I didn’t think anyone would be interested in my book, says award-winning writer
Jowhor Ile became the first Nigerian to win the Etisalat Prize for Literature (now 9Mobile Prize for Literature) in May this year when his debut novel, clinched the pan African award. The Port Harcourt-born writer talks about how winning the prize has be
Were you surprised to win the Etisalat Prize for Literature?
I was. Mainly because I had refused to think about possible outcomes. It could have only led to anxiety and I really wanted to enjoy being on the shortlist, doing the book events and meeting readers. By that evening of the main event, the buildup was nerve racking; I don’t think I enjoyed that very much. So yeah, when I heard my name, my eyes probably popped.
is your first novel and with it you became the first Nigerian to win the Etisalat Prize. Do you feel any pressure or expectation now to write an even better book?
No, I don’t feel pressure in the particular way you’ve put it. I want to write the best books I can. I want to write decent sentences and stories that matter to me, and that is a source of daily joy and struggle. I also know it’s futile trying to play to anyone’s expectations. A different set of judges for the Etisalat Prize might have chosen another book as winner, so then what? Do you then decide to write the type of book that has won a prize? Do I want to write a better book? Yes. Has the Prize been a source of encouragement to me as a writer? Yes. It’s also important to note that without any prize, I would still be trying to write my best sentence or story.
How did writing come to you generally? How did you discover writing?
By the time I was nine I had stories in notebooks, complete with designed covers. It’s something I’ve always done. Being in boarding school probably exacerbated my condition. I wrote letters full of longing to my family and friends. I kept journals. It was while in boarding school that writing became a regular activity in my life. But you And After know everyone wrote then; everyone who read plagasrised the stories they liked best.
Indeed, they did. What has changed in your life since winning the prize?
My bio now has “Winner of Etisalat Prize for Literature 2016.” I hope the prize has helped to introduce my book to a wider audience. My friends don’t let me complain anymore about being broke, and I think that’s completely unfair. My family is manifestly proud-the key word being “manifestly” as I like to think they have always been proud of what I do. But my winning the prize has given them bragging rights and I’m pleased they have it.
Speaking about the book itself, it starts off as a crime novel with a child gone missing. And then it settled into a quiet meditation on life in a middle class family. Were you very clearly about the direction of the story from the beginning?
I’m never clear about the direction of my writing. My own task, which is a difficult enough one, is to keep writing and to trust the process. Besides, certainty bores me, it makes me lose interest. I think that every story decides for itself how it wants to be told, that in itself is the story, the how of it. For me being clear about process has little to do with the cohesion of the story, which is what I think your question is subtly hinting at.
And After Many Days is very much what I wanted it to be. If some readers find some disturbances in the structure of the story, those are built in and very much part of the work. Whether it succeeds or fails is another matter. There has been all sorts of clamouring about this, which I have found baffling. The structure isn’t unusual at all or daring. It works within a certain tradition. I’m actually happy for readers to have their own opinion about the book, but to be told by a reviewer, as I have been, that something purposefully designed is actually a sort of mistake or oversight makes me think, did you get any of it at all? But then again it never looks good to see writers rise in defense of their work. I wish someone else has written this book then I would have provided a strong defense as an antidote to these noises.
True indeed. Some writers are inspired by events, some by nostalgia. In this book, I felt that you were in a way trying to preserve memories of growing up in the 80s and 90s. What moved you to write this book and at what point did you decide it should be a repository of those early memories?
All of the above for me, and more. And you are completely right. It appears to me now that I used the novel as a repository of memory. Which is not to say all those events actually took place, but rather as a space to reimagine the past. It is a little difficult now to go back to where my head was at when writing this book. There was a lot of nostalgia, longing. It was also at a time where what we call “Niger Delta Militancy” was on the rise; economically, socially and politically, the place I come from was being brought to ruins and I was in mourning. I had hope too. I think the act of writing is in some way to insist on life.
I didn’t think anyone would be interested in this book. It was not the sort of story some people thought I should be writing. Someone whose opinion was supposed to matter asked why I thought readers in Nigeria or anywhere would want to read about rural life or why couldn’t I set the book in Lagos, which, in their opinion, was now what contemporary Nigerian fiction was about. I had only two chapters then, I simply looked away and did exactly what I wanted, and here we are. I hoped it would get published, I wished for it to at least get published, but I told myself I would write something which even if it didn’t get published, I could leave it in my drawer and if I found it in twenty years time, I wouldn’t be ashamed of it.
So I filled the book with things I loved. That was why I was particularly moved when I saw Binyavanga Wainana’s blurb for the book, because even though the story has some dark material, but everyday while I wrote it, I said to myself “I will fill this book with things I love.”
Ile says he was surprised to receive the prize
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