After the Benue Book and Arts festival in June 2019 I knew I had to talk to the organisers for putting the festival together, a first of its kind in Benue. One of these organisers Su’eddie flew in from the UK to make the event happen. Energetic, a friend of mine, and always smiling for no reason, we had this conversation via email between Sussex and Makurdi.
I am imagining the presence of an ‘African writer’ and Brighton scholar in Makurdi. I mean, I often think of an African writer in light of the Robert Serumagas – you know, back in the days – who were masts of African writing. So when I saw it is your Twitter screen name I began thinking . . . about its weight. Tell me something about why it is your screen name on Twitter. (It is not as if you’re the only African writer, but such is attention-drawing, especially when it is followed by ‘Brighton scholar’.)
Carl, interesting that you should start this interview on a note of mischief. Well, the writer wears many garbs and changes as he goes from place to place. As you know, I am a Chevening scholar at the University of Sussex in Brighton and yes, I am an African writer in every sense of that word. Being in Nigeria, it is often not so easy to identify yourself in certain ways – especially colour – but when you go into the wider world, say Europe, America or Asia, you discover that you become categorised – you are either black African, black British, or this or that. You become something that you perhaps hadn’t ever really thought about. Before Brighton, I was just me, but there is something that travelling around in Europe, America and the wider world does to you. It reminds you of who you are. Many times, when you are reminded often or asked, you just place the garb for everyone to see. This is me.
Your answer is interesting and epiphanous. I begin to see a picture now. Which makes me ask, is this a reason for the title of your forthcoming nonfiction book Tales of the Abroad?
Tales of the Abroad by a Confam Africana is actually a collection of short stories that I am working on that is hopefully going to make a Nigerian debut in 2020, all things being equal. It looks at stories of Africans living ‘in the abroad’ – from Europe to America and Asia. I am working with a team of editors on this already and it looks like something that I will be proud of. You know, when you travel and see the world, your imagination expands and you begin to ask: ‘What if this happened this way’ or ‘that happened that way’? I am working on using humour and in some cases, direct language to paint various pictures of our people that I hope would be enlightening as well as entertaining. At first, I had thought the experiences would be based on my travels but fiction has a way of surprising you. So, yes, there you are. There is also a poetry collection coming out titled Witnessing in the Dark based mostly on poems I have written in Brighton. I have Kwame Dawes and Daisy Odey to thank for help on the poems. They were good ears through the whole period of writing and helped me learn some discipline.
You recently concluded a book and arts festival in Makurdi, Benue, tagged ‘Changing Narratives’. As someone from Benue myself I understand why this is very important. I want to ask, why do you think Benue state isunder-represented in writing in Nigeria? And is this any part of the narrative the festival was supposed to change?
Oh, the Benue Book and Arts Festival question. Yes, I curated and was festival director of the BBAAF, alongside Otene Ogwuche who was manager, Oko Owi Ocho and Andrea Vanen Kwen as administrators with the theme as you have mentioned. It is part of the SEVHAGE Presents series of festivals, with this version done in collaboration with the University of Sussex, the Sussex Student Union through the African Writers of the University of Sussex, Gender and Environmental Risk and Reduction Initiative, Adinya Arise Foundation, and Eunice Spring of Life Foundation (a foundation of the wife of the Governor of Benue state, Dr. Eunice Ortom), among others.
I have mentioned the partners deliberately because it partially answers the two questions you have asked. Benue is under-represented in writing in Nigeria because we are largely a closeted people who do not sell ourselves or let our voices be heard loud enough. It is MY opinion that a lot of us are satisfied with being local champions, without even knowing it. We need to showcase ourselves a lot more and let our voices be heard on a wider scale. Working with these partners is very important because it transcends borders and goes beyond working in the traditional development sector narrative. Some years back, Dr. Andrew Aba, Prof. Kombol and the Department of English at BSU did an exchange programme with the University of Manchester that brought Chuma Nwokolo and Prof Geoff Ryman on a visit to Makurdi where students were exposed to teachers for something like a summer camp. That is the spirit of how we can progress. Partnering to get our voices out and of course, ensuring we pay the price for success, by going beyond being satisfied with publishing a few works with circulation within the state alone.
You always sprawl the Tiv anger over your shoulders. Do you do this when you’re in Brighton? How is this a way of changing narrative to you?
Yes, I almost always have my Tiv mantle on me, in Brighton here and wherever I travel. It is true that the cloak does not make the monk but one cannot take away the fact that the cloak is an integral part of the monk’s appearance and apparel. It is a part of my dress sense and it follows me when I leave the house. Not always but most of the time. Sprawling my Tiv ‘mantle’, usually the kasev kyundu fabric, is not really intended to help change any narrative. It is a personal thing and I would give you different answers depending on what day you ask me this same question.
