8 Questions for E.C. Osondu, 2009 Caine Prize Winner & Author, Voice of America

Nigerian writer and 2009 Caine Prize Winner, E.C. Osondu is well-known for his short stories, which have been published in AGNI, Guernica, Vice, Fiction, and The Atlantic. He was in Lagos and Port Harcourt last month for a series of book reading events for his debut offering, Voice of America, a collection of short stories shortlisted for the 2011 Commonwealth Prize for Best First Book (Africa region) and recently published by Kachifo Limited, publisher of Farafina Books in Nigeria. Voice of America is set in Nigeria and America. The plots move from boys and girls in villages and refugee camps to the disillusionment and confusion of young married couples living in America, and back to bustling Lagos. In this very straight-to-the-point exchange, the 2011 Pushcart Prize Winner shares with BN Editorial Assistant, Gbenga Awomodu about his new book and inspiration for writing.

When did you consciously begin to write fiction, and which writers and books had vital, early influences on your writing?
I’ll have to say I began reading fiction many, many years before I ever tried my hands at writing it. And the first thing I wrote wasn’t even fiction, it was poetry. I think I read lots of books growing up. King Solomon’s Mines, Montezuma’s Daughter, Little Women, Chike and the River, An African Nights Entertainment, etc. As you can see from the list, these were books with a strong sense of narrative. Narrative is of course central to my own writing.

Why did you leave your advertising job in Lagos to focus fully on creative writing? What factors helped you make that decision?
Even while in advertising I was still double-dipping so to speak. I was very active in the Association of Nigerian Authors and served as Vice-Chairperson of the Lagos chapter under Kunle Adebajo. I was also writing and publishing. But I think if there was one single factor it must have been the internet. I began to read the works of our own writers and many other writers online. I also began to read about creative writing programs. So you can blame the internet.

What positive habits and lessons did you bring along from writing ‘copy’ into your new endeavour?
You must grip the reader by the scruff of the neck, get their attention. Nobody is going to park their car in order to read your billboard. Even the best creative work can be killed by poor presentation. Criticism is hard to take, but learn to accept it if need be or just grin and bear it. More importantly have fun with your writing. Not necessarily in that order, though.

In the short story, Nigerians in America, the narrator’s dad suddenly turns towards her to tell her, “You have picked up enough wisdom for one night – you had better go to your bed”. How much of your childhood experiences do you infuse into your stories?
Not so much. But growing up I was always fascinated by the way people talked, their inflections, verbal tics and speech mannerisms. I recall that we gave adults nicknames based on their speech mannerisms- a favorite visitor to the house was nicknamed-You don’t mean it-because that was his stock response to every statement or question e.g. “Our daddy is not home.” – You don’t mean it, “I was first in my class” –You don’t mean it, etc.

Voice of America was a great read for me, and I never used the dictionary for once throughout the collection. Was the simple language deliberate and how were you able to achieve that?
It was deliberate. I think complex ideas can be expressed simply.

In VOA, you mostly write from a female’s point of view, whilst largely taking a swipe at the male characters. How much of a feminist is E.C. Osondu?
I am very much one. I think it makes us more deeply human. Living in the U.S. has made me more aware of the need to take the side of those that society offers limited choices either because of their race, gender, ability or disability etc.

After receiving the Caine Prize in 2009, you said Africa was yet to have a master of short stories. How close are we? How close do you think you are to becoming one?
Not there yet, but hoping and working at it nonetheless without despairing.

Where should we be hoping to see E.C. Osondu in the next five years?
I’ll continue to write. A novel and hopefully a book of creative non-fiction.

Thanks for your time!

Photo credit: Victor Ekpuk (www.untitledbooks.com); www.belindaotas.com
_____________________________________________________________________

This interview was first published on BellaNaija.com.

Ababuo: Another Night in Lagos (A Short Story)

Gates of Ghana, Hear our cry
From a distant land, afar
Tomorrow, may we awake in Accra

“Hello lady, can I help you with your luggage? Those bags must weigh two tonnes!”

