Of the Making of Books

Blog by New Books Nigeria

7 Questions for Bolaji Olatunde, Author of Straw Dogs


GROWING UP, BOLAJI OLATUNDE  always had the burning ambition to be published – as a child writer. However, it was not until 2011 when he published his first novel, Straw Dogs, that he realized one half of his childhood dream.

In the intervening years, Bolaji’s reading taste transitioned from reading all the home-grown staples available to a young person growing up in a Nigerian south-south city in the ‘80s to reading the likes of Norman Mailer, John Updike, Paul Theroux, writers who were to shape his own writing style. But the book that awoke his consciousness as an adult was Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone by James Baldwin. This book presented him a clearer idea about what and how he wished to write.

We posed 7 questions to Bolaji about his 2011 debut novel, Straw Dogs, and what the future holds for him as a writer, and we share his responses below.


BOLAJI OLATUNDE'S PIC Author: Bolaji Olatunde.

The title Straw Dogs is a very suggestive one. It throws one’s imagination in a myriad of directions, what is its particular significance?

Bolaji Olatunde: That title came about in a most fortuitous way. I had just finished the second draft of the novel and was at a loss about the title I should give it. I was reading a collection of ancient Chinese texts somewhere when I came across a quotation attributed to Laozi, the Chinese philosopher who lived many centuries ago. It goes thus, “Heaven and Earth are ruthless, and treat the myriad creatures as straw dogs; the sage is ruthless, and treats the people like dogs.” Straw dogs were adornments used in ancient China to decorate sacrifices and they were later disposed of shabbily and carelessly. It just summed up, encapsulated, all what the story was about. I took out the “Straw Dogs” and attached it to my book. Unknown to me at the time, there was a 1971 Hollywood film with the same title. The book was a few days away from release when that came to my knowledge and to make matters worse, Hollywood was about to release a remake of the film. After consultations with my publisher, they said it was okay to release it under that title, so we did.

What did you set out to say with this novel and why was telling this story important?

Bolaji Olatunde: I just wanted to tell anyone who would read it that this is the thing of fun I’ve found. It wasn’t written with a message in mind. It was just a story, or series of stories that entertained me at a time of personal turmoil. I don’t know where they came from. I only acted as a medium, translating them into literary form for interested folks to read. Don’t go into it expecting to pick out some morality tale or lesson – books of that type will come from me later in the future, maybe.

How has this supernatural thriller which is set mostly in New York been received here in Nigeria?

Bolaji Olatunde: Those who’ve read it seem to be intrigued by it, or at least that’s what some say to me. The seamy, sexier portions left a number of them scandalised too. When you have written sex scenes and suggestive stuff in a book, many readers may be scandalised. In a recent interview David Frost had with the bestselling author, Isabel Allende, on Al Jazeera in August 2013, she said her mother was unhappy about her writing sex scenes of the salacious kind in her books. “Now, everyone will think you have done it,” she reported her mother as having said.

My situation hasn’t been too different. Even close pals who’ve read it believe it’s a narrative of my own secret experiences and I’ve grown tired of truthfully denying that. If they believe it to be reflective of any one person’s real life experiences, then my work as a fiction writer is done. I owe that book a duty to get it published in Nigeria, I believe. My energies are focused on my second novel now and all else have been back-burnered.

What influences have affected your writing style?

Bolaji Olatunde: The book that awoke my consciousness as an adult was Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone by James Baldwin. I was deeply affected by it and had a clearer idea about what and how I wished to write. I owe Mr. Baldwin that awakening. I owe my fondness for the international thriller to books by Fredrick Forsythe which I read as a teenager. While my novel was a concept forming in my mind, while I put the chapters down, I read works by Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, Paul Theroux, John Updike, John Irving and Bertrand Russell.

I read other authors too but these ones had more influence on my style, at the time. Their explorations of the human experience and the ways they enunciated their observations affected my style. I was also affected by their explorations of human sexuality. Very few Nigerian Writers I read while growing up presented sexuality in the way I perceived that these guys did, especially Mailer, Updike and Theroux. An exception is perhaps Sex is a Nigger’s Game by Dillibe Onyeama which I first read at an age I probably shouldn’t have. I found these writers unashamed and blunt about sex as a subject and I borrowed from their approaches to suit my Nigerian mind and circumstance.

At present, Helon Habilla’s arresting fictional novels and writing style weighs heavily on my mind. I admire his works so far and I am grateful to them. Beautiful stuff, clear, concise and always true to the real Nigerian situation as regards the everyday person on the streets, not the goings-on in the minds of some head-in-the-sky, feet-off-the-ground Afropolitan, Nigerian economic exile in Europe or North America, or high net worth professionals sitting in a comfy-cosy office in a Nigerian city. My next novel is toeing that line; written through the prisms of my own hopefully unique form of expression.

Here’s that question you have indicated that you like to hear asked, and we’re keen to hear your usual response too: So, how’s the book doing?’

Bolaji Olatunde: It could do better, that’s the honest truth. When I decided to self-publish, findings from my research informed me that the readership wouldn’t be of earth-shattering proportions, so pecuniary reward, or the promise of great fame and fortune, was out of the question. Stories of self-published authors selling millions of copies were very encouraging and the cause of occasional bursts of boundless optimism after Straw Dogs was published. The second draft of the book was ready by 2008. After about two plus years of a lot of rejection by literary agents, a kind, yes, kind, American literary agent told me his major reason for turning down my work was that the book would be too expensive to produce by a traditional publisher, so he didn’t think he could successfully pitch it. These agents rarely let you know why they can’t accept you and your work, that is, if you’re lucky to get a response from the thankfully very few uncouth ones. After thinking about it, I decided that if I couldn’t take the risk of financing the publication of my own work with my own savings, no one should and that’s why I decided to have it self-published instead of having it languish in silence in my archives. It has been very gratifying to receive responses from those who have taken the pains to actually read it, about how amusing and interesting they found it. That is more rewarding than anything else, just that word of appreciation, and helpful criticism. Prepublication, I was told by not a few pals that no one would ever read the book, and that infuriated me so much, it drove me to push on. In the end, I remain grateful to the naysayers, and I even thanked them in my book for the indirect inspiration. Many industry experts are saying self-publishing is the way the industry is going in this digital age of the Nook and Kindle, so I’m happy I joined the trend when it became fashionable. Folks who deride self-publishing as it is today are perhaps not in tune with what’s going on in the wider publishing world. Even established authors are joining the trend now, and it’s not as if it’s a new phenomenon. Writers have always done it but it’s much more acceptable now than it once was. Some classics in the world’s literary canon started that way. I read somewhere that Pride and Prejudice started out that way. A Time to Kill by John Grisham, Helon Habila started putting out his work that way too.

How has being a published author affected you in your personal and writing life?

