The Red Oil Writer: Olumide Olutola and Jide Salawu at the Bench

February 19, 2024
15 mins read

An Interview with the Novelist Olumide Olutola

By Jide Salawu

Monday, February 19, 2024.

 

In December 2023, I had a chance to read a preview version of Olumide Olutola’s debut novel, Habitat of the Ordinary People, which will come under the imprint of Noirledge Press in 2024. Habitat is a serious commentary on the industrial fallout of postcolonial Nigeria. Born and raised in Nigeria, Olumide Olutola resides and works in Edmonton, Canada. He has a PhD from the University of Alberta. Olumide has lived in Edmonton, Canada, in the last few years, but his first literary offering returns to the gradual institutional decadence of Nigeria. I engage Olumide on his new work at the bench. I have called Olumide Red Oil writer because throughout Habitat, he is so occupied with the palm oil industry economy of Nigeria, which was doomed as Nigeria transitioned to a petro-dollar economy.

Congratulations, Olumide, on your debut work! Nigeria is a bubbling scene of literary talents who are shuttling between the thresholds of home and away, away being your place in Canada now. Yet, I will say your work is a good entry. It is a riveting trip with its own hurdles. When did you conceive the idea of this novel red oil?

Thank you for having this conversation with me, Jide. There is a difference between my development of the novel and my conception of the story that forms it. I first  had the idea of writing this novel over ten years ago. Let me say I thought of it when I had just started my doctoral program at the University of Alberta in the fall of 2008, but I had formed the story in my head way longer than that time. I carried the story with me everywhere and everyday, but I did not decide when and how to write the novel. To be honest, several times and more than I can recall, I dismissed the idea of developing the story because I felt I was too busy with work, family, and trying to gain a foothold in Canada. Surviving, as well as making a space for my young family, was my priority. I thought that I would perhaps find a better time to write the novel. None came. Yet, the story kept growing and overwhelming me.

Whenever I lost my sleep in the middle of the night, the story was the reason, and it always preoccupied my mind. That feeling was too burdensome. One night, in early 2019 to be vaguely precise, I experienced another sleeplessness and realized that the only remedy to it at that time was for me to start writing the story that had incubated in my head for more than a decade. I left my bed for my computer, and I started drafting the novel. At first, publishing the novel was not my immediate plan; I just wanted to get the story out of my head and have peace thereafter. Looking at the novel now and what it means to me, I am glad that I have written it.

Why did you choose this title?

To me, the key word in the novel’s title is “habitat.” I chose the title because I feel it strongly and symbolically represents the setting of the novel. I had other options and considered them, but this title appeals to me the most because it focuses on a place and the helpless people living in it. In the novel, Graeme Thompson Street is an interesting place to live, but it is not just a place. It is a colony, where only the strongest can survive. I do not measure strengths of the strongest and the weakest by their abilities and physical attributes. Instead, what defines the strengths of the ordinary people in this place is their desire and resilience to survive in the face of overwhelming social and economic disadvantages. My intent is to show Graeme Thompson Street as a representation of Nigeria. I did not want to use the word “colony” in the title of the novel, but this is the exact word that encapsulates the image and social architecture of Graeme Thompson Street beyond the literal meaning of the word “habitat.”

Yet, and this is surprising to me as I am telling you now, Graeme Thompson Street or Ayeka fails to be a full colony because of kind, hardworking, and resilient characters like Bridget, Tori, Benson, Ajeku, Ozo, Lamidi, the Ibadan boys, and so on. These characters, especially Bridget and Tori, show unwavering resistance to every bit of the oppression that any other person on Graeme Thompson Street or Ebute attempts to subject them to. Living by oppression is the only way most of the people on Graeme Thompson Street understand life because their political, cultural, and religious leaders relentlessly mistreat and oppress them. Ultimately, Nigeria is the colony, and Graeme Thompson Street of Ayeka is a habitat in it, and the people that live there are victims of the lack of meaningful leadership in their country. The title means to celebrate such people because despite their struggles, these people find a way to cope, tease each other, make friends, discuss the Civil War, watch soccer games, and do other things.

In writing about the postcolonial disenchantment of Nigeria, you go ahead with creating characters who are not only resistant to the perfidy of corruption, but also who are facing gross economic conditions despite their service to the nation. One expression of this is your return to the Biafra war of 1967-1970 which was fought between the Nigerian side and the Igbo people. In Lamidi, who is one of your impressive characters, we begin to perceive how soldiers who dedicated their labor to military service have been disbanded to the margin of democratic promise. What is your view of senior citizenship in Nigeria? Do you think literary projects, like yours, have a role to play in enabling a supporting ecosystem for geriatric demographic of Nigeria?

