Before his literary forays in America, Epaphras Chukwuenweniwe Osondu, popularly known as E.C. Osondu, worked as an advertising copywriter for several years. In 2008, he was a fellow at Syracuse University in creative writing. In 2010, he became an assistant professor of English at Providence College, teaching courses in Creative Writing, Introduction to Literature, and the Development of Western Civilisation. A short story writer, Osondu’s story “Waiting” won the 2009 Caine Prize for African Writing. He has also been the recipient of the Allen and Nirelle Galso Prize for Fiction, while his story “A Letter from Home” was judged one of “The Top Ten Stories on the Internet” in 2006. His debut collection of short stories, Voice of America, was published in 2010. HENRY AKUBUIRO chatted with him recently in Abeokuta on his predilection for the short story and currents in African literature.
You have won renown for your short stories. Why do you find the short story the most convenient medium to express your creativity?
The short story is a very old form, which is, perhaps, more connected to my background as an African than, perhaps, the novel. The short story is more connected to the African folktales than the novel. The novel is more epic –a longer form –and so, in that sense, I like the short story. Most of the readers who drew me into literature were short story writers, though some of them wrote novels: William Somerset, who wrote novels as well. However, they were basically short story writers. And, then, of course, I went to the Brad School for Creative Writing, and that lays more emphasis on the short story. It is something I like to read before going to bed, and I find that I make sure I read a short story because it has a beginning, middle and an end. I can go the bottom up, and before I go to bed, I am done with it.
For most of my short stories, I start them and finish them quickly or I put them aside and, when I come back, I finish them, whereas you can’t start and finish the novel in a day or a week, not even in three months. So, it is a very attractive form; it is a very varied form. You think of Chinua Achebe’s collection, Girls at War –those were interesting stories. There are stories with surprise endings; there are stories that are very modernist; there are stories that are experimental; there are stories that just focus on plot. So, it is also a form that gives you a lot of varieties. And we short stories in different parts of the world: the Russian short story by Anton Chekhov; the American short story by William Carvar; the African short story by Chinua Achebe, even by Flora Nwapa (This is Lagos) –a story I read many years ago. It is very interesting form.
“Waiting” earned you a major prize in 2009. Was it a product of research or purely imagination?
The story came from when I first went to Syracuse, New York. I was a graduate student, but I was also, in the summer, working with the university’s Literacy Programme, which had an office. What they were trying to do was to reach out to poorer, disadvantaged communities and teach them literacy, whether they are adults or young children, who did not have the advantages of living in the city. So, I volunteered for this programme, and the first place I went to was a community centre called the Brighton Community Centre, to work with kids who were disadvantaged in a very poor part of Syracuse, mostly African and American kids. So, they would come to the Community Centre to get someone to help them with their homework. So I went to teach creative writing, giving them something to do so that they don’t go selling drugs. That was part of it.
After that, in the summer, I started working with kids from the Sudan, Somalia and Bosnia, who were in Syracuse. I also had volunteers who didn’t have the advantage of coming from a rich background. What the Literacy Programme was trying to do was to use a summer camp –we got on a bus and take those kids to the universities in that area and show them around and say, “Look, this is a legitimate aspiration; you can go to the university; it is something meant only for the rich or whites; you can also aspire to go to the university.”
One of the things that also got me on the programme was also to show those kids that, “Whether you are from Somalia or The Sudan, this is a Blackman like you, who is a graduate student here, and he is going to do great things”. So, talking with them, they gravitated towards me, because I could share my lunch with them, whereas the other counsellors were Westerners and whites would not share their lunch with anybody. They would ask you, “Mohammed, I hope you brought your lunch?” If you said no, they would say, “Well, I have my sandwich here”. And they would eat theirs. But, I didn’t care. Along the line, I started talking with the kids, and I started hearing their stories –the Somalian kids who had been a huge refugee camps in Somalia.
What time were you referring to?
That was in 2006. So, we got talking about their stories, and, so, a part of it [the short story] came from there. Well, you know a story you publish is a polyglot –there are so many things –and some of it were drawn came from there. But, largely, that was the inspiration.
Your story “Letter from Home” was adjudged one of the Top 10 Stories on the Internet in 2006. Was personal nostalgia part of the epistolary recourse?
