“Literature, Medicine and Politics are My Wives” INTERVIEW WITH DR. WALE OKEDIRAN
By Phateema Salihu (Literature Voices)
(Dr. Wale Okediran served as a Member of the Federal House of Representatives from 2003 to 2007. He has published till date, 14 novels. His highly acclaimed novel, Tenants of the House, which is a fictional account of his years in the House of Representatives, was the 2011 co-winner of the Wole Soyinka Prize for African Literature. In 2010, he established the first Writers’ Residency in Nigeria, ‘The Ebedi International Writers’ Residency’ in Iseyin, Oyo State. He is a Fellow of the General Medical Practitioners of Nigeria, a Fellow of Public Health Physicians of Nigeria, a member of the Association of Nigerian Authors and was once its National President between 2006 and 2009. He is currently the Deputy Secretary-General (Africa) for the Union of Writers from Africa, Asia and Latin America and is, presently, the Secretary General of Pan African Writers’ Association (PAWA) in Accra Ghana.)
Phateema: Thank you for granting this interview. It is a big honour for me, a young writer, to be able to interview one of the veteran writers in Africa. First of all, a warm congratulation to you on your most recent appointment as the Secretary General of Pan African Writers Association (PAWA). What is PAWA? What are they doing, actually? The Association is not popular among young writers on the continent.
Okediran: Thank you for your compliments. PAWA is The Pan African Writers’ Association (PAWA), founded in November 1989. It is a cultural institution “born in the larger crucible of Pan Africanism, which is an umbrella body of writers’ associations on the African continent and the Diaspora. The mission of PAWA: it was unanimously accepted at its inaugural congress in November 1989, in Accra, Ghana that it is “to strengthen the cultural and economic bonds between the people on the African continent against the background of the continent’s acknowledged diverse but rich cultural, political and economic heritage.”
The Constituent Congress of PAWA was held at the Kwame Nkrumah Conference Centre, Accra, Ghana, from 7 to 11 November 1989 under the theme: “African Unity; A Liberation of the Mind”. Representatives from more than 36 countries formally signed the Declaration and Constitution that led to the establishment of PAWA. PAWA now comprises the 52 national writers’ associations on the African continent. In 1992 the Secretariat of PAWA, which is located in Accra’s Roman Ridge neighbourhood, was granted full diplomatic status by the government of Ghana. In 1991, the Conference of African Ministers of Education and Culture, meeting in Cotonou, Benin Republic, resolved to celebrate November 7th, the day on which PAWA was founded, as International African Writers’ Day, which is now celebrated throughout the continent. The founding Secretary General of PAWA was Professor Atukwei Okai. He was succeeded in August 2020 by Dr. Wale Okediran.
PAWA is to coordinate the activities of all the National Writers Associations in Africa by linking them with each other and using Literature to promote the spirit of Pan Africanism on the continent. PAWA has not been very popular in the past because its activities were largely restricted to Ghana and a few African countries. However, we are trying to change that style by opening up PAWA to the entire continent and the world at large. We have started doing this through interactive virtual literary events, as well as an empowerment projects for the female writers.
Phateema: We surely hope to see more of PAWA in the nearest future. Ghanaians are currently manhandling Nigerians in Ghana, how are you settling down in the country? What are the problems? Have you been able to help in the crisis, seeing that you are a powerful voice from the continent? What were the immediate challenges you faced upon arrival both in the crisis and in the environment?
Okediran: The issue of the current friction between Nigerians and Ghanaians is a complex one. It has to do with a long-time history of rivalry between the countries in the areas of commerce, sports, fashion, literature and food…. ‘the Jollof wars!’ Luckily, the situation is not as bad as it is being painted by the media. Ghanaian traders are complaining about the high influx of Nigerian traders who are taking over their jobs, especially in the area of petty trading. You know that Ghana is a small country of about 30 million people compared to Nigeria’s over 200 million. It is, therefore, natural for Ghanaians to feel threatened by this influx.
