The first time I spoke with Prof Akachi Ezeigbo, one of Nigeria’s and Africa’s finest writers, on booking an appointment with her, she sounded so welcoming, accessible and accommodating, but definitely not without the customary glitches of ‘pinning’ someone her caliber down to have a one-on-one discussion. After going back and forth, we settled for an alternative. I sent her a mail as agreed but the table turned around surprisingly. On a fateful day, she called and teasingly said ‘Ayomipo (my first name), I didn’t know you were such a small boy. In fact, I would love to meet you in person…’ and it continued from there. Innocently, my picture did the magic! In this amazing and no holds barred interview, she expresses her viewpoints about certain societal issues that range from financial challenges that writers encounter to the need for us to preserve our cultural values. Read ye all of it (Lol).
You really are soft spoken and from your voice texture, I could perceive patience. How has this helped you?
[Laughs] Am I really soft-spoken? Well, thanks, if that is a compliment. But I can shout when necessary or when upset. As for patience, I agree that I have that in abundance. Sometimes it pays to be patient. Igbo people say “onye ndidi na-eri azu ukpo” – meaning “a patient person will eat the ukpo fish”. This simply means that a patient person will gain rather than lose. I have come to realize, as I live my life, that “every disappointment is a blessing in disguise”. If you have this attitude, you’ll be all right. There is always a way even when there seems to be no way. Patience is part of it. Patience pays!
Is that why you propounded the snail-sense feminism theory?
Snail-Sense Feminism is a theory based on an Igbo proverb “ire oma ka ejule ji aga n’ogwu” (a snail crawls over thorns with a well lubricated tongue), which simply means that the snail is able to overcome obstacles through its ability to negotiate and dialogue with the objects it comes across on its peregrination – objects such as boulders, thorns and rocks. The snail would get past these obstacles and arrive at its destination unharmed. Patience is part of it. The snail’s habit is worthy of emulation, as it generates peace, harmony, tolerance, sensitivity, persistence, understanding and determination. It is the wisdom of the snail that counts here; it has nothing to do with its weak physique, as some people who criticize the theory have erroneously argued.
Snail Sense Feminism was the last academic book you published (If I’m not mistaken). Which one are you working on?
I am researching into some traditional women’s institutions in Igbo land with a view to writing a book on the subject.
Any fictional books that are yet to be produced?
I’m working on a few projects at the moment. One of them is an Igbo novel which seems to be taking me a long time to finish. I’ve been writing it for a long time.
How far do you think women have come in the world of writing?
Women are doing well in the world of writing – in Nigeria, in Africa, everywhere. In Nigeria, for instance, we have many women who have made a name for themselves in the terrain of literary creativity. Some of the prominent writers we have in Africa and the African Diaspora are women.
You are a role model and a celeb. How do you manage to stay humble?
How I manage to stay humble? I can’t say. I’m just the way I am. I like to be myself.
You are a fantastic writer too. Has your writing gift influenced and created a desire to be a writer in any of your children?
Yes, indeed. One of my children is an award-winning writer of children’s fiction.
What’s the title of the book?
The Sun, The Moon and The Stars, It’s a children’s book published by Macmillan in the UK when she was an undergraduate. She has also written another one. The award (for short stories) was organized by Liberty Merchant Bank in the 1990s, you were still a small boy then (laughs).
Have you ever written a book outside your culture, why?
Yes. I have used characters and settings from the countries outside Nigeria where I have lived or spent some time. I did this when I lived in Germany for a few months as a Visiting Scholar. I have also used characters settings from other cultures in Nigeria. When I do this, the works produced are either storybooks or short stories – but never full length novels. I think the reason is to satisfy the urge to recreate experience in any place I find myself.
When you write, do you use facts or you just rely on your imagination?
Both actually. However, when you use fact or historical material, you must transmute it to fiction.
What’s your philosophy about life and spirituality?
My philosophy is to create happiness around me and to help people. I value honesty and integrity. I am a committed Christian.
Are these reflected in your works in a way?
I don’t know. My readers are in a better position to answer this question.
You’re known more as a story teller than a poet. How do you feel with that?