The truth is that, when you live in cold places as I have done throughout my stay in the US, some things are brought into sharper focus: the fact that you are in a different place; the fact that you are in a place where the weather is very different from everything you have known. And that somehow pushes you in the direction of nostalgia, and you try to make yourself comfortable or remind yourself of home, either by virtue of the music you play or the kind of food you eat. I find that I crave seven 7 foods in the winter that I wouldn’t ordinarily eat like in the summer. In the summer, I had the cheese burger and sandwich. But, in the winter, I will like to eat pepper soup. So, that came with nostalgia; it came from this notion of America or the West as a place you pick money on the street. It is something that has been constant in my works, that, actually, you can make money off the street easily. So, [in the short story], there is this pressure on the African child who is there to send money home, whereas they didn’t hear from the son actually. Someone responded and wrote another story, where the son tried to explain his situation: a letter from abroad.
How difficult or easy is it for you to set a story on Africa in the US?
I gravitate towards writing about Africa or writing about people of African descent in the West. I am not going to be an American writer –that will never happen in the sense that I am not going to be Raymon Carvar, who was born in America and spent all his life in America and set all his stories in America. I can never be an American writer in that sense simply because it is different for me. It is always going to be the case of an outsider looking in or the man who is telling the story of his own people to outsiders. That’s the way it will always be.
Before you left Nigeria, you worked as an advertising copywriter. How did that shape your writing career?
In so many ways. I have always told people who have worked as journalists that, when they become writers of fiction, it is easier for them to set deadlines and meet deadlines. You internalise that. The same thing for copywriters. If you are a copywriter, you learn to write and get the readers’ attention, and not just that but hold it. When you buy a radio, you don’t just buy it because you only want to listen to commercials –you buy it because you want to listen to the news. So, when a commercial comes on, it has to be intriguing and interesting and hold your attention to listen to it. I think that writers of fiction have that ability, not just to attract the readers’ attention, but to hold it and intrigue them to read till the end. So, it did help.
Voice of America, your latest novel, now has a Nigerian edition and it is an encounter of an immigrant’s life in a new world. How disoriented is the immigrant’s life in the US that spurred this writing?
I think there is a constant shock for the man who leaves here for the West. If you move from here to New England State, you are going to have a weather shock in terms of the very harsh winters. The fact that the winter is harsh does not mean that life doesn’t go on; you have to get dressed and go to work. I remember I saw an African in a rather well heated environment. But he was wearing so many layers of clothes, and he had a coat, and he looked like a penguin. So I tapped him, and said, “Bros, these jackets are too much for you”. And he asked me, “Do you have another one to give me?” (laughs). I said, “What!” he responded, “If you pull this one and give me, I am going to wear it.”
We started talking, and I found out that he was from Ghana. He told me, further, that he wished there was a connecting road between America and Ghana so that, on Sunday nights, he would drive to America and on Friday nights, he would drive back to Ghana. That’s how it is. I think that, for those people who come from a different culture who go there, there is certain alienation. You are constantly reminded that you are not from there. Even if it is not racial hostility, the weather reminds you that you didn’t play with snow when you were born but with sands.
When you write, are you particular about the audience –American, Western or African? In order words, do you have any audience in mind when you write?
No. I just want to tell a story. When I was in Brad School, there was a student in my fiction workshop. So, every week you had to write a story and present to other students in your workshop to critique your story. Sometimes I found myself trying to write for them. But I grew out of that. When I write, I think, I am only thinking of telling the best story the best way I can tell it.
But there is this accusation that writers like you pander to the whims of western publishers by celebrating the negative side of Africa.
I have heard that. When Nigerians say that, they think they are being original; they are not. Indians also say the same of Indian writers like Jumpha Lahiri, author of The White Tiger and the Booker Prize winner. People say that Indian writers, who write, actually create a negative picture of India. If you go on Amazon, all the Indians were on one side as far as this issue. They said this was very negative, and he was writing for the West.
I have always liked what late Fela Kuti said. Someone asked him, “Why are you spreading your country’s dirty laundry to the public?” And he said, “Where else should we spread it?” Should we spread the laundry inside? The only place to spread it is outside so that the sun will dry it. I think that is very wrong, when, between ourselves, we say there are many things that are wrong in the country, and we should hide it. I think they should be exposed; I think the country needs constant scrutiny.
Let’s talk about Charles Dickens, the English writer. Think about a character like Oliver Twist; think about The Poor House; think about the criminals like Fagin; think about that these were pickpockets in the streets of London, very cold and horrible, where there was no social equality; they could sweep the chimney because they were small. There was prostitution; there was child labour; there was gang violence. Those were the things Dickens talked about in Oliver Twist. Nobody said he was writing to please an audience, but he was writing it to change the society.
