Kanyinsola got to sit recently with Otosirieze Obi-Young, a Nigerian writer and academic. In 2016, he was shortlisted for both the Miles Morland Writing Scholarship and the Gerald Kraak Award. His short story, “A Tenderer Blessing,” appeared in Transition and was nominated for a 2015 Pushcart Prize. He is the Submissions Editor at Brittle Paper. He currently teaches English in a university in Nigeria. He is the brain behind the critically-accliamed Art Najia series. One of his earliest works, "Mulumba", published in Threepenny Review in 2016, has been translated to German. He appeared in the anthology, "Pride and Prejudice; African Perspectives on Gender, Social Justice and Sexuality", with his story, "You Sing of a Longing". His works have appeared in Interdisciplinary Academic Essays and Africa in Dialogue. With Kanyinsola, he talks artistic ownership, blogging, rejection, literary prizes, Nigeria's anti-LGBT law, celebrity worship, Brittle Paper and so much more. Read their discussion below:
Who is Otosirieze Obi-Young?
Apparently, he’s tall and bald. Searching for someone to teach him Physics and Mathematics. Starving to play football.
You are a Pushcart nominee and a finalist for both the Miles Morland Scholarship Fund and the Gerald Kraak Award. To what are these accomplishments owed?
OTOSIRIEZE: A hunger to get better and better with my craft.
Recently, I was reading your story, “A Tenderer Blessing,” first published in Transition magazine. It touched on themes of unconventional love. And this is quite prominent in a number of your works. What is it about this theme that you find so interesting?
OTOSIRIEZE: There’s nothing “unconventional” about a male falling in love with another male. What interests me is how ridiculous expectations of masculinity—in which there’s something supposedly called “guys’ behaviour” or whatever—prevent most males from exhibiting the emotional range that they’re capable of. I want to write about those males, queer or heterosexual, who do not conform to this, who find themselves in intense friendships, some of which are held by frank love that is neither sexual nor restrained.
What is your creative process like?
OTOSIRIEZE: I write anytime I want or need to. But when I’m writing new fiction—which I haven’t done in a year now—I try to write in the mornings, first thing after waking up. Mostly, though, before writing, I take brief walks instead. I take these walks daily, sometimes with music in my ears, to clear my head. I draw inspiration from everything.
Though I cannot imagine someone as good as you having to deal with this, I have to ask anyway: how do you deal with rejection?
OTOSIRIEZE: Even top writers get rejection letters. Only a handful don’t, the ones who’ve attained a level where all they send out is nearly always solicited. I get a lot of rejection letters because I make a lot of submissions. It’s funny, though, considering they all come from the same five to eleven magazines.
So, do you currently have a full-length in the works?
OTOSIRIEZE: I have a collection of short stories, completed in August 2016, that has been doing the rounds with literary agents since, unsuccessfully so far. But I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the responses.
In 2016, you edited the publication, Enter Naija: The Book of Places, which captures the intricacies of various Nigerian cities. What did you aim to achieve with that publication and how far would you say that you succeeded?
OTOSIRIEZE: When I first had the idea that became Enter Naija: The Book of Places, it was a way of filling a gap in the Nigerian artistic space. There was no anthology of writing and visual art that focused on places in Nigeria. I made a call for entries on Facebook and, in one month, 35 writers and visual artists sent in work. The e-book, with an Introduction by Ikhide R. Ikheloa, was published as a free, downloadable PDF to mark Nigeria’s 56th Independence anniversary. I had no lofty hopes for it, so it is beautiful to learn from people that it sort of expanded their awareness, to see it get considerable mentions in online magazines, and priceless to find an essay on it in one of my favourite magazines, Chimurenga’s The Chronic.
You have followed it up with Work Naija: Book of Vocations. Is it going to be a long-term series? What future plans do you have for it?
OTOSIRIEZE: It’s a long-term project that I call the Art Naija Series, in which concept-based anthologies focused on aspects of Nigerianness would be published online by Brittle Paper. Work Naija: The Book of Vocations focuses on the idea of work and brings the total number of artists published in the series to 51. Its introduction is by Rotimi Babatunde, who was so gracious as to write something that adorable and detailed. A towering essay on the exploration of work in literature, titled "Of Work and Its Refuseniks" and published on Brittle Paper and Praxis, inspired by the anthology, a mighty compliment to the contributors for which I'm grateful. The third anthology, which will hopefully be out before the end of the year, will take on a concept much more ambitious than the first two. I want the series to be an archive where someone can find Nigeria with all its complications and nuances.
Pa Ikhide once wrote, and I am sure you must have read this before, “One wonders: What is being taught in Nigerian universities in the name of contemporary literature these days?” As an academician who specifies in literature, what is your stance on the popular accusation levelled against the Nigerian academia with regards to its alleged disconnect from the trends in Nigerian literature?