Ababuo turns back in search of the strange voice. Wow! An albino in Ghana!? She thought to herself. “My name is Appiah, may I know the name that suits this beautiful face?” the albino adds as he reaches to relieve the young lady of the heavier of the two bags.”

“I am Ababuo,” she smiles revealing her endearing dimples.

“What a coincidence! That’s my grandmother’s first name. Where are you headed?”

“I am looking for the GUFFS hostel.”

“Oh! You must be fresh on campus. That hostel is popularly known as Brunnei…” Appiah seems to be really popular here because almost every twenty seconds, someone calls out to greet him. If it is not one beautiful girl, it is a group of young guys strolling together, or some non-teaching staff… Light rays from the midday sun collapse midway on the albino’s bald head and Ababuo thinks she can see pieces of her own image staring back at her. She remembers how when she was only five, she thought Albinos were from Albania. Albania, a country she discovered in one of Papa’s big books, the one that contains the maps of the world. After some minutes of walking, Appiah announces, “Welcome to the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Kumasi, Ghana!”

“Ababuo!” Mama’s voice tolls from the back yard. “Aba-buo-oo…!” she calls a second time, then a third, her voice now approaching a crescendo.

“Mama… I’m coming!” Ababuo snaps out of her dream. She crawls out of the old rusty bed, accompanied by the jingling of tarnished springs, dislocated out of joint. Tired and still sleepy, she yawns and squints in the dark room. She feels the side of the bed, and the window sill for the torch. Outside the window, the day has suddenly sung itself into evening. The evening comes in slow steps, its star silvery and solitary on the girdle of the early night. She saunters out of the door, into the dark night which now engulfs the backyard like the devil’s parcel. She staggers and navigates the curved path to the kitchen, amidst rooms unconventionally scattered on both sides of the tiny passage. She walks somewhat unsteadily like a blind man feeling his way. She is led by a glimpse of the red glow of kerosene lantern down the path and the beam of light from her torch.

Night falls upon us

Photo Credit: Tosin Poluyi

As she draws close, the sweet aroma of peanut soup wafts along with intrusive smoke from the cramped dingy kitchen. “The soup is ready. Let’s make the fufu.” Mama pours the boiled starchy cassava and plantain into the giant, wooden mortar and pounds it into a glutinous mass, stirring to the limits of her endurance. She dumps a cup of the mixture into a wet bowl. Ababuo shakes the dough almost till eternity until it forms a smooth ball with sticky, slightly resilient consistency. She serves the fufu on five platters alongside the peanut soup. She takes Papa’s dish – the largest of all the platters – into the living room, and makes for the frontage where Papa and her two siblings are seated. Under the moonlight, Papa, a poor pensioner and head of a family scraping by on a single income, shares banters and stories from the good old days with friends. The kids in the compound listen, enthralled by the golden gloom of the past and the bright-hued hope of the future. They also enjoy the stories about Anansi, the legendary spider. She walks at an even clip towards her father, takes a turn around him, and whispers to him from behind, Papa your favourite is ready. Papa smacks his lips, then brings his Ghana-Must-Go story to a close and excuses himself. Five minutes later, power supply is restored to the street. Everybody, young and old, diffuses into thin air.

Two hours later, darkness descends on the community! The television flickers into nothingness. Ceiling fans whirr to a stop. Ababuo sighs, gasps, and laments as she reaches for the match box. She lights the kerosene lantern and her candle, opens the windows, and lifts the curtain for a release of fresh air from the street. The air is raw and pointed. She studies strenuously for another hour before the candle chills out. She cringes with pain in her heart. The stifling room continues to heat up as the smell of fossil fuels laces the air. At 12 am, the wail of a trio of power-generating engines in the compound gives way to the loud singing from a Pentecostal church, four blocks away. They must have started another series of vigils. Ababuo slips under the clammy sheets. She catches a glimpse of her Ghana-must-go bag as she tries to find sleep on the wafer-thin mat. Then she sees rivulets joining into streams on the forehead of every occupant in the room.

