One of the highlights of the year 2011 was the Cassava Republic Christmas Book Fair held in December at the Arts and Crafts Village, Abuja. Not only was I able to get some of the most engaging contemporary Nigerian literature at great prices, but I also got the chance to rub minds with Cassava Republic Press editor, Chinelo Onwualu.
We talked about Cassava Republic’s success, whether editors are failed writers and her own literary ambitions. Below is a transcript of our conversation.
Hello, Chinelo. Our readers would like to know you a little bit more.
Ever since I can remember, I’ve been a reader. My father was a diplomat and so we were always moving. Books became my anchor in a sea of constant goodbyes. I guess it’s not surprising that the little girl reading in a corner become the teenager scribbling away on a notepad; the transition from reading to writing seemed as natural as breathing. I’m also a bit of sci-fi geek. I love stories that break down the wall of what is possible – going from the world as it is to the world as it could be. Oh, and I’m a dog person. I love how open and enthusiastic dogs are and how fierce they can be when protecting those they love.
You have lived in Prague, the US and several African countries. Why exchange your cosmopolitan experience for la vida local?
I’m not sure I have a clear answer for you there. No matter how far I’ve gone, I’m always drawn back home. As a kid, we would spend four years outside the country then four years back home. So I did part of my elementary schooling here as well as high school. I also returned after I graduated college to serve in the NYSC. I think there is a sense in Nigeria that anywhere is better than here and that’s not true. There is a vibrancy to life in Nigeria – a raw urgency – that isn’t available anywhere else. There are a lot of opportunities in this country if one is willing to hustle.
You have a master’s in Journalism from Syracuse University, New York and you worked in that field for a while. Why did you say goodbye to that dream?
Actually, I have always wanted to be in the publishing industry, but it is a difficult industry to break into. Besides, the newspaper industry in the US has been undergoing some serious challenges and for the last 10 years, it has been laying off workers across the board. Even in Nigeria, it’s difficult terrain if you’re not one of the established papers.
How exactly did you come to work for Cassava Republic? How long have you been there?
I’ve been with Cassava Republic for over a year now. I was asked to join the company by one of the co-founders, Jeremy Weate. When I started, I knew next to nothing about the industry, so it’s been a real learning experience.
What is the typical day in the life of an editor?
I’m not sure my role can be described as typical for what an editor does. We are a small company so each of us has to wear a lot of different hats. Not only do I review manuscripts and edit, I also liaise with authors, designers, illustrators and printers. I manage nearly all the marketing and publicity for the company and its books and I help maintain the company’s social media channels, blog and website so every day is something new and different.
Most Cassava Republic titles have won prizes and awards. Two recent examples being the authors Lola Shoneyin and Fatima Akilu*. When you receive a manuscript, what do you look out for? Are you thinking ‘potential prize winner’?
We are very proud of all our books that have won prizes: in 2010, Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani won the Commonwealth Prize and the Betty Trask award for her book I Do Not Come to you by Chance and this year Lola Shoneyin’s Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives, also won the Oakland PEN award for best first novel. To be honest, when we accept a manuscript, we don’t think about whether it will win any prizes or not. Most awards are judged by people who have very specific tastes and backgrounds, and just because a book didn’t win a prize doesn’t mean it wasn’t any good – and vice versa. We choose all our stories based on the quality of the writing, and how well they tell their story.
Tell us about this new venture, Ankara Press.
Well, Ankara Press is our upcoming romance imprint. The books will be easy-to-read, purse-size romantic fiction with African settings, storylines and characters and they will be issued at regular monthly intervals. They will be short, snazzy, fast-paced stories that reflect the complexity of the life of the modern African woman but they won’t simply recreate traditional romances. Often, these rely on dangerous notions of male dominance, control and manipulation that have done great harm to women all over the world. Many women tolerate abusive situations because they wrongly believe that it is what romance should look like. Ankara Press is a new kind of romance. One in which strong, capable female characters meet handsome, charming men who are secure in their identities and respectful of a woman’s choices. In it, the thrill of fantasy is alive but realized in a healthier, more grounded reality.
There is a notion out there that editors are failed writers.