OTOSIRIEZE: The accusation is valid. Most of the books recommended for undergraduates in Nigeria are either up to ten years old—which, on its own, is no problem of course—or they’re of a quality beneath their level. I shudder each time I recall reading certain novels recommended by lecturers during my undergraduate days. How can our graduates compete outside the country when they haven’t read as many contemporary books as their international counterparts? And this will continue happening as long as nepotism is prioritized over quality.
Being one of the most prominent bloggers of African literature, courtesy of your unrivaled work at Brittle Paper, where would you say Nigerian writing ranks among its fellow African counterparts?
OTOSIRIEZE: If Nigeria dominates literature from Africa, it is primarily due to numbers. My friend, the Camerounian blogger Nkiacha Atemnkeng, jokingly wrote that there are more Nigerian writers than other Nigerians. So many of Africa’s firsts have come from Nigeria—Wole Soyinka’s Nobel Prize in Literature, Ben Okri being the continent’s first black Booker Prize winner, Dele Olojede’s Pulitzer Prize, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Orange Prize, etc. In 2017 alone, the Brunel, Etisalat and Commonwealth prizes went to Nigerians. But if the most acclaimed African writers have mostly been Nigerians, the most stylistically innovative have come from other countries—Zimbabwe’s Dambudzo Marechera, Ghana’s Kojo Laing, Kenya’s Binyavanga Wainaina and Yvonne Owuor. At the moment, I think that the finest creative nonfiction comes from Kenya.
I have been fortunate enough to work with you at Brittle Paper for a while, and of course, when I was coming in, you basically put me through. Do you see Brittle Paper as an avenue for you to influence upcoming African writers?
OTOSIRIEZE: In the months we worked together, you wrote features and I had to look at them before publication. One or two times, I suggested ways you could make a few things even better, tone-wise. I think I was only doing my job. But the personal tone it often took was because, frankly, I see potential in you, your blogging and your poetry. I felt I could tell you a few things you’d find useful in writing generally. I don’t think of it in terms of “influencing” but I would certainly want to give a few words to someone who has the willingness to learn. And I myself still need such words.
You have had quite a long history of working with Dr Ainehi Edoro, who I can personally say is a truly wondrous woman. How would you describe working with her?
OTOSIRIEZE: Ainehi is one of the powerful visionaries on the global literary scene. She understands not only the adaptability of literature in the Internet age but also how it can be harnessed to build a community, and crucially, how literary culture could be made appealing to casual readers. She creates buzz about initiatives that might possibly go unnoticed. She curates and documents conversations on some of the most important subjects of our time. She blogs about writers’ fashion and hair in a way that makes you want to read that writer’s work. She’s even creating a new category of literary celebrities. She publishes new writers who would otherwise have no platform. She publishes writing belonging in marginalized genres or categories. Since 2014, for instance, people published by Brittle Paper when they were still newcomers to the scene now count among themselves two Brunel Prize wins, an Etisalat Prize win, a Commonwealth Prize win, and countless nominations: the LAMBDA Literary Awards, the Caine Prize, the Miles Morland Writing Scholarship, the Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets, the Gerald Kraak Award, the Nommo Awards, and so on. That’s vision. That’s incomparable. I wonder what the literary scene would have looked like without what she is doing with Brittle Paper.
One wonders, indeed. And I want us to circle back to what you were saying about the age of the Internet. A popular criticism is that the Internet has caused some sort of proliferation of sub-par writings into the public space all in the name of literature, by amateurs who give the art a bad name. Do you think this is valid, considering the quality of works being released nowadays?
OTOSIRIEZE: That criticism is often valid. But it’s not merely about being in the Internet age; it’s also about a lack of willingness to work hard on the part of writers.
If you could change just one thing about Nigerian literature, what would it be?
OTOSIRIEZE: Actually I would like to see more than one change. I would like the Nigerian literary space to be diversified: we need more voices from groups on the periphery—queer voices, science fiction and fantasy. I would like strong, honest governmental support for literary initiatives. And I would like a resurgence in the drama genre; fewer plays are being published now than before.
In recent years, Nigerian literature, and African literature at large, has seen a surge of new writings which discuss issues which are often considered taboo. This year, the works of Arinze Ifeakandu and Romeo Oriogun which focus on queerness have been celebrated in the literary community. You have also published a good number of works with such themes. Do you think writers can possibly bring about tolerance for such?
OTOSIRIEZE: Writers can help start the conversation. It would take more than literature to ensure tolerance. When you have an anti-LGBTQI law, it is politicians who can open the path to tolerance by repealing the oppression they elevated to new levels.
With the recent abduction and subsequent release of Chibuihe Obi, whose essay in Brittle Paper apparently did more than ruffle some feathers, do you think there is a growing lack of safety for Nigerian writers?
