Dr Lola Akande is the author of In Our Place, What it Takes and Camouflage. She is a Senior lecturer in the Department of English, University of Lagos, where she teaches African Literature. She has worked as a journalist. In this interview with DAMIETE BRAIDE, she reveals how difficult writing is yet she can’t stop writing. The academic contends that since traditional publishing isn’t forthcoming for many Nigerian writers, they should explore the avenue for self-publishing so that their efforts won’t be in vain.
At what point did you take to creative writing and what was the motivation behind it?
I started writing creatively after I finished writing my PhD thesis in August, 2009, and was waiting to defend it. I began with short stories in 2009 and decided that since I didn’t have a job, I wanted to have a sense of being productive. I wasn’t new to writing; I had worked as a news reporter and, after I left journalism, I used to write opinion articles for newspapers till I started my PhD in 2006, which made me to stop writing articles. After writing the thesis, I realised that I would not be able to defend immediately, so I decided to take my writing to another level. Instead of writing newspaper articles, I started writing my first story, First Form, which am yet to publish. My writing felt good, so I continued writing short stories and, when I was satisfied that they were good to for a collection, then I finished the collection in 2010.
In Our Place is your first published novel. How did you situate the crux of the matter?
The first novel is entitled In Our Place, which I started in 2011. It is about Nigeria, that our place represents our country and what goes on in our country, the things that we do, especially those things that we ought not to be doing; what we focus on. Rather than dwell on those factors that united us, we tend to dwell on things that divide us and not make us develop as a people. For instance, my heroine in In Our Place is about to graduate from the university. She has two things in mind: looking for a job or getting married. The novel takes the reader through her journey as she tries to find a job and, in the process, she discovers that she needs more than her certificate and that she would travel to different parts of the country where she came across different people with different experiences which are chronicled in the novel. If we continue to do things the way we used to do them, we are not likely to make much progress as a country –things like ethnicity, religion, and how important we are in the society in order to merit some things which ought not to be so. You will find out that you need other things to be able to lay claim to things that ought to be your right by virtue of your citizenship.
Your went on to write What is Takes …
What it Takes is about the challenges that university students face in their attempt to attain higher degrees. Specifically, the novel is about the challenges of a female PhD student, particularly, in a Nigerian university. What does it really take to obtain a PhD from the perspective of a student? If you want to purchase a form, you want to go for PhD, what are the requirements, the challenges that you will encounter, among others? When I purchased the form to go for my PhD, there were so many things I didn’t know, which I took for granted. When I started the programme, I discovered so many things, which I decided to share.
For example, during your first and second degree, it is fairly easy where you have to attend classes, write tests and you pass and obtain your degree. But, for PhD, I didn’t know that the university or department would not assign a supervisor to you, but it becomes your duty to look for a supervisor that will agree to work with you. Also, I was not aware that a lecturer is not permitted to supervise beyond a certain number of students, and I didn’t know the magnitude of the work and what it involved. The lecturer is not to accept any student who wants to do a PhD at a time because the work is enormous. The universities are aware of this, and they cannot overstretch the lecturer, because he/she has so many things to do. I was ignorant of some of these facts. The attention a lecturer has to spend with a PhD student cannot be compared with that of the first or second degree student.
So, I decided to share my experience so that people can actually know from the perspective of the student, who may not be aware of some of the challenges the lecturer is also having. To take advantage in literature that says, “Do not judge a character”; but what people should try to do is to be baffled by what the character does, particularly if the reader thinks what the character has done is not good. Try to find out and put yourself in the place of the character that would you have behaved differently if you were in the same situation like the character.
Why did it take you four years to come up with What it Takes after your first novel?
Writing is difficult. It is not easy to write. If you decide to write, it has to be good; it shouldn’t be a matter of how fast but it should be about how well. I had to take my time to write my works. I also finished writing before I gave it to a publisher. My manuscript was with the publisher for two years (I finished writing by February 2014, and had sent it to a renowned publisher in Nigeria), but I waited for two years only to be told that they were unable to do it because of recession. So, I thought of what to do to get my book published.
Camouflage is a published short story collection of yours. For readers who would crave for a peep into the narrative, how does it go?
Camouflage is about tribalism in Nigeria. It is about a woman who is married to a man from a different ethnic group. The marriage is not successful to the extent that the husband turns out to be a philanderer which makes her to abandon the marriage. She has three children from the marriage and, because she married outside her ethnic group, and attributes the failure of her marriage to the tribe of the man rather than the man. She insists that her daughter will also never marry outside her ethnic group. Some parents, especially the mothers, make such mistakes, because they have reasons to be disappointed in one way or the other in their marriages. This makes them to give wrong advice to their daughters, because their own marriage had similar problems, likewise, their daughter’s marriage will experience the same. It doesn’t work that way, particularly when the reasons are blanket reasons.
The daughter wants to marry from another tribe, and the mother says no, so the mother brings a man from the same tribe for her daughter to marry. The man only sleeps with the daughter and tells her that he is not interested in the marriage and the woman discovers that the problem of the man from another tribe may necessarily not be ethnicity. He has his own problems as well; he is not perfect, so we don’t need to judge or be hasty, because it happened to Mrs A or B, so it must happen to all other women. We should give our children the opportunity to live their own lives and formulate their philosophy about life. We tend not to remember that, beyond tribe and ethnicity, we are individuals with our own strengths and weaknesses. It is good for us to allow our children to explore and discover and make their own decisions about marriage.
