Barrister Ahmed Maiwada is the current president of the Association of Nigerian Authors, he is one of the leading poets in Nigeria, today. In this engaging interview with the Nigerian playwright, ISAAC ATTAH OGEZI; Guest Interviewer for LitVo, Mr. Maiwada bares his heart on grey areas of his writing that students of his work will be interested in knowing, his forage into ANA’s politics as well as his secret in combining full-time law practice with creative writing.
LitVo: In his Introduction to The Mid-Century English Poetry 1940-1960 published in 1965, the editor, David Wright, rightly wrote that, ‘it is a commonplace that at any one time there are few genuine poets compared with the many who have talent; and the result of the large crop of published volumes of verse has been to make it difficult to see the trees for the wood.’ There is no doubt that you belong to the former group as evident in your debut poetry collection, Saint of a Woman. Strangely for a debutant, you appear to have cut your teeth in poetry in terms of originality of voice and language, uninfluenced by older Nigerian poets especially in an era where most poets, to use an unflattering term by Prof. Tanure Ojaide, are ‘copy cats.’ What is your secret in taking ‘the road not taken’?
Ahmed Maiwada: I am really glad to hear that my poetry has come through as original. This may have to do with how I started writing in the genre, which is, after I have encountered poetry first in the classroom, having to study its nuts and bolts and then sit for examinations on them at the end of the school terms. That process brought me into knowing the raw materials needed for writing poetry, which means I was taken right to the sources from where those poets we were studying in school then had mined their own poetry materials. I think one normally doesn’t settle for pilfering from the finished works of others once one could easily walk down to the sources and fetch one’s own things to work with, which becomes especially so if one is like me; a person that wishes to dance only in my own robes and not in the robes of others, no matter how nice those borrowed robes might be. In summary, I have encountered the poetry of others in the past, even before I started writing my own poetry, and to be honest, I did as every other poet out there had done; walked in the shadows of the forebears. But, I deliberately decided that there would come a point when I had to stand up and walk on my own. That came after I had been taught the basics of poetry in class, followed by receiving guidance from my elder brothers, like Mu’azu Maiwada. The decision to discard those poems I had written in anxiety of influence was a conscious one. I think that’s how I ended up publishing the poems that you observed to have “originality of voice and language” to the glory of God. Writing, and writing poetry especially, is a tradition. One must take time and learn it in order to put out works that may stand the test of time or be up to the standards.
LitVo: Despite the hue and cry that greeted the comment in question by Prof Ojaide, you hardly find a poet who is not churning Osundare’s lines or bowdlerising one older poet or the other in your generation. What is your take? Do you subscribe to that statement by Ojaide?
Ahmed Maiwada: I was privileged to meet Professor Tanure Ojaide in 2021 at a reading organised in his honour at Veritas University, Abuja. I did ask him the question, whether or not he called younger Nigerian poets as copycats. The amiable professor actually denied the charge, saying that it was a term coined by Henry Akubuiro, who interviewed him, possibly so as to give the interview a catchy caption. He however observed that there is present in many of our poetry substantial anxiety of influence from the older poets among us citing a few examples, which I totally agreed with. However, anxiety of influence is a normal thing in budding poets. Its manifestations are all over in English Literature, involving classical poets such as Ben Johnson. In that sense, one could say that we’re doing nothing out of the usual, and that no eyebrows should be raised. Nonetheless, it would be a criminal offence for such works to receive canonisation over and above those others that do indeed exhibit originality and true, authentic voices. And, who should be told this? Those saddled with the responsibility of grading our poetry in various competitions being organised annually, or so. I think that feting a work that contains anxiety of influence amounts to committing a crime against literature; it destroys the growth processes that we have been witnessing in recent times, when quite a few younger poets have been coming out with original works of outstanding quality. However, this is easier said than done because the person sitting to grade those works in any competition must be the kind that has read quite widely and studied poetry deeply. Sadly, there are not many of them out there. And that’s why we keep witnessing one doggerel after the other being announced as winner of our poetry prizes.
LitVo: Though dedicated to ‘Mama! (True Saint of a Woman)’, which I suppose is your mother, the titular poem, ‘Saint of a Woman’, at pages 34-45 is obviously not about your biological mother that the persona called Wordsmith is referring to but a lover’s lament about his beloved who ‘chose to depart alone’ to Heaven without him. Is this rather elegiac, modern-day Song of Solomon where the love birds ‘swapped rings’ and made ‘torches of passion and barter/saliva by volts of tongues’ autobiographical in any way or about someone that you once knew?
