Books & arts
Taking Nigeria's literary destiny into our own hands
An interview with Emmanuel Iduma
2010-09-23, Issue 497
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’Saraba’ is an online literary magazine created and published by Emmanuel Iduma and Damilola Ajayi, two students from the University of Ife, in Nigeria. Saraba has just published its sixth edition in just 18 months and has gone from strength to strength. There are a number of Nigerian-run literary blogs such as ’Bookaholic’, and ’Wordsbody’ by Molara Wood as well as websites like ’Sentinel Nigeria’,and ’Nigeria Fiction’. But ‘Saraba’, for my mind, remains the most comprehensive and progressive literary journal, with the potential to move well beyond Nigeria. It is a work of the heart with very little funding and my hope is this short interview will encourage readers to support Emmanuel and Damilola in their work.
SOKARI EKINE: Lets start with some background on how you came about the idea of Saraba. When and why did you imagine you could put together a literary magazine? Did you decide alone or did you have a series of conversations with friends? How long was it from the idea to publishing the first issue? How did you cover the costs?
EMMANUEL IDUMA: The idea of Saraba was born after a Colloquium of New Writing I organised alongside two friends, in late 2008 at Obafemi Awolowo University where we school and reside. So, basically, in late 2008, dissatisfied and disenchanted with the loads of rejection mails we were receiving, Damilola and myself felt we could start an electronic magazine with little or no sensibility and with support from emerging writers.
Of course, we had to immediately define ‘emerging writers’, and we took the phrase to mean young (or old) writers who have been published little or not at all, but whose writing showed promise and talent. This definition was necessarily from the viewpoint of ourselves and our writing, since we could be described as such writers.
The time between the decision to begin and our first issue was about three months – November 2008 to February 2009. We started by assembling a team of enthusiasts like ourselves – Ayobami Omobolanle, Itunu Akande and Dolapo Amusan. Dolapo was the technical guy, who helped design the first website. We got this at no cost. The cost of hosting the site was borne by myself and Damilola from savings.
What was most important was the drive. We were inexperienced with literary publishing. In fact, we felt so bad about our first issue that we had to re-issue it in September 2009.
SOKARI EKINE: Why did you feel so bad?
EMMANUEL IDUMA: Well, we felt dissatisfied with the standard of the issue, especially because at that time we had begun to read other electronic literary magazines. The hyperactivity and exuberance that had greeted our first publication soon dwindled because, suddenly, we realized we had work to do, and that we were novices. ‘Professional novices’, I’d like to say. Also we did not know what it meant to distribute an online literary magazine. We just felt we could put it on the site without getting to the readers. By the time the second issue was to be published we had only one or two submissions. I think this was because we didn’t communicate with writers who had submitted to the first issue. We didn’t write them acceptance or rejection letters but just put their work on the site.
SOKARI EKINE: But you have learned from that now. I know you have a proper structured submission process on your site
EMMANUEL IDUMA: Yes we do.
SOKARI EKINE: You mentioned you were at university. Are you studying anything literature-related?
EMMANUEL IDUMA: No. I am studying law and Damilola is studying medicine.
SOKARI EKINE: When did you discover that you had a love of literature and when did you begin to read seriously? Did you read much as a young child? If so, what did you read?
EMMANUEL IDUMA: Yes, I started reading quite early – say about eight [years old] – because my dad had a huge library of theological and philosophical books. I didn’t read them, in the sense of reading. I simply glanced at their covers. Up until today I can tell the titles of most of my dad’s books. When I began to have the idea that I wanted to write, I started reading novels. Mostly Nigerian. I read a lot of romance too at that point.
SOKARI EKINE: Can you name just a few?
EMMANUEL IDUMA: I started by reading all of Achebe that I could find. Then the Christian romance series ‘Heartsong’, and the ‘Left Behind’ series by Tim Lahaye and Jerry Jenkins. Then John Grisham, John D. McDonald, Orson Scott Card, Michael Crichton, and so forth. Afterwards, in 2006, I started to read the kind of books I thought I wanted to write: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Richard Wright, Umberto Eco, Helon Habila, Salman Rushdie, Isabel Allende, Orhan Pamuk. Well, the list is endless. I acquire new books every month.
SOKARI EKINE: What has been the response and support from established Nigerian writers, the new crop of writers and poets, from the arts in general and, of course, the general public? Do you think there is a need for this or even more Sarabas?
