INTERVIEW: In Conversation with Nzube Nlebedim

Michael Chiedoziem Chukwudera & Nzube Nlebedim

On the growth of African literature, diversity of voices and the roles of literary magazines and criticism

Nzube Nlebedim hails from the ancient City of Arochukwu, a bedrock of Igbo civilization and he lives in Lagos Nigeria. He is the Editor-in-Chief of The Shallow Tales Review, one of Nigeria’s fastest growing literary outfit. Since 2019, he has run the magazine with a team of two other writers and editors, Orji Victor Ebubechukwu and Chidiebube onye Okohia. The Shallow Tales Review publishes six issues every year; the issues are released every two months. I met with Nzube Nlebedim on behalf of World Arts Agency to interview him. Mr. Nlebedim’s responses to my questions are mostly on behalf of The Shallow Tales Review. But he also shares some of his insights on the growth of African literature, literary criticism and some other African and Western literary outfits with whom The Shallow Tales Review are either in good company and aspire to. 

Chukwudera: In your essay titled, “Travelers” published in The Republic, you say what most excites you in the world is African literature and its growth. What is your idea of the growth of African literature? 

Nzube: Nigerian literature has been in a somewhat closed ideological space. This is since the era of the Onitsha Market Literature in Nigeria which can be likened to the era of the Romance in English literature, before the long prose renaissance that came after. It seems that most of the creative works of that time tackled majorly sociological topics like postcolonialism, the effects of English and European culture on Africans, and the re-portrayal of the African image. The messages of Achebe, Ngugi and their contemporaries were very important, yet the true human realities seemed to have been stifled by the narrow array of topics which the writers of that era dabbled into. They did not seem to cover certain aspects of the lives of Africans. Topics like sexuality and migration, for instance, were not very well explored. African literature is growing further to accommodate some of these voices that were stifled before. We have new writers like Taiye Selasi, NoViolet Bulawayo, Chinelo Okparanta, Teju Cole, Akwaeke Emezi and the likes exploring fresh characters and places. We now have a vast array of queer and diasporic and indigenous creative fiction in the market today. That’s changing our idea of Africa and how it was formerly perceived: a people now owning up to who they are. This and the continuity of it, is the growth of African literature for me.

You defined the growth of African literature as its expansion towards a wider lens in terms of themes, geography and its ability to accommodate more diverse voices. But recently, there has been concern that the present crop of writers have become more interested in topics that are of western than African concern. How do you address this concern?

I think every writer is free to write about what they want to write as long as they know enough about it or feel strongly about it to want to write about it. Whether Western or African ideals, if you feel inclined towards it and you can tackle it properly, go for it. I do have a preference, though, for writers and writings about home, about Africa. But then, I see the exotic hybrid in today’s African literature as a result of the increase in diaspora writings. It is good since it opens our eyes to a wider perspective as opposed to putting us in a box. As Taiye Selasi says, Africans should be global citizens.

You founded a literary outfit, The Shallow Tales Review. How does this espouse your dream of the growth of African literature?

In The Shallow Tales Review, we publish new creative voices across Africa, and that itself is a great privilege, and a huge thrill. We strive to curate voices that were once shut out. We are open to the marginalised, and we tell stories that were once hidden. Queer voices are rising, for example, and we have published a number of queer literature and writers (note that there is a distinction between queer writing by queer writers, and queer writing by non-queer writers). We have also curated intense diasporic fiction and essays proclaiming what it is to be African in this time. That’s a huge plus for us in our aim to push forward African and Nigerian literature.

You mentioned that there is a difference between Queer literature and literature by queer writers. Why is this distinction important?

Yes, there is a clear difference between the two. Many people hold the assumption that because a writer writes or wrote a queer story or poem, they are gay or lesbians or bisexuals or transgender or binary, and so on. That is often not true. Of course, there are the queer writers who are queer, too. However, humanising queerness in works of art should not be seen as an announcement of queerness. Many writers are not queer but feel the sense of urgency to humanise queerness. Writers are humanists who strive to empathise with all shades of humanity. I fall into this category of writers who empathise. It would be odd, for example, to assume I am a woman because the protagonist in my novel is a woman who carries pro-feminist placards.

Otosirieze Obi-Young has said several times that there is nothing like queer literature, because we don’t say straight literature or heterosexual novel. How do you reconcile his view with yours that Queer literature is becoming the norm?

