Okediran: 'The writer is like a distance runner' (interview)

Okediran: 'The writer is like a distance runner' (interview)

This interview with the President of Association of Nigerian Authors, Dr. Wale Okediran, was conducted by me in 2006, a few days to the International Colloquium on 20-Year After the Nobel Prize in Literature organised (Aug. 25th - 26th) by the association to honour the Nobel Laureat, Professor Wole Soyinka. He speaks not just on this, but other issues, especially his literary development.

NNW: Your writing career; how did it all begin?

Hon. Wale Okediran: I started writing from secondary school, Baptist School. I was a member of the press club. We used to paste our write-ups on notice board. I continued writing through my days in Comprehensive High School, Ayetoro, in Ogun till my university days at Ife where I became Editor-In-Chief of the campus newspaper, Rip Off. This formed the basis of my venturing into the creative world. It was only after medical school that I started writing seriously when I had more time to myself.

What were the major motivating factors?

The major motivating factors include the fact that in my secondary school everyone was writing. My love for reading is also a major factor. And being a Baptist school we used to receive literary materials from some American Baptist churches. They were mostly second-hand books, but they were good, well illustrated. In spite of this motivation, however, some of those I started writing with later opted out, leaving just a few of us. And when I started writing fully, I just used it as a means of expressing my mind, especially when I was writing for newspapers like Tribune and Guardian. I used it as a form of social correction, pointing out some of the things going on around me that I thought were wrong; corruption, ethnicity etc. And, of course, when I started my medical practice, I remember many patients who had a lot of stories to tell me ? some of them stranger than fiction. And many of these stories inspired my imagination and I started re-organizing the stories, re-locating them to get some fiction out of them. They really form the core of my writing. I didn?t even know I was good at writing initially until one of my friends pointed it out for me. It all began when I complained to him that I had written many articles for newspapers but they were not being published. He said it seemed I was writing faster than I was being published, and suggested that I should try my hand on novel writing. I laughed then, because I didn?t know I could do it. But luckily I saw an advert in newspaper about the London School of Writing. While I was doing the course by correspondence the tutors suggested I could start my hand at writing. That was only when I had the confidence. That was how I started writing in 1980s.

You discovered your writing talent very early, yet you studied medicine. Why?

Well, I was lucky to have started my education where almost everybody was an all-rounder. We had good teachers both in science and art subjects. So it wasn?t anything difficult for people to cross from science to art. Art was even my best subject. I had distinction in English, Literature, Geography etc. I ended up having only credits in the sciences. So, looking back, it is like I was actually better in the art subjects. But my parents encouraged me to do a professional course and so I just chose medicine.

As a doctor you must be a very busy person. How do you find time to write?

Once you have interest in something you will always create the time. I had to cut down on my social activities like going to parties and even watching television. I used my every available time especially weekends and around 10 pm everyday when I?m back from the clinic. I try to put in about two hours every evening. Some times I wake up around 4 am to write for about three hours. So it became a routine. With that kind of arrangement one can put in a lot of effort. Once in a while the work could be so hectic that I hardly had the time to write. But I always come back whenever I have a free time.

It seems you specialize more on novel writing.

Yes, initially I started with poetry, but along the line I saw that I was better skilled in writing short stories and novels. I have over 25 short stories, some of which have been published in journals, including Friendship Press, New York. And I?m planning to do a collection of them soon. I do short stories in between my novel writing, when I?m trying to relax. But essentially it is the novel that I prefer. One of my earliest poems won an American poetry association?s prize many years ago. But since then I haven?t done much poetry.

You thematic pre-occupation is mainly protest. Why?

I think it has to do with my antecedence in writing. I started writing as a newspaper columnist and most of my writings then were critical works, criticizing the system etc. I discovered that I could express my self in fictional works without being accused of abusing government or anyone, that is why I moved to fiction. So it was like just carrying my newspaper social criticism to my books. So that?s why it is like a protest work.

Many people are of the view that, given the African experience, the African writer has to write protest works to be relevant. What?s your view on this?

I think they are right. The only thing is that to the outside world, this is not good enough. I remember a few years ago when I sent my manuscript to a publisher in the US, the first thing that struck him was that most of my works were protest works, about corruption and so on. He wondered and said is that the way your country is? And he said when are you going to write about love stories and the like? And I made him to realize that because of the peculiarity of the African situation, the African writer cannot run away from all these. Because these are the problems we are faced with on daily basis. But, having said that, I think we should mix up our works a bit. I tried doing that in one of my works; Rainbows are for Lovers, a romance novel. But I discovered that I was still protesting [laughter]. So it is like one can?t get away from it.

Writing and politics; how smooth is the combination for you?

