Odafe is the author of Taduno’s Song, an audacious love story which goes awry in the face of tyranny that upturns the society in a military regime. From the place of music and its revolutionary power, Odafe sets the pace for a courageous artist who goes headlong into saving the lives of his people in an unflinching dangerous political terrain. Already, his novel has been translated into European languages. Odake, who lived in the UK for almost a decade before relocating to Nigeria, spoke to OLAMIDE BABATUNDE in Lagos on his breakthrough as a writer.
As a child, you interacted with your father through letters. Why was this so and was there any influence of this on you to develop your skill in writing?
As a child, I didn’t live with my parents for so many years, but when I went to live with my father, there was a gap in communication which made me unable to walk up to him to discuss intimate or personal issues. I had to put them down in writing to express myself to him. That, in a way, was my developmental stage and, subsequently, as I grew up, I wanted to take writing as a career; but my father was against him. I communicated with my father more through letters, even though he opposed my choice of career, but he was, in a way, unconsciously helped me to develop my arts, because of the letters that I wrote to him. It was a blessing in disguise, even though it was painful that, as a child, I wasn’t able to sit down to discuss with my parents.
How close are you with your son? Would you re-enact the relationship you had with your father to your son now?
My son and I are very close. He means the world to me and I relate with my son as friends. I am very conscious of that, and I make sure there is no communication gap between us; and it gives him self esteem in whatever he does. It is essential that, as parents, we build a relationship with our children.
How does the African society inspire you to create a unique and colourful work when mankind is consumed by the common desire for change?
As a developing society, there is so much going on in the African society. There is so much going on in our socio-economic life, and our cultural evolvement is being submerged which is in-tune with modernisation. All of these provide a situation where the writer/artist is filled with inspiration on various levels. We are a developing society, and our art plays a big role in that process, because every society that develops positively is driven by arts. There is so much drama in every facet of our society, which provides materials for me. It is a common knowledge that most artistes get their inspiration from their society.
How do you feel seeing that your work, Taduno’s Song, has been translated into German, Italian and Turkish languages?
It is a very surreal experience, I must say. Initially, I was praying to get a breakthrough to have my work published in English language, and it took me so long. I worked so hard to get that deal and, all of a sudden, within a short period of getting a book deal with a United Kingdom (UK) publisher, then offers were coming from all over the place for translation rights, which is really amazing. It gives me the feeling that I feel accomplished. If my works are been read in foreign languages that for me is just the ultimate. I feel deeply grateful to the creator that has made this possible.
Your novel, Taduno’s Song, tackles major universal themes of resistance in the face of a dictatorship’s oppression. How has the late Fela’s songs inspired you to write about oppression in the society?
It occurred to me at a point, long after Fela had died, most of the ills that he sang about in his music are still indelible with the Nigerian society. Most of the adults who lived at that time were very conversant with the development in terms of Fela’s clashes with the regime at that time. I thought that is necessary for us to remember that once upon a time, there lived a man who used his music as a weapon against tyranny or preached against societal ills. Our memories are very important and, by remembering certain things, we are jolted to action that these ills are still around bedevilling our society. So, I thought it necessary to write this book using Fela as an inspiration, to let people know that music/arts can transform the society positively. This is a continuous process and, hopefully, we will get to a stage where the arts will give us a reason as a society to pursue better values and ideas.
Taduno’s Song is about the power of the arts to transform society positively. It is story a musician, whose music liberates the society and a ruthless dictator (president). The musician goes into exile, because his music got him into trouble and, when he returns from exile, he discovers that his girlfriend has been kidnapped by government agents. The government makes a proposal to him that he should sing a song to praise them in order to save her. If he chooses to sing to praise of the government, then he would betray his countrymen, and he finds himself in a dilemma. Should he sing to praise the government to secure the release of his girlfriend or sing against the government to liberate his fellow citizens? Those are the choices that he was faced with as the story progresses. My book is a literary fiction. It is designed for a general readership regardless of their age.
Recently, you participated in a couple of book readings in Lagos. What was your expectation during and after the readings?
