Interview with Richard Ali, Author Of City Of Memories
Richard Ali is the Editor-in-Chief of Sentinel Nigeria Magazine, and of recent the Author of City of Memories, published by Black Palms Publishers, Lagos. In this interview with Folarin Olaniyi of Book Republic, Nigeria, Richard ruminates on his experience at Ebedi Writer’s Residency and also dares to tread where the angels fear – The Ahmed Maiwada and Rotimi Babatunde saga.
BOOKREP – Sentinel Literary Quarterly is a brainchild of Nnorom Azuronye. How were you able to convince him to sell the Nigerian rights to you?
RICHARD – Thank you for that question, Folarin. Sentinel Nigeria Magazine is the brainchild of my publisher, Nnorom, and even more than that, it is the child of the Internet and social media. It’s set up and operation has not followed the traditional style of magazine publishing—you know, of bidding for territorial rights and all that. I first interacted with Nnorom in the late 90’s when I was a member of his vibrant Yahoo List serve, Sentinel Poetry, now defunct—I say “interacted” because I have still not met him physically, even after 11 issues of the Sentinel Nigeria Magazine. I was then a young poet learning from the Sentinel Poetry Bar—it was an online hangout of the oft called 3rd Generation of Nigerian literature, that delightful crop of the late 80’s and early 90’s who for exile and various other reasons, found themselves in the Diaspora in the 90’s. The poet, Lola Shoneyin; NEXT Editor, Molara Wood, Nnorom, Amatoritsero Ede et al, Obiwu and Olu Oguibe if I remember correctly—these guys were all there. And younger people like I and Adebola Rayo were the poetasters on the sidelines learning and improving our writing.
Years later, when Nnorom decided to set up a Nigerian magazine, he tapped me out of the blues—I just got an email from him introducing the idea and I was as ecstatic as I was interested. And that’s how Sentinel Nigeria Magazine started. It is a Nigerian magazine of the Sentinel Poetry, Artists and Writers Network [SPAWN] which has been registered locally and internationally, and which owns several high quality magazines, including the Sentinel Literary Quarterly published in the UK. I am Editor-in-Chief of the Sentinel Nigeria Magazine and Administrator of the website www.sentinelnigeria.org
BOOKREP – How have you profited in any form from publishing Sentinel Nigeria?
RICHARD – I have profited immensely from publishing the magazine. I’ll give you an instance. A few months back, we were nearly a week late in coming online with the 9th Issue of the magazine and my publisher and I received over 30 emails from eager readers asking when “their issue” would be online. That was a humbling experience—that the labour of love of me and my editors has such an effect on Nigerian literature such that each issue is eagerly anticipated. I felt very good about that as did Nze Sylva Ifedigbo, Unoma Azuah—my long term Reviews and Poetry editors. These two wonderful people, together with others like Prof. Kanchana Ugbabe, Ivor Hartmann and Myne Whitman who have all contributed to building the reputation for quality of the magazine deserve special commendation.
The idea of Sentinel Nigeria is to create a platform for quality writing, with a mild bias towards fresh quality writing—each issue is a balance between established writers and new voices. I have felt hugely satisfied to see people published in our magazine go on to do major things in writing. A case to point is Ukamaka Evelyn Olisakwe whose very first short story ever was published in our magazine. On the basis of that, she secured a publishing deal with America-based Piraeus Press—birthing a fresh and exciting new female voice. Same thing with Ifesinachi Okoli Okpagu, a fine short story writer, who is being courted by local and international publishers even as we speak.
Personally, I have benefited in terms of my public profile—the magazine has afforded me a platform to interact with younger and older writers, as well as with my contemporaries, in a manner of mutual respect. I have come a long way since my early Sentinel Poetry Bar days and a fair amount of that traction has come from my editing the Sentinel Nigeria Magazine.
[Ra1] BOOKREP – A couple of weeks ago, you were domiciled at Ebedi, Iseyin in observance of the Ebedi Writers’ Residency. Has the residency contributed positively to your career as a writer?
RICHARD – The Residency had an immensely positive influence on my writing, fulfilling my expectations—it gave me the space to think and write. Iseyin is a very conducive environment to write in and the residency was just at the foot of Ebedi hill itself—everything from constant electricity to food, we had a good cook named Toyin, was provided. And there was the interaction with my co-residents, Dr. Niyi Fasanmi, a retired university don and committed Leftist, and of course, Auwalu Sakiwa, a visual artist from Minna—their comments and criticism of the ideas I thought out in the course of the residency saw to the beginning of my next major project, a novel. It will be a historic novel set in the early part of the last century, winding across the country from Brazilian Quarters to Ibadan to Surame to Kano. I am most grateful to Dr. Wale Okediran and the Board of the Ebedi Writers Residency for giving me the opportunity to stay at Iseyin for six very productive weeks.
BOOKREP – The last Association of Nigerian Authors’ convention witnessed your emergence as ANA’s publicity secretary. How has the road been since then?
RICHARD – The road has been smooth really, for if you recall, the 2011 elections brought in a brand new EXCO. We all had a shared vision for service when we contested for office at the convention and beyond this was the person of Prof. Remi Raji, the current president, who embodied Change. We all felt ANA needed a turnaround. In the barely one year since we were elected, we have set up the ANA website at www.ana-nigeria.com . We also secured and disbursed funds to sixteen state chapters of the Association for the ANA/Yusuf Ali Reading Campaign—with each chapter getting a cheque for #150,000. Even as we speak, as we prepare for the 2012 Convention, the ANA National Teen Authorship Scheme, funded by the First Lady of Niger State, has been announced with five chapters receiving #150,000 each as well. ANA has not had it so good in recent years, if I say so myself. But these developments came as a result of concerted hard work by Mr. President and General Secretary B. M. Dzukogi in tandem with the rest of the EXCO.