Ahmed Maiwada: In my formative years, I wrote poems that could pass as “autobiographical”, that is connected to my own life happening at that very moment. However, being poems that contained heavy influence of William Wordsworth, I discarded them all at a later stage of my development as a poet. Therefore, my answer is no! The poem in reference had nothing to do with my mother nor any lover whatsoever. It was a poet that came from my own imagination, and I tried writing it down in the style that you have observed: that of Song of Solomon. As a matter of fact, it was an experiment with the “collage” method in poetry. Much of my poetry of the past came from pure imagination, with nothing autobiographical at all in the lines that you see.
LitVo: Your second collection of poetry is titled Fossils. According to the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary of Current English 5th Edition, a fossil is ‘the remains of an animal or a plant which have hardened into a rock.’ Invariably, it conjures up the images of precious things like gold, diamond, columbite and what have you, excavated after long centuries of decay of both plant and animal. Why Fossils? Are the poems in the collection to be viewed as fossils? Could you shed some light on this?
Ahmed Maiwada: Yes, that’s the title of my second collection of poems. However, as much as I agree with the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary of Current English (5th Edition), I want to believe that the word didn’t have only that meaning. It could also mean a person or thing that is resistant to change or a word or phrase that has become outdated. In essence, the title might conjure in a different reader’s mind different images from the ones that it has conjured in yours. And that is actually the purpose of the title and poetry in that collection; to suggest to the reader not one meaning, but a number of meanings enough to invite into the text in order to ascertain which. I won’t even be surprised to hear that the title has conjured in a reader the complete opposite of whatever the title could suggest, because that has been intended by me when I decided to name the collection “Fossils.” As a poet, I am interested in avoiding spoon feeding my readers with what I think should be the meanings of my poetry. I don’t like that when other writers do so to me. Therefore, I think this is the light that I can shed on the title, as it relates to the contents of the collection. To give more details might amount to being dictatorial.
LitVo: The panel of judges for the NLNG-sponsored Nigeria Prize for Literature in 2009 called this collection ‘pure poetry.’ Do you see yourself as an apostle of the school of art for art’s sake who sees art as pure and sacred, unsullied by existential issues?
Ahmed Maiwada: Yes, the NLNG judges did call Fossils “pure poetry”, for which I am glad. I didn’t set out to write poetry mixed with any other thing when I was putting together the collection. And I entered it for that year’s NLNG Prize because it was the year for the poetry category, otherwise I could have sent another book other than Fossils. In my opinion, any book that should win a prize in any competition must satisfy the conditions for winning the prize. Therefore, a book that is called “pure poetry” must be seen by all to have made the grades, because poetry and poetry alone was the issue in that competition for that year. Nevertheless, I am yet to see any poem that has failed to mean something, not even those that wear the garb of “art for art’s sake.” The moment something is put forward as a poem, even if it is a single word, then a true poetry reader should be able to see that that poem, or that one word, is used connotatively rather than denotatively, in which case, it is suggesting a meaning to the reader. To say therefore, that I have any leaning to writing poetry that is devoid of issues, whatever they may be, is false. Such branding could only come from people who are unable to understand my poetry and such people have nothing at all to do with serving as judges in any poetry competition.
LitVo: In 2009, the year for poetry, the Nigeria Prize for Literature was not awarded to any of the nine poets on the shortlist on the ground of lack of ‘social relevance.’ Would you say literary prizes are a form of censorship? To what extent do you feel literary prize administrations or censorship has impacted on the quality and productivity or otherwise of literary works within the context of Nigeria?
Ahmed Maiwada: The 2009 NLNG Prize was not awarded because, according to the judges, none of the nine titles on the short list for that year qualified to be awarded the prize. I can recall that a group of about four titles, which included Fossils, was branded by the judges as being high in art but lacking social relevance, while the other group, consisting of five titles, was branded as being high on social contents but low on art. I think it was just a way of shirking the responsibility of awarding the prize for that year, for reasons best known to either the judges or the NLNG Prize is a censoring literary prize administration. There is nothing on the face of the qualifications for entry being made year in year out that suggests censorship. In the past, many titles have been declared winners of the prize, including those that one might think have crossed the lines in terms of public morality. What happened in 2009 was an isolated case and it should be left at that. That said, I do believe that literary prizes all over the world are mostly designed in manners that dictate what the writers might write on if the writers hope to win such prizes. A literary prize that demands for entries from writers of only odes, for instance, or poetry on women or men, is a censoring prize; so is the one that requires that entries must be hardcore literary pieces rather than romances. Who pays the piper dictates the tune, if you would permit the cliche in that aphorism. And I do not see anything wrong in that at all. That is why prizes cannot really tell you which writer is the better of the pack. It’s all about satisfying the taste buds of the person paying the bills. In Nigeria, I think the NLNG Prize has impacted positively on the quality and quantity of writings by Nigerian writers. NLNG has made a policy of honouring only literary pieces of high quality. As a result, we started seeing books by Nigerian writers that are printed, particularly in Nigeria, with standards that could match any other all over the world. This is a welcome development. The four-year period within which one might publish a suitable book for the NLNG Prize in a particular genre has also helped in the release of books that show higher standards in terms of contents than what was obtained in the past. So, my verdict is a positive one. But, I am careful to restrict myself to only the NLNG Prize. I cannot dare to say that other literary prize administrations in Nigeria have gone in that positive direction.
