Kelechi Njoku started writing stories based on folktales at the age of nine. His story Capable Men was shortlisted in the Naija Stories Best Short Contest (2013) and his other story African Time was a finalist in the monthly African Book Club Contest (2013). Njoku was a participant at the 2013 Farafina Creative Writing Workshop. He has been published in Kalahari Review, Nigerians Talk LitMag, Reindeer, Aerodrome, Open Road Review, Reflections of Sunshine (an anthology) and The Clip. His story, Survived By, was shortlisted for the Writivism 2014 Short Story Prize. It eventually emerged Western Region Category Winner at the Writivism Festival 2014. Here, he talks to Sydney Mugerwa about that and other literary matters.
SM: How did you know about the Writivism 2014 Contest?
KN: Online. With the friends I keep on this space, it would be difficult to miss.
SM: Which authors have greatly influenced your writing style?
KN: None that I know of. There’s no name I can nab and say “Yes! This person influenced my writing.” I just pick up things as I read. However if you want to know genres of literature that have rubbed off on my writing, that’s easy. Popular fiction (crime, romances, thrillers, especially medical and psychological thrillers) encouraged me to care about plot and drama in storytelling. Then, of course, with the African books in my father’s library, I’d always known it was okay to write about people named Ebube, not necessarily Beckley. I didn’t go through that phase where I thought my world view did not matter. I learn a lot from writings by women too; there’s this very personal touch they bring to storytelling that I love. The kind of books that inspire me any day are Life-Size by Jenefer Shute (a novel about a woman’s struggle with anorexia); The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives by Lola Shoneyin (this is about polygamy, family politics, infertility) and Richard Preston’s The Cobra Event (about a deadly virus the US government was trying to stop from getting out).
SM: What was your inspiration in writing Survived by, your shortlisted story? KN: A friend of mine on Facebook had, in January 2013, posted a picture of a very old Asian woman who, as he put it, had lived through three centuries. She was born in the twilight of the 1800s, lived through the 1900s and in the 21st century, was still alive. (I don’t know if she’s still alive today.) That photo got me thinking of old age. We all hope to live long, but how long is too long? I thought the Asian woman must really be lonely, frustrated and must have outlived all her contemporaries, including most of her own children. And what’s worse, she wouldn’t be in the best state of health. So thanks to this woman, Survived By was born.
SM: Wouldn’t it be wiser for African writers to write in their native languages which more of their countrymen speak as opposed to Western languages which only a few elite speak fluently?
KN: I can’t speak for every African writer, but let me tell you a story from my own little corner. My friend and fellow writer, Sodiq Alabi called me one day to ask if I could translate a huge body of work written in English to Igbo (my mother tongue). I said I couldn’t and promised to look around for a professional translator or someone who studied Igbo in university who could. Now I speak Igbo, but beyond the few times I cosmetically use it on social media, there really isn’t a situation where I have to write in Igbo. I couldn’t trust myself to do a good job since my knowledge of Igbo is mostly oral, not written. Most written communication in Nigeria is conducted in English. My grandmother, for example, speaks Igbo, but is not literate, so what will writing in Igbo do for her? She can’t read it. Anyway, this is a matter for linguists, but for us to correct this problem, deliberate language policies from governments in schools at all levels will just have to be drawn up. It was done with Swahili, I think. Also, oral literature is being relegated to the background more than is healthy. Before we look at writing and reading our stories in our indigenous languages, perhaps we could start with “speaking” these stories in said languages, either as originals or translations from Western languages. What’s broadcast media, especially radio, there for? That way, those in the rural areas who do not know the difference between literature and chemistry will benefit.
SM: What is the reading culture like in Nigeria?
KN: It’s largely utilitarian. The general consensus seems to be to read only what provides immediate, or at least, readily perceptible benefits. So people read the papers for the news; students read to pass exams. They also read inspirational literature to get advice they hope will improve their lives. Not forgetting scripture and other religious texts which are close cousins to inspirational material. Nigerians read, but the questions have always been: What are they reading? Why are they reading? What structures in our education, publishing and economy have collapsed to place us where we are now? The only other books I see sold in traffic are Chimamanda Adichie’s novels and Chinua Achebe’s There Was a Country. Adichie is a literary pop icon; her name sells books although many people know her without having read her.
SM: Would you consider a career as a writer?
KN: I thought I already had a career as a writer.
SM: Who did you consider to be your biggest challenger for the top Writivism prize?
KN: From my end, the competition ended in the shortlist. When I got the email that my story made the Longlist of 14, I was more than satisfied that one year of rewriting and resubmitting my story from one magazine to the next competition was over. I didn’t even tell any of my friends about it or share the link on my Facebook wall until the Shortlist came out. I was very excited to make the Shortlist. I did not only get to be a stamped Writivist via the anthology, I got to meet beautiful minds at the Writivism Festival, especially fellow shortlisted writers. Life can be really dreary; getting to hang out with my kind once in a while is priceless.
This interview is the third in a series showcasing new African writers where African writers share their story as writers. Check back every Friday for a new interview. Thanks to the folks at Writivism for conducting the interviews and choosing to share it on our platform.