EMMANUEL IDUMA: On established writers, the response has not been kind of minimal. Yet, it’s better than when we started. The first ‘established’ writer to support us was Jumoke Verissimo, our first guest editor, then Uche Peter Umez, then Jude Dibia, Tolu Ogunlesi, Eghosa Imasuen, and Lola Shoneyin. Yet, I think there’s a need for us to try harder with getting the support of established writers, whose support would go a long way in increasing our respectability.
The new crop of writers and poets is our biggest asset. By this I mean that the response has been overwhelming. At present, we have published or are going to publish writers from India, Botswana, Malawi, the U.K., South Africa, Ghana, Turkey, Paris, etc. This is aside from the numerous writers in Nigeria we have already published. It’s interesting because we feel unstarted, and being in school means we might have achieved more if ‘Saraba’ was done full-time.
The general public, well, [it] knows little or nothing about ‘Saraba’. I assume the general public in this context means readers. I can safely say there’s little known about ‘Saraba’, and the goodwill we enjoy comes mostly from writers and literary enthusiasts. This is no fault of theirs. We have not exactly done good publicity, owing to schoolwork and financial constraints.
Of course, more Sarabas would be useful. The caveat in this regard would be that I hope more Sarabas would attempt to have a signature of their own. The market should not be laden with efforts that are only replicas of existing ones. What ‘Saraba’ has tried to do is have a signature of its own, separate and distinct from existing efforts. Anyway, I am open to any new Saraba, for I think we need to do this – to take our literary destiny into our hands.
SOKARI EKINE: As the publisher of one of the few Nigerian literary magazines, what do you see your role [to be] and what is your impression of the calibre of new writings coming out of Nigeria, West Africa and the continent?
EMMANUEL IDUMA: My role is simple. I do not want to be looked upon as a messiah of some sort, but a young man with love for the literary arts. Again, as a preliminary remark, I’d like to add that it is somewhat difficult and demanding to give perfect and equal attention to writing and publishing. They are two roles that I think should not be fused. But increasingly, we find that we must make exceptions. And I think my life is that exception! I think we can have a conversation on the role of a writer as a publisher.
If I have any role, let it be one that has a definitive outlook. I desire to create a forum, a hub of expression, without limitation as to status or achievement in literary circles. As such, I wish to help create a symphony of simplicity and ambition, a place where writers meet unashamed, and well, without restraint.
I’d talk about calibre [from] two angles. The first angle is simpler. I think good writing is coming out of Nigeria, and many agree, so I don’t need to spend time on this. The second angle is that I find many new writers seeking to conform to certain standards, or viewpoints, set and shared by newly established writers. Many seem to define good writing by the achievement of others, and feel that certain sensibilities must be reflected in a work before it achieves merit. I’ve had conversations with several of my peers and I feel this is a major challenge; and I also feel it is cautionable. The calibre of any writer’s writing is self-defined, and such feet-licking is highly destructive. I think a writer is to define his ambition himself; whether he gets there or not is left to no one’s judgment, but his [own].
SOKARI EKINE: Nigeria has a growing publishing scene with Cassava Republic and Farafina being the most well known. Is there a danger of these becoming the spokespersons for Nigerian literature and acting as the entry points for new writers in the same way that the established European publishers have in the past?
EMMANUEL IDUMA: I feel the need to extricate the issues, and you might want us to consider them separately. First, whether these publishing houses can become spokespersons for Nigerian literature is not a question of sentiment, but of fact. The facts that make this a reality outweigh the facts that do not. For one, these houses seem to have entered a market that is disfavourable – a forgotten market. It becomes necessary that they assert their presence – publish the writers they want to, whose writing would publicise the publishing houses. As such, it is easy for them to dictate to Nigerian literature.
Whether they do so rightly or not is another issue. I mean, look at what Farafina has done with Adichie. They have literally told us that she’s an Amazon, and fed us with what to imagine about her and her writing. I think this is only incidental to the fact that they came into the Nigerian literary industry at the time they did. They have to stay in business. But if this position remains the same after a decade, then they would have done worse to Nigerian industry than the military dictatorship.
The second issue is whether they have (or can) become an entry point for new writers. I assume new writers in this context relates directly to new Nigerian writers. This is more of a subjective issue. One, it is highly dependent on their structure, tenacity and commitment to new writing. Since 2004 when Farafina became prominent, this has not exactly been the case. New homegrown writers published by Farafina and Cassava Republic, if any, have not been accorded the same respectability and assiduousness accorded to writers who are ‘West-grown.’ This is only, as I said earlier, incidental. The risk is enormous.
