Books · Interview · Writers

THE RELUCTANT ROMANTIC – A Conversation with Umari Ayim

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.

Umari Ayim at the ALS BookJam @ SilverBird, in November, 2011.

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.

 

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Fashion & Lifestyle

CASUAL FRIDAYS? THINK AGAIN

By Akumbu Uche

What’s not to love about jeans? The uniform of the young and trendy, they come in different fits (from the tight ‘skinny’ to the baggy ‘boyfriend’), different styles (distressed, acid-wash, dark rinse) and different colours (red, yellow and even lemon green).

A moneymaking industry, many a clothing company, from the likes of Gap to Earnest Sewn, has made net-topping revenue from the sales of jeans and denim alone. Hip-hop stars such as Nelly and P.Diddy even cashing in on the trend with the launch of their clothing lines.

Jeans are now ubiquitous. Look to your left, look to your right and you will certainly spot them standing in the airport queues, lounging in hotel chaises, jumping over gutters, walking up the cathedral steps, hiding under hijabs and jellabias, racing after molues, seated astride a motorcycle, et cetera.

However, there is still a place where jeans are an absolute no-no: The Office.

The office is many things to many people. A sanctuary away from the nagging spouse and unruly kids; a place where salacious gossip and verbal warfare are exchanged beside the water cooler; a mate-hunting ground; a free internet cafe. You get the picture.

In terms of fashion, style and clothing, the office is not just a place for business. It is show business defined. Let me explain.

For many an office-goer, the hallway equals the runway. After all, it inspired the creation of the business suit.

Since our streets and roads are a geographical mish-mash of craters, wetlands and mini-forests, the office is the only place, where we can wear those five-inch heels without tearing a tendon and let our wide-legged palazzo pants (you know they are coming back in style) sweep the floor with reckless abandon.

Where else can our men try out those snazzy ties, mod suits and Italian brogues depicted in the pages of GQ?

That Power-point presentation might as well be a casting-call. Chances are your bosses will be as interested in your facial profile as they are in your slides. So powder, primp and polish with products worth at least a month’s salary. Remember, only the brightest shade of Mary Kay lipstick will help you pontificate.

Lunchtime is akin to the talk show circuit, a one-hour time slot that allows us to brag about “who” we are wearing.

“No Ofada rice for me please”, your co-worker politely declines your offer to buy lunch. “I don’t want stew to stain my limited edition Kate Moss for Topshop blazer”, is her explanation.

Now you know why many youth corps members are shunning those interior locations that both the missionaries and development conveniently forgot in favour of joining the white-collar workforce in our overcrowded cities. It’s all about the clothes, baby.

However, I digress.

Recently, I visited a well-known Abuja based NGO. Yours truly was decked out in a monochrome ensemble – pencil skirt, black and white paisley print blouse and a pair of Mary Jane flats. I looked the epitome of corporate chic.

Imagine my dismay at the hordes of people, including top-level executives parading about in jeans. Jeans at the office? Where had the power suits and killer heels of days before gone? Apparently, I had walked in on a Friday. Casual Friday. Dress-down Friday.

Yes, dear reader, I know. Fridays are the days you close at 12 noon, the days you do your weekend shopping, the days when you leave town for a romantic weekend getaway with your sugar daddy/boyfriend/fiancé(e). Nevertheless, it is not a good enough reason to dress less than your best.

With the exception of blue-collar workers and several outdoors/artisan careers, jeans at the office are simply not acceptable. No matter how new or designer they are, they are not, I repeat, proper office attire on any day of the week. Leave them at home, please.

They make us look lazy, sloppy and tired. Jeans encourages the I-just-rolled-out-of –bed-and-grabbed-the-very-first-thing I saw look. Instead of looking smart casual, we look like we are dressed to run Saturday morning errands or take a leisurely Sunday stroll.

Even worse, it encourages that slouchy, hangover-ish attitude that leads to missing files, misplaced folders and incompetent performance.

On Dress-down Fridays, people are more likely to look dishevelled, unkempt, make irrational decisions, come late, get into arguments and behave all together unprofessional, all because they are inappropriately dressed.  As the French would say, “cherchez la femme, ahem, le jean”.

In our glossies, the Hollywood starlets and style icons effortlessly pair the most casual of jeans (and shorts and leggings) with bold statement footwear and vintage accessories while balancing a scalding cup of coffee, a dog-leash and grocery shopping.

(It is interesting that this same Hollywood produces shows such as Mad Men)

In real life, the vast majority of us are so used to dressing down and unwinding with jeans that we do not even try to give it that extra oomph only the genetically/robotically fashionable can muster.

