It Is An Illusion To Have A Flawless Society | An Interview With Uche Peter Umez by Haneefah Abdulrahman

Uchechukwu Peter Umezurike commonly known as Uche Peter Umez is a Nigerian author. He is a graduate of Government & Public Administration from Abia State University, He has a master’s degree in English Studies from the University of Port Harcourt and is currently a PhD student at the University of Alberta, Canada. His fiction includes:  Tim the Monkey and Other Stories (Africana First Publishers, 2013); The Boy Who Throws Stones at Animals and Other Stories (Melrose Books, 2011); The Runaway Hero (Jalaa Writers’ Collective, 2011); Sam and the Wallet (Funtime TV Enterprises, 2007); and Tears in Her Eyes (Edu-Edy Publications, 2005). His poetry books are: Aridity of Feelings (Edu-Edy Publications, 2006); Dark through the Delta (Edu-Edy Publications, 2004); Here are the Awards and grants he achieved; Uche is an Alumnus of International Writing Program, Iowa City, USA, 2008; Laureate, UNESCO-Aschberg, Sanskriti Kendra, India, 2009; Alumnus, Caine Prize for Africa; Fellow, Chateau de Lavigny, Switzerland, 2010; Shortlisted for Nigeria LNG Prize for Literature, 2011; Fellow, Civitella Ranieri, Italy, 2012; and Winner, Nigeria Prize for Literary Criticism 2021

LitVo: Good day Sir, it’s indeed a great pleasure to be granted this interview. I have noticed a new wave of departure from Nigeria by writers. Why did you leave Nigeria? Has it got anything to do with the dysfunction in Nigeria hindering maximum output or excellence of the citizens?

Uche Umez: Thanks, Haneefah, for your questions. I can’t speak for any writer who chooses to leave Nigeria. Mind you, people will move to other countries for reasons best known to them, such as personal, political, economic, or even religious. As for me, I came to Canada to pursue a PhD in English, and that’s what brought me to Canada. Meanwhile, I have lived in the US, India, Switzerland, and Italy. So, as you can see, it isn’t the first time that I have lived outside Nigeria. I am itinerant, and who knows whether I may up and move elsewhere?

LitVo: How will you define Literary Criticism? I ask this because, in Nigeria, Literary Criticism is fast receding into the woods. What is the state of Literary Criticism in Nigeria? 

Uche Umez: Literary criticism, I think, brings more critical attention and appreciation to literary work, say, a poem, a short story, a novel, or creative non-fiction. It takes an aspect of a text and engages with it on a deeper level so that readers will gain more insight into the world the author has rendered and see a more nuanced portrait of the themes articulated in the text. Without the pioneering critical tradition established by professors Ben Obumselu, Abiola Irele, Charles Nnolim, and many other literary critics, we wouldn’t be talking about some Nigerian novels, poetry and plays. Unfortunately, compared to fiction and poetry, I would say that we have not given literary criticism its due attention. I hope this will change quickly enough, and literary criticism will get more public and private support.

LitVo: You have won prizes for your poetry and prose. Now, criticism has brought you the Nigeria Prize for Literary Criticism. Which of these genres come stronger for you and Why?

Uche Umez: Haneefah, yeah, that’s a tough one! You’d be surprised to hear that I don’t know which of these genres comes stronger for me. Sometimes I have the right temperament to write a poem or a short story; other times, I want to write a review or an article. I know some writers favour a particular genre over the other, but I don’t think I have yet reached that stage where I could quickly and confidently say that poetry is easier for me to write than short fiction. At any rate, every form of writing is challenging, as you probably know yourself.

LitVo: You have conducted Thirty interviews with writers. I started last year, and I am closing in on ten. I hope to surpass you someday (laughs). Are they all Nigerian writers? Are you considering collecting them into a book as another genre of your specialization?

Uche Umez: Well, I’d say, hang in there, Haneefah. Some of the writers I’ve interviewed are Nigerians, and others are Canadians. I hope to collect these interviews into a book someday.

