The writer, critic and editor gives insights into her creative worldview at a reading organised by the Committee for Relevant Arts
IT was an evening well spent for the literati who converged on the upscale book and arts store, Quintessence, Ikoyi, Lagos recently for a reading by writer Molara Wood.
Organised by the Committee for Relevant Arts (CORA) to kick start its annual Lagos Art and Book Festival (LABAF), the event was an engaging affair as Wood, a critic, editor and ex-presidential aide, not only read from her works but also shared socio-cultural and religious issues that influence her writing with the sizable audience.
The writer got into her strides after the opening formalities by CORA Secretary General, Toyin Akinosho who disclosed that ‘The Terror of Knowledge’ is the theme for the 2016 LABAF happening in November. Jahman Anikulapo, the body’s Program Chair, had more to say about the theme by evening’s end.
Wood, who writes both non-fiction and fiction, chose to begin by reading two non-fiction works. Her first offering was ‘Farewell Juffureh’, a riveting travelogue about an almost disastrous boat trip up the River Gambia to Juffureh, the so-called ancestral village of Kunta Kinte that gave birth to Alex Hailey’s ‘Roots’ with her then nine-year-old son and others. “Hardly anything went right on that day,” Wood recalled as she started midway through the story.
“I intend to think that travel writing tells us about places and tells you about all kinds of issues,” she stated by way of introducing her second story, ‘Ol Ari Nyiro’, a 100-acre conservancy in Kenya owned by an Italian woman where she stayed during a Caine writing workshop in 2010. Wood added that reflections about race and not only the ownership of the expansive property came to her during the trip to Kenya.
The two stories, ‘Farewell Juffureh’ and ‘Ol Ari Nyiro’ are from ‘Route 234’, an anthology of global travel writing by Nigerian arts and culture journalists edited by winner, CNN-Multichoice African Journalist Awards winner, Pelu Awofeso. Released some months ago and soon to be formally presented, the book contains stories by renowned arts writers including Jahman Anikulapo, Kole Ade-Odutola, Olayinka Oyegbile, Tunde Aremu, Steve Ayorinde, Sola Balogun, Eyitayo Aloh, Olumide Iyanda, Ozolua Uhakheme, Funke Osae-Brown and Nseobong Okon-Ekong, all of whom Wood acknowledged.
She thereafter moved to fiction, reading from her collection of short stories, ‘Indigo’ published in 2013 by Parresia Publishers. The Ilase-Ijesa, Osun state born writer first read the title story, ‘Indigo’, about Idera, a childless woman who had to visit a Babalawo (herbalist) and the indignities she suffered.
Wood also read ‘In the time of Job’ set in Nigeria and the United Kingdom, and which she said brings home the reality of a post Brexit world to Nigerians who are wondering about its effects on the country before reading ‘Girl on the Wall’, ‘Kelemo’s Woman’ and ‘Night Market’ at the request of some audience members.
Since questions are a main feature of such readings, the former Arts and Culture Editor of the rested NEXT Newspaper, dealt with her fair share at the event. Her friend, the multimedia journalist, Kadaria Ahmed, fired the first salvo. She wanted to know how stories come to the writer.
Wood responded: “I kept a diary as a teenager and I’ve always had that storyteller attributes. I have an ear for memorable lines; I have an atrocious memory. It remembers things that seem irrelevant; I always remember all manners of things so the filmic resonance hits me; it hits me at a higher resonance and later I begin to filter it. Then, London was such a great place to live in; it was a fertile place for stories because as you go on the tube, human theatre is all around you.”
To another inquisitor who asked about her foundations, the winner of the inaugural John La Rose Memorial Short Story Competition said: “I read so much when I was young. At a point I lived in the same house with an aunt who was headmistress of a school and books were all over. Without consciously trying to live in the world of books, I started doing so. The books sparked something in me and I read a lot in English and Yoruba. There were lots of kids in the compound but I was the only one with my nose in books. No one is surprised in my extended family that I’m a writer; I’ve had a lifelong training to be a writer.”
Having earlier read from ‘Indigo’ and how the main protagonist, Idera had to visit a Babalawo in her quest to have a child, it was inevitable that someone was going to seize on that and ask the writer if she patronises Babalawo or just see them in movies.
Wood answered matter-of-factly: “I’m a lifelong student of the Yoruba and I read all literatures about them. I’m a culture activist and I don’t want to demonise those for whom it’s an expression of religion; a faith. It’s a manifestation of identity for people of those faiths. I defend the rights of people to choose African Traditional Religion. When you go to the Osun grove, you see a lot of things, people. Babalawos are not aliens; they are around us. The way I portrayed the Babalawo is a combination of my reading, things I’ve seen and movies. It’s a combination of all of them. I’ve not gone to consult them but I know some. The way they are portrayed in Yoruba movies is unhelpful, it is clichéd but Kunle Afolayan’s ‘The Figurine’ which features Chief Muraina Oyelami is spot on in not demonising African Traditional Religion. All religions, even the dominant ones, have been used for good and bad. All religions have their positives.”
On whether she decides on issues to write on, Wood said, “Not always. My primary goal at the beginning is to write a story that hangs together and interests the reader.” Returning to ‘Indigo’, she disclosed that it was something she heard about things women do in looking for children that inspired the story. “I was horrified. Society stigmatises women but what’s your business if someone doesn’t have a child? The idea is to write a story that means something. If people then get a message, that’s fine but it’s not about the message. We should let people be; whatever they believe in, let them be tolerant.”
Masterful short stories
Rather than get angry at a somewhat cheeky commentator that hailed her as a master short story writer but queried her ability to write a novel, Wood explained that it is not so and that no form of writing is superior to the other. According to her, “I’m working on a novel but I have left it for some months so I need to return to it. However, everybody doesn’t need to be a novelist; you can be a master of short stories. To be a good essayist is not a mean feat. I see absolutely nothing wrong in writing a short story but I’d advise stick to what you know. In fact, short stories are not easy to write; you have to be precise. The novel allows you to waffle but it’s not easy to write a good short story. I would hope that short stories are not looked down upon; I think they are masterful.”
Another profound question the writer dealt with was if she thinks stories change the world. Pausing for some seconds to reflect, Wood eventually said: “I think stories can make the world easier to live in. I think they can make us more able to face life, I think stories are part of a process that changes the world. We are living in a traumatic world; I’m so grateful for art, books because it allows you to escape.”
Are you sad when writing, another person wanted to know. “No, I’m not sad. I’d like to think I’m full of life but if you are happy and upbeat all the time, you may not be a good writer. The introspection is vital for writing; I reflect deeply on life but thinking about life doesn’t make you a manic depressive.”
Writers Kunle Ajibade, Toni Kan, Victor Ehikhamenor, CORA patron Chinwe Uwatse, artists Ndidi Dike, Kelani Abass and Taiye Idahor, and the filmmaker Remi Vaughan were among those present at the reading.