The New Gong Magazine

Publishers of New Writing and Images                                                    
Challenge of History
By Henry Chukwuemeka Onyema

When Eghosa Imasuen’s first novel, To St. Patrick, was published in 2008 it
generated much interest, even misunderstanding, among the Nigerian literati.
Many readers did not know where to place it. Was it a backhanded biography
of General Murtala Muhammed? A thriller? Science fiction? Or a fantasy?
What exactly did the medical doctor-turned- author mean by a genre novel (as
he describes it) and what did he set out to achieve with a novel that depicts a
very different Nigeria? In this interview with Henry C.Onyema, Eghosa, one of
whose short stories featured in The New Gong Book of New Nigerian Stories,  
talks about his groundbreaking first novel, his literary career and how he has
become the standard-bearer of the Warri literary identity.   
                      
How and when did you become a writer?
I started writing earnestly in 2005. Before that I was what you would call a
voracious reader. But this was mostly easy reading, you know, sci-fi, pulp
fiction. I had tried a few of the classics, books I found on the shelves in our
library at home: Ngugi, Achebe et al. I started writing proper in 2005 after a
challenge thrown down by my mother. Mommy had been concerned that, five
years after graduating as a medical doctor, I had sort of let it all go, satisfied
with doing what was expected of a first son, i.e. not disgracing my parents,
passing my exams, practicing in a quiet clinic in Warri. I had not taken time out
to develop my profession, I had not written any of the post-grad exams for
specialist courses. And she suggested after seeing a magazine article on
Adichie, that I try writing; that I was always good with stories, always had my
head in those books, why don’t you try writing one? So I did. I had this story in
my head, borne of a lifetime of immersing myself in weird fiction, of an Alternate
Nigeria where things worked, where we took a slightly different turn in the road.

Who are your literary influences?
I think my influences were writers like Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick, Neil Gaiman,
Alan Moore, the sci-fi greats, genre-blurring, reality-bending, all. I also must
acknowledge the prose of Adichie as having an effect on my writing: the
deceptive simplicity, the honesty shorn of flourish.

To St. Patrick is described as a genre novel, an alternate history of
Nigeria. It is the first of its kind in this country and has attracted a lot of
interest, even misunderstanding. So what is ‘alternate’ history? Why
did you write To St. Patrick and what determined your choice of title?
Alternate History is a genre of speculative fiction where the writer takes an
original timeline (OTL), finds a point of divergence (POD), i.e. Nzeogwu’s coup
succeeding, the Germans winning WW2, anything, and plotting an Alternate
Timeline (ATL) from this POD. I consider the main aim of fiction to be the
chance to comment on the human condition. So your novel, no matter the
genre, must examine humanity, must contain emotional truth and honesty. So
with To Saint Patrick I wanted to comment on the Nigeria of today. I wanted to
examine our immediate past and in that way speculate on our future. So To
Saint Patrick occurs in an Alternate Nigeria where Murtala survived the
assassination ‘attempt’ of February 13, 1976. It is 2003 in this Nigeria. The
second republic is still on and the many political parties of that period have
conflated into the two main parties, the NPN and the UPN. I play with a lot of
history, threading a timeline that I believe to be possible had Murtala survived.
The title of the book is from the Catholic Mission in Asaba, as most of the
flashbacks in the book take the reader back to the events of October 6-7,
1967 during the early months of the Nigerian Civil War. The title is also a play
on the little-known fact that Saint Patrick is also the Catholic patron saint of
Nigeria.

Did you do some research for the novel? What is the link between
research and imagination in this novel?
There was a lot of research for this novel. Because it is Alternate History, a
mixture of fact and speculation, I had to make sure that I got the real parts
right, better then to accentuate the contrast between these and my
speculations. I visited the National Museum in Onikan; I spoke to my mother,
whose father spent the later parts of the war in a federal jail as a ‘Biafran
collaborator’, I also spent a month in Asaba, interviewing survivors of the
Asaba Massacre. The thing about research and imagination is this: by studying
what really happened, I found new ways in which the story could evolve. It was
a revelation, and it also confirmed the witticism that truth is stranger than fiction.

To St. Patrick has this nostalgic political undertone of what Nigeria
might have become. How politically and socially committed are you in
your literary engagement?
Yes it does, doesn’t it? I am one of those angry young men, the beer
parlour/armchair critics of the establishment. I make noise, and am thankful
everyday that I found a way to make my voice heard. In the case of putting my
money where my mouth is, I was involved in the last two elections in one of my
home states, Delta State, campaigning for a progressive candidate for the
House of Representatives. We lost. But it was a wild, eye-opening, ride.

