Being A Writer in Perilous Times: Jennifer Emelife In Conversation With Su'eddie Vershima Agema

Recently, the country has been faced with many tragedies and so it boggles the mind what it must mean to be a writer at this time. Like Chuma Nwokolo once said in an interview with him two years ago, a man whose house is on fire reaches for water and not a pen. So I caught up with Sueddie Vershima Agema – SEVHAGE publisher, development worker and writer, via email and we discussed about the many ways a writer can fit into today’s society to solve its problems.

Jennifer: I’m thinking about the likes of Christopher Okigbo too. But if we say the pen is mightier than the sword, what then should a writer be doing now? About the Plateau killings. The abductions and insecurity. The negligence of leaders.

Su’eddie: Well, the pen is mightier than the sword depends on who is holding the pen and what the person is doing with the pen. Some of Nigeria’s biggest issues at the moment are caused by those in charge of our policies and its implementation. In essence, the signatures for the right things are misused. That pen is being used wrongly. The sword of the herdsmen is one of the major things we are all afraid of now, from Benue to Plateau, Nasarawa, Taraba, Enugu… It is crazy. What are writers doing? How are they using their pens? A few poems here and there, largely scattered with spoken word artistes creating punch lines from the disaster. While it might seem like words are not enough, I think we need to be more deliberate with our writings and actions. Yes, we need to write more and more, to talk and spread the word. There’s a lot of disinformation going on, lots of fake news. As writers, we can tell these narratives in our stories, our poems, our non-fiction. We can use our social media channels. But more than these, we need to engage in what political processes we can because the writer should be more than just a silent watcher. We need to stand and talk.

There’s the BribeCode movement which anyone can check at which is a movement that calls for active citizenship engagement. Nigerians need to be more active than reactive. More engaging than passive. What can we do in our various corners in addition to writing? Can we do development drives and campaigns? Can we shout against all the injustices and ensure that we don’t forget it as soon as the next issue comes up? Today, we will be talking about the fighting and killing in Benue, or about a Minister forging an NYSC exemption letter, then tomorrow some political misadventure involving senators would have us forget that we were just shouting about some other injustice or stupidity.

Su’eddie reading his book.

So, what should a writer be doing now? First, write to show what is happening and against everything wrong. Engaged in every process that can bring about change through every legal means possible. Join the political process and find a way to change the evil system that is responsible for our big falls. Writing is important as was shown in the case of apartheid in South Africa where writers did much but we must do more than write, particularly in Nigeria. We must come together at some points and also speak out loudly, if possible pass communiques against evils prevalent in society.

Jennifer: And it’s funny still that people say writers write about ugly incidents in Nigeria and the continent to score cheap points.

Su’eddie: Well, yes, it is funny and it isn’t. It gets tiring when everyone keeps writing about the same thing and getting celebrated for it. Why shouldn’t we laugh at such antics? But let’s ask again, are the issues portrayed correct? Are they things we need to talk about? We all write about our experiences and yes, we are allowed to be innovative, imaginative. We can put in fantasy and things like that…

I believe everyone has a right to their opinion about literature and writing. We all write for different reasons. For people who look to literature for fun and entertainment, then yes, writing in the way most others write would be in that light. However, I believe that while we should not lose the essence of writing – which is entertaining and educating, where we can – we have a responsibility to help save our land. It is a personal conviction that I have which of course, is not binding on anyone.

Jennifer: I remember the day Nigeria lost to Argentina in the 2018 World Cup, just a day after the Plateau killing.  Nigerian writer, Okey Ndibe put up this post on Facebook about how disappointing it is that Nigerians are more concerned with mourning the World Cup loss than they are about the nation’s peril. I’m wondering if it’d have been possible that one felt both losses in equal measure.

