Naija Stories has the Featured writer segment to celebrate our outstanding writers and their posts. Our pageviews fuctionality was being worked on last month so we’re going strictly by comments. Chemokopi’s What Brings us to NS got the most comments in October so he was selected as the writer to feature for November. We use the featured interview opportunity to encourage our member writers to continue their consistent activity on the site, and they are also rewarded with 10,000 NSpoints. Chemokopi was gracious enough to answer the following questions.
When and why did you begin writing?
I started writing when I was eight years old, first penning down songs that looked more like poems in their four line chorus and verse compositions. A more serious approach to writing began when I was 17 and in SS2. I had decided to chronicle my adventures in secondary school. I finished that journal some months after graduation. At that time too, I began to have a strong inclination towards poetry, and the Donatus Nwoga edited West African Verse proved to be a potent induction into the world of poetry.
Prose writing proper, though, began when I immediately graduated from secondary school. I decided to write a novel about a family torn apart by the Sharia riots that occured in Kaduna in year 2000, and trace the lives of the surviving members till the end of the story when some of them reunite. It took me a year to develop the outline and do my research for the story. But after writing the first chapter, I abandoned the novel, and decided to focus on other things. I didn’t write a single story again for the next eight years. But Naija Stories ended that drought and made me start writing again, especially because it offered me the chance to write in a form–the short story form–that I became very comfortable with, and because it drew me into an active circle of writers.
What made me so drawn to writing, was–and still is–a deep need to communicate my thoughts and experiences to the world in exciting ways. I began firing guns and camping in the bush when I was fifteen, both happening in battle mode. I was regularly jumping from first floors of buildings when I was eight, and seriously injured my tongue when I landed the wrong way one time. I have survived a fatal accident in which the bus I boarded turned a somersault many times, flung me out, and claimed two lives. When I was ten, armed robbers attacked our house while my mother was in labour. I have met different kinds of people in this country and I have been to at least one state in each geopolitical zone in Nigeria. I have stories to tell and writing, for me, is one beautiful way to tell them.
It seems obvious what inspired you to write What Brings Us to NS? Can you tell us more about it?
What Brings Us to NS was inspired by someone’s reaction to a frank comment I made on his work. The person took it the wrong way and snapped. This made me start thinking of what really draws us to Naija Stories. Ovation? Correction? Self-discovery? Development? Self-expression? Increasing our self-confidence? Being part of a community of writers? I wanted to know and I wanted to explore these questions in a poem. I decided to take a dualistic look at these many questions, from the point of the writer and that of the reader.
To be honest, I was pleasantly surprised by what followed by way of comments. And what surprised me most was that the dualistic approach I took to writing the poem was, without direct prompting, engendering other twofold discussions that hadn’t crossed my mind: Admin and NS members, virtual and real friends, good works and bad works, old writers and new writers etc. It was thrilling to see all these comments, many of them well articulated, pouring in because of a series of questions that were woven together as poetry.
Do you have a specific writing style?
No I don’t. At least for now. I see style to be the encapsulation of all that is you: your dreams, your likes and your beliefs, as influenced by your genetic programming, your experiences and the knowledge you have gleaned over your life time. And if some of these keep changing, I find it difficult to be concerned with determining, or rather, discerning what my style is. I think style is something reserved for writers who are famous; famous enough to have other people analyse their body of work and give name to the recurring pattern of writing that runs through them.
But I know what I want my work to be. I want my poems to be largely simple in their presentation yet deep in meaning, just like proverbs. I want them to be elegant and be like music to the ears. I believe if they have these qualities, my readers would engage with them more. I like to create poems that give something, no matter how small to everyone. If someone reads my poem once, he should enjoy it and learn or experience something. Each time he or she reads it again, I would like that the poem presents him or her a deeper level of meaning and experience than that of the previous read.
What books have most influenced your life and or writing, the most?
The Holy Bible. And that is still happening. I have been planning to do an extensive study of the Books of Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Songs of Solomon. The knowledge and style of writing those books possess, is amazing. The Book of Proverbs especially has made me want to study our Nigerian proverbs and local folklore more, and use them as spring boards for my writing.
What books are you reading now?
I am not reading any now, but Wikipedia, Encarta and Naija Stories are doing a good job at satisfying my reading needs, for now.
What are your current projects? Any goals for 2012?