But, that said, it is only unfortunate that these publishers are unwilling to take the risk to promote homegrown writing. We are not talking here about workshops or events, we are talking about books and what makes a book successful. I wish these houses would commit their resources to finding new talent, getting manuscripts and publishing them. Ambition is risky; mediocrity is safe. These publishers, in my opinion, have been mediocre. We support what they are doing, with caution, only with the hope that they become ambitious. A book might fail, but not all books would fail in the market, eventually. And yes, they seem to assert their ‘literary right’ to serve as entry points. Can we blame them?
SOKARI EKINE: Over the past few years there have been regular writers workshops run by well-known writers such as Adichie all of which aim, encourage and support writers. Last year you attended the Word Into Art Into Africa (WiAiA) workshop in Lagos run by SPARCK. However as we both know, for example, from our joint SPARCK experience, you as participant and myself as one of the facilitators, that there are serious problems with these kind of events – not just during the workshops themselves but what happens to the writer afterwards. What are you left with? Or rather, what should they be left with?
EMMANUEL IDUMA: Every workshop, in whatever capacity it is organised, should leave a young writer with the temerity and ambition to write. I use ‘temerity’ because young writers like me are generally faced with the challenge of being overwhelmed by the market, by the success of established writers and the failures of some; by the question of publishing, and the question of the essence of writing.
In a workshop, however, the young writer is told that he can write, that there is no such thing as a writer who does not know how to write; he is encouraged. He is therefore left with courage, determination, and in some cases, dissidence. Of course, his reasserted courage is directly proportional to his ambition. If he can be encouraged, his ambition soars.
These are the two-fold essentials that I am left with after every workshop I attend. It might not have a universal appeal. But I think they should, and organisers of workshops should direct their attention to them.
We must question and address the aim of these workshops. I do not propose superficial questions, which would produce superficial answers. Instead I propose questions that linger, such as the post-workshop experience, and the sincerity of the organisers. We must also question the mode of selection. If you want to train writers, do not anticipate made writers. Isn’t it possible to have workshops where writers are selected on the basis of their work on the internet, and pre-recognition? Writing samples (800 words, for instance) appears to me as restrictive. For example, being selected for the WiAiA workshop was proof that 800 words do not express my talent. And I know many others with such experience. In the end, persons who get chosen for 800-word-workshops seem to be those with ‘short’ interest in writing. This is as far as I can get.
Residing on a university campus, I understand how unfulfilling it can be for writers to have no support for their writing. Almost all, if not all, campuses in Nigeria are guilty. There is no support, to the extent that I know, for literature in Nigerian universities. There are stultifying literary courses which, most of the time, are outdated, inundated with retrogressive and unenthusiastic tutors.
If I had sought inspiration from my university’s literary indulgence, I would have stopped writing a long time ago. In school however, we took our destinies into our hands, organised workshops, wrote on wooden boards, found peers who shared our passion. Our university does not notice, has not attempted to appreciate our efforts. It is disheartening. But when I consider that nothing in our educational system has been ‘heartening’ I am somewhat consoled.
SOKARI EKINE: Recently you started a long discussion on Facebook following your comment on literary tyranny – whether we mortal souls have the right or dare to critique well known writers such as Adichie. Could you expand on what you were alluding to and why you think this is important?
EMMANUEL IDUMA: Although you have given the short note a new twist, which was not what I intended, let me see if I can attempt an explanation.
I do not presume that we do not have the right to question such writers as Adichie. I was attempting a sarcastic rendering of how I felt about how she’s been handled, by the majority of her admirers, and what this holds for the literary landscape well after she’s gone from the scene. My consideration of this was from the lenses of her book, by which I did not exactly feel overawed. I have reservations on the book, which I think is too sentimental to be clearly written. I must say, however, that I respect her craft, her talent. It has never been a question for me.
But in talking about literary tyranny (although it seems the word was not carefully chosen), I meant that it appears Adichie is being considered an icon that cannot be critiqued, a person of whom all talk about must be in praise. I am against this. We are humans first, and then writers. No one writes a perfect book since no one is a perfect individual. If we continue in this manner, the tyranny I perceive is that we would all be shut up and fed trash. Good, she has written good books, her stories are great, but it does not mean that when we have a grouse with what she has written, we should remain silent.
