Sabinews: Did being shortlisted for the Etisalat Prize for Literature in 2014 change you or how you perceive your writing?
The nomination held huge significance for me for a myriad of reasons. The long-list was filled with writers I admire. It was an honour to be in their company and to feel that sense of literary connection to the continent. The Etisalat Award is – I think – a real force for good not just because its financial generosity to individual writers but because of what it does for African literature more broadly; the dissemination of the shortlisted novels among schools, libraries, universities is a wonderfully proactive way of ensuring that our texts are made accessible across a wide spectrum of forums. This is the kind of action-based support African literature needs.
At a personal level traveling to Lagos held special significance because it allowed me another glimpse our continent. Though brief, the interaction with such an intensely dynamic African city deepened, challenged and affected my relationship with the continent in important ways. A few highlights: the first was meeting and engaging with the writers and editors associated with the award: Ellah Alfrey, Margaret Busby, Jamal Mahjoub, Sarah Ladipo Manyika, Tsitsi Dangarembga-cultural and literary change-makers all! The second was the reading we did at the Terrakulture Centre where I got to listen to Chinelo Okparanta and Songeziwe Mahlangu read and speak about their work. I’ve rarely felt the kind of intense interest in and love for literature that emanated from the audience in that room anywhere else in the world. Seeing Wole Soyinka in the audience at the awards ceremony was also pretty amazing!
Sabinews: You’ve done a lot of work for stage before An Imperfect Blessing was published. Did you always know you were going to write a novel at some point?
My most public work has been in the theatre but I’ve never thought of myself exclusively as a playwright- rather as a writer who is interested in writing across a range of forms and creative idioms. I hoped more than knew I’d be able to write a novel. But like all creative forms, novel-writing strikes me as a continuous process; I don’t think writing one novel makes you a novelist- that feels like a title you have to earn over a long period of producing work.
Sabinews: Was your work ever rejected by a publisher and if yes how did you handle it?
Oh yes! You just have to keep writing, be faithful to the act of writing, be grateful for the audience you already have (even if it’s an audience of one-a friend you’ve co-opted into reading your work). Writers understand very early that they may only ever write for themselves and that may have to be enough. I know that sounds very grim and possibly quite lonely but what it means is that your priority is to the work itself and that the labour and process of that work has its own rewards.
Sabinews: Writing for stage and writing fiction. Which do you prefer?
Interestingly, I don’t see the two forms as entirely discreet. Instead, the one shapes and and informs the other. There can be instances when I’m writing prose, when I feel stuck, that a theatrical approach might invigortate the process, unsettle it, prompt a different, more productive path. I realised after I finished An Imperfect Blessing that I have a very theatrical approach to constructing character in that I often ‘hear’ and ‘see’ them before I know what their story is; if I know how a character speaks, what they’re wearing, if I have a vague sense of what they look like, it often means I’m approaching the beginning of understanding who they are and what they want. Once that image is in place I can begin to plot the narrative arc. Lines, costume, objectives, super-objectives-these are theatrical tools and theatrical points of entry,
That said there are fundamental and inescapable differences: theatre is a deeply collaborative process in which the written word is just one of the ‘texts’ at work-the director, actor(s), set-designer, sound-designer, all these variegated creative forms converge to make the performance. A performed play is only ever as good as the people in it; a good performer is capable of imagining and excavating things the writer herself was not aware of, they can elevate a text, tease out new meanings. A less able performer can render even the most lyrical text wooden and dull. Theatre is all about collaboration and that level of collaboration simply doesn’t exist in writing a novel. The form doesn’t allow for it.
A play and a book place very different demands on its audience: a play is (generally) only two hours long. With the exception of one-to-one performance it’s a collective encounter with a sense of immediacy, of urgency. But a novel can takes weeks, sometimes months to read and it is a solitary experience from start to finish: the writer begins it alone and the reader finishes it alone. I have an aunt who always says of life, ‘we come in alone and we leave alone’ and lately I have begun to think that whoever said that first must have just finished writing a novel. Both art-forms have the potential to invite a deeply intimate relationship with an audience but (at the risk of suggesting blunt categories) the one is public and the other private.
Sabinews: Do you see An Imperfect Blessing being adapted for stage?
That’s an interesting idea. Theatrical adaptation, the re-crafting of a literary text as a performance, is a fascinating process. I’m not sure how it would work with An Imperfect Blessing but that’s probably my own limitation.
Years ago I watched a short story of mine that was adapted for stage and it was an absolutely extraordinary experience because it felt like I was watching something almost entirely new (which in a sense, I suppose it was). The director picked up on all sorts of currents and themes that hadn’t struck me as important; she inscribed certain moments with a weight that redistributed the balance, redefined the centre of the story. And that circles back to the nature of performance: everyone brings their vision and their gifts to bear on a text and it becomes its own thing. So, I couldn’t begin to imagine An Imperfect Blessing as a play-I wouldn’t know where to start-but maybe someone else could.
Sabinews: What are you currently working on?
Lots of different creative projects but I try not to speak about them until they’re finished because the minute I talk about things, I start trying to explain them to myself and then I tend to loose momentum and interest.
Sabinews: Who has been your biggest literary influence?
Great question but I have too many to pick just one! Here are some of the people I read while I was writing An Imperfect Blessing. They were not so much ‘influences’ as much loved companions: Leo Tolstoy, Junot Diaz, E.M. Forster, Chinua Achebe, Ntozake Shange, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Arhundhati Roy, Joan Didion, Sara Suleri, Nadine Gordimer.
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