it is dedicated to conducting and curating literature interviews with African writers. We are pleased to be having this conversation with you.

IKENNA OKEH: I’m likewise pleased. Thank you.

OCHE AKOR: You are the Author of over 10 published books spanning Poetry, Prose and Children Literature. Tell us about yourself outside Writing, how would a lay man describe you?

IKENNA OKEH: I’ve had a few collections of Poetry published before now; narrative poetry, mostly. Writing aside, I’ve been described by the few friends I have as being quiet. Only yesterday, one of them described me as being too practical for his liking. Perhaps he’s right. Or possibly, he is too much of an idealist.

With Ben Okri

OCHE AKOR: Or perhaps you like getting things done. 10 published books for a young writer? Many haven’t even crossed the publishing bench mark. How did it happen for you? Tell us about your books.

IKENNA OKEH: Do I have up to ten? No way! I haven’t stopped to count. Maybe I should do so now and prove you wrong that I’ve not had up to ten collections of poetry. So far, my dearest works that are out to the reading public are my two narrative verses; ‘A Tale To Twist’ and ‘An Eye For An Isle’. They were both published in 2018 on the stables of Ochebooks. I’m sentimental about these works because they’re the first time I tried out something new and protracted. At that time in my life, I had no distractions. In fact, life appeared to have halted for me then, and I had nothing else to do but sit and write and not think about what will happen afterwards or how they would come about.

I think that explains how it all happened for me. I’ve published, also, on the stables of Ochebooks, ‘The Operative’. It’s my first published Novel. A spy Thriller set in Nigeria, and has such characters like a Lebanese arms dealer and a protagonist whose services are enlisted by the Department of State Security to verify some intel about an illegal arms shipment that had arrived the country from Iran.

With Prof. Onyeka Nwelue

OCHE AKOR: Your lastest book, Deportee is a longlist for the Island Prize and is due for release from Abibiman Publishing this April, not quite long After, you became a member of the James Currey Society at the University of Oxford, where you now reside. You volunteered for the Oxford Literary festival and is represented by Word Arts Agency. These are far from the fellow you have described above. What is the story here?

IKENNA OKEH: I know you’re thinking I’m modest. Yes, my coming novel, ‘Deportee’, made the Island Prize longlist, and I hope it wins the prize. I won’t be surprised when it does, because ‘Deportee’ addresses an issue that is all too important in our time; the other side of immigration. Deportee will be released in the UK on the 15th of April. That’s a few days from today. Oh yes! James Currey Society. It’s the best thing that happened to me in January of this year. As a member of the James Currey Society, doors to the literary world opens up for you. I’m talking of on a global scale. Currently, Dr Onyeka Nwuelue who is the founder of the James Currey Society is also the African liaison for the Oxford Literary Festival. You know what that means. And that’s how members of the James Currey Society got to speak at panels and volunteered at the Oxford Literary Festival.

Copies of Deportee can be gotten in the UK from all Waterstones and Blackwell’s bookstores via this link.

OCHE AKOR: Many things have been said in closed doors about the society and I believe many are as curious as I am as to what exactly does the James Currey  Society do? And how can writers become members. Or is it’s membership strictly by invitation?

IKENNA OKEH: I’m also curious to learn what’s been said of the James Currey Society. Invitation for membership is open to the creative and literary community, and every information including of the Society’s relevance in the literary community can be found on their official website. It’s quite surprising that many Africans don’t know of James Currey. He’s practically the man behind the African Writers Series. He ventured into publishing of African literature which as at then was unheard of. The Western reading public considered him crazy at the time for going into African publishing. Who reads African literature? they asked. But he soldiered on, and thanks to his pioneering efforts, we got to hear of Achebe, Soyinka, Bessie Head, Ayi Kwei Armah, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, and every others. In fact, by the time James Currey had retired from active life, he’d published more works on African history than was available at the time when he was a History student at Oxford. What he did for Africa, he also did for the Caribbean.

So, the James Currey Society exists, beyond giving honour to whom it’s due, but serves to build upon the legacy of James Currey, studying his works, and being a community for continental and diaspora African voices aiming at meeting the world. Hence the James Currey Society is as literary as it is cultural in purpose.

OCHE AKOR: Abibiman Publishing is fast gaining pace as a member of the Nigerian Publishing Medici, young Writers with a hunger for international repute are dusting old manuscripts and wondering how they can find favour with the house. Any words?

IKENNA OKEH: Abibiman Publishing is like every other traditional publisher. The difference, I think, lies with the founding philosophy; that of building upon the legacy of the African Writers’ Series. I believe, just like Stephen Embleton, Ever Obi and other Abibiman Publishing authors, any writer can reach out to them with their manuscript. Although I would prefer to leave the publisher to speak for themselves, I still will have to say that every publisher is beset with a common problem; that of making profits. Hence Abibiman Publishing, just like any other publisher, will always evaluate manuscript for their commercial value before taking them on.

OCHE AKOR: The Famous Robert Greene traveled all around Europe with a backpack gathering experiences before finally settling down to write the 48 Laws of Power at 39. You have lived in Nigeria, Turkey, Cyprus and Oxfordshire. Is your story of same inspiration?