Bolaji Olatunde: It’s a pleasure to know that anyone who cares to can actually access a novel that was the outcome of a labour of love, labour of almost four years. It’s actually a self-published book, and I had greater creative control over the final product than I would probably have had if it had been published by a traditional publisher. My personal life has been affected in mostly positive ways. I’ve had the wonderful pleasure of interacting with literary figures, physically and on social media. For the most part, it has been a pleasurable ride, a worthwhile learning experience, although I have had my run-ins with one or two Nigerian literary minds, which is to be expected in the passion-laden landmine that is writing and the arts.

Straw Dogs was published in 2011, what’s next on your writing calendar?

Bolaji Olatunde: I am currently working on my second novel. It’s really taking its time to step out completely from its metaphorical womb. I honestly don’t know how to twist its arm to come forth faster, but it’s coming along, slowly but surely, although I wish it would be faster about it. Professional commitments in my day job aren’t making it faster too! In the meantime, a play and a screenplay are in my archives, created in the intervening period between 2011 and 2013. Playwriting and the novel are my literary mistresses and I love them equally.

Bolaji Olatunde is a Nigerian writer, playwright and international affairs enthusiast. Straw Dogs, his first novel, was published in the United Kingdom in April 2011.


“My sight miraculously returned”: Miracle and the Nigerian-American Dream

Guest Post by Lisa Snow

The Caine Prize

Nigerian-American Tope Folarin’s story Miracle was the winner of the 2013 Caine Prize for African Writing, making this the second consecutive win by a Nigerian author, following Rotimi Babtunde’s success in 2012. In fact, four of the five shortlisted finalists for the 2013 prize were Nigerian. Folarin’s story, which is part of an as yet unpublished novel, The Proximity of Distance, reflects the author’s upbringing in a Nigerian community in America, and focuses on the role of faith in this community. This focus is reminiscent of other Nigerian writers, including Chinua Achebe and Isaac Attah Ogazi, who have often discussed the role of religion in their lives and fiction. Despite the story’s reflections on a theme common to Nigerian literature, Folarin and Miracle represent a departure from previous winners of the Caine Prize, due to the author’s identity as a second-generation American immigrant and the story’s concentration on the Nigerian Diaspora rather than a purely African setting. The Caine Prize has previously been criticized for selecting texts that fail to reflect the modern African experience, and thereby encouraging authors to perpetuate African stereotypes in order to compete for the lucrative prize. Miracle marks a shift away from these types of stories, and has therefore escaped such criticism, but its author’s background has provided fuel for a different debate. Some critics have suggested that his background is more American than African, and have questioned whether his selection reflects the purpose of the Caine Prize, fostering African literature. It seems that Caine Prize winners can be criticized not just for being too stereotypically African, but also for not being African enough.


The story, which is available online, begins with the congregation of an evangelical Nigerian church in Texas, who have gathered to witness the miracle cures doled out by a visiting preacher from the homeland. The reader initially becomes part of this narrative “we”, singing and praying together in perfect faith, but halfway through the story, the perspective shifts. A young boy is singled out from the crowd, and his voice takes over the narration. As he is separated from the “we” of the congregation, the boy voices the first suggestions of doubt about the healer’s powers. It is at this point that the reader slips into a sense of uncertainty and ambiguity that persists for the remainder of the story. Miracle does not provide any clear answers. The boy joins the preacher on stage, and participates in a confusing, exhilarating ceremony that is supposed to cure his bad eyesight. He plays along with it, and declares to the crowd that his eyes have been cured, and he can now see clearly, but it is not until he puts his glasses back on the next morning that his sight in fact “miraculously returned”.

Religion in Nigerian Literature

The ideas of truth and doubt that are central to Miracle reflect themes that have repeatedly occurred in Nigerian literature. Chinua Achebe, acclaimed father of African literature, was one of the earliest Nigerian authors to write about faith. Achebe grew up with a father who was a convert to evangelical Anglicanism, and who had spent decades travelling around pre-independence Nigeria with his family in order to preach his faith. At university, taking classes in comparative religion, Achebe learnt to question his parents’ faith, as he read about traditional African beliefs and the manner in which they had been ousted by missionaries. The questioning of religion would become an important subject in his books, right at the beginning of modern Nigerian literature. Folarin’s religious experiences were not dissimilar to Achebe’s, so it is little wonder that similar themes occur in his work. Folarin was also raised by evangelical Christian parents, although it was in the US rather than Nigeria. At university, he too began to question his faith, fluctuating between faith and belief, inspired in part by reading Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. The similar experiences of Achebe and Folarin are not the only reasons for the prominence of faith in their work, and that of other Nigerian writers. Faith, in its many forms has played a central part in Nigerian life, with many social and political divisions arising along religious fault lines. Conflict between the Islamic north of the country and the Christian south, compounded by the many traditional faiths that persist across Nigeria, were encouraged by colonial policies, and continue to affect lives to this day. Achebe’s international popularity is testament to the fact that experience of the political and religious complexities of Nigerian life is not essential for appreciating the country’s literature, but readers with an understanding of the history of world faiths may be at an advantage when it comes to understanding why these themes have such resonance across the whole of Nigerian literature, and why young authors today are continuing to write about religion, just as Achebe did when he began his career.

In modern Nigerian literature, religious themes are often focused around the same sort of setting that appears in Miracle, with evangelical congregations in thrall to preachers claiming to have healing powers. Fake healers and gullible believers have appeared in Noo Saro-Wiwa’s collection Looking for Transworldland, Patrick Tagbo Oguejiofor’s short story Visa to Heaven, and Wole Soyinka’s plays The Trials of Brother Jero and Jero’s Metamorphosis. The focus in these works has tended to be on exposing the fraudulent healers and ridiculing the credulity of the congregations, but faith is treated differently by Folarin.

Faith in Miracle

Folarin does not shy away from ambiguity. He allows his readers to be uncertain about the reality of the miracle, suspended with his narrator somewhere between belief and doubt. The boy’s eyes are not cured, but neither is the preacher exposed as a fake. The congregation go home with their faith intact, and even the narrator, who has played along with the miracle, feels that he has in fact been cured, somehow. His eyes may not be different, but he feels changed. Exactly what this change is, and what it means, is left to the reader.

Rather than focusing on whether the cure is real or not, Folarin questions whether the supposed healing is in fact the miracle that the congregation requires. The sense of community and faith may be more important than the truth of the cure, and the story is replete with miracles that do not require religious faith. It is a miracle to be living in America, among its miraculous consumer goods, which serve as both a temptation to be resisted and the focus of the congregation’s desires. It is for green cards and visas that they pray, along with a sense of identity as Nigerian and American. The preacher promises that dollars will come to the faithful, that those who believe will be rewarded. The sense is of a version of the American dream in which it is belief that will generate success, or at least the hope of it. The Nigerian-American dream is to accumulate a wealth that is owed to the faithful, “To claim the success that is rightfully yours!” despite the resistance of an America that no longer welcomes its immigrants, or which perhaps never truly did. The congregation needs to believe, and the narrator accepts this need. He enables belief in others, though he does not need the proof of a miracle for himself. His faith has been fulfilled by his life in America, and his place in the community. The miraculous return of his sight occurs, not on stage with the preacher, but when he puts his glasses back on the next morning when he wakes up. The miracle was already there.