LitVo: You may well be called an environmental critic in your strong denunciatory poem on the city of Lagos titled ‘Lagos welcomes you’ at page 52 of Fossils, where you employed striking metaphors of waste and decay personified in an undesirable and repulsive woman past her sell by age, reminiscent of the Ghanaian writer, Ayi Kwei Armah, who used faeces to describe the rot and corruption in post-Independence Ghana. Unlike your older fellow compatriot J. P. Clark’s ‘Ibadan’, your poem on Lagos appears a one-sided indictment without a redeeming feature to be cheerful about, no, not with such harsh, crunching alliterative lines: ‘her lusts/Her rusts and rats that mate…’ and ‘Cleaning done, dark dung dribbles/Down her southern route’. Do you not think such a damning portraiture can scare would-be tourists to the city? Or is it such a very hard thing for a poet to be a patriot?
Ahmed Maiwada: My late mother would have all of us children on rosters for cleaning the house and washing the plates. I guess that contributed much to my awareness of the environment. In my later years in Zaria, but before I left home, I had concerns about the advancing Sahara Desert into the Nigerian territory, through the northern parts, as well as the bush-burning activities of hunters, during dry seasons. Therefore, I was only being myself while living in Lagos, after my Law degree in ABU, to notice the images I have used in the poem, Lagos Welcomes You. And I think it would be an achievement for the entire poetry communities around the world to celebrate if truly the poem had scared any would-be tourist from visiting the city; I am sure that there are fictions and films and documentaries are out there, full of images that could even dwarf what I have in Lagos Welcomes You, which had not achieved that feat. Nonetheless, when I wrote that poem, I was in a position to really see the Lagos that I had lived in for several years in the past, for what it really was: largely environmentally unfriendly. I saw it clearly only after I had left. And so, writing the poem was like writing back to myself my own experiences, in those lines, which I was too carried away by the good sides of Lagos to take notice. And if poetry, like other genres of literature, could mirror the society; and if the mirror could serve to startle the patient enough to resolve to deal with the disease, then I do not see the place of working out a redemption for the rot mentioned there, since the redemption is there in the very disease. There is nothing difficult about poets being patriotic in my realistic take on Lagos in that poem. It may interest you to know that my personal opinion on Fossils is that it is a book of patriotic poetry; patriotic about Nigeria and how we, the different ethnic nationalities within the nation, could reconcile with each other for the sake of living in peace and harmony: it is there in the symbols that I have employed in the book. But, I am not the one to point it out. It should be excavated by archaeologists of poetry, just like the real fossils are excavated. That might take time, but there are chances that it might never be discovered.
LitVo: In your Author’s Note to Eye Rhymes, you stated that Milton snatched the quill from your hand and that you didn’t write those poems in that collection with your hand. Also, in the opening poem, ‘Enter, Rhymes’, you made allusions to Milton’s Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained. Where I do not only find this enigmatic, it is a rather peculiar way of paying homage to a fellow writer with centuries between you two. What is the extent of Milton’s influence on your work as a writer generally as well as on this particular collection?
Ahmed Maiwada: Paradise Lost by John Milton was one of the earlier classical English literary books that I opened my eyes to see at home. My elder brother, Mu’azu Maiwada was studying for his first degree in English, and that was one of the recommended texts, or so I thought, because he had it among many others in his room. The title was the first attraction. I did wonder whether it was Scripture. Then, the painting on the cover page of the naked Adam and Eve and the Serpent added to the attraction. But, when I opened it and saw that it was, to me then, a long and an incomprehensible poem, attempting to rewrite the otherwise simple Scripture account of the Fall of Man, I lost interest, which I was to pick up later in life, after reading more about John Milton and Paradise Lost. There is a part of The Short History of English Literature (Second Edition) that Andrew Sanders devoted to Milton, running from the middle of page 226 down to the middle of page 236. In my reading of that book, I paid particular attention to that very part, during which I was introduced to him as a prose polemicist, noted as “a masterly and at times vituperative defender of the various public causes he chose to espouse.” And that is the very point where I and Milton became partners in my writing of Eye Rhymes, in which I thought I was defending the “good book” against the tyranny of quack literary judges. In Milton’s arguably greatest and most lastingly persuasive pamphlets, Areopagitica; A Speech of Mr John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicenc’d Printing to the Parliament of England (1644) there is the following quoted statement: “As good almost kill a Man as kill a good Book; who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, Gods Image; but hee who destroyes a good Booke, kills reason it selfe, kills the Image of God, as it were in the eye.” I think it should be obvious at this point that Eye Rhymes was influenced more by the prose of Mr John Milton than by Paradise Lost. I only made the poet persona in Eye Rhymes to be a Milton disciple, who had the privilege of writing with Milton’s pen (and therefore his ideas about the “good Book”), but this time in poetry, Milton’s more popular genre, so to speak.
