Ayodele Olofintuade made her writing debut with Eno’s Story. And with just that one children’s book, the graduate in Mass Communication has made it to the shortlist for the 2011 Nigerian Prize for Literature. Ayo speaks about writing from a young age, the publishing industry, her writing contract with Cassava Republic, and her unpublished works.
Why children’s books?
I am always trying to reach out to children. It is not that I don’t write other genres, but I easily get across to children and I have written more children books. I have a 13-year-old and when he was much younger, I use to buy him books. In the course of doing this, I found out there were few good books out there. The books that were available were badly written and not interesting. That need ignited my interest in writing children’s books.
So, what’s ‘Eno’s Story’?
The story is about a girl that is accused of witchcraft by her uncle. It’s a typical story of what happens in places where there’s a strong belief in witchcraft. Children are branded witches, beaten up, chased out of the house, and sometimes murdered. Akwa Ibom State is battling with this issue, for instance.
Did you experience any of these first hand? How did you get the inspiration to write this story?
I didn’t experience it. It all started on the Internet, on Facebook. My publisher at Cassava Republic put up a post and it was taken from there. I also read about Stepping Stones, a charity that takes care of the victims of this belief and from there I got more information about the subject matter. I decided to write a book about it and I also decided to do it under the children genre.
I didn’t choose writing. Writing chose me. I must have been four or five when I started scribbling things down. Right from the time I could string words together, I started writing. And there has never been a time from that time, I cannot remember anytime I stopped writing. I have written across a lot of genres, I have a blog and from time to time, I write short stories. So it’s not as if I concentrate only on the children genre.
What influenced you that early to start writing?
Well, my mother encouraged me a lot when I started writing. She used to buy me a lot of books. Even my step father, before he died, used to encourage me too. In fact, when I considered studying Banking and Finance, my mother told me that I would make an awful banker – like I would lose people’s money or run into trouble somehow. The fact that there was no form of discouragement from the beginning helped me a lot.
How many books have you written?
Eno’s Story is my only published book so far. I have a contract for six books with Cassava Republic.
What is really the problem with the reading culture in Nigeria? What/who is to blame?
I think the problem is the publishing industry and of course, we have our own economic issues. And it is pretty bad these days. Take for instance, I am a writer but I am not making money from writing. This fear has now spread and very talented people are afraid of going into writing full-time. Again, there is no quality control in the industry. What should happen normally is that, when a publisher decides to publish a book, s/he will look at how good the book is. Even the educational level has gone way down and so we don’t have good enough writers. It’s simply a vicious cycle.
So Nigeria doesn’t have a viable market for writers, right?
Yes. But the years will come when things will get better. That is when you will see writers sit down at home and write full-time. And that is when writers will be making millions of naira. For now, however, it is not a good business. It is a poverty-stricken business.
In all honesty, what do you think are your chances of winning?
I’m sincerely not concerned about winning. What I am trying to get is publicity for my publishers. I want to use this nomination to get people to buy my books. Having said that, I’ll say everyone has a good chance of winning.
Did you expect to be selected among the top three when you sent your book in for the competition?
The thing is, I didn’t send in my book. My publishers did. They sent me a list of competitions and asked me which I would like for them to send the book in for. So they sent it in for the NLNG Literature competition. I wasn’t expecting much from it because I said to myself that I wasn’t the only author who sent in a book.
So what was the feeling like when you not only got the nomination but you made it to the top three after all the judging stages?
That I even made the initial list of 126 authors made me extremely excited. I was over the moon when the book was shortlisted. And now that it has made the top three, I am just praying. But I’m sure that initial excitement is more than enough.
Have you met the two other contestants who have been shortlisted with you?
Yes, I have. Mai Nasara is a fantastic guy. I didn’t know him before this competition, but we have met several times because we have had to do interviews together. I have also met Chinyere Obasi and we have connected in many ways. She’s a mother just like I am. We have a lot of things in common and talk a lot.
If you ultimately win the grand prize, what will it be like for you?
I will be very happy. I have a lot of financial issues that the money can solve. Apart from that, I would like to build a library for less privileged children. I have this particular orphanage I have my eyes on. I also know about a foundation that buys stuff for less privileged children when a new school session is about to start. If I get the NLNG money, I will push some of it into both places.
If you win the prize, what will change about you?
It will not change anything about me. The only thing is that I won’t have to wait too long to pay off bills like school fees and things like that. There will be money to just make pending things work. Generally though, it will not change anything. It is not too much money. It is just good money.
What do you think about NLNG’s initiative to reward writers every year?
As far as I am concerned, they are the company that does the corporate social responsibility best. A lot of companies are sponsoring dance competitions. Others even gather people together in a house for some days. They don’t do anything in the house but eat and sleep and at the end of the day, they pick a winner and sign a huge cheque for them. Some do acting and modeling reality shows. Any country that seriously wants to make good progress should invest in books and the publishing industry. That’s not the case, as most companies choose to promote entertainment so they can sell their products. What NLNG is doing is that they are identifying people that have skills and rewarding them.
What book(s) are you reading at the moment?
Elechi Amadi’s The Concubine, Unnatural History by Jonathan Green, Night and Day by Virginia Woolf, and Mathilda Bone by Karen Cushman.
Who are your favourite writers?
I love horror, so I like writers in that genre. I like to read anything from Dean Koontz, Stephen King, Ben Okri (I’m also currently reading Famished Road by him), Helon Habila, and Toni Kan.
If you didn’t end up a writer, what would you have been doing?
I don’t know what else I would have been. I can’t imagine not writing or not being a writer.
Any of your kids showing signs of following in your foot steps?
Yes. I have two kids – one is 13 and the second is 2. The 2 year old has a rather strange artistic behaviour. He crawls up to my laps every now and then and turns a book upside down for me to read to him. The 13 year old actually draws. And I’m absolutely looking forward to him illustrating my works soon.
Do you have any new book coming out anytime soon?
Yes. I have a series I am working on. It is called ‘Double Trouble Series’. It is about a set of twins, Toyin and Kela who always get into trouble. The other main characters in the book include their friend, Kelish and a magical creature, Irin. With the character of Irin, I am trying to bring back the mystics in the Yoruba folklore. I have already completed work on one and it is currently under editing. I suspect it is going to make me more controversial than Eno’s Story did.
So how can the reading culture be resurrected again?
Firstly, we need funding for publishing. It is even then that the books will become cheap and of course, authors will settle down to write better books. Also, it is not about having schools. These schools need libraries with well-written books.
Where do we expect to see you in another year?
I expect to have published more of my books. I don’t want to be famous or superstar. I just want to make people lead. Y!