Mrs Oluwayemisi Egunjobi, a Hubert Humphrey Fellow for middle executives in 2004, writes and publishes children’s literature. She owns a publishing firm too, JoyceFitRound (JFR). In this interview with OLAMIDE ENIOLA, she speaks on the hope the Nigerian child still has to read moral-teaching-stories, barring the prevalent narratives about corruption, among other issues.
Y OU are a writer as well as a publisher of children’s literature. So, why children’s literature?
Somehow, I started learning about children’s literature right from the university in a course taught by Professor Biola Odejide. Back then, between 1981 and 1984, when I took the course, I was much more interested in speech writing, not in children literature. When I graduated and started teaching, I became the editor of my school’s magazine. It then occurred to me that I could not be editing other people’s work without having to write mine. Doing this was what I would say gave me entry into the world of children’s literature. Then, in 1988, I got a job with Macmillan Publishers and that also changed my orientation. Working with Macmillan Nigeria afforded me the opportunities of working on projects from the Macmillan UK and critiquing works. From there, I started seeing the gap, namely, the dearth of children’s literature. So I started asking and studying works from Macmillan Publishers in the UK and bookshops. I started reading foreign books to see how things are done. I started asking questions on why there was this dearth. I started learning the skills required too to write and publish in this area. As God would have it, in 2003, there was a call for proposals for Hubert Humphrey, a Fulbright programme for middle executives. I applied for it with a proposal on children literature and I got it. This afforded me the opportunity of travelling to the United States of America to study writing and publishing children’s literature in the University of Washington. Since then, I have been writing.
Could you do a quick review of prevalent themes in your works?
I love to choose female protagonist, even though I am not a feminist. I just care about what God cares about. So when I have an important role and an intelligent character, I will go for a female character. I care about the existence and equity of the female gender in a world subduing it. If as a writer and mother I can’t project the female gender, who will? I also have books that nudge children to move on despite their childish misgivings. I also explore themes on health and environmental education, sexual abuse, and themes from the curriculum. There is another one in the pipeline which discusses womanhood and stages of development.
How did you come about JFR?
With my experience as a teacher and editor, I started writing. There was this book I wrote when I was still working with Macmillan publishers, which I thought they were going to publish for me then. But because of the company’s regulations not to publish works by its staff, I could not get the book published there. Good enough, everyone who read the work when it was still a draft loved it so much that some school owners were ordering for an unpublished work. It was at that point, sometimes in 2004, that we decided to establish our own publishing firm, JFR. In our works, we always put contents in age and stage. And this gives us hope that we are going beyond the big five. We produce quality materials. Before developing our materials, we do research. For us, nothing is too small to be researched before writing.
How is it like, writing and running a publishing firm in Nigeria as a woman?
Writing and running a publishing outfit have nothing to do with gender. All it takes is intelligence. Having said that, I must note that for a woman to be successful, she needs to be five times better than her male counterparts. There is so much egoism in the male gender. So, a woman needs to know her onions.
The terrain of publishing is a tough one anywhere in the world. According to what I read about American publishing industry, the income the publishing firm makes is far lower than what the pet industry makes. It is tougher in Nigeria because of the poor reading culture. There is also the problem of poor writing culture; we prefer doing things orally. Our value system, which places materialism above intellect, too calls for attention. Our education is nowhere to be found. 160 (UTME) cut-off mark speaks ill about us. If our educational system is like that, the publishing industry will not be spared. In other countries, a person can thrive on writing and publishing alone. This is nearly impossible in Nigeria. But as publishers, we still come together to forge ahead.
Does it bother you that most of the contents in the contemporary Nigerian children’s literature are waterlight?
Well, this still boils down to our society. Getting books into schools is on the basis of man-know-man, even when the books lack the right content. Some school owners want books they can buy from publishers for ₦80 and sell for ₦300. I am often accused of selling expensive books, so much that I was thinking of producing what the society wants, even when that is not what it needs. In that instance, how many people can stand for long producing good books? But I have resolved not to produce just any book. I pay so highly for my books and the illustrations in them. Will the American government invite me to display my work and I will be presenting books of low quality? Will I be representing myself, Nigeria and even America well?
The reading culture in Nigeria is poor. Do you see the story being different for Nigerian children?
If we keep nagging on this question, the adults and the education influencers are responsible for it. As children, we read James Hadley Chase because of its interesting contents. I remember that while they were in the secondary school, my children joined a book club too where they paid to become members. They would pay also each time they wanted to borrow books to read. During holidays, they would not sleep in the night because they wanted to finish reading the books within the time frame they were given. I discovered that my children were not the only ones doing this, as they normally exchanged books with other book club members in the neighbourhood then. Even now, we need to create such series that will be interesting in the contents and the style of presentation. Our children will love to read books, but we have got to be there for them.
Despite the moral bankruptcy prevalent in Nigeria today, do you think there are still stories with morals to tell Nigerian children?
Yes! On our own stable, we have stories. As a children literature writer, I have discovered that when you want a child to learn a thing, you have to put it in their mouth, without being forceful.
What is the working relationship between scholars in children’s literature and publishers of children’s literature?
I cannot say categorically that there is a working relationship. But then we have an association, Association on Books for Nigerian Youth, where we have lecturers, writers, editors and designers as members. We have been able to collaborate with UNICEF to produce a book which Macmillan published and with UNESCO which JFR published. I think we need more of this synergy, so that we can agree on what and how of children’s literature in teaching and writing.
What effort is JFR making to ensure that pictorial illustrations in children’s literature reflect modern realities?
Our illustrations are very contemporary. JFR will never publish outdated illustrations. We present local contents in global form. Our illustrations and cartoons are topnotch. We will not mind whatever it is going to cost us to publish quality materials. We are also working on forging partnership with other countries in Africa.
Would you like to talk about the challenges and way forward?
The challenges are many, but they are surmountable. No one publisher can surmount them because they are about our society. To get writers and editors is a big issue. You can’t get manuscripts from some ‘writers’ without having to correct every word in the draft. Our education has been bastardised. What can you say about the fact that the worst of our students are admitted into universities to study courses in education? Are we not supposed to have the best of students studying courses in education? What are we preaching? Publishing has become unprofitable. People rarely buy books; even schools want to be given books for free by publishers. It is passion driving us at JFR, even when we know no profit is in view. We have problems with marketers too who sell without remitting the money to the publisher. But as an incurable optimist, when the country gets better in some of the highlighted areas, I believe things will also get better.