LitVo: Poetry is perhaps the most intimate form of expression such that writing poetry is one of the most subtle ways in the world to vent one’s personal grievances in confessionals, however cryptic. Are some of your poems confessionals like the late American poet, Sylvia Plath’s? For example, in the poems ‘When she wants to burn the paper’ and ‘Limestone around his neck still roams’ in your third collection, Eye Rhymes, you seem to be responding in a creative way to the non-announcement of a winner in the NLNG Prize of 2009 on the grounds that the entries on the shortlist were not ‘socially relevant’ enough? Permit me to quote the latter poem at page 45 of the said collection:
‘The gallery drowns in blood wine,
In the Nazi Party’s banquet hall.
Chemical Ali flows,
From Goebbels’ swastika teeth,
As the German shepherd yelps –
Anthem meet for Pogrom of Poets –
The banquet’s baptismal name.
Oh the Fuehrer needs
Nine bards for the Gas Chamber!
In tune, bad-bass banjo bandies
And when the hands cue him on,
Doctor Death gasses the chosen nine!’
Ahmed Maiwada: I think I have responded to this very question in my answer to the previous question. Eye Rhymes is a poetry collection written against the arbitrariness of the quack literary Judges against the “good Book”. I think I did all of my arguments in the verses of that collection, seeking to persuade the reader into agreeing with me in what I believe, as Milton did, so passionately. One area that Nigerian Literature could have made some serious gains against literature from other countries, particularly other African countries is this: transparent judgments in literary competitions. The perennial absence of this has left us where we are today, with just a few laurels in world literature and even those, coming after long spells. We should be better than just a single Nobel Prize in Literature!
LitVo: In the poem, ‘Their holes in walls cause culture shock’, your angst against the jejune versified lines that pass lately as poetry is evident and in consequence you followed it up with what appears like your mission statement of what a good poem should be. Is that not rather prescriptive? I mean who legislates on what anybody should write? Permit me again to reproduce the relevant section of the poem at page 13:
I hear of slam and sister scam –
The hall of poetasters brooks no trope!
The classics waste; the trash is raised,
O, musing now is by power and might.
The plates on my table make maggots.
Till a pinch of salt is added,
Sham is that banquet!
The roll call of bards
Crab is the line I’m trudging on,
Marshland the pathway!
It wouldn’t irk if you left
The child, asleep in the manger;
But Herod, you raised your hand
And, Herodias my anger!
Ahmed Maiwada: Permit me to refer you to my earlier answer above, where I did say that literature is a tradition. If truly so, then traditions are taught; meaning that, the learner should be taught “how” to go about practicing the tradition in order not to deviate or corrupt that which had existed long before the learner dropped on the scene. I agree with you that it would amount to being “prescriptive” to legislate on “what” a writer should write. But, as long as the legislation is on the “how” rather than the “what”, there is nothing wrong at all. To argue otherwise, in my view, is to lay the very foundation for the apocalypse of literature after which nothing close to what we know as poetry, prose or drama might be left for anybody to recognise. Rules exist in all traditions of the world that I know. And I think they should be sustained in this our chosen tradition of literary practice.
LitVo: In his essay ‘What is really wrong with publishers in Nigeria?’ Prof Sule Egya talked about the ‘hermetic formalism’ in your work, which is more evident in Eye Rhymes and your last collection, We’re Fish. In the latter collection, you not only dwelt extensively on end rhymes, internal musicality, but on a profusion of dizzyingly experimental pyrotechnic artistry such that you even drew a tadpole with one of the poems. The beauty of a great literary work is the blissful correlation between subject and form. If form takes priority over subject in the name of formalism, will it not distract the reader’s attention in a rather intrusive and obstructive manner and in the process make the reader lose grip of the writer’s message? Secondly, is We’re Fish also fifty percent Reason, and fifty percent Rhythm as you said of your first poetry collection, Saint of a Woman?
Ahmed Maiwada: Professor Sule Egya has been of great support for my writing over the years, and his views must be respected. However, if poetry is recognised easily by one of the many forms that have been developed for the genre and formalism means “excessive adherence to prescribed forms”, then I ought to be grateful that I have scored high marks in keeping to the forms in my poetry writings. For me, poetry has to “be” first and foremost, before it tries to “mean” anything to the reader. And I think the forms have been developed for the sole purpose of helping the reader to recognise the type of poem he is reading easier than if the words are presented to the reader in prose. No, I don’t see how forms, being guides to the poem on paper, if done properly, can ever intrude or obstruct the reader; guides are meant to make the traveller pick his way through his journey easier. On whether We’re Fish is “fifty percent reason and fifty percent rhythm”, my answer ought to be that, once again, I shouldn’t let myself be drawn into passing judgment on my writing. I prefer for the reader to judge for himself or herself, what I was able to achieve and what I have failed to achieve, and thereafter score me for the failure or success that his or her judgment permits.