Most people refer to me as a novelist apparently because I first succeeded as a novelist with my first novel The Last of the Strong Ones. But I am comfortable with both genres. You could call me a poet as well. In fact I have established a presence in practically all the genres, having published 5 novels, 6 collections of poetry (three of them for primary and secondary school students), 4 collections of short stories, 2 plays, and numerous books for children.
What motivates you to write for kids?
I started writing for children long ago. The stories I wrote then were never published until I felt the need to. For me, writing for kids was and still is basically about my interest. Even during the war when I was a teenager, I wrote a novel I couldn’t think it would be published. The inspiration came and the passion was driven. Besides, when you are a reader, it’s easier to become a writer. It’s not that you are going to imitate their ideas, reading a lot would only broaden your horizon and imagination. I know I introduced my children to reading very early. I also made sure I exposed them to my language early.
My husband and I decided on that and we didn’t speak English to them until they were three. So, I made sure I didn’t get books on foreign cultures because I didn’t want my kids to no more about other cultures than mine. I felt it was cultural imperialism and I think that explains why some kids are more American than the Americans. Go to Japan, their culture is so strong. They only speak English as their second language. So, I felt the need to write about my culture. Whatever I wrote, I would first of all test it on my kids. That continued until a publisher approached me and asked if I could write something for them. It was Literamed—Lantern Books that’s my major publisher, but the first book I published was in the UK when I was on fellowship for one month. Heinemann was having this Junior African Writers Series (JAWS) which Achebe, Soyinka , all of them wrote. They wanted to start JAWS so they were asking people for manuscripts. There were levels—1, 2, 3 and so on. I wrote for level 3. I submitted my, manuscript and they liked it. This was in the 1990s.
Talking about a national language and our not having one, is it the fault of the people or the government?
Partly, I could say the government but my children speak Ibo because of my own efforts. I think it’s the responsibility of every parent to teach their kids their languages. These days, we hear kids speak English even at home which shouldn’t be. The ideal thing will be to teach primary one and two with the local language after then, English can be introduced. That even explains why their knowledge of English is limited. Right now, the Yoruba are governors are meeting and deliberating on making the language the language of instruction in schools in the west but when they are going to implement it is what I don’t know. My fear now is that if nothing is done, in the next fifteen years or so, our local languages may be as good as dead.
Of course it’s no news that our cultural values are disappearing gradually. Did this make you write The Last of the Strong Ones?
In a sense, yes. The Last of the Strong Ones is a historical novel about the Uga community where I come from. It celebrates what is beautiful in African traditional culture, but at the same time highlights some of the negative occurrences, especially in the wake of Western colonization. The novel captures some of the strengths of women in traditional society as a way of empowering and socializing women in the modern society.
The first book you ever wrote in your career was basically to critique and as it is, critiquing can be to assert, correct or create an impression. Which of these would you say you dwelt on in Facts and Fiction?
The full title of my first book is Fact and Fiction in the Literature of the Nigerian Civil War, and I believe that’s the book you are referring to. It was my PhD thesis submitted to the University of Ibadan in 1986, but was later published as a book in 1991. It is a critical analysis of the literature based on the Nigerian Civil War, including fiction and non-fiction. In criticism, you examine the works of writers, identify important issues and analyze them with a view of arriving at some conclusions. The work of a critic may have to do with aspects of assertion, correction or even creating an impression, as you stated.
While you were writing this, what was going on in your mind?
I decided to research into the Civil War writings in order to find out what the various writers and participants had to say about the war. You see, I witnessed the war as a schoolgirl and it left lasting impressions on my mind; it was a very painful period of my life and I was determined to write about it. While reading the primary texts, I was constantly in tears but persisted. It was such a cruel and needless war – destructive and devastating for those who were directly affected.
So for you, what is the essence of the literature of war (funnily, it coincides with the title of another book of yours)?
War is a very traumatic experience for people who witness it. Situations of conflicts always generate a body of writing – both fiction and non-fiction. This was what happened in the case of the Nigerian Civil War also known as the Biafran War. New literature is still being produced based on the war. It was the same with previous wars or civil wars such as the First and Second World Wars, The American Civil War, The Spanish Civil War and the Zimbabwean Liberation War. For me the essence of the literature of war is that it is a historical account or a fictional recreation that exists as evidence of what happened in the past; it should be read, studied for the purpose of societal reorientation and redirection with a view to ensuring that such a tragedy is not allowed to happen again.
