Interviewed by David Ishaya Osu
Tuesday, March 19, 2013.
SYLVA NZE IFEDIGBO, a Nigerian short story writer, columnist, and communication buff, is fast carving his niche in the literary scene. With the arrival of his remarkable debut collection of twenty short stories, The Funeral Did Not End, in 2012, Ifedigbo, the doctor turned writer, appears as an artist with those gestures of a prophet. In this interview with DAVID ISHAYA OSU, Ifedigbo talks about his conversion into the arts and also bares his mind on other dimensions of literature.
Can you let us into your writing background?
I have been writing since the earliest memory I have of myself as a child. Growing up with books as toys has a way of immersing you into that world and one of my biggest fantasies as a child was having my name on the cover of a book. So back then, I wrote stories, usually my own versions of stories I had read or been told and I will not rest until I had gotten everyone to read it. Then, there was press club in Secondary school. In University I was active in the Press circles and started contributing to the Punch Youngsters page in Saturday Punch and then later, Campus Life in The Nation. All along, I also wrote fiction and some poetry.
Your writing background astounds one, considering your oeuvre; you have two titles to your credit, Whispering Aloud (2007), and the recently published The Funeral Did Not End (2012). My concern is the science, Veterinary Medicine, side of your life. Well, this can be traceable to other writers. Cyprian was a trained Pharmacist, but he’s known for his prolific writings. So, over to you, why the shift? Or is that you want to join the league of bohemians?
Ekwensi is a great example so is Wale Okediran and many others who have, from the sciences, crossed over to become men of letters. For me really, one of the things I have learned about life and this came by reading about the life of successful people is that to succeed one should take that which makes him happiest and turn it into a career. You will observe that too many of us live our lives passively, going day to day, taking and doing whatever life throws at us without stopping to figure out what makes us happiest or fulfilled. I’m talking about living your passion. This has nothing to do with making money, having a nice house or appearing on the cover of Forbes Magazine. It’s about doing what you love, so you never have to actually “work.” And so you can leave a mark on this earth. At some point in my life I had to make a decision, to be just another good doctor in the neighbourhood earning enough to raise a family, pay bills and then die uncelebrated or to do something outstanding along the lines of my strength and impact humanity in a more discerning way. I chose the latter and writing was the means. I hope I succeed enough at it to inspire many who currently feel imprisoned in their jobs to break free and pursue their dreams. Having said that, it’s important to add that the Medicine is still an important part of me and will never be thrown away.
What other genres do you flex your muscles around? I have observed that your fictional offerings abound.
I write a lot of creative non- fiction as well as socio-political essays. You might know that I maintain a column in Daily Times. I also love and write some poetry. That’s the part many people are not familiar with, though. I must say, however, that my output on this front is pretty low. It’s always easier for me to knock out a five thousand word story than come out with seven lines of a poem that I am satisfied with.
Who are those special authors that have influenced you, and you admire greatly?
Chukwuemeka Ike is one author I revere. I think he is not celebrated enough. I am also a huge Chimamanda groupie and protégé. On the socio-political essays sphere, I admire the works of Pius Adesanmi and Reuben Abati back at the Guardian.
Can you describe the experiences surrounding your debut book, Whispering Aloud? The story, the writing and editing process, the rejection and publishing process, the marketing and distribution process as well.
Whispering Aloud was borne out of restlessness and eagerness to show off my ability as a writer. The manuscript had it fair share of rejections before I settled for a self publishing arrangement with Spectrum Books Ibadan. The package availed me of the editors at Spectrum Books as well as their design artists. I was in Vet School then. Was not easy managing the back and forth correspondence but I managed well? It was a huge accomplishment for me, holding the novella in my hands made me feel fulfilled. The marketing and distribution which was not as fantastic hardly mattered to me really.
That reminds me; what’re your responses to rejections? Many young writers have lamented on the rejection phenomenon. You approach a publisher, or a journal to consider your work; only for a reply, that breaks your heart, to bombard your box. What could be the pretexts behind this behaviour?
Ah, rejection is like a normal thing for every writer regardless of their current status. Earlier they left me totally depressed with a feeling of being inadequate enshrouding me each time a new one popped up in the mail. Sometimes it made me simply want to quit. However, with time I learned to turn the disappointment into a resolve to work harder. Other times, I simply tell myself the editor or whoever it is that signed the letter simply did not get it.
You participated in the Chimamanda Adichie facilitated writing workshop. How has the training shaped your pen?
