In Conversation with BM Dzukogi: “I do not think it is the duty of ANA to distribute books”

BM Dzukogi is a well-known name in Nigerian literary circles. He is the founder of the Hill-Tops Art Centre based in Minna and a facilitator of numerous literary initiatives including the annual MBA Colloquium and the Nigerian Writers Series. He has been a mainstay in ANA at both state and national levels for over two decades and recently held the post of ANA General Secretary. Here, in his profuse idiolect, he talks to Praxis’s Emmanuel Dairo about his forays in literature and his ambition to be the next president of ANA, among other issues.

How did you get involved in literature?

Peer group influence. A friend pulled me into it. I think the theory that says there is an environmentally created creativity worked with me. The environment was the peer group. I doubt I would be here without that environment of my friends, one of whose zest for the arts affected me. The talent, of course, must have been lurking around somewhere in me to smoothen the shoots. After that trigger, the ANA environment made the literary creativity escalate. In life, all continuous activities eventually reach the centre of their spirituality where the soul becomes arrested and assumes the incapacity to retrieve itself from the repetitive or familiar engagement. It is the reason extreme beauty or excellence can be reached in human endeavours; it is the reason humans exhibit exceptional traits or behaviours with precision and accuracy. In that state, man becomes helplessly engrossed, engulfed, consumed or overwhelmed by the essence and soul of such activity till that final disappearance. That’s where I am headed, at which point we create more literary environments for others to realise themselves. I am close to a climax upon which a new course would be designed. So, it is my friend who pulled me into literature or creative writing. And I am happy in this field because it is the only thing I have. Nothing could have mattered without it.

You have published nine books so far cutting across different genres. What influences your choice of genre when thematizing a subject?

Well, in Minna, the tendency for everyone is to become a poet. You are just a poet. I think there is something divinely profound about Minna and poetry. In my book: Minna: Valley of poets and writers, it is all in there. This genre got its high frequency when we became leaders of ANA Niger in 1994. Somehow, poetry is the most written genre in Nigeria and the least patronised by the Nigerian public yet these writers aren’t going to let go of poetry. Every new writer seeks to be identified as a poet. I think the reason is that writers seem to know and acknowledge [that] the spirituality of creative writing is in poetry; poetry is the real essence in which communication solidifies its stance and leaves an eternal meaning; poetry is the soul of all that is scribbled and verbalised; it makes truth come clearer, and to bitterly sink deep into man. Another time, it stealthily enters the soul to appropriate life. This is especially so with the oral nature of poetry. In Midnight Lamp (my first poetry collection, 1996), nature and creation occupied me. That too was a product of the farming environment at the Hill-Top Model School, Minna where I was an active participant. The second poetry collection (These Last Tears, 1997) was largely induced by the political events of the Abacha era. Many poems there are rebellious and seek freedom for the self. There was nothing deliberate about writing them for any specified theme or purposes other than poems were simply being written by Dzukogi. By the year 2000, I had completed two other ones that I am yet to publish. One of them is entirely about the love journey between my wife and me. My first collection of stories is the same path of occurrences like the poems as well as the second which is yet to be published. However, two of my essays – Sex is Beautiful and Young Couple, Young Home – are targeted at family life. There are novellas, largely unpublished novellas, targeted at young people. I have a piece of faction: a mixture of poetry, fiction and essay, all wound into one piece. I have books of my personal quotations: one published and others unpublished. There is a published book of my interviews with literary journalists in Nigeria (Being True to Myself) which is about one’s literary activism. There is a second one on the way. Truly, I enter any genre I want with ease except drama which I abandoned long ago. Now, my poems espouse the beauty of nature and love. I romanticise there a lot. Behind the guise of humour and amusement in my stories are specific [social] messages. The essays are for immediate passing of a nagging message, as contained in the sexuality essays for example. However, my essays on literary philosophy are what I love most. They urge man to indulge in heavy contemplation about himself, his environment and all of creation.

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Dzukogi welcoming Amu Nnadi to the Book Agency

Apart from being a writer, you are one of the foremost literary administrators to have emerged from the country. How would you compare the experience of writing literature with the experience of managing and producing it?