It is not that smooth. In fact, my coming into politics wasn?t planned, I got into politics through my relationship with late Chief Bola Ige. Because I was his personal physician for many years. We got to know each other through writing because he too was a very good writer, a poet, and a good supporter of ANA. We used to hold readings in his house when I was the chairman of Oyo ANA. That?s how we got to know each other, and I became his physician. Then he started encouraging me to come into politics because he thought I was protesting too much. He said ?look, you keep writing and complaining, why not go in there, if you don?t go in there nothing will change. You have to encourage people of your like mind to move into politics.? And that?s how I got into politics. In 1999 I had a board appointment with the Oyo State government; I was the chairman of the zonal health boards in charge of the public hospitals. That gave me a lot of exposure to the grassroots people. So when the 2003 candidates were being sought for the National Assembly, my people decided that if I was good enough to be able to organize hospitals in the area, to improve their health care, then I should be a good representative, and that?s why I get the post. But it wasn?t without stress. Because I got entrapped in some of the political intrigues that Nigerian politics is known for. Even within my party, on one or two occasions my name just disappeared from the list between Ibadan and Abuja. And I had to go round again and start campaigning all over the place.

Your name disappeared from the list? How?

I was a consensus candidate and all the names were taken to the electoral commission in Abuja for final registration. My name was removed by one of my party chieftains and replaced with some one else?s name. It was much later I got to know this. I was told that the party chieftain said that I didn?t pay him homage so he removed my name. So I had to run round and normalize the situation. And as God would have it, I got the ticket. And I have been trying my best since to adequately represent my people.

The Nigerian Politics these days is characterized by the godfather syndrome. Were you also sponsored by a Godfather?

Well, the person who removed my name was a Godfather to another candidate and he wanted to show that he is powerful. I won?t say I had a Godfather myself because I won?t consider the later Bola Ige as godfather. I will call him a mentor. Because there is a wide difference between a mentor and a godfather. Mentors bring up you without expecting something in return. But Godfather will have arrangement with you, they will give you conditions which you must fulfil when you get to the position.

How smooth has your political journey being so far?

Well, it is not being to smooth. Often I?m thrilled when I see that I?m making some headway in what I?m doing as a legislator ? when debates go the right way, bills which you favour get passed, when I?m able to attract good project for my constituency etc. These are moment when I feel elated, I feel happy to be a legislator. But sometimes I get depressed and saddened. And sometimes I even thought of packing it up because of the frustration. Frustration which you face when bills and motions which you definitely know are detrimental to the people get passed due to some powerful lobbying group from somewhere. And then sometimes too when you come face to face with evidence of corruption in the system; it makes you sad. And sometimes when you travel abroad for parliamentary meetings and you see the quality of the kind of parliamentarian they have, it makes you feel sad. And this is not the fault of Nigerians per see, it has to do with our long military rules which have not developed the democratic system. My belief is that if we allow the democratic experience to continue even with all the problems it is going through in a few years? time we too will be able to boast of quality parliament. Sometimes it is really hellish for those of us who believe in the rule of law in the National Assembly. When I came to the National Assembly the first thing I did was to look for people of like minds, people whose antecedence are either in the democratic movement or people who are former teachers and who are principled. And we formed ourselves into a small group called Forum for Democracy and Good Governance. And we became a think-tank in the National Assembly, looking at bills in a positive may not in a mago-mago way. And through this organization we have been able to do lot of things. We were able to mobilize effectively for the Anambra crisis to be debated on the floor of the House. Because when Awka was razed down and Ngige was almost fried alive attempts were made not to debate the issue. But through this our group it was debated. The same thing we did in the Oyo crisis. Not that we had anything against the new governor but we just felt that the procedure through which he got into the position was fraudulent. A few members of the House of Assembly were suspended so that they could have a two-third majority to impeach the former governor. It was fraudulent. And in spite of the efforts of the powers-that-be to stop us, we were able to debate the matter in the House and condemned the action. Even though nothing really happened to change the situation, it is on record that we condemned it. And, of course, our biggest triumph was the third term issue, against which our group again started the opposition. We were able to make sure the third term agenda was thrown out. It was a very difficult time for us. We were faced with a lot of threats and harassment. But I think it?s worth it. These are some of the moments when I feel happy.

There are speculations that you are planning to run for the governorship of Oyo State.

It is not true. I don?t think I?m ready for that in the present circumstance. May be I could try a shot at the Senate or another term at the House of Representatives. All these will depend on the decision of my party. But for the governorship, I think for now that will be difficult. That may come later.

What?s your advice for your fellow members of the National Assembly?

