Interview With Adewale Maja-Pearce
BY YEMI ADEBISI
How would you describe your experience so far in Nigeria’s book industry?
I’m right now a consultant for Evans. Evans bought over Nelson Publishers and they want to develop together a literary series. I told them we shouldn’t leave the foreign publishers to be publishing Nigerian writers. Some of these old publishing houses publish textbooks for schools. We are ready to publish six papers every year. Instead of waiting for other series, let’s publish the first two so we would generate interest. We would begin to launch our first papers in November at the Lagos Book Fair that is run by Toyin Akinosho. We have to make things happen in Nigeria. Apart from that I have a small publishing company since 2005 called New Gong. So that is really a small fascinating publishing house we have and we don’t physically publish books. We load up a book and then they print, sell it as Print On Demand (POD). We don’t have probably any physical book in Nigeria. If you want to buy it you have to go online to purchase the book. The only problem we have in Nigeria is distribution because in small developed country like South Africa and even in America, the publisher is not involved in selling the book. The publisher goes to train that we have so, so and so copies, bla, bla, bla. So the train has bookshops all over the countries and they will distribute it. So the publisher doesn’t know how they sell the books; we don’t have that in Nigeria.
Let’s talk about the POD you spoke about. Judging by probably what you have been able to put together, what would you advise an author that wishes to publish through such medium too?
Anybody can do it. If you simply go to our site, there is an icon in the site called ‘create space.’ When the book is ready you upload it, the cover and the inside pages. They will give you a file page so that every of your work will be filed. What you see about a week is your book on our site. We print and sell as requested. And it is a big advantage, a very big one.
There is this rumour that you have some personal grudges with Wole Soyinka over your comments in your review on one of his books. It was even gathered that you were exchanging abusive words publicly. Can you throw more light into this?
Grudge! No! I first met Soyinka shortly after he won the Nobel Prize because I used to work for a magazine in London called Index On Censorship. I was their African editor from 1983 to 1997. So, before I joined, Soyinka had already been published by them and also had written for them. He was familiar with the magazine. So when I joined, I told him, “I am the new African editor. I hope you will continue with us.” We have a means he used to send us materials; we had a good working relationship. The problem came when he published You Must Set Forth At Dawn. I was asked by the London Review of Books to review it. I didn’t like the book so I gave my reasons. So, when it came out people told me that Soyinka didn’t take it kindly with criticism. I was just working for a magazine anyway.
About a couple of years later, I wrote to him because I was working on JP Clark’s book during the time they were launching Femi Osofisan’s book on JP. I said “do you have any piece on what you said about JP Clark?” This was because Soyinka alleged that Clark had been going around telling everybody that he (Soyinka) when he was in detention, he was suffering from terminal syphilis. It was a big thing, of course they went to court and everything and Clark eventually withdrew from the case. I said to Soyinka, I’m engaged in JP book and I just want to know if you have further thought on your allegation. He said ‘no, no, no,’ he doesn’t have anything; that he stands by himself and that, by the way, “I am glad to get in touch with you.” He said he was willing to tell me that he had heard from so many quarters that I had written negative reviews of his book, that he hadn’t read it and he was not going to read it. I applied for a fellowship at the University of Nevada, United States of America with about $50 for one year nine month. I didn’t know that Soyinka was on the board. He said by the way I understand that you applied for this fellowship. So, I have to excuse myself for any consideration of your candidateship. So, I just wrote back to him that well, it was my fundamental human rights to say if I don’t like a book, that you yourself has reserved the right to say what you like about other people’s works. I know that censorship takes many forms. I said it was his choice to do whatever he had done. So, I was surprised when I read what Soyinka said about me. He called me “unscrupulous and unprincipled.” He said that, when they were celebrating Femi Osofisan that I wasn’t there and my book wasn’t there. But I have written about it. I was having my argument with JP, we are in court now. I sent him (Soyinka) a mail that unscrupulous and unprincipled stand like aggravated libel to me because you are telling me you are discouraging my work; you are calling my moral character into question. You give no proof. You just abuse. l don’t think that it is worthy of him. But what he said was aggravated libel. I would have gone to court but decided not to. It is not that I really have problem with Soyinka but he wants to have problem with me because he doesn’t like people saying negative things about his work. Greatest writers in the world write banned books from time to time. I don’t know what I should call him. Maybe, because the white-man gave him the prize, maybe he thinks he is a god. It is God that cannot be criticised. I wasn’t criticising him as a human; I was criticising the book I was given to review. It could be written by anybody but my review will be exactly the same and I did not make reference of him outside what he wrote in the book and in the process I was praising him that he was the most sophisticated writer in Nigeria because he wrote such a book like The Man Died during the civil war.
