The Nigeria Prize for Literature 2018 was recently won by the University of Ibadan teacher, Dr. Soji Cole. His work, Embers, focuses on the plight of people in IDPs. It is also a metaphor for the IDPs’ camps Nigerians unconsciously find themselves as they battle multiple forces to regain their common humanity. In this interview with ANOTE AJELUOROU, the don debunks certain assumptions and presents things as they truly are.
Congratulations on your winning The Nigeria Prize for Literature 2018. Since that Friday night, when you were announced as winner, what has changed about you?
Really on the surface, I mean on the physical, little will change. This is not the moment to start thinking of buying a car, getting fanciful wardrobes or starting a building project. Obviously, no. It’s a time for great reflection for me. Time to start setting right the scrambled pieces of that vision that I have always had. Time to get some works kicking. Time to plough back. Time to question my sense of humanity. Naturally, some clout comes with the win. I am hoping to make the best of that.
You mentioned some socially relevant causes you’d like to put part of the money in into. Could elaborate please?
Yes, there are. I don’t think I want to divulge most of them in public space. But there are some which will directly affect my Creative Writing students – both past and present.
Your work Embers is focused on a topical Nigerian reality, of displacement and the attendant violence and neglect. Does it worry you that it reads a bit like current history?
It does not worry me a bit. The play was consciously written to reflect that reality. In my works, I always aspire to take the reality of our time and stamp it on our consciousness. I believe this is one way I can join in the conversation about developing our nation – and, of course, our humanness and humanity.
You were longlisted in 2014. In 2018 you have won the prize. Are you one of those who write for prizes?
Yes! I am not ashamed to accept that truth about myself and my writing. I always tell my Creative Writing students to write to win prizes. That is one way people get to read your works in this generation where there is less inclination to conscious reading, and when even writers have evolved. I always impress it on them to forget the narrative that writers shouldn’t write for prizes. Even your closest friends will not bother to read your works until your works are given some elevation by winning prizes or getting nominations or honorable mentions. We must be sincere here. Who are you in the literary space, especially in Nigeria if you don’t win awards or get on the honorable mention list? Even I am part of those who have unconsciously encouraged this (unwholesome) culture.
Every year, the winner of The Nigeria Prize for Literature, the Nobel Prize winner for Literature, the Man Booker winner, the Pulitzer Prize winner etc., must automatically go into the reading list of my students. So, this is what our world is becoming. But then, there is always a restriction to my idea of writing for prizes – which I also infect my students with. Never write for literary prizes that will undermine the liberty of your creative prowess. If there are literary competitions with guidelines, which stiffen ones creative flow, I am completely out of that. That is why I believe The Nigeria Prize for Literature is a worthy competition. There are no restrictive guidelines. No specified themes. No number of words or character limitations. Just write. They are looking for quality works without restriction – and that is the kind of prizes that I encourage. I will never write to fit my work into a specified container. That is why it has been difficult for me to enter my work for some other literary competitions. The only proviso with The Nigeria Prize for Literature regulation is that the work must be of quality, and that is a great prompter for the kind of literary prizes that I believe in and will write for.
How does your work bear out the truism that literature feeds on and profits from the carrion of tragedy? Do you feel guilty that you have profited as well, both in terms of fictional output, with Embers and the prize’s financial reward?
This is a difficult question for me to respond to. Or rather, I think my understanding of this question or its intention is limited. How does literature feed on the carrion of tragedy? Are we talking here about genre definitions or the sociality and positionality of certain literature? Whichever way it goes, I think we mustn’t determine a writer’s innate perspective from such angle. I write so that people can read my work. My work is my own side of the conversation about who we are as humans. Entering my works for prizes is my determination to encourage people to see my own side of the conversation and either complement or dispute it. That is what keeps literature going.