However, the matter is being looked into. I was at the meetings held by the Nigerian Speaker, Rt. Hon. Femi Gbajabiamila and the Vice President, Professor Yemi Osinbajo when they came to mediate in the problem. The immediate challenges I faced here was the issue of accommodation since the family of the immediate past Secretary General of PAWA, Professor Atukwei Okai is still staying in the official residence for PAWA’s Secretary General. I am still staying in a Guest House while the issue is being sorted out. The other issue is that of official vehicle, which is yet to be provided. I currently use the services of UBER to move around Accra for my official duties. Food is also a big issue for me. Having been used to home cooked Nigerian foods, it’s not been easy adapting to eating largely Ghanaian foods in restaurants but I am gradually coping.
Phateema: I can imagine indeed. As a Medical Doctor turned writer, then a politician and so on, what is it like being a one-man army and do you believe being a full-time writer in Nigeria is possible? If yes, how?
Okediran: ‘One-man army?’ (Laughter). I thank God for all the talents he has deposited in me. I, sometimes, feel overwhelmed with all the energy bursting out of me. Somebody once described me as a Salon car fitted with an aircraft’s engine (Laughter). Just like the famous Russian Writer, Anton Checkov, who was also a Medical Doctor, I am married to three wives; Medicine, Literature and Politics.
A few years ago, when I went to read to some secondary school girls in Kano, one of the girls asked me to name which of my three careers: Writing, Literature and Medicine, I loved best. It was a difficult question then and even now because I believe that the three professions feed each other. While my medical profession provided the inspirations for my stories and are used to pay the bills when my writing was still in its infancy, politics provided me with the linkages and also some inspirations (My award winning book, Tenants Of The House, was inspired by my stay as a Member of the House of Representatives), which are very necessary for the publicity and marketing of my books.
Even in the advanced countries, many writers don’t write full time. They have to combine their writings with other activities such as Teaching, Business, among other things. It is even worse in Africa with its poor economy and infrastructures. It is in realization of this that PAWA recently inaugurated an Empowerment Project for African female writers. This way, we believe that when writers can concentrate on their writings when they don’t have too much money worries.
Phateema: Is Rainbows are for Lovers your first written book? Also, do you have a particular genre of writing you major in? What is your story of becoming a writer? Why has practicing medicine become your secondary activity?
Okediran: Yes, Rainbows are for Lovers was my first published novel but not my first written book. My original manuscript was about my experience as a Youth Corp doctor. The mms was later published as Strange Encounters by Heinemann Books). However, when I presented the manuscript to my then editor in Spectrum Books, Mr. Gbenro Adegbola, he suggested that I should try my hand at a romance story since according to him it was easier to sell love stories. Having no previous experience in writing love stories, I quickly went through some old copies of my wife’s ‘True Romance’ magazines and studied important points such as characterisation, dialogue and love scenes. This research as well as my Diploma Course in Creative Writing helped in making Rainbows Are For Lovers one of Spectrum Books’ best-selling books till date. I was really thrilled by its success, especially when Spectrum Books had to fly me from Lagos to Enugu where the book was publicly presented by the late Cyprian Ekwensi at the Enugu Trade Fair in 1987. Even though the book was my first, Ekwensi went to predict that the book and author will go places. When I later discussed some of my challenges as a young author with the late icon, Ekwensi told me not to worry but to keep writing and that very soon, my characters will be writing the book by themselves. I thought it was a joke or an exaggeration until much later in my writing career, some of the characters in my books started writing the stories by themselves.
My writing life started during my secondary school days when I joined the school’s Literary Society. From there, I became the Editor of the school’s magazine. I had distinctions in English Language and Literature and wanted to study Mass Communications in the University but my father refused and insisted I study Medicine. Even as a Medical Student, I was still very active in literary activities and soon became the Editor of one of the campus newspapers at the then University of Ife called, ‘Rip Off’. I had problems with the university authorities when my paper cartooned the then Deputy Vice Chancellor who was caught late one-night urinating in one of the campus car parks. I narrowly escaped being rusticated from the university largely because I was a popular university sportsman. I was on university scholarship because I played Hockey for my university and my state.