The workshop marked a turning point in my writing journey. Beyond what was taught, it made me feel this sense of responsibility, to take my writing seriously. After it, I began writing short stories which I sent off to magazines and journals. Those efforts birthed my collection The Funeral Did Not End.
Some people believe that creative writing cannot be taught, and should not be forced. What’s your view on this? Is it, then, pointless that we have writing programs and workshops such as Fidelity Creative Writing Workshop, Farafina Trust etc.?
That’s an age old argument. I subscribe to both views in the sense that while I believe the gift of storytelling and story writing comes naturally to some people, it also follows certain rules and guidelines which can be taught and learned. I think efforts sponsored by Farafina Trust, Fidelity Bank and others are laudable and should be sustained for even talent needs polishing to shine.
Have you found your voice, in writing?
Who dash me? (laughs). Seriously now, I am not sure I understand what finding ones voice really means. For me, I just want to tell stories. In various voices. I would rather leave such verdicts to the readers.
Let’s discuss your new book, and Sylva Nze Ifedigbo as a fictionist. On a lighter note, what made the funeral not to end? In the typical Nigerian setting, Funerals are surrounded with clouds of mournings and sobs, yet you are saying a funeral did not end. Could it be that the people had dreamt and waited for the funeral to come that they wish it does not end?
Funerals in Africa really do not end. We make such elaborate celebrations of death that each death leaves the living worse off. Not due to the vacuum created but the resources expended in the process of burring the dead. So you find that the living continue to mourn on end.
So, why did you choose The Funeral Did Not End as a title? And it’s as though you’re more at home with Short Stories.
The Funeral Did Not End is the title of one of the stories in the collection. It was not so difficult selecting it as the cover title for the collection. You see, besides the theme of the story which was on expensive funerals, the title and indeed my book is like a metaphor for the Nigerian situation. Life here is at best a funeral. We mourn in present continuous tense. Insecurity, social strife, ailing economy, you name it. Recently a state governor and a former National Security adviser died in a crash and someone buzzed me online saying that the title of my book continues to play itself out in our daily realities in this country.
You will be correct to say I find greatest expression in short stories. It allows one say it in few words and get it over with. No headaches managing a long complex plot. However, there are stories that require more and those must be told in the longer form to do justice to them.
Some artists and writers have said that their works are made from personal experiences or observations. How is your artistic creation process like? You know, some writers confess that smoking gives them inspiration, some others say beer. What is it that sparks your writings?
I am inspired by everything that happens around me from the scramble at rowdy bus parks, to the headlines in the newspapers and even game shows on the television. There are so many stories to tell around us and no one else will tell these stories but us. Someone once said we are often nauseated by the screams of the bus conductors that we fail to notice the poetry in it…the rhyme, the repetitions etc. All these inspire me. I really don’t need a kick nor indulge in any stimulating activity. It just comes and when it does, nothing can hold it back.
Reading through The Funeral Did Not End to the last, one traces themes such as Love, Religion, Matrimonial and Family Imbalance as buried in Lunch on Good Friday, National struggles and chaos, Hate, Anger, etc meandering around your paragraphs. And these themes are all set in the Nigerian Clime. What is your vision as a Nigerian writer, because TFDNE reads like an autobiography and biography of a bleak country?
That’s a pretty complex question. I will try to address it as best as I can. Simply put, my vision as a writer is that our story is heard far beyond the shores of our land. Now, I do not set out to tell only gloomy tales. Our lives are not filled with just gloom. Joy, beauty, colours, love etc are also part of our experiences and should also be written about. That gives it a complete package and I featured them as well in my collection.
I find On The Hot Seat, quite humourous; and I am aware you read it to the 2012 October audience of Abuja Writers’ Forum, the Guest Writer Session. I am also aware, being in the audience, that from the first paragraph to last the hall was filled with chuckles and loud Laughters while you read. In deploying humour in your fiction, as it is noticeable, was it intentional? Or could it be an extension of your person?
Both really. Humour is a device in storytelling. It helps the stories go down well. On the other hand, while I might not pass for a funny person, I always try to lighten up the mood around me and humour comes in handy.
Sister Stacy reads like a personal account. Could it be that you actually narrated an experience you had? And how often do you infuse your personal life into your fiction?