Many times, she wishes Papa had left when her people were forced out of this country. She hears of her native land’s progressive strides, how even Nigerians are now trooping to tap into the good of 21st century Ghana, and the fast pace of economic and educational development back home. She has learnt to see in the dark and think through the noxious fumes. Every day, she prays for success in her final secondary school exams and hopes for a bright future in a Ghanaian University. As she finally surrenders to a fitful sleep, Appiah the albino turns to her, “So Ababuo, what course have you been admitted to study?”

Guest Post: Welcome the Rain – A Short Story by Adetola Onayemi

“And it shall come to pass afterward, that I shall pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions.” – Hosea 2:28

The wind blew across the crusty earth, evidence of the perennial drought that had besieged the land, forty-eight months and still counting. The inhabitants of Ile-aye sauntered with their heads bowed while the river moped as its lips ran dry.

A middle-aged man whose white ears cuddled like wet cornflakes approached Ijo Village, trudging on dead logs, dried palm fronds and carcass. He stared awhile at the villagers, particularly those making little ridges for the grasses. Grasses had become vegetable in this hard time; at least they were more resilient. Yet, they were watered once in three days. The man walked towards them nonetheless. He looked plush, and well-fed. He was wearing a spotless white robe and had a smile etched on his face.

The villagers stopped tilling the farm as they gazed at the man. Questions ran through their minds. Who was he? Where was he coming from? How come he had ruddy cheeks and looked well-fed? The children ran towards him. He dipped his hands into his bag and brought out akara snacks for each of them. How did he get that much food for all the children? The villagers looked on with adoration in their eyes. The man walked on still, pressing with each step into the centre of the village, towards the gathering at the centre of the village. There, a man named Oluso-agutan taught the villagers from the Book. The congregation at the village square murmured in low tones; they were bored, but feigned attentiveness. They failed in their attempt to encourage the speaker and attract more villagers to join them. They had lost their fervency and their face dropped, revealing their hunger, boredom and frailty.

As the white-haired man arrived at the village centre, people made way for him – a path leading to the centre of the gathering. He sat down on the stool, and they all sat around him. He turned to Oluso-agutan, and asked, “Do you know Me?”

“No, sir, I don’t know You; can we meet you sir?”

He turned to everyone. The multitude had begun to increase in number because word had gone round the village about the strange man.

“Does anyone know Me?”

There was silence. A few whispers could be heard. Then, a hand shot up. It was a young woman reputed for her eccentricity in the village.

“You’re Iyanu.”

He shook his head in disapproval.

“That’s what you’ve being looking for, but that is not the answer to life’s emptiness.”

She replied, “But they told me once I joined Ijo, I would overcome life’s emptiness. It was that way for a while, until some four years ago.”

“There’s more in the life you are to live in Ijo than just some activities. That’s why the activities drained you of strength, yet you had no source to replenish you.”

Just then, a small boy walked to the centre of the circle. He spoke up as he drew nearer.

“I know you sir, you are Him of whom the prophet spoke of in Joel; you are Him whom the master promised will make our lives and fellowship with Him to peak like the mountain top. You are Emi Mimo”

Emi Mimo smiled, and stood up, saying: “You have all remained this way because you refused to read the testament as you should, and ask of me of whom your master spoke. I was around all along to guide you into all truth, but you failed to see me. I am here because that young boy read his testament and asked for me. That is the reason the rains have refused to pour: because you have left the business of the master undone to minister to your own needs. You have become people chasing after the order of Ile-aye.”

The people all fell to the dusty earth, and began to weep, each asking for forgiveness. They lifted up their voices to the heavens as they confessed their iniquities.