The truth of the matter is that I am originally an art-oriented person having scored distinctions in all my arts subjects in secondary schools as against the credit scores I had in my science subjects. My original plan was to study Mass Communication but my father objected since he had already boasted to his friends that one of his children would be a Medical Doctor. And since I was also good in the sciences, I enjoyed my Medical School years during which I still found time to edit a Campus Magazine and play for the University’s Hockey Team. I was eventually awarded a university scholarship for my last three years in medical school and also represented Oyo State in many national sporting events. After medical school, I enlisted for a Diploma Course in Creative Writing before going into full writing alongside my medical practice which I still carry out albeit on a part time basis. No, I am not worried that writing has displaced my Medical Practice. I believe that I am just going back to what I was originally destined to do. I am, however, very fortunate to have attended medical school before going into writing since like many doctors and writers, medicine taught me how to write. The organic linkage between Literature and Medicine goes back to ancient times when the ancient Greeks recognised and honoured the connection by placing both medicine and poetry under the dominion of Phoebus Apollo, their god of the sun. The invocation of Apollo as the Patron of Medicine and Poetry stems from the belief that the physician and the writer can both be healers.
The list of men and women who have combined medicine and literature is long and varied depending on the inclination of the compiler. A writer like Chinua Achebe began but perhaps wisely did not finish medical school. By contrast, William Somerset Maughan finished his studies but never practiced it. Others like the poet John Keats eventually abandoned practice for full time writing while the greater number of doctors whose list is long continued and still continue to juggle both occupations throughout their lives. Famous literary physicians include Oliver Goldsmith (Circa, 1730), John Keats (1795-1821), Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930), Tobias George Smollett (1721-71), Anton Chekhov (1860-1904), Somerset Maughan (1874-1965), William Carlos Williams (1883-1963). Nearer home, the likes of Professors Olatunde Odeku, (late) Anezi Okoro and Adeloye as well as Ewa Henshaw, Tony Marinho, Femi Olugbile among others were able to combine literature with their medical practice. Although I still practice medicine, I am known more as a writer. One day, I will retire to my medical practice.
Phateema: Your writing journey is truly inspiring. You have mentioned some Russian writers in your list of favourite writers; people like Anton Cheknov and the rest, have they in any way influenced your writing? What is their style that fascinates you?
Okediran What I found fascinating in Russian Literature is that most of the settings of the novels are rural and domestic. They are usually fascinated by the simple challenges of everyday life such as love, family, life and death. In these regards, they have a lot of similarities with Africa and the developing countries. Most of the movements in the books of some of these writers such as Dostovesky, Chekhov, Pasternack to name a few are psychological. In fact, one of my novels; Dreams Die At Twilight a psychological novel, was inspired by my reading of the Russian writer, Dostovesky’s The Possessed. Although love was the matrix in Dreams Die At Twilight the contemporary issue of drug trafficking told against the mind of a troubled Medical Doctor was the main thrust of the novel. At the end of the book, the dream of the protagonist of the story to become an overnight millionaire through drug smuggling hit the rocks and so the book’s title
Phateema: You said your inspiration to write comes from the need to correct the ills of the society: looking back now, will you say you have been successful in effecting change in the society through writing? Any specifics? What kind of change?
Okediran: As an artist, I consider it my duty to tell the story around me in the best possible way possible. I also believe that the duty of a writer is to write as honestly as possible what the society often considers ‘unspeakable’ so that through this, some of the ills in the society can be corrected. For example, I was prompted to write Tenants Of The House because of my deep seated conviction that Nigeria has great potentials once we can get our acts together both by those in power and the followership. One of the ways of doing this is to tell our stories however painful or uncomfortable this may be. This way, while laughing at our mistakes, we can learn how to correct them and move forward. My experience with Strange Encounters and Tenants Of The House has confirmed that well known fact that in creating good and memorable novels, a writer must be ready to ruffle some feathers. While it is true that some of my colleagues in the Nigerian Parliament were miffed by some of the expositions in Tenants Of The House, the book has been well received by a large number of them. In fact, some of the Legislators have praised me for helping them by telling the world some of the challenges politicians face when taking up the arduous task of nation building in a developing country such as Nigeria. Even though I cannot boast that all my works have been largely successful in effecting changes in my immediate society, I am still satisfied that many of my works have been able to effect some degrees of awareness in the minds of those who have read them.
