Richard Ali is a Nigerian lawyer and novelist based in Abuja. He co-founded one of Nigeria’s largest publishing companies, Parrésia Publishers Ltd, in 2012, with notable authors under its imprint. A former Editor of the Kaduna-based Sardauna Magazine, he joined the Sentinel Literary Movement of Nigeria in 2011 and undertook the editorship of 14 quarterly Sentinel Nigeria Magazine issues.
In this interview with Damiete Braide, he speaks on his writings, challenges faced by publishers and piracy, among others.
You have participated in various writing workshops like the 2012 Farafina Trust Creative Workshop and the 2013 GRANTA/British Council workshop, how have they impacted on your writing?
I like to say that the most important impact is the communion with other writers, those at one’s level, as well as those far better known or established. At the time I attended Chimamanda’s Farafina Trust workshop, my debut novel was just out, in 2012. I think that, if I had attended it earlier, I would have made some changes as a result of the really breathtaking discussions I had with attendees. Then again, this affliction, this need to forever rewrite, is something all writers are predisposed to. I remember Chika Oduah was there, and in the years since she’s made quite a name for herself as a journalist, her work appearing on CNN and AlJazeera. Investigative journalist and my brother, Abdulazez Abdulazeez, Fred Nwonwu, Senan Murray, Nana Darkoa; Yewande Omotosho, among others.
To have been young, in a sense, at the same time with so many of Africa’s youngest writers is the greatest blessing attending workshops has given me. The GRANTA workshop in Nairobi led directly to the establishment of Jalada Africa, of which I am a founding member and, currently, the Board Secretary. Jalada is one of the most important literary arts organisations on the continent. So, yes, it’s in the community, to be within a cusp of literary vibrancy.
How did you feel when you were shortlisted for the John la Rose Short Story Competition in 2008?
There was a bit of disbelief, and, then, the gradual acceptance of it. I was very young then and with a young writer, you’re never quite sure whether your work is good enough. Now, the thing with literary prizes is, of course, the quite complicated mathematics of tastes in the judging panels. Regardless, to be shortlisted for one is always a big deal, an always-useful nudge on the back. Molara Wood, stunning writer of short stories (you should read her stories collection, Indigo) won it that year.
You served as judge for the BN Poetry Award (Africa’s only Africa-wide poetry prize) and Rwanda’s Huza Press Short Story Prize. What was your experience during the competitions and how would you describe the performance of the contestants?
Judging prizes is the surest way to immerse yourself in the newest writing, writing so new it still has the tennis ball fuzz on it eh. The writing life tends to be one of difficulty and pessimism, it’s very solitary business, done alone often than not, and the private space can teem with private demons. Judging prizes, apart from being a matter of honour to be asked to, is my way of coming in contact with talent and earnestness. The Beverley Nambozo Nsengiyunva-led BN Poetry Award is Africa’s largest poetry award, and it has had a lot of entries from all over the continent. In the years I judged, I believe we had at least 400. Perhaps more.
Your first novel, Cities of Memories, centres on the question of identity, why is this so?
Two reasons, interrelated. I think that the identity question is one of the most important ones that we as a country, as Nigerians, have failed to address, which is why it is always open and available for mischief and abuse. Ethnic slurs are routinely visited on fellow countrymen and women and this, terrible as it is, is defended by whatever petty group benefits from that stereotype. I don’t care to restate examples.
Then, there’s the personal angle. I proudly say that Jos is my hometown but, in actual fact, I was born in Kano, moving to Jos only in 1988. My parents are both from Idah. How they both got there is a long story. In my mother’s case, nearly six hundred years of history rooted in the Nile valley, through Kwararafa and then now. Elaborate intermarriages on both sides have guaranteed that just about every major Nigerian ethnic group has a share in my ancestry. So, there’s that. The question is framed around the ethno-religious crisis that gripped Jos in the early 2000, when our identity games went nuclear and destroyed one of Nigeria’s great cosmopolises.
What are the challenges publishers face in Nigeria?