Ah! Thanks for this o. When you do things, you needn’t do them because of what others would say, but because it is worth doing. As for me, a writer living in a developing country, you must do the two (writing and managing literature). In fact, for us who are teachers, it becomes a double burden that must be carried at the same time. At a time, the children; students begin to see you as extra-teacher; they start relating with you more closely and you could see in their eyes the desire to be like you. To write is hardly a huge task because of the dominating interest within us. So you can write anytime, any day without qualms. To administer is a huge task. For me, the burden of making students or the youth better than me is the trouble all the time. The trouble is to create platforms for their growth in the face of little or no resources. So, you are left with designing and redesigning strategies where those who have the resources could come in, or else using the ANA platform to draw the attention of governments and individuals to the need for funding art. Once you get that opportunity, you just skew it towards the young ones without anybody detecting it. You see, in ANA Niger, we have perfected the child-philosophy as a focal point of our artistic endeavour. Using the child or student is the only permanent development initiative that can escalate growth in writing. At a point, the burden of growth goes off you as that child becomes a grown up with the art in his hand. That time, he can find his ways. This experiment is working in Niger.

Now, while I was a teacher of Physical and Health Education at the Hill-Top Model School from 1989 to 2006, I had to establish a literary club within the school. The then Principal, Hajiya Jummai Agwai gave me the permission through a memo I wrote. I did that because some people in the languages department wondered why I should be that prominent in areas that was traditionally theirs. That permission I got was what eventually led to the founding of the Hill-Top Art Centre ten years later in 2004. Before then, I was the one grooming pupils/students in many aspects: the school debate, poetry performances, broadcasting, essay writing, drama, songs etc. The principal listened to me all the time. Those language teachers had to surrender and let me exist side by side with them to the point that they started inviting me to join them in training children in literary activities. I got many merit awards for that within the school. However, my activities with the kids were largely towards writing. While doing this, I was also doing the ANA things, I was the centre. As ANA guys, we were everywhere in Niger State until we broke into the national scene. It has not been easy to raise children from nothing; from zero age to acknowledged new writers. We have been able to take teen authors (students/pupils) to ANA conventions – Port Harcourt, Imo, Kano, Zamfara, Bayelsa – as a strategic development pathway for the entrenchment of creative writing in Nigeria.

The experiences of writing come as purgative, therapeutic, excitatory, soul-lifting, which to a large extent affects the writer and the reader. But administering arts is something else that is unidirectional to me – making grounds for art to flourish. However, it is slow in realisation. See, we needed over two decades to see writers like Maryam, Saddiq, Paul, Halima, Deborah and others emerge. Remember, it is more challenging to administer art in Northern Nigeria than in the south. Here, the audience and corporate interest is very, very limited, probably absent. People are just unconcerned. There is virtually no corporate sponsorship as we have in the south of Nigeria. So, you first of all have to tune people in before administering art in the north. Therefore, if we succeeded enough in Niger to have brought massive awareness, especially among the youth, you can imagine what we can do at the national scene. These are the experiences I seek to export to the national scene. With my track record in successfully managing various aspects of The Book Agency, MBA colloquium, Teen Authorship Scheme, Mazariyya Entertainment Company where we produced Teacher Yekondunu I and II along with Maiwada and others, I believe I am ready to manage literature at the national level. Next is the ANA Presidency

You have been a mainstay of Nigerian literature for some decades now. From what you have seen then, and what you are seeing now, do you think contemporary writers can match or surpass the feats of their illustrious predecessors?

If the things written today were written in the times of ‘illustrious predecessors’ they would have matched or even surpassed them. The writings of the early writers are perpetually vulnerable to being surpassed. We are not living under any curse, are we? But like I said somewhere in an interview, the critics are overwhelmed by the size of what is being produced today. So they know not the books, they can’t tell exactly what is happening. There is so much being produced today. Then there is the politics of approval and cliquery in Nigerian literature. Access to a global audience, due to lack of distribution and established platforms for book development and promotion, is also limited. All these combine to put away books that are of high literary quality. Creativity is not getting lower, it is heightening in Nigerians. Creativity is not the exclusive preserve of any generation, past or present; it is just that the older guys had all they needed to reach the peak of their abilities. In that privilege and opportunity, they forgot tomorrow as shown by the absence of credible platforms for the growth of later generations. As the country settles down to order, we expect hardworking writers to also gain prominence at national and global scene.