Writing as Healing – The Therapy of Story


Guest Post by Lisa Snow

Anyone who has recently read the excellent book ‘The Orphan’ can attest to the powerful and often valuable and motivating messages in many of the books we read. This presents us with an interesting proposition, and one that has been explored through literature throughout the world since the written word took hold. Can writing, and reading, help us maintain a healthy state of mind? Can the medium of story help us find our way in the world, and guide us morally? Additionally, for writers, is it this form of self-expression that allows some form of closure on previous distressing or unpleasant experiences?

The Value of Story

Stories have always been a preferred and successful way of passing on knowledge or ideas to younger generations, but they pass these ideas or knowledge equally well to adults too. This has not gone unnoticed, and a recent academic paper investigates the merits of using storytelling to promote health and educational awareness. Of course, while the message of the story is important, often the act of simply reading itself can be enough to lift us out of our everyday experience for a while, and this has noted health benefits too, both physically and mentally. While the act of escapism is itself great at reducing stress and encouraging relaxation, the activity of reading, and reading stories in particular, has been shown to actually help the brain develop new neural pathways.

Writing as Therapy

Many of us may not think we are able to write, and that it is an activity best left to authors and poets, but in fact writing can have very valuable benefits regardless of whether you are simply keeping a diary or starting on that novel you’ve always been meaning to write. The field of writing therapy is a fast growing one, especially in countries like the US, where more and more research is pointing towards a number of health benefits, especially for those suffering from mental difficulties due to traumatic experiences. Some of the long term benefits of using expressive writing as a form of therapy cannot be downplayed, leading to such benefits as an enhanced feeling of well-being, reduced blood pressure, improved organ operation and more. As a result, more and more institutions that specialise in treating these areas are adopting expressive writing therapies in addition to standard recovery processes for mentally ill or behaviourally disordered patients. While most of this therapy has yet to catch on in Nigeria, the beauty of it is that it can be done by every individual in their own home, as although professional therapists may have a specific approach that they will employ based on patient’s needs, simply writing down what is making you angry, depressed, or unhappy can still help reduce some of the feelings of unease that result in these emotions.

Stories of the Future

Of course, as mentioned above, many of the benefits of reading and writing can be gained by simply doing them, and in a sense all the research and scientific evidence merely confirms what we have perhaps always known: That a good story can teach, heal, and help us grow as people. It is by sharing these collective experiences that we gain empathy and insight into lives that perhaps we have been lucky, or unlucky enough to experience first-hand, and this can serve as an educational or cathartic experience based on what we know ourselves.

African, and Nigerian literature in particular is itself gaining wider international appeal, and as a result is spreading the stories and experiences of its people. Authors such as Ben Okri, Wole Soyinka Niyi Osundare and a number of other, now globally renowned writers, have taken great leaps into the international literary scene, and put Nigeria firmly on the map. As a result of this, writing has gained increased popularity, not only in the form of books, but also the expansion of fields such as literary academia and criticism. With more and more upcoming authors producing great works, such as Chibundu Onuzo, the literary world has certainly only seen the beginning of what Nigerian writing has to offer, with many unique and touching stories to be shared with an ever growing global audience.

Ikhide R. Ikheloa’s Review of We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo


Look at them leaving in droves, the children of the land, just look at them leaving in droves. Those with nothing are crossing borders. Those with strength are crossing borders. Those with ambitions are crossing borders. Those with hopes are crossing borders. Those in pain are crossing borders. Moving, running, emigrating, going, deserting, walking, quitting, flying, fleeing – to all over, to countries near and far, to countries unheard of, to countries whose names they cannot pronounce. They are leaving in droves. (p 145)

–        We Need New Names, NoViolet Bulawayo

In the 21st century, in the age of twitter and Facebook-induced ADHD, when a hard copy book is able to engage you nonstop for two days until you get to its end, all you can do is stand up at the end and give the author of such a miracle a rousing standing ovation. NoViolet Bulawayo’s debut book, We Need New Names is such a book. Let’s just say the book did not make me cry but it certainly aggravated my allergies, something in the pages made a mess of my tear ducts. Bulawayo kicked this one way out of the ball park; dear writers, this is the book to beat. It is a beautiful book, in every sense; every sentence is pretty, you want to take each word home and cuddle up to it. The book may be dying, but Bulawayo is going to ensure that it doesn’t go down without a great fight. I have always thought that thanks to technology, the book at best would be relegated to an archival role, of dead history, etc. Nope, not with Bulawayo, this book is the most contemporary piece of literature I have read in a long time, it situates itself firmly in the 21st century, firmly in our sitting rooms, in our laptops, tablets and smartphones and connects communities, countries and continents with muscle – and Skype. Now, that is how to write a book. Yes.

NamesWe Need New Names punches gaping holes in Africa’s boundaries and oozes lovely echoes of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. So, what is this book about? Defiantly starting with the winning short story that ticked me off during the 2011 Caine Prize competition (see How not to write about Africa), Bulawayo takes the reader through the enchanting, disturbing and amazing journeys of six urchins growing up in a place one suspects is in Zimbabwe. Six ten-year old urchins dressed in NGO castoffs – Bastard, Chipo, Godknows, Sbho, Stina and the protagonist Darling, dream of escaping their hell, a place called, you wouldn’t guess it, Paradise. Paradise is hell, a desolate shanty town with a street pregnant with despair named Hope, a place where people simply wait to die, nothing but death and misery happens here. In this part of the world, children are born and they endure waves of war that they did not ask for. Example: Chipo is pregnant – with her grandfather’s baby – at age ten. They are always hungry and they raid the wealthy enclave of Budapest to steal guavas and fill their stomachs until they are too constipated to be hungry. I will never look at a guava the same way again, ever. You imagine six ten-year olds, dressed in the detritus of the West (used Google T-shirts, etc), one pregnant, feet dusty from constant trekking, exploring their devastation, dreaming and scheming of America, a world away where they think there is no hunger, and your heart stops, just stops, this is so wrong. Paradise. Hope. Despair. A deadly joke resides in there somewhere:

We all find places, and me, I squat behind a rock. This is the worst part about guavas; because of all those seeds, you get constipated once you eat too much. Nobody says it, but I know we are constipated again, all of us, because nobody is trying to talk, or get up and leave. We just eat a lot of guavas because it is the only way to kill our hunger, and when it comes to defecating, it becomes an almost impossible task, like you are trying to give birth to a country. (p 16)

We Need New Names is an unusual work of fiction – in a delightful sense. Every chapter has a name and the book reads like a collection of eighteen short stories, whose titles strung together collectively tell one delectable story: Hitting Budapest. Darling on the Mountain. Country-Game. Real Change. How They Appeared. We Need New Names. Shhhh. Blak Power. For Real. How They Left. Destroyedmychygen. Wedding. Angel. This Film Contains Some Disturbing Images. Hitting Crossroads. How They Lived. My America. Writing on the Wall.

