E.C Osondu is a Nigerian-born author and US-based professor who earned a global literary reckoning when he won the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2009 for his short story, Waiting. The multiple award winner shared his thoughts on African literature, his first novel and much more, when Vanguard Art encountered him in Abeokuta, Ogun State during this year’s Ake Arts and Book Festival. Excerpt.
By Prisca Sam-Duru
How long have you been into writing?
I have been into writing for so many years, too many years to count. Even when I was in Nigeria I was already into the writing business. I was working as a copy writer in advertising but I was also a member of ANA Lagos chapter. I was involved in literary life in Lagos. I organised readings every first Saturday of the month. We read works and critiqued each other. So I was already a part of that community from early 80s till 2000.
The Caine Prize seems to have brought you to limelight, what was life before 2009?
By the time I won the Caine Prize, I was already a Professor of English in a US University. So, I was already set as far as being a professional was concerned. Having said that, let me say that the Caine Prize is a unique prize in the sense that its not just the prize you win and get monetary compensation but a Prize that you win and it actually works towards giving you a literary career.
So, when you win the Prize you get literary agents who want to represent you, a publisher who is interested in publishing you. They keep monitoring you because they are interested in your progress. Before I won the Caine Prize, I already had an agent, but winning the prize also opened many more doors. I have won quite a few other prizes in the US. I have been shortlisted in quite a few other prizes and the impact is great.
What has been your experience teaching African literature outside the shores of Africa?
When you mention Africa, the first thing that comes to the mind of the average American is not literature, to that extent you are bringing something new. But African literature is very interesting, very broad and so even when you introduce it to them, you are introducing a whole new world. You are introducing them to African women writers from Egypt, Senegal, like ‘So Long a Letter’, Buchi Emecheta.
You are also introducing them to writers like Achebe, Ngugi, or you are introducing them to writers who are talking about language or writers who are concerned with the struggles for racial justice, Apartheid in South Africa or to white writers like Nadine Godima from South Africa. So, its a whole new world, its not small. There is a sense of wonder and discovery on the part of some people that oh my God, so something like this actually exists. So they are usually excited about it.
Why do you think that most writers are dealing with post colonial literature rather than precolonial literature?
I think that every generation fashions out a literature based on their experience or literature based on the experience of those who preceded them. So if you talk about precolonial that’s what Achebe did actually. His writing is precolonial, that there was a society that existed before the whitemen came and there was a clash between this pre- existing culture and the one they found. I also think that the present generation of writers are a little less political.
You don’t feel compelled to be political in anyway. They don’t feel like literature is something you can use to talk about politics, they are actually concerned with the self, which is not surprising. We also have a culture like that in US and the west. The younger generation of writers are also writers who are fashioned by the social network. Facebook, Instagram are all about me, me, me, no larger questions about the society.
Could poor knowledge of history also be a factor?
I think that there is a tendency to avoid history in Nigeria because its very freigthed, its very heavy and very burdened. It carries so much and so there is this tendency to avoid it, simply because it will unearth certain painful truths. Whether there is truth about culture or tribalism or whether about the fact that there is corruption on our political space for a long time or that in Nigeria women have been marginalised forever, these are all painful truths. As a nation we are not ready to confront it…people say we are not going to study history…government also discourages the study of history. But no nation becomes great by ignoring its history but by confronting its past and forging a new society.
Was that what you tried addressing in your first novel?
Well, I think that one of the things that informed This House is not For Sale, is that I felt there was a part of us that we are losing.Its like what happens in Lagos where the government decides to demolish a house for some reasons. They demolish its history, but there were people who lived in that house.
There were children in that house and sometimes this gets lost. So, I thought of a way of confronting history by actually imagining or ensuring that the inhabitant of the house or story does not disappear is by telling there story. Its like a re-enactment so that even though the house was destroyed, the stories never get lost.
When do you find time to write?
I find that I can only write in summer times because I teach. I teach Creative writing to undergraduates. I also teach introduction to literature I have taught courses as far as literary journalism, to people about running of literary journals, but for the most part, creative writing.
What advise can you give to aspiring writers in Nigeria?
There is a lot of potential and a lot of passion. Look at this festival, so many young people who want to be writers, who are passionate about literature, who are reading the books and telling the strories. So, I think that is important but also if you are going to be a writer, you must first of all be a reader. I have never met a great writer who was not a great reader. So, I think they should equip themselves professionally by reading and reading.