Monday, 24 July 2017

Nigerian authors have to go extra mile to push their books – Emman Usman Shehu

Dr. Emman Usman Shehu is the director of the International Institute of Journalism (IIJ), Abuja and founding president of Abuja Writers Forum (AWF) created in June 2008, to enhance the capacity of writers. In this interview the author of ‘Icarus Rising’ talks about the challenges and gains of running AWF and the Nigerian literary sphere.
Nigerian authors have to go extra mile to push their books  – Emman Usman Shehu

Tell us about yourself, what led to the creation of Abuja Writers Forum (AWF) and the journey so far?
We came about because there was need for a platform that enhances the capacity of writers devoid of politics. First of all, we have to know that we do not have to belong to some large organisation before we can achieve our objectives. So we proved that it is possible to go against the tide as long as you believe in your vision. We have also shown that capacity building is very important for Nigerian writers. For nine years we have provided that for people interested in writing. Of course we could have done a lot more but for the prevailing circumstance. But on the whole I am satisfied because we have proven a point and we are beginning to see the fruit of our intervention.

How has AWF influenced Nigeria’s literary sphere?
New names have been emerging in the Nigerian literary scene that can be traced to the Abuja Writers Forum. For instance, Elnathan John’s ‘Born on a Tuesday’ initially came out as a short story which was critiqued at our weekly critiquing sessions; many people have been published in literary journals, locally and internationally, as a result of capacity they acquired through our creative writing workshops. This Year, two new poets have emerged, Aminat Aboje and Olumide Olaniyan. Their published works were materials we critiqued at our sessions.

Is AWF only for emerging writers?
No. It is for the established, the intermediate or the budding writers. AWF provides a platform for synergy so that there is a kind of mentoring directly or indirectly. For instance we have a guest writer session every month which started in June 2008. That was our first major activity that announced our arrival on the scene. We have since brought in authors from all over the world. We also had authors who had their first ever public reading here. So basically it is not limited to Nigerian writers.
Whether you are an established writer or an unknown writer, the idea is to have a forum where you bring your work in progress, and we critique and offer suggestions, in a friendly way.

How was the support when you wanted to start?
It was only in Nigeria that when I wanted to start I began to get attacks left and right. It is very important we have this intervention; it is even much more important in Nigeria where there is no funding. In advanced economies, you have funding and grants for publishing, for residency and fellowship; even for schools that want to run writing programmes. We don’t have any of these in Nigeria, and so anyone that is able to identify a place where he can contribute to the development of Nigerian literature, should use it.
It is sad that in a country like Nigeria for example, how many writing workshops do we have? We are talking of over a hundred million people. In the United States of America, however, every week, there is a writing workshop or a writing conference either by private intervention or by national intervention.  Canada took the same approach, they subsidized the prices for these workshops and that transformed their literary sphere to a major global force. In the 60’s who was talking about the Canadian literature.
Ghanaian writers have been moribund for many years. They realized they needed to do something which led to various interventions. In 2002, because of such intervention, a Ghanaian won the Commonwealth price. So these interventions are very important, that’s why I would encourage as many people as possible to do whatever intervention they can because nobody can tell your story better than yourself.

Why do you think government is not at the forefront of these interventions?
Who are the people in government, are they people who are pro-intellectualism? Are they people who are pro-creativity? A lot of people in government are hustlers who are thinking of how much they can amass; they do not know the importance of creativity and how literature can enhance a country.
One of the reasons Nigerians became known internationally is literature. So in a country where you have leadership that understands this, certainly it would want to intervene. Look at America for instance, there can hardly be an inauguration without a poet coming to read during the ceremony.
The day the Senate President would say today is World Book Day, and we want a Nigerian writer to come and read in the Senate, we would know the day has come in terms of appreciation of the place of writers.

Any plans to expand AWF outside Abuja?
Some people feel that has always been the agenda but that has never been our plan, our plan is to focus on what we can do here in Abuja.

Readers complain of lack of books in the bookshops; that they can hardly get some books unless they personally contact the authors?
That is one of the reasons we have the Guest Writers Forum to provide a platform for interaction between published authors and the public. Because such structures do not exist; we don’t even have the basic marketing structure. The major publishing houses in Nigeria, how many copies do they produce?  Usually it is about a thousand copies, and how many branches do they have across the country? So already there is a problem. In a country of over a hundred million people, you produce 1000 copies; and you don’t even have a distributor. Even if you supply 50 copies per state, where in those states are you going to put them; where are the outlets?
Until there’s the structure, publishers and authors will have to go an extra mile to push their books. So if you are an author in Nigeria, it means you have to study the industry, you have to understand how it works.

Do you think Nigeria will eventually get the structure?
It depends on if we think literature is important; even Nollywood still has not gotten the structures right in terms of distribution so it’s a general problem and that is why piracy is thriving. As a result of lack of structures we are now left with having our works on school syllabus, and that is not how it should be.

What is the way forward?
I have told them if you want to have distribution outlets in the country, it is very simple. What stops NLNG literature prize partnering with say Mike Adenuga, that any of the shortlisted books would be distributed through Conoil fuelling station shopping marts?
People want to buy this NLNG literature prize shortlisted books because they perceive them as having quality but they don’t know where to buy them.
Do you advocate for self -publishing?
There is nothing wrong with self-publishing if you do it properly. What is publishing? Publishing is putting out your work to the public. People will only buy your book if it has got quality and if is available.
The important thing is that you follow the same process the major publishers are following. In other words, what is the quality of the work you want published.
Of the books you have authored which one is your favourite?
Every one of my books is important to me because, each book emerged at a point in time; it’s a reflection of that period of my life. My first book ‘The Questions of Big Brother’ is important because it was my first book ‘Open Sesame’ is important because it came after ‘Questions of Big Brother’. ‘Icarus Rising’ is very important because for 12 years we have been working on it.
I learnt a lesson from it , do not announce your forthcoming work, because when I announced ‘Icarus Rising’, I never knew it was going to take me 12 years.

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