Right now, I am engrossed with three major projects. The first is that of managing The Green Heritage page on facebook, a page I and a friend created a year ago that is dedicated to the promotion of Nigeria’s cultural and natural endowments. I do a lot of research to find out beautiful pictures and stunning facts about Nigeria which I post on the page daily. And this initiative has given birth to the second project, which is a trailer I am currently writing and directing. The trailer is supposed to create awareness for a documentary coming out next year–which I will also write and direct–that we believe will be the most visually and factually stunning exposition of Nigeria’s greatness that Nigerians and the world have ever seen. It would be a fine blend of history, language, music, architecture, art, archeology and storytelling.
Coming closer home to writing, I am currently working on a story for some international short story competitions. On the side, my goal is to use this story as a big stepping stone to becoming a master of the short story form in the shortest possible time. I want to see a marked improvement in my writing by the end of this year. I see the short story as very relevant to the fast lifestyle of our times, and to my desire to craft as many stories as possible that explore various aspects of life. And so for the past one month, I have been crawling the web for all the articles I can lay my hands on that can give me profitable advice on what truly makes for a great short story. To be frank, many of these articles have completely changed the way I look at writing a short story. I have also identified Anton Chekhov, who is considered one of the greatest short story writers in history, as someone whose works I will completely devour in 2013. I hear James Joyce’s short story collection, Dubliners, is a masterpiece in short story writing that takes a naturalistic portrayal of 20th century Irish middle class. Since I am mostly concerned with portraying life as lived in Nigeria in very exciting ways, I have penciled Dubliners down as one book that must be read in 2013.
Do you see writing as a career?
Uhm, the answer to that is quite fuzzy now. I have been mostly concerned with writing to develop my mind and communicate my ideas and experiences to people, without any major plan as to how to make money from writing. Writing just happened. While I still believe I will never write a novel, I have come to fully embrace the short story form of writing, and so I now dream of a collection of short stories authored by me, published some day. Same with my poems. Then again, there are many competitions cropping up worldwide that could seriously spur me to develop a career in short story writing and poetry.
Can you share a little about your writing with us?
My writing is almost always a child of introspection, a product of constant observation. I will give you an idea of how it develops. This Sunday, while we sang praises to God in church, my eyes fell on a baby girl carried by its mother. Her awe-struck face seemed to show that the visual information around her was too much to take in yet too rich to ignore…I was inspired to write a poem about a baby’s mind. Some few minutes later, my eyes fell on the fingers of a woman seated in front of me: they were well trimmed, beautiful and one of them showed she is married. I noticed she was pregnant, and when she turned her head sideways, I noticed her lower lip was terribly swollen, about three times their normal size. Is her pregnancy the cause? Does her husband still find her attractive? If fifteen years later, the now grown baby hurts her, will she think back to this time of the swollen lip with pain? What if…I was inspired to write an article about this.
At some point in the service, the beautiful well-dressed girls in church, some of whom I had been admiring, took my mind to King Solomon. I imagine he must have been a lucky man to have a thousand women for his personal enjoyment and still be in God’s good books. I imagine there must have been some serious politics in the harem, with some women bedding King Solomon like ten times a year, and others waiting for up to five years. I wonder if some of the women became attracted to each other. Then I had a powerful epiphany: To prevent such terrible inequality and oppression of women must have been the reason why God wanted a man to marry one wife from the very beginning. This stream of thought was a complete paradigm shift for me. I was excited! I was inspired to write a story about King Solomon and advance a case for the liberation of oppressed women. I was even tinkering with a title : King Solomon and the Modern Woman.
Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?
Not really. The basic challenge is self-imposed and its the desire for my writing to have greater levels of engagement with the reader. Narrowed down to poetry, the recurring challenge is one of creating a perfect balance between simplicity and depth of meaning. It’s something I want to master because my vision is to ultimately make poetry more accessible to the average guy on the street while not losing its elegance. As an architect, I know how it feels when someone looks at my design and admires it. The design might have gained life by virtue of complex and painstaking thought processes but ultimately, for me, these processes must culminate in a design that is immediately recognizable as being striking and beautiful. And many times it has to have a simple and graceful form to accomplish this. I also know how it feels to see people love my design even more when they discover the philosophy behind its form and function. It’s the same way I approach my writing.
Who is your favorite author? Do you have a writing mentor?