Just then, it began to drizzle. Rain descended in small pellets. Many people stood and ran into the rain in jubilation. After the celebration, they went into the comfort of their huts. As soon as they settled down, the rain stopped. “What happened?” they all asked, as they hurried back to meet Emi Mimo who had been waiting under the juniper tree at the village square.

“Did you wonder why it stopped raining? Firstly, how many of you prepared your soils to receive the rain? Even if it was not prepared, will it not be wise for you to till the earth even in the rain. Must the rainwater go to waste? Never squander the master’s resources. Emi Mimo’s power is meant to bring in harvest; it is not for you to just revel in. Secondly, you all went into your huts; this is what has made my presence tarry this long: because when it poured in time past, every man used it for selfish ends – furthering his own course.”

He continued, “In Ijo, there ought not to be any huts, divisions or denominations. You are one. Thirdly, for how long did you even stay in the rain to get drenched and purged? The moment it came, you started moving. Ought you not to cultivate yourself, just like you cultivate the land? There is dirt: I need to wash off your bodies. But some never stayed in the rain. You press into the depth as you remain in the rain. That is why it is expedient you tarry in the rain. Your master said He needed to leave so that I could come to lead you into a time of truth and power, and ensure that people all over Ile-aye can worship your master from anywhere, even as they remain in the rain.”

The rain began to pour down heavily on every inhabitant of Ile-aye even as he spoke.

“Stay in the rain and learn of me.”

Emi Mimo rose among them. Oluso-aguntan took the Book and began to teach the now increasing church. They held their hoes firmly and put their cutlasses to work even as they remained in the rain.

This piece was originally published in the 2010 Edition of Campus Mirror, an annual magazine of the Lagos Varsity Christian Union, University of Lagos, Nigeria and has been slightly modified. Tola Onayemi studies Law at the University of Lagos.
________________________________________________________________________________

Keywords: Ile aye: the world; Ijo: the church; Oluso-aguntan: shepherd or pastor; Iyanu: miracle; Emi Mimo: the Holy Spirit.

Photo credit: www.rnw.nl; www.badgermeetsworld.blogspot.com

Optical Illusion: Flash Fiction by Moyosola Tugbobo

Boulevard

Courtesy: www.masterfile.com

I zoom in to the glassy window from the vantage room on the ninth floor. I notice some movement.  Suddenly, the spooky procession comes to view. All decked in black, each member of the solemn gang stretches out a white candle. The white torches and the light they bear seem to be momentarily fixed as the clique trudge on in deafening silence. Questions and emotions hang like wet clothes in the damp air. What has happened? Why the sad look on their faces? I zoom closer to resolve the mystery that has now piqued my curiosity.

There in front is the big one. I quickly assume he is the leader of the cult. He leads the long crooked file holding on to an object – it looks like a picture frame. Someone must have transitioned to the world beyond. Eeyah! It must have been a dearly beloved brother or sister. I strain my eyes further; maybe I could just view the image on the picture frame. I do not see a human being; it isn’t a gorilla either… Alas! There in the frame is a soldier ant! The other men in black are nothing but soldier ants. Soldier ants armed with dirty white grains of sugar.

“Hey, Time’s up boy! I want to lock the laboratory,” the Lab attendant’s stentorian voice jabs my middle ear, sharp and peremptory. I quiver, withdraw my head, and promptly drop the magnifying glass – my window into the world of the black insects. “Good day, sir!” I mutter as I avoid staring for too long into his eyes and walk briskly out of the laboratory. I hurry down the stairs, and unto the dancing sunshine of the summer afternoon. Sunshine and smiles.

I cross from left to right on the boulevard, my shadow bobbing in front of me. The leaves rustle as the birds flutter through the trees, some singing melodiously, others squawking. The air smells of melting bitumen as heat waves form a pool of water form a mirage. I recall the adventure at the Lab and think to myself: Tomorrow, I will return to Insectopia.

Moyosola Tugbobo is a freelance writer who lives in Lagos, Nigeria. She studies English (Arts) at the University of Lagos.

Edited by: Gbenga Awomodu