Phateema: And I must admit, that is the most important thing. For people to be affected by what you write. As a former member, Federal House of Representatives, you were a part of the committee that helped fight against piracy and help put literature in a better shape, are those bodies still in effect or what has happened since then?
Okediran: Yes, the bodies, especially, the Copyright Commission is still very active and doing its job. The only setback is that the Bill for the Endowment for the Arts, which I proposed and was also worked upon by some Legislators who came after me has not yet seen the light of the day. It is my hope that the Bill will soon become a law for the benefit of Nigerian writers and artists.
Phateema: You and your wife mooted the idea of Ebedi International Writers’ Residency in Nigeria. The idea has proved to be successful in forging a lot of young writers doing well today, how did you sustain it for ten years without complaining about finances? Is the funding from your personal sponsorship or do you have others who are helping?
Okediran: The idea of the Ebedi Residency came to me when I was looking for a place to complete a work at hand. When I complained to my wife, she then suggested we convert our country home in Iseyin, Oyo State for the venture. This is a laudable programme whereby aspiring and established writers can take time off their daily routines and seclude themselves for a while in a serene environment, sheltered from the noise and bustle outside, in order to fully devote themselves to the tussle with their creative imagination. Here, they will have all the infrastructural support they require; without distraction from family or friends, distant from the endless ritual of weddings and funerals and other ceremonies and well provided against NEPA and water shortages. In addition, we pay writers a weekly stipend to stay in the residency and offer them a publishing opportunity for their completed works through a well-known Lagos based publisher. In return, the writers are expected to interact with secondary school students in Iseyin for a few hours a week in order to mentor them. So far, a lot of gifted writers from the schools have been discovered.
It has not been easy self-sponsoring the residency these past ten years but I thank God that the residency is daily gaining national and international acceptance and recognition. Right now, a Belgium based organisation, Arts Move Africa (AMA) now provides flight tickets to intending residents from outside Nigeria. Although some of my friends and organisations have been giving me some occasional financial support, I am searching seriously for a corporate or government sponsorship for the residency in order to expand and sustain the project.
Phateema: Very commendable I must say. I can see that among the established writers from the South, you are the only one who has been able to strike a mutual chord with writers in the North including young ones. The late Abubakar Gimba once dedicated a poem to you “scalpels of quills.” What was your relationship like with the late veteran and other Northern writers in general?
Okediran: I was brought up by my parents not to discriminate in my relationships with people from any corner of the world. Humility, gratitude, hardwork as well as patience were some of the ethos drilled into me from childhood. In addition, my paternal grandmother was a Fulani woman, thus I see myself as a complete Nigerian who should feel at home anywhere in the country. I also think that my positions in ANA as a former National Treasurer, General Secretary and later National President went a long way in helping me to bond very well with writers from every corner of the country. The icing on my nationalistic cake came with my election into the House of Representatives in 2004 when I was not only able to make friends across ethnic and religious divides, but was also able to travel round the country. Therefore today, I have travelled to all the 36 states in the country and can boast of having friends in every one of these states.
Phateema: Many of your books are on the reading list of top Universities, how did you achieve such feat?
Okediran: I thank God for this. The interesting thing is that I never lobbied to have any of my books on the reading lists of these universities. It was my friends in those institutions who out of their love for my books and my personality who volunteered to suggest those books. This is why it is very important for writers to improve their writing skills and write well. Before anyone will recommend one’s book, the book must be well written. It is also important for writers to invest in good human relations so that somebody somewhere will be ready to speak up for the writer even in his or her absence.
Phateema: As a former President of the Association of Nigerian Authors, you are aware that the association had been factionalised, are you happy with the new look the association has taken? What do you suggest as a way forward to bring back the association to its former glory?