I have told as many people as have had discussions with me about the play since it got on the longlist and eventually winning the prize, that I am beginning to get seriously uncomfortable and frustrated. People will congratulate you and then talk about the money prize. Nobody is asking to read the book. I would rather there is no monetary prize but everyone gets to read my work. I want to be engaged on my work. I desire that critics and literature enthusiasts read the play and engage in provocative conversation about it, either in terms of its good quality or otherwise. This will also help to complement the verdict of the judges or dispute it. It will eventually translate to developing the competition. We should have that kind of culture. That is my desire and not the notion of the monetary prize attachment or the unnecessary celebrity status that people are trying to create out of winners.
Even the media is not helping. Just some few days before the final award, one of the popular newspapers in Nigeria (not The Guardian) put up what I considered a nauseating headline about the prize. It reads something like “dollar rain for writers”. This is a newspaper that didn’t bother to do any critique or review of the three plays on the shortlist. So there is no sense of guilt for me. Only such frustration that the seeming gatekeepers of literature in Nigeria have gone to sleep.
Now that attention has been drawn to your work and thereby the plight of these fellow Nigerians in IDPs’ camps, do you have hope that similar attention would be drawn to their plight in real time and rehabilitation come their way?
Now we are talking about the society in real time and not in dramatic representation. What we do with creative writing is just mere representation. We do try to symbolize life but it is not life. Having hope that my work will draw attention to the plight of the IDPs may be one course of the author’s intention, but the responsibility belongs entirely to the larger society, especially government. And as I have consistently reiterated, my idea of the IDP camp in the play is a metaphor. I am actually insinuating Nigeria.
The military and government officials who are alleged to be abusing the rights of these people have consistently denied them. Now your work holds them to greater accountability. What possible reactions do you expect from them?
They know that even with their constant denials these things are happening in the IDP camps. The government knows, too. I believe they know because I conducted intense research and got those verdicts. I never for once stepped into the IDP camp, but I met with several people who have been there on different projects. They all have varied accounts of the atrocities going on in those camps. So, I asked myself, why would so many people lie about the IDP camps? It means that what they are saying has every possibility of truth in them. Then I read the reports of Amnesty International and some other international rights organizations about the IDPs and they were damning reports, despite the attempt to cover up by the military and government.
But then what is in my book is drama. It is a representation. While I tried to portray what is operating in the IDP camp I believe that I cannot be held responsible for the creative flow of my characters, especially when I have not directly mentioned real names or given places where these situations occur. So, I don’t really care how those who are supposed to be responsible react. I won’t be the first or the last writer to bear the heavy brunt of the establishment if they came for me. For me, it is just normal.
Do you think there has been enough literary lens beamed on Boko Haram and its atrocities by writers as your work has done?
I wouldn’t know. There are many good writers from the northern part of the country whose works we don’t even get to read. Some of these works may have beamed their searchlights on the Boko Haram atrocities since the occurrence is in that region of the country. Because I am overwhelmingly ingrained in the social context of the theatre, I feel that any problem, particular the virulent ones that debase our humanity must consistently attract the attention of writers.
You will recall that Maybe Tomorrow was about the Niger Delta crisis. That was the national issue at that time. So I wouldn’t know if there are. Maybe I have not read enough but saying there are not will be jumping to conclusion without reasonable doubts.
You stated earlier that drama seems marginalised by the virtue of its nature. How can the marginalization be mitigated?
I do not have the whole idea how this can be mitigated. My idea is that those who are writing dramas are part of the problems. It is easy for some writers of drama to write works of low quality and get them in the reading list of major examination syllabus, or the syllabus of the state ministry of education or even in schools for General Studies. This idea has consistently whittled down the respect for literature in Nigeria. Young people who consume these kinds of works will end up writing the same kind of literature because they have not been challenged.
I have had cause to include an award winning play in the reading list of my students some years back and there was a lot of controversy in the class when we treated the play. As young as some of these students are, they vehemently questioned the choice of the judges and the play as one befitting of even a local school award. And the shocking thing was that I agreed with them! That is not to say that we are downgrading a creative work but with the terrain of that class we couldn’t afford to shirk from the truth. I met several writers after and they all have the same verdict. So that is what I am saying. Those who write dramas should aspire to some level of creative aesthetic and sublimity. That is just one way to look at the problem though. There are several issues and I am not ordained with the knowledge to suggest solutions to all.
