With several volumes of poems which include Tongues of Triumph, Song of the Threshing Floor and Song of the Swallow, a play titled One day With the Hounds, and short stories – The Sea Route to Señorita’s Heart and The Commissioner for Oaths, Anaele Ihuoma has made his mark in the literary firmament. However, if there is one adjective to characterise the personality of the author of Imminent River, one of the novels that was shortlisted for the Nigeria Prize for Literature 2021 – administered by an Advisory Board constituted by Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas Limited (NLNG), it is ‘reticent.’ Calm and formal in manner, reluctant to draw attention to himself and temperamentally disinclined to chat, the journalist, banker, teacher, playwright, fictionist and poet (winner of the Inaugural Sparrow Poetry Prize, Goethe Institute Prize, Association of Nigerian Authors, ANA, Bayelsa Centenary Poetry Prize etc.) prefers to articulate his thoughts in creative writing, mostly poetry. Ihuoma, who holds an MA (Literature-in-English) and Postgraduate Diploma in Management, both from Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, where he earlier studied Dramatic Arts under Prof. Wole Soyinka, opens up to me about a number of issues pertaining to the plight of the writer in Nigeria. He asserts, for instance, that you don’t have to be a university graduate to be a good writer:
Certainly not a university degree, although if you have one, it would not hurt. And such a degree need not be in the liberal arts. Ask the masters this same question they would tell you to start writing. Start writing; that is what it takes. Break out of the lethargy. Hold a pen, set up your keyboard, write. Now you have started, get help from the writers’ family, which, thanks to the internet and social media, is fast expanding. Read wide, I mean, wide. Then face your craft. As I have always said, writing is actually rewriting. Even if it is your fifth rewrite of the manuscript, you can still consider it work-in-progress. Take praise with a pinch of salt or reject it outright, especially if you are a young and up-and-coming writer, it may be insidious. Instead, accept criticism. The clan of writers is enlarging and so is the slush heap. Prepare yourself mentally and psychologically to accept reject letters. It’s like the umbilical cord; everyone has or had them. I have turned some of mine into fine poems. The day the breakthrough comes, you’d look back and smile.
Of literary awards, he says: ‘They are good for the business, but they are not a necessity for the business. Either way, writing and reading will go on. Our people say a good market sells itself. Let’s perfect our craft; rewards will follow. It is a given.’ Continuing, he says awards, with particular reference to the Nigeria Prize for Literature, ‘would ginger you to up your ante, to want to write more and better, which you were going to strive to do, anyway. The impact is more towards you than from you. Sales of your works pick up, for instance. I know that Imminent River has experienced some kind of bounce as a result. Can I win it in the future? Who knows?’
Responding to a question on the path of being a writer, he says:
Perhaps the question itself will benefit from an understanding of who a writer is. Perhaps by ‘writer’ you are referring to that person who earns his or her living through writing. Or perhaps that person for whom writing is the second of two vocations, that is, who divides his time between writing for economic sustenance and engagement in something else. One could also be engaged in writing as fun, perhaps a sort of hobby. Or for some other reason; whichever way, the path to being a writer is as diverse as the individual circumstances of those engaged in the art of writing. Both Achebe’s father, as well as Soyinka’s were teachers. But William Shakespeare is known to have been mocked by his contemporaries for not being a product of the university system, although those mockers – among them Robert Greene – are today studied only as an adjunct to the study of Shakespeare. Back home again: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Chika Unigwe, Lola Shoneyin and Abubakar Adam Ibrahim grew up under different circumstances. So really, the path to being a writer is lit up by passion and the desire to write. Parental nudging and social circumstances perhaps play some part, but generally it is a function of your inner heartbeat – what floats your boat.