What was your publishing experience like? Your view on Nigeria’s
publishing industry and the challenges faced by new writers?
The more I look back the more I understand that I have been one of the lucky
ones. I was halfway through the first draft of what would eventually be To Saint
Patrick when I travelled to Lagos and bought two books by a new Nigerian
publisher. The books were Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and
Everything Good Will Come by Sefi Atta. I was blown away by the books, the
writing, that voices so close to me in age could be so assured, so skilled, so
honest. I think I almost trashed that early draft when I got back to Warri.
Anyway, I looked at the publisher. It was a new imprint called Farafina by a
Lagos firm, Kachifo Limited. I copied out the address on the inside and sent in
a query letter; one-page, single-spaced, straight-to-the-point, to the address.
After a month of not hearing anything, I called the number in those first editions
and was told to send an email. I was shocked when, a few days later, I was told
to send in the first 50 pages of my manuscript, monotype font, double-spaced,
please. I did and they liked it. This was in late 2005, less than four months after
I started writing. So a year later I had signed a contract (royalties, no payment
on my part, not one dime collected from me) and my novel came out in August
of 2008. This is the way it should be, slight variations notwithstanding, for most
writers, but sadly it isn’t so. The few businessmen who have decided to tackle
publishing are stretched thin by the demands of the business. So we have new
writers demanding to be heard and most of them are forced to self-publish or
to use subsidised publishers (which is just a kind of self-publishing). And
quality is mostly sacrificed. I should know. Even with the editorial issues seen in
the final copy of To Saint Patrick, I know how many things twere caught by the
in-house editors. The marketing, the book readings, the paid-for trips to
reading around the country. I could never have done that on my own. I have a
good relationship with my publisher. But I am also aware that many writers
have not been so lucky.

Do you think the avalanche of awards being won by Nigerian writers is
good for our literature, really impacting on our literary growth? Has To
St. Patrick being nominated for any prize?
I have not won any award, haven’t been shortlisted for anything. I admit that I
do think about it. If you have heard me anywhere saying that I do not need
prizes to validate my writing, my skill, my voice, then I was lying at the time.
Prizes are good for acknowledging when someone has done well. They also
help, at least those with monetary attachment, in taking care of bills, in clearing
up debts accrued over the lonely months one was working, dodging landlords,
not answering phone calls from unidentified callers. In impacting on our literary
growth, these wins have had an effect of letting the young writers, even those
who do not consider themselves writers but with a story to tell, believe that
there are those out there who would listen to what they have to say. Of course
the argument ad absurdum leads to accusations of writing to prescription, of
writing for prizes. But the market, the reader always decides who is good, who
is honest. So let everyone write; there will always be diamonds found in the
rough.

Can a Nigerian live on writing?
No. Capital N O, no.

Going through some of your short stories and essays one notices the
colourful influence of the unique Warri brand of English and identity. Is
it right to call you Warri’s literary ambassador? Are you doing for
Nigerian literature what your kinsmen in show business are doing for
Nigerian comedy?
Warri’s literary ambassador. That is funny. [Laughs]. Yes, I grew up in Warri, a
city renowned for sharp-mouth. But look at the fiction produced by my
contemporaries: the most vocal part of the country is not heard at all in our
writing. I write from what I observed growing up. I try to translate what I saw into
words on the page, within the boundaries of prose. And I find that we aren’t
many doing this. But them dey out there, the real Warri literary ambassadors,
and soon you will hear of them.

You are a known face on the Nigerian writing workshop circuit. Do you
think writing workshops have anything to offer Nigerian writers and
the country’s literary development?
Writing workshops assure you that you are not alone. They enable sharing of
techniques; they articulate those intangible thoughts you have been having,
they give them form. But a writing workshop will not teach you how to write. You
get that from reading. From reading a lot.

How do you juggle the demands of your medical profession, your
family and writing?
The thing about medicine, as told to me by one of my teachers—an
anaesthetist—is this: it is mostly long periods of boredom, waiting for the next
case to walk in the door, interspersed with moments of intense madness. I write
during those long periods of waiting, between emergencies, between exams,
between patients. My family has been very supportive. They wait for me. I
thank them for that.

Any words of wisdom for up and coming Nigerian writers and our
government on how to develop our arts and culture?
Writers should just write. Do not procrastinate. Put it on paper. Study what
others before have done and tell your story. Do not worry whether it is original
or not. Tell it honestly and it will be original; it will be uniquely yours. For the
government, I think they should protect the publishers. A solution needs to be
found to the piracy problem. The business needs to be protected.

When are we expecting your next book? A peek into what it is all
about?
My second book, a novel, will be published by Farafina later this year. It should
be out before November 2011. It is titled Fine Boys and is set in the mid-90s, in
the time of the great university riots, the Abacha years, the university gangs,
the confraternities, the fine boys. I enjoyed writing it and I hope the readers
enjoy reading it.