With that development, did that affect your sense of judgment on creativity? Were you humiliated?
Humiliated! No. I thought it was unpleasant.
What were your other reactions?
I was a bit shocked because it was too virulent, too personal and I thought it was unworthy...
But what exactly did you say was wrong with the book?
I said that basically it was an ego thing to show affection that he was in the revolving tragedy of Nigeria being a central figure. He was talking more on IBB and Obasanjo. His relationship with Femi Johnson; talking about how he was running around, being important, he said nothing about Femi Johnson which he was supposed to be writing about. It is boring. IBB invited him to his house because he won a Nobel Prize. IBB likes to hang around with intellectuals. You and Achebe carried yourselves to go and beg on behalf of Vatsa. IBB killed Vatsa. IBB sent his emissaries begging on his behalf and Soyinka forgave him. Do you know what I entitled the piece, "Our Credulous Grammarian". So you know, he became friendly with Obasanjo. In the book he keeps saying how Obasanjo humiliated him. Vatsa was a member of ANA (Association of Nigerian Authors). He was active in ANA; he drew all his people for ANA programmes in Abuja being the minister of Federal Capital Territory. He gave ANA plots of land, what happened to the land? One word from Soyinka, Clark, Achebe would solve the problem. You are all lobbying with these people. The guy killed Vatsa. It’s just to say okay, we want you to do something on this land. You know this thing we have in Nigeria, it is all about me, me, me. With Soyinka, the first Nobel Prize winner in Africa, don’t you think it comes with responsibilities? So, I think it is hypocrisy.
Apart from Soyinka, do you think most great writers enjoy criticism?
Most of them don’t.
Have you had any encounter with any other writer in the same similitude?
Yes, Ben Okri. He doesn’t like being criticised. Maybe he thinks he is a god too.
Let’s look at the future of Nigerian literature. What do you think of it?
Nigerian literature is also even by itself problematical because I think the problem was the language. Hubert Ogunde formed his troop in the 1940. Do you know that there was an Igbo book published in the 1930 by one Peter Nwanna? I was asking myself that if Ogunde could in 1934 revive the tradition that went back to the Shakespeare’s mileage, why should Soyinka, a Yoruba man and a dramatist write only in English? So, I now went through all his interviews and I couldn’t find a concise answer. What I could find in one of his interviews was a contradiction, saying why should I be confined only to my own language?
That he rejected that. Well the population of Denmark is five million and Yoruba land alone is about 30 million. In 1950, Ogunde was banned by Akintola for two years from practicing his profession, from earning his living because he was getting Yoruba people, telling them what they needed to hear. Nobody banned any of these books here. They read them in London. If you are observing the whole things, you know how literature engineers the things that we practice, the concept of indirect rule are going to be extended. That is why we could take someone like Okonjo-Iweala to pack money and put it there because we are not politically independent. It doesn’t have any meaningful sense. Yoruba people tend to be proud of their tradition, culture and heritage. But where is the tradition? We have Hausa literature today. Though there is nothing wrong writing in English but do you know that we don’t have single Yoruba institute for Yoruba study. We don’t sponsor books written in Yoruba. Nobody could translate the books of this Yoruba writer for instance, Akinwumi Ishola to English and see what he is doing. Ishola said sometimes that let someone translate Soyinka’s books to Yoruba and see what Soyinka has taken from Yoruba culture.
------------------------------------------Interview conducted by Yemi Adebisi and published in Daily Independent of Monday, July 30, 2012. Reproduced here with permission.