Book publishing in Nigeria is a foolish undertaking; a publisher is a sort of fool. Yet we do it, yet we do it, because we believe in it. The truth is, every single aspect of book publishing in Nigeria is a challenge—from sourcing for paper, which is mostly imported, to publishing the books to distributing and marketing them, to getting your money back from bookstore owners all the while trying to maintain skeletal staff and keep a website and social media running. Maybe the question should be framed differently. There’s no aspect of publishing in Nigeria that is not a challenge.
How do you cope with book pirates in the country?
One tries to beat them at their own game, to mass produce books in China or India, for example, as soon as one’s book is on a list—WASSCE, JAMB, or NECO for example—but you know that the pirates will make money off your books, and maybe more than you would. The thing is to at least make some money. The pirates are backed by sophisticated mafiosi as decentralised as those engaged in human trafficking or transnational smuggling of contraband. Beyond tokenist interventions, I do not think Nigeria is interested in dealing with piracy—for various reasons ranging from the pecuniary to simple poverty. For poverty, let me give you an example. How do you convince a minimum wage earner that he should buy a book from you at N1000 because you pay author’s royalties, printers fees, loan repayments and a whole lot of costs when he has the option of buying from a pirate at N500? This is frankly, from the customer’s point of view, a ridiculous preposition. How do you explain to such a customer that the pirate has next to no costs at all? Do you see how the general poverty aids piracy?
What makes your publishing firm stand out from others in the country?
Parresia arrived at a time when our two great predecessors—Farafina and Cassava Republic —were already doing great work for Nigerian literature. They continue to do great work. You remember? Helon Habila, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and all those voices were incubated in these two presses. Yet, there were voices we wanted to hear who were not being published, and Parresia was set up to help bring these about. This is where Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s The Whispering Trees and Emmanuel Iduma’s Farad come in. These are two books I remain extremely proud of because we got them out. Abubakar has gone on to show his genius, winning the NLNG with his debut novel, Season of Crimson Blossoms. Same with Emmanuel. We like to think this is what made us stand out. That said, this was nearly a decade ago, and we have settled into being just another publishing house—the third largest, yes, with an emphasis on diversity of voices. Not to say we have not published the truly exciting books as we intended, just that we have had to shift more towards range, not niche. In the recent years, I have particularly loved Amara Nicole Okoro’s Son of Man and Tj Benson’s We Won:t Fade Into Darkness.
In the period since we set up shop, a lot of new publishers have come up and are doing great work, helping their writers stand out. An example of this is Masobe Books, which is truly impressive. Another example is Five Jordan, which held its debut event in Abuja late last year and, outside Nigeria, Troy Onyango’s exciting new platform, Lolwe. Several others who are not even brick-and-mortar publishers who are exciting the imaginations of writers and catering to the tastes of would-be readers. We stood out because we understood the underground of the Nigerian literary community ten years ago. Others will stand out in their own time, understanding their own times. It’s the nature of these things.
Why is it difficult to publish new creative writers as done abroad, as the emphasis now appears to be on textbook authors?
It is because no one is willing to share the publishers’ financial risk. Textbooks are generally easier to sell. I’ve said that publishing is a thankless business, but even the most foolish, in quotes, publisher2, will cut his losses on “new creative writers” at some point and try to balance his sheets. This state of affairs will continue for so long as banks do not think publishing is a business that should be given structured loans and the government feels no need to either give subventions to publishers or work to cut the costs of publishing.
What are the dangers posed to the publishing industry by the gradual shift to e-learning?
There’s no danger. E-learning is a platform. Books are a platform. They complement each other.
As a writer and poet, when do you find time to write?
Time must be found, clawed out, stolen. Time must be found any which way. How else would the writing get done? I write every time I can. Sometimes I will pull over while driving and scribble something on a notepad. Other times it might be leaving myself a voice note on my cell phone. I have tried writing early in the morning, and it’s really good, too, waking up at 4 a.m. But it’s not always practical, because I personally have trouble sleeping, and there is no certainty when I will sleep each night. Sleeping at 1 a.m. or later can be the norm for weeks on end. I write, most days, out of determination that I must move this book forward, even if by a paragraph. Personally, I like writing in spaces where I am not native and where my cell phone does not work. I write best outside the country when I am on a no-pressure, no-expectations trip. But we can’t always be out of the country, can we? So, one writes, regardless.