And what a story. Each sentence throbs with understated passion. Bulawayo doesn’t use quotes; she employs a delicious neat trick – the dialogue melts into the prose. In effortless dialogue, remarkable since Bulawayo dispenses with the use of quotes, Bulawayo connects the West with Africa in the universality of wars and dysfunction. When the protagonist escapes the hell that was her Africa, she comes face to face with America and her issues, wars that are just as savage as the one she just left behind. And she wails about it in some of the best prose poetry I have ever read in my life. Paradise is hell, Budapest is hope and America, and the road that connects them is named Hope:

After crossing Mzilikazi we cut through another bush, zip right along Hope Street for a while before we cruise past the big stadium with the glimmering benches we’ll never sit on, and finally we hit Budapest. (p 2)

Budapest is the America that the children see on television:

Budapest is big, big houses with satellite dishes on the roofs and neat graveled roads or trimmed lawns, and the tall fences and the Durawalls and the flowers and the big trees heavy with fruit that’s waiting for us since nobody around here seems to know what to do with it. It’s the fruit that gives us courage, otherwise we wouldn’t dare be here. I keep expecting the clean streets to spit and tell us to go back where we came from. (p 4)

These are stories that tell of triumph over the basest of adversities. We Need News Names is unflinchingly disturbing and dark (there is an attempt at abortion by the ten year olds, and there is female genital mutilation). The old ways of Africa can no longer carry her burdens, and her proverbs and sayings are increasingly effete in a new world of twitter, unmanned drones and Wal-Mart. This is a very dark place, most of it a consequence of the rank incompetence of black rule, post-apartheid and independence, many thanks to the selfishness and self-absorption of the intellectual and ruling class. There is deep darkness in this book. Bulawayo’s mind draws intensely dark portraits; a dead woman hanging from a tree, for instance, and children stealing her shoes to go buy bread. Quietly the anger seethes and seethes and seethes in the pretty sentences.

There are daddy issues here, there are no real men here. There are strong whiffs of misandry; there are no real men here, Men are chief baboons in this zoo called Paradise, hapless men fleeing women and children to go to South Africa only to come home, not with bread but with AIDS, prosperity preachers, and men that impregnate their granddaughters and clueless men in the Diaspora shuffling about aimlessly. It is what it is. Here comes Virginia Woolf ululating out of the shadows, chasing men away from the playground:

Generally, the men always tried to appear strong; they walked tall, heads upright, arms steady at the sides, and feet firmly planted like trees. Solid Jericho walls of men. But when they went out in the bush to relieve themselves and nobody was looking, they fell apart like crumbling towers and wept with the wretched grief of forgotten concubines.

And when they returned to the presence of their women and children and everybody else, they stuck hands deep inside torn pockets until they felt their dry thighs, kicked little stones out of the way, and erected themselves like walls again, but then the women, who knew all the ways of weeping and all there was to know about falling apart, would both be deceived; they gently rose from the hearths, beat dust off their skirts, and planted themselves like rocks in front of their men and children and shacks, and only then did all appear almost tolerable. (p 77)

But then, with her enchanting way with words, she draws and paints harrowing pictures of a hell that strips men of their families and dignity with her evocative words. Hear her:

Two years ago, Makhosi went away to Madante mine to dig for diamonds, when they were first discovered and everybody was flocking there. When Makhosi came back, his hands were like decaying logs. He told us about Madante between bouts of raw, painful coughs, how when he was under the earth he forgot everything. He said all he knew inside that mine was the terrible pounding of the hammer around him, sometimes even inside him, like he had swallowed it. (p 23)

Bulawayo wrote this book with every ounce of her blood, the prose is so intense and personal, especially when she is writing about America, the protagonist’s adopted land. Bulawayo’s mind is a riot; it is as if she is a brainy lunatic. I love her quiet confidence, she does not italicize African terms and words, does not go all out to explain them either, reader do the research. I love that.

bulawayoIn We Need New Names, Bulawayo recreates the death of childhood innocence expertly. The details, seamy and dirty, seep out like shy determined children peeping at the world from behind walls of harried, abused mothers and at the end of the book, the portrait is complete – of human triumph over utter devastation. Rich complex imagery expertly folds into the reader’s consciousness in a manner that is just a wee bit more than matter-of-factly. The children’s studied indifference to pain is deliberate, as if to hunt, haunt and hurt the reader. It is what it is. Here are children raising themselves with the help of their mothers. In Bulawayo’s world, the fathers are absent, whenever they are around, they are no-good.

Bulawayo builds each character brick by brick like a master-builder and when she is done you are awed by the muscle of her gift. Bulawayo’s humor is quiet but insistent and once you think about it you burst out laughing in the darkness.  Here is a hilarious riff on the absurdity of imperial domination:

If you are stealing something it’s better if it’s small and hideable or something you can eat quickly and be done with, like guavas. That way, people can’t see you with the thing to be reminded that you are a shameless thief and that you stole it from them, so I don’t know what the white people were trying to do, stealing not just a tiny piece, but a whole country. (p 20)

And the entire book is exquisite prose-poetry; here are my two favorite lines:

Paradise is all tin and stretches out in the sun like a wet sheepskin nailed on the ground to dry; the shacks are the muddy color of dirty puddles after the rains. (p 34)


It’s light rain, the kind that licks you. We sit in it and smell the delicious earth around us. (p 89)

Steely-eyed and square-jawed, this pretty book that snarls takes careful aim at NGOs, liberal do-gooders and displays Bono-charity devastation on everyone’s conscience with exquisite attention to detail. Here is the new church, the new Christianity run amok. And her eyes do not miss Black Africa’s share of the caricature, of charlatanry. In this book, the new Christianity and AIDS link arms to bulldoze communities and countries. With the awesome power of words, Bulawayo performs a rare feat of bringing AIDS into the reader’s living room:

We don’t speak. We just peer in the tired light at the bundle of bones, at the shrunken head, at the wavy hair, most of it fallen off, at the face that is all points and edges from bones jutting out, the pinkish-reddish lips, the ugly sores, the skin sticking to the bone like somebody ironed it on, the hands and feet like claws. I know then that what really makes a person’s face is the meat; once that melts away, you are left with something nobody can even recognize. (p 101)