In my view, Nigeria does not take care of its senior citizens at all, and the ones who are less privileged among them suffer the worst condition. There are also other ones who have served the country well and continue to experience total neglect by their country’s leadership. This is heartbreaking. Lamidi and Ajeku exemplify the collective struggle of older Nigerians who have served the country and now have to queue up for hours, days, or months to collect their pensions. This is a tragedy. Sometimes, I get emotional when I reflect on Lamidi’s condition. When I was writing the novel, I created Lamidi’s character for the purpose of showing the pain of Nigerian senior citizens who have selflessly served their country. He fought for Nigeria against Biafra because of his idealism and loyalty for his country. He is a smart character who dropped out of school because of his patriotism and desire to keep the country together. One can say Lamidi put everything, including his blown-up legs, on the line for his country. Ozo fought against Nigeria and on the side of Biafra. Both men did what they thought was right at the time. Although the two men do not get along fine, they are firmly united in their suffering after the Civil War because they must stand in line for several hours to get their monthly stipends from their government. Sometimes, if not most times, the money runs out after the 20th person in line. What happens to the rest of the people? They go home empty-handed and have to repeat the same experience the following month. In the novel, some of the retired service people die while queueing for their monthly stipends.

There is no exaggerating there. To Lamidi, this experience is beyond sad. I guess I can call him a disappointed native intellectual, that is one who has, to borrow Frantz Fanon’s analogy in The Wretched of the Earth, previously assimilated the vision of his government but has now turned against such government because its practices are inhumane and oppressive. Aside from the corruption that plagues his country, Lamidi is disappointed in the way the Nigeria he helped to salvage now uses poverty as one of the apparatuses to psychologically and economically torture its ordinary and vulnerable citizens. To Lamidi and Ozo, the Civil War may be over, but the psychological one waged through neglect and economic hardships by their national leaders is unending. Yes, I wish to use my novel to draw attention to this tragic plight of Nigeria’s older population at the hands of the country’s leadership. These senior citizens deserve better, and Lamidi makes the case in the novel better than I can.

Who is Tori, and why are you committed to this character? I ask the question thinking along Pius Adesanmi’s reflection on children of postcolony, a term he himself borrowed from Abdourahman Waberi. In what way can creating children figures in fiction reclaim African postcolonial futures?

I agree with Professor Adesanmi, and may his soul continue to rest in peace. He was a great mentor. Speaking about him is emotional for me. I am sorry. Before I respond further, the question I always ask myself is what happened to Nigeria immediately after 1960? Tori is a boy, a young character, who comes of age in the dysfunctional space of his country. He is the central character in the novel, and his life and circumstances significantly impact the conflicts and relationships in the narrative. Tori may be the main character in the novel, the other characters that socially, psychologically, and intellectually nurture him are equally important. All these characters’ experiences converge on Tori, and so he embodies their collective condition and serves as a witness to the decline of his country and Ayeka Oil Palm Company. Tori does not know much about himself, and he longs to study his country’s contested history. Perhaps, ignorance is Tori’s best shield because the more he discovers himself and his country, the sadder and more disappointed he becomes. Like Tori, I admired Chief Anthony Enahoro when I read about the nationalist movement for Nigeria’s independence. I thought, and still think, that Chief Anahoro was a brave activist because he moved the motion for Nigeria’s independence on behalf of his fellow advocates for an end to colonial rule in Nigeria. The movement for independence promised a better life and an economically viable country for the people of Nigeria. Life was supposed to be sweet and comfortable, and the ordinary Nigerian ought to live well.

Those were the promises. What happened to them? This is one of the questions Tori tries to navigate in the novel. Tori cannot answer this question, but he constantly reflects on it, especially after he meets Lamidi and Femi. Roseline and Chinedu also join him to interrogate Nigeria, although Chinedu is more subtle. If in Seffi Atta’s Everything Good Will Come, the protagonist, Enitan, says “I was born in the year of my country’s independence and saw how it raged against itself,” Tori is curious to know why his country “raged against itself” at all so much so that the promise it made to its citizens died too quickly. Like Enitan then, Tori, Roseline, and Chinedu are children of the postcolony because although they love their country, they are disappointed in the way it has been mismanaged by political, cultural, and religious elites. If I may add, the Cameroonian postcolonial critic Achille Mbembe attributes the trepidation, disintegration, and disruption in the postcolony to the “banality of power,” which is a kind of political power that victimizes its subjects through violence and other torturous means. Postcolony, in the way I am using the term, is not a place or a period. It is rather a feeling, an identity, and the status of Nigeria as a failed postcolonial project now inherited by individuals born into the exact opposite of the balanced community that their forebears had imagined prior to independence.