I think the first thing for them to understand, and I?m sure they are aware of it, is that you have to stand on the side of the people in whatever decision you want to take, because they are the ones who elected you. A good name is better than silver and gold, so we should endeavour to make some impact on our individual constituencies. Then they should not see politics as a do-or-die affair. All these incidents of assassination, violence is a negation of the principle of somebody who wants to serve. I believe if you want to serve your people, you should wait for them to vote for you instead of forcing yourself on them and using all sorts of illegal and illogical means of getting to the office. And I think politics should be regarded as a hobby not a career. Every politician should have a profession, a job, which he can always turn to if elections don?t favour him. Politicians who are full time politicians and have nothing else to do are very dangerous people because they become so desperate and they would do all they can to stay in power For instance, if my party decides not to put me up again, all I will do is to go back to my medical practice and continue my practice and writing.

ANA is holding an international colloquium to celebrate 20 years after Soyinka?s wining of Nobel prize in literature on the 25th to 26th of this month at Ile-Ife. What is the level of preparation so far?

We are all set. The occasion will be two events in one. The first event will be the colloquium whereby international scholars will do an assessment of the future governance and development of the African continent, under the theme: ?Twenty Years after the Nobel Prize: Literature, Governance and Development in Africa?. The scholars include Nadine Gordimer, the South African writer who won the Nobel Prize in 1991 and Professor Biodun Jeyifo of Harvard University, USA. President of the Federal Republic of Ghana, His Excellency, Dr. John Kuffour will also be attending the event as the special guest of honour while the former Secretary-General of the commonwealth, Chief Emeka Anyaoku, will be the chairman of the occasion. And, of course, Wole Soyinka himself will be there, including President Obasanjo or his representative, governors and the ministers of Education, and Culture and Tourism. The second aspect of the event is literary competition. We asked young playwrights of about 40 years old, to adapt any of Soyinka?s works, except his plays, for stage presentation. We have about 15 entries and we have done the short-list. The best play is already being rehearsed for the stage during the occasion. We had some initial setback. One of our major sponsors, one of the leading communications outfits the country, suddenly became lukewarm after promising to bankroll the event. And so we were able to get only 50 per cent of our budget. But we decided to go ahead, we decided to scale it down rather than cancel it. Organizations that are helping us include Obafemi Awolowo University where the event will hold; they are helping us with some facilities. Cadbury and Chevron are also assisting.

Finally, a word for the Nigerian writers.

I just want to assure them that writing is a long distance thing, it is like a long distance run whereby what you need is stamina not speed. And so they should not get frustrated when their works are not published on time. They should just continue to hone their skills to improve their works. One thing I notice in the Nigerian writers is condemning literary prizes especially if their works did not win. This doesn?t show much maturity, because, as everyone knows, judging literary work has some element of subjectivity. It is not something one should be hankering about. A good writer should not write because of prize. Any work that is good enough whether it wins prize or not will receive a good audience. The essence of writing is the writing itself and not the prize One other thing I don?t want them to worry themselves too much about is the issue of branding young Nigerian writers as copycats. I learnt Tanure Ojaide said that, and it has generated some controversy. My reaction to all these is that a young writer could copy somebody he considers as his role model until he finds his own style and voice. This is not the same thing as plagiarising. It is only bad when someone plagiarise or continues to copy someone even after many years of writing. Above all, Nigerian writers should persevere and keep on writing.
(c) Sumaila Isah Umaisha.

- Nigeria Is In Serious Trouble ? Prof. Ujo
Abulhameed A. Ujo, professor of Political Science, University of Abuja, was Resident Electoral Commissioner, Independent National Electoral Commission, Kaduna State, 1998 to 2002,  member of the Presidential Electoral Reform Committee (set up by...

- Celebrating Jp Clark?s Glowing Achievements
Recently, the Association of Nigerian Authors, ANA, held a two-day colloquium on the 50 years of JP Clark?s writings in Lagos. In this interview at the event, the President of the association, Dr. Jerry Agada, spoke about the occasion, its shortcomings...

- Those Who Don?t Read Fiction Don?t Write Well
BINYAVANGA WAINAINA, a Kenyan writer and winner of the 2002 Caine Prize for African Writing, who is currently a Bard Fellow and Director of the Chinua Achebe Centre for African Literature and Languages at Bard College, was one of the resource persons...

- The Job Of A Literary Journalist Is A Nightmare
BENJAMIN UBIRI, literary editor of the Abuja-based Newspage newspaper, and winner of the 2009 edition of Literary Journalist of the Year, awarded by the Association of Nigerian Authors, speaks to SUMAILA UMAISHA on his experience on the beat and more....

- Reading Enhances Good Governance - Gov Aliyu
To Nigerian writers, Governor Mua?zu Babangida Aliyu is not just the Chief Servant of Niger State, but Patron of the Arts, given his interest and tremendous assistance to writers through the Niger State chapter of Association of Nigerian Author, ANA....