Monday, August 31, 2009

A Chance to meet Ayo Arigbabu and His Fistful of Tales

I recently caught up with hyper busy writer and publisher Ayo Arigbabu, in one of those places he hides to chill-out, away from it all. Not being a planned meet, he was gracious enough to give me a chat.
He talked about himself, his outfit DADA Books and his soon to be released collection of short stories; A Fistful of Tales. Excerpts;

Let us meet Ayo Arigbabu. Perhaps we should begin by having a peep into your background. What was growing up like?

Growing up was pretty sedate. I was the only boy for a long time so I learnt how to create my own world. Outside of school, I didn’t get to interact much with other kids so I hunted lizards, tried to trap stray chickens, kept a snail farm, tried to make my own toys, rode a bicycle that had no tires, climbed trees and generally created my own adventures within the walls of our large compound in Ipaja, a suburb of Lagos. Of course I also had a lot of time to read copiously. My dad indulged me a bit with books but it was really my late aunt Mrs. Kufo who tipped the scale by sending in box loads of exciting children’s’ books from time to time. Spending six years later in her house in Isolo with my cousins and all those books while in secondary school sealed the deal eventually, my mind got unhinged and I’ve been trying to cope with that interesting turn of events ever since.

You had your Education here in Nigeria?

Yeah, certainly. I studied architecture at the University of Lagos. Before then, I attended International School, University of Lagos and University of Lagos Staff School Idi-Araba for secondary and primary education. So you can say I am a thoroughbred University of Lagos product, especially when you consider that my father- a professor of Neurosurgery who is about to retire- has taught at the university for over 30 years and two of my sisters currently work at the College of Medicine. Did I add that I’ve got a younger brother in medical school too?

So you are a real Akokaite through and through. Interesting! Now down to creative writing, what book are you reading at the moment?

I’m currently reading two books on the flux between tradition and modernity by Prof. Louis Munoz. Before that, the last work of fiction I read was Eghosa Imasuen’s alternate history novel- To Saint Patrick, and the one before that was Margaret Atwood’s science fiction novel- Oryx and Crake. I have a book on 21st Century Design by my bedside and another book on visual design for films which I read from time to time.

That sounds like a whole lot, (laughter)

Well I’m naming all these books to sound very intelligent since that is what interviews are meant for but in reality, I don’t read that much except when in the loo.

(General laughter). Ok, Tell us About Your Book; A Fistful of Tales

A Fistful of Tales is my second collection of short stories. It contains 10 stories, some of them are actually vignettes and one is more of a poem. I put them together in a collection because apart from being borne in the most part out of the Crossing Borders experience, they also represented a phase in my writing where I consciously identified the sort of flavour I wanted my writing to have- something I get out of Biyi Bandele’s writing and Diran Adebayo’s writing as well- a gritty suave handling of the language in expressing largely urban situations.

Now the title, What’s the catch? Why did you pick that title?
I wanted a title with a punch to it because I tried to write stories that had an attitude. From the title, A fistful of tales is meant to put you on edge, because you don’t really know where the next punch will come from.

And I suppose the inspiration to write the book came from a desire to throw punches?

(Laughter) Well, really, I didn’t set out to write a book, I was just in a phase where I was trying new things with my prose and two years on the British Council / Lancaster University organized Crossing Borders online creative writing mentorship programme gave me all the excuses I needed to write more short stories. My mentor on the programme, the accomplished novelist Liz Jensen was also an immense source of inspiration. Reading one of her novels was quite refreshing and seeing how her own career was unfolding was also inspiring. Besides, Liz was quite an exceptional mentor on the programme; what more encouragement could a young layabout need to sit down to do some work.

When is it due out?

In a few days.

Writers always have some figures that influence their writing, who would you say are your own literary influences?
My literary influences are diverse, Hemmingway, Margaret Atwood, Wilbur Smith, Arthur C. Clarke and many others. In the contemporary scene, Toni Kan’s work inspires me because he does to the urban tale what I like seeing being done to such tales. He grabs the story by the scruff of its neck and throttles the life out of it till the reader is left gasping for breathe. That is what stories should do to you, they should make you gasp.

Nigerian writers have been gathering laurels in recent time. Many of these writers interestingly either live abroad or were published abroad. Do you hold the view that African writers have to leave Africa in order to achieve success?
It depends on what you call success. If you are after financial success then quit wasting your time and go work in a bank or an oil and gas company. If you are talking about literary laurels, history has proven that you can win any award on the planet while still writing from out of Africa. If you are talking about moving large volumes and being on the best seller list, Wilbur Smith has always done that with African stories. But for me, the highest level of success is having someone wag a finger at you and say: ‘You, that your story, I really loved it o.’ I don’t need to leave Africa to enjoy that, I like to connect with my audience and my primary audience is within the environment that inspires my stories.

