Nothing surpasses joy of writing —Okediran
Writer, physician, politician and debut film producer, Dr Wale Okediran will clock 65 on April 14. He has a new novel, ‘Madagali’ to mark the occasion and speaks about it as well as his other literary engagements in this interview. Excerpts:
YOU’LL be 65 in a couple of days and a fortnight ago released your latest novel, ‘Madagali’. Is it to mark the special occasion?
Yes, I wanted to use something to mark my 65th birthday. That was why I decided to release the novel, my 15th. It was released two weeks ago, but the presentation has been postponed due to the Coronavirus pandemic.
It is dedicated to the officers and men of the Nigerian Armed Forces for their gallantry in the ongoing war against Boko Haram insurgency. It is a fictional account of the rebellion.
How long did it take, from conception to completion?
The research; interviews and visits to the Army Training Centres as well as the Northeast, the theatre of the insurgency, took 18 months. Another six months were used for the literature review, the writing and rewriting of the manuscript. The book took two years to complete.
Though it is fiction, ‘Madagali’ benefited a lot from many people who were generous with their time and assistance while researching and writing. They include my staff, fellow writers, friends, family members, as well as former and serving members of the security forces.
I travelled to many towns in the Northeast, including Maiduguri, Damaturu, Mubi, Madagali, Gulak, and Hong, among others while researching the book. I also interviewed residents in these areas who narrated their experiences in the hands of Boko Haram insurgents.
I also spoke with serving and retired members of the Nigerian Armed Forces as well as aid workers with international relief organisations. I visited some Internally Displaced Peoples camps where I spoke to some refugees on their plight.
A previous visit to Liberia, many years ago where I interacted with Nigerian soldiers who were members of the peacekeeping force; ECOMOG as well a general view of Monrovia also came in handy.
For a year (2008), I was resident in Liberia, Ghana, Gambia, Sierra Leone and Senegal where I worked on a legislative USAID project. I travelled widely and interacted with the citizens of these countries. Many of my experience during this period came in handy while working on ‘Madagali’.
I also had to read a lot of books about war injuries and the possible consequences, guerrilla warfare, military operations, how to set up ambushes and how to neutralise them, ammunition and mines. Insurgency and counter-insurgency as well as books on previous guerrilla wars in Sri Lanka and Vietnam among other places.
I might be wrong, but you seem to have become more interested in Northern Nigeria and its cultural dynamics. We see this in ‘Tenants of the House’, and you appear to have touched on it also in ‘Madagali’?
This is very true. My interest in Northern Nigeria began way back in 1997-2001 when I became the General Secretary of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA). I was opportune to travel to many states, especially the North, where I assisted in setting up new branches in that position.
My interest got a further boost when I moved to Abuja in 2004 as a member of the House of Representatives. During this period, I travelled widely across the country, especially to the North. I also made many friends which necessitated visits through which I got to know more about the cultures and peoples of the region.
My knowledge and fraternity with the North continued when I became the National President of ANA from 2005 to 2008. Apart from winning my election at the national convention which took place in Kano, I got the overwhelming vote from northern writers. My tenure was devoted to the promotion of literature in indigenous languages, and Northern Nigeria benefited a lot. I also used the opportunity to discover new writers across the country, including the North, which I visited extensively.
The more I understood the North, the more I appreciated the region’s unique culture, language, people and literature. That was why it was easy for me to use the area as an appropriate setting for my writings and literary interventions.
After my tenure ended at the national assembly, I remained in Abuja where I took literary, medical and legislative consultancies, mostly in the North for six years. I worked with the National Primary Health Development Agency as a consultant in Nasarawa, FCT and Niger with forays into other northern states. I also consulted for the World Bank, Save The Children, UNICEF, Nigerian Governors Forum and UNAIDS. The extended-stay further deepened my understanding and love for northern Nigeria.
I was more or less a full-time resident of northern Nigeria for close to 15 years. The lengthy stay allowed me to fully understand the culture and the people and by extension, a suitable setting for my writings.
You were mainly a fiction writer until some years ago when you moved into non-fiction, biographies particularly. What sparked your interest, and how has it been as a biographer?
I decided to diversify into non- fiction especially, travel writing and biographies because I believe in the importance of these genres in Nigerian literature.
Writing the biography of famous Nigerians can be nerve-wracking. It can also be fun. Five years and five books down the road, I can write another book on my experience as a commissioned chronicler of the lives of the famous and the rich. A good friend of mine noted for his cynicism suggested a title, ‘Villains and Victors: In the footsteps of fame and fraud.’
As a politician myself, I am very sympathetic to my colleagues. I know where the shoe pinches. As a biographer, I have had to put up with a lot of hassles. From the last-minute cancelled appointment in Katsina to a scary flight to Yola, an interview conducted in the middle of a campaign rally in Enugu as well as an angry wife in Port Harcourt who protested my interviewing one of her husband’s numerous girlfriends! This is apart from the fact that the job takes you away from family and friends and turns you into an antisocial animal who is always cocooned in his writing world.
I have also had some good moments. Apart from interviewing and dining with the high and mighty, my assignments have taken me to Ghana, UK, and the US aside several Nigerian cities where I made invaluable friends. However, nothing in the business surpasses the exhilaration of the writing itself. Hunched over my laptop in the twilight or wee hours, I enjoy the thrill of piecing together the fragments of other people’s stories, drilling into their beings like a surgeon working in the innards of a patient. I am also a historian of some sort for every biography is unique and the art of researching and writing it, a historical journey.
