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From the Magazine: #TheNigeriaPrizeforLiterature- And the winner is…

 The Nigeria Prize for Literature, driven by Nigeria LNG Limited, has announced the 2011 shortlist for children’s literature – and we go on the trail of the three in the running for the prize

Of course, I hoped and am still hoping to win. To be otherwise would be to misrepresent the human race! True, you can’t live on hope; but you cannot live without it.

 by Ifreke Inyang 

Mai Nasara is the pen name of Adeleke Adeyemi. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree as well as certificates in television and leadership studies. He believes strongly that the stories people tell have a way of taking care of them. And based on this belief, he is working to set up a network of children’s libraries across Africa, starting from Nigeria of course.

His first children’s book is “The Missing Clock”, and it has earned him a nomination for the NLNG 2011 Literature Prize. Before all of that however, Mai Nasara had done a play for radio called “‘The Mandate”. He spoke with Ifreke Inyang on his background, his work and the future.

 

Why do you write with a pen name? What’s your real name?

So that you would come up to me to ask ‘Why’! That way we have a talking point, a conversation starter, right away! My pen name serves me and the causes I have taken on.

I am a man driven – by convictions, by a quest for meaning, a desire to make a difference where it is most needed. The first thing about us, which precedes us to the scene, is our name which is a canister for our character. Mai Nasara is traditionally rendered together and it means essentially the same thing as my given name, Adeleke, which is not any more real than Mai Nasara.

There’s only a linguistic divide to bridge. Mai Nasara is Hausa – which I grew up as and find my identity wrapped up in. Adeleke is Yoruba, a heritage I’m proud to share with the linguistic trailblazer and more, Ajayi Crowther, the man of God from and for these parts who gave shape to the Yoruba tongue. And he also spoke, among others, Hausa! Did you know that? It’s a scandal that most Nigerians do not know that the reverend gentleman is grandfather of Herbert Macaulay, the father of Nigerian nationalism.

What is your book, The Missing Clock , about?

Quite a few interconnected things. The book tells the Reversal of Fortune (or ROF) story of a family; how its members learnt to look inwards for a cure for prejudice and, as a boon, found the power to overcome the difficult times that were upon it, the proverbial rainy day. The Cosmos always rewards repentance.

For me, the most important component of The Missing Clock is the fact that everything was set in motion by the most important member of the family: the child. Which must come from either the light you see or the heat you feel, as a mentor, Adewale Adefuye, would say. Equally important is providing a setting where there’s a father who is leading by example and a mother who recognises that her husband and her are part-owners (what we say simply as partners) of each other’s life and endowment. Something they twain are to hold in trust for the next generation.

What inspired you to write the book?

I wanted to tell a story children could share with the adults in their life. Instead of the verbal abuse we see around. And I reckon the more topical the story, the better to get and keep the attention of grownups, who more often than not like to act grownup by being news junkie. So, with the ongoing food crisis (‘Haven’t you heard’?) I found my hook.

And which family doesn’t want a way out as ‘more money’? My nine-year-old protagonist’s boast is that the story is all about “How I made my parents rich – very rich”; indeed it is as a result of some puerile venture he embarked on half a decade prior when he was four.

I think families should work on their sense of history – personal and family history. Not just Nigeria’s history or the world’s. As Gandhi keeps us reminded, everybody thinks of changing the world, not themselves. That seems a taller order!

Surely, everybody knows that ‘the stories people tell have a way of taking care of them.’ That’s a sentiment I hold strongly to, what a certain Barry Lopez put into words for me. I see needless poverty all around. We waste the most important resources: persons, time, relationships.

Everybody has something, an endowment, from God, to bring to the table, to be turned into sustainable living, indeed into having a life, beyond mere livelihood. And then making a difference. And I believe the most important context in life is the family, which is why I am a conservative on the matter of traditional family and other values.

Why writing?

Why not writing?! To write is to be a voice. Writing, for me, is a way to get it right – the message you have been given to get across. The writer is a prophet of sorts, someone who is speaking for someone or a cause, to point the way to a course of action. The world is stuck in the rut of prejudice, among others. Hence motions do not necessarily translate to movement. This state of affair is fuelled by clichés, which paint in the mind soothing yet strangling stereotypes.