I have not read many books of literature and so it might be misleading to name a favourite author. Notwithstanding, I consider Cyprian Ekwensi to be my favourite, of all authors whose works I have read. There is this realistic and unpretentious depiction of life as lived in our society and shaped by our beliefs, that keeps drawing me back to his works. I know I have read The Drummer Boy a little over ten times. An African Night’s Entertainment is a story I will never forget, one I have read many times too. I found his fluid and realistic narration of Jagua Nana’s Daughter so interesting that I had to look for the earlier novel Jagua Nana. It amazes me to this day how an Igbo man, who wrote a book like Drummer Boy, a book with an urban Yoruba setting and characterization–it amazes me how he could also write books like Passport of Mallam Illya and Burning Grass that were set in the thick of northern Nigerian society. Talk about a true Nigerian author.
As for a writing mentor, I don’t yet have one. My pen is eclectic and so it might be really difficult to pencil down someone as a mentor. I can only do that for movie directors. Maybe I will have one for writing when I read Chekhov’s works.
As an average Nigerian who loves to read and who wishes to have better access to books, I believe that the Nigerian publishing industry is disorganized, elitist and largely inefficient. I think that a more efficient and workable model for publishing in Nigeria should be developed, especially one that concentrates more on marketing. At present, books by new authors are expensive for the average educated Nigerian, and the dearth of libraries isn’t helping the matter. Government should also subsidize publishing in direct and indirect ways.
We have to revive libraries and reading clubs while making them functional places that promote social interaction. In this way Nigerians know that for a small fee they can read a lot of books, and probably make some new friends. Imagine if the reading culture in Naija witnesses an explosive growth because all over the country, many guys now read or borrow books from their local library so they can better connect and hang out with the girls in their area who like reading. Same for girls. The point is, there should be some form of interesting culture or activity built around reading, one that is strong enough to cause an explosive demand for books and stories, be they electronic or in paperback. We have seen how free messaging drove sales of BlackBerry phones in Nigeria: Nigerians are people who love to gist. We have seen how our craze for ceremonies and the birth of social networking has astronomically increased the number of photo studios in the country: We all know Nigerians love to show off.
How do you see the role of online publishers including naijastories.com?
I think online publishers play a critically important role. And this is so because, online publishing sites have allowed large numbers of people better able to access stories and books. I only began reading stories frequently when I joined Naija Stories. With the proliferation now of light smartphones and tablets with bright clear displays, people are better able to enjoy reading e-books and stories than ever before. But the issue of remuneration for writers and payment by readers is still a serious one. I strongly believe that many people will pay to read stories and buy e-books if payment methods are very accessible and stress free, such that online publishers wouldn’t have to depend on adverts to run their sites, pay writers and make money. Credit and Debit cards are still not very popular with the masses for online payments. I want to see a situation where I can go down the lane, buy a recharge card, load it, send a code to a publishing site and expect confirmation of payment in some seconds. This is not science from Mars. I mean the social networking site 2go is doing it and I expect online publishers to take a cue from that. But then even if this comes to be, we have to be assured that we will be paying for quality works of literature ALL THE TIME.
What comments do you have about the reading culture in the country?
I think Nigerians read A LOT. The question really is how and what they read. Going by the number and frequency of comments on online sites like Bella Naija, Nairaland, Sahara Reporters, Vanguard and some notably popular pages on Facebook, I believe Nigerians would read whatever is interesting and relevant to their day to day life. I know I have read a short story on Bella Naija that had hundreds of comments. So while many Nigerians will not read novels, a very good percentage of our country’s educated class can spend their quality time flipping through the pages of magazines and newspapers, reading articles on topics as diverse as fashion, health, politics, music and religion. I think, on a general level, the Short Story form can become a very effective means of getting more and more Nigerians to read works of fiction. Many people don’t have time to read a story for hours or days. It’s just the fact. Poetry will have to be made more accessible if we ever want to increase the readership base for Nigerian poetry. But everything boils down to presentation and accessibility. I know I would have read many more books than I have, if there had been a library or reading club in my neighborhood. That’s for sure.
Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?
I say to all my readers that you have collectively been a very strong factor in my development as a writer by virtue of the comments, no matter how served, you have left after reading my works. As someone who wants to continually improve his art and never stop learning, I can’t help but attach great importance to your candid feedbacks. I won’t mention names because I consider you all equally important, but you all know yourselves, and be assured I know you all. Thank you very much for your inputs and please keep reading my works here and telling me how you TRULY feel about them!
Answer the following
Ice cream or chocolate?
Football or Basketball?
Football definitely. It’s the greatest game on earth.
Ebook or paperbacks?
Paperbacks, but e-books are better for research.
Salty or sweet?
Beach or mountains?
Phone call or textmessage?
Dog or cat?
Messy or neat?
Heroes or Villains?
Heroes. I love Voltron and I hate Jerry. What he does to Tom is very unfair.