We Need New Names seems to go nowhere and it is on purpose. Like a hungry, angry urchin, it sort of wanders around with a certain poetry, the reader follows these children of many wars, wandering, wondering, what manner of God would allow this perversion? Bulawayo is the master artist of grief. This is a complex book, just like life. Here she documents the coming of the Chinese to Africa – the new conquerors:

It’s just madness inside Shanghai; machines hoist things in their terrible jaws, machines maul the earth, machines grind rocks, machines belch clouds of smoke, machines iron the ground. Everywhere machines. The Chinese men are all over the place in orange uniforms and yellow helmets; there’s not that many of them but from the way they are running around, you’d think they are a field of corn. And then there are the black men, who are working in regular clothes – torn T-shirts, vests, shorts, trousers cut at the knees, overalls, flip-flops, tennis shoes. (p 42)

Dambudzo Marechera lives in this book, primly flicking ash off the cigarette he bummed off his white benefactors. Bulawayo is edgy, unflinching, eyes dead set on your conscience until you gasp and look away in shame and disgust. This book can “pinch a rock and make it wince”, so says the book. The book makes it clear: The poor have inherited a new burden after apartheid and post-colonialism – home grown tyranny. Africa’s leaders are in a hurry to build Paris out of the slums, on the backs of the dead poor. Bulawayo describes the bulldozing of a shanty town in a voice so clinical you hurt from the pain. Yes, much of black rule is black on black crime. Bulawayo is supercilious, kneading condescension into the reader’s consciousness. You learn to hate Africa’s benefactors, as poverty monkeys for the NGO cameras. Fuck Bono, her muse seems to mutter in rage. Bulawayo’s skeptical eyes see everything and point out all the adjectives, Africa is about pejoratives and isms: Commercialism, capitalism, consumerism, rampant consumption and materialism, the clutter. There is a looming devastation; Africa is the nuclear waste dump of the West’s offal and detritus, a hellhole where the West’s bad ideas and products go to die.

Exile awaits migrating sprits as Africa empties herself of her beautiful children. When Darling the protagonist escapes Paradise for America, she soon finds that suffering and despair are universal conditions of mankind, exile is not much better than the hell that was Paradise in Africa. The second half of this book about life in America is what the gifted writer and fellow Zimbabwean Brian Chikwava should have written instead of his Harare North. Here, Bulawayo’s prose fairly sings, breaks into a beautiful trot and belts out haunting truths about life in Babylon for many immigrants. Even the entry is jarring:

A few days before I left, Mother took me to Vodloza, who made me smoke from a gourd, and I sneezed and sneezed and he smiled and said, The ancestors are your angels, they will bear you to America. Then he spilled tobacco on the earth and said to someone I could not see: Open the way for your wandering calf, you, Vusamazulu, pave the skies, summon your fathers, Mpabanga and Nqabayezwe and Mahlathini, and draw your mighty spears to clear the paths and protect the child from dark spirits on her journey. Deliver her well to that strange land where you and those before you never dreamed of setting foot. (p 150)

Finally he tied a bone attached to a rainbow-colored string around my waist and said, This is your weapon, it will fight off all evil in that America, never ever take it off, you hear? But then when I got to America the airport dog barked and barked and sniffed me, and the woman in the uniform took me aside and waved the stick around me and the stick made a nting-nting sound and the woman said, Are you carrying any weapons? And I nodded and showed them my weapon from Vodloza, and Aunt Fostalina said, What is this crap? And took it off and threw it in a bin, Now I have no weapon to fight evil in America.

The transition from Africa to America is expertly handled. The cultural shifts are jarring and alarming even. Even in America Bulawayo’s muse only sees darkness; there is little joy here, as if childhood trauma conferred a certain form of depression on her characters. But still there is much to laugh about. Bulawayo offers an unintended but hilarious update on Wole Soyinka’s epic poem Telephone Conversation in which Bulawayo explores the cultural and linguistic conflicts between immigrants and Americans as they negotiate the new land. (p 197) There is a good section in the book where there is an intense confrontation between two erstwhile friends; the African in the Diaspora (Darling), and the African at home (Chipo). This is simply brilliant writing, period; the most brilliant conversation on the anxieties of 21st century immigration I have ever read, again, this section of the book is Chikwava’s Harare North with depth.

Here is coming of age in America:

We are cruising like that and I’m being forced to listen to this stupid Rihanna song that everybody at school used to play like it was an anthem or something. Well, maybe the song isn’t stupid, it’s only that I just got generally sick of that whole Rihanna business, the way she was on the news and everything, I know her crazy boyfriend beat her up but I don’t think she had to be all over, like her face was a humanitarian crisis, like it was the fucking Sudan. (p 218)

Here is alienation:

No matter how green the maize look in America, it is not real. They call it corn here, and it comes out all wrong, like small, sweet, too soft. I don’t even bother with it anymore because eating it is really a disappointing thing, it feels like I’m just insulting my teeth. (p 164)

Here is longing:

The uncles and aunts bring goat insides and cook ezangaphathi and sadza and mbhida and occasionally they will bring amacimbi, which is my number one favorite relish, umfushwa, and other foods from home, and people descend on the food like they haven’t eaten all their lives. They tear off the sthwala with their bare hands, hastily roll and dip it in relish and pause briefly to look at one another before shoving it in their mouths. Then they carefully chew, tilting their heads to the side as if the food speaks and they are listening to the taste, and then their faces light up. (p 161)

Here is culture clash:

When the microwave says nting, fat boy TK takes out a pizza and eats it. When the microwave says nting, he takes out the chicken wings. And then it’s the burritos and hot dogs. Eat, eat, eat. All that food TK eats in one day, me and Mother and Mother of Bones would eat in maybe two or three days back home. (pp. 156-157)

Now, that is brilliant, delectable writing. It gets better; you must read two chapters, How They Left and How They Lived. Bulawayo lapses into haunting, almost hallucinatory prose-poetry, the emotion and passion shake you to your core. She grieves and grieves and grieves and she will not be consoled, oh she grieves, this child that saw something awful. Read those chapters to the most stone-hearted immigration official in America and political asylum is yours. The words seep into your bones and slap you awake. Suddenly you just want to go home, except no one knows anymore where is home, the passages are so deeply emotive. America the hopeful morphs into America the prison. Illegal immigration is the lot of many immigrants and Bulawayo handles it beautifully.  It is the truth, for many immigrants, exile in America is a long lament and Bulawayo beats the drums for the living dead.

Let me just put it out there: This is probably the best book I have read in a very long time, perhaps in a decade, certainly the most poignant ode to identity, alienation and longing. You simply fall in love with the writing and the characters. Boundaries, communities and nations fascinate Bulawayo endlessly and she plumbs their depths and boundaries honestly and with conviction.  By the way, the characters text and IM – in an African novel, wow, what a concept. We Need New Names is the face of today’s fiction ported to yesterday’s media – the book.

