LEADERSHIP Books & Arts had a chat with 18-year-old Ernest Ogunyemi, the first winner of the ANA NECO Teen Author Prize Award recipient recently. You get to know what motivates the young fledgling writer, his dream mentor, and what his manuscript of short stories Tomorrow Brings Beautiful Things is all about. Ogunyemi has a long way to go, but his maturity and insights are proof of his potential and success if his efforts are supported.
What is the manuscript about, and what inspired it?
Yes, the manuscript, which I am still working on, is about the human experience, the struggles we face just to exist, stories about becoming a writer, abortion, catering for yourself and family members. There are stories of struggles you face for wanting to do the right. You find stories with characters that are generally good, but in the path to self-discovery, and struggling for existence, they strayed to the other side, collect bribes etc before finding their way back. They are about human experiences.
I feel there are parts of your experiences as well as the experiences of people you know that went into the writing, true?
Yes. Writing is generally about bringing in what is happening in your life into the world of your work. There is a story in there about my mother; entitled Moremi, it was drawn from my experience the day my mother died. Other stories such as When Stars Fall, is about what happened in my life at one time. In the Yoruba tradition, when stars fall, is interpreted as when something dies, that was my experience when my uncle died, so I situated that as a story in the death of a character’s brother. Other writings like Finding Your Way Home, haven’t happened to me, although I believe it can happen to me when I am older, as I often wonder, “Would I end up like the drunken adults I see on the streets who seem to have given up on life?” I am getting prize money today, but that won’t keep me going for the next 10 years. There will come a time in my life when I will need to make huge decisions, these are the things that inspired the work – fear – the fear that I can die tomorrow, fear of the unknown.
You seem to lean towards the introspective kind of writing. Is it what you intend to focus as a strength or is it just a starting point?
I write poetry too, and in one of the stories in the manuscript, The Poet Died, the prologue to the story, was poetic, and kind of introspective, but I guess every writer has to be introspective. However, writing comes from communicative art of your being. Although I like didactic works, they teach morals, but my writings are not didactic, because I prefer writings that reflect humans with all their flaws and errors. That is what makes the best literature as seen in Chimamanda Adichie’s Half of A Yellow Sun, when Richard the righteous guy goes out with Kainene, these are the type of stories I want to work on. It is not that I am being introspective while writing; rather, I believe it is a place all writers get to, to inject reality in their works.
What got you started in writing? What reconciled you to the need that “I want to, have to write?”
It was after moving from Bariga, Lagos to Abeokuta that I realised it. Other reasons had to do with my experiences here and there – to paraphrase Adichie, I don’t know about other peoples’ lives, so I take from my own life to write. That’s what happened to me. I felt so many things and wanted to write about the way I felt. When I go out and see people struggling or begging in the streets, I return motivated to write. At first, I wrote about politically related matters. I lived the life I could not live in reality on paper. Then, I later started reading some books that gave me tools to tell my own stories.
Your mother seems to have played a very important role in your life even though she died when you were young?
My mother and father separated when I was two, which led to my moving to my aunt’s place. About 2008/2009, I moved in with my mom, who was then living in Ivory Coast, before returning to Nigeria. If I am writing about a motherly character, somehow, I am always writing about my mom. My mom was there with me till the day she died, and after her death, I went through many things I wouldn’t have gone through had she been alive. I think God taking her is a way of giving me something, just as she gave me lots of things when she was alive. It is like me trying to feel them by bringing back those things I remember about her in my writing.
Do you have the same relationship with your father? Does he support your writing?
I will say this about my father; he is a wonderful man. Without him, I will not have made the submissions for this prize. I mean I wrote and edited the stories, because when I gave the manuscript to one of my teachers to edit, she just shelved it in her drawers. I also gave the manuscript to someone else to read, which he partly read and returned to me. But my father has always encouraged me. He goes online to read my works and commends my effort. When I was to submit the manuscript, because we had to submit six copies of the text, he gave me the money to duplicate and FED-X it to ANA. He is a wonderful person. It is just that both parents have different parts they play in a child’s life. It is just that fathers are not always open to showing their emotions.
You have won the prize money, what do you intend to do? As an aspiring writer, how do you plan embarking on this career path successfully, without having to deal with the perpetual hassle of writers taking on a second job in order to be able to survive?
That is one thing many Nigerian writers are dealing with. I am not saying I know more, I am quite young. I think most Nigerian writers are myopic in their thinking and dreams about writing. They want to be prominent writers and sell their publications in Nigeria. There are magazines that pay writers where they can submit their stories. There are competitions as the Commonwealth Short Story of which they can apply, and with such applications and submissions, your name will be out there for the world to see, even if you are not winning or making money at first, at least somebody out there knows about you. People will not buy books of authors they do not know.
Imagine if one sees a Chimamanda Adichie book and Ernest Ogunyemi’s book, they will definitely go for hers rather than mine, even if Ernest’s is better, because they know her and have an idea of her works. I don’t want to be broke as a writer neither do I want to be stinking rich, but I want to be able to make a living from writing. Oris Aigbokhaevbolo, the film and music critic, said there are three options for those who want to be writers in Nigeria, one – write and complete your writing career with another job; two – get out of the country, because you will be celebrated more in other countries than your country, or three, be the best at your craft. If I want to make a living from writing, I should write as best as I can, so as to be respected. Chimamanda Adichie and Lesley Neka Arimah, the author of What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky make a living solely out writing. How can you as a writer go broke after winning a $100, 000 prize? Soji Cole cannot go broke after winning a $100, 000 literary prize.
However, it also depends on the character of the writer. Writers that squander their monies, I believe don’t really understand their purpose for writing. I have proposed what I wanted to do with my prize money to address the question you asked earlier.
First, I will get a laptop for writing, because I used my teacher who assisted me with his laptop for typing my manuscripts. If not for him, I wouldn’t have been able to compete, for lack of tool to legibly present my stories, or my father who helped pay for the printing of the work. I will get a new, and good small laptop, and five books for my school. I know what it’s like not to have access to books which limits opportunities for you. I was supposed to send a book review submission for the Channels TV Literary Prize, but I couldn’t afford the recommended book, After Many Days for review. I will get five contemporary authors’ works for my school library. The rest of the money, I will deploy to tithe duty.
Apparently, you need a writing mentor, since none of your teachers were able to play that role when you needed it. Who would you want to be your writing mentor? Who do you dream of as a writing mentor?
There are so many great writers, Teju Cole, Chimamanda Adichie, and there are new writers in town as Eze-Obi Young. I will go for Chimamanda. I want Chimamanda to be my mentor. I applied for her writing workshop and I hope I get in.