I don’t mean to sound negative and pessimistic, but I am not sure that creating children figures in African fiction can reclaim African postcolonial futures because Africa, and let me speak for Nigeria in particular, continues to push its children out and far away. I hope I am wrong and truly want to be. Literature can and will continue to depict the human condition. Whether society changes or not, literature will continue to creatively represent what it witnesses. It is the African society that must reclaim its future–or the past promise that is yet to materialize–for its children.

Let me say once again that it is a spellbound detail you document there in your narration of Ayeka Oil. When most people think about oil in Nigeria, it is a revisitation of the petroleum industry, which is the dominant economic source of Nigeria. An encounter through your novel is different. It was Nigeria during the heyday of palm oil and agronomy. Yet it is a tragic report on the vestiges of the late colonial year agricultural boom. This loss is mourned through your work. Present Nigeria is fixed on crude oil. But tell me more about Ayeka Oil. Don’t you think a return to agriculture is concerning in a highly insecure climate and farmers and herders’ crisis? 

Insecurity and the herders’ crisis are products of the mammoth failures of Nigeria’s leaders to consolidate the goal of independence. No country can be economically viable and comfortably feed its citizens without agriculture. This assertion is even truer when you consider the current population of Nigeria. I am not yet explicitly suggesting that Nigeria should return to agriculture. That is a job for policymakers; I am a literary writer, and I must encourage my readers’ liberty to draw their conclusion about this interesting topic after they have read the novel. Although I feel that Nigeria and its populace would immensely benefit from a return to agriculture, this is not a primary concern in my novel. I believe that the evidence Nigerian policymakers and leaders need to make an informed-decision about agronomy in the country is readily available somewhere. In Habitat, I intend to show what once was and several things through Ayeka Oil Palm Company, and this is the reason I give plenty of attention to the company in the novel. Ayeka Oil is a representation of the many formerly successful companies that are now dead in Nigeria. There is a context for the symbolic significance of Ayeka Oil in my novel.

I spent eleven of my childhood and adolescent years in Okitipupa. My grandfather worked for the Okitipupa Oil Palm Company (OOPC), and he helped the company to expand. OOPC was the glory of Ondo State and the pride of Ikaleland. State governors, at different times, visited the company because they appreciated its importance to the state’s economy. The death of OOPC was sudden, shocking, and remains disappointing. Less than 70 kilometers from OOPC, there was also Oluwa Glass Company in Igbokoda, and it was equally a prosperous asset for the state and country. There was Ajaokuta Power and Steel Company in Kogi State, and it is now dead. Readers who already know one or two things about OOPC or another important industry that suddenly folded up in Nigeria due to poor management, neglect, privatization, ethnonationalism, or corruption can easily relate to my narrator’s strong feeling about the collapse of Ayeka Oil. Yes, “mourned” is the right word to describe the narrator’s feeling and disappointment in Ayeka Oil’s failure. More importantly, my novel  narrates Ayeka Oil as a microcosm of Nigeria. The company’s decline represents Nigeria’s disintegration and what Pius Adesanmi and Chris Dunton call the “endless repetition” of socio-political tragedies. I want readers of my novel to see Nigeria as a country that used to pride itself as a great exporter of palm oil, cocoa, and other agricultural products. While the older characters, especially Lamidi, Ajeku, Benson, and Bridget mourn the crash of Ayeka Oil, the novel is a tribute to the company and a recognition that the company’s death is a huge loss.

Is Rayzah a notification that the plunge of Nigeria’s agro-ecological boom was due to foreign actors and the world system of capitalism that continues to underdevelop Africa and set it as an importing continent?