There is not a whole lot to not like about the book. It is well designed and even though I had an advance review copy, there were precious few edits which I am sure would have been taken care of in the final copy. There is a sense though in which Bulawayo does not much depart from the protest art of post-colonialist literature. The book could fairly be called a political statement posing as fiction. But it is funny nonetheless even when Bulawayo is being supercilious:

I’m supposed to start teaching him my language because he says he and his brother are going to my country so he can shoot an elephant, something he has dreamed of doing ever since he was a boy. I don’t know where my language comes in – like does he want to ask the elephant if he wants to be killed or something? (p 268)

Bulawayo’s world-view is out there for all to see, she doesn’t pretend that this is just fiction and one must shy away from those things.

You should read this stunning book along with Chika Unigwe’s equally stunning essay in Aeon magazine, Losing my voice.  In this intensely personal and evocative essay Unigwe gives voice to the deep anxieties faced by many immigrants like her as they came face to face with the dislocation from home. Unigwe’s experience is immediately before the muscular bringing down of all walls by the Internet and social media, both works complement each other greatly, in style, outlook and vision. The difference is that while one senses that even beyond We Need New Names, the protagonists may be still immersed in despair, Unigwe’s story ends in hope and triumph, a warrior overcoming her fears and finding the light switch in the dark. But the pain in Unigwe’s journey is heartrending:

When I left Nigeria for Belgium, I made my husband’s home my own. But homesickness lodged like a stone inside me… When I began to write again, I discovered that I was not writing the kind of fiction I would have written back home. Certainly not at first. I wrote about displacement and sorrow. The voices of immigrants filled my head and spilled out on several pages of short stories and then a novel, The Phoenix. My characters were mostly melancholic women unable to return home but lacking the tools (or perhaps the temperament) to fit into their new home. They were victims browbeaten into silence by an alien culture and an alien climate. Perhaps it was me wanting to pass on what I had suffered to someone else. Maybe it is human nature to seek revenge even when there is none to be sought.”

The writer Taiye Selasi (of Ghana Must Go) has also forcefully fought against the pigeon-holing of “Africans” into predictable labels – and stereotypes. Under her fierce and passionate watch, the term Afropolitan has taken wings, as in, we are the sum of our life’s experience. Read her powerful and evocative essay, Bye-Bye Barber, and her powerful memoir-essay on being an African  and you will get the sense that a generation of Africans is breaking free from the literature of Chinua Achebe and Camara Laye. I don’t really care much for labels (Chimamanda Adichie has Nigerpolitans in her new book, Americanah) but I think it is a good thing that these writers are resisting pigeonholes.

We Need New Names is not a perfect book (but then, is there a perfect book?). Take this passage for instance:

When America put up the big reward for bin Laden, we made spears out of branches and went hunting for him. We had just appeared in Paradise and we needed new games while we waited for our parents to take us back to our real homes. At first we banged on the tin shacks yelling for bin Laden to come out, and when he didn’t we ran to the bushes at the end of the shanty, We looked in the thickets; climbed trees, looked under rocks, We searched everywhere. Then we went and climbed Fambeki, but by the time we got to the top, we were hot and bored. It was like looking for air; there was just no bin Laden. (pp. 288-289)

It is funny, but then if the book’s characters were about 14 years old in 2009 (when Rihanna was mauled by Chris Brown) they would probably have been too young in 2001 (when 9/11 happened),  to be that politically savvy. Who cares? I am smitten.

Finally, I must return to my anxieties about the single story, of despair, gore and war as I expressed in my essay, The Caine Prize: How not to write about Africa. This is what I said with regard to the shortlisted stories of the 2011 Caine Prize which Bulawayo eventually won, and I stand by it:

The Caine Prize for African Writing has been great for African literature by showcasing some truly good works by African writers. The good news is that the Caine Prize is here to stay. The bad news is that someone is going to win the Caine Prize this year. This is a shame; having read the stories on the short-list I conclude that a successful African writer must be clinically depressed, chronicling in excruciating detail, every open sore of Africa, apologies to Wole Soyinka. The creation of a Prize for “African writing” may have created the unintended effect of breeding writers willing to stereotype Africa for glory.

Of Bulawayo’s entry, I said this:

Zimbabwe’s NoViolet Bulawayo has a fly-ridden piece, Hitting Budapest, about a roaming band of urchins, one of them impregnated by her grandfather – at age ten… Bulawayo would be my pick for the prize. She sure can write, unfortunately her muse insists on sniffing around Africa’s sewers… The tragedy is that these are good writers showcasing good prose and great dialogue.  But to the extent that literature documents the lived life, they are stuck in the fog of stereotypes.

For too long, there has been a disturbing trend in African literature in which Africa’s history is being distorted by a powerful minority of mercenary Diaspora African writers. Postcolonial African literature has been grossly distorted and unduly influenced by the self-serving narrative-for-rent hawked by this contingent of writers. Using their access to good publishers, their mediocre thoughts hide behind pretty covers to assault Africa’s sensibilities. I remain deeply concerned about the reality that much of African literature is defined by a certain type of fiction, as articulated in books, much of it predictable poverty porn. I propose again that those who seek to catalogue the robust range of Africa’s stories must in addition to books, look to Twitter, Facebook, online journals and blogs for relief. The book alone is a wretched barometer for gauging Africa’s anxieties and triumphs. The sum total of those stories shortlisted for the 2011 Caine Prize stamped a pejorative on Black Africa and I had a huge problem with that. Apparently the Caine Prize organizers were concerned enough to declare a moratorium on submissions that smelt of poverty porn in 2012. I am happy that they listened to these concerns. Bulawayo’s debut novel in my view does not qualify as poverty porn. Everything depends on context, taken as a whole it tells a powerful story of hell, identity, alienation, longing and the restlessness of life’s journeys in both worlds – Black Africa and the West. Bulawayo proves with stunning literary muscle that there suffering and savagery are universal dysfunctions. Bulawayo will be back with more stories. This reader can’t wait.

Review by Ikhide R. Ikheloa www.xokigbo.wordpress.com

Interview with Isaac Attah Ogezi, author of Under a Darkling Sky

Isaac Ogezi, a lawyer and writer, has been variously described as having what it takes to reinvent and reinvigorate the declining Nigeria drama, a star whose iridescent light will not twinkle briefly but linger long on our literary firmaments, and an important and outstanding literary dramatist.  For a record second consecutive time last year, he was awarded ANA/Esiaba Irobi Prize for Drama and that was coming at the heels of several other Prizes that have trailed in his literary career.

