Sentinel Literary Quarterly

Vol.2 No.1, October 2008. ISSN 1753-6499 (Online). www.sentinelquarterly.com

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Esiaba Irobi
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The Sentinel Quarterly Interview with VINCENT CHUKWUEMEKA IKE

 

by Sumaila Umaisha

 

VINCENT CHUKWUEMEKA IKE, one of the foremost Nigerian writers, has produced more novels than many of his contemporaries. He set out on his literary journey in 1965 with the publication of his novel, Toads for Supper and today he has over a dozen publications to his credit, including a collection of tips on how to become a published writer. At 77, he believes there are still more kennels to be eaten as far as his writing career is concerned. And to prove this, he has just published a sequel to Toads for Supper. Titled Toads Forever, the novel is an attempt to resolve some of the unresolved issues in the earlier work.  In this interview with SUMAILA UMAISHA, he speaks about the new book, his relationship with Chinua Achebe, how Things Fall Apart inspired him into writing his first novel, and more.

 

I learnt you started your writing career early in life; how early?

 

As far back as my secondary school days. It began in 1945 at Government College, Umuahia, in the present Abia State. The school encouraged writing and there was the opportunity for one to publish what he wrote. Every house had a house magazine. The magazines were handwritten, but later the school had a printed college magazine for the entire school. That was when my first story, a short story titled ‘A Dreamland’ was published. Then when I went to the University College, Ibadan, there was also the opportunity to continue with the interest in creative writing. There was a magazine strictly for literary affairs, no student union politicking. You were invited to join the literary club if they felt you had literary interest. The publication of the magazine is funded by the university. I had my stories published in it. So these were the beginnings. After graduation I also had my short stories broadcast on Nigerian Broadcasting Service.

 

Writers like Cyprian Ekwensi read courses that have little or nothing to do with English or Literature. Was it the same in your own case?

 

No. English was one of the subjects I read. That had been my major interest. And the way my teachers marked my essays was an indication that it was my line. When I did the Cambridge Overseas Certificate examination, in 1949, essay writing was an important part of the subject. We were asked to write an essay on ‘Narrow Escape’. And I created an interesting narrow escape. What I wrote was imaginary. It was a chance I took, because if they had not appreciated it I would have failed.

 

When exactly did you start serious writing; novel writing?

 

Novel writing came much later. In fact, in those days that we were writing short stories none of us believed we could write novels. The novelists we read were from Britain. Though Cyprian Ekwensi wrote then. What actually made me feel that the time had come for me to attempt writing a novel was when my friend, Chinua Achebe, published his Things Fall Apart in 1958. We were friends during our secondary school days, university days and even after graduation. The fact that he could do it encouraged me to start a novel. Things Fall Apart inspired me. And by 1962, I had completed a novel, which I titled Toads for Supper. But it took some times of rejection before it was eventually published in 1965.

 

It seems in your days once a writer is published he never suffered rejection any more.

 

Yes. When my first novel was accepted it changed things instantly. We were published overseas and the tradition was that once you got published you signed a contract with your publishers that you must give them the first consideration when you write the next one. And the tendency is that when you write the next one they will take it, you write another one they will take it. So you are made.

 

There is so much humour in your novels, particularly Toads for Supper. Why do you adopt this style?

 

Well, I think that came from life in the village; life at home. There was the general feeling that humour is necessary to succeed in life. Even to convince your partner in an argument, humour can help to liven the situation and make things go well. Some literary scholars don’t like the style. They feel whatever has humour in it is not serious. But I don’t share that view.

 

You don’t seem to have successfully resolved the issue in Toads for Supper.

 

[Laughter] I don’t know… [Laughter] You know, when you end a story, there are usually many problems unresolved. And I suppose at the point I ended the novel, it was easy for me to say let me stop here. But, in order to resolve some of the issues, I have recently published a sequel to the novel. People from Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya etc. have been pressurizing me over the years, so I have now tried to resolve the issues. It is titled Toads Forever and published by Longman. You will find that the end is different. In the novel I tried to stress the fact that ethnicity should not be allowed to ruin this country. There is nothing wrong with an Igbo person befriending a Hausa person or even marry each other, in case of male-female relationship. That is the main message in the novel.

 

Like most novels, the settings of your novels are based on the period in which you wrote them. Comparing the happenings in Toads for Supper and what obtains nowadays, what’s your assessment?

 

Well, you know, there is universality. And human experience does not really depend on time. Take the relationship between man and woman, for instance. All that have happened in the past such as the relationship of Adam and Eve as written in the Bible is still happening today. And they will always continue to happen. So there are problems that are really not affected by time and such other factors. Therefore, from that point of view, everything need not change because the years have lapsed. However, it is also true that new problems crop up with time. Even in crime, there are new areas of crime that were not there in our own time. So, anybody writing today will have to be influenced by those developments. When I wrote the sequel to Toads for Supper I had to remind myself all the time that I’m back to colonial Nigeria, so I don’t begin to say things that are happening in present day Nigeria. Though, like I said, there are things that generally remain the same despite the time lapse. Issues like ethnicity are still there.

