PROF. Bankole Ajibabi Omotosho is a writer and intellectual known for his dedication and commitment to the socio-political reappraisal of Africa and respect for human dignity.
He became a writer for several magazines including the defunct West Africa in the 70s and is well known among Nigeria’s literate elite. He has about 20 works to his credit with major themes including inter-racial marriage, comic aspects of the Biafran-Nigerian conflict and his historical novel, Just Before Dawn. Omotosho had a spell with Professors Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe in the 70s.
ENCOMIUM Weekly had an interview with him after the launch of his book, Achebe or Soyinka – A Study in Contrast on Thursday, March 24, 2011, at Glendora Readings, Jazzhole building, Awolowo Road, Ikoyi, Lagos, where he talked about what influences his style of writing, his best experience in the course of writing, his source of inspiration and many more.
What influence do you think your childhood has on your style of writing?
My childhood influences my writings. I grew up in Akure, Ekiti State in a large family where everybody takes care of his own environment. I try to write from that situation. When I was growing up, there was no adult who was not employed and I can’t remember anybody either in Ereketa or Bourdillon Road who did not have a job to do. So, that affects what I write.
Tell us about your experience after your novel, Just Before Dawn that was alleged to be controversial?
Obasanjo and his cohorts and some army people said they were going to shoot me. They went haywire and I left the country.
You have travelled far and wide in the course of writing, tell us your best experience ever?
You know when they say, Ibi ile, ibomiran ile (it’s home away from home). Although, it was not as easy as I thought, that was not my first time of leaving home. There is no substitute for home, anytime I come home I would put everything about London behind me. So, there is no place like home.
What about your worst experience?
I can’t remember any. Although, there might be some challenges, but I didn’t consider them as worst for me.
Why do you like writing fiction?
That is the only way you can say it, there is truth in lying. You cannot tell the truth straight. So, fiction helps you to put it forward.
Which of your works would you consider the most successful?
I don’t know. I have no idea about that and it doesn’t matter.
What of the one that didn’t meet your expectation?
How do I determine that? I don’t write for monetary rewards. I like telling it as it is.
Why do you think writers are not celebrated in Nigeria like our politicians?
They are celebrated, what are you talking about? Look, anytime I go out with Professor Wole Soyinka, everybody jostles to pay his bills. There is no time Prof. Chinua Achebe walks the street of London without being mobbed.
In the last two decades, what would you say has changed about Nigeria?
A lot. Technology has changed tremendously for our good. For instance, 20 years ago I had to wait for three days to make a phone call to Barbados from Ibadan, but today I can pick my phone here and call Barbados to speak to someone there. It has greatly helped us to move forward, we need to embrace it.
Five years ago, Lagos was very dirty, there is change now. In Akure, about two years ago, if I tried to go to my home in Ereketa the street traders made it impossible for the car to go. Today, the place has been cleared, they have been given a place where they can trade and that is what we call the evidence of change. There are younger people who are committed to change and not acquiring money.
Tell us the book you are reading at the moment.
The book I am reading right now is called Beyond the Boundary by C.L.R. James. It’s about cricket, because the world cricket competition is going on in India and I follow cricket very well.
Who is your favourite author of all time?
None, because I read too many books and there is no way I can decide who is most important or my favourite. There was a book I read, it’s called Champione Arte. It’s about 900 pages, an experience of a man who escaped from a prison and went to Afghanistan to be part of the struggle there. I read Alpha le la, wa le la, Thousand and one Night, The Arabian Night. I read the Bible, so, why am I going to say it’s this book or that. I just finished reading No Longer At Ease by Chinua Achebe.
Tell us about your source of inspiration when writing.
Source of inspiration? Anger! When I am angry, a lot of things come into my mind. I get very, very angry about poverty. How can you live in a country where the Attorney General and Minister of Justice was assassinated in his house at the age of 70 and up till tomorrow nobody can say this is the person who killed him? I just spent a weekend with Dele Giwa only to get to Ife to hear that he had been blown off. You read the judgement of all the judges that have changed the governorship elections either in Ondo or Ekiti State, you read those judgements. It is insulting the way people rig elections. I mean, the way they rearranged constituencies, they move areas to one side, it is an intelligently executed plan. Not to talk about shooting into the air to scare people then carrying ballot boxes to stuff ballot papers. It’s an insult and I get very angry about it.
So, what is your advice to the younger generation of writers?
They should write. They should know that there is nothing like ‘art for art sake’. Art has to take a stand. So, they should be angry to write.
Why the book, Achebe or Soyinka the contrast?
I want to x-ray the writings of the two great writers, what their style of writing is. The consumption targets and many other things that they have in common.
Like how much can you spend on books?
I don’t know, you have to ask the tax man in South Africa (laughs). I pay a lot of money on books.
How do you think Nigeria can fight piracy on books?
You know the pirates, put them in prison. Unpunished corruption is a problem in itself, it’s not corruption. Jesus had one person among His 12 disciples who was corrupt, He didn’t say he is one of us, let’s leave him. He dealt with him. If it goes beyond that, you are destroying the institution. In this country, if you punish corrupt people, corruption will flee.
You have spent about two decades in South Africa, how would you compare the reading culture in South Africa to what we have in Nigeria?
Nigeria is better than South Africa. In South Africa, it is incredible! Only 8 per cent of South African schools have libraries. The reading culture is not in existence. The saying that, ‘if you want to hide anything for an African man, put it in a book’ best describes South Africans. In fact, the blacks there still see reading English books as ‘slavery’. Books are taxed in South Africa and that made it very difficult for them to buy books.
How do you think Nigerians can improve their reading culture?
Read books, go to book shops and keep reading. Books are not taxed in Nigeria, so read as much as you can.
What is your philosophy of life?
Iwon tun won si (the balance of the right and the balance of the left) and that is what Ifa divination preaches. You do not go to the extreme on either side.
- This story was first published in ENCOMIUM Weekly on Tuesday, March 29, 2011