Friday-John Abba is an award-winning playwright and editor. He is the author of three plays, Alekwu Night Dance Eclipsing Ellipsis and Muted Song. Formerly the Chairman, Association of Nigerian Authors (Kaduna State Chapter) and Kaduna Writers’ League, Abba’s debut play, Alekwu Dancers, was a runner-up for the 2014 Nigeria Prize for Literature sponsored by Nigeria LNG. In this interview with Henry Akubuiro during a recent visit to Lagos, the Benue-born writer spoke on his literary journey, the fortuitous occurrence that made him a playwright and how his debut work has broken international barriers.
You have been writing for years now with three published works. At what point did you start taking writing seriously?
Let me state that I first started out as a public speaker. Having joined the Rotaract Club at the age of eighteen, where I became president and later a District Rotaract Representative, public speaking became a part of my everyday routine. The training I had received in the Nigerian Military School also opened my eyes to see a lot of possibilities. These and a lot more led me into thoughts of creating something that I could give to the world. At first, I thought that I was going to achieve that through the military, then science came to my mind, and I wondered if science was not what I needed to achieve this. Finally, the humanities came to me as what we needed to heal our world and save it from destruction. Then literature came to me as a reliable way of affecting society through the humanities.
For me, I did not just get inspired to be a writer; there was a conscious effort to speak to society. A combination of all that I lived through from childhood when we enjoyed great books in the Railway Institute library, to the Nigerian Military School with some of the greatest minds I have ever met where I learnt that my mind had to be working even while I slept; where I learned to be creative enough to multitask and do about four things at a time. The things I learned with other members of the Creative writers’ Club of the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, taught me that there was a lot that I could achieve through the literary arts.
At a point in my life, I left my job so I could read widely. I read just anything, and, for about two years, I spent at least eight hours of every working day in the library. I tried to understand, through books, many things about man; about life; about living. I attempted fiction writing and had a complete first draft. Unfortunately, I had to endure the pains of losing that manuscript. Then I began to look at other writers’ manuscripts, and edited for many authors without charges until writers told me that I needed to begin to earn some money from it. After submitting a few short stories to be published in anthologies, I wrote Alekwu Night Dance in 2013, and fate would have it that the play hit a chord with a lot of critics, academics and enthusiasts. So, it is difficult to say when I began to take writing seriously; it has been a journey and like I have come to find, this is an incredible journey that ends only in death.
How did you feel when you lost your first manuscript, and have you recovered it yet?
I spent over six months, staying five days without sleep and resting only on the sixth day writing that draft. It was my first attempt at writing after my long period of learning. I gave all I could give to it at the time. But this happened at a time when computers were elitist and a rarity. It was handwritten so there was no backup. That first draft was close to 500 pages. Sadly, I lost it. I collapsed when I found that I had lost it. But, as time went on, I began to realise that I couldn’t allow the feeling that it was a great book affect me negatively. I believed, and still believe, that God allowed it to happen for a reason. I decided to dedicate a lot more time to learning more. The loss of that draft became a blessing when it pushed me to study more and to edit more. I spent more years in learning and editing and submitting to anthologies until 2009 when I got incapacitated by a very long period of illness which culminated in the failures of my kidneys, its subsequent restoration, the three auto accidents of 2013 and the birth of Alekwu Night Dance which officially announced me as (unbelievable as it is) a playwright.
Your first work of drama, Alekwu Dance, happened by accident. What triggered the impulse?
My first work of drama which happens to be my first published work, came after my 6 years of battles with sickness and accidents. Barely after my kidneys recovered in 2013, I had an accident along Akure-Ibadan road. Other accidents followed such that, between March and June of 2013, I had three. With one broken leg, I was completely immobile. Fortunately, the story I always wanted to write came to be one afternoon. The window was open and a tiny ray of light made its way into the room. I believe that inspiration came with that ray of light. Then I began to write the story. Then the story was flowing in dialogues, and there seemed to be no room for narration. I deliberately refused to force a narration. In about twelve days, I had a play. I worked four more drafts before I got the title. So Alekwu Night Dance was born.
Were you expecting to be on the shortlist with Alekwu Dance in 2014?