There is a perceived divide between writers from Northern Nigeria and their Southern counterparts. What do you think must have informed this perception?

Politics! What is the difference between you and Saddiq or Paul and Dami Ajayi? No difference. Today, what distinguishes us is the quality of our works. You have excellent writers in the North as much or less as the South. The only difference could be the idiosyncrasies defining each region or peoples but not in quality. Our Nigerian ways are largely the same. I don’t see any difference between me and Akpuda. We are just writers from Nigeria. Those labels no longer work; those politics have disappeared long ago. People have got to come to terms with the new reality of all of us being writers from Nigeria. That’s all.

Perhaps, your experience as an administrator and your passion for writing may have made you start the Hill-Tops Art Centre. What is the vision behind it and how can the initiative be successfully replicated at the national level?

You are right. It is the passion. As ANA members, we didn’t have any platform for deliberate growth of our art. The Art Centre was established to ensure that those coming after us do not suffer that tragedy, especially those in our region. The young ones can only attain excellence when deliberate steps are taken to enhance their artistic skills. This would enable them to attain proficiency in literary skill at a young age. The experiment has worked with the Hill-Top Art Centre because products of the place have shown exceptional creative writing skills to the admiration of the elders. As the General-Secretary of ANA, in collaboration with Camilus Ukah we inaugurated creativity centres in two schools in Imo State. If I become the President, I would vigorously pursue the establishment of art centres in selected schools through members in various states. It is an easy thing to do. We will provide consultancy and make available programmes of the Hill-Top to interested schools anywhere in the country. We shall make it a schedule of the committee charged with coordinating the National Teen Authorship Scheme for implementation. I will revive all the programmes I instigated at the national level the last time I was there as the General-Secretary.

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Dzukogi with some Mentors and Mentees of the HiltopArts Centre

There is this feeling among young writers that the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) is not worth joining because it has little to offer them. As someone who has been in ANA since 1991, can you tell us how the association has contributed to your growth as a writer? What opportunities has membership of the association opened to you?

Well, we must recognise that ANA is the umbrella body for Nigerian writers. It is scattered across over thirty states of the Federation. Almost all writers in Nigeria who mattered passed through ANA either by membership or by passing association. Some of us had cause to complain about this while we were young in ANA too. The complaints were about the absence of established structures where young writers can pass through to either sharpen their skills or publish their works. So, members just go to the annual convention and that’s all. Even our national programmes are limited. Of course, there is sense in not being where value is not accessible. I can see there is currently the proliferation of art organisations in Nigeria. It is good for the development of arts generally. Options must pop up across the country to bring nearer to the creative individuals platforms they can use to further their skills. However, those of us who subscribe to ANA, and have come through her over time, must stay back and reorganise it by creating value for the members and making others see the good of being in her. This is one of the reasons why I contested for the office of the General-Secretary in 2011 after which some programmes of mine were adopted by the national exco and implemented. For example, the Nigerian Writers Series, if members know that there are ten slots annually where you could be published free, this could be a motivating factor for new writers. The National Teen Authorship Scheme is also a platform where future writers could start out from secondary schools and become successful. That scheme will return Insha Allah. We shall create and register it as an appendage of state chapters with coordinators. They will be the ‘golden eaglets’ of ANA. Also, it is not beyond ANA to collaborate with universities or government for the establishment of creative writing institutes or design creative writing programmes where young writers can do short term post graduate programmes for fine tuning their art. At the Book Agency, we established Minna Creative Writing Class for young writers. These collaborative efforts can come about through a dedicated leadership. Dr E. E. Sule is working on something like that in my University. If we get the leadership of the association come October, nothing should stop us from initiating that move at the IBB University Lapai and some other institutions who will partner with ANA. Everything bothers on leadership and making the association attractive to members and non-members. So, we shall use our credibility and the confidence people have in us to genuinely reposition the association where you will be happy to belong.
As for the opportunities ANA has opened for me, those days, there were ANA anthologies which we featured in, the ANA environment greatly enhanced my art through numerous interactions and visit systems, ANA used to have workshops which we attended. During Okediran’s era, there were many activities across Nigeria organised by ANA, so, everybody was on the move. Such programmes provided our teen authors the opportunity to see great writers like Soyinka, Emenyonu, Osofisan, Zainab Alkali, the original copy of Things Fall Apart etc. That was good. To create a unified action for art in Nigeria is the reason why you have on my manifesto the creation of the Nigerian Annual Literary Circuit which we shall design with willing arts organisations along with the Federal Ministry for Culture to promote and propagate. I am not alone in this. I have a team of dedicated writers we are working with: from Rivers to Anambra to Ondo to Lagos to Kano, Kebbi, Benue, Bayelsa, Abuja, Oyo, Kaduna, Imo etc. Each time I contest, I mobilise groups to join me. Our team is clearly framed already.