Will you be ready to commit funds to produce your work so a wider audience could see it so they possibly take the revolutionary action you so urge them to?
If you mean commit part of the winning money to produce the play, the answer is ‘no.’ In fact, the ‘NO’ is in capital letter. That play is a massive play. I was lucky to produce it once only because I had to talk my students into doing it. It is a completely intense play and I would rather not do something than do it half measure. That play needs funding. Like one of the citations of the judges stated, the play has some of the best spectacle of theatre.
So why would I involve the winning money on it when I can go ahead to do other projects with my students with less money? I am not one who believes that actors should be paid stipend. So if I am paying about twenty actors the average of N200,000, pay the crew members and procure the necessary accoutrement for the play, then the money is almost finished. And that is what we are saying; big organizations should be interested in theatre. They should commit to and fund theatre. It is already happening around in places like Lagos, Jos, Abuja, etc. It is not their job to walk to us to fund theatre; we must convince them to do so. One of the ways to convince them is to aspire to quality and relevance whenever we do our works.
The absence of theatre spaces must be a major worry for a theatre scholar like you. How can this be addressed?
Fortunately, I am lucky to be among the few theatre practitioners who indulge their arts by using the free space and students’ availability in the academic environment. That makes the issue of theatre space less worrisome for me. But that is not to say that the problem is not there and I don’t feel bad about it. But I think we need to focus more on the theatre-going culture than on the spaces. So many hangout joints are being converted to theatre spaces. They are there scattered in Lagos. But how many people will pay N2,000 to go there to see a theatre show? For me, the theatre-going culture is more problematic than the limited space. And with the British Council experiments in the Lagos Theatre Festival, theatre spaces are being redefined with the concept of site specific performances. So anywhere can be converted (or coveted) into a theatre space. It is the theatre taste of people that should bother us.
It would seem paradoxical for you to dedicate your PhD and this prize to the prophet who nearly stalled your chance of becoming the man you are today when he prescribed that you have no business with schooling. What exactly has religion done to the mind of the African/Nigerian? How does he overcome the mess?
I do not find it convenient to discuss religion, either in public or private, except, of course, in my works. I learned to avoid such conversation a long time ago. My story is not peculiar. So many people have similar experiences. The prophecy might have been proclaimed from a different person or from another angle. Even mere looking down on your students who have less inclinations towards academic interest and elevating the more academic ones is a self-vaunted proclamation on them. It is not right. So my story is not peculiar. There are also millions of children who are growing as orphans in Nigeria; so, we shouldn’t take that part of my story as special. I can refer you to a certain part of my play, which denotes my conception of what religion should be. Let me quote from it:
“You slaughtered a goat and threw its
Corpse into the shrine
I picked it up and roasted the meat for food
We serve different Gods
Yours don’t eat carcass
And I eat beef”. (Embers, pg. 35)
So the quotation aptly summarizes what I feel religion has done to the mind. I am a spiritual person. I believe that every human being is, without necessarily being religious. I believe there is a divine being somewhere and most religions do, too. To attempt to manipulate your understanding of your God to subjugate others becomes the problem. I don’t know if there is a mess anywhere, but I feel we would have been better off if we have that understanding to let each one relate to his/her God the way they like without impeding on the minds of others.
What became the turning point for you that turned the tide from a life on the streets to one on the height of academic and creative excellence?
Oh, another quote from Embers would answer that; “My mother’s death taught me a lesson; we are all inside a grave, to come out of it you must tread on corpses” (Embers, pg. 7). Losing my mother at the twilight of my teenage years was a devastating blow to me. I knew then that life means a lot of struggle. I understood then that there is no place for the weak. Already I had lost some years from school as my peers have progressed, even some were already in the university. I spent five more years trying to get into the university. Once I did, I never stopped. I see everything trying to distract me as that instrument to fulfil the obnoxious prophecy. I wanted to tell the world that no one has a right to proclaim a negative prophecy to your life. No one has a mandate on one’s fate.
Source: G Entertainment