LitVo: In your wide interactions with writers, why are writers uncomfortable with critics today? How should the relationship between writers and critics stand?

Uche Umez: I don’t know many writers who feel uncomfortable about critics. For me, I don’t stress over what a critic writes about my work. My role as a creative writer is to write; conversely, the critic’s role is to evaluate my work through a critical lens. Is there any relationship between both? Perhaps, yes. Perhaps, no. Yet, what connects writers and critics is their passion for literature and their commitment to the humanities. Seen that way, there is an implicit relationship. Otherwise, each has their vocation to uphold.

LitVo: So, your position is compatible with those saying that the priority of a writer is to write for him or herself first before any other obligations like the society? Should art be for art sake or art according to a writer’s intention?

Uche Umez: First, I avoid prescriptive writing or prescribing what or why anyone should write or for whom one should be writing. I also avoid getting drawn into such distinctions. If you write something you feel passionate about, it will resonate with some people, and that’s enough. Whether you are writing for yourself, you still write within a context since you are part of a community or society in general. So, whatever you write, whether for yourself or some grand dreams, it will reflect an aspect of reality shared by a few or many people. So, it doesn’t matter what your motivations or inclinations are, just write and let your reader decide what they wish to do with your writing.

LitVo: When you were submitting your essays for the Nigeria Prize for Literary Criticism, what were your thoughts about winning or losing? Did you ever imagine winning the 2021 prize? 

Uche Umez: If I enter any competition, I don’t concern myself about winning or losing. I never assure myself that I would emerge as the overall winner of any literary competition. I am more interested in what the adjudication prize committee says about my writing, that is, if it has some merits. I’m curious to hear what they have to say about the entries generally; in a way, it is the judges’ citation that I find most rewarding because it shows that they connect with my work and, for that, I feel validated that I haven’t written nonsense.

LitVo: One often hears writers claiming not to be writing for prizes only to see them featuring in one prize or another. What is the place of prizes in creative writing? 

Uche Umez: Writers may claim whatever they like but I think winning any prize for one’s fiction or poetry, or play, is a good thing because it shows that some literary jury has found your work deserving of some recognition. I don’t think any writer should balk at that. The thing is not to let the prizes get into your head, causing you to feel conceited and complacent. The writing remains, and that’s what the writer should continue to do. For the writer, write with a sense of excellence, and if your work happens to win a prize for that, that’s fine. If it gets longlisted and doesn’t win any prize, that’s equally fine. Just keep writing and trying to be the best you can be for yourself. Any other thing is a bonus.

LitVo: Why did you choose to write “Self-Publishing in the Era of Military Rule in Nigeria 1985 – 1999” in this era and not Self-publication in the Era of Democracy? Since self-publishing is a crude method, are you encouraging force-to-force as a government of force? 

Uche Umez: I don’t know that self-publishing is a crude method? Crude to who? What makes it crude? Let’s be wary of how we easily dismiss non-traditional forms of literary and cultural undertakings. I wrote that article because I thought it was essential to show how self-publishing came about, what gaps in the book industry it filled, and how it was instrumental in projecting the voices of many writers during periods of political and economic dysfunction in Nigeria. What do you do as an emerging writer in a culture where you can’t find mainstream publishers to consider your work for publication? Whom do you turn to so they can assist you to get your work out there, and readers will see the kind of conversation you are engaging with the world through your writing? So, it would be preposterous to discount the significance of self-publishing in such a country as Nigeria, where there are no subvention or government grants available for publishers. I worry that it is increasingly challenging for small and independent publishers to sell more than a thousand copies of their books.

LitVo: From what you have said, it is obvious that there is a clear absence of standardized publishing outlets in Nigeria for which writers had to resort to self-publishing. Now, how do we resolve the constant cliche of adults telling young writers not to rush into publishing. I have seen people like Saddiq Dzukogi, Sueddie, etc., publishing at early years and have not faltered since then. At Hill-Top Creative Arts Foundation where I come from, the philosophy is: ‘early to bed, early to rise’ for excellence. Why is every adult writer in Nigeria quick to tell the young ones not to rush into publishing even when it is clear that nobody would be there for them eventually?

