Here, finally, is an exclusive interview with 2015 Writivism Short Story prize winner, Pemi Aguda. She argues that Caterer Caterer, her winning story, is no satire and explains that one does not necessarily have to leave home to succeed as a writer.
Congratulations Pemi on emerging winner of the 2015 Writivism Short Story prize. How does this make you feel?
Ecstatic. I think highly of the judges, so I’m super grateful and pleased. And, thank you.
Would you say winning the prize has put you in limelight? If yes, I’ll like to know what attention has been accorded to you lately and where?
Limelight doesn’t seem quite fitting. There’s been a stirring, yes. People have called my mother to say, “Hey, your daughter won something!” And well, you’re interviewing me…
Ha ha. Of course I am. Have you been shortlisted for any literary prize before now?
No, just this one.
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When would you say your journey as a writer began?
Journey? I can’t say that there was a conscious beginning. But it was after the Farafina Workshop in 2011 that I started thinking: ‘Okay, this is real. Maybe I’m a writer…’ So, I’d say then.
Your winning story, Caterer, Caterer is a humorous piece that also exposes the hypocrisy which plagues the Nigerian religious sphere. Are there any specific reasons why you chose to submit that story for the contest?
My story does all of that? Oh wow. It’s one woman’s story; I’m not sure it aimed to such lofty heights. I submitted it because it was my favourite story at the time.
I like that the style was original. You used local words and pidgin and so, were able to communicate to your immediate environment which is also one of the purposes of literature. But considering a wider audience, do you not think your readers may have a tough time understanding the language?
Thank you. The final editing was done by non-Nigerians, Summaya Lee and Emmanuel Sigauke. There was some back and forth about the Nigerian English. They helped me minimize that possibility. But I do not think it’s a real problem with this story – the colloquial isn’t so bogged down that you have absolutely no idea what’s being said. I haven’t had any non-Lagosian ask me what something meant; I think we need to trust our readers more.
Reading other stories in the shortlist, did you think yours would be the winning story?
No. There were too many good stories on that list to make that leap.
Do you often write satires or is Caterer, Caterer an exception?
Caterer, Caterer isn’t satire; no, I don’t usually write satire.
Why do you say Caterer, Caterer is not satire? As much as it tells the story of one woman as you put it, it also poses to question and even ridicule the state of religious affairs in the Nigerian society. Especially with the role of the Caterer’s husband, Biyi.
I understand that it could be read that way. Satire never once occurred to me. But it isn’t satire because the intent of the story wasn’t to ridicule the state of religious affairs. That might have happened in the course, but it wasn’t the aim.
I only wrote a story about a woman who had to make a decision when put in a spot she could never have prepared for. The undertone of religion ‘ridicule’ and commentary on the poor state of the ‘state’ were only secondary.
This goes a long way then to explain how a story can mean different things to different people. But more than telling a woman’s story, Caterer, Caterer seems to cry out for change in its dealing with facts. Do you believe that writing can be a tool for change in our society?
Yes, I do. Because it’s in the relatable spaces of words and characters and fictional worlds that your guard is let down enough to indulge alternative ideologies, I think.
There’s a certain resemblance between your story and many of Chuma Nwokolo’s, especially in its humour element. Do you often read him?
I do. I like his short stories.
Would you say you are influenced by his books?
Mmhmn, I’m influenced by most things I read to some degree.
A lot of people consider writing, like other arts, depressing. Have there been times when you felt like giving up writing?
Not yet. Except to become a full-time reader. There’s always that seduction. There are too many good books.
How do you hope to achieve that?
Reading some more. For the times I’ve been frustrated, I just keep on reading. My will is nothing next to the allure of good books and the inspirations that come with.
How often do you read books then?
All the time, as much as I can.
Okay. You had part of your education in the West. Would you say your stay there had any significant impact on your writings?
Not directly, no. The impact was on me, as a person. My eyes widened – all those experiences… And so all of that is translated somewhat in my writing – in nuance, not necessarily subject matter or plot or setting.
Still talking about the West. Some young Nigerian writers hold the view that to become more successful, one must first, flee the country. Do you agree with this? I will like to know where you got better attention as a writer and motivation to write more. Home or there?
At home. I was only away for my Masters in Architecture. That was about two years – I wasn’t ‘pursuing a writing career’ in that period, so I can’t really give an opinion in that discourse. But I don’t agree that one must ‘flee’ the country – if there’s any fleeing, it should be from the roles we’re supposedly cast in from birth. And that isn’t necessarily a physical flight.
Thank you for that response, Pemi. We must indeed learn to break away from these roles that may be holding us down. So do you now write for a living?
No, I work as an architect.
How do you balance both?
Well, I write at weekends or at night – or at bathroom breaks during the day. Don’t tell the boss. The processes are similar; all creative processes are, I think. From idea to proper execution so that it doesn’t collapse on itself.
No, I won’t tell the boss, except of course he reads this interview!
Back to Writivism. When would you say was your best moment during the Writivism literary festival? When you were announced winner of the prize, sure. But when else did you feel like you were floating and didn’t want to get out? Hah!
Mm, that’s tough. It was a whirlwind of awesomeness. I would pick one of the bus rides down Kampala’s narrow roads – with all the intelligent conversations whirring around me in a cocktail of accents and me thinking: How did I even get here?
Aww. How sweet. So what has the Writivism experience taught you?
The whole of it? To keep reading (again), just to keep reading. I met so many intelligent folk at the festival and it switched up my hunger for more knowledge. There’s so much left to know.
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How soon are we having your book?
Ha ha! I do not have the answer to that one. But I’ll let you know.
Thank you, Pemi Aguda. Congratulations once more 🙂