I don’t believe this for a minute. Most of history’s greatest writers were also editors as well, heading literary magazines and reviewing other writer’s works. It does take a different mindset to be an editor than to be a writer. Editors have to be analytical, they have to slow down and critically think about everything they are doing. As a writer, being overly analytical and critical can actually impede your initial creativity. You have to get into a space where you just write without too many expectations for a while. It is important that when you begin the rewriting process, you take on more of an editorial mindset. I think a lot of writers have trouble moving between the two modes, but it is necessary if they want to write their best work.
Well, you are definitely not a failed writer – you are a blogger and you have published several short stories in literary magazines. How do you successfully combine professional editing and professional writing?
I’ve found that one needs to create islands of time for writing. Usually, when I’ve spent a whole day looking at manuscripts and manipulating words, I don’t have a lot of energy for creative writing. But on the weekends, I’ll go to a small cafe that has WI-FI internet and work for a few hours. I also try to work on my fiction during holidays. For me, writing does not come easily; it is a lot of mental work but it is an important part of who I am and so I try to make it a priority in my life. I also make a point to read regularly. Reading is like fuel to the writing mind, without it the craft suffers and you find yourself writing stories that read like bad Hollywood or Nollywood plots.
Does your editing job make you a better writer or is it vice versa?
As I said before, the two require different mindsets. I can’t say whether it has improved my writing or not, but I can say it has helped me become a better reader. I am better able to identify and understand what makes good stories work. I know a lot more about the craft of writing as well – things like characterisation, pacing, dialogue and tone. However, good writing isn’t something that comes from just knowing all the techniques. It is, at its core, an art and great art can only come from dedication and practice.
Which is more rewarding?
Hard to say. I don’t think writing and editing are mutually exclusive. There’s nothing more fulfilling than seeing a work move from a series of words on a page to a finished and bound product, with a great cover, an engaging title and the stamp of an author’s name on the inside page. There’s a heady sense of creation – of having added something good to the world – that I haven’t felt anywhere else. It’s the same with writing. I want people to experience the life-altering possibilities of reading a good book. To have — as I did when I was a kid — friends from other times, places and worlds. To be washed ashore in feudal Japan, banished to a small village in West Africa and lost on the battlefields of Arthurian England. Not only do I love creating these stories, I also love being there when they are edited, printed and marketed.
Another cliché is that writers are invariably procrastinators. What is the craziest excuse a writer has given you for not meeting a deadline?
Not sure I can answer this. Most of our writers are very prompt about handing in their work and I haven’t really had to deal with crazy excuses.
Speaking of your blog Dark Matters, you have many enlightening articles there. I really liked the posts The Fear (and Loathing) of Writing and Building a better person. In my opinion, they are a must-read for writers. Have you ever considered organizing writing workshops/seminars?
I’d love to host some writing seminars. I think there is a great hunger for better writing skills not just in the creative industries, but in the corporate and non-profit as well. It’s really a matter of finding time and getting all the logistics together.
Working in the publishing industry, you have to be au courant. How many books do you read in a month?
Not enough, I’m afraid. I like to think of the books I read in terms of quality rather than quantity. I really enjoyed 26a by Diana Evans – one of CRP’s books – and I would recommend Jude Dibia’s Blackbird. I also re-read all five books in the Song of Fire and Ice fantasy series by George R. R. Martin; that was epic. I’d also recommend Terry Prachett’s Thud! (part of his Discworld fantasy series) and The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany as well as Soulmates, the short story collection by Kachana Ugbabe. In terms of non-fiction, I’d recommend Martin Meredith’s The State of Africa. It’s an amazing book for understanding why our continent is in the shape it’s in. I’ve had the privilege of reading a number of really good manuscripts that will eventually become books in our catalogue – but I’m not sure that counts.
Followers of your blog know that since 2010, you have been working on a novel. How is that coming along?
I actually finished the novel this year, though I think it will need one more draft before it’s ready for to be shopped around for publication. It’s one of the projects I’ll be focusing on this holiday season.
*In 2011, Lola Shoneyin’s Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives won the ANA/NDDC Ken Saro-Wiwa Prize For Prose
Fatima Akilu’s Preye and the Sea of Plastics and Lola Shoneyin’s Mayowa and the Masquerade were joint winners of the ANA/Atiku Abubakar Prize for Children’s Literature.
All three are published by Cassava Republic.