Okediran: The situation in ANA today is very sad. As one of those who have invested a lot of time, money and goodwill in the association, I am really saddened by the current crisis in ANA. Despite this, I am still hopeful that the problem will soon be over. Some of us are working daily in the background to make this possible and God willing, it will be so.
Phateema: As a health worker, you were very instrumental in advocating for model laws and many other policies for diseases such as HIV/AIDS, Ebola and Lassa. Are you involved with any agency during this pandemic of Covid-19? Why did you not ensure that Nigerian writers got a new deal from Federal Government while in the House of Representatives?
Okediran: My contribution during the COVID Pandemic was within the ambits of my personal NGO – ‘Family Counselling Centre’ where we were able to provide some form of palliatives to cushion the effects of the Pandemic. We also provided some amount of Personal Protective Equipment such as facemasks and sanitizers for some communities. As a writer, I was also able to publish a set of children’s books on the COVID Pandemic. These books are now being used in some parts of the country for awareness campaigns to children on this very serious problem.
During my stay at the NASS, I proposed a Bill for the Endowment of the Arts. Unfortunately, I could not convince the large majority of my colleagues to support the Bill which was eventually dropped. However, I was able to create a substantial degree of awareness for Literature among the Legislatures through the Public Presentation of two of my books while in the House. The large attendance and publicity given to the events went a long way in getting some of the lawmakers to contribute to Literary activities in their respective constituencies. In addition, two successive Speakers in the House of Representatives bought copies of my book; TENANTS OF THE HOUSE which was inspired by my stay in the House for every member of the House of Representatives.
Phateema: The Nigerian young writers think the old ones do not care about them. Of course, you are an exception. Most of us are on our own. What is your message to the young generation of writers coming up? Why have the old writers in Nigeria not bothered about the progress of the young ones? Why are other old ones not creating institutions like Ebedi for accelerated growth in the country?
Okediran: I think some of the older writers are doing their best considering the fact that they themselves have a lot of issues to cope with. Apart from grappling with the tedium of bringing up their children, paying school fees as well as tackling their own professional challenges, they also have to sort out their own writing life. Some of the older writers I know such as Wole Soyinka, Chimamanda Adichie, and the next generation such as Baba Dzukogi, Lola Shoneyin among others have also done a lot for young writers. My message to the young writers is for them to try and improve their writing skills through some of the things I mentioned above. They should not expect to be spoon fed because nobody spoon-fed the older generation. They should keep writing and looking for opportunities to publish and explore. They should not hesitate to go anywhere in the world where their crafts will be improved.
Phateema: What exactly have you set to achieve in PAWA? What specific strategy of programmes have you designed to popularise PAWA on the continent?
Okediran: My primary focus and goal will be to re-energize PAWA and make it more relevant to the needs and aspirations of African Writers. There is an urgent need to make every corner of the African continent feel PAWA’ s influence. To do this, it will be necessary to open Regional PAWA offices in the 5 regions of the continent with corresponding Country officers. These officers will work with writers who may have to work as volunteers.
It is also important for us to spread PAWA activities and programs all over the continent. This way, more countries will benefit from PAWA and in return, will be ready to support the organization. PAWA will continue to identify and celebrate notable African Writers including those in the Diaspora. In this regard, PAWA will like to resuscitate the annual Global African Writers’ Dialogue with a view to giving all Writers of African descent a worthy platform to show case their works. PAWA will also work with all organs of the African Union with a view to promote Literature and Culture on the continent.
Other activities on my plan are: Fundraising, Staff capacity building, Establishment of the PAWA library, recognising new and celebrating established African writers, including those in the Diaspora. Annual Global African Writers Dialogue. Regional and Continental Poets of the Year, Creative Arts African City for the year, Recognition for Writers in Indigenous Languages, Spoken Word Contests and Events, Publishing, Leveraging resources, shared missions, values, and contacts with other organisations and institutions to advance PAWA’s goals, establishment of a PAWA Creative Writing Academy, establishment of a PAWA Publishing Company, Establishment of PAWA Writers’ Residences in Anglophone and Francophone countries, PAWA Annual Literature Prizes, Using developmental issues such as the HIV/AIDS, the COVID-19 Pandemic, Violence Against Women and Environmental Pollution among others to develop Literature series that can be used for awareness campaign among Africans. Seminars and Workshops on different Literature Genres as well as marking the African Writers’ Day Celebration in Accra on November 7th of every year.