I read and referenced Young’s essay where he mentioned that, in an essay I wrote earlier this year. In any case, my greater concerns are not about labels and the name given to genres. My opinion is that queer literature, or whatever, exists in whatever name it goes by.

You have had a lot of things to say about Queer literature. And in your review of Ákwáeke Emezi’s The Death of Vivek Oji, you opine that Queer literature is the norm.

I was thinking about the fact that it was time to take off our self-imposed idea of morality hinged on divergent sexuality. Lately, I have been writing a lot about queerness. In fact, my forthcoming novel is a queer one. And that is not to say I want to be regarded as a queer writer per se, but I want to show that as humans we are not so different from each other because our sexual orientations are different. Many of us are attracted to the same sex. I wrote in my essay published on Afritondo that sexuality is a human phenomenon and would always be a human rather than a geographical issue. More writers are coming out to speak about and promote queer literature, and it is enlightening to read them. Ákwáeke Emezi, Tendai Huchu, Chinelo Okparanta, Romeo Oriogun, Jude Dibia, Alaa Al Aswany, Wame Molefhe, Barbara Adair, Damon Galgut; they have humanised queerness very commendably in their writing.

What effect does your work as a full time literary editor have on your work as a writer?

Well, it has affected my writing positively. I have over the years become more critical of my writing since I started editing primarily. And although literary editing has its consequences on the mind of the creative — in that it tends to clip the wings of the creative mind — it also helps them assess their own work on its terms. It helps provide a more critical appreciation of my pieces before I send them out for possible publishing. I can tell quite easily which of my pieces would be successful and which would flop. I can tell those that would be published and those not worthy of publishing. Editing does this to you, for you.

How do you cope with the fact that editing various writers regularly introduces many voices into your head?

Admittedly, it is maddening to be exposed to a hundred creative minds at once, begging for a space in your head. But it is a good feeling and a rewarding one too. Over the years editing The Shallow Tales Review and reading all the fiction pieces that come to my table, I have been exposed to people, the vulnerability of their thoughts, and the sheer strength of the creative mind. And so, I have more pictures in my head than Google images. In reading diverse voices, I’m exposed to articulating mine, and if already done, amplifying it.

Are you able to maintain the originality of your voice?

Yes, I would say I have been lucky enough to master my voice, and so I can easily tell, if I ever lose part of my senses, which work I could have written and which I would not have done, from the style. I have developed my voice over time, and I’m still developing. Like I said, listening to other voices can only really help me amplify what I have in mind already, and not alter it.

How do you go about your work? Do you write and edit every day? Do you have a fixed routine?

Well, I don’t write every day. I have a lot of work to do, and so I’m hindered from writing every day, except I have a project to finish. Over the past two months, for instance, I wrote at least a thousand words everyday to finish my recently completed novel. If there are two things I do every day, it’s editing and reading. I think I read more than I write even.

Tell us about The Shallow Tales Review.

We are an inspired team. Our poetry editor is Chidiebube onye Okohia, the author of the poetry chapbook, Of Dark Times and Darkling Times. He is also a critic and essayist. Our nonfiction editor is Orji Victor Ebubechukwu, a Nigerian critic and fiction writer.

I came about the name, The Shallow Tales Review in a rare moment of lucidity. I had been thinking of a name for the journal, and it came when I never expected it, and I knew that this was it. I was then in the bucolic village of Etuk Uruk Eshiet in Etim Ekpo, Akwa Ibom state. I got my team together soon after, and we started it. I couldn’t edit poetry so much, and so Chidiebube onye Okohia’s coming into the team was a relief for me. We have grown strong since then, two years ago.

How does TSTR stay afloat?

The magazine is heavily funded from the inside. We are a passionate team made up of three passionate writers and editors: Okohia, Ebubechukwu, and myself. While our passion is commendable, we’d be thrilled to have external funding in order to fulfill our mission to pay our contributors.

Do you and The Shallow Tales Review team think there are specific issues of great importance in the indigenous literary space that the growing number of new literary magazines should strive to address?