His latest (published in 2012), Under a Darkling Sky, is a biographical drama based on the life of Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Nigerian environmental activist and writer who was hanged by the Military Government of General Sani Abacha, alongside eight others in the wake of a widely criticized trial on what many insist were thumped up murder charges with the sole objective of silencing his criticism of government and the environmental degrading activities of crude oil extraction multinational petroleum companies in the Niger Delta Regions.

In Under a Darkling Sky, Ogezi tackles issues which are as relevant today as they were nearly two decades ago. The playwright talks about his aspirations and motivations for writing Under the Darkling Sky in this interview.

The Book

Congratulations on your recently published play, Under a Darkling Sky. I consider it an important work of literature for its significance to the Ogoni people of the Niger Delta and Nigeria as a whole, and an ambitious writing deserving applause.

OGEZI: Thank you. You have succeeded in making me blush like a young lady who is told that she is pretty and she does know it. Oh God, am I not enraptured?

Can you share a bit of your background with us to help us understand what made you write Under a Darkling Sky? What is your particular interest or motivation for telling this story? And why did you choose the genre of drama to tell it?

OGEZI: Yes. I was born to the family of Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Ogezi about thirty-six years ago. Benue State-born, I attended both my primary and post-primary schools in Nasarawa State. I then proceeded to the University of Jos, Jos, for my LL.B (Hons.) after a brief stint at the then School of Preliminary Studies (SPS), Keffi, where I studied literature at the advanced level. I was fifteen years old and in my third year in the secondary school when I lost my father. His demise opened my eyes to the floodgate of injustices which my mother experienced raising a family as a widowed peasant woman. It was these injustices that I witnessed as a young, innocent child growing up in a cruel, dog-eat-dog world that informed my decision to be a lawyer. What motivated me to write Under a Darkling Sky was not only to expose via the weapon of stage drama the sham trial and execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the eight other Ogonis in 1995 but also to bring into the foggy memories of the living one of the darkest moments of our chequered history as a nation. Man has a penchant to forget the past and in the process, keeps recycling his mistakes without learning from them. The choice of drama as a medium came to me naturally given the fact that the subject matter could be best handled through the instrumentality of the stage, the theatre of dreams and emotions. Drama can speak to the literate as well as the unlettered. In a world of drama, the walls of class differences, creed and colour come crumbling down.

Please give us a nutshell insight into this play based on the life of Ken Saro-Wiwa? What part(s) of his life did you set out to capture?

OGEZI: Under a Darkling Sky captures the life and times of a post-civil war Saro-Wiwa in a tumultuous period when oil had become the mainstay of his country’s economy. His beloved homeland, Ogoni, bore the brunt of this oil exploration and exploitation. Devastated and brutally raped by the oil activities of multinational oil companies like Shell and Chevron, there appeared to be a concerted disregard for the health-hazards to human habitation, and what was worse, the development in Ogoniland is not commensurate with the amount of environmental degradation. Saro-Wiwa’s almost pathological love for his Ogoni people set him at loggerheads with the demented Abacha dictatorship but he remained undaunted until he was eventually martyred. What I set out to depict in this play was a Saro-Wiwa rather late in his life and his role as an environmental activist-cum-writer who could not compromise his stand until he had to pay the supreme price of losing his life for his Ogoni people.

How do you make up for this in the course of the play for the early part of his life that would have told how he came to be the irrepressible activist he was?

OGEZI: I didn’t intend to make it up in any way. When I was writing this play, I was fully conversant with the fact that there is a whole world of difference between a stage play and a television documentary. A playwright, who cannot draw a line of demarcation between these two variant forms of communication, may fall foul of prolixity which will definitely nauseate his audience. I totally agree with Soyinka when he said in the early stage of his dramatic career about five decades ago that the cardinal sin of a playwright is to bore his audience. Any aspect of Saro-Wiwa’s life that I didn’t include in this play was either not stage-worthy for me or that it was better suited for a television documentary.

What part of researching and writing the play did you consider the most challenging?

OGEZI: Well, taking a look back to the periods of incubation, research and finally settling down to write this play, I must confess that the experience was edifying as well as salutary. I quite agree with the truism that when you enjoy what you’re writing, the chances are that your readers will enjoy reading it. I was so carried away with the euphoria of chronicling theatrically the life of a great man that I cannot remember the birth-pangs that accompanied the whole exercise. Perhaps, if there was any challenge at all, I’d say it was the trial scene. Even as a practising lawyer, I discovered that Saro-Wiwa’s trial and conviction along with the eight other Ogonis alone were enough to make a full-length play. So the obvious challenge was how to deploy the dramaturgical resource of selectivity to trim it down to as few pages as possibly without estranging the reader or viewer with unnecessary legal jargons.

The play is set in the volatile Niger Delta, would you say this is a volatile play?

OGEZI: Not at all. I insist that my play is not volatile like the Niger Delta. This is because I’ve taken my subject beyond the enclave of the Niger Delta to the realm of universality. Just like in poetry, emotion can be individual and privatist and yet be garbed with the toga of universality through supreme artistry or craft. The life and times of Saro-Wiwa as chronicled in this play serve as a metaphor for all minority struggles against the backdrop of oppression and genocide, anywhere and anytime, and I want to believe that even if the Niger Delta crisis is over today, this play cannot cease to be relevant or become dated because the emotion encapsulated therein is universal, timeless and borderless.

Is there any particular message you wish to send out with this play?

OGEZI: Yes, it is simply the evil of dictatorship and the inexplicable waste of important lives. The “darklingness” of our sky is without doubt foreboding in Nigeria, nay, Africa as a whole and most developing nations of the world. The heart of darkness that is inherent in man despite our highfalutin level of civilization is quite alarming.

I expect a lot from this play; I think a lot of people do. I certainly think the whole of the Ogoni people would expect a lot from this play, seeing as Ken Saro-Wiwa was their hero and martyr. Have you, in your own opinion, done this man and this subject justice?

OGEZI: Personally, I’m always wary of self-aggrandizement. I’m not also a masochist to indulge in a macabre self-flagellation. I leave the readers and critics to judge whether I’ve done justice to Saro-Wiwa and the subject or not. But let my critics take warning on how they wield the critic’s scythe inordinately because I like taking on my critics on a head-on collision not minding the casualties that may be left behind in the process!

Moreover, for a lot of people this might be the only glimpse of the man, back to life, as it were. How close to truth is this work? How much is fact, and how much fiction?

OGEZI: In my brief introduction to the play, I did forewarn the reader not to expect a strict constructionist approach to the subject which would have been stale, stilted and jejune. Facts in real life when not skillfully handled in art can be stranger than fiction, and vice versa. Be that as it may, I want to assure my reader or viewer that this play is very close to truth based on my painstaking research, and to prove this, over ninety percent of the characters are real life characters with their real names and most of them are still alive and kicking. I had only utilized the dramatic licence to abridge time and space; to put my words into their mouths in line with their psychological make-up as exhumed by my research. I feel confident to say that the play is over ninety-five percent fact and the other five percent mere literary embellishments on fact to make up for any missing gaps.