To keep your Friday look chic, smart and yet relaxed, go for a trendy cut dress made out of Ankara. If wearing pants, choose tailored, form fitting trousers or capris in dark, such as blue or neutral tones like gray and khaki.

Take the example of a young woman I met at Utako market recently. I could picture her perfectly at ease in front of the office computer and yet trendy enough to head out for a drink and a movie after closing time.

Her outfit? A black lacy top, slim khaki trousers and strappy sandals. Now, that is what I call a casual Friday look.

Books · Features · Writers

AN EVENING WITH TEJU COLE

By Akumbu Uche

Recently, the Abuja literary community flocked to the 22nd Infusion event at JB’s Bar and Grill, Maitama to hear Nigerian-American writer, Teju Cole read from his new work of fiction, Open City.

The New Yorker, the New York Times, the UK Guardian and many more, have all reviewed the book. On those pages, Cole has been likened to Gustave Flaubert, W.G. Sebald, Zadie Smith, J.M. Coetzee and it would seem almost every great writer.

“If Baudelaire was a young African, wandering the streets of contemporary New York”, enthuses British Indian novelist Hari Kunzru on the book’s jacket, “this is the book he’d write.”

Asked about the influences these authors have had on his work, he replied, “Influences are manifold. You could either acknowledge it or claim you came, fully formed. I love being influenced”. In addition to writing, Cole is a professional art historian and a street photographer.

Wishing to change the topic and get to the agenda of the day, he added, “It’s very easy to draw parallels but in the end, this book is about an intellectual young man”.

Like the protagonist in the novel, Julius, Cole was born in America to a Nigerian father and German mother, raised in Lagos and has been resident in the US since his university days. Julius is a psychiatrist. In his adolescence, Cole dreamed of becoming a psychiatrist. But that, he maintains, is where the similarities end.

Open City, ‘a haunting novel about national identity, race, liberty, loss, dislocation and surrender’, was just a vehicle that enabled him, he says, “to delve into the human psyche”.

“Every kind of writing is an exploration of the writer’s psyche” he mused. “I am a melancholic person and this book is an exploration of my dark side”.

The Q&A session, moderated by Patrick Okigbo revealed different facets of his personality. Here are a few questions asked of him and the responses he gave:

Do you see yourself and your work as being activist?

“Activism is difficult. I am allergic to exclamation marks. I don’t like to be too loud.”

What is it about urban landscapes that get your creative juices flowing?

“Cities are where I live. There is a diversity [in them] that presses people together and a natural conflict that emerges.”

Would you consider setting a novel in a rural area?

“Many great books have been written about rural areas but they don’t have the [kind of] texture I’m interested in. However, I am open to anything. I have an idea of setting a book in Iceland.”

Twitter or Facebook?

“Twitter – it’s a creative space. I only use Facebook to promote events. I’m scared of Zuckerberg – he wants all my information.”

Republican or Democrat?

“Republican?!”

Boxers or Y-fronts?

“Commando.”

At this, the crowd erupted in laughter. Roaring away were writers, Ken Wiwa, Chuma Nwokolo Jr, Chike Ofili, Carmen McCain, Felix Abrahams Obi, Hajo Isa and the singer Chioma aka C-Flow.

Lola Shoneyin, warm, vivacious and friendly as ever was the perfect host.

Who knew the folks in charge of PHCN were book lovers? They made their presence known by blinking a few times.

Another distraction was the Bar Activity. One would expect the atmosphere to be hush-hush but it seems the audience was a thirsty lot and kept the waiters in constant motion.

Undeterred, Cole related to the audience, anecdote after anecdote. “A woman came up to me and said, ‘My psychiatrist recommended it to me’. It turns out the book was recommended to the psychiatrist by his psychiatrist”. More laughter.

He also disclosed he had another book in the works. A non-fictional narrative that would take him back to Lagos, the setting of his first book, the novella Every Day is For the Thief. “It will be out in 2015.”

A few attendees who had actually read the current book praised the author for his “descriptive skills” and his ability to capture “the complexity of the point of view”. Architect Jerome Okolo, of TEDx fame, even likened reading the book to “looking at pictures as the words are cast in frames”.

Teju Cole is doing well. Having visited Canada earlier this year, the next country on his promotional book tour is India. From there, he would traverse the US and then head back to Bard College, New York, where he is a Chinua Achebe Fellow and Distinguished Writer in Residence.

In the mean time, hundreds, thousands and perhaps millions will buy Open City, have it autographed and proceed to read. To anyone expecting a page-turner, Cole warns, “Oh, you’ll put it down often, but it will haunt you.”

Not all will like it, not all will understand it but we can only hope that in the end, Open City turns out to be, as it was advertised, a novel.