Non-payment threatens writers in Nigeria
By Odimegwu Onwumere
Like a marriage celebrated in heaven, that was how I felt when I saw the report on the Internet: “Farafina Trustholds its 2011 creative writing workshop in Lagos, from June 23 to July 2 2011.” I was so elated when I saw that it was organized by award-winning writer and creative director of Farafina Trust, Chimamanda Adichie. Adichie, who quotes in her novel, Half of a Yellow Sun:
"Death would be a complete knowingness, but what frightened him was this: not knowing beforehand what it was he would know", "This was love: a string of coincidences that gathered significance and became miracles”, "There are some things that are so unforgivable that they make other things easily forgivable”, and on and on. The workshop sponsored by Nigerian Breweries Plc., guest writers included the Caine Prize winning Kenyan writer, Binyavanga Wainaina, would co-teach the workshop alongside Adichie. The aim of the workshop was to improve the craft of Nigerian writers and to encourage published and unpublished writers by bringing different perspectives to the art of storytelling. Participation was limited only to those whose applications were accepted. Going to take the form of a class, the workshop participants would be assigned a wide range of reading exercises and daily writing exercises.
My brain became like a writer’s notebook that he or she writes many things after consummating the above information. I had the requirements already in my Inbox, so I didn’t waste any time reading protocol than copy and paste all the entry requirements in the body of the e-mail. Pasting the entry was one of the rules to qualify for the contest. “Please Do NOT include any attachments in your e-mail. Applications with attachments will be automatically disqualified,” one of the entry rules read. I was about pressing my mouse to send my entry when Brother walked into the cyber cafe. I was agape.
A rare and powerful energy locks in Brother when it comes to writing. I called him Brother and he called me Mr. Prose, because we worship on the altar of writing. We are countrymen whom writing became their first religion. He had seen what I was working on, needless to acquaint him.
“Deadline for submissions is April 27 2011. Only those accepted to the workshop will be notified by June 15 2011. Accommodation in Lagos will be provided for all accepted applicants who are able to attend the ten-day duration workshop. A literary evening of readings, open to the public, will be held at the end of the workshop on July 2, 2011,” Brother read loud on a different web page and drew the attention of other cyber café users. “Forget sending this!” he warned, and didn’t tell me reason, even as I seriously enquired to know. I was aghast. I suspended sending; now ruminating on what prompted his coming to the café by this time of the morning.
Fifteen years Brother worked as food engineer in London before he returned to Nigeria five years ago; he never missed to write on topical issues concerning Nigeria. His write-ups have been published in the local and international newspapers and in the Internet. But I am much head-buried to my prose works than I am head-buried to newspaper works, because it is not easy surviving as a freelance Journalist in Nigeria. But Brother contributes to the newspapers and editors cull his works in any website they see them and publish without seeking his permission and without a dime for him. Brother is never worried about that because this is the system that plays in Nigeria. So, every Opinion writer knows this.
“In London, anything that a freelancer contributed that was published in the newspapers would at least place a plate of food on the table of the freelancer,” Brother told me. But the excuse he gives as the reason he did not contribute articles in London newspapers, is hinged on the attendant joy he said that he derives from writing about Nigeria. And I wonder most times why he writes. At this point, when he saw that I was not curious to send the composed mail, he said: “Would the workshop warrant the publishing of your manuscripts?” This is a million question! It will not. “What is the need acquiring skill that will not give the person succour?”
Brother writes more than Chinua Achebe but less popular than Achebe:
Brother begun to tell me that he writes virtually on a daily basis, because Nigeria is news in every minute. “Cement price will soon go down”, “Don’t rig for me, no election worth the life of any Nigerian”, among other things, were headlines that graced many Nigerian newspapers he had commented on in the recent past. He told me that he is writing, not because he is outstanding in writing, but because of the fulfillment he derives from it. Not minding that he is very much insignificant in the world of Nigerian writers compared to writers like Professor Chinua Achebe, Helon Habila, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Professor Wole Soyinka, and the rest, who have not only dominated the Nigerian intellectual scene but world of intellectuals; these big names do not deter him. The writers mentioned, however, occupy the three genres of literature – Drama, Poetry and Prose – and occasionally write articles for newspapers. Upon that the named writers contribute to newspapers occasionally, yet they are widely known than Brother.
Chinua Achebe has made a name with his novel, Things Fall Apart, Helon Habila has made a name with hisWaiting For An Angel, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has made a name with her Purple Hibiscus, and Wole Soyinka has made a name by winning the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Things Fall Apart has been translated into more than fifty foreign languages. In 2008, its fiftieth establishment was celebrated. Wole Soyenka won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1986. The Nobel Prize is an international award administered by the Nobel Foundation in Stockholm, Sweden. He is among the recipients of the outstanding prestigious prize established since 1901, which has been awarding prizes for achievements in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and for peace. Helon Habila is the winner of the 2001Caine Prize. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the winner of the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction in 2007. Brother has not won any prize, but he has kept on writing.