I was very impressed by the turnout, because, when you see young people attend book readings when they could have been somewhere else enjoying themselves watching a movie or football. I could see the keenness or interest in their eyes, the passion that they have for literature, and that touched me very deeply. I saw them buy my books and other books, and it shows that their quest for knowledge should be commended. People don’t buy books if they are not hungry for knowledge. After the book readings, a lot of responses via social media has really encouraged me. For example, one of the responses that I received was when somebody said, having read my book, he observed the echo of Fela’s life actually inspired my book, because most of the things Fela sang about are still prevalent in our society.
What kind of research went into writing Taduno’s Song?
I did not need to do much research into the writing of the book. All of these things are just there for us to see. We know the struggles, music, and it is something that I grew up with. When you talk about tyranny, it is right there in our faces. I took my inspiration from things happening in the society and my experiences in writing the book.
You aspire to publish your second novel, Wake Me When I’m Gone, before this end of this year. What motivated you to write it and is it a sequel to your first novel?
My second novel is not a sequel to my first novel. It is separate from my first novel. When I signed my book deal with Canongate, United Kingdom, they gave me a two-book deal, which means they tied me down to write a second book, as part of the contract, which is very good for me. It gave me the motivation to write the second book. I would have finished my first book, get it published and would have relaxed and, probably, not write another book for some years. But, because I was tied to a contract, which I had to deliver timely, I went to work on the second book and, good enough, I was able to finish the book well before the deadline. It will be published next month, in the United Kingdom and later in United States of America and Germany. Getting the book deal is good for me, because it enabled me to keep working. It was a good break for me getting the book deal, and it has enabled me to keep working. Presently, I am working on my third book.
Are you hopeful that your contract with these foreign publishers will be renewed?
I believe once you are in, you are in. All I have to do is to write a good book, and offers will come. My agent will determine which publisher gets the rights for the third book, because I am not tied to any publisher.
Is it that you don’t have faith in Nigerian publishers that you decided your books should be published by foreign publishers?
It is not a matter of faith but exploring. An author would write a book and look for someone to publish the work. You have to try both Nigerian and foreign publishers, and whoever accepts you through, you have a deal. You don’t have a choice as a writer to determine which publisher will publish your work. For me, before I got an agent, I would write a book and put it out for several publishers to publish my work; but, now, I will have to allow my agent decide which publishing firm that publishes my work.
Nigerian publishing industry is still developing, it is not as vibrant as you have in developed countries. They have more capacity to publish a lot of works, though Nigerian publishers are still trying to grow. The number of writers that Nigerian publishers can take is limited for now. Nigerian publishers are doing so well and, with time, they will explore and discover more writers. For me, if a Nigerian publisher comes to me that they want to publish my work, I will be glad for them to it. Having sold the rights to my first book to a UK publisher, also, a Nigerian publisher came and bought the Nigerian rights, which is good thing.
Many young writers are confronted with the issue of Nigerian publishers not willing to publish their works. As a writer, do you subscribe that young writers should do self publishing?
I will not encourage up-and-coming writers to go into self-publishing, because it limits them and, in the long run, it could be very discouraging for them. When they do self-publishing, they don’t get the type of reception that they expect, and it would discourage them from writing. Instead, young writers should keep writing good books and, at a point, a publisher will develop interest in their works to publish. They should keep polishing their arts, do the best that they can with their creativity and, when they are persistent, a publisher will take interest in their works.
You lived in United Kingdom for nine years without a breakthrough, but when you relocated back to Nigeria, you had an instant breakthrough. What was the secret behind this?
I think that it was time and chance. I lived in the United Kingdom. Trying to pursue a writing career was quite difficult. I would say that I did not commit so much of my energy in writing over there, but, coming back to Nigeria, I had more comfort to write, so I poured more of my energy into the writing process. I was very persistent in my efforts which made a difference. It is about time and when the right time comes, if you are pursuing your goal with passion and doggedly, you will get the breakthrough.
How would you describe your style of writing?
My style of writing is literary fiction. I write in such a way that combines interest of magical realism. Growing up as a child, we were told stories about masquerades and folklore, which we all believed in as little children. As a writer, these things come to play in our arts, so I mix various styles in trying to achieve originality. My style is influenced not just by writers alone but stories that I heard as an adult and as a child.