Perhaps as a sequel to the issue of success, many successful African books (Those that have won major prizes I mean) are those that portray Africa in a particular light….that which is perhaps more appealing to western judges and reading audience, what’s your take on that?
I think that ultimately, the greatest power for agenda setting lies with writers, only if they choose to use it. If we spend more time complaining about our small minded leaders, focusing on war and strife, romanticizing poverty and generally cultivating an audience like that which CNN has grown- one which is used to seeing Africa as a country (and not as a continent) where hunger, disease and strife rule over a pre-historic civilization, then we also groom a publishing industry that looks out for such stories and a society that keeps reliving those horrors. If on the other hand, we deliberately push stories that reveal the richness of our African heritage, talk about young Nigerian scientists pushing the frontiers in NASA, talk about a young Ghanian doctor synthesizing a cure for AIDs from ideas he took from ancient African philosophies, talk about African states rescuing the rest of the world from invading aliens because the rest of the world had grown too sure of themselves and gone on a binge, then the focus of the discourse will change. Publishers will switch agendas immediately because those old depressive models are worn out and oversubscribed. That is why I thoroughly enjoyed Eghosa Imasuen’s To Saint Patrick, Eghosa is smart and brave, through his take on alternate history, he’s risen above the stereotypical small mindedness that ties us down. It will be a pleasure to see more science fiction from him. Africa is the next frontier, the publishers and writers that realize that early are the ones that will take the future.

Let’s talk about DADA as a company now(I hope I can call it that?). I understand that Dada Books is a subsidiary of a larger DADA outfit. What is DADA all about?
What are the other subsidiaries?

DADA is the acronym for the Dream Arts & Design Agency, a hybrid consultancy I founded when I realized that to find the sort of employment that would engage all my creative interests and wild dreams, I would have to create the organization myself from scratch. The fact that Dada is also the Yoruba name given to a child with dreadlocks also goes to show how special we consider our work to be at DADA and how resilient we are at trying to achieve our goals. Currently we have interests in design and architectural consultancy through our professional division called Dream Arts & Design Associates, publishing through our imprint- DADA books and we have plans to kick in a film and animation division in a couple of years. The agency also consults for Children And The Environment (CATE), Crown Troupe of Africa and the African Artists’ Foundation. We hope to harness our creative abilities in the near future to contribute to the actualization of Africa’s potentials. If our leaders keep failing at laying the basic foundations for an African renaissance, we’ll simply create a parallel universe and actualize our dreams there. That is the power of imagination.

Publishing is a rather sensitive business. What inspired your venturing into it?
I grew up having a very good relationship with books. I found comics particularly exciting because they formed a bridge between books and television. I remember creating my own Mickey Mouse stories with my older sister who is now a Radiologist. I’m not sure Disney would have been proud of our efforts then, but that was what sowed the seeds that later saw me working with Sewedo Nupowaku to create comics for Revolution Media way before DADA books came on stream. Through Revolution Media (then Evolution Media) we also published my first short story collection in an anthology called The Three Kobo Book in 2004 which also featured Deji Toye’s play and Dapo Ogundipe’s poems. However, The Three Kobo Book was only an extension of the dream the three of us shared while working together for the writers’ collective called Pen Circle in the university. That is where the thirst to work with other writers to create platforms for reaching an audience grew and that is where I started trying my hands at publishing by creating a small title called Whispers which had themed contributions from different members.

DADA Books has published two successful outings with I am Memory and Abyssinian Boy. There is a raised expectation about what will come next. That raised expectation, concerning what you would do next. Did you feel this pressure while you were working on A Fistful of Tales?

Interestingly, A fistful of Tales was finished in 2006 and was ready for the press by 2007. the collection was meant to launch the DADA books imprint, Jumoke Verissimo even interviewed me in October 2007 for her column in the Guardian to herald the book, however, by an interesting turn of events, DADA books was launched with Jumoke’s own poetry collection in November 2008 followed by Onyeka Nwelue’s The Abyssinian Boy in January 2009. So there is no question of being under pressure to meet expectations for DADA books while writing the short stories. My writing career is quite distinct from my existence as a publisher. If DADA books bids for any of my books and a stronger publisher comes to bid for the same book with a better offer, I’d consider it. But right now, I’m happy to be with DADA books, judging from what the young imprint has been able to do with its first two books. Onyeka Nwelue for example just had a very successful outing in India, and Jumoke Verissimo had a similar outing in Macedonia. When the writers on your imprint take on the International scene and hold their own beautifully, you feel even more motivated to achieve more with their work.