Yes. We do feel strongly about the monetisation of writing in the smaller presses. Writers should be paid at least a modest honorarium for their published work. African writers especially are suffering and smiling. Writers deserve at least a stipend for their work. Being published is great, being paid for it makes the experience even better. We aim to do that, and we encourage other literary journals to do so, too. I commend magazines such as Olongo Africa, Agbowo, Isele, Afreada, and others who pay. We also think that editors of journals should not be in a hurry to publish works. Edit them well in collaboration with the contributors, if possible. The business of publishing transcends mere publishing; it is like being in a classroom where editors sit with contributors and explain to them how their works can be better. We teach here at The Shallow Tales Review. We make it a point of duty to let even rejected contributors know, as much as we can, why their works were rejected. We point out what should be done to make their work better. More literary magazines should do these.

Lagos seems to feature regularly in your stories . . .

Nzube: I’ve lived in Lagos for the most parts of my life. I still live in Lagos, and so I’m indebted to tell the stories of this city. I began last year to write and compile nonfiction pieces around Lagos. Three have been published. The fourth hasn’t. I plan to publish a full collection someday about my experiences in Lagos. 

What role do you think literary criticism is to play in the growth of African literature? 

Nzube: William Giraldi has something to say along these lines when he calls out literary critics and their intellectual and ethical obligation to art. The place of art and literary critics would always be an important one, even though it seems they are less regarded as the creators themselves. I feel that for the growth of African literature, the role of literary critics should be regarded as an important other side of the coin of literary creation. I commend such websites and platforms like Afapinen, Afrocritik and The Lagos Review that take as their business the criticism of literature. Writers need to be kept on their toes.

The intellectual depth of African literature has suffered in recent times. The result of this is that the relationship between politics and literature has become less tense and African dictatorships are being held less and less accountable and artists now produce works which leave them more comfortable than in a state of urgency. What do you think of this situation?

I remember mentioning in an essay I wrote and was able to publish, and I quote from it, that “many of these new writings are not dangerous enough.”  I would not dare say that the intellectualism in African literature is dwindling. If anything, it’s blossoming, for me. I think the writers of today simply no longer have that nationalistic fire that the Achebe and Soyinka generation had. Those were the heady days, when those writers thought that, perhaps, there was still great hope for Nigeria. Now, hope has dwindled, the fire of nationalism is gone. We now only have the fire to leave Nigeria and make our lives better out of here. So, it’s not so much a problem of dwindling intellectualism than it is a problem of dwindling hope.

Abdulrazak Gurnah has just been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. He has been writing for 52 years, yet he is obscure to much of Africa. What has been in your mind in the light to his win?

I haven’t read Gurnah, unfortunately, and so I cannot fashion a judgement on his winning the prize or not. Chika Unigwe says that, in the end “we know what we know.” And that’s true; Gurnah is obscure to whom he is obscure to. I’ve known about him before he won, even though I hadn’t read him. We can only speak about our own reality. I congratulate him on his victory. It’s a welcome news for black Africa.

Do you think literary magazines are a good enough replacement for the faulty syllabus system in raising awareness towards writers? Does the work which goes on between literary magazines and writers measure up to the collaboration between the African Writers Series and Examination Board to bring new African literature to the masses in the past century?

There’s an incredible amount of punch power small presses have, even against bigger presses. One of the advantages of small presses where magazines and journals fall under, especially electronic magazines, is its reach towards the younger and mainstream audience that usually do not have the wherewithal to buy books. It’s also helpful since magazines publish shorter pieces that are easier to read, and at the same time push forward the writers to the public eye. On literary magazines being “enough replacement,” I cannot at the moment conjure a fitting response that might not be deemed politically incorrect or outright disrespectful.

The effect of the recent renaissance in African literature has had some effect on the kind of poetry that is mainstream, coming from Africa. Some critics have also said that many poets are losing their originality in the scramble to get published in foreign journals who can pay them. Do you think the changes are as dire as the critics put it? 

I wouldn’t say it’s a poetry problem. It cuts across all genres. I once argued in an essay (although my ideas were censured at the time I published the essay) that there is a politicisation of Western ideologies by African writers to allow us win more awards and get into foreign and heavily-paying platforms. I have adjusted my opinion on that since. When a writer hears that the New York Times or the New Yorker or the Paris Review seem to publish more queer literature now, the writer focuses their themes on that. It happened, it will keep happening, as long as the African literary infrastructure remains the way it is. On your use of the word “original,” I have no right to say what’s original to anyone or to define the term. As long as a writer is producing good literature, they should keep at it. Originality exists in a state of flux■

This interview is powered by World Arts Agency.

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