Olumide Olaniyan is a poet, satirist, social scientist and historian. He debuted his collection of poems- Lucidity of Absurdity- in March 2017. Selected poems from the work are being used to teach contemporary African Literature in some higher institutions in Nigeria. The collection has been reviewed in a number of literary and academic journals, including the Keffi International Journal of Science and Humanities, the BookArtVille Magazine and Dugwe- an e-journal. Olaniyan’s poem, “Behind Closed Doors” won the maiden edition of Communicators League Creative Writing Contest 2017. A number of his poems including”Deja vu”, “Drowning Fish” and “Dire Silence” have been adapted into community dramas and performed in cities across Nigeria. He was recently shortlisted for the PAWA Poetry Prize (2022). Some of his short stories and poems have been published in anthologies within and outside Nigeria.
Ojo: Welcome to the Litvo Journal. I have known you as a poet, satirist cum humorist. How do you manage these interfaces of your artistic personality?
Olaniyan: This started while I was a very young boy. I have been influenced by a few Nigerian satirists: Adidi Uyo, Olatunji Dare and Reuben Abati. They are great journalists and writers. The popular saying is that, ‘The truth is bitter’. These Nigerian writers, columnists, journalists and satirists, through their weekly columns made the truth to be sweet. It is of course bittersweet. The seed of satire is humour; it is the fuel and the engine. Humour is the attire of satire, without humour, satire will die of cold outside, tired and abandoned. As for poetry, I essentially challenged myself to become a poet. I started out as a prose writer, writing short stories and skits, and got several of them published in newspapers and magazines in the 1990s. I infused a lot of humour, irony, burlesque. So, at a point, I told myself that I can also become a poet, and started attempting to pen poems. I recall the very first poem I wrote, “The Single Eye of Eledumare”. In that poem, I used the moon as a metaphor for God’s eye looking at the earth from the sky, and till now, you will see a lot of my poems describing the sky, the earth, the moon, the rivers and such eternal artefacts.
Ojo: Bunmi Oyinsan in her blurb to your second book “Akimbo in Limbo, 2021” described you thus: “Olaniyan writes with a perceptive eye, reflecting a profound knowledge of his material.” In the same vein, Toyin Adewale-Gabriel stated that “Olaniyan consolidates his voice in his book with an always observant eye, and a vastness of imagery that leaves the reader, better educated.” Do you think being a satirist has any influence on your poems?
Olaniyan: Poetry has always been written in various forms and for various reasons. Many Nigerian poets I know use their works to warn, guide, educate, challenge and also to amuse their readers. So, it all depends on how a poem wishes to be written. I am a personal assistant to my poetry. If it wishes to be a descriptive poem, I do it. If it wishes to be sarcasm, I do it. My poetry is never afraid to throw punches – at the oppressors, at the segregators, at the robbers, and at the slaves that would always crawl before their masters because of fear and/or loss of voice.
Ojo: As a social critic, how do you handle the criticisms of your work? Have they been fair on you and your work, or you simply handle them in Achebe’s tongue [paraphrased] “If you are not at home with my work, go and write yours?”
Olaniyan: Critics are part of our everyday-ism as writers. How would you want to write, want people to read and won’t want them to critique your work? Critiquing of literary work or art generally strengthen the art and the artists. It helps them to see with borrowed eyes, which means that they will see better and wider. The result is growth, and improved journey to that perfect city that we all desire. Critics are not telling you to change your style or mannerism in creative writing, they are telling you about their own viewpoints, even standpoints. On whether critics may misunderstand your work? Yes, sure, they can. With time, the work will explain itself to those that want to genuinely engage with it.
Ojo: Does your role as a father, provider and artist influence or impede the level of your artistic productivity?
Olaniyan: Being a father, a responsible father as well as a writer is something positive. Creative writing is a discipline, and a duty for some of us. We are influenced by the whole of the society positively to recreate the whole of the society to become a better place.
Ojo: Some of your poems are being used to teach contemporary African Literature in some tertiary institutions in Nigeria. Some students have also written their final year projects on your books. What level of satisfaction has this brought to you considering the avalanche of writers in Nigeria alone?
Olaniyan: Of course, I am delighted. We all want our works to have positive impact in our communities and beyond. Creative works, including poetry, are tools for social engagement, positive discourse, and inclusive social structure. It means those poems are living poems and serving as signposts on how we can work and walk our way out of the doldrums as a people.
