A former president of Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), Wale Okediran (WO) is a physician, writer and politician (He had represented his constituency in Nigeria’s Federal House of Representatives). He is the founder of Ebedi International Writers’ Residency, Iseyin, a winner of an ANA Prize for Fiction and a joint winner of the 2010 Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa which he shared with South Africa’s Kopano Matlwa with his acclaim novel, “Tenants of the House”. He was interviewed by Chiaka Obasi (CK) who was among the residents for the May/June 2013 session of the Ebedi International Writers’ Residency.
CK: From the beginning, what inspired you to write?
WO: I think my original inspiration came from my effort at correcting what I consider to be societal ills through writing. Each time I discover that something is wrong in the society, either corruption at official levels or some form of indiscipline or injustice, I rush to my pen and paper and put it down. Initially, I was doing that through the newspaper articles before I went into creative writing. I can say that my writing was inspired by my reaction to my immediate environment.
CK: You are a physician and later, you joined politics. How do you find the time to write despite your busy schedules?
WO: Well, right from school days, I have been able to discipline myself to combine so many things together. I was able to master the art of multi-tasking. I was actively participating in sports, track and field events and Hockey, representing my secondary school, university and state. When I was doing all this, I tried to avoid distractions and stick to the plan and time table I drew for my self. I stuck to my activities religiously. I kept away from things that would bring distraction such as television, films and idle talks, and people felt that I was an introvert. I preferred to stay in my room and write. When I was fully involved in medical practice, my daily schedule was to go to my hospital in the morning, take a lunch break around 2.00 pm. When my children were younger, I would go to their school and pick them after school, go home and rest for awhile (take my siesta) and around 5.00 pm, I would go to the sports field and jog or play tennis and then I go back to the hospital and from 6 pm to 9.00 pm, I will be in the hospital. After this I will spend the next three hours writing. So, when I went into politics, this continued because it has become part of me.
CK: All your works are prose works. Who has been your biggest influence in fiction writing?
WO: I enjoyed Russian Literature a lot, especially, works of Dostoevsky, Pasternack as well as Anton Chekhov, who was a medical doctor and dramatist. I also enjoyed the works of Saul Bellow, Jeffrey Archer and many other writers like Soyinka—his works that were accessible to me such as “Ake: Years of Childhood”, and “The Man Died” I; and “Love in Times of Cholera” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I enjoyed these works and they rubbed off on me.
CK: Your works deal with such themes as love, ambition, corruption and politics. One expects that health issues and themes would dominate your works, being a physician. Do you consciously avoid themes that are linked to medicine?
WO: Though my works are mainly about love, intrigue, corruption adventure, once in a while, you see snapshots of medical life. For example “Rainbows are for Lovers”, “The Boys at the Border” and “Dreams Die at Twilight”, all have hospital scenes.
CK: Your acclaimed novel, ‘Tenants of the House’ portrays real life characters in Nigerian politics, especially in the Federal House of Assembly and the Presidency. Though the characters are fictional, were you in any way criticized by your colleagues in the house?
WO: Yes, (Chiaka laughs) my colleagues in the house are not happy with the book. To them, I portrayed them as crooks. They felt I betrayed them and that I am not a politician, that I was a writer planted among them to reveal their secrets. But two or three felt that what I did was in order to sanitize the society. But on the whole, many felt I put sand in their garri, so to speak.
CK: Which of your novels do you consider your best?
WO: That question has been difficult to answer. It’s like asking you which of your children you consider the best. I think I will choose “Tenants of the House”. It afforded me the opportunity to voice out things that were not right in the Federal House of Assembly. I am happy with the quality of production of the book.
CK: How did you conceive the idea of Ebedi International Writers’ Residency?
WO: The idea came from my wife who though that we should put our house to a better use. Most of the time we were not around. We only came home once in a year or when there was an event in Iseyin. I also used to tell her that I need a place to write and I know there are writers who are also in the same dilemma. We decided to let it (the house) out to writers. We knew we have to work with writers who have attended residencies abroad. We contacted Uche Umez, Alkazim Abdulkadir and Akintayo Abodunrin. These writers have participated in residencies in the past. My wife and I and these writers are the board members of Ebedi International Writers’ Residency.