Do you reflect in your stories…like a part of you showing in a character?
It is possible that aspects of my personal experience appear in my writing (as they do in the works of most writers), but I do not set out deliberately to recreate myself in my writing. It is important to point out that these aspects are fictionalized.
Tell us about the awards you’ve won.
Oh, I have won so many awards – literary and academic awards as well as awards from governments, communities, traditional rulers and corporate organizations. For instance, I was a joint winner of The Nigeria Prize for Literature in 2007, Winner of the Cadbury poetry Prize in 2010 and the NDDC/ANA Prize in 2003. I won the Best Researcher Award in the Humanities and the Arts at the University of Lagos in 2005, a Commonwealth Fellowship in 1989/90, etc. The most recent of them all is the Gold Merit Award I received from Uga Town in Aguata Local Government Area of Anambra State (my hometown) on 26 December, 2016, in Uga, for my “Educational, Economic, Social and Cultural Contributions to Uga and Nigeria”.
Today, self-publishing is increasing. Do you see that as a challenge to good writing?
In a way, it is. Some of the self-published books we see around have not been properly edited or produced. Having said that, I believe that if writers cannot find publishers willing to publish their works, they should ensure that the works are properly edited and then embark on self-publishing. But that should be a last resort.
So, what is the way out?
Sometimes writers publish themselves because they are in a hurry to see their manuscripts in print. This shouldn’t happen. They should not be in a hurry to publish, rather they should write and rewrite, self-edit their works several times until they have presentable manuscripts, before sending them to agents or publishers, as the case may be. It is best to hone one’s style before venturing into publishing a manuscript. But the ideal thing is for writers to engage publishers who are professionals to publish their manuscripts.
As a young writer, did you encounter publishing hassles?
Of course I did. Nearly every writer does. I tried to get Nigerian publishers to publish my first novel and a collection of short stories but I only received rejection slips. I will not mention the publishers’ names. I was not discouraged because I believed I had the talent to succeed as a writer. The following year when I went to London in 1989/90 for a year on a Commonwealth Fellowship, I found a publisher, Karnak House, that accepted my two collections of short stories – Rhythms of Life and Rituals and Departures and published them in 1992 and 1994 respectively. Heinemann of UK also accepted my first children’s novel, The Buried Treasures under their Junior African Writers Series (JAWS) and published it in 1992. In 1994, they also published my second children’s novel The Prize. One should not give up. You will ultimately find a publisher if you persist and if you write well.
You’ve always had a thing with UNILAG. What made you leave?
It was time to move on! I retired from Unilag and moved to the East in 2015.
As a career woman, a wife and a mother, how do you manage these three?
As a woman you divide your time between these different areas of your life. It helps if you have an understanding and supportive husband. The type of job you do also matters, and you are likely to cope better if you are a teacher as I am. It gets easier when your children grow up and become independent. It is important to be organized. I have always been a good organizer.
Whenever you have writer’s block, what do you do to get your muse back on track?
I never experience writer’s block because I am into all kinds of writing. When I am not writing creatively (imaginative literature), then I am writing a scholarly paper or writing speeches for the speaking engagements I get all the time locally and internationally. I give a lot of keynote lectures at conferences. Indeed I have to reject some of the invitations when I am short of time. So I am always writing owing to the nature of my job as an academic, a creative writer and a critic; at a time I was into journalism and on the editorial boards of two national newspapers and a magazine.
Does it mean that the idea that powers the story you are working on at a time flows just like that non-stop?
It depends, if I have the time, I can go on but the thing is that sometimes, there are distractions. For instance, there was something I was writing in Abakaliki before I came here. So, what I usually do, even when I’m tired, is to note where I’ve stopped and jot the next thing I want to write so that when I return, the idea would flow and I won’t have a hard time reconnecting. That alone helps me prevent a sudden break. When I say that I don’t experience writer’s block, I’m referring to my busy writing schedules. Sometimes, creativity may not come. So, if I am not doing a creative thing, I am doing an academic thing and all of these are all forms of writing. When I can’t do creative, I move to academic. Academic writings happen all the time. Like now, there are three conferences that I have to attend and I need to write papers for them. But I know people who are full time writers can experience writer’s block because they are not into other forms of writing like academic.