I love our culture and I think it is worth showing the world. That’s what the mantle is to me. It is also a statement of my postcolonial self. I might speak English, do loads of stuff in English and indeed, dress in the like but I am also Tiv, African and proud of my roots. That is on one hand. It reminds me of a commitment to my people. That I am representing them and have a role to play in projecting them right. It also reminds me of my ethnic nation that I have a strong commitment to build. This has formed a core part of my work with SEVHAGE and why we started in Makurdi. There’s much to do and a people to build from Makurdi to the rest of our country and the continent. I should mention that having the mantle is more important for me in Brighton as it is something of a visual connection to me of home and the commitment I just spoke of.
It’s good you specified the kind of Tiv anger you wear. I saw in a book about Tiv culture (whose title I sadly can’t recall), the different types of this cultural attire and their meaning. Now I think about how our wrappers today carry prints that are the product of mechanical reproduction, with whatever patterns drawn on them claimed to be a representation of our various African aesthetic. Do you think we have lost anything here? Well, you know, these wrappers are printed in other parts of the world.
Well, the wrappers might be printed in several parts of the world and used by several people but it doesn’t take away its essence to us. The anger, kasev kyundu, vaav tyô or any of those other fine traditional clothings of ours are special and when we wear them, we embrace our Tivness. Whether a million people wear it or not, it will always have that special place in our lives and in our essence. The time when the beauty of it might be lost is when we forget who we are or why we wear these things. I explained why I wear the kasev kyundu mantle but there are other reasons why people wear them, including to celebrate culture, for special occasions like weddings, burials, mournings, celebrations or the like. So, I don’t think we have lost anything because we have more prints everywhere – come to think of it, isn’t it nice that we will even have more places to buy them? 🙂 No, we will only lose it when we lose ourselves and truly forget who we truly are. And knowing who we truly are is a call for us to remember those values which we traditionally stand for, including being human, generous, strong, upright and brave.
Give me insider’s knowledge: At the book festival I observed that the bookstands with locally published Nigerian books drew less attention. But the bookstand displaying the likes of V. S. Naipaul and Ondaatje was always surrounded. Do we have an aversion for buying our books? Don’t we trust our writers enough? Why is this so? How can we change this narrative?
I don’t think there is an aversion for Nigerian books. We actually sold a good number of books by Chuma Nwokolo, Bash Amuneni, Dul Johnson, Su’eddie Vershima Agema (okay, that’s me, haha), Daisy Odey, to mention a few. (Alexander Emmanuel Ochogwu sold out his copies of Scarlet which was presented to the public for the first time on the final day of the festival.) You see? It might be that you had your attention on the foreign books more and that is why you saw what you saw. And if I will be honest, yes, people bought a lot of foreign books too. Note that there was variety. The books we had on display were multiple award-winning books from the masters themselves. We had books, as you mentioned, from Ondaatje, Naipaul, Jodi Picoult, Arundathi Roy, J. K. Rowling, Neil Gaiman, Tony Parsons, Eleanor Catton and Anne Enright. My brother, these books would sell anywhere, even on the moon. What am I saying? People will always buy awesome books wherever they see them and it doesn’t matter if they are foreign or Nigerian.
So, how do we sustain the sale narrative? Let us invest in our writings more. Let us write beautiful poems like Bash and Daisy, let us have captivating titles like Dul Johnson’s Why Women Won’t Make it to Heaven, let’s write lovely prose like Chuma Nwokolo, let us do great publicity and package our work in a dazzling way like Alexander Ochogwu did with his Scarlet, beautifully put together by Amara Chimeka’s Purple Shelves Publishers.
As an African writer you are doing a course in development studies at Brighton. Why not a course in the humanities? Do you, also, think that humanities today is a waste of time? Since all that’s involved are theories running after each other while the world moves on?
The current course I am doing is an MA in International Education and Development. It is a second Master’s programme as my first was an M.Sc Geography Development Studies from Benue State University. You see, if we are to make progress, we have to learn how we can make our works work in a spectrum wider than the containment of simple arts. Most of the work we do at SEVHAGE Literary and Development Initiative, though primarily primed at literature and the arts, go beyond humanities. That does not negate or limit the role of the arts at all. As you know, my first degree was in English with a bias in Literature. It is a foundation that I would not trade for anything. I learnt a lot about books, about theories – which I believe are important. Theories are the signposts that help show you the direction in which several things go. One of the best things that ever happened to me was my knowledge of postcolonialism got from my first degree. I am well balanced in my thoughts and I can interpret a lot of things in various ways because of that foundation. I have said this from the point of view of literature but the humanities is broader and includes geography, law, languages, philosophy, history, religion and art. My brother, can you imagine what the world would be if we didn’t have these? The humanities matter a lot and they feed the sciences greatly. You will be amazed at how much philosophers and artists have inspired scientific breakthroughs. Need I say more?
Thank you. Back to Benue Book and Arts Festival. What was the most important thing that happened for you during the festival?
It was several things that came together as one. First and prominently were the collaborations. The collaboration with the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom, the African Writers of the University of Sussex gave the event an international edge that I am grateful for, showing support for students, which I think is worth emulating by other schools in our country and everywhere.
