By Akumbu Uche
Umari Ayim is many things – writer, lawyer, gender activist and recently, an award-winner. We caught up with her after the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) chose her first novel, Twilight at Terracotta Indigo, as the best work in women’s writing this year.
Congratulations on winning the ANA/NDDC Flora Nwapa Prize for Women’s Writing. That is quite an achievement for a first-time author. You must be very excited?
Yes, I am very excited.
Not only are you a graduate of the Nigerian Law School, but you also began writing your novel while preparing for your Bar Exams. How were you able to do that?
I am very passionate about writing. While I was at Law school, I was not only writing my book but also editing my pastor’s book. I think what got me through was my ability to do several things at the same time.
You don’t practice Law anymore. You are now a full time writer. Has it been lucrative?
Well, after Law School, I thought it would be a good idea to take time off and concentrate on writing for some time. I still have a passion for Law and will be going back to work very soon but hopefully I will juggle my writing career with it this time.
How did you come up with the title of your novel? Why such a long title?
Long title? I am sure Maya Angelou’s All God’s Children Need Travelling Shoes has more letters than the title of my book. Still, the title is somewhat self-explanatory for those who read the book. Terracotta Indigo is a place where questions were answered. It is also a place, which provides closure for the characters as well as presents a new beginning for them.
You mention Maya Angelou a lot. How important is she to you?
Maya Angelou is my major inspiration. I have read most of her work since I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. For me, she represents the truly liberated feminist.
Your novel was full of suspense – engaging for the reader. As the writer, was it difficult to sustain the pace?
I love suspenseful stories. For me, what makes a book interesting is the writer’s ability to keep the reader guessing. I don’t think it was difficult sustaining or maintaining the pace of the novel. As much as I wanted to pass the message of tribal and social class discrimination, as well as other societal ills plaguing the country, it was important to me to keep the readers entertained and pensive about the end of the story.
One of the issues your novel addresses is tribalism. Yet the villains in the book are all Yoruba. Might not you be accused of the same thing?
I actually laughed at that. Well, the book was set in Lagos and despite the large mix up of cultural groups in that sprawling chaotic city; Lagos can be safely regarded as a Yoruba town so it seemed natural to use characters belonging to the indigenous group in Lagos while using the city in my story. Tribalism is a subject that touches on nearly all ethnic groups in Nigeria, not just one, so I doubt anyone would see the book as vilifying the Yorubas or any group for that matter.
For a romance novel, the kissing and love scenes are few and far-between. Where you trying to censor yourself?
You drew another wide grin from me with that question. I don’t think I tried to censor myself much. It is just that the focus of the book was on something bigger than romance and like I have always said, my book was not wholly a romance work.
Do you think the reception to your work might have been different if there had been more detailed love scenes?
No, not all. There is always a reading audience for every literary work as different works appeal to different people. I don’t bother much about those things. Painting graphic love scenes was not the focus of my work.
The prize you won is named in honour of Flora Nwapa (1931 – 1993), Nigeria’s first female novelist. What are your thoughts on the evolution and current state of women’s writing in Nigeria?
Well, it seems as though Nigerian women are poised to take over the literary scene. Both home and abroad, you get to hear of Nigerian female writers taking the centre stage, and not only have they managed to produce award winning works, Nigerian female writers of today tell stories that are bold and thought evoking.
If you could meet her [Nwapa] now, what would you say to her?
I would thank her for setting the pace for Nigerian female novelists.
There’s a memorable line in Nwapa’s novel Efuru, about money and its limitations*. Can we ask how you are going to spend your prize money?
Well, I sure do have plans for the money when I get it. The most I can tell you is that I am going to put it into good use.
* What is money? Can a bag of money go for an errand for you? Can a bag of money look after you in your old age? Can a bag of money mourn you when you are dead? A child is more valuable than money.