LitVo: One of the charges levelled against your poetry is that it is cast in stone, inaccessible to the uninitiated, the same way Chinweizu et al in their Toward the Decolonization of African Literature, Vol. 1: African Fiction and Poetry and Their Critics said about Okigbo’s and Soyinka’s poetry. What do you say to that? Do you view arch-obscurity in art as the pinnacle of high art?
Ahmed Maiwada: Over the many years that I have been reviewing feedbacks on poetry from poetry readers, I have come to one conclusion, which is that most of the people who find poetry difficult usually box themselves into thinking that they are obliged to decode the poet’s meaning of the poetry that they are reading. No! What a good poet does is to assemble his words on paper carefully in such a manner that each of those words, or all of them together, suggest something, with the better poems capable of suggesting more than one thing to the reader. I think I did my own part, as a poet, by presenting the words on paper and inviting the reader to make meanings out of them. In order for those who have branded my poetry as “poetry cast in stone” to see things differently, they would need to change their old approach, develop the boldness to declare for themselves their own meanings of what they have encountered on the paper. And I think that the same result could be achieved while reading Soyinka or Okigbo, two of Nigeria’s masters that I don’t deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence with. As for my view on obscurity, I’d say that obscurity isn’t an objective state of a thing. Rather, it exists where there is ignorance in the person who cannot deal with information that is placed before him for whatever reason. C. S. Lewis, in his Experiment in Literary Criticism posits that a reader must be as sophisticated as the poet in order to have a full appreciation of the poetry of that very poet. Where that sophistry is absent, accusations are labelled against the poet, which include such things as obscurity.
LitVo: Although the term magical realism was more popularised by the works of the Spanish writer, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, for students of African literature, it was not new, as Amos Tutuola’s works blazed the trail before the former even started writing. Perhaps owing to the blurred lines between the world of magic and reality, most works of this genre find their post-modernist resolution escapist in nature, oftentimes with unsatisfactory denouement. Would you agree with me that due to the deus ex machina in most works of magical realism, their endings like Musdoki are rather contrived?
Ahmed Maiwada: There are many types of novels and no rational critic of the genre would expect a realistic novel to be ended in the same manner as a romance novel is ended. According to E. M. Forster, in his Aspects of the Novel, the story in a novel is to have a beginning, middle and ending, and it is like a tapeworm; starting abruptly, somewhere and ending in the same manner. One reader may be satisfied with an ending of a novel more than another reader, and there is no science to it. However, I have read about ending the realistic novel by killing the hero of the story as an unacceptable ending, generally speaking. Now, magic realistic novels are not considered as realistic novels and so their expected endings should meet the standards of endings of magic realistic novels. Having done that, they need not to do more. Coming to the term “deus ex machina”, it means the ‘God from a machine’ that is lowered to the stage by mechanical contrivance in some ancient Greek plays to solve the problems raised by the plot or plots, at a stroke. This term is today used pejoratively for any improbable or unexpected contrivance by which an author resolves the complications of the plot in a play or a novel. I don’t see any such “improbable” or “unexpected” contrivance in the ending of my first and only novel, Musdoki. The two characters who start the story, in a park in Birnin Kebbi, are the same characters who end it in a restaurant in Kaduna. Nobody else is introduced to finish the story for them. Therefore, I wouldn’t agree with you that a deus ex machina is used in the ending of that novel, even though it could be termed as magic realism. I can agree if the ending doesn’t come as satisfactory for you; I am not satisfied with it myself, which is the reason why I have decided on writing two more sequels on the same characters. And I am at an advanced stage into the first sequel.
LitVo: In Musdoki, what informed your use of the word ‘Verse’ to mark off one chapter from another instead of the more conventional ‘Chapter’? Is it the dense poeticity of the language in the novel or the poet in you proving oppressive over the novelist?
Ahmed Maiwada: I used the “Verse” marker in Musdoki to suggest that the novel could pass for a poetry book. No oppression intended or executed on the novelist by the poet in me; not at all. However, it may interest you to know that I wrote the first draft of that novel in what one might term as “hardcore” poetry, which my first editor had found “unreadable.” Thanks to that opinion, I had to do a few rewrites of the story before it finally became “readable as prose.” I have received many other opinions as well, including that of Professor Egya Sule, which helped a great deal in what we have in print today. He never suggested that I should do away with the verse marker. And so, we have it out in that form and style, if you like: as a novel or as a poetry book.