Brother’s consolation for writing:
Brother quotes a lot from Mark Twain letter to George Bainton, 1888, (Thanks, Andrew & Barbara), variation of Josh Billings, whenever he was compared with those famous Nigerian writers as a weakling: “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter – it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning. Don't mistake vivacity for wit, thare iz about az much difference az thare iz between lightning and a lightning bug." He also says this to me whenever I am worried that he writes too much without any material gains.
I was overzealous on his tireless habit for writing that does not pay, he told me of how a rare and powerful meeting took place at the Royal Court between young theatre writers from Nigeria and British actors and directors in 26th October 2009. He told me that in May 2006, the Royal Court began working with young, talented playwrights in Nigeria with the support of both the Genesis Foundation and the British Council. “Considerable talents were discovered in Lagos, Jos, Ibadan and Abuja, when Elyse Dodgson, Head of the International Playwrights at the Royal Court, travelled throughout Nigeria. So, I believe that I would be discovered by Elyse one day,” he said, with laugh, because we were no longer “Young Talents”.
The problem with Nigerian writing:
Newspapers, political and religious literature constituted the load of publishing activity in Nigeria when the first printing outfit was established in Calabar, the capital of the present day Cross River State in 1846. Over a century from that year, Brother had wondered that Nigeria has got over one thousand publishers, with not more than one hundred registered member-firms in the Nigerian Publishers Association, yet the expectation that they would serve writers in Nigeria better was betrayed. For instance, I have not had any of my manuscripts published by the Nigerian mainstream publishers. I published my two books via vanity publishing. Vanity publishing became a form of art and culture among Nigerian writers. Very essential, and many people are into it.
“There are many writers who do not earn a living from writing like me, they write for the fun and here you are preparing for workshop,” he started to laugh again. “While Nigeria is replete with writers and publishers, the burden of being a writer in the country is ruminated with crestfallen, because of misgivings on Nigerian writers by the environment they found themselves.” Brother was correct after all, Governor of Bayelsa State, Chief Timipre Sylva, once said in the newspapers that he ran away from writing because of his fear of being poor. Or better said, he would have been like Nobel Laureate Professor Wole Soyinka in writing, but for the fear of being poor, he joined politics. Many Nigerians who could have found talent in writing ran away from practicing because of what I call povertyphobia like Governor Sylva did.
Difference between the young Nigerian writers and the old ones:
Unlike us writing for fun, Brother told me, the first and second generation of Nigerian writers benefitted much from writing because organisations and government paid heed to intellect in the 50s and 60s, by developing intellectuals’ artistic talents. They benefited from grants and talent hunts, but here we are attending writing workshops. We are “throwaway”. These early Nigerian writers had their books published for free and were paid royalties. Many of the publishing outfits then were European owned. Today, an author writes, do the editing, proofread and critique his or her work, yet there is no notable publishing outfit in Nigeria that will publish the writer. Paying of royalties is a tall dream.
“The debacles of writers in the country today are not sugarcoated story,” Brother said. “Sometimes I pity you, Mr. Prose. Was it this difficult with Nigerian writers in those days and Chinua Achebe had his Things Fall Apartpublished by the Heinemann Alan Hill’s African Writers Series (AWS), the Heinemann Publishers in 1958? Today, artistic and literary creations depend mostly and solely on the individual initiatives and hardly with any federal, state or local support.”
“I paid heavily to get my two published works out. Even the mainstream publishing outfits, many are just good at smiling to the bank with the money of their accepted writers who are mainly based overseas. Many of the publishing outfits operate without an editorial team. One of my friends overseas, John, has to edit his work elsewhere and even designed the cover, because of that, yet his work was accepted,” I said.
We have noticed that hardly do Nigerian art and culture ministry offer assistance to younger writers in the provision of fellowships, study grants for travels and purchase of the needed materials. I asked of when writers in this country could be helped so that they can stop depending on European cultural industries that are directly involved in influencing artistic and literary creation of Nigerians.
To revive writers in Nigeria:
Brother said that the Nigerian government has to provide for the Nigerian writers, like it has done to performance artistes, through investments in cultural infrastructure, such as the building of theatres, stadia and hosting large festivals all over the country. Government should build the Abuja Writers’ Village, which the late Mamman Jiya Vatsa procured for the Nigerian writers in 1985. The 56 acres of land is located at Mpape, a suburb of the Federal Capital, Abuja. The lackadaisical manner with which government treat writers is largely responsible for the underdeveloped reading culture in the country and this should be quickly addressed if we are serious about developing reading culture in Nigeria. The government should help writers by building standard and state-of-the-art publishing industries to cut cost of publishing. Constant scarcity of printing materials should abate. Dearth of trained publishing personnel should be re-addressed. Writing in indigenous languages should be re-awakened. The inconsistent education policies and lack of direction on the part of operators should be quickly addressed. Piracy and poor promotion and distribution of books should be aggressively dealt with. Nigeria is among the countries with training opportunities like Farafina Trust, but we have many writers writing for fun in Nigeria. As Brother and I were discussing all these, I lost interest in the contest and refused to submit my application for the, Farafina Trust creative writing workshop.
Odimegwu Onwumere, Poet/Author, contributed this piece from Rivers State.