OBINNA UDENWE: ON THE NIGERIAN LITERARY SCENE

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2021 was quite a good year for the literary scene in Nigeria with a number of authors winning big both on the national and international scene. One of the big winners in the field of literature is the author of “Colours of Hatred” — Obinna Udenwe. The Abakaliki-born writer cum civil engineer won the inaugural ANA Chinua Achebe Prize for Literature with his aforementioned work. The book also put him among the top three finalists for the 2021 Nigeria Prize for Literature (a prize later on won by Cheluchi Onyemelukwe with her novel “The Son of the House”). In short, we could say that 2021 was the year of Onyemelukwe and Udenwe. With such wins, we could ascribe Obinna Udenwe as one of the authorities in the Nigerian literary space.

In an age in Nigeria where it is believed that professional book writing doesn’t receive the plumes it deserves, our editor goes on to discuss these and more with Obinna Udenwe.

Chimdi Asika: Let’s meet you

Obinna Udenwe: My name is Obinna Udenwe, I am the author of COLORS OF HATRED. I am a novelist and civil engineer. I also do a little bit of politics. I live in Abakaliki but currently divide my time between Abakaliki and Asaba where I have my construction project ongoing.

Chimdi Asika: You’re from Abakaliki yeah? You don’t mind telling us your date of birth do you?

Obinna Udenwe: Yes, I am from Abakaliki and I was born in January 1988

Chimdi Asika: How did you venture into writing? How did you start writing owning to the fact that you are a civil engineer?

Obinna Udenwe: I started writing immediately I finished my secondary school WestAfrican Examinationin 2005.By 2007, I started writing the story that became SATAN AND SHAITAN. Finished in 2014— it got published by JacarandaBooks in the UK. I started writing COLORS OF HATRED in 2009. So, I started writing in 2005 and between then and now, I have published a number of books and countless short stories. For me, it’s been constant writing from 2005 till now.

Chimdi Asika: Let’s go straight to asking:If you can describe the Nigerian literary scene or let’s say, “the creative industry: using the Nigerian literary scene as an example”, how would you describe the Nigerian creative scene?

Obinna Udenwe: I think it’s becoming very robust. It’s becoming very mature. I think we have the highest number of writers in Africa and possibly in the world(outside the US, Japan, Canada and in Asia, and Europe). Someone from Kenya said recently that “No major literary prize in the world have a short list or long list without having a Nigerian on it”. I think the Nigerian creative writing sphere as we have it now is very robust. It’s getting very mature, it’s getting sweeter. The game is becoming more fun.What happens when you have something like this is that it beginstoseiveout the very immature or the amateur writers or amateur players on the field it beginsto seive out those who do not know their onions. This is because we havea lot of writers dishing out wonderful short stories, wonderful novels, poetry…and those who cannot keep up, you hear of them one year, two years and then, you don’t hear from them again. So now, there are a number of writers who are making exploit across the globe as we have in Nigeria now. You cannot have a common wealth shortlist without having a Nigerian in it. It’s difficult not to. And I think this is because of the effort of the first generation of writerslike ChinuaAchebe, Wole Soyinka, Cyprian Ekwensi, Flora Nwakpa and Buchi Emecheta. These people did marvelously in exploiting great creativequest inthe world. When they read their word, they recognize them— they held them in high esteem. So, whatever work that’s coming out from Nigeria was also giving some consideration. So Nigeria was in the eye of the world for a long time till now so that when you submit your stories to be published outside of Nigeria, they’ll look at itand pay attention because they believe that Nigeria has a hub of talents.

We are doing very great. I think we have one of the most robust music industry in the world. Even in Nollywood: the movie industry. Let’s say with the coming of Netflix, itis filled with many Nigerian wonderful stories.We also look at what EbonyLife is doing. I think that the creative industry in Nigeria is…We’ve never had it this good.

Chimdi Asika: Okay, you said that the literary industry is getting more robust as the day goes by. Let’s talk about the audience especially in the literary world. What do you think about the audience because it seems like or would I say there’s this stereotype that younger people barely read these days so… What do you think about the audience? Does the literary society really get the audience that they need especially within Nigeria?

Obinna Udenwe: I don’t get the question right. Is it how mature the audience really is or…?

Chimdi Asika: Like are the audience really there?

Obinna Udenwe: Of course, of course. I think social media is helping get people to read especially young Nigerians. So, we are having more people reading and buying books. For instance after I won Chinua Achebe Prize for literature, there were lots of people from social media especially Facebook, Twitter and Instagram looking out for the book and wanting to read it. So, I think that the reading culture is beginning to come up again if it was dead before or if it was dying,I think it’s being revived. I think more people are getting interested in writing, I think more people are getting interested in reading books. All thanks to social media. Social media really helped us.

Now that you mentionedthe media, do you really think that the traditional media is doing enough for the literary industry because we barely hear things that happen like we hear about other creative industry. We talk about entertainment and how the media is really carrying itand maybe carrying other spheres of the creative industry. Do you think the media is doing same for the literary industry?

Obinna Udenwe: I think the traditional media hasn’t done very well as much as the new media which is called social media. Not just in the literary industry. I think it’s everywhere: music, film, sports and so on. I think it’s because of the way it(traditional media) is structured: the way it (information) gets to the audience. It takes time for information to get to the audience unlike social media.Actually, there used to be a time when newspapers used to have the literary section were we read up reviews and information regarding Literature. I don’t know if they still do. I think they can do more. We have more of online literary magazine, but we don’t have a traditional literary magazine that you can go to book shelves or newspaper stand and buy. There’s a lot of fashion magazine that people buy in traffic in Lagos but we don’t have literary magazines like that, the traditional literary magazine. I think we need to have a change in culture. We can have more traditional magazines that’ll feature sports, movies, films and so on.

Chimdi Asika: Let’s talk about the challenges facing the literary society in Nigeria. What challenges can you pinpoint and say “Okay, these are the major challenges the literary industry is facing”.

Obinna Udenwe: First of, writing in Nigeria is very difficult. For you to write and excel in Nigeria is very difficult because: one, you have a challenge of the environment itself especially if you’re in an environment where you could stay for one week without electricity and do not have enough resources to afford an alternative source of power. So, it’s a problem. There’s also the challenge of finance. Aside the few of us who could be said to be rich writers, there are others who do not work or who are not employed or who depend more on their writing. There are no residencies even.These are the challenges.

Chimdi Asika: Are there solutions to these? What solutions would you proffer for these challenges which you just mentioned.

Obinna Udenwe: Yeah.For instance Wale Okediran established the first Writers Residency in Nigeria(the Ebedi International Writers Residency). There’s need for more people to start residency. There’s need for wealthy people to endow grants and fellowships so we don’t depend on thegrants and fellowship from the West. There’s need for those who run establishments like media establishment to pay more attention to arts and creativity, writing and all of that.

Chimdi Asika: Alright, thank you so much for your time.I must really appreciate you for giving us your time.

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