By Akumbu Uche
Since its inception in 2004, the Nigeria Prize for Literature has been dedicated to improving the quality of writing and publishing in the country.
The prize rotates yearly amongst four literary genres: prose fiction, poetry, drama and children’s literature.
In October 2011, the prize was awarded to journalist – turned – novelist Mai Nasara for his children’s book “The Missing Clock – a genial heart warming account of how a young boy’s simple acts inspire his family to fortune.
Akumbu Uche caught up with the prize’s most recent winner for a chat.
Congratulations on winning the 2011 NLNG-sponsored Nigeria Prize for Literature. How does it feel to be the recipient of such an award?
MAI NASARA: I feel thankful and heartily grateful to the good Lord who made it possible, working in me both to will and to do of His good pleasure and enabling me to work out in timely fashion.
Please tell us a little bit more about you.
MN: I was raised in the ancient northern Nigerian city of Katsina, my longstanding state of residence. My parents came from Efon-Alaaye, Ekiti State. My father’s ancestral home is Iree-Osun; a strand goes all the way back to Oyo Ile; I could go on and on. I hope you get the point.
You were born Adeleke Olufemi Adeyemi but you choose to write under the pseudonym Mai Nasara. Why did you choose to adopt a pseudonym and what does the name ‘Mai Nasara’ mean?
MN: I was only christened thus, an act after the fact; I wasn’t born thus. And it’s a misrepresentation to refer to what I have chosen to write under as a pseudonym. It is, properly speaking, a pen name, classically referred to by the French designation nom de plume. ‘Mai Nasara’ – another way of saying ‘Adeleke’, or then ‘Victor’, the masculine form of my mother’s name, Victoria – is my creation. That binomial nomenclature is traditionally rendered as one. I chose a pen name, and that one in particular, so people would come up and ask – and then we would have something to talk about, an ice-breaker of sorts! It is a platform for me to take up and speak to a number of issues I consider salient and timely. Of course, I’m not divulging all the reasons for the choice. Time will tell my agenda in this regard.
Would you say that winning the NLNG-sponsored literary prize has changed your life? How so?
MN: How about, ‘How does it feel to be a goldfish, on permanent display in a see-through bowl’! The media and public scrutiny has been scorching. I’m growing a beard. Now that’s a life-change, don’t you think!
It seems as though every newspaper you open, there’s a picture or profile or interview of you. How have you been coping with all the media attention?
MN: See what I mean! If only you knew, you wouldn’t envy me. When I can’t be pinned down for an interview, many are wont to charge me with playing hard to get. But it’s just the pragmatic question of availability and how much time and thought a man can afford to give. Yet, knowing that at the end of the day it’s not about me is all I need to keep me balanced and level-headed. A writer is a prophet; which means one speaking for somebody, often as a career or life work. A pertinent Pauline line goes: ‘What’s so special about you? What do you have that you have not been given?’
What was your initial reaction to the announcement that you had won the award?
MN: I have said it before now: I felt what I’m convinced is what it truly means to be speechless. There was also relief, of course. How does it feel to finally get to know the result of an all-important examination?
Why do you write children’s fiction? Was it a conscious decision or did you find yourself writing that kind of story?
MN: As conscious as conscious can be! I’ve always worked with children. I’ve been in children’s Sunday school all my life; I started taking classes barely after ‘graduating’! Because I believe in children as the best change agents; children are both idealistic and pragmatic in their own special bittersweet ironic way. Isn’t that the way life works? According to Jesus, ‘Unless you become like a child you cannot see the Kingdom of God.’ Meaning: You’ll remain clueless about what God is doing and set to do in the world.
What was your writing process like? Are you one of those writers who can churn out 100 pages in 2 weeks or did it take a very long time?
MN: Plotting is what I find I have to really work hard, even seek help, to get out just right; the story itself comes to me in a burst. But how I enjoy building dialogues and inserting nuances! Because I’m an editor at heart, I find that I slow down or hold up my Muse from just pouring out or putting down lines as inspiration hits.
Your book features some colourful illustrations by E.O. Oludimu. Did you handpick the illustrator? How was it working with one?
MN: He’s the best, simply put! I found Gbenga [Oludimu] only after a really long search for an illustrator. Would you believe it? He trained originally as a lawyer! Working with him was a thrilling experience. He knows his worth and so made me pay good money for his input! I must say I got very good value for money. I would ask him to come up with panel descriptions of highlights of the story, or high points he considered instructive. Good illustrations lead you on and also into the text of the story. It wasn’t until I joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) that I came to understand how writer and illustrator should work to realise a children’s book.
With the exception of Banji, all your characters are adults. Despite this, your book still appeals to children. Why do you think this is so?
MN: But Rashida is also a child! One wunderkind of a child, if ever there was one, I’d admit. I believe it was the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche who said ‘Inside every man is a boy who wants to play’. I think he said that before he went mad and proclaimed ‘God is dead.’ When you look, you can see inside the child inside every adult character in my book as being engaged in a grand cosmic Reversal-Of-Fortune, or ROF, play.
The prologue introduces us to 9-year-old Banji, the protagonist and narrator of the story. However, the narrative that follows is not written in a child’s voice. What happened?