For example, highly schooled people who hold everything to do with religion in derision are unwittingly given to a highfalutin version of prejudice. The story of The Missing Clock is an example of how religion can be a force for good. “All writing,” the novelist and essayist Martin Amis said, “is a campaign against cliché. Not just clichés of the pen but clichés of the mind and clichés of the heart.” I’m in agreement 101%.

If you were not writing, what would you be doing?

Full-time teaching and pastoring.

At what point in your life did you become certain that you would end up a writer?

‘End up a writer’ – that sure has a certain fateful ring to it! At some fundamental level, we do not determine our calling in life; we discover it. God in Heaven appoints each person’s work. They may keep the appointment – or disappoint destiny, as is more often the case, for some inscrutable reason. As Bob Marley sang in his ‘Natural Mystic’ – “Don’t ask me why”!

Looking back, I suppose the moment was when I took up the challenge to enter for an impromptu essay writing contest in Form One, that’s JSS 1, at Government College, Katsina (GCK) in the Katsina State capital to which the family had moved from Natsinta suburbs. All I can remember now is that the topic was something to do with the police. Interestingly, many years down the line I’m still writing about the police! There is a fair, I think, and positive treatment of the police in The Missing Clock.

What were the reaction from family and friends when you decided to become a writer?

My first degree is in Geology from Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, one of the foremost Geosciences schools in Africa. So everybody expected me to try for an oil company upon graduation! It’s the survival instinct in our people, I think. But people can and should thrive and not merely survive, I keep telling folks. You will thrive if you abide in the calling whereto you are called.

Which do you derive more pleasure from: writing or science communication?

I communicate science whenever I write. Well, I hope I do! Writing is a vehicle for getting across on common ground what I feel compelled to point out and share.

In your opinion, is writing a big deal/business yet in Nigeria?

Not yet. We could borrow a leaf from the Americans or even the French. Or even closer home from the East Africans, particularly the Kenyans, who have a quite impressive thriving book business going, especially children’s literature which is my genre of primary interest. My late friend Ezekiel Alembi, an accomplished Kenyan writer and renowned academic, shared so much with me in this regard.

How many book adaptations into films have you seen? How many translations have you seen, apart from the Bible? Of course we should be grateful for this. But why not have it serve as a catalyst? It was in 1938 that D.O. Fagunwa wrote his epic Ogboju Ode Ninu Igbo Irunmole. It was an entry for a literary contest organised by the education ministry. It would become the first novel to be written in Yoruba, one of the first to be written in any African language.

Our own Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka translated it into English in 1968 as The Forest of A Thousand Demons, and “thereafter wisely gave up my ambitious project to translate all his works, so taxing did I find the density of his Yoruba usage!” Indeed, many a speaker at a memorial lecture I once attended in his honour referred fondly to Fagunwa as “the first Nobel Literature Laureate Nigeria never had.”

He was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in 1959. Yet Fagunwa wrote high fantasy well before J.R.R. Tolkien (The Lord of the Rings) and C.S. Lewis (The Chronicles of Narnia), both published to worldwide acclaim in the 1950s and ever since.

Fagunwa is a ready example for me because a common thread running through his works that I believe remains relevant is his thesis that knowledge, wherever it is to be found, should be acquired for the general happiness of all, especially knowledge of science and technology.

Are there signs that your daughter might follow in your footsteps?

Yes, I’ve had dreams about it! Seriously, I’m counting on genetics here; since I took after my mother in this regard, I’m hoping Semiloré will be taking after her father! Her mother, my wife, is more mathematically inclined.

Is the quality of children’s books declining? If yes, what is responsible for this?

My main concern is that there are less and less fantastic tales, I think. And books less well edited! By fantastic I mean fantasy, mind you. As for quality, there are authorities to judge and make pronouncements. Parents want to be told these things; generally they set out to act in the best interest of their children and wards.

When you submitted your book as an entry for the NLNG-sponsored competition, did you ever think you would end up among the top three?

Alexander Pope’s ‘Essay on Man and Other Poems’ says it best for me: “Hope springs eternal in the human breast; /Man never Is, but always To be blest. /The soul, uneasy, and confin’d from home, /Rests and expatiates in a life to come.”