Phateema: In the late 80s, into the 90s, a lot of Nigerian writers checked out of the country in pursuit of their art. Here we are today, a new wave of exodus of young ones are checking out again. In fact, the University of Nebraska has been publishing young writers from Nigeria in what they call New Generation of African poets. With this, Nebraska (US) would be part of our literary history. Do you subscribe to this phenomenon? What is responsible for this absconding by writers in Nigeria?
Okediran: Writers by nature have always been nomadic in their nature. If you go back into literary history, various well- known writers such as Hemingway, Somerset Maugham, Anton Chekhov, Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe among others have always lived in different parts of the world apart from their home countries. There was a time that Paris, France became the hub for writers from all over the world. Now with modern technology, the world has even become a global village. I have nothing against young and old writers (at 65 years, I now live in Ghana) moving to anywhere they wish as long as such movements will enrich their writings.
Phateema: As an excellent art administrator who care about young writers, what other grand things do you have for them in publishing? The young ones are filled with complaints against the old ones. You and your contemporaries publish your works at will while the young ones publish at war. How can the young ones be published in Nigeria?
Okediran: One of the ways I always help young writers is to tell them the truth. The first is that, many of the so-called established writers also suffered a lot and some are still suffering from the vagaries of being published. Many of them including my humble self, had to wait for years before getting published or making money from their published works; therefore, the assertion that the older writers publish ‘at will’ is not entirely true. Almost every writer that I know of had to go through the arduous route of waiting to be well known. The second truth about writing is that ‘the art is long’. Success in writing does not come overnight. To succeed as a writer, one has to spend hours improving one’s skills. This can be done by reading widely, investing in Literary Education through Writing Workshops and Creative Programs (I had to pay for a 12 month Writing Program).
My plans in addition to giving young writers space to write at the Ebedi Residency as well as the recent empowerment project for female writers under the PAWA include: organizing Writing Workshops in all the genres of Literature so that writers can improve their writing skills, Publication of an Anthology of African Writing as well as the establishment of more Writers Residencies in the African continent.
Phateema: You are a biographer of many high personalities in Nigeria, what is the trick that gets them to have you as their biographer? Can you list the ones you have so far?
Okediran: I have written the following biographies of high profiled Nigerians:
- Rt Hon Femi Gbajabiamila; The Emergence Of A Virile Opposition Leader. (2012)
- Dr Olusola Saraki; My Triumphs and Travails (2013)
- Senator Musiliu Obanikoro; Rising Above The Storms (2016)
- Prof Tale Omole; A Vice Chancellor And His Mission (In Print)
- Ten Years Of Intervention In Health Advocacy; The HERFON Story (In Print)
- ROCHAS REVEALED; The Life And Times Of Governor Anayo Okorocha (2017)
- GEN Robert Adebayo; 90 Years In The Battle Of Life (Ongoing)
- ABIOLA AJIMOBI; LEGACY OF A TRANSFORMER (2019)
Phateema: What’s your opinion about Ben Okri’s recent assertion that the future of literature is in Africa?
Okediran: To a certain extent, I agreed with Ben Okri that Africa has a lot of talents and stories to sustain a very virile and interesting literary milieu. However, whether or not Africa can supersede other parts of the globe in creative works is largely debatable but not impossible.
Phateema: Thank you sir.
Phateema Salihu is a poet and activist who has been described as a hurricane because of her passion and dedication to literature and art. She is a member of the Hill-Top Creative Arts Foundation and one of the rising literary voices emerging from Niger State. Her works have been published or are forthcoming in Praxis Magazine, Brittle Papers, Kalahari Review and so on. She is the moderator, Hill-Top Weekly Book Chat Review. She has published a collection of poems titled: SKETCHES. Facebook/Instagram: Phateema Salihu, email: firstname.lastname@example.org