MN: I think he remembered he had so much money to play with and so got someone to ghost-write his book for him! Nonetheless, it’s clear it’s still authentically his story. A case of ‘Storyteller, meet Storywriter’. And how is it not in a child’s voice? As it is written in the Psalter, ‘Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings hast thou ordained strength because of thine enemies, that thou mightest still the enemy and the avenger.’
Without giving too much of the plot away, fruits and vegetables play a central role in the book. Are you a health food advocate or a member of the Green Movement by any chance?
MN: I am simply being a responsible member of the human race! Indeed, I’m an advocate of eating healthy to live healthy. If that makes me a member of the Green Movement, so be it! Seriously, as a Geoscientist (I have a degree in Geology, from Ahmadu Bello University, A.B.U., Zaria), I cannot but look out on life from my preferred window. I have been involved in environmental campaigns with children for close to a decade. For this I am grateful to Sola Alamutu’s Children and the Environment (CATE), Nigeria’s foremost of its kind. But first I was a part of Clinton Hill’s Kids for Saving Earth (KSE), America’s foremost of its kind.
In the book, you stretch the believability of the plot whilst weaving in a morality tale or two. This formula has been adopted by various children’s authors like Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl and Ursula M. Williams, to mention a few. Did you read a lot of children’s fiction growing up?
MN: A whole lot! Thanks to the large expatriate community that was around in Katsina during my primary and secondary school days. Their children – my friends kept me fed with the best that was available. That’s something about children – a love of sharing. Recall that was really what led my Banji on his quest in ‘The Missing Clock.’
What authors do you read now?
MN: Mitali Perkins (‘Rickshaw Girl’); the Afghan-American Khaled Hosseini (‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’); Nigeria’s most prolific children’s writer and unsung playwright, Philip Begho (‘Jelly Baby’). There are many others whose works I dip into from time to time.
You once mentioned that you have “a love for out-of-the-box education for children”.
MN: Out of the box, yes; but not out of the fence! Still within limits – not limitations, mind you. There are limits to even biological changes. And change is the only constant, isn’t it? I think it’s clear to all that our educational system, with its outdated curriculum and a completely disillusioned workforce, has turned counterproductive on us. I want to see a richer learning process, one enhanced by stories and music. Remember, ‘the stories people tell have a way of taking care of them.’ That’s not me; that’s Barry L. Lopez!
Is that why you are currently building libraries across Nigeria? Tell us more about that.
MN: I’ve been on a campaign; I’m yet to actually build one! And now, with the US$100,000 megaphone, or bullhorn, that has just been held out to me, I will sell the idea to success shouting it from one rooftop to the next!
What is it about your early schooling that led you to take up this stance?
MN: At the entrance of the school library at Government College, Katsina (GCK) beamed a plaque with the inscription: ‘A school is a book in which is written the future of the nation.’ It was carved and put up by our Japanese woodwork teacher. It’s imprinted on my heart. How I loved to glance up at it before strolling into the library! Another influence has to be my father’s news-addiction – which he dutifully passed on to me! Every single day as I cycled to school, I bought two newspapers. From my pocket money o! Next would be the radio – I was a radio ham. I was in tune and in touch with the whole wide world by shortwave radio. I followed programming devotedly in both English and Hausa.
In the book, you include a detailed Discussion Guide. Was this your idea or the editor’s?
MN: It was my idea; I put it all together. I like the ‘Mirror, mirror’ exercise best! Have you tried it? Go on!
Do you think this necessary? Don’t you think it makes the book look like a school textbook and might discourage young readers who are looking for some fun reading?
MN: Precisely why it’s all at the back of the book. You don’t have to go there unless you really want to, after you must have enjoyed yourself gorging on the story! The trend seems to be end-of-chapter now. I thought that would be getting in the way of the story! So I agree with you. Oh, lest I forget – you’re making school textbooks sound like the plague. Hey, they can be fun! As I’m sure the educational authorities, and us all will find out, when they adopt ‘The Missing Clock’ both as reading and exam text. I’m hopeful they will before long.
There seems to be a trend among Nigerian writers (Uwem Akpan, Helon Habila) to acquire an MFA in Creative Writing outside the shores of Nigeria. Will you be joining this number? Do you think a degree in Creative Writing is necessary to writing good fiction?
MN: You must find your own path. When you do, you must tread it. It should pay good dividend to pay to learn, or then hone, ones craft. And, believe me, the comradeship can be most career-enhancing. Will I be pursuing an MFA? I’ve got my plans and they are private.
Some have called your book “timely” – and the same could be said of the US$100,000 (16 million naira) prize money. Now, that’s a lot of money. How are you going to spend it?
MN: Watch me! It’s a US$100,000 megaphone (what the Americans call bullhorn) that will be spent in the cause of girl-child education, environmental awareness and what I call Pilgrimage To Orphanage (PTO) tours, in honour of the character many consider pivotal to the story of ‘The Missing Clock’, Rashida
What next can readers expect from you?
MN: More children’s books! What else is there to write? Seriously, I also hope to try my hand on something science-based (get ready for Geology classes!) for adults.
Any words of advice for budding writers out there?
MN: Write every day. Find a writing group. You may have to found one. Go to work on it today.
Mai, thank you for talking to us. We wish you the best of luck.
MN: Thank you, too, for lending me your platform!