Sentinel Literary Quarterly

Vol.2 No.2, January 2009. ISSN 1753-6499 (Online).

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Bernard Gieske
Genna Gardini
Helena Carolinska
Michael Lee Rattigan
Nnorom Azuonye
Ramesh Dohan
Sholeh Wolpé
Terri Ochiagha
Tolu Ogunlesi
Uche Nduka
Uchechukwu Umezurike
William Stephenson





















Tolu Ogunlesi: The Sentinel Interview


By Nnorom Azuonye


Tolu Ogunlesi was born in 1982. He is the author of a collection of poetry Listen to the Geckos Singing from a Balcony (Bewrite Books, 2004) and a novella, Conquest and Conviviality (Hodder Education, 2008). His writing has appeared in Wasafiri, Other Poetry, Magma, Pyramid,

The Obituary Tango (Caine Prize Anthology 2006), Sable, and elsewhere, and is forthcoming in World Literature Today. He has also had his poems broadcast on the BBC World Service. In 2007 he was awarded a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg poetry prize, and in 2008 a Guest Writer Fellowship by the Nordic Africa Institute, Uppsala, Sweden. He lives in Lagos, Nigeria.


Back in 2004, Sentinel Poetry Quarterly saw the promise in your work. You have come a long way since then. Kindly provide a snapshot of your literary journey in the past 4 years.


I’ve come to discover that the writing life is best captured by that famous (Nigerian) Student’s Union slogan “Aluta continua”. In 2004 my collection of poetry Listen to the Geckos singing from a Balcony was published. In 2008, my second book, a novella, Conquest and Conviviality was published by Hodder. In between those years I have profusely submitted my writing to magazines, journals, contests and mailed off applications for writing residencies and fellowships. Every now and then I succeed.


But you trained as a pharmacist. Have you now packed in pharmaceutical practice?


Yes, I trained as a pharmacist at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. And I firmly believe that “once a pharmacist, always a pharmacist”. I cannot unbecome one. But at the moment I am not working as a pharmacist. Someday in the future – perhaps when the written world finally succumbs to that “extinction” that scholars and experts have been warning us about – I envisage that I will earn a living again as a pharmacist.


Cyprian Ekwensi was another Nigerian writer who trained as a Pharmacist. Both of you could have written books on pharmacy. What is the pull to creative writing?


There is something about the sciences that I think drives many of its practitioners into art. The best life for me is one that tries to combine the two: the precision of science with the liberating atmosphere of the arts. This unconscious desire to get the best of two worlds is what, in my opinion, accounts for the “pull” you mentioned.


You are making your mark in poetry, fiction, and essays. Are you still trying to find out your best medium of expression or are you comfortable with all.


I started with poetry. Then I tried my hands at fiction – my first short story, SOLEMN AVENUE was inspired by Helon Habila’s Waiting for an Angel. And then I moved to journalism – magazine pieces, interviews, satire, reviews, opinion pieces. I have tried my hands at radio drama, at television scripting. I hope to write a full-length play this year. Looking back, I think I have grown comfortable with constantly expanding the possibilities of my writing, and refusing to allow myself be held down by any particular genre.


Nigerian fiction seems to be making a big comeback in the world literary stage. Why do you think that is?


The recent re-emergence of Nigerian fiction as a force that cannot be ignored was an inevitable development. Let’s think about it. In the sixties Nigeria was a leading postcolonial literary power – Chinua Achebe and the Things Fall Apart and African Writers Series revolution, Wole Soyinka, Christopher Okigbo, JP Clark, Donatus Nwoga et al. Every decade since then powerful new voices have emerged. I think that Nigeria will always have a secure position on the global literary stage. The worst that will ever happen will be a brief creative lull. But we will always bounce back. As far as I’m concerned the challenge now is to take on the Indians and produce far more exciting writers and writing than them. They are not more talented than we are I think!


Would you say that working outside the academic environment presents any peculiar limitations to your work as a writer?


No. At all. From the outside I sometimes envy those domiciled within the Ivory Tower – the single-minded devotion to research and production of new knowledge, the conference circuits, the networking – but on second thoughts I think that I prefer the ‘freedom’ outside what I’d call the ‘footnoted’ fence.


You have now published a second book Conquest and Conviviality – a novel. What is it about?


Conquest and Conviviality is about a set of twins who are not twins. All they share in common is that they share the same birthday; they are born to different mothers minutes apart from each other. By a stroke of serendipity they are adopted (separately) by a childless woman, and raised together – as twins – by her. The story is about the failure, or unravelling, of this ambitious, but highly flawed parental experiment.


I notice that it is sensibly priced at just £4.99 and available at most online bookstores in the UK. Are there solid programmes to ensure the book not only stays in print but be easily available to anyone interested in it?


I appreciate the power of the internet in promoting literature. It’s a good thing that it’s not only charismatic politicians like Barack Obama who can benefit from the amazing potentials of the internet. Even struggling writers in Nigeria can make their work available to a potentially infinite global audience. Beyond online availability though, I’d love to see copies of the book in brick-and-mortar stores across and outside Africa. The aim of the publishers is to market the book across schools and school boards all over the African continent. And I think that the book is already being sold in a couple of African countries.


What kind of feedbacks are you getting at the moment? Will Conquests and Conviviality set off critical fireworks?


Most of the feedback I have got has had to do with sales figures. And it is doing quite well. This I imagine is due largely to the fact that Hodder Education (the publishers) are well-known veteran publishers, and have an established distribution network. Regarding critical feedback, I look forward to getting plenty of that this year, as the book gets into readers’ hands.


Are you planning a reading tour of the United Kingdom anytime soon?


I hope to visit the UK later in 2009. Hopefully there’ll be time – and chance – for a reading tour.


Thanks Tolu and best of luck with Conquest & Conviviality.


©2009 Nnorom Azuonye & Tolu Ogunlesi


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Sentinel Literary Quarterly

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