Uche Umez: I think the older writers have good intentions. I understand all of this because I was a self-published writer, and I had similar advice a long time ago. It’s good advice in any case. These writers say that any budding writer should spend more time developing their craft and only publish when they are sure that they’ve significantly mastered it. Writing is not about fame and accolades, it is mainly about the work you produce, and this is perhaps what those older writers are trying to say to the up-and-coming writers: be patient, work harder on your art, and then you’ll be amazed at what you can produce. But, of course, you don’t want to rush into publishing, and then you look back years later and feel ashamed of your book, right? So, that, to me, seems a sensible advice.

LitVo: Your book Wish Maker breathes magic realism. If you could turn your NLNG prize into a flawless Nigeria, what would be your wish? Why?

Uche Umez: I think it’s an illusion to have a flawless society. Nations are not natural since they are inventions of modernity. Which country is perfect? To have a flawless society is to wish for an ideal, and that, of course, is unattainable. Are human beings flawless? So long as we have men and women in the world, we will have flawed nations. We can only hope (and work harder) to have our government be more sensitive to the plights of its citizens and be more accountable to provide most people with the primary conditions of good life, social justice, and economic progress. Anyway, Wish Maker deals with themes of courage, kindness, and openness. As a society, maybe we must emphasize these qualities in our body politics, to treat each other, regardless of ethnicity, religion, gender, and class, with more openness and kindness. Wish Maker is about empathy for the other.

LitVo: Your book, Double Wahala, Double Trouble holds a typical Nigerian and interesting title, same as most of your works. Why choose the title, and what were you doing when the title came into your mind?

Uche Umez: In Double Wahala, Double Trouble, I wanted to show the different types of trouble Nigerians deal with and the various forms that trouble manifests in our lives, in our nation. I was concerned about the frequency of troubles for the average Nigerian. So I thought the title, popularized by Fela, fit the kind of stories in the short story collection. According to my friend Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, the NLNG prize winner and author of Dreams and Assorted Nightmares, I have mastered the art of subtly capturing the nuances of domestic brutality in sparse yet resonant prose. That’s one of the themes in Double Wahala, Double Trouble. Violence, ecological destruction, mental health, and infidelity are some of the other themes.

LitVo: You must be a fan of Fela for him to have inspired the title of your books. Do you think musicians through their music try to right the society as much as writers do or is it pure entertainment?

Uche Umez: I enjoy music, especially if the lyrics resonate with me. But, per musicians and their art, I can’t speak for them. Can artists “right” society? Maybe. Maybe not. But art speaks mainly to the dominant culture, and it is then left for the people, touched or provoked by art, to mobilize and right the ailing nation. By mobilizing, I mean people must come together to hold their political elites accountable to good governance and work to ensure the political class does not continue to impoverish them.

LitVo: We have seen Beyonce featuring Chimamanda Adichie in her song FLAWLESS. Also, some Nigerian writers are making frantic efforts to move their texts to the screen: Wale Okediran, Lola Shoneyin, Abdullahi Ismail, etc. What do you think is happening? Is it due to low patronage of novels in Nigeria or what? Have you given a thought to moving any of your text to screen?

Uche Umez: It’s good for novels and plays to be adapted to the screen, and that’s the choice of the writers, too. So, for those writers whose works have turned into films, I would say, congrats! Book patronage in Nigeria is still poor, and this is because the book industry in Nigeria is struggling, primarily due to inadequate support from the public and private sectors. Take Canada, for instance; the provincial and federal governments make some funding available to book publishers and writers. This is one of the reasons why book culture is thriving there. Aside from the Nigeria LNG literary prizes, which state or federal governments run a literary award or provide grants to book publishers to support significant book production in the country? That’s a question for you to explore.