As much as I respect my subjects’ right to set boundaries for their stories, I am no spin doctor and will not embellish facts. I believe in ‘evidence-based’ biographies where friends and foes alike will be interviewed so that a balanced view of the subject will be presented for posterity and history to judge.
In March 2019, Lantern Books published my first volume of travel stories; ‘Tales of a Troubadour’ while the second volume is ready for publication. As for travel writing, I enjoy travelling a lot, and I am also aware that travel writing has helped to shape people’s perception of the world beyond their borders and of history itself. Writing travelogue is a beautiful and immersive experience. I have been writing travel stories for over 40 years, and each time I go back to read one of them, it’s like reliving those moments. But I am not doing anything new, I’m only following the masters.
Do you have a preference between the two? That is, fiction and non-fiction?
Writing biographies and travel stories are more challenging than writing fiction. While you have the freedom to write anything in fiction, you can’t do that for non -fiction. You need to gauge the feelings of your subjects as well as areas of potential litigations before putting pen to paper in non-fiction. Having said this, I enjoy writing biographies. Apart from the good money that accrues, I have through it learnt a lot about human characteristics, struggles, achievements and failures, through which I have become a better person. Indeed, I will love to pay more attention to it in future.
You trained as a medical doctor, but you have been writing for as long as you have been a physician. Are you thinking of dropping one now that you’re getting older?
I find my three interests; literature, medicine and politics very symbiotic. Each has been feeding each other for such a long time that I find it difficult to separate them. Many of the inspirations for my novels such as ‘The Boys at the Border’, ‘Strange Encounters’, ‘Sighs of Desire’, ‘Storms of Passion’ among others came from my hospital experiences.
At the same time, politics played a significant role in ‘Rainbows are for Lovers’, ‘After the Flood’, ‘Dreams die at Twilight’ and ‘Tenants of the House’ among others. Medicine features prominently in ‘Madagali’.
Unlike the famous Russian doctor/writer, Anton Chekov, who claimed that ‘Medicine is my legal wife and Literature my mistress, I run to either of the two when I am tired of one’, I see myself as being ‘legally married’ to literature, medicine and politics. I can, therefore, not abandon one for the other. While age and limitations of abilities may reduce my activities in the tripod, total severance of one for the other may not be possible.
Do you now have support for the Ebedi Writers Residency, what gives you joy about the initiative?
I am quite fulfilled that the philosophy behind the creation of the Ebedi International Writers Residency, which was to give writers an opportunity to complete their ongoing works in a conducive environment has been fulfilled. Since September 2010, when it was established, the Ebedi Residency has hosted about 140 writers and artists from ten African countries, providing them with the needed comfort and space to express their creativity.
Besides, during this period, the writers, as part of their community activities, have mentored several students from secondary schools in Iseyin in the area of creative arts.
For three years the Residency has published ‘Ebedi Review’– showcasing the experiences of writers and artists who have stayed there at one time or the other, their short stories, poems and essays. It has also published works from writers across the African continent.
We have been able to attract some of the financial support for the Residency once in a while, but these have been few and far between. I had thought that by now, ten years since the establishment of the Residency, we would have been enjoying some form of a generous grant. Unfortunately, this has not happened, and the bulk of the financing has been on me. Every time we send out an application for support, we would be commended for what we are doing with the regret that the available funds are not meant for our kind of project. My observation is that many corporate organisations, including philanthropists, are not interested in literature and the arts. Many of them would instead prefer to sponsor events in the entertainment industry, especially the beauty pageants and sports competitions.
All the same, we would not relent in our efforts at fundraising with the hope that sooner or later, something good would come our way. In recognition of my literary contributions to Iseyin, especially the establishment of the Residency, the Aseyin of Iseyin, Oba Abdulganiyu Adekunle Salaudeen, OlogunebiAjinose 1 honoured me with the traditional title of Onigege Ara (the man with the wonderful pen) in November 2019
What has been the response to ‘Tenants of the House’ as a movie and do you plan any other movie adaptation of your works
From the positive reactions after the premiere as well as other private screenings, it is apparent that we have been able to produce an artistically successful movie. My prayer now is to have a commercially successful film, so I can pay back my ‘gbese’ [debts] and start sleeping normally again.
I am hopeful that some of my other novels, especially those that have addressed societal problems such as ‘Strange Encounters’, ‘The Weaving Looms’ as well as ‘The Boys at the Border’ will soon be adapted into movies.
When will the public be able to see ‘Tenants…’ in cinemas?
We are still in the process of sorting out some of the logistics necessary for the public viewing of the Film. Hopefully, this would soon be sorted out before the end of the year.
Considering your mixed fortunes in politics, has it been worth it?
History is replete with medical doctors who have also been politicians but despite what you referred to as my ‘mixed fortunes’, I am fulfilled that I dabbled into politics. Apart from the opportunity given me to serve my people at the local level as well as the country at the national level, the experience garnered as well as the legion of friends made during my tenure has enriched my personal life, my writings as well as my entire outlook of life.
What’s the best, most precious birthday gift you would love for your 65th?
Good health and peace of mind among a beautiful company of family and friends. I thank God that He has already given me this precious birthday gift. He added an icing, the joy of a new book, ‘Madagali’. I couldn’t have asked for more.
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