Su’eddie: Okey’s patriotic comment is reflective of the man in Achebe’s story who would be trying to catch rats as game while his house is on fire. One would expect us to simply not care about the World Cup considering the brazen killings that weekend…

Source: Brittle Paper

A lot of people try to get relief in this country of ours and football is one of the easiest ways. It is like religion and the country had hoped that we would get at least, some succor with a win, not just over any country but over Argentina who had won us with a single goal on all the occasions they had won. It would have been good to win but unfortunately, we lost and it became something close to double tragedy for us. To have lost then and have Nigerians not care or shake it off would really not be true to us or ourselves. Like it or not, we are a footballing nation and it is part of us. I know several people who would pause mourning their loved ones for a football game. No kidding! Having said all of this, I don’t think we could have mourned both in equal measure. I don’t see anything wrong in mourning both losses. They are both deep, but no one can deny the weight of the Plateau killings which are far heavier. It is also sad that we seemed to forget the whole Plateau killings after the match – and I think that is where Okey’s concern also comes from. I daresay that we are lucky to have lost that match. As the writer, Uchenna Ekweremadu says, we were saved the embarrassment of marrying while we were meant to be mourning. And after that, we had the Lagos road roast that claimed a lot of lives. What happened? We quickly forgot it. Till date, there are more people who are still crying over the FIFA loss than the deaths and other crazy things happening in the country. Therein lies the problem and the depiction of ourselves as the man pursuing rats as I explained when I started answering this question.

Jennifer: There have also been words going round about how writers, once brazen in their advocacy, become docile after being appointed to serve the government they once criticised. As much as I believe that it’s a fine development to have writers occupying significant political positions, I wonder where one can draw the line between truth saying, loyalty and ass-licking.

Su’eddie: It is hard to draw any line because some of these organisations have rules that do not support speaking against the system. A house divided against itself cannot stand. You are appointed to a position for a reason and it is only stupid to start speaking against your establishment or office. Would you do so? Thus, it isn’t easy to shoot one’s self in the foot, if I can borrow the cliché. Furthermore, Nigeria has a system that is rotten and even getting into the system does not help anything. There’s a need to change our system and some people who get in actually do their best but there’s a limit. But in the end, like I said, you do not shoot yourself in the foot. In that case, what should the writers in such positions do? They should do a lot by helping to change the system in every way they can. Some actually do but it is not always easy to see because there are too many other wrong things happening around such that we fail to see what little they do.

Su’eddie Vershima Agema

Having spoken in such light of that elite but nearly negligible group of fine men and women who are writers, let’s talk about the others. All I have said thus far doesn’t mean there aren’t those who are there who are simply just enjoying themselves and forgetting their responsibility to society o! My dear sister, don’t think that every writer is a righteous person. We have opportunists, thieves and idiots who are writers. Anyone with a fertile imagination and skill can write. Matter of fact, if you have the money, you can become a writer by just getting the right person to scribble whatever you want in your name. Pay publishers or paste it wherever you want and voila! Another writer born. Now, there are some patriots who speak out to get heard so they can get popular then get into office. What do they do when they get into such offices? They show their true colour and live their life. Or do you think that a thief with a pen is automatically a prophet? We can only hope in the end that people will remain faithful and respect the garb of the pen-holders, then live in truth. But that is expecting too much because I daresay we have more hypocrites and opportunists than purists.

Jennifer: I think it was Emily Dickinson who wrote Tell All the Truth, But Tell It Slant. Isn’t it possible that these writers can tap into such strategy? I’ve read many stories from Chuma Nwokolo and I can comfortably say he’s one Nigerian writer who manages to, skillfully, blend fiction with political writing; usually hilarious and thoughtful, all at once. What other Nigerian books or authors do you know that do this?

Su’eddie: Nigeria has a lot of writers and writings who speak against the prevailing evil in society and even against the rot of politics. I don’t know what you mean particularly by political writing but I think it is easier to find works that are not tilted in this light than not. Maybe if you were to fine tune the question, I would know what you mean. I personally have writings in this light – if it is what I think you mean. I would easily call out several several books but let’s start with Achebe, Soyinka, I. N. C Iniebo, Okey Ndibe, Wale Okediran, Teju Cole, Sefi Attah, Ifeoma Chinwuba, Elnathan John, Chimamanda Adichie, Bizuum Yadok, Edify Yakusak, Helon Habila… Matter of fact, just pick almost any literary novel in Nigeria and their short stories too. There are people who say that we have too much politics and societal issues in our book. Isn’t that similar to what you were saying about scoring cheap points earlier on?

Jennifer: Exactly. So my question is that with certain writers, we find that we are enjoying a good piece of Literature, stylistic, imaginative, beautiful sentences et al, but at the same time, we can perceive the truth in them, we can spot the ugly reality. So I’m saying that we need many more writers doing this so creatively. Does that make sense to you?

