By Isaac Anyaogu
I knew I was in for an experience the moment I saw the guest list; Lola Shoneyin, Professor Akachi Adimorah-Ezeigbo, Joy Isi Bewaji, Seye Oke and Simidele Dosekun. If literature were a religion, I’d say I have been introduced to her most ardent fanatics.
Then again, it was purposely intended to be so. The 3rd edition of the monthly “Book n Guage” book reading event held at Debonair bookstore, Sabo, Yaba on August 27, was billed to be a melting pot of five amazing female writers from different generations, with different writing styles. Also the performers were ladies, they also had a lady moderator and the audience was about 90 percent female. I felt like an imposter the moment I walked inside the bookstore and had that feeling till I left at 5:15pm. The business of writing and publishing has become too important to be left up to men.
The event kicked off at 2:15pm, when the moderator Derin Alao, took to the floor. With her trademark dreadlocks, sage-like goggles, and a winning smile, she had the aura of effortless charm. She called up the guests to a set of sequestered seats in front of the audience and breezed through their profiles in a single breath.
Lola Shoneyin, author of ‘The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives’; Professor Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo, lecturer, writer, novelist, critic, essayist and administrator wrote ‘Roses and Bullets’. Joy Isi Bewaji, author of ‘Eko Dialogue’; Seye Oke, author of ‘Love’s Lie’ and ‘Debbie’s Diary’; and Simidele Dosekun, author of ‘Beem Explores Africa.
The moderator then ordered us to interact with them.
So for the next one hour the audience and guests were shooting the breeze as they rehashed the cliché about Nigerians not having a reading culture. You would think that half the time our youths besiege cyber cafes they were merely staring at computers. The event found direction when Tosin Otitoju asked a three-part question. Would President Jonathan’s ‘Bring Back the Book’ campaign herald the return of the golden era of books? Where do the writers get their stories? How do they hope to reach their market?
The writers said they get their stories from news stories, observing events and listening to people’s experiences. ‘The story of Baba Segi’s Wives’, according to Lola Shoneyin, was the story her brother’s girlfriend, a doctor who narrated the experience of one of her patients.
On why books do not occupy a pride of place in Nigeria, Lola Shoneyin blamed Nollywood and the successive military regimes. I can understand the military; books do not fit in their worldview. That’s why they shoot first and ask questions later. Some have phlegm as brain matter. Nollywood, she claims, allows for easy gratification and doesn’t need the intellectual rigor required to read books. She may be right, but then again people blame Nollywood for a lot of things; failed marriages, teenage pregnancies, poor examination results and even running stomach.
Seye suggested maximizing downtime to develop story lines. She said that time wasted in traffic jams could be better utilized developing story ideas. Only people sit in Lagos traffic with the kind of temper they need in Tripoli to oust Gaddafi. Curses are exchanged by very good Christian car owners and commercial bus drivers with stickers that say “Love thy neighbour”. Add LASTMA officials who have since replaced the police as the problem of our roads and you would agree that anyone who could develop a story idea on our roads can sleep through a storm.
Simidele Dosekun gave a chilling account of the horrors of selling a book in Nigeria. While there’s a renaissance in publishing and a plethora of emerging writers, distribution is, however, a task that could make a ‘saint sin with his lips’.
While there is acute lack of distribution infrastructure, new publishers, though with sky-high ambitions, have small marketing budgets and even smaller marketing ideas. Worse still, the pirates who have a better distribution infrastructure are waiting in the wings for a successful work to get attention before they descend on it like vultures. Nigerian Copyright Commission only proclaims her ‘Tigertude’ on paper. They carry out raids sometimes so as to look busy. Dosekun also said publishers are now thinking of cutting a deal with the pirates. They sell their books cheaply to the pirates and let them do the distribution. It is an idea as innovative as betting the house on the lottery.
The writers then read from their different books. Shoneyin read an excerpt of her work with way too much energy, that the microphones stopped cooperating. Professor Adimora-Ezeigbo read a rape scene from ‘Roses and Bullets’ in a voice so filled with sorrow you would think she was related to Ginika the raped heroin of the book. Oke read from the book, ‘Time to Heal’, an engaging story about two lovers, set during the Biafran war.
Joy Isi Bewaji read from her unpublished work, ‘What Pain May Bring’; the excerpt was on a prospective actress who had to drop her clothes before some wide-eyed film directors so they can determine if she fit the profile of the actress they needed. Since many in the hall were women, their sigh carried every ounce of vitriol. We, the few men present, listened with rapt attention. Of course it had nothing to do with Miss Bewaji’s excellent reading skill; we were thinking of killing our career guidance counsellors. Just how could they not have suggested a career like film directing?
Moving on, the audience were now invited to ask questions. Professor Akachi was asked about how she researched her historical fiction and she answered that she had to read historical works, personal observations (she was a young girl during the war), and asking people about the events. Another audience member nearly got himself lynched when he took the microphone and blurted an inchoate, downright brainless question that the guests thought to mean he was asking about the sexual orientations, (I didn’t understand the question myself, it was just a case of an ass loving to hear itself bray). The energy left the room and in its stead palpable outrage.
Shoneyin was gathering steam when another audience member, a reporter with Radio Nigeria intervened. She believed the questioner wanted to know how they were comfortable writing graphic accounts even though they were women. The questioner, now sweating profusely agreed and the guests reassured the audience they weren’t writing porn, just reality. “I should know,” Shoneyin said. “I have four children. You had to have sex a lot, and like it to have four children,” she reassured us.
Performances by Aduke and Aramide were a beauty to behold. With a guitar and a voice that could sing a storm to sleep, the audience were held spellbound. Only the microphone ‘rained on the parade’ as it developed a mind of its own and decided it was tired of all the spittle. Also, the young man at the sound system was unhappy that he was not fully utilized. He had all the DJ facility but there was no room for music and all the talk about books looks to be trying his patience. When the event came to a close at 5:00pm he began a full-scale assault on our eardrums. I fled the hall fifteen minutes later after managing to have Shoneyin sign my copy of her book. I had to scream my name five times before she heard me.