The New Gong Magazine

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'Writers Shouldn't Self-Censor,' Says Umez

By Henry Onyema

How and when did you become a writer?

How did I become a writer? That’s one good thing I have to say about Abacha’
s dark regime. His era was fraught with lots of ASUU strikes and other
anomalies, but during this period, I think in 1994, I stumbled upon
Shakespeare’s sonnets and his complete works in an omnibus version in a
late uncle’s library. And I was instantly drawn into poetry and literature. I can’t
quite remember exactly when I started writing, but I am sure I became very
keen on writing in 2001 when my first poem was published in Daily Champion.

How and when was your first book published? What were the challenges?

My first book was published in 2004, a poetry collection titled Dark through
the Delta. It was a self-publishing effort, sadly, as is almost the norm here in
Nigeria. The challenges I faced then are still the same challenges many
aspiring Nigerian writers at home face even today. You know, the publishing
industry for creative writers is practically absent: no established publishers,
insufficient professional editors, no literary agents; in fact, the entire structure
that aids, facilitates, and promotes creative writing in Nigeria is not there –
although we are beginning to experience a very few attempts by some
indigenous publishers but still these are a mere scratch on the surface.

Who and what are your literary influences, both Nigerian and non-Nigerian?

By literary influences, I suppose you mean literary greats. I don’t have any
particular literary influence because I am a sucker for any good writing,
whether fiction or non-fiction, poetry, whatever literary piece of writing I
happen to lay my hands on. As one established writer once told me, read
wide, read deep. I have been particularly inspired by some contemporary
Nigerian writers.

You seem to have a flair for short stories and children's fiction. What does it
take to write for children? How can an adult enter the world of kids and
teenagers and write what appeals to them?

I wish I had the flair you speak of. But writing remains a struggle for me in
many ways. As you know, writing in any form or genre is tough, so children’s
literature – for instance, writing for children within ages 8-12 – is no
exception. I am of two minds when it comes to writing children’s fiction,
anyway. Sometimes, I think it’s just fun to write; other times it is a grind,
maybe because you have to relive some childhood memories while writing, or
maybe because you have to filter your diction so that it becomes much more
accessible: a little less full of nuance.
For me, what it takes to write for children is interest and delight. You have to
be interested enough in their own world, regardless of how simple and bare it
appears and to throw yourself into that fantastic world, and be barefacedly
delighted by their own ideas and viewpoints in that world. In this world,
imagination is much more essential than logic. I feel strongly that if you want
to write for children you must first read a good deal of children’s literature and
be attentive, as well as observe children in action. Also, it would be helpful if
you could draw on some of your childhood memories as you plot out your
scenes and write your story.

Do you think Nigerian writers of children's fiction are doing a good job? Why
don't we have a Nigerian writer of children's fiction in the class of JK Rowlings
of the Harry Potter's series or the venerated Enyid Blyton?

I think they are doing a good job, considering the stack of odds against the
Nigerian writer at home. The odds are quite immense, where do you start
from? Now, I don’t know why we don’t have writers in the class of Rowlings or
Blyton. How many writers are in the class of JK Rowlings anyway? What you
should know is that every writer has his or her own distinctive thematic
engagement and dream.  

In recent times post-military era Nigerian writers' blazing success at winning
accolades seems to have dimmed. In the most recent Caine outing we did not
win. We made the shortlist in the various categories of Commonwealth prizes
yet won nothing. Are we losing our bite?

I don’t think prizes define the strength of Nigerian literature. And not winning
any of the prizes on offer at last year’s Caine Prize and Commonwealth
competitions by a Nigerian does not diminish the richness of Nigerian writing.
The important thing to note is that there is a strong tide of young Nigerian
writers embracing writing, becoming much more keen and expressive, and
that is what uplifts my spirit any time, any day - not the prizes. As some writers
would say, prizes are merely added incentive, perks that may come your way
or not.

What impact has being a finalist in the 2007 NLNG Literature Prize had on
your literary career?

Whenever I look back on that time, I always feel a sense of privilege. Yes, I
was indeed privileged and honoured to be shortlisted alongside Mabel Segun
and Professor Akachi Adimora Ezeigbo, two Nigerian literary greats. For such
a privilege coming up especially early in my writing career, just six years after
I had decided to take writing a little more seriously, I think that was a mighty
big boon.  

Contemporary Nigerian writers like Jude Dibia and yourself are unafraid of
taking on 'taboo' subjects in your work. Dibia's first novel 'Walking Shadows'
is a searing expose on homosexuality among Nigerians. The same applies to
your short story 'A Night So Damp' published by Farafina in its short story
anthology in 2008 and ‘Fragile’ published in Daughters of Eve, another short
story anthology in 2010 by CCC UK. Are you an advocate of gay fiction in
Nigerian literature?

I have to commend Jude Dibia for his audacious debut novel. He’s one writer I
so respect for his commitment and craftsmanship in writing. Beside that, I
think writers should not be afraid to explore and tackle any theme. Writers
should not feel constrained or self-censor themselves while writing. Our
writing should be able to at least throw up issues that can engage the public
and society at large.

It is well known that writers tend to be eccentric, especially when they are
creatively aroused. How does your family cope with your writing?

Whether you are married or not, whenever you are writing you just don’t need
anyone around, not even your lover! It’s certainly not easy writing at home
where you have two children who are both curious and adventurous. There’s
this short story by Igoni A. Barrett which vividly captures a writer’s experience.
My wife is very understanding anyway, even when I am stuck in one of my
grumpy moments. All the same, I try to find a balance between writing time
and family time.  

What is your latest book? Is it in the bookshops?

A children’s novel titled The Runaway Hero, about a 9-year-old orphan boy
who flees the orphanage because he can’t stand being picked at and bullied
any longer, but unfortunately for him he ends up in the hands of kidnappers.
Much as I am an enthusiast of fantasy stories I like to write stories of children
that give a picture of the gritty aspects of urban life in Nigeria. As for the
distribution of my latest book, Jalaa Writers Collective is making concrete
efforts to get all its titles – recent novels of Odili Ujubuonu, Akachi Ezeigbo,
Abimbola Adunni Adelakun and Jude Dibia –into bookshops across the
country. The Runaway Hero should be available before long.  
At just thirty-five Uche Peter Umez
(fully known as Uchechukwu Peter
Umezurike), a senior staff of ABC
Transport Company, Nigeria, has
earned himself a reputation as one
of Nigeria’s leading post-military era
writers. Given the colossal
challenges Nigerian writers face in
getting their voices heard Umez
strikes one as remarkable with the
publication of more than four
books, numerous Nigerian and
global awards, grants and
participation in prestigious writing
programmes such as   the
Commonwealth prize for short
fiction  and the Iowa Writing
Programme, USA. His first book, a
poetry collection titled ‘Dark
through the Delta’ earned him a
review as ‘a poet distinguished not
only by the easily demonstrable
honesty of the compassion and
social commitment he expresses,
but also by the highly evocative
powers of his language, his
inventiveness and the compelling
lyricism of his poetry.’ In this
interview with Henry C. Onyema,
a teacher-turned-freelance-
journalist, Umez provides
insights into his writing career
and other issues related to the
literary enterprise in Nigeria.