 

But this idea of sticking to the past rather than treating the present pressing social realities…

 

Some issues are timeless. But I’ve also written novels that do not follow that pattern, novels that are written for the period in which they are published. Conspiracy of Silence, which came out in 2001, was a study on an Igbo societal phenomenon which I call fatherlessness. There are people who do not know their biological fathers, not because those fathers are dead, but they’ve never really known them. There are some women who marry wives. These wives produce children. These children have biological fathers but they are not accepted. There are also traditional women who do not want to marry but want children. So they would come to a man and say ‘I want you to father a child for me, it will be mine, no responsibilities’. This kind of child grows without knowing who his father is. I decided to write on this because this creates serious psychological problems in the society. I’ve read in the newspaper of a girl who threatened to kill her mother if she didn’t tell her who her father was. It is a cultural problem and unless it is eventually stopped it is still relevant as a theme.

 

In the case of Toads Forever, don’t you think there is a problem of relevance in terms of the setting and the current realities despite the universality of some aspects of the plots?

 

No, I don’t think there is a problem. It depends on the writer and his ability as a writer. The novel by the young Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun, which is making so much news today, is set in the civil war era. She was not even born then. But it has won her a prize. So it is the way  you handle your characters and the issues that will transcend the limitations of time and make your work for all time a classic.

 

Some critics are of the view that your novel, Expo ’77, is based on actual happenings. Is it true or is it just a speculation based on the fact that you once worked with the West African Examination Council, WAEC?

 

It is completely a work of fiction. It is the only detective novel I written, and I used the approach because I thought it was the best way to handle the issues involved. I wanted people to know that you don’t fight examination malpractices in isolation. It is an environmental problem. It is okay to expect children not to cheat, but look around you; people get driving licences without being tested. People get promoted without meriting it. It is all over the place. So why do you just take it out of these chaps alone? I wanted people to see the various ramifications of the problem. Based on my experience as the Head of WAEC for so many years, I thought I could draw on that experience to let people know that there are many problems here. But the story and characters are fictional.

 

In your own time African writers enjoyed more prestige than the present ones.

 

Well… [Laughter] I don’t know the prestige you are talking about, which we enjoyed in the past. You know, it is today I’m enjoying the prestige. And it has taken me many years to get here today. In those days, a young man starting out can’t get prestige till much later. But today, it is different, if you consider young writers like Chimamanda and Ben Okri winning international prizes.

 

But the African writers who are home-based are not finding it easy in the face of the poor publishing climate and other problems, especially in Nigeria.

 

That is true. But this is our country. In fact, it was in 1987, when I was at the University of Iowa, that I realized that we are better off than other developing countries. My first novel was published in England. Writers from India, Malaysia, Indonesia etc, were not enjoying that kind of thing. And at that time, being published overseas helped us a lot; you become internationally known straight away. It is almost impossible now for one residing in Nigeria to be published outside. Things have really changed. In Nigeria, when we first wrote, we were new. Externally, this was something new. But now those writing today are no longer new.

 

In view of this circumstance, what is your advice to the young aspiring Nigerian writers?

 

They should continue writing and do the best they can, because what may not seem to get them something today may get them something in future. And what we ought to do, the Association of Nigerian Authors and everybody concerned, is to promote these young people, so that people will get to know what they have done. There are few book reviews nowadays. In our time, whatever you wrote, there were reviews on them so that people could know about them. But this doesn’t exist any more. They should nonetheless continue writing. Even if you can’t get what you have written published, just continue, maybe some day that thing that was not published a long time ago may emerge. Even Achebe’s Things Fall Apart was rejected when he wrote it. My Toads for Supper was rejected too. But I went back to work and it was eventually accepted. After publishing three novels, even those who rejected it began to ask me to have my works published.

 

What is your message to both young and old Nigerian writers?

 

They should continue writing. They should be proud of their writing career. Wherever I go I introduce myself as a creative writer. That is my occupation, my passport. And I want to be so identified because there is something that comes through when you are able to communicate with your readers. They should not be unduly worried about the fact that things are not moving that well. They should see it as a mission to continue writing. And I think public reading of works can also encourage writers. It will enable people hear you even if you are not published. This is one of the areas that need development in Nigeria. I think everyone should just continue writing.

 

At 77 should we still expect any book from you?

 

Well… [Laughter] We say in Igbo that a jaw cannot go to sleep when there are palm kennels to be eaten. There are a lot of things to write about. So I keep the hope that I can still write more in future. 

  

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Sumaila Isah Umaisha is the literary editor

of New Nigerian Newspapers, Kaduna, Nigeria. He won the 2004 and 2007 editions of the Literary Journalist of the Year Award (awarded by the Association of Nigerian Authors).