Su’eddie: Well, you do have a point. We need to engage more creatively using our pens as tools of emancipation but I am of the school of thought that the artiste should not only write but also find other ways of ensuring society gets better – whether through politics or political participation, volunteerism, development work, mentorship or the like.

Jennifer: Let us talk about the whole El Rufai and #BoycottKaduna Festival drama.  Is it possible that a literary community can speak up against corrupt practices and still not identity/associate itself with partisans of these practices?

Su’eddie: The #BoycottKaduna affair happened last year and made the Kaduna festival popular. Now, as a former Chairman of the Association of Nigerian Authors and a member of several literary bodies in Nigeria, I know that it takes a lot to put anything literary – whether a festival, a book project or so – in place. We are in dire need of sponsorship and patrons. So, any help coming from any quarter, particularly government, is very welcome.

Source: Instagram

The Kaduna Book Festival was not done by the man El Rufai but the Kaduna government so it is easy to have spoken out against any perceived corrupt practices or injustice done by him as a person while being able to still go ahead with the festival. It would be hypocritical of us to say we will just shout at the wrongs, avoid ways of promoting our craft and just fold our hands. It is unnecessary pride. Now, we really need more people to invest in the arts. Perhaps, when we have more patronage, we would have stronger voices to criticise government and sometimes boycott properly.

Jennifer: The President of France, Macron’s visit to Lagos and Fela’s shrine had caused major controversy too. While some creatives applaud this, others see it as a compromise to what Fela stood for.

Su’eddie: This is similar to the boycott Kaduna magana we just spoke about. Macron’s visit did a lot for the Shrine and gave it such popularity as it never would have dreamed of getting in a long while. In no time, infrastructural development came to that place. Some people got jobs for the event, money was made too. A lot of positive things came out of that event. I think there was nothing wrong in Macron coming there and anyone who says that his going there was a compromise to Fela does not know Fela or the philosophy of the shrine. The Shrine is an open place for anyone and everyone to come to. Fela wouldn’t have refused Macron entry to the place. Do you have an idea of the people who used to visit the Shrine when Fela was alive? You would be amazed. The Shrine is said to be a place of worship of sorts where anyone – saints and sinners alike – are allowed to come and be free.

Jennifer: Perhaps you’re right and I guess there are always different ways to look at a thing. As a publisher and writer too, what can you say about the new crop of writings emerging from this country? How relevant are they?

Su’eddie: I am excited about a lot of writings. There are lots of works that make me weak and sad but I wouldn’t concentrate on those ones since there are a lot more to make the heart smile. I might not always agree with a lot of the themes being portrayed by some writers and even their style but there is so much going on with beauty that leaves me smiling. I will focus more on the more recent writings and writers. This is obvious particularly in the prose and poetry genres. From the likes of Elnathan John, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, Agatha Agema (nee Aduro), Debbie Iorliam, Leslie Nneka Arimah, TJ Benson, Pever X, Seun Odukoya, Amara Nicole Okolo, Victor Olugbemiro…to mention a minute few, there’s so much to catch in prose.

If you check the poetry scene, there’s so much you can’t even begin to talk. From Servio Gbadmasoi, Innocence Silas Sharamang, Romeo Oriogun, Kukogho Iruesiri Samson, Richard Ali, Shittu Forowa, RMG, Ehi’zogie Iyeomoan, Oko Owi Ocho, Chibuihe Light, Bizuum Yadok, Torkwase Igbana, Maik Ortserga, you have too many people to choose from. Importantly, there is the rise of the Spoken Word form which is selling literature more than anything else. Dike Chukwumerije, Bash Amuneni, Efe Paul Azino, Daisy Odey, Andrew Patience, Celina Kile, Ciara Ogah, LKG, Ene Odaba, Ruth Mahogany, Tonton, Graciano, Samuel Yakura, Vic’adex…

We don’t have too many playwrights, sadly. Jude Idada, Joshua Agbo, and Isaac Attah Ogezi come to mind though. We have a band of critics… I am glad to be among an elite group of vibrant publishers committed to spreading the literary scape including others like Winepress, AMAB Books, Paressia, WRR, Cassava Republic and Farafina. Next question is are they relevant? Heaven yeah! They are relevant and very very relevant. We are expanding the discussion and it is fun.

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