Publishing houses are not ready to publish works of new writers, will you advise them to do self-publishing?
I support self-publishing, because the publishing house that I patronised did not tell me initially that they wouldn’t be able to publish my work. Although, we had an agreement which was not put on paper, we spoke largely on phone, because they were based in Ibadan, and I in Lagos. Apart from the initial commitment, which they put in writing that they liked my manuscript and wanted to get it published. I waited for them to get back to me, which they didn’t. I searched for them online, and saw some of their phone numbers, and was able to reach out to them. The commitment about a particular time frame was not there. They told me that they had some manuscripts, which they were working in 2014, and throughout that year, they wouldn’t do other things. They promised to do it in 2015, and I was happy, so I waited. One year later, they didn’t get back to me, and there was no progress report about the book. I called them again, and they promised to work on the manuscript, but I didn’t hear from them again. In 2016, I wrote them that if they had made up their mind not to publish my work, then they should return my manuscript, and that was when I got a response. They apologised for not contacting me for two years and said they would no longer be able to publish my manuscript, and they returned it to me.
I strongly support self-publishing, because publishers in Nigeria tend not to treat writers with respect and dignity. I sent my manuscript to the Nigerian publisher almost at the same time when I sent it to a publisher in United Kingdom. The Nigerian publisher’s response came some days later that they liked my manuscript and they are ready to publish and will get back to me. The UK publisher relied that they had received my manuscript and it will take them three weeks to assess it. Two and a half weeks later, I received an email from the UK publisher telling me that they had decided to accept my manuscript to publish it. They gave my manuscripts to some committee to go through, and they received the report, and concluded that everything was positive and they would like to publish the book. But I was excited that a Nigerian publisher had indicated interest to publish my work. I wanted my story to be published in Nigeria because it is a Nigerian story to be published by a Nigerian publisher. So, I discountenanced the UK publisher and went ahead to allow the Nigerian publisher to publish it; unfortunately, they didn’t. I was hopeful that, if they did it, they will be able to take it to Nigerian universities and promote the book. If I had known that the Nigerian publisher would not have published the book, I would have allowed the UK publisher to have published it. This made me to self- publish my work.
Which do you like writing better, shorter narratives or extended prose narratives?
Writing is a very difficult thing to do. I have heard people say they enjoy writing. Frankly speaking, I don’t enjoy writing, because it is tedious whether you are talking about short narratives or long narratives. But, of course, it is easier to write short narratives, but, for me, it is more difficult; how to hold a long narrative together is more problematic. You can write about something that happens within an hour and you complete it, because it is easier to put loose ends together. If you are writing a short narrative, you may not need settings or character, which depends on the particular story that you want to write. For a long narrative, you need so many things, and it takes you a longer period that you may have forgotten what you wrote in chapter one or two. You have to go back to them to see if everything flows together. For me, the long narrative is more challenging.
How did you feel when you featured as the author-of-the-month during the Department of English book reading in February?
It’s an experience that I will describe as amazing, because it was thoroughly beautiful. I didn’t know that it would be well attended. I felt very good, especially because, frankly speaking, I do not have money to do a book launch. I did not have hope that I would have the privilege to have a discussion on my book. When the Department informed me, I found it unbelievable and interesting for the privilege to be able to share my experience to the world. I didn’t know how my reading would be received so, I made up my mind not to worry about it. After the reading, people shared their experiences with me that it was good; they congratulated me and it made me happy.
What is your writing regimen like, considering that you function as a lecturer, you carry out research and you have to take care of your home?
Frankly, it is very difficult to write, because I have so much to do. Even before I teach students, I have to do some research. I have to grade scripts and write academic papers, because, if I don’t, I will remain where I am, and there will be no promotion. My duty in the university does not end at simply teaching; I have to do research, and doing creative writing is really difficult. The books that I have published were written before I got employment with the university. But my plan for my future writing is to take advantage of my annual vacation to try to write. For instance, when I am writing, I don’t want to talk to anybody, and I cannot do that in school, because my door is always open, and students are free to come in for one thing or the other. Even on weekends, I am in school to teach students.
Are there some challenges Nigerian writers writing in Nigeria face more than those abroad?
For an individual to be able to write well, he/she must read very well. They [abroad] have the advantage, because life in that part is ordered. They don’t spend much hours in traffic, like we do here, which makes them plan their lives better. Even when you get home, you are tired and there is no light, so you cannot function properly. For you to read well, you must have access to those materials, which are not available in Nigeria. An average Nigerian does not have access to quality materials that will inspire and motivate you and serve as a fountain of knowledge. When I was doing my PhD, for instance, I had to beg friends who live abroad to help me buy books, which are not available in our libraries.
If you want to write well, you have to read authors around the world. Do we have their books? We don’t. Even African writers, we don’t have them in Nigeria. Recently, I recommended a book to my students to get a book from a Zimbabwean author; they couldn’t find the book. How many people will have access to my novel in other African countries? If you are in developed countries, you will have access to a lot of books. Even our own books, we cannot produce them, because the environment does not help you to sustain your writing. When you do the first printing, you cannot do the next printing, because you are not likely to sell. Nigerian writers who are able to write should be commended because it is very tough unlike their counterparts abroad.