Of course, I hoped and am still hoping to win. To be otherwise would be to misrepresent the human race! True, you can’t live on hope; but you cannot live without it.

What ran through your mind when you made it eventually to the top three from 126 initial entries?

It was a most down-to-earth moment for me. I felt humbled and maybe a little scared – now I’m going to be scrutinised a little more intensely! But gratitude mainly, that what I had to say, what I have to say, now has wider acknowledgement and acceptance. I do indeed have a message, one that I am most keenly aware of.

What are your chances of winning the grand prize?

Statistically speaking, that’s rather easy: one in three! There’s another applicable permutation though should the panel of judges reach the conclusion that there should be joint winners of the prize this year.

What do you know about the other finalists?

Kindred spirits, all! We’ve been working closely since we got introduced. On a project. Details later!

If you win the grand prize, how will that change everything for you?

The accreditation will open doors, I hope. It should give so much more torque to my talk. I’d love to see the present book, ‘The Missing Clock’, adopted by the authorities for inclusion in the school curriculum. What I really think is for all the books on the shortlist to be so treated, thank you very much.

I’m sure you already have plans on what you would use the prize money for. Tell us about it.

I have a girl-child education initiative that needs to take off the ground. That’s all I’m permitted to say at this point. I’m a firm believer in exercising a sense of limits. There’s my anti-malaria drive as well.

What do you think about Nigeria LNG’s initiative to reward outstanding writers every year?

Highly commendable and really important to national development, I think. The spotlighting will do real good for career writers – if relevant government agencies came on board to lend their weight to the objectives of the Nigeria LNG Company. And individuals, too!

Where is Nigeria’s Andrew Carnegie, the 19th century Scottish American industrialist, who built 2500 Carnegie libraries in the United States (1700), as well as in Britain, Ireland, and Fiji, for example, to build a network of libraries, for copies of the books that make it to the shortlist to get widely placed? We’re not working in concert as a people. We could be on to a good start by taking our cue from the gas company’s laudable initiative.

Which book are you reading at the moment?

Motley, actually! There’s Dinesh D’Souza’s What’s So Great About Christianity, for one. I’m re-reading (studying, I should say) Mitali Perkins’ Rickshaw Girl and James Rumford’s Silent Music. I just downlaoded the script of the animated movie Shark Tale to read; it is work related. I have a marine fable in mind to write.

Who are your favourite writers?

But I’ve been mentioning them! Please see the foregone. I haven’t mentioned, though, Philip Roth, and from Nigeria: Philip Begho, Seffi Attah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Jude Dibia. Afghan-American medical doctor writer Khaled Hosseini; his 2003 debut, The Kite Runner, is simply a tour de force. The late writer and filmmaker Michael Crichton with his Jurassic Park groundbreaking work is a trailblazer with a storytelling act that’s tough but highly enticing to follow.

What’s your opinion on the reading culture in Nigeria? How can it be improved?

Culture is simply the set of habits you cultivate. In words aptly spoken by Nanjala Nyabola, a Kenyan political analyst presently at Harvard, “Culture is the product of the adaptation of people to similar environments or historical processes and not something essential.” If only we could have a network of libraries, children’s libraries, to which intensely interested corps members are deployed on primary assignment; with a mobile arm in every local government area of the federation. Then would our people begin to see books and the swapping of well-stories, not mangled gist from Nollywood nullities, as normative.

Only then will we have a saner society with made up of persons with finer sensibilities. Until then we would remain bereft of enabling and ennobling values like a work ethic that would quite simply have no place for layabouts taking centre stage. Whenever I see agberos at Oshodi making (more like snatching!) money—in full glare of children, no less – for absolutely no work done, I’m reminded of our poverty as a people, something the cultivation of reading the world’s best stories is sure to cure. We would learn, for example, that money is worthless unless there is a value proposition in its exchange.

Where do we expect to see you in a couple of years?

Writing – scripts and music scores – and making movies, in particular animated ones. And, oh yes, also teaching.

What advice would you give someone who wants to become a writer?

What I wish I knew from long ago: Write every day. Learn the craft from the world’s best. How? Read them regularly as class work.

 

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