By Damiete Braide and Simeon Mpamugoh
The Faculty of Arts Boardroom, University of Lagos, was filled to the brim with students and lecturers from English Department as they came to participate in the monthly Book Reading session.
The author, Henry Akubuiro, The Sun’s Arts editor, read excerpts of his novel, Prodigals in Paradise, to the excited and elated audience. Head of English Department, University of Lagos, Prof Hope Eghagha, in his welcome address, described Akubuiro as a dynamic, active writer, reporter and editor, pragmatic and practical in his approach to reporting events in the arts world.
“Now, it is his turn to be reported and celebrated. He is not just a journalist but also a creative writer. As a creative writer cum journalist, he knows what slant to given to news reports. I have found his reporting very thorough, in-depth in The Sun newspaper and has chronicled creative writing events in reporting and his novel.
“He was the runner up for Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) Prize for Literature, 2016; and, in 2005, he won the ANA Literary Journalist of the Year while his juvenelia, Little Lizard of Okokomaiko, won 2009 ANA Prize for Children’s Fiction Literature, among other prizes.”
In his first reading, Akubuiro read excerpts featuring one of the major characters in the book –Nicodemus –how he arrived in Lagos and found himself in a notorious uncompleted building named Paradise (page 4). He told the audience that the story was written in present tense and only switched over to past tense when flashing back
He also read from Book 3, Page 46-47: the story of Pastor Job, who, in the quest to survive in a harsh Lagos environment, took to pastoral. His converts are paradise squatters with a quit notice dangling on their heads place; which in today’s Lagos can pass for urban slum.
During the questions and answer session, students asked questions bordering on what inspired the author to write the novel, how he chose the title, Prodigals in Paradise, what inspired the author’s style of writing, and his response the accusation of African writers’ depiction the single story of Africa being a place of where things don’t work well.
In response to the first question, Akubuiro gave an insight on how the story came about, and while the story became an imperative. He recalled that, in 2000, he had travelled to Lagos State after a long time of staying out of Lagos: “My father once lived in Lagos and, when he retired, he relocated to his state. Everywhere had changed, and I had to stay with a kinsman, who lived in an uncompleted two storey building called Aso Rock.
“It had all manner of characters who lived there, and some of the characters in the book are similar to the area where I stayed. I witnessed and heard stories from some of the residents there on how they survived living in Lagos. Unconsciously, I took note of what they told me and, when I set out to write the book, I had to make it more realistic.
“A paradise is supposed to be a place of perfection and solace. I set the story in 2000 and, then Nigerian society was transiting from military to civilian rule. I witnessed what happened in the society which was quite different from what people fought for. They fought for a better Nigeria, but, with democracy, nothing had changed. I used paradise to depict what a symbol of great expectation that went awry. In Paradise, the prodigals find it absolutely difficult to survive for lack of better opportunities.
On the style of writing, he noted: “I read widely. In the course of my job, I read a lot of books, I got books from Nigeria and outside the country, and I am fascinated by the style used by some of the foreign writers I read, which isn’t commonplace. When I wanted to write this novel, I decided to do something different from the norm, which made me, for instance, to use present tense and past tense to serve as a flashback.
“Some people complain of the elevated dection deployed, but, for me, in telling a story, the writer has to not just to tell the story but also to entertain the reader and engage them in learning new words. I made sure that I chose my words appropriately. I fancy embellishing my language being a poet, too. I think a writer hasn’t done much work if, after reading his work, you don’t learn new things and new words.”
On the stereotypical depiction of Africa by contemporary African writers, Akubuiro said the continent Africa was yet to attain a certain level of growth when compared to developed countries: “As long as Africans are still struggling to survive, grabbling with shady deals, there is no way that the writer is going to avoid depicting those instances.
“If anybody says that it is a stereotype in Africa, it is so because those things have not changed. They keep occurring every day, and our writers have to write about them. Until, those things change, it will be difficult for the writer not to write about them. A writer cannot write in isolation, because the writer is a product of the society that produces him, and has to depict what happens in his society.”
Reviewing the book at the event Ms Adeojo, Mosunmola, a graduate assistant in the Department of English, said, “The novel encapsulates the idea of contradiction and contrariness. Right from its title to characters like Prophet Ahmed Elijah, and acts of honesty being seen as failure, the Janus-faced Lagos becomes a touchstone for everything out of the ordinary.
“The characters are living a sham, because a prodigal in paradise should denote newness, a change of heart and repentance. However, ironically, these set of prodigals are a perfect fit for the paradise presented in the novel. With the politics of religion, supposed irrelevance of certified education and the irresponsibility of the government, Akubuiro paints a vivid scene of Nigeria’s present socio-political, economic and religious fate.
“Paradise is, therefore, a being; the victim which houses these ills and oddities so that it reeks of decay and anomalies. Above all, the book is a thought-provoking piece from an intellectual mind,” she submits.
Head of English Department, Unilag Professor Hope Eghagha while responding on the nexus between the city and the gospel said, “The gospel is situated in the cities and the average city is dynamic fleet and have access to persons of varied backgrounds: people who are exposed, and willing to listen. Another dimension is the social aspect; the fact that when one lives in the city, one is under enormous pressure and then religion becomes a tool that would help one escape from the day to day realities of the harshness of city life.
“There is a nexus between city and religion in the sense that it is a good breeding ground for pastors who have access to big audiences and, of course, it is revenue generating,” he said, adding, “The experiences and backgrounds captured in the novel and told by Akubuiro are based on personal experiences.
“Lagos is a very harsh environment and persons live below the poverty line, and we also have persons who live on the expensive lane: those who live on the very expensive side of Lagos like Banana Island, Ikoyi etc., and those who live in Ajegunle, Egbeda, new areas of Lagos and the rear, and persons who are not employed who just have somewhere to say.
“They are not called homeless but they are virtually homeless; the fact that they don’t have any control over where they stay, because, next day, they could be asked to go away. Coincidentally, in the department, we are doing a focus on Lagos stories. We are collaborating staff and students to do stories on Lagos experience. It is what I find fascinating,” Eghagha said.
On his impression about the event, Eghagha, who was former Commissioner for Higher Education Delta State, said that book reading sessions were part of literary editions of English departments across the world, adding that it was a way of creating platforms for authors to engage with the reading audience, particularly at the university levels.
Nzekwe Chika is a 400 level English student of the university. She shared her views about the event: “I feel privileged to be a student of the university while the literary series is still running. It has all through been an amazing journey: We get to meet the writers in person, hear from their experiences, steps and backgrounds to whatever stories they are presenting in their novels.
“The lesson that is that Prodigals in Paradise has succeeded in mirroring current event happening in the society in respect of the economy, even though it is presented as a house, but we know it is a metaphor for the country in general. And the ills that are experienced in the society; the extent people go in order to achieve certain things.
“Worse is the tragedy of the Nigerian youths and how they become unemployed and unprepared for the society. They are told to believe that there are greener pastures but when the so-called character, Nicodemus, gets on out there, he realises that, actually, it is not greener on the other side.
In the end, he has to adjust to it, because ‘This is Lagos!’”
Professor Kareen King-Aribisala, Dr. Patrick Oloko, Dr. Chris Anyokwu, Dr. Lola Akande, were some of the lecturers present during the reading.