[Deep laughter] My lips are sealed on this one. Hahaha. The experience in the story you mentioned is a common one which I believe you have experienced in some way too. It was not a personal account in the sense of me being the ‘I’ in the story but it was one I was an observer of. Generally though, there is hardly any fiction writer who does not write himself into his stories in some way. So I am guilty as charged. There are huge chunks of my personal experiences in the stories I write.
Still in Sister Stacy, I find you combating the hypocritical traits of so-called religious fanatics. Notwithstanding, isn’t such piece a mockery, in a way, of piousness. And like Satanic Verses cost Salman Rushdie his comfort and even his life, hope you will not be hunted for?
First I must say Rushdie couldn’t have been more alive and well. In many ways, Satanic Verses was a blessing. I will love to read his newly published autobiography to learn more. Back to your question, I have had my own little Rushdie moments. Someone who read an earlier version of that story even before it was included in the collection wrote me a strongly worded note attacking what he described as my effort to mock Christianity. I have no regrets however. While I try not to infringe on the rights and sensibilities of others, I must tell stories as a writer and if the hypocrisy of new age Christians provides fodder, why not?
I have problems with a few of your stories, in terms of craft and artistry. I may conclude that you have sacrificed literary embellishments, artistic might, to an extent, for a political or a seemingly nationalistic drive. For instance The Smoke and The Fire, is a banal story that is supposed to mirror the marriage between journalism and the Nigerian polity. However, I find the story literary colourless. What did you set out to achieve with that story? Because I and many critical readers would find that piece deficient.
It is fine for you or anyone to not connect with any of my stories or to even describe them as banal. But I doubt if you also reserve the right to speak for the segment you describe as “critical readers” I think they should speak for themselves whoever they are. I must add that I don’t approach my writing as some scholarly activity. I certainly do not have critical readers in mine when I write. I write simple stories that people, ordinary people can connect with. We live our lives in a series of mundane occurrences not in complex plots and poetic sentences.
In his essay titled Beyond Social Commitment, Meaning and Audience: Towards the Soyinkanisation of Nigerian Literature, E.E.Sule lamented on the dearth of craft and sublimity in recent Nigerian writings. He pointed out some reasons, hear him: ‘‘The eagerness of our literature to speak directly to our society is what has given rise to the poverty of literary language.’’ What are your reactions to this, as a writer?
The respected scholar E.E Sule makes a valid argument but I am afraid that in reaching that conclusion he might have become inadvertently guilty of myopic diagnosis. I really can’t say much because I have not read the said essay and cannot judge the context under which he made that argument. However on my part I would say that so many other factors are responsible for the dearth of craft in contemporary Nigerian writing.
Let me ask. What role has the audience got to play in the making of any literary piece, as to readership? I mean, do you consider your audience when doing a work? And could that be a reason why you chose the simple narration?
I want to be read by all people but even more by the regular, every day people who are already weighed down by the daily challenges of life and are not about being further burdened with complex tales. You wonder why Nollywood is a goldmine? It is because the people see themselves in the characters in the films. Regardless of the poor quality, they consume it in the millions. Simple narration like you noted is a ready tool for reaching this segment. I think of this audience when I write, they shape the conversation, they build the characters, they make the story.
How do you develop your characters?
Characterization is a fun part of writing. Naming the characters, giving them life, putting words into their mouths etc is an exciting process. Sometimes, they the characters become my friends. We converse and share jokes.
Back to TFDNE, which story do you feel most attached to?
Arrrghhhh, (scratches head) now that is a hard one. It’s like telling a mother to pick a favourite from a set of twins. Really, each of my work means something special to me and are all products of a particular conception. They are my babies you get? So I wouldn’t pick one as a favourite without living with the guilt of having ignored the other. Having said that though, I must add that some of the works have been more successful than others. Some have been published in international journals while others have not. But in general, I will rather leave the readers to pick which they connected with most.
Recent writings have tackled taboo subjects such as Gay relationships and sexualities. Unoma Azuah, Jude Dibia and others have explored this dimension in their works. Do you think there are ulterior motives behind this, as many puritan readers will think, or just a picturing of cultural modernism especially the western cultures or the social and psychological inadequacies of humans.
First of all, describing them as taboo subjects isn’t quite appropriate. These are contemporary issues as colonialism and dictatorship was in the past and ought to be explored by writers of today. I therefore find nothing odd about this trend nor does the impressions it might register on some readers concern me much. In my opinion, we have failed to explore these otherwise contentious issues enough.
What role, then, has writing and Literature have to play in building moral and secured nations?
