There’s nothing much a Nigerian passport can offer in terms of basic amenities —Temitope Owolabi, writer and editor
Temitope Owolabi is a writer, editor and 2015 Farafina Trust writing workshop alumni. Her essay ‘The Smell of Oxford’ was shortlisted for the 2019 Brittle Paper Award and her fiction manuscript ‘Alien, Go Home’ won second place in the inaugural 2019 Mo Siewcharran Prize. In this interview by KINGSLEY ALUMONA, she speaks about her writing career, Nigerian passport, life abroad, and her advice for young people.
How and when did you develop interest in writing and the arts?
I can’t put a time stamp to it unfortunately, but I’ve always enjoyed writing. Whether it’s writing for my school magazine or my blog or sending in weekly columns for a newspaper, writing has always been my means of escape. I just never quite saw it as my day job because growing up, I thought I would end up on TV. But I didn’t. My writing path was already marked clear from day one. I’m just glad I eventually found it. I’ve never not liked being a writer. And I think that’s a good thing.
Tell us about your work as an editor. I understand you worked as an editor at Kachifo Ltd, publisher of Farafina Books before leaving Nigeria. So you are both an editor and a writer.
Yes, correct. I edit across multiple literary genre, although fiction is my forte. While I’ve learnt and I’m still learning the art of writing fiction, being an editor has certainly made me a better writer, because editing is more than fixing grammar problems or deleting typos. Having that extra eye for editing helps me look at my work a little more critically and it is the same coherence I bring to people’s work, such that I’m able to give pointers as to how their manuscripts or stories can be better written and engaged with.
As a 2015 Farafina Trust writing workshop alumni, have you thought of organising a writing workshop for budding Nigerian writers?
This is definitely something I’m hopeful my writing will help me achieve in the future; because of course, I completely believe in giving back. I’ve been writing and blogging actively for nearly seven years now. However, I still largely consider myself a budding writer. To call myself anything more at the moment would be a lie.
Tell us about your literary work ‘Alien, Go Home’ and what motivated you to write it?
You know what they say about pregnant Nigerian women? They don’t tell anyone until the baby is actually out. It’s the same with my novel. I’ll keep the details in my belly till publication date. I can tell you though that the book is set in both Nigeria and Ghana, two countries where I’ve spent considerable time living in. A first motivation to write it was from the odd but interesting fact that when I lived in Ghana in 2013, it was coincidentally in the exact same town my dad had lived in 40 years before. It’s sort of an uncanny coincidence. if you think about it. But I guess history has a way of repeating itself and somehow, I wanted to write that history.
‘Alien, Go Home’ was the second runner up for the inaugural 2019 Mo Siewcharran Prize. Tell us about the prize and how you knew about it.
I randomly saw the call for submission on Twitter actually, in July. And the funny thing about it is that I saw it three days to the deadline. They wanted three chapters of an intending fiction novel and a full-length synopsis. I had been working on my manuscript before then and thought, well, I can actually do this. So, I spent three nights without sleep desperately trying to edit and polish off my first three chapters from its raw form into something decent enough. In September, the longlist was announced, and by October I had advanced to the shortlist. Three winners were announced in November and the ceremony took place in Carmelite House in London, which is home to Hachette UK and all its seven publishing divisions. Just being in there was thrilling.
Seddon Johnson’s adventure fiction, ‘Alien, Go Home!’, was originally published in 1990. Did you deliberately adopt Johnson’s title? If no, how would you react to it?
Before this interview, I had never heard of the person called Seddon Johnson, so there’s no way I would deliberately adopt someone else’s title. Thankfully, the thing about book titles is that you can’t claim copyright or say its your intellectual property. You can’t restrict book titles because there are many other instances where the title can be equally appropriate. Might be a song or a movie. The one thing that’s certain is that the context of my story is different from his. I’m assuming it’s a He from the name because I tried to Google the book and didn’t find much detail about the author.
What is your publishing plan for the book? And, are you currently working on any other literary project?
As a writer, your head is constantly buzzing with ideas. You think up stories, plot and characters in your sleep and in the shower. So you find yourself possibly working on several things, dipping your hand into different pies, but you know what I said earlier about pregnant Nigerian women? Same applies here. When you see the baby, you see the baby.
You have interests in films. Any plans of producing a film soon?
If someone is open to optioning my short stories and eventually long form fiction for film, I’m definitely open to that. I’m personally not into film production. But, I never say never. Ten years from now, I’m not sure the shape or form my work would possibly have taken.
In your October, 2019 Catapult Magazine essay titled ‘A Nigerian’s field guide to survival’ you said, “The Nigerian passport has never made it anywhere remarkable enough to be coveted by anyone.” What do you mean by this? Did you say this from personal experience?
There’s definitely data to back this, but it’s common knowledge. There’s absolutely no one trying to give themselves or their kids the option of a Nigerian passport in the way we hustle for an American or British passport, for instance. As a travel document, it‘s so restrictive and as a route to citizenship there’s not much that being Nigerian offers you in terms of basic amenities like electricity and food, speak less of bigger ones like security and health care. And for many middle-class Nigerians, the options are a lot more now than in the 90’s. Canada, Australia, Germany — people are flocking to these countries in droves, hoping for a better fighting chance. Who’s going to covet the citizenship of a country where you can be owed salaries? It’s unheard of.
How do you manage racism, if any, and homesickness in the UK? And, what do you miss much about Nigeria while in the UK?
I don’t think about racism much. This doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. It means that anyone who still thinks they’re better than anyone by the reason of their skin colour is a mere distraction and I don’t pay distraction any mind. What I miss about Nigeria while in the UK would be Vitamin D. Glorious 26 degree sunshine.
What are your major challenges as a creative writer? If you were to make a wish for your next birthday, what would it be?
Finding concentrated time and space to do nothing else but write. For my birthday wish, I need a boxset of Jane Austen’s complete works.
What advice do you have for young people, especially the female ones, who are aspiring to be like you?
I hope nobody is aspiring to be like me. I hope every young person is aspiring to be the best version of themselves and putting in the work it requires. Anyone who wants to be a writer has one job and that is to keep writing. To keep making sure they get better at it. There’s no other way than to actually write. You can have established authors whose works inspire you, but your own work is cut out for you. Take classes, maximise internet use for learning, read and read more. There are no short cuts.