No, not really. Rayzah and the other foreign agents at Ayeka Oil have nothing to do with the fall of the company or that of the agro-ecological boom in Nigeria. In the novel, Rayzah appreciates and envies the agronomical success of Ayeka Oil. He forges a strong relationship with Robert, one of the best brains behind this success, and does everything to lure him to Malaysia. Rayzah is a foil character in the novel because he exposes the indolence and failure of Ayeka Oil’s leadership to evolve and prioritize discipline over poor management and corruption. I do not regard foreign agents or the world system of capitalism as the reason Africa is an importing continent today. Consider Nigeria as an example, the people prefer a foreign product to a locally made one. The Nigerian well-to-do buy from Europe, North America, and Asia. The Nigerian government promotes and has a taste for things that are “foreign.” To me, the collapse of the agro-ecological boom in Africa was a result of a postcolonial mentality, i.e. the relentless overzealousness to emulate and impress the former colonial powers. Today, Africa’s preference for that which is foreign is a matter of choice and class, and I hesitate to regard global capitalism as the cause of the continent’s economic misadventures. Rayzah and his fellow Malaysisians in the novel see something valuable in Ayeka Oil’s major product and act in their own interest. In the novel, you can trace the evolution of the palm oil business boom in Malaysia to the steps that Rayzah takes. He is a smart man, but Ayeka Oil Palm Company should have been smarter.

Why have you deployed perseverance to communicate the strength of your female characters? Why did you later eliminate Bridget, is that a necessary decision?

The leading female characters in my novel are strong and intelligent, and I adore them. The challenges they go through are representative of the difficulties that struggling Nigerian women experience on a daily basis. There are literary works that have examined Nigeria’s postcolonial condition from the perspectives of men only, or they have underrepresented women’s strengths and perspectives about the country. I admire Seffi Atta’s Everything Good Will Come because of the way it questions toxic masculinity and challenges military dictatorships in post-independence Nigeria. I assume there are other Nigerian literary works that have done something close, and I haven’t yet read them. When I was writing my novel, I wanted to create a balance between my male and female characters and show that women, much like men, are also victims of the failure of Nigeria as a postcolonial project. Bridget leads these female characters and guides the younger ones such as Moji, Lewa, Ms. Yetunde, and Roseline while navigating a hostile terrain and socioeconomic pressures. Although Bridget’s tragic condition saddens me, I admire her and her character. Like I said earlier, literature represents the human condition. Life can be sad or happy, although we all prefer the latter.

Habitat is also a tribute to Bridget, and her demise, in the Aristotelian sense, has a purpose. She must exit the narrative for another female character, for example Moji or a much younger Roseline, to grow and for Tori to have a stronger motivation for a purposeful life. He lives in gratitude to Bridget and wants to make her sacrifice for him to be worthwhile. I am not forcing readers to accept the analysis that I am making, but, as a reader, you can see where Bridget’s heart is from the beginning of the novel. She prepares and warns Moji and Tori, but they do not understand what she means. What delays Bridget’s transition is her mission and determination to raise and lead Tori to where he can almost stand on his own. That way, she fulfills a promise. I had other options and could have chosen to keep Bridget physically present in the novel, but doing so would result in trapping her in a perpetual misery. However, there was no easy way for me to bring closure to her life. I assume you asked this question because Bridgte’s departure touched you. I hope for the reader to identify with Tori’s separation from his strong and caring grandmother. At least if they do not know or meet Lewa and Robert, they journey with Bridget to the end.

How has Edmonton helped your development of this novel?

I am grateful for Edmonton because it gave me a conducive avenue to express my creative imagination through this novel. More importantly, the work-life balance I have enjoyed in this city eased my pressure of writing my novel. I have been fortunate to have in Edmonton a lovely family and be surrounded by a few friends and colleagues who encouraged me to complete this novel. They continue to genuinely support me and my creativity. I thank them immensely.

Where are your favorite places to read and write in Edmonton?

Edmonton has many serene places that are conducive to writing, and I am not sure I have favorite ones yet. I just like a quiet place to read and write. I do most of my reading and writing at home because my family and I live in a quiet neighborhood. This is a blessing. I can mentally compose something while strolling on a walking trail or riding my bicycle in the summer months. I also like going to work on ETS buses and the LRT so that I can spend my travel time reading while the train or bus is moving. I always enjoy this experience, especially when the trains and buses are quiet, and the ones traveling my routes usually are.

Any future project you are working on currently?

At the moment, I am working with Noirlege to publish a new edition of Habitat. This way, the book can be locally available to readers who cannot purchase copies from Amazon. I thank Noirledge Publishing for accepting to publish my work. I have been planning my second novel and drafting a collection of essays that I hope to publish in the near future.

 

Jide Salawu is a Nigerian writer and cultural critic based in Edmonton, Canada. He is the author of Preface for Leaving Homeland (2019), published under African Poetry Book Fund. He is currently a PhD candidate at EFS, the University of Alberta.

 

22 Comments

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