In our clime, are there really full time writers?
I won’t really say there are but because they don’t have jobs, we could call them such. As a beginner or a writer that has only made moderate success, it could be suicidal. In Nigeria, even if you are writing, you need to have something that brings in money. It’s not easy to be a full time writer in Nigeria because people don’t even buy books and you may not make money from your books. Secondly, there are no places people can go for readings like there are in most advanced countries. That alone provides a steady income for a writer. It’s a different thing entirely here. Some publishers don’t even pay royalties. That’s why many writers publish themselves. So, it’s difficult for anyone to survive on writing alone. Except for Wole Soyinka, I think. Soyinka was once in the university system but later, he decided to move away from all that and focus on writing full time. Even as a full time writer, he goes to conferences to deliver keynote speeches and those invitations fetch him good money. I belong to an association that’s based in the U.S. Its members are from here and other parts of Africa. We organize our conferences once every year in different cities. This year, it’s going to be in Yales University. Last year, it was in Atlanta but once in a while, we move the conference out of the U.S to some African countries. We’ve had it in Ghana, Morocco and South Africa. We haven’t had it in Nigeria because I don’t think Nigeria can organize a massive conference as such. Some years ago, Wole Soyinka was invited as one of the keynote speakers. Do you know how much he requested for? $25,000. People who are at that level are given a lot of money anywhere they go. How many of us can try that? Even when you are invited here (Nigeria) to give a keynote speech, they don’t even give you money. There was a place I was invited to last December to give the keynote speech and they begged that I should buy my own ticket and they would refund me. Up to now, they haven’t together with my honorarium, given me a dime. Nigeria is a difficult place. It’s a regular job that can sustain and stabilize a writer, even some writers in diaspora. So, I encourage young writers to find something doing and do writing by the side for the passion.
Of all the books you’ve written, was there any one you were able to complete in a week?
Most of my children’s books were written in less than a week. They are short novels. For instance I wrote My Cousin Sammy in five days in Germany in 2005 when I was a Guest Scholar at the University of Bayreuth. But I must say that this pertains to the first drafts. After the draft, the real work of self-editing begins until you get what you feel happy about. This is usually my writing routine. One book, for example, may end up having many drafts.
You seem to be a lover girl (permit me ma) and never stayed away from your husband. Does that contribute to the success of your marriage?
Well. Yes, I suppose. It is important for a couple to be together, especially in the early years and while the kids are growing. My husband (a lecturer like me) and I were together most of the time (except, of course, when either of us travelled for a conference or a fellowship overseas) until recently when I moved to the East. I live alone now but go to Lagos as often as I can.
In another life, that’s if, would you still choose writing as a career?
I believe so. I have a passion for writing.
Some writers get discouraged by financial rewards. In your own case, how has it been with the rewards?
The rewards of writing are many. I have been fortunate to enjoy what I may describe as modest financial reward from my writing. I have had literary awards that brought money and have been invited to some writer’s festivals abroad that brought recognition and money. Success in this area has brought encouragement and made me more determined to write. My books are selling reasonably well. Having said all this, I’d like to point out that a true and committed writer would write whether there is financial reward or not. It is the love of writing, the passion for it that drives the writer.
Ayi Kwei Armah once had serious financial issues with Heinemann. Have you ever experienced such?
Yes, I am aware of Ayi Kwei Armah’s experience. That experience was one of the reasons why he established a publishing company in Senegal jointly with the late renowned novelist and film maker, Sembene Ousmane. I too have had cause to complain about unsatisfactory royalty payment by some of my publishers. Sadly enough some of my publishers have not paid me royalties regularly and one has not paid at all! I have had ten publishers altogether.
You’ve done business with so many publishers both within and outside Nigeria. Why haven’t you been able to stick to one?
I have lived in different cities and countries, so I have had opportunities to work with different publishers. Besides, some of them approached me and asked me to write for them. I think it is good to have more than one publisher; some out of them all will be honest with you and pay you what is due to you. Suppose you have just one and that one is dishonest or stingy, what do you do?