LitVo: One of the areas that some critics especially from a section of the country have taken you up in Musdoki is on the treatment of Nigeria’s Civil War. Admittedly, there is a paucity of creative writing on the said war from the north and it is understandable if the novel is a kind of the north writing back to the south from one of their own. In that case, you will seem to be in agreement with the danger of a single story which Chimamanda Adichie warns strongly against. Is Musdoki a narrative told from a Northern perspective with a set agenda in mind as largely perceived by those critics? Secondly, how do you think a writer can maintain his neutrality in the face of a history that is susceptible to diverse interpretations?
Ahmed Maiwada: To be honest, I didn’t know of one critic that held such a view on Musdoki. Yes, a book reviewer or two might have written on the treatment of the Nigerian Civil War in the novel, or about the north talking back. But, those are mere opinions that couldn’t be supported with textual references from the story. My novel tells a coming-of-age story of a Zaria-born teenager in the late Eighties, opening the account in Birnin Kebbi, a north-western Nigerian border town, where he meets a young lady whose humanity he continues to question until the end of the novel, many years later, in Kaduna. As the story progresses, the Zaria young man travels to Lagos where he lives for some years, meets another young lady that is a shadow of the one he has met in Birnin Kebbi. While they get to know each other better, a political unrest happens, in the form of June 12 debacle in Nigeria, re-enacted. This forces the young Zaria man to flee back to Zaria from Lagos and the southern part of Nigeria. It is only during this episode of fleeing back to the north that the young Zaria man, while in a packed car with some people of northern ethnicity fleeing back to Kano in the north, listened to a conversation of some of the car’s occupants regarding what happened during the Nigerian Civil War, which happened before he was even born. How does just one episode in a whole novel become the subject matter of that very novel? I also read some reviewers’ view that the novel is a regurgitation of the history of the Nigerian Civil War; a work of fiction! I think those opinions by those book reviewers are perfect reflections of the state of our literary appreciation. No, a literary critic cannot make such a conclusion; cannot determine the subject matter of my novel, or any novel whatsoever on the basis of an episode in the story. Musdoki, for the umpteenth time, is neither a history book nor is it about the Nigerian Civil War. It is not a “single story” which I don’t know any reason why I shouldn’t if I have decided to. It is, especially, not a northern perspective with a set agenda: a story parading such an array of characters from all over the country, speaking up in their own language freely; a story that follows those characters all over the country (and I make bold to say that no other Nigerian novel covers the Nigerian geography as Musdoki) cannot be justifiably accused of such parochialism. Finally, I think almost all well-written fictions, not being historical works in any form, are politically and historically neutral. Fictions are made up stories. They do not tell real stories of things that happened, otherwise they cannot be fiction. Therefore, let the accusers of Musdoki go and seek more knowledge concerning the differences between fiction and history.
LitVo: Chinua Achebe once said that ‘Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.’ Simply put, every form of creative writing is politics and a writer should never leave anyone in doubt as to where he stands on issues especially in writing. In other words, one cannot divorce literature from politics. Do you honestly feel a writer can truly be apolitical or non-partisan in a work like Musdoki?
Ahmed Maiwada: That quotation credited to Chinua Achebe looks to me like a proverb. If so, then I don’t think he used the words “historians” and “history” in a literal sense. Therefore, we’d be doing injustice to his saying by giving it a literal interpretation. Personally, nobody has paid me to write for or on behalf of any section of the Nigerian State. I also didn’t feel the need to do so. However, just like all other writers before me had chosen the stories they wanted to write about, I made my choice and I went on to deliver it in the book that I have titled, Musdoki. Like all other books, my novel knows its audience, and it is very conscious of the fact that people without the necessary sophistry to process what it presents in-between the covers are likely to misunderstand it. Should I, because of this experience, decide that next time I must write a book that could make everybody happy or satisfied? No! I am a disciple of John Steinbeck, who was equally called unprintable names, including a communist, for daring to write the story that he thought he should write. There is politics in all human affairs, and in so far as the novel is written about human beings (and it must be so, even if animals are used in place of humans) then politics is a necessary part of it. But, there are people who, even in real life, decide that they will not acknowledge the politics being played around then, who simply go about their lives without factoring politics in them. Such is the attitude of a seasoned novel reader, enjoying the story being presented and understanding human nature and cultures better than when he first opened the book to read. That’s what I will advise my readers, now and in the future.
LitVo: In real life, most writers tend to shy away from politics as though being actively involved in politics taints the sacredness of their art. What is your take on the relationship between writers and politics?