Emile Zola did the same thing in France; John Steinbeck did the same thing with The Grape of Wrath. I think you become a writer simply because you think the way the society is presently constituted needs change. I don’t think that any great writer became great by reassuring people that they were the best in the world. It is important that we call attention to these.
Do you share the view by Harry Garuba, for one, that success in writing now is tailored towards international success?
I would say that, it is not just in the area of writing, because people think about it; but, recently, the world has been specifying and talking about globalisation; and globalisation has also hit Africa literature. Globalisation, as far as I am concerned, is not good for those of us from the poorer parts of the world. When America is preaching globalisation, what they are simply saying is that you should dump all our products with it and it will pay for it, and then you buy whatever we produce, and we use it to make our world better. That’s what the West means when they say globalisation –it doesn’t mean economic equality; it just means “globalise to our advantage”. So, I don’t think globalisation is so great.
Do not forget, literature is also part of the global economy. What do I mean by this? That it should have been good if, all the writer did was to write a poem and call his village people together and declaim the poem, and after he reading it, they would say, “Ah! Thanks you!” Today, if you write a book, you need an agent, an intermediary, to sell it to the publisher. Now, there are not more than three major publishers, either Random House or a couple of others. So, the production of literature has not yet become globalised in that sense. And then, these major publishers have invested much money in your work. They are business people, let’s face it –they want to recoup their money.
So, even if the Nigerian Village Times interviews me, and reviews my book and does a full page stuff on me, the people in Nigeria, because of the foreign exchange difference, may not be able to buy fifty copies of my book. But, if I am reviewed in New York Times, the publishers can recoup their money. The publishers will invest in getting into the New York Times. So, when I publish my book, I am not even responsible for who reviews it. I have a publicist dedicated to me. Leslie Cohen is my publicist; she is the Director of Publicity at Harper Collins. She is the one who publicises my work and ensures that I get read. And, so, the publishing company wants to get their money back.
In your story “This House is not for Sale”, you tend to work in the oral story-telling tradition. What are you trying to achieve with this?
It is very influenced by that, but it is also influenced by so many other books. It is also influenced by the book, The House of Mister Biswas; it is also influenced by Children of Gabriel Lawi by Naguib Mayfouz; it is also influenced by African oral storytelling tradition. One of the things that I remember is that there is a culture of demolishing houses in Nigeria, especially in the big cities. A governor would say a house is built on a wrong place and it would be demolished, or an entire neighbourhood, like what happened in Maroko, would be demolished. There are people growing up now may not know that there used to be a place called Maroko in Lagos. Government acts arbitrarily and with impunity. The take the sea or land belonging to everybody, which is our heritage, and say it is going to build houses, like it is doing write now in Lagos. But, what of the stories of the people who lived in these places? Don’t these stories need to be told? The physical structure is there, but stories are also as important.
A house where you lived, got married, had your first child and both you and your wife raised your child there through sickness and health, before moved on and build your own house. That house has countless memories for you, both the good times and the sad times. That’s what I try to do in this book: that a house is a place where memories are made; that a house is a place where stories are made and where stories are told, and that it is important that these stories are not forgotten, even in the physical structure. It is wiped away because of the constant brutal regimes in Africa. it is informed by that, but I also saw myself working in the mode of the oral storyteller.
Don’t you think Grandpa’s dictatorship in that story has political undertone?
Yes, it has political, as well as spiritual and economic –political in the sense that Africa has produced characters like Grandpa in government, who see themselves as overlords. So, in that sense, they never see themselves as fellow citizens; they see themselves as rulers. Which is why one of them said, “We are in government; you can’t challenge us”, forgetting that the government gets its power from the people. Grandpa is also a force for good or a force bad when he wants to be so. I think he is also human in the sense that, we humans are also capable of generosity and kindness and cruelty. The German gave us Beethoven, but they also gave us Hitler. So, a place can produce great art; it also can produce a mafia. It is human nature.
What are you working on now?
I am working on a novel and also a collection of short stories. The short story collection is done, and it is entitled Home and Abroad. It is going to deal with lives at home and abroad. I am still constantly fascinated with that.
But I am not sure you spend more than a month in Nigeria each year?
Every time you look at my wallet, you will always see a special phone card I use in calling Nigeria every time. Internet has made it easier now. Constantly, through Google, you can actually look at your house in the village, and can talk to everybody. So, that time that you can only see Nigeria only if you come to Nigeria is gone. And it depends on where your heart is. I meet young people in Africa who, actually, their hearts are not here. They tell me things about America, even TV programmes in America that I don’t know. The clothes they wear and the language they speak are American and Western. So, I also see myself as very much part of the country and the continent.