CK: Do you have co-sponsors in this Residency project now?
WO: So far, we don’t have sponsors. It is still a personal project. But daily, we are in search of sponsors who will take over and help sustain the project.
CK: How would you asses the successes of this project so far? Are you in touch with former residents to know their successes after their stay here? Have the secondary school students who the residents have taught so far actually proved that they have benefited from this?
WO: I can say that we are happy with the progress so far. The response from the residents has been remarkable. The demand by writers to participate is very high. Some of them have been doing well, like A. Igoni Barret who published a new book of short stories. Elnathan John who has been short-listed for Caine Prize for African Writing this year (2013) was here. We hope to start literary workshops, seminars with guest writers who will impart positively on the immediate literary community. We have been able to discover one or two potential good writers among the students. We hope that this can get better. More information on the residency are available on ebediresidency.blogspot.com
CK: Nigeria has many gifted writers, but most of them are discovered when they relocate to the west, when they are short-listed for awards abroad and win prizes or when they succeed through personal efforts in getting a literary agent and getting published outside Africa. Why are Nigerian publishers only interested in patronizing Nigerian authors already discovered and nurtured by the west?
WO: You are right. There are two major reasons. Laziness and lack of initiatives on behalf of Nigerian publishers who are not ready to groom or invest on writers. They are ready to make money out of them without putting money. Another reason is that publishing is a business and publishers are there to make money. So, harsh economy and poor reading culture made them wary of how they invest in writers whose works they feel may not do well in the market. That’s why they always look for established writers.
CK: How can reading culture and publishing of creative works be revived in Nigeria?
WO: Poor reading culture could be due to poor educational background because if you do not start early to introduce reading to children, they may not pick up. Secondly, reading is a secondary need on the continent. The primary needs—foods, shelter have superseded reading. People will only read and write after their primary needs have been met. Apart from these factors there are distractions from soccer, premier league, internet, computer games, home video and so on. Our youths are glued to all these. Book reading becomes jettisoned.
Parents and guardians should encourage their children/wards to read from a tender age. My parents encouraged me to read newspapers. Bedtime stories for kids should be encouraged. Research has shown that the more television children watch, the less they perform well in school. This should be checked. Government should build more libraries and equip them with good books. The leaders at the state and local government levels should provide libraries as well. Government should also look into the tariffs on reading materials such as papers so that books can be affordable. NGOs and philanthropic and corporate bodies should donate and give out books to schools to encourage the students to read.
CK: Nigerian authors who are lucky to get published in Nigeria often complain about being cheated by their publishers and about piracy. As a former lawmaker, do you think that the agencies concerned with anti-piracy policy implementation and the Copyright Commission were adequately empowered by the law to protect the rights of the authors and other intellectual property owners? I ask this because it appears that as piracy goes on, nothing happens to the offenders. The publishers smile to the bank and the writers lick their wounds.
WO: When I was in the house, I was a member of the committee on culture and the team that made concerted efforts to check piracy. In a country where there is poverty and lawlessness, fighting piracy is a herculean task. I can say the agencies are doing their best. I notice that sometimes they raid the hideouts of these pirates, in Alaba market for instance. As regards writer-publisher relationship, some publishers don’t pay royalty, don’t inform writers when they do re-print, that is why Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) under my leadership some years ago, tried to assist authors to address this. The law is on ground and it is working. The agencies go to bookshops to arrest the offenders. They should increase their punitive measures.
CK: Most of these issues raised have led to self publishing and vanity publishing. What advice do you have for aspiring Nigerian and African writers?
WO: I always try to discourage self-publishing except genres like poetry and drama. But for fiction, I think authors should try and get published by mainstream, conventional publishers because when you submit your work, it will go through a system whereby internal editors will critically analyze the book, edit and put in professional input to make it better than the original product.
Marketing also helps. A self-published book has a limited audience because the author may not have the resources to market the book. A conventional publishing house has all the facilities and outlets to market the book
When you self-publish your work, you will be running after printers and spending the time you will utilize in settling down to write.
CK: Thank you sir for your time.
WO: It’s my pleasure.