Merging fact and fiction, how difficult or easy was this for you?

OGEZI: It was easy for me because of my free, self-confident spirit as a playwright and also coupled with the fact that I pride myself with knowing the nitty-gritty of the theatre. I was not under the bondage of ensuring that every episode was historically correct as many uninitiated playwrights are wont to be. After all, dramatic licence allows one to tamper with history to suit one’s purposes. In Soyinka’s great play, Death and the King’s Horseman, the incident of the play took place far before the Second World War but in the hands of Soyinka, the war was made to happen during the time of the incident and his aim was more than achieved to expose the beastly, not-too-perfect nature of the whites themselves from the eyes of the Elesin’s been-to son, Olunde.

One of the things I find endearing about drama is the immediacy of the medium and how it brokers no romanticising. It doesn’t so much tell as show the character and ask you to draw your own conclusions.  Still, it is easy to glamorize a character beyond reality. Does Under a Darkling Sky reveal any weakness in the man Saro-Wiwa?

OGEZI: I’m afraid that that is a rather difficult question to answer. If I say yes, I convict myself and the same thing goes if my answer is in the negative. It is an unpalatable choice between the devil and the deep blue sea! Suffice it to say here that any objective reader who has gone through the gamut of historical materials on the Saro-Wiwa saga like I have done cannot help but feel deeply for the man and the other eight Ogonis who were judicially murdered. Admitted that the killing of the four Ogoni chiefs by the mob was unwarranted, unholy, ghoulish and unjustified, but to then kill nine people in their place before it was properly proved beyond reasonable doubt that they aided and abetted the killings was ear-wrenching. Don’t forget that they were executed when the time within which to appeal against the decision of the kangaroo tribunal had not elapsed. When I was writing this play, I did not contrive to make Saro-Wiwa an angel that couldn’t hurt a fly but I allowed the creative muse to guide me. The rest is left for the critics to do their work.

 And the other eight who were hanged along with Ken Saro-Wiwa, is there room for their veneration in Under a Darkling Sky?

OGEZI: In the play, they are shadow or minor characters in this play and belong to the crowd. They only feature somewhat prominently during the trial scene. We don’t know them much about them. Even in the historical materials and sources I was privileged to study, they were unknown until their execution along with Ken Saro-Wiwa shot them into limelight. I leave that judgment for my readers and critics to determine whether I have venerated them in this play or not.

I would have imagined that you would have courted a closer association with the historical subject of this work in your title, for instance, or by the use of a sub-title. Was this something you considered and then decided not to pursue?

OGEZI: No, I never for once thought of appearing patronizing to the reader. I abhor with every ounce of passion in me any air of condescension and patronage from any author of a work of art to his reader. In as much as I hold my reader in very high regard as an intelligent being, I also feel that titles that court a closer association with the historical figure-character or subject of the work like the use of sub-title would only belittle the artistry of the work. Writing about Sir Thomas More in 1966, Robert Bolt did not need to use an associative title but simply A Man for All Seasons, and it is still a timeless dramatic piece till date.

Can you imagine Ken Saro-Wiwa in the year 2012, what do you think would have been different in Niger Delta and Nigeria?

OGEZI: Yes, Saro-Wiwa in year 2012 would have been a better Nigeria for us. His fight for his Ogoni people was the microcosm for all the minorities in the contraption called Nigeria and beyond. His life was ruled by passion – truth, justice and true federalism. There would not have been any militant group in the Niger Delta today let alone any fabulous amnesty were the Nigerian nation-state sensitive to the Ogoni and other minorities cries more than a decade ago. Let us not forget that it was Saro-Wiwa’s state-orchestrated death that conflagrated into the Niger Delta crisis that we have today. Since non-violent dialogue of MOSOP was viewed as an anathema by the barbarous Abacha government, perhaps, the Niger Delta people felt the language of violence would be more comprehensible to the government, hence the birth of several militant and counter-militant groups in the Niger Delta.

What are your expectations for Under a Darkling Sky? Have you considered staging it for a live audience?

OGEZI: What sets drama apart from the other genres of literature is akin to the dichotomy between the written word and action, that is, when the written word is made flesh on the stage. While the former cannot shoot a gun, happily enough, the latter could do worse than that. It can incite the audience into taking to the streets to enforce the changes that it has long yearned for. In 1925, when the American most famous playwright, Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms was staged, it caused a lot of furore just like his previous play, All God’s Chillun Got Wings in 1924. I expect the reader or audience to be touched by the charade of justice meted out to Saro-Wiwa and the eight other Ogonis enough to stamp its feet emphatically on the ground to resist any future re-occurrence. I also expect the reader or audience to be fundamentally entertained and moved by the high sense of the large-scale tragedy of a great man enough to attain purgative height of catharsis. Yes, there are grand plans underway to stage this play in Abuja, Port Harcourt, Bori (the headquarters of Ogoni people) and all the major cities of Nigeria. I see this play being staged on the Broadway in the US and all the major capital cities of the world, not to mention several languages that it will be translated into. I expect it to be a phenomenal box-office success with the author being conferred with a chieftaincy title in Ogoniland.

If readers would like to read more about Ken Saro-Wiwa, what books would you recommend to them?

OGEZI: I’ll recommend only those works I found illuminating in the course of writing this play, such as Saro-Wiwa’s A Month and a Day, and his short, prophetic story, “Africa Kills Her Sun”, and several internet materials fully acknowledged in my introduction to the play. I didn’t bother to read, and I have no regrets  whatsoever, few other works such as Saro-Wiwa’s On a Darkling Plain and Ken Saro-Wiwa (Jnr)’s  In the Shadow of a Saint,  to mention but two of the most prominent.

What is next after Under a Darkling Sky? What are you currently working on?

OGEZI: I don’t know as I’m still waiting to hear from God. It may be my first collection of short stories or another play, I don’t know right now. I’m currently working on an evangelistic play which I believe will be more effective than many hell-fire-and-damnation sermons in our churches. I’m also researching for a historical play on a major town in Northern Nigeria. Let it remain nameless in the meantime.

Tell us something about you we would never guess from your writing?

OGEZI: I have four passions in my life in what I call acronymically the four L’s – Lord, law, literature and love. I’m always in deep communion with the Lord in my daily endeavours and can only act based on His direction. Law brings food to my table as a lawyer, while literature keeps my heartbeat palpitating with life. I’m also a true, honest, committed and passionate lover in the mould of Romeo; in fact, I’m the last love martyr standing on his feet today, no thanks to my childhood addiction to Indian love films!

Author of Under a Darkliing Sky (Drama)


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