Your role of Publisher and writer, how do you manage both? Any conflict?

The only conflict I combat in being a writer and publisher is in having to give up time that I could have spent writing, trying to shape up another author’s book. However, when that author’s career starts to blossom and my input as publisher contributes to that unfolding, I feel a sense of worth quite different from that felt from being published myself. It’s a totally different kind of spiritual fulfillment and at that level, there is no conflict.

Budding writers would really love to hear it from the horses mouth, How can they get their work out of the closet? How can they published?

The advice is very simple; Write, and write well. Not because you want to get published but because you have a great story to tell which you just can’t hold within you anymore. That is the only way to get published. Every other thing is extraneous.

And for aspiring publishers?

Aspiring publishers should not be flippant about their intentions; they should be in for a long hard ride and should be ready to think on their feet. Publishing is a trade whose future is not very certain, there are insinuations that print might fade away soon and for me, that uncertainty makes it all the more interesting, it means that you have a chance to be at the fore front of innovation. I do not think print will fade away, not in our lifetime. I just think the way it is being tackled will have to change. But beyond the physical medium, I find marketing and distribution to be the most exciting phases of publishing, despite being seriously handicapped in the Nigerian situation, every publisher will need to take those phases even more seriously. These are the things I tell myself all the time because I still consider myself an aspiring publisher. Unless I push a book to sell over a million copies in this environment, till then, I’m still trying to make things work.

There is currently no definite literary season in Nigeria unlike in some other countries despite the abundance of talents. What could be done about that?

Well, as the cliché goes, talent is not enough. Groaning about government not doing enough is also not enough. For those with vested interests in the book trade it is about making up your mind whether the island you’ve stumbled upon where people wear no shoes signifies a potential market for your shoe factory or a waste of time for your lovely products. For writers, it is about deciding if your mission in life is to write what foreign judges like to read and hopefully win a prize and jet out of the country or if you want a book that millions of Nigerians can identify with and crave to read again and again. It’s not just publishers that need to work harder; writers have a whole lot of work to do as well.

You are an active part of CORA, what briefly is the group all about?

The Committee For Relevant Art (CORA) is a collective of enthusiasts, activists, practitioners, critics and producers in different fields of the arts who converge out of a common sense of responsibility towards the sustenance and nurturing of the Nigerian arts scene and to initiate and run key programmes aimed at intervening in the arts at different levels. I walked into the CORA fold in 2002 when as President of the Pen Circle- a writers’ association I participated in actively while at the University of Lagos- I approached the collective to collaborate with CORA on an annual Pen Circle event. We were given the platform of CORA’s annual Lagos Book & Art Festival to do our thing and I simply loved the air of possibility that surrounded the collective. That plus the fact that I love the banter, the gossip and the osmotic ease with which knowledge is exchanged between members. CORA has been a fantastic platform for affecting the creative space around me positively, creating other platforms for other people to actualize themselves and for incubating some of my own creative endeavours.

So like they say, what Next? After A FistFul of Tales, what should we expect?

There is a novella that was borne out of the same crossing borders experience that gave birth to A fistful of Tales, it actually grew out of one of the short stories in the book. The main character is the kind of character I like. He’s a renegade military intelligence agent who does not suffer fools. I nearly finished it in 2006 but then got distracted by other endeavours, and long prose we all know needs dedicated time. I’ll finish that one very soon. There is also a novel I was working on with Jumoke Verissimo a long time ago, I hope to put that gig back on the road as well. In the time being, my second play- 150 Barz which I wrote on another British Council capacity building project with the Royal Court Theatre, London in 2007 is being published this year. I don’t know where this literary vocation will lead me, but I do know that I’m enjoying the ride all the way because first and foremost, I write because I immensely enjoy reading the product of my own imagination. Call it narcissism if you please, but if you enjoy my writing, it’s because I enjoyed it first.

Well, I am confident that you have a huge fan base out there who enjoy your writing and can not wait to A fistful of Tales in their hands.

(Smiles) That’s gratifying. Thank you.

Are you married?

I’m single, but nobody should bother applying (laughs). My asking price is pretty steep. However for a young, good looking and intelligent, cool, calm and collected upwardly mobile young lady who wants a piece of the pie, we could start negotiating from 25 billion Naira, which is the minimum her father would need to have if he owned a bank. I also don’t have any children out of wedlock just yet….in case you were wondering (Laughter).

Well sincerely, I wasn’t wondering anything (general laughter). Thank you so much Ayo for giving me some of your time and letting us in on your activities. I hope your books sells that million copies you talked about. Do have a great day.

I just did! Thank you.

A fistful of Tales will be released from the stables of DADA Books in September 2009.

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