I think no one should place the burden of building societal morals on the writer. Having said that, I must add that books shapes thoughts and influence actions. To that extent, they can build morals and shape nations through their content. They can even cause revolutions. Perhaps the biggest quarrels of all time have been sustained by the content of religious books and scriptures. So books have a way of influencing people but like I said earlier, no one should expect the writer to as a duty, influence people.
How would you describe the new face of Nigerian literary clime, especially considering the incessant upsurge of young writers? And what future do you envisage?
So much is happening. The last few years has seen many new writers emerge. Young writers from Nigeria are winning international awards. Literary societies are emerging. Literary activities are gathering steam. Even publishing is experiencing a gradual turn around. While things are not what they ought to be, we are better than we were a few years ago and the best is yet to come.
You host a weekly column, just as you work in a communication firm. How do you share your time between writing and other spheres?
It is a crazy schedule made crazier by the fact that I live in Lagos. I write mostly at night when I can find some peace, that is, when NEPA permits. I make it a point of duty to write something every day and maintaining a weekly column has been a good disciplinarian for me.
Are you like those nerds who run away from their televisions and radios, just to have more concentration on weighty matters?
Our society doesn’t really afford writers such luxury of absolute tranquility for writing. If nothing else, you have generators humming away into the night while you write. Personally, I do not do the absolute quiet thing. I have the television on while I write and the internet close by to play around when I get tired or bored.
How long does it take you to complete a short story?
It depends on the time I have and the particular story I am telling.
Has there come a time you desired quitting the writing profession? If yes, what could have caused it?
It really gets frustrating at times but you will agree that the fact that people die at war hasn’t stopped people from voluntarily signing up to join the army. I was telling someone recently that it is only in Nigeria that you find young people confidently declare as if it is a thing of pride that they don’t read. For me, beyond the fact that this is like we say bad market for the trade I ply, it is something that worries me for the future of this country. There is this joke that if you want to hide something from a Nigerian hide it inside a book. A reading nation, is a great nation and it is no wonder that we are where we are a nation.
In the acknowledgments page of TFDNE, you expressed gratitude to Facebook friends ‘‘for reading and commenting on excerpts.’’ This is, in a way, a praise of social media; yet we find some other persons lamenting on the damage this ‘media’ has caused such as disregarding hard copies of books. Isn’t this new gospel of social media going to pose threats on publishers and printers?
The threat is already in effect. But is it a threat really? It is simply a change in the times and it behooves on all to key in. Besides being a distraction, I don’t consider social media a problem. If anything, it avails writers a good platform to reach many more readers.
Do you have regrets, in relation to your writings?
No regrets at all.
How was your relationship with your publishers, in the making of your collection of short stories?
I am lucky to have a young publisher who is passionate about books. We have come to become friends after the publishing journey. We shared a cordial relationship during the period leading to the publication of the book and still do. He was very patient and supportive while also being very thorough. It was a worthwhile experience for me.
Have you suffered writers block? And how did you cope?
Writers block? Who hasn’t? hahahaha. When I turn on the system and the fingers simply refuse to engage the keyboard, I simply shut down and do other things. May be tweet, facebook or watch soccer. Sometimes it could go on for weeks. But I have learned to ignore it. When it has run its course, it comes back.
So what are you working on at the moment? And when shall we expect your novel?
I am working on a novel which is unfortunately proceeding at a rather slow pace as I work to promote the collection. But hopefully, soon it will be done.
What advises do you have for fellow Nigerian young writers?
Patience, discipline and hard work is key. First you must be disciplined enough to read widely and write and rewrite rigorously. You must also be patient for the time to come. I waited two years for TFDNE to be published. Due to the dearth of local publishers publishing fiction, young writers in Nigeria are faced with a peculiar challenge. But it is one that is not insurmountable. I urge them to keep working at it and the opportunity will come.
Sylva, I really had a wonderful time digging into your mind. Yes, I just remembered. How is your wife?
Hahahahahaha. She is very fine. Thank you so much David.
David Ishaya Osu is a young Nigerian poet, short story writer, journalist, vocalist and photographer currently studying Urban and Regional Planning at Federal University of Technology Minna, Niger State, Nigeria. His works have appeared in several national and international publications such as The Kalahari Review, 2012 Sentinel Annual Literature Anthology (SALA 2012), The New Black Magazine etc. He was a 2012 LUMINA creative writing workshop participant. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org