Ojo: Your book “Akimbo in Limbo” was recently shortlisted by PAWA. How do you rate literary prizes in Nigeria and Africa? Do writers need awards to validate the integrity of their craft? Should writers write only for awards?
Olaniyan: When your work is recognised and appreciated by others, especially by credible organisations or institutions, it means that the work is making impact. The driving force for creative work, be it poetry, prose, sculpture, drawing, and so on should not be because artists are seeking for people to praise them, rather, the interest should be on whether the message from the work is bringing about the desired change. Whether it angered or saddened other people enough to take positive action to address malady, injustice, abuse, weakness that the work may be pointing at.
Ojo: Considering the Milito-Democracy practiced in Nigeria, and for the writer’s safety, do you think writers generally should censor their works?
Olaniyan: Writing is a commitment; a sacrifice. Genuine writers will not kill their own art. Of course, where it becomes necessary, they may use different devices, parody, caricature, skits. That was what George Orwell did in one of his classics, his book entitled 1984.
Ojo: Coming to your book, Lucidity of Absurdity, from the cover of the book, one can deduce the level of absurdities expected in the collection. The book is sub-themed into five areas. I am particularly interested in the backstory behind the title?
Olaniyan: Lucidity of Absurdity cover comes with different meaning every time I look at it. It gives readers that opportunity to ‘judge a book by its cover’. Both the title and the illustration are warning us of the danger that we’ll face if we don’t take action to address anomalies that we face daily, as individuals, as a community, as a continent and as members of human race. And that making right decisions requires determination. That we need to not surrender even in an absurd situation, neither should we be deceived if it looks simple. The key message is that we should take action, and should never be stagnated by the situation around us.
Ojo: On page 28 of the said collection, I consider the poem “The forlorn Palm tree” as a reflection of the quagmire in the Niger Delta where the bulk of Nigeria’s revenue emanate from. Are you trying to decry the insensitivity and irresponsibility of the Nigerian government as expatiated in the last stanza of the said poem thus: //the forlorn palm tree// a pillar of income twisted into a barren stem// running from the fellers’ axe// onto the path of drillers’ bit?
Olaniyan: Surely, we have done so much damage in several communities where we do exploitation and exploration. What are we giving back to these communities in return? Not just to the inhabitants. What injustice are we meting to the soil? On the body of water in that region? On the trees and shrubs? And on the wellbeing of the residents there?
“The Forlorn Palm Tree” is a cry for environmental justice. There are few other poems in the collection centred on ecocriticism, that is, the linkage between literature and environment. A university student, Ebubechukwu Nwagbo, did a great review in his final year long essay (project) in 2021, entitled, “Ecocritic analysis of Olumide Olaniyan’s Lucidity of Absurdity.” He brought out various perspectives on the environmental aspect of my work in fascinating dimension. Environmental justice is one area of interest to me because of the damages we have done to ourselves as human race in our greedy exploitation of the environment.
Ojo: On page 29 of the said book, “Teeth of the Soil” showcases the exactitude of death and man’s eternal certitude of the “soil” as his final place of abode as written thus in the poem: // a servant that devours its lords at dusk…// Do you think a mindfulness of this message will stem the evil in our world today?
Olaniyan: A poem and /or other creative works won’t stop evil people from endangering the rest of us. It is left for us to act; to call them out; to take action in our collective interest. So, the poem will help to stand up to and ‘never, never again’ give in to discrimination, exclusion, injustice and violation of rights. A work of art is a tool to right wrongs. It will always remain by the side if not put to use.
Ojo: In your second book, Akimbo in Limbo, I see a collection seeking to trace the origin of man’s struggle with himself and nature. I also see a charge to man to correct his ways in the form of different homilies reticent in the collection. Do you think poetry has the power to change people? What do you seek to achieve with this collection?
Olaniyan: Akimbo in Limbo is focused on history of nature, nations, and of course, humanity. It is asking humanity to be humane, even when the urge to do evil lurks in their mind. I have deliberately used human, which would stand for male and female and not just man or male. I am a gender equality scholar and we don’t agree that ‘man’ is synonymous for both male and female. Akimbo in Limbo is a continuum of Lucidity of Absurdity. Nathaniel Bivan pointed this out in his review of the work in Geek Afrique – “#BookChaser: Standing Akimbo and Reviewing the Work of Olumide Olaniyan.” Poetry surely can energise us into taking action, into standing up. Or do you think we should continue to stand, arms akimbo in our state of limbo? I am preaching the gospel of action, of end to docility, of end of cowardice, of end of slavery. Slavery is a state where one surrenders to the oppressors because of fear, timidity and agrees with a skewed social structure.