OTOSIRIEZE: Absolutely. In 2016, Pwaangulongii Dauod had to flee his city after his house was ransacked. Then Romeo Oriogun was assaulted and continues to endure a hate campaign. The saddest part was that while Chibuihe Obi’s kidnap lasted, certain people seen as leaders in the literary community spread the silly, tone-deaf suggestion that his kidnapping was opportunistic and had nothing to do with homophobia. This lack of safety is aided by people like these who should know better: they use their positions to inadvertently encourage discrimination. There appears to be a tacit agreement to disown a part of the literary community.
It has been said that the prevalence of cis writers tackling queer themes is just a form of taking ownership of other people’s stories and that it therefore leads to a kind of artistic insincerity. Where do you stand on this?
OTOSIRIEZE: The teller of a story matters, always, but not as much as the manner of the story. Theoretically, if a heterosexual writes truthfully about queerness, with dignity, then I see no problem with him writing it. However, in the large, curious world of publishing, we need to continue this conversation about ownership considering how heterosexuals writing about queerness often have access to opportunities that queer people writing about queerness don’t—sometimes precisely because of the way such heterosexuals write about queerness, the outsider gaze they bring to a reality that is most in need of an insider gaze.
There seems to be a correlation between popular Nigerian writers and literary prize-winnings nowadays. Do you believe literary prizes are important to the making of a writer’s career?
OTOSIRIEZE: They are. But, as Petina Gappah writes in her “Dear Tete Petina” series on Brittle Paper, writers can also make it without prizes. Some of the big names of this decade so far—Imbolo Mbue, Yaa Gyasi—did not come through prizes.
With African writers being more celebrated than ever, thanks in part to Brittle Paper’s intrepid publications, a form of celebrity culture has developed. Do you think it’s healthy for the community, considering the possibility of celebrity worship marring the art itself?
OTOSIRIEZE: Everywhere, celebrity worship often gets in the way of true appraisal of quality. What Brittle Paper has achieved is to make the writing life celebratory, and in the way it combines the personal and the artistic, nobody else does it on the global literary scene. This is important. But our editors are also literary scholars and writers so we know the line between those two things. It’s important for everybody to know that line.
In one of my favourite articles of yours, you argued that the sentiment that Adichie somehow owes her success to Beyonce’s sampling of her speech in “***Flawless” is imperialism in the works. In the same vein, can we not say that Nigerian writers seeking validation from foreign prizes such as the Caine Prize is a kind of unhealthy worship of imperialistic impressions?
OTOSIRIEZE: I don’t think the essay has the same premise as your analogy with prizes. But to write for prizes, in a way that de-prioritizes the truth of a story, is unhealthy. And when we consider the “imperialistic impressions” that come with foreign prizes, we should also consider how, in many countries on our continent, government support for the arts isn’t as gigantic as it is in the West where these prize monies come from. There is a direct link between political support and artistic freedom. We cannot have artistic freedom from foreign prizes when there is little government support that isn’t for political ends.
The Turkish writer, Elif Shafak once said, in her TED talk, “Writers are not seen as creative individuals on their own, but as representatives of their respective cultures.” In that speech, she placed scrutiny on the proneness of the literary community to expect writers from third-world countries to focus primarily on socio-political themes. Do you think this pressure, particularly in the African context, is justified?
OTOSIRIEZE: Perhaps there was a time it seemed justified. Right now, though, I don’t think this “pressure” is justified.
Lesley Nneka Arimah recently spoke about how she avoids didatics in her writing. And I personally find that intriguing because it seems more and more that African writers are exploring avant-garde territories devoid of political strictures. Do you think this trajectory is safe, considering the realities of the African situation?
OTOSIRIEZE: It is a good thing. Our literature shouldn’t be boxed or forced to replicate monotonous functions.
What do you look for in a story or a book, right before reading?
OTOSIRIEZE: As a casual reader, I go first to a book’s Acknowledgements page. It’s a beautiful place to discover literary agents, literary networks, to gauge the depth and pattern of the writer’s research, and then a certain quality that moves me: soul. Then I look at the opening lines and closing lines. If it’s a short story, I just check the opening and closing parts.
Interesting. So, what are your three favourite books by Nigerian writers?
OTOSIRIEZE: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun and Americanah, perhaps in that order. And then Teju Cole’s Open City. Americanah is the funniest novel I've read.
If there’s one book you wished had been written by you, what would it be?
OTOSIRIEZE: Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, and Americanah. I’ll stop at two.
Tell me something about yourself which no one else knows?
OTOSIRIEZE: Literature occupies the smallest percentage in my reading. My close friends actually know this.
What will you want Otosirieze Obi-Young to be known by the year 2117 [a century from now]?
OTOSIRIEZE: Hahaha. Can we finish 2017 first?
Conversations is a series of discussions with young Nigerian writers. It is helmed by Kanyinsola Olorunnisola. Tell us what you think about his conversation with Otosirieze below.
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