And collaborations came from unexpected places. If you are in a place like Makurdi where it is hard to get anything to work or people to collaborate with on any literary project, then you should know why I am excited about these collaborations. I mean, I was Chairman of the Association of Nigerian Authors in Benue from 2014-2016 and before then, I had been Vice Chairman and held other positions for at least six years prior. If you take out the exception of the government of Ortom supporting the ANA convention in 2017 and backing up the visit of Wole Soyinka last year, it is rare to find great support for the arts here. You can ask most of the people who have tried fighting the cause from Prof. Tsenongu to Sam Ogabidu, Elvis Ogenyi, Dr. Ajima, Prof. Nyitse, Dr. Andrew Aba, Prof. Ker, Maik Ortserga, Ben Due Iyav and the like. I mean, these people did their best and have keep on doing their best to support literature in Benuebut it has been a tiresome journey. I guess all their pains are the shoulders on which some of us are currently standing to do things. I am grateful to them all. It shows that we are getting something right.
We had a great event and a lot of people came through but for me, it is the collaborations, the team, the amazing guests and friends that are my major point of interest and, indeed, the important feature of the event. I thank them all and actually hope that they all keep supporting every literary event in Makurdi this way and more.
If I was to mention – as bonus – an extra event, I would say it is the secondary schools that participated and the competitions we did at the end. I am positive about the growth of literature in Benue state and this festival makes me glow with more pride in that knowledge. From what I saw, and the participation, note, there is so much more coming out of Benue that you would be shocked to see. A lot will be happening soon. We are successfully changing narratives.
The collaborations, the team, the amazing guests and friends. No doubt. Sums it up. And you’ve said so much already that I feel I have no more questions about the festival. So much gathering and energy here – from what you’ve said – that can result in an eventual Big Bang. What do you envisage as this Big Bang for the Benue literary society?
Let’s just say, you will see more activities happening. Maybe not immediately, but soon. This is a great foundation that cannot be taken for granted. Look at it this way: In the span of two years, Makurdi has witnessed hosting a national Association of Nigerian Authors convention, hosted a Nobel Laureate, hosted a national literary festival, events of national acclaim. At the state level, Charles Iornumbe and Terseer Sam Baki are doing great alongside the ANA team. Do you know that they recently did a literary campaign under the ANA/Yusuf Ali Readership campaign that took books and a competition to the Medium Prisons and to the IDP camps at Abagena and Daudu? SEVHAGE is doing much in the university, outside conventional circles and taking the book to secondary schools. Best of all, the government; people in government and everyone around is beginning to take literature serious. My brother, things can only get better. And they will. So, the key thing we have to do next is consolidate on what we have done, do workshops to sharpen the talents of our writers, build a market through making people read, and importantly, make our writers and our general people to have a wider mindset in terms of all they do. We have to learn that writing is not cheap, is not something you just rush. We need to start writing for the international market and not being satisfied with crap. As we grow higher, we shouldn’t celebrate mediocrity. We will champion excellence and only the future will tell where our art will take us to. And at this point, I am not just talking of Benue alone. I am talking Nigeria. We might be doing some good but there’s more to do.
And now let’s end this on a bit of punctuation trivia. A. There’s that situation where a colon or a dash suffices: Which do you normally choose? B. Do you like semicolons?
So, the question is, would I take a dash or play with my large intestine. I will take a dash. Easily. It will keep my body in check. 🙂 I like semicolons but these days, I use them sparingly. I think I read something by Oris Aigbokhaevbolo somewhere passingly and it stuck■
P.S. The Interviewee Su’eddie Vershima Agema acknowledges the following persons and organisations that contributed to the success of Benue Book and Arts Festival.
The collaboration with the NGO founded by the wife of the Governor, Dr. Eunice Ortom, the Eunice Spring of Life Foundation. Gender and Environmental Risk Reduction Initiative, Adinya Arise Foundation.Other organisations like Benue Coalition of CSOs and Benue NGO Network. The Association of Nigerian Authors at the National and State level. Private individuals like Her Excellency, Dr. Eunice Ortom, Dr. Paul Angya, Dr. Agatha Agema, Ahmed Maiwada, Sam Ogabidu, Alex Emmanuel Ochogwu, Chuma Nwokolo, Amara Chimeka, Issac Attah Ogezi, Maik Ortserga, Felicity Jila, Bash Amuneni, Daisy Odey, Ciara Ogah, Tine Agernor and the ESLF team, Jerry Adesewo, Servio Gbadamosi, Kukogho Iruesiri Samson, Iquo Eke and Conan Anyamikyegh.
Also to thank are the team members for the festival led by the manager, Otene Ogwuche, Oko Owoicho Afrika, Debbie Iorliam and Andrea Vanen Kwen, to a wonderful volunteer team comprising so many beautiful people: Carl Terver, Torkwase Igbana, Silas Sharamang, Anointing Biachi, Ephraim Chigba, Anselm Ngutsav, Luper Aluga, Faith Edesime, Emmanuella Ikomon, Gabriel Agema, Jennifer Aduro, Nathaniel Aduro, Msendoo Kaase, Yusuf BM, Abayol Peter, Adakole Stephen, Msughter Jerry, Iveren Betse-Ayede and Samuel Adaji Adoka.