Ojo: In the poem “Àjálù” which is a Yoruba word for “Chaos or Pandemonium”, you wrote thus: ” when seeds rot beneath the soil// but fail to sprout to life…//when the river remains placid//But drowns the prince out for a dip// Àjálù has arrived…// Do you consider the poem typifying the sorts of Àjálùs bedeviling our country and the world at large?
Olaniyan: There are Àjálù situations across the globe. They can make us cry, depress us. But, should we just sit back and cry? Get depressed and suffer mental ill-health? That particular poem is saying, even when we suffer, we should not give up. Suffering is not limited to Nigeria; so, the poem can be related to one’s immediate community and can also apply to the world at large.
Ojo: As a historian and social scientist, how does these inclinations interplay in your literary works?
Olaniyan: Writers are influenced by their environments and other situations around them. I am influenced by what I see, hear, smell and imagine thereafter; books I have read, people I have met, places I have lived or visited – all surely have impacted my work. I used interdisciplinary approach while I was working on especially Akimbo in Limbo, because we are talking about humanity and nature. So, you will find elements of biology, philosophy and psychology in my work. They are very important subjects or themes when you talk about nature and nurture.
Ojo: Recently, you announced the translation of your poems into Yoruba language. What do you seek to achieve with this latest pursuit?
Olaniyan: It is to make the work reach wider audiences. To show that it is also important for us to get our work to other people. This is one area I admire Abubakar Adam Ibrahim whose award-winning work, Season of Crimson Blossoms, has been translated into European languages, such as French and German. I think. Things Fall Apart has been translated into at least 50 languages across the globe also, as you may know. Sadly, not into any of the numerous Nigerian languages.
Ojo: Do you have any literary work, say novel, we should anticipate?
Olaniyan: Yes, I am working on a two novels simultaneously. One of them will be out, hopefully by 2023, and the second one along with a third poetry collection would be ready in 2024 or 2025.
Ojo: What inspires you the most as a writer?
Olaniyan: Desire to make the human to be humane; to have a sane and peaceful society; to support human efforts to move away from the Hobbesian view that life is nasty and brutish; to promote an inclusive society.
Ojo: How far do you see your literary works reaching few years from now?
Olaniyan: I will wait and see. I pray for strength to continue to write. I am delighted that the initial works are making impact. I hope I can continue to put in my best. I will rather not publish anything than to push out a work that has no message.
Ojo: What can you make of young writers in Nigeria today, writing more of grief-related poems? Do you think it’s just a trend that will fizzle out soon or just a testament to the despair in the country?
Olaniyan: How do you mean grief-related poems? The ocean of sorrow across the land is overwhelming. So, writing about it is one way to put it in everyone’s face and a call for action. Activism through poetry has always been with us, from pre-colonial era to date. My friend, Zakama Kabura, recently released his collection of poems, Chant of the Angry. He is not really a young writer. We are all concerned with the situation in the country and if angry poetry will help us to contribute to efforts at addressing the situation, why do you want to stop us?
Ojo: Your daughter, Ereke. There seems to be a congenial inspiration she brings to your world as I have observed in the several allusions you ascribe to her with your Facebook posts. Beyond the fatherhood level, how do you describe your affinity with her?
Olaniyan: We are twins born apart. I will also be collating those sketches for publication in future.
Ojo: The Litvo Journal is run by dedicated young people, do you have any kind words for the journal?
Olaniyan: I am impressed with the commitment of your journal to promoting literature in Nigeria and beyond. I wish you the very best.
Thanks again for honouring this conversation.
Ojo Olumide Emmanuel is a Nigerian Poet and Book Editor. He is the Author of the Poetry Chapbook “Supplication For Years in Sands” (Polarsphere Books, 2021). His works have appeared and forthcoming at Feral, Quills, Poemify, Melbourne-Culture,TNR and elsewhere. He is the Editor-in-Chief of The Nigerian Review (TNR). He currently curates the monthly Wakasoprize for Poetry and Abubakar Gimba Prize for Short Fiction. He is a fellow of SprinNG Writers Fellowship. Say hi to him on Twitter @OjoOlumideEmma2