Soji Cole is the winner of the 2018 Nigeria Prize for Literature sponsored by NLNG with his play, Embers. He is an instructor of Playwriting and Theatre Sociology in the Department of Theatre Arts, University of Lagos. He has written extensively for stage and screen and has directed a couple of films. He has won various awards like The International Federation for Theatre Research New Scholar Prize in 2013 and the African Theatre Association (AfTA) Emerging Scholars Prize in 2011.
His work, Maybe Tomorrow, made it to the longlist of the Nigeria Prize for Literature in 2014, which later won the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) Playwriting Prize that same year. Some of his works include My Little Stream (2010), Ghost (2014), Bambo Bambo (2014), Maybe Tomorrow (2014) and War Zone (2017).
In this interview with DAMIETE BRAIDE in Ibadan, he reveals winning the Nigeria Prize for Literature will spur him to write more award-winning books.
At what point did you take to creative writing and what was the motivation behind it?
My love for literature started when I was in primary school, and it endeared me to every form of storytelling in every kind of literary genre. Writing, for me, started in the form of liberalised environment or peer influence when I was in junior secondary school. I wanted to do some of the things that my classmates were doing, and writing was part of it. It was never like a future prospect then but when I kept writing and when I gained admission into the university, I felt that I could actually take to writing. Since then, I had set up my mind to be a writer and I aspire to that every single day.
My Little Stream is your first published novel. How did you situate the crux of the matter?
It is about a character who came into Nigeria from the United States of America (USA) after spending several years. He came home to respond to a certain message that he received. Right from the airport to his village, he was in a car and was wondering about the development that had taken place over the years. Later, he observed that what he came home for could easily have been taken care of if he sent money for that purpose. Rather, he came in for a reason entirely known to himself. Before he travelled out, he lived in the village, and there was a certain stream that he went to commune with the fishes there but when he came back, he noticed a bridge has been built there, the stream and fishes all gone and he became sad. I tried to explore the opinion that if we are not careful about civilisation that sometimes it is capable of wiping out nature.
You went on to write Ghost in 2014….
The book is about a character who is sleeping and dreaming and how he experiences so many things. He thought he was dead and saw people crying in his house. At a stage, he decided to go to a corner to urinate and, while he was urinating, people told that he couldn’t urinate there. At that moment, he woke up, and saw his mother telling him that he had urinated on the bed again.
What inspired you to write War Zone in 2017?
The book is similar to Ghost, but, in this case, it is about a character who sleeps on the bed and farts. At one instance, he was dreaming that he was in a war zone with some soldiers and they were shooting their guns, but, unknown to him, he was actually farting, and his friend had to wake him up that what was wrong with him that he had been farting all these while. He later woke up, and was ashamed.
What triggered the curiosity to explore the story in the award-winning Embers?
It is the Nigerian question that we all ask every day. It is the question that I always ask in my works, and it is the question that I expect that every discerning Nigerian should be asking. What have done wrong? Why do we have these kind of leaders? Why are we so fated to have this abysmal construction in our polity? It is that question that actually triggered the writing of Embers. It was the same thing that triggered the writing of May be Tomorrow that made it on the NLNG longlist in 2014. It is the same question, but, then, when you are provoked each time to ask this question as a writer, you have to look for a creative locale to establish your provocation. The Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp provided me the setting that I need to ask the Nigerian question once again –that was what actually triggered me to write Embers. It is the plight of IDPs in a particular camp, whose community have been routed by the Boko Haram insurgents. I actually decided to use mostly female characters to depict the reasoning that when people are displaced from their communities, there are some population that suffer more than the other. The population include children and women, and that was what I established in Embers. I did intense research on the work, which confirms that children and women suffer more unlike what the men suffer during that period.
What was going on in your mind on the eve of the NLNG award announcement?
It did not start that night but when the longlist was announced. There was this kind of anxiety that built up inside of me. When the shortlist was announced, the anxiety turned into a condensed form of fright. My contemplation was like somebody who was at ease, because I knew the other writers on the shortlist were people whose writings have quality. So, I had that innate happiness that my work could compared with these people. As at that moment, I didn’t care if my work was crowned as the winning work or not. But, then, people kept sending me messages, and there was these complimentary remarks after the messages that we were expecting you to win and bring back home the prize. Then, I felt awkward and burdened that people expected me so much from me. My students would come around me and tell me that that play must win and, then, the intense level of fear began to manifest. On that night, I had thought that I would attend the ceremony and switch my mind off; unfortunately, it was a very long programme, which actually intensified the fear in me. The fear became prolonged, and it was a night of certain level of heightened anxiety and, when the winner was announced, I was very happy and excited.
How do you intend to spend the prize money?