I say this because I perceive the general feeling is that she is too good to a fault; even those who have not set their eyes on her books think this! She is a writer, and we measure her by her books, not her face or the appeal that Farafina, for one, has managed to attach to her name and personality. This is the tyranny I speak about. It’s nothing personal, I assure you. I do not, as my senior peer Eghosa Imasuen tried to suggest on the note, begrudge the artist her success. It is deserved (although I am not sure – I have no personal rapport with her).
When I grow up I want to be like her! But the note seemed to show the fact that we must talk about what we have to talk about, and defend it thoroughly.
SOKARI EKINE: When it comes to awards and prizes, Nigerian writers rely on those given by foreigners. Why do you think we do not have say an Achebe or Amos Tutuola award for literature?
EMMANUEL IDUMA: I cannot say. I think, however, that it appears we lack the temerity to do so. But you know, prizes are emerging. I appreciate the work of Myne Whitman, of ANA, JLF and so forth. The fact is that prizes come last. We are still in the stage of re-developing our craft, our ‘literariness.’ ‘Saraba’ would institute a prize, I’m certain. We should take our time on prizes. They are too sensitive – see what has happened with the NLNG Prize [Nigeria Prize for Literature]..
On prizes given by foreigners, I can say nothing! I have no facts.
In sum, we need our own prizes because we have our own writing and sensibilities, separate and distinct from the foreign.
SOKARI EKINE: So where next for you, Emmanuel and for ‘Saraba’? You have hinted at the possibility of instituting a prize some time in the future and expanding the magazine to include writers from across the continent. I want to return to your first anniversary (Issue 4) in which you reflect on the first year. You titled the piece, ‘A short history of modern fools.’ You start off by saying you are not fools, then completely contradict yourself by saying maybe you are. Which are you? Or are you neither?
EMMANUEL IDUMA: Of course, the contradiction was intended. Looking back, I felt we had done so much without experience. But I suddenly realised that experience was gotten on the job. I stand by my affirmation that we are modern fools, because it seemed to me that sometimes we acted too spontaneously, without thinking. I’m sure, albeit, that we’ve done all passionately, without once being limited by resources and experience.
That said, the future is hazy, although daily clarity is bestowed upon us. There’s no plan to institute a prize just yet. But we hope to increase awareness and public knowledge about ‘Saraba’. Although we are constrained by financial wherewithal, which sometimes affects how soon we upload a new issue, we are more concerned with increasing awareness than making profit. Profiteering is something we are taking our time to plan and prepare for. We hope to go commercial by this time in 2011.
It might be necessary to state our plan for the rest of the year. We are releasing a new poetry chapbook on 30 August 2010. Then our technology issue would be out by end of September. In October, we plan to release another chapbook with poems for Nigeria at 50 [years old], and perhaps other writings that express Nigeria. Finally, our annual story issue would be out in December.
For me, the road is long. I feel small, too small. I’d have my degree in October, in Law, and proceed to the Nigerian Law School. During this period I hope to complete a novel – hopefully! Ah, I cannot say much, I can only say I know I want to write. As much as possible, I’d also try to avoid the public fora. Sometimes, it seems deafening. And who wants to be deafened?
SOKARI EKINE: I read your poem ‘Dream Machine.’ We all have dreams but the distance between the dream and realizing the dream is often long and hard. Why do you think you have succeeded in your attempt to create a space in Nigeria‘s/ Africa’s literary landscape? W – what have you and your partner Damilola got that makes ‘Saraba’ work?
EMMANUEL IDUMA: I cannot call what we have success. It is too early for that. What we have might only be an attempt, and if we have succeeded in this attempt, fine. I must however add that it seems we have a space in the Nigerian/African literary landscape. It was gladdening to us when Akin Ajayi included ‘Saraba’ on The Guardian’s website as one of the three prominent literary journals. Such recognition meant that there was a Saraba that could be referred to; for that we are grateful.
If I must speak about qualities, I’d prefer to speak about Damilola. Partnerships, today, would often fail for conflict of ideas and whims. There has been nothing like that. Damilola has given me the room to make ‘Saraba’, and I hope I’ve given him room, too. It’s amazing that we’ve never had an argument in almost two years, even as friends. This essential quality – simplicity – is well known to me as the secret of progress. Even more amazingly, Damilola thinks we have not begun, and he says this so often that I feel idle and of no use. Of course, it his tenacity and energy that I admire the most.
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* This article was first published by Black Looks.
* Sokari Ekine blogs at Black Looks.
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