Ahmed Maiwada: I don’t have anything to say to a writer who decides not to be involved in politics, or to even associate with politicians. Such a writer may have already decided on his priorities in life. So, he should go on living his life along those things that he sets his focus on. Those of us who, by design or accident, have decided that politics is a necessary aspect of any people’s cultures, and that to understand a people one must understand their cultures, let us live in that atmosphere and pick up whatever meat or bones are there for cooking our stories for our chosen audiences. I think the most sacred art is the one that is presented in a very honest way, after its subject matter has been thoroughly researched into and known well enough by the author making the presentation. Therefore, I don’t share in the view that politics taints the sacredness of art; I should rather take the opposite view, that art that has been stripped of its politics is lacking in integrity, or missing an important part of what makes it complete.
LitVo: For quite some time now, you have been active in the politics of arts administration in Nigeria, specifically, the writers’ body known as the Association of Nigerian Authors, ANA for short. What motivated you to go into ANA’s politics?
Ahmed Maiwada: I started getting involved in the politics of literary administration in Nigeria at the ANA, Abuja Chapter. I did so in the intention of assisting the then Chapter executive with my presence, funds and advice regarding how the chapter might be ahead of its peers. And, I am happy to observe that during my service as ANA Abuja Legal Adviser, the Chapter made such giant strides that one was right to think that it was the National Executive Council itself. Under the then Chairman, Dr Seyi Adigun, we had always had no less than two professors in all our monthly readings, which were covered in many national newspapers. We organised the Karaye Prize in Hausa Literature, sponsored by Hajiya Bilkisu, the then Executive Secretary of Nigerian Judicial Service Commission. Award ceremonies for that competition were held about three times in Abuja with winners’ entries for the competition and winners emerging from different parts of Hausa speaking States in Nigeria, and accolades coming from all over, even as others made frantic attempts to emulate. It was our advocacy that made the then Minister of the Federal Capital Territory, Aliyu Moddibo to rename the Cultural Centre in Area 10 after Cyprian Ekwensi. Several Nigerian writers in diaspora were hosted to a reading by us, including Amatoritsero Ede, who was then in Canada, and we were the only ANA Abuja Chapter executive that held readings in the library of the prestigious ‘Yar Adua Centre, in the heart of the Abuja metropolis. Our attempts to publish an anthology for the Abuja Chapter then was only aborted by the publisher that we had chosen, whose shoddy handling rendered all our contributed creative works, polished by the painstaking editing works done by no other than Professor Ihiechukwu Madubuike, a waste of time and resources. However, we had had robust critique sessions on our works-in-progress, which resulted in ANA Abuja writers becoming forces to reckon with in Nigerian literature, as shown in our titles making the NLNG long and short lists of that period. At the rate we were going, we would have started going for major things internationally by now, due to our resolve and our ability to attract those elders among us and those living abroad, in order to guide and inspire us. Now, it was that contribution that I think I have made at the ANA Abuja Chapter level that I decided to take up to the National Executive level, which necessitated that I should continue in the politics of ANA beyond that effort. My contributions are not all out there to see, because, as National Legal Adviser, or member of the ANA Land Committee, the words of advice that I gave to the National Executive Council, the then President, the Land Committee and the land developer, were shared in private. However, I am bold to state that the edifices that we can see standing on the ANA Land at this very moment, could not be standing there without my efforts in the courts, which are still ongoing, several years after we had started, as well as the development agreement that is still being executed, after we had carefully negotiated with the developer for those developments in exchange for some parts of the lands that belonged to us. My motivation, as you might have seen already, was nothing more than to see that Nigerian Literature find the necessary atmosphere that it needs in order to develop into a truly global brand. I have been there long enough to know that Nigerian governments do not really care about the literature part of our cultural development, with the exception of a few individuals such as the former Niger State Governor, Alhaji Mu’azu Babangida Aliyu, Late Mamman Jiya Vatsa and the former FCT Minister, Aliyu Moddibo. Therefore, we needed to find a means of sustaining our needs towards achieving such a lofty goal. And the most feasible means was to have our own investments in place, which would keep giving, so that those resources are channelled down to the areas of need, thereby watering the budding literary flowers that can bring us glory in the near future, both as Nigerians and as a nation. I have used my personal resources in this direction in the past. And I shall continue to do so, for as long as I can afford to. But, to be supported by the added resources from a collective such as ANA, so that what I have mentioned earlier as our visible and observable strides might be expanded and sustained.
LitVo: You have published four collections of poetry and a novel. Between poetry and prose, which one comes more easily to you?
Ahmed Maiwada: Right now, I am as much at ease when writing poetry as I am when writing prose. But it wasn’t like this, until I had mastered it; it took me time. There was a time when any prose I had started writing ended up becoming a poem. That explains why I had to appease the poetry demons by publishing a few collections before I turned my attention to prose, and I had mentioned earlier how the experience had not been smooth. That led me to drop poetry entirely, until Musdoki got published. After that, I returned to poetry and discovered that I had lost touch. It was another struggle to get back to where I had dropped it. After that, I started writing in the two genres without dropping one for the other until I got to where I am today; writing in both with as much ease as possible. Poetry is more jealous of the two, I have to say. But, I have succeeded in forcing it to co-exist with my prose writing. So far, we’re happy working like this and we have been covering quite some grounds in both genres.