LitVo: Following your very cordial relationship with Abubakar Adam Ibrahim who is also an NLNG Winner, what can you say about inspiring writers, especially the younger ones needing mentoring?

Uche Umez: I am fortunate to have Ibrahim as a friend. We have supported each other over the years. Writers should encourage and support each other, especially in Nigeria, where the opportunities are few and far between. I have lots of mentors. Everyone needs a supporter, a mentor, call whatever you want. Writing is arduous, so having reliable writer friends would help you weather gloomy days and troubling nights.

LitVo: How does inspiration come to you? How do you know this inspiration is for this genre or that?

Uche Umez: I find inspiration anywhere, and inspiration is primarily external since something tends to trigger it, be it a feeling, an idea, an impression, a recollection, an event, or dissatisfaction with the state of things in society. It could also be a desire to question or reimagine reality. Once you get an inspiration or an idea, you will have to be intentional about what you want to do with it. Then this is where you ascertain what genre will best express this idea. Writing is a deliberate, mindful act, after all.

LitVo: I don’t know if your wife is a writer. There is this demand of time and focus by writers which often create gaps between spouses if one is not a writer. What is the situation in your family?

Uche Umez: My wife is not a writer but she is an ardent reader and my number one encourager. Writing is very demanding and disorienting at times, but I am fortunate to have a family that supports me every step of the way. And for that, I am ever grateful.

LitVo: Where are you heading to as a Writer and a Critic or will you say you have accomplished your dreams?

Uche Umez: I am heading nowhere. I haven’t only won a prize, so that doesn’t make me feel accomplished in anything. The Nigeria Prize for Literary Criticism is important, but I have to improve myself as a writer and critic. I would be deceiving myself to claim that I have accomplished my dreams. I only set out to write, and that’s what I hope I will continue to do.

LitVo: You tell stories of how much some of your works have been rejected? How does it feel to fail and keep moving?

Uche Umez: Rejection is part of life; it is deep in our reality, so anyone who tries to ignore that aspect of life and reality might end up hurting themselves some more. I have in some way grown used to rejections or having magazines, journals, and publishers reject my work. I have no grudges against them. It is what it is, and life must go on. There’s this song by Jermaine Jackson, which goes, don’t take it personal, take the bitter with the sweet, easy come, easy go. We have to keep writing and writing well and with more empathy for the world around us.

LitVo: What can you say to those who wish to be in your shoes when it comes to the literary world? 

Uche Umez: Oh no, please, no one should long for my shoes or even wish to be in them. We are all unique and wondrous creatures, however flawed. So, I would encourage any emerging writer or critic to feel comfortable in their shoes. We sometimes think we know a writer because we have read their work, but that’s a stretch. We know nothing. Everyone at times wears a mask, and I am sorry to tell you that many writers are adept at masking themselves. Yes, we really don’t know what people are passing through, what inner challenges they are dealing with, how conflicted their world is at the moment, so it is much fulfilling that you work to find your path, delight in it, and try your best to feel happy with it, as long as you have the aptitude and attitude to make small, incremental changes in your dream, vision, goals, and life. Be yourself, as the cliché goes. Be you.

Haneefah Abdulrahman is a Writer, an Interviewer, Spoken Poetry Artiste and a Podcaster from Nigeria who is the author of a collection of short story book titled Shades of Becoming. Her works have appeared on The Nigeria Review (TNR), Wisprout Project, Arts MuseFair, and elsewhere. She is a 2021 fellow of the Ebedi International Writers Residency and a Columnist at DailyTrust Newspaper. She is the 2021 Winner of The Arewa Rising Literary Star. Born in Kaduna, Haneefah is an indigene of Kogi State studying Literature-in-English at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria where she is the current Chairperson of the University’s Creative Writers Club. She is the Chairperson of Kaduna Branch, Hill-Top Creative Arts Foundation. Haneefah was shortlisted as one of the 30 Contemporary Women Poets to read, by Poetry Column-NND in Nigerian News Direct. She is a YELF ARTIST OF THE MONTH for November 2020 edition.