IKENNA OKEH: No, I’ll say. My travels aren’t borne of a desire to explore the world. They’re entirely borne out of necessity; to escape the obscurity which the lack of access to supportive institutions in Nigeria and Africa holds out for me. I’m naturally predisposed to settling, and I suspect I’ll do so wherever I find a place to call home; a place whose soil is welcoming for my roots, my desires and artistic aspirations. In Cyprus, I was very much unwelcome. If anything, I felt I had made a bad decision. I nearly lost my mind there, and the only things I was able to write in the entire time I spent there were two children’s books and a script adaption for The Operative which I intended to make into a graphic novel. Turkey has been more welcoming, in that it gives me psychological peace and the right ambience to write. I live in Antalya, a touristy part of Turkey with ample number of beaches, and parks; places I can spend time at, to read or sit when I need my mind declogged.

And as for Oxford, I am still unsure.

With James Currey and Stephen Embelton

OCHE AKOR: You talk about the necessity to leave Nigeria. Much of the country is under siege, Politically and otherwise, the Literary community, not an exception, young writers often accuse older generations of being gate keepers to the corridors of literary excellence and that, they, gate keepers, have refused to let them in. The publishing industry not exempted. Did you have an experience with the literary community in Nigeria during your years in the country, and what are your thoughts on the assertions above?

IKENNA OKEH: While in Nigeria, I didn’t have much interactions with the literary community. I think the most interaction I had was during the Caine Prize Short Story Surgery held in Port-Harcourt where my short story were amongst 13 others selected for the workshop. Amongst the facilitators of the workshops was Ellah Wakatama Alfrey, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim and Stanley Onjezani Kenani. They gave me feedback on my short story, enough to give me that validation that I needed as a writer. As for the political situation of the country, I get sick talking about it. Things have gotten beyond the level of discussions over tea. Human life and dignity have become so cheapened as to cost nothing. So I’ll rather not get sickened by dwelling on the state of affairs of Nigeria. I’ll prefer instead to talk about the publishing industry even though it’s hard to divorce it from the state of affairs in Nigeria.

About the publishing industry, I’ll advise young writers to shelve the belief of gate keepers. Let’s face it: what’s there to keep, exactly? I’m not saying that there are no gate keepers, but I suggest that the gate keepers work at elevating the value of the treasures whose gates they keep.

OCHE AKOR: What is your daily routine? How do you settle down to write. How do you discipline yourself to finish a book? Do you have a writing ritual?

IKENNA OKEH: I usually pray to the Muses before I begin, offering myself up as a vessel for receiving inspiration and praying for the intelligence to transmute this inspiration as clearly as would communicate its meaning. Yes, I have a routine when working on a project. I choose a time of the day when I’m most productive, and I write no more than a certain amount of words at a go. It’s mostly between 2000 and 2500, and no more. That way, i prevent against churning out trash and increasing length of time spent on edits and re-writes. The secret in this regiment is in turning up every day, same time, same number of words. It’s quite spiritual because the Muses get used to the fact that at a particular time of day, you need them. Hence they show up at that time, waiting for you. I’m not sure if this makes any sense to you, but hey, you asked the question and you’ve gotten my answer.

OCHE AKOR: It does make a lot of sense. Adechi reads poetry to get herself in the mood to write. What do you read and why?

IKENNA OKEH: Oh. I read a lot. Getting hands on English-language books in Turkey have been a bit of a challenge, but since coming to Oxford, I’ve been on a buying and reading spree. Oh, and I began to shop on Amazon for the first time. I tell you, it’s therapeutic opening up parcels of books when your order arrives. I read prose, mostly. Fiction. Recently, I have learned to read non-fiction now and then. Achebe’s ‘The Education of a British-Protected Child’ was one of the works of non-fiction I’ve read recently. And then there’s Onyeka Nwelue’s ‘The Real Owners of Britain’ talking about the psychology of immigrant populations who hold British passports and who have been elevated to the social position of being gate keepers and keeping out their kind from accessing this newly-acquired social status which they enjoy. Everyone will enjoy that book.

As for the ‘why’? I think I can’t point at any other honest reason other than that at this stage in my life and career, reading prose has the greatest pull for me than poetry with all the liberalism about poetic license which poets are taking for granted. I guess I’m too conservative.

OCHE AKOR: Give us your Five Favorite Books of all time. A list that every person should read before they die.

IKENNA OKEH: That’s a difficult one. I’ve enjoyed two of Jeffrey Archer’s books, ‘First Amongst Equals’ and ‘The Fourth Estate’. These are my most recent favourites. Can’t recommend books because most of the books recommended to me, I found them boring. Ehe, I’ve also enjoyed Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s ‘The Shadow of the Wind’. There are a great many African novels, most from the African Writers Series which were formative of my childhood. Those are the ones I can recommend unashamedly. And you should also read Kole Omotosho’s ‘Memories of Our Recent Boom’. Yes, I’m recommending it.

OCHE AKOR: Any last words?

IKENNA OKEH: I’ll always be grateful; for this interview, for every day, for the ability to write, for people who read my books and for everyone who upon coming across this interview will engage with my works. Thank you, most exceedingly.

OCHE AKOR is a Freelance Investigative Journalist, Frontend Dev, Poet and Publisher; A Joint Winner of the Green Author Prize for Poetry, 2017. He is a Former Secretary of the Africa Haiku Network. He was a pioneer Project Monitor for Udeme; a Data Journalism Unit of the Premium Times Center for Investigative Journalism where he tracked the spending of Government Allocations on Community Infrastructural Projects. He currently works as a Mobile/Web Development Consultant for firms and Agencies. For correspondence, email ochebooks@gmail.com