LitVo: As a significant contemporary poet of the post-military era in Nigeria, do you have other poets or writers of this generation that you admire?
Ahmed Maiwada: I can always defend my claim to being a poet. But, I am not a significant poet. Doing justice to this question requires that I have read as many poets of that generation as possible, which is not the case. Again, since some of the poets of the military era are still writing, we must face the problem of determining who among the poets are post-military era Nigerian poets and who are not. That said, I am currently reading the collection of poems by Ismaila Bala, titled Line of Sight, and I admire nearly everything that he does there, particularly the display of excellent poetic diction that can rival even that of Seamus Heaney. The collection is a product of long patience and careful selection processes, with the result coming out in the form of charming poetry that focuses attention deep into things that the world scarcely considered as important. I may have a couple of other names to mention. But I haven’t had the privilege of reading their books of poetry, if they have some.
LitVo: What are you currently working on? And when should your readers expect to see a new work from you?
Ahmed Maiwada: I have been working on the sequel to my first and only published novel, Musdoki. The work is at a very advanced stage right now. It’s been a whole new writing experience for me because I started writing the story from the ending parts, before I settled on the beginning. I’m at the point of connecting the dots now, in order to complete the story in the novel. Why am I writing the novel in this fashion? It is because I write in fear of failing to write a novel that is familiar in style to the reader. I am satisfied by some of the comments on Musdoki, stating that it is an important addition to Nigerian Literature. One or two readers have even asked the question many times: what is this book about? This might have come from the way and manner I wrote the story, not starting from the beginning and progressing from there to the ending. And, that is the experience that is becoming fitting for me. Therefore, I am experiencing a repeat. It is my hope that this novel shall be released sometime in the second half of 2022, God willing. I have also been working on a collection of poetry, which is, for the first time, truly reflective of my childhood experiences in Zaria and my Lagos experience: a contrast of small town and big city experiences rendered in, hopefully, contrasting styles. I am not in any hurry to release the poetry to the public. So, I cannot put a timeline for its publication. I might possibly progress to rework on my earlier novel manuscripts, which I wrote long before I left home for Lagos, one set in Kano, with the Maitatsine religious upheaval as a setting and the other flowing set in a fictional border town of Nigeria with Niger Republic. I am hoping that all these titles will be published in the next three years, if God keeps me alive and in good health. Amen.
LitVo: You are not only a successful lawyer but can hold your own in a comity of other writers. What is your secret in excelling in these two demanding albeit apparently jealous fields?
Ahmed Maiwada: I am neither a successful Lawyer nor the type of writer that you say I am. However, I am growing into that successful Lawyer and that kind of writer. Amen. Until then, I take things one day at a time and keep a keen focus on the files at my table. I am glad of the sound foundation that I think I have got both in school and at home. That has helped me to remain disciplined and diligent concerning any assignment that I have chosen to embark upon. I can live with problems, both mine and the problems of others that are on my shoulders to carry. But I can only do so long while fashioning the methods I can get rid of them. And, by the grace of God, I have always overcome. I think that is a good attitude to success in anything one is doing, not least legal practice and creative writing. I have also done my best to manage my time, not letting myself have much of the luxury in idleness. I don’t miss any opportunity to drop my loads in order to catch a rest, because doing so has helped me to regain my strength for forging ahead with the struggles. The fear of looking back, in my old age, if God grants me the grace to live longer and blaming myself for not doing my best when the opportunities had presented themselves have been my ultimate driving force. And I am sure to accept any result of the outcomes, as long as I know that I did what I could, when I had the chance.
LitVo: Thank you for the time.
Ahmed Maiwada: My pleasure.
Isaac Attah Ogezi is a legal practitioner, poet, playwright, short story writer and literary essayist. He is published in several national and international anthologies, online journals and dailies. His published plays include: Waiting for Savon (2009), Casket of Her Dreams (2010), Under a Darkling Sky (2012), and Embrace of a Leper (2013). His adaptation of Soyinka’s The Interpreters under the title: The Misfits won a 3rd prize position at the 2006 ANA International Colloquium to mark the 20th Anniversary of Soyinka’s Nobel Prize. Also, his adaptation of Achebe’s Arrow of God under the title: Ezeulu came first at the 2008 ANA International Colloquium to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Other awards include ANA/Esiaba Irobi Prize for Drama 2010, 2011 & 2013, AWF/Zulu Sofola Award for Drama 2009, CHD/Ford Foundation Award for Creative Writing 2010, SONTA/Olu Obafemi Prize for Play writing 2016, amongst others. He currently lives and practices law in Nigeria.