Anaele suggests that ‘passion, determination and one’s social environment make a writer,’ ‘But,’ he adds, ‘even the same environment can format two different sets of writers differently.’ He goes on:
Perhaps some writers are born and I doubt if there is anything genetic about that, still they need some sort of training. They need to apply themselves to their craft. A writer versed in finance and economics once famously said that “nothing in the world can take the place of persistence” not even talent or education. It’s all about passion. You also notice that the same social environment can produce writers with differing ideological temperaments. An instance is the same communist atmosphere that produced Maxim Gorky and Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
On his source of inspiration, he avers:
Everywhere. From Abigbo story-tellers of my community who fuse stories into their music renditions. From walking down everyday street of life. Nigeria itself is a mega story-in-waiting. Yes, unless you are not in this clime, you are confronted with stories every day! What is happening is a change in the texture of these stories; in the past, bribery and corruption, for instance, was the prompt for stories, now it is the absence of the twin evil! Inspirations abound. In my particular case, when you sat in Soyinka’s class as we did in Ife you already had a story even if all you did was relate the enigma to the book you had read back in secondary school.
Speaking further on the job of writers, he says, ‘I wish I could say: “Just write good stories,” adding:
Wouldn’t it be fine if we just wrote good stories, read them and went away happy ever after? But that would be ignoring reality. Even a utopian world cannot afford that sort of luxury, as they would need a certain attitude to sustain their cherished utopia. I think the writer needs to create beauty and use that beauty to create or sustain a beautiful world, which I define as a world where there is equity, justice and fairness. The dream of a society that Martin Luther King Jr. fought and died for, the vision of a society that made Mandela spend twenty two years in prison, the struggle for a decent society that made Achebe say ‘tufiakwa’ to his national awards, that makes Soyinka continue to have sleepless nights at age 87. Writers of this persuasion do not ask for streets paved with gold, all they ask is a level playing field for all, egbe bere, ugo bere – let the kite perch and let the eagle perch: anyone that says the other should not perch, let it bear the agony of broken wings! Perhaps if we were blind Dionysus or Bartimaeus, it would have been fine, but here we are, with our korokoro eyes: how can we play blind to the sight of pensioners falling to their deaths from perpetual verification queues when the pension administrators are counting their gains in dizzying figures.
Reminded of how he, sometime in 2007, was spotted hawking his poetry books on the streets of Boston, USA, he affirms:
O yes, you saw right. They were my poetry works, which were all I had then, all self-published, low print run stuff. They did put some change in my hand then. As you would recall, those of us who came from Nigeria to the event, the International Conference on Christopher Okigbo, did experience some challenges, therefore any legit cash no matter how paltry, came in handy. I recall that the production process for my third poetry collection Song of the Swallow where Okigbo featured as ‘Guest Poet’ had to be rushed in order to make the trip. Incidentally, all three works including my first ever publication Tongues of Triumph are now out of print.
Ihuoma, who is currently working on a novel, children’s fiction and a poetry collection, continues:
To your question on writers being able to live off their writing… For poets, it’s tough, but then nothing is impossible in the world of letters! For novelists and practitioners of other genres, perhaps yes. But don’t bet on it. I say a qualified yes because it is all a matter of passion and determination. If you step out of the box, take a view, determine your market, assess your current strength and potential strength, why not? Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos have both breached the Earth-Space boundary into the realm of weightlessness and returned safely to earth. Yes, it is doable, but you must be, as Shakespeare would put it, made of sterner stuff. Prepare for the worst and hope for the best. Don’t expect favours from this society which can sometimes be cold and heartless, and uncaring but if help comes or fortune smiles on you, say your ‘Namaste’ and take it with gratitude.
He views indigenous writing the same way he sees ‘each of mountaineering, swimming and piano,’ adding:
I wish I could do it and do it very well. I’ve done a couple of poems in Igbo, though. Despite the vice grip of English language especially on the Nigerian educational system, the vast majority of Nigerians communicate mainly in indigenous language. Indigenous language usage needs to be supported not just by the various tiers of government, but also by non-state actors. And there is need to advance from speaking to writing in the same large numbers. It is an irony that Things Fall Apart is being translated into Igbo the same way it was translated into foreign languages. In this respect, Ngugi wa Thiong’o is doing a lot better in leading by example. His most recent works including Wizard of the Crow and The Perfect Nine were all first written in Gikuyu, then translated into English.
Culled from The Independent, Nigeria