Tolu Ogunlesi: The
By Nnorom Azuonye
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
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
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
Thanks Tolu and best of luck with
Conquest & Conviviality.
©2009 Nnorom Azuonye & Tolu Ogunlesi