I have not completely made up my mind on how to spend the money, but I know a very large percentage of the money would go into some form of human developmental programme. It will go into things that will produce more positive things. For instance, investing in some of my students who are brilliant writers; it is something that I aspire to do for a long time. There are so many things that I have planned to do for some people and with some groups, and this is the right time to do these things for them.
Will the NLNG award spur you to write more award- winning works?
It is a challenge that, when you win this kind of award, people are eager to look on your next work. They want to ascertain that winning the award was not just a frivolous enterprise. They want to be certain that you weren’t just lucky. They want to confirm that you are a writer that, indeed, has arrived on the literary scene. There are a lot of expectations from me, and that means that my next work must balance or overweigh Embers in terms of its literary effectiveness.
Do you feel more burden as a writer now that you have won this covered literature prize?
As a writer and a person, I feel very more burdened, because I am an introvert. I am an individual who wants to do my activities and go away. Within the night of award and how, I have gone through some intense form of publicity that I never imagined and used to. The signal keeps coming that there will be more of it. I feel more burdened, because the emphasis is more on the prize money and the writer; rather, I want the emphasis to be on the book. I have proclaimed to people that people that they should read the books and proclaim to the judges that were they right in selecting this play as the winning play. Were the judges biased? People should be able to throw up such conversations which will help the prizes better so that the judges in future will be careful that peoples’ verdict will matter after the winner has been announced. These are the kind of things that people should be engaging and not harping on the writer becoming a millionaire overnight.
What is your writing regimen like, considering that you also function as a lecturer?
There is actually no regime for me to write, because I am not a full time writer. There is no full time writer in Nigeria, what we have are writers who have other vocations which actually pays their bills. You face that vocation more than writing. I write only when I have the time. I am hoping that I would just a very good regime for writing. I am hoping that I can schedule time that I can write. My day is always full and exhaustive. Every day, I move from one classroom to the other to lecture, and, in the evenings, I go for rehearsals, and when I get home, I am tired and exhausted. It is so difficult to write. When I wrote Embers, I had to take two weeks leave and, even at that, I couldn’t come up with three or four pages. So, I had struggle my way to eventually write the play despite the schedule. It is a very tedious atmosphere for writers,because you have to do your work and get your bills paid. I would prefer if I have fulltime to write. I believe my works will come out better if I have the liberal time dedicated to writing.
Are there some challenges Nigerian writers writing in Nigeria face more than those abroad?
There are overwhelming challenges that writers shouldn’t even face in Nigeria. Nigerian writers cannot help some of these things, because they are societal, cultural, political problems. For example, the electricity problem in the country equally affects writers too. One of the problems that I faced while writing Embers was the lack of electricity. I would go to my office thinking that there would be light for me to work overnight and, suddenly, the light goes off, and I won’t be able to work. When I get home to make use of my generator, the noise from it gives me an irritating feeling that I won’t be able to write. There are so many problems for writers and, at the end of the day, writers manage to write and then how many people get to read these books? People have started to read my works, because I have an award-winning book. When I published other books, people don’t bother to read them, it is a very big problem for writers. I tried my best by putting up everything to write a book, I solicit for money to publish and, after publishing, I will have beg people to read the works; it is a difficult situation for writers.
How has the environment influenced your writing and why do writers write about their life experiences in the works?
It is very difficult for writers to divorce their life experiences from their works. Some of the materials the writers make use of is storage of knowledge or previous experiences, which help their writings. Writers should be careful not to let these emotions override the context or context of what they are writing. This is creative writing, and not a biopic or autobiography or memoir, but we are writing fiction, and we must be careful to put that emotion in check while trying to use that stored knowledge of our experiences. Every writer aspires to write from what they see in their environment and how the environment treats them: those are experiences that affects writers. The environment is a great influence on writers.
Before you set out to write, do you have any target audience in mind?
I just want people who understand and love stories to read my works –those are my target audience. Also, people who love language, which is the propellant or vehicle with which you tell the story. I am looking at the vehicle bringing the people more than the people the vehicle is bringing. It could be the nature and texture of the vehicle, then I begin to consider the people inside the vehicle. Language and then the story. People who have understanding, affinity and they look out for true details are the people that I really prospect for my works.
What is the role of literature in this era of social media?
Social media itself is a form of literature, but we are talking about a different literature in the context of where language is woven to write direct stories. There are beautiful use of language on social media, too, but the texture of sensationalism is actually what is killing the type of literature that the social media does not have over the real literature. Fortunately, now, we have a generation that aptly focuses more on the literature of sensationalism than the real text of literature. It is overwhelming; it has undermined the real course of literature, but, then, we are beginning to have some safe haven. Some books are been turned to visual stories or films, which has prompted some people to go out and look for these books to read. We must find a way to balance these things. Social media may not go no matter what we do, which means literature ought to have a form footing to be able to withstand the pressure of social media.