BOOKREP – Parressia publishers was established by you in partnership with Afi Omoluabi Ogosi. Do you think Parresia has enough expertise and funding to stand in quality and quantity with the African Writers Series of Chinua Achebe?
RICHARD – I believe we do, especially in terms of quality. As for quantity, I am not sure how you mean this—and I doubt Chinua Achebe would take kindly to relating AWS with “quantity” publishing. As for Parresia, we have done our homework and we hope, with the support of book lovers such as you and everyone who has gone out to buy our books, to keep our vision for putting out fresh new writing on track side by side our commitment to quality writing and superior aesthetics.
BOOKREP – It has also come to our notice that most writers presently signed under the Parresia imprint are from the Northern part of Nigeria, why is this so?
That would be an erroneous notice. There are presently three authors on the Parrésia Imprint, the first two are Abubakar Adam Ibrahim and Emmanuel Iduma—we published “The Whispering Trees” and “Farad” respectively. Victor Ehikhamenor, the visual artist and present Editor of Daily Times, has also just been signed on. Of these three, only Abubakar can be by any stretch considered as being from “the Northern part of Nigeria.”
But the question is—why is it significant to note what part of the country a writer comes from? I find this very disturbing. And I think this is unhealthy for Nigerian literature. Words in themselves are neutral, like the air on which they ride—there is no northern air which a southern nostril can refuse to breath in protest or prejudice, or is there? So, why should there be a Northern literature or a Southern literature and an Ibadan literature and a Kano literature? Especially when these definers relate not merely to geography but to the very content of the writing itself? Like the inability to be discriminatory about the air one inhales and exhales, factionalising writing and creating exclusivists and cliques is as problematic as it is silly—to my mind. Perhaps I should go further and challenge those who speak of “northern Nigerian writing” to refuse to breath any air that has passed through the north before reaching them? Then I will take them seriously, only then. I was censored from reading my debut novel, City of Memories, at Ibadan months back, by one of these cliquey-minded collectives on account of a statement my friend Ahmed Maiwada made on Facebook. That Richard Ali is not Maiwada; that Maiwada is an intelligent, rational and competent human being and writer—this didn’t matter to these guys, they censored me, I mean. In Ibadan o, in the very city where Soyinka and Clark and Achebe and Okigbo loved and haunted and wrote, these heritor of a sterling legacy made these named Great Men their fathers turn away sadly in shame.
We must talk about this; I thank you for that question. I say, away with cliques and the protectionist irrationality—they are the cancer cells in this fresh and budding tree of Nigerian writing, this new lease of writing inaugurated by Helon Habila, who blends both northern and southern Nigerian sensibilities, won the Caine in 2001. Let there simply be “Nigerian writing from northern Nigeria”, “Nigerian writing from Ibadan” if one wishes; why not even “Nigerian writing” simpliciter? And, further, why not just Writing—which can be assessed objectively as can be by as many critics and critical readers that care to engage with the text itself?
For me, the Text is what is Holy—beyond this, all else are but concentric rings of increasing critical secularity, rings to be treated with the appropriate wariness by the discerning critic.
BOOKREP – Your new novel ‘City of Memories’ dances around the city of Jos. Jos must have influenced your writing of the book, City of Memories?
RICHARD -The city of Jos is, for me, terra firma—it is also my personal city of memory. We all have them, cities of memory, places and spaces, childhood for example, when everything was perfect—when everything was as it should be. These places are cities of memory, sometimes merely of the mind, sometimes a lost geography. My family moved from Kano where I was born to Jos in 1988 and I have lived there ever since. Whenever the trials of living in Nigeria suddenly gain on one, on me, it is to the Jos of my childhood I return—to how it used to be when we lived and laughed and loved together without strife.
Perhaps we can say the last two millennia of Judeo-Islamo-Christian history has been the story of attempts to find, found or re-enact the original Eden? What else, if not this, would be all our philosophies and systems of governance and books and theologies—what else if not a desire, a harking back desire, to something basic and perfect? And, so often, we have failed—but the trying, I believe, is what acquits us, makes us worthy of humanity and being human—to try and fail yet keep trying. Jos, Jos as it was when I was growing up, is my Eden and it is the Eden-in-principle of the rest of my life.
BOOKREP – What is your take on the advent of book clubs like Rainbow Book Club, Emotion Book Club and Pulpfaction Book club in the Nigerian literary industry?
RICHARD – An absolutely delightful development! We must consider these clubs as functional local councils in a federal structure of Nigerian Literature, like your local government areas—or development areas. The major publishing houses, Farafina Kachifo, Cassava Republic, Parresia, would be the States? These Book Clubs are the ones most in touch with the readers who are the “end users” of what we, as publishers, do. They are small enough, often comprising between 40 to 150 members, to interact with the Text personally and intelligently. And in my experience, some of the most discerning criticism has come from such small intimate groups.
An example is the #AfricaReadsWriteTheVision which Ukamaka Olisakwe coordinates on Facebook—I’ve read amazing insights into books they’ve discussed in the last months. Recently, I was a guest of the Pulp Faction Club at Smooth FM, Lagos, where I read from my novel on radio and had very invigorating engagement with the Pulp Faction panel—for one hour on primetime radio. It was a delight!
The Rainbow Book Club is responsible for the successful Port Harcourt, Nigeria 2014 UNESCO World Book Capital bid. These groups are more than pulling their own weight in Nigeria’s literary development and deserve all the support and commendation.
BOOKREP – Thanks for speaking with Book Republic, Richard.
RICHARD – My pleasure, Folarin. My pleasure entirely.