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

Sunday Trust - - ARTS & IDEAS - By Abubakar Adam Ibrahim And Af­ter Many Days

Many Days,

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

Con­ti­n­uned on page 31

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