At the time I wrote Alekwu Night Dance, I didn’t think it would make a good read to even a non critical reader. I just wanted to tell a story and I thought that I had done what I set out to do. As a matter of fact, I did not think of submitting it for the prize until my friend and mentor, Sumaila Umaisha, insisted and even threatened to unfriend me if I refused to submit it. With a little more push from Usho Adawa and Zwahu Yanwaidi, the entry got to the office on the very last day. When I submitted, I believed that I had fulfilled all righteousness and that my friends were not going to hold me to account. Today, I look back and I know that I can never be grateful enough to them. I never thought the play was worthy to be counted among the longlist of 11. To have made the shortlist of 3 in one of the most prestigious literary prizes in the world with my first work is something I still feel very humbled and honoured for.
A book must travel, how far has yours travelled, and have you made any attempt to adapt it on screen?
Alekwu Night Dance, one which I often refer to as “that little book”, has performed beyond my wildest imagination. For a play, it has done creditably well and, for that, I give the glory to God, for it has been Him and not by my efforts. Today, the book is listed by Worldcat.org and is cited in libraries and institutions across continents. Today, Alekwu Night Dance is cited in the Library of Congress and the National Library of Australia, as well as universities in the United States and elsewhere, including Princeton University. It has been studied in various institutions of learning, and has formed the core of different doctoral dissertations. A few other books and movies set in Idomaland have been largely influenced by it. At the moment, an organisation is doing a screenplay of the Alekwu Night Dance in the USA, and we hope that we can have the movie in no distant time.
On stage, we have premiered the play and had two performances in Kaduna. We intend to resume our city tour of the play very soon.
What is the significance of Alekwu in Idoma culture?
Simply put, Alekwu is the ancestral spirit of the Idoma people. Alekwu is not considered a deity as many people are quick to believe. The Idoma people believe in the Supreme Being known as Owoicho Omanchalla (God Almighty). Alekwu is a spirit which, like Karma, recompenses good for good and evil for evil.
Your second play, Eclipsing Ellipsis is a sequel to Alekwu Dance, why did you decide to broaden the canvas of narrative?
After writing Alekwu Night Dance, I realised that the Alekwu Culture is too vast to be covered by one book. I know that it is impossible to cover Alekwu in even three books. But I thought that we often mistake Alekwu for a lot of other things and we are often too quick to claim that every misfortune is a consequence of an evil which is meted out to the culprit by Alekwu. Eclipsing Ellipsis is an attempt at painting another picture – another face of the narrative.
Your latest effort, Muted Song, is the third of the Alekwu trilogy. How have you advanced the Alekwu narrative to this very culmination?
Muted Song is third in the trilogy. While Alekwu Night Dance paints a society where Alekwu acted to bring justice to the people, Eclipsing Ellipsis and Muted Song paints pictures of possible human solutions. Muted Song, for instance, is the story of Ol’ano where a medical problem was attributed to Alekwu until it became too late.
How is live theatre fairing in Nigeria at the moment?
For a while, many of us thought that live theater was dead, but the resurgence of live plays has rekindled the hope that it only went to sleep. The challenges of the cost of production and defraying this cost has been looming large on the minds of production companies but just like people still go to the stadiums to watch live football matches, we hope that live theater can become exciting enough to make more and more people to go out to theaters, pay money and watch all the amazing plays that great Nigerian playwrights and other stakeholders are putting together. The resurgence in Lagos and, to a less extent, Abuja has rekindled the hope that we will grow to that point. The future does look good for those who are willing to look well enough and work hard enough to make the theater more attractive than it has ever been.
Your recent playreading outing in Lagos was cancelled in Lagos because of Covid-19, how do you feel? Also, what plans for the future for this novel playreading adventure?
This has given me a very unpleasant feeling. I feel even more for those who have made up their minds to be a part of this experience. Many have rescheduled their itineraries to accommodate the reading; many have cancelled other engagements; many others have made great sacrifices just so that the Playreading would hold. I feel a lot more for these amazing people. Despite the fact that we have put in a lot of logistics on this, I believe that all things happen for a purpose and I believe that when we finally get to host the Playreading and Book Signing, we will appreciate the fact that it was postponed. We pray that the Covid-19, which is presenting humanity with this problem, will begin a retreat soon and disappear from the face of the earth. We hope that all the Nigerians who have confirmed cases of the virus will defeat it and that some of the survivors will even come and be a part of our highly esteemed audience when we return. It may cost us a lot extra both in time, energy and resources but we shall come back better than ever before.