Talking of opportunities, you recently brokered a deal between ANA and the erstwhile governor of Niger State, Babangida Aliyu, for the establishment of the Nigerian Writers Series which has seen the production of 10 books in its first instalment. Now that he has left office, what structures are in place to ensure the initiative does not die?

I am going there to further the series. While we ask our old sponsors to stay with us, we shall seek new sponsors for the project. The structure for the series is on ground as set by the current exco. What is left is to get new sponsors and probably register the series with CAC as we will do for the teen authorship scheme.

The current president of ANA, Remi Raji, is also about to leave office, and you have thrown your hat in the ring in a fierce contest against your friend, Denja Abdullahi for the presidency of ANA. What do you have to offer the association that he does not have?

I create programmes and implement them. This much I have stated over and over. I do not wait for others to create ideas for me to implement, I do both. I have tangible and intangible projects and programmes I designed and operated for the benefit of all: MBA Colloquium, the Hill-Top Arts Centre, Nigeria Writers Series, Minna Literary Series, National Teen Authorship Scheme, we sought and got a book agency in Niger etc. But more, if I say I will do, I do. God helps me all the time because the mind is pure, and always in service of others. It is more beautiful that way. Check my manifesto, read my interviews, you will discover that I am more practical than other contestants. All those ‘I will serve you well,’ ‘I will take ANA to a new level,’ we should ask, how? Members must ask where are the physical structures that the contestants have voluntarily undertaken in the past to give them the presidency of ANA? It is good to lean on people’s initiatives and do it well but not when you have a thinker and a doer around. This is the situation.

One of the criticisms levelled against ANA in recent times is that they have done little or nothing to address the poor book-distribution network in the country. Your manifesto also talks about “the limited or non-existent distribution networks” being the bane of ANA’s growth as an association. If you are elected president, how do you intend to solve this problem?

I do not think it is the duty of ANA to distribute books. However, ANA can talk with bookshops, booksellers, publishers through a round table to re-engineer this aspect of book development. There is a lot to learn from Minna. See AMAB Bookshop in Minna, it is distributing books effectively around the country. Parresia is also distributing her books very well. We intend to organise a meet with these outfits to find ways of tackling this issue.

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BM Dzukogi

I noticed that your manifesto also talks about seeking government intervention in literature. How do you intend to convince those who are of the view that government patronage ends up compromising literature?

Who is government? The country’s resources in trust of government, we all own. They have a duty to release a part to Nigerian writers who are citizens of the country. We are not taking funding because it is not ours; we do because we are part-owners. How does it compromise literature? If ANA takes her money from the presidency, how does it compromise Dairo’s novel? How does it compromise Maryam’s Bonbel? See, I am not part of all those Odia Ofeimun’s theories o. Even Odia is soft-pedalling.

Still on the political front, do you think it is possible for a writer to get involved in politics without staining their conscience?

Dr. Okediran is still sane, isn’t he? Abubakar Gimba didn’t contest any election but he was with them, what did he do wrong? Shehu Sani is a Senator now. See, we must move to the centre to positively influence policies to make art and society work. To stay back is to be cowardice. No further excuse can be germane in my eyes.

Thank you for your time, sir.

Thanks man, be well.

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