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King-Aribisala: Writing for me is like breathing

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King-Aribisala

Karen King-Aribisala is a writer and professor in the 26Department of English at the University of Lagos. The Guyana-born academic recently spoke with SUNDAY AIKULOLA at the launch of her award-winning book, Our wife and other stories.

What is the book all about?
OUR Wife and Other Stories is my first published collection of short stories. However, I have been writing stories and poems since the age of eight. The collection was my way of connecting with the Nigerian society, a way of understanding the various cultures, which I confronted, particularly, the Yoruba culture.

How did you venture into writing?
In my childhood years, I lived in Ibadan, where I attended the International School. Thereafter, I went to boarding schools in the UK, returning to Nigeria for the holidays. My family left Nigeria just before the outbreak of the Nigerian Civil War for Rome, Italy. It was there that I met my husband, Femi Aribisala. We were teenagers attending St. George’s English School Las Torta. Eventually, we got married and came to live and work in Nigeria. All this time, I was writing and writing about my experiences. The actual genesis of writing Our Wife and Other Stories came about at a dinner party. Professor Dafe Otobo, publisher of Malthouse Press, asked my husband for one of his manuscripts. Dafe ignored me entirely and I asked him: ‘What about me? I write too!’

He shrugged his shoulders and said, ‘okay, send me something and we’ll take a look at it’. I had been writing various stories about my new Nigerian encounter all along. I assembled the stories and submitted them to Malthouse and Our Wife and Other Stories was born! In that regard, the very title of the work is significant. In the Yoruba culture, when one marries you do not only marry an individual but the husband’s extended family, the Yoruba, and Nigeria itself. I was born in Guyana. I was educated essentially within a Western framework. As such, the ‘notion of our wife’ was an eye-opener. To me, it was an assault on my individual identity and on individualism.

What’s the book about?
The story details this conflict of cultural alienation. The protagonist attends a funeral ceremony. The dancing and spraying, the communal rites of the ceremony appall her. She notices the widow of the man who has lost her husband. She ‘enters’ the widow’s pain and deliberately jettisons her own discomfort. She participates in the ceremony. Hers is a realisation of the need to connect with the woman, the widow on a personal and communal level. This is what I strive for in my life and try to portray in my writings, the imperative need to connect with others, sympathise with them on individual and communal levels.

The book addresses many societal issues, among which is the culture of aso ebi, patriarchy, NEPA and its infamous discomforts, the struggles with the War Against Indiscipline campaign, social stratification and the lot of the impoverished members of the society, the famed and infamous 419 corruption in high and low places, communal kindness and concern for others, which is an ironic juxtaposition with the former, notions of ‘African Time’ . . . and many others.

One of the thematic directives of the book concerns alienation. In the book, Caribbean, English and other foreign women confront Nigerian culture as insiders and outsiders. But I believe we all can relate to alienation on personal levels, whether that alienation stems from the family, environment, gender, and age, thus, the collection of stories appeals to everyone regardless of place or culture even while it is geographically and culturally specific. Moreover, I’m honest and truthful in my presentation of this dilemma of alienation. I show the bad, the good, the struggle, the pain and the joy of living in Nigeria. I treat issues, which I believe everyone can identify with.

Does award inspire you to write?
I’m delighted that Our Wife and Other Stories won the 1991 Commonwealth’s Prize (African Region). But that ‘feat’ did not inspire me to write or indeed write other stories. Writing for me is like breathing. It is part of me and when I am not writing, I feel wanted. My novel, The Hangman’s Game, won the Best Book Prize (2008) in the Commonwealth Prize for Literature (African Region), it was shortlisted for the Guyana Prize for Literature and longlisted for the IMPAC Dublin International Literary Award. However, the most significant dimension of winning literary awards, or indeed, any award is to know that in the scheme of things; in one’s life, they are not as important as disseminating certain values like tolerance for other belief systems, a world without prejudice, a world of justice, a world where each and every one of us has ‘the freedom to be’ and a world where truth is upheld. Of course, the prizes help to convey those very ideals. My writings are a collage of both the real and the ‘unreal’. These are combined to make a collage/story.

Each piece of fiction adheres to a particular premise in the world of the piece of writing. I believe that all writings are fiction for the simple fact that one cannot include everything into a piece of writing. The writer has to exercise judgment in including or excluding information in relation to a particular premise he is proving in the writing.

Your style of writing
The style is deliberate and it’s also not. My first drafts are written in a kind of ‘creative stream of consciousness’. I allow my mind the freedom to plumb those thoughts and experiences, which have been banked in my memory. Thereafter, I read it and see how it relates to a particular premise. I’m proving, both in content and style. The feelings/emotions, which ‘surface’, I leave alone. If they are sardonically humorous then, so be it. If not, so be it. Perhaps, I’m ‘naturally’ sardonically humorous. But it is not a deliberate thing.

How can Nigerian youths be made to read more?
So many competing forms of communication like films and other facets of the electronic media condition the reading culture. My take on this is to utilise the traditional methods of creating book groups and the like. But also to encourage reading by utilising electronic media for example -audiobooks, films of a given text and engaging in discussion on various books, etc. I think the net effect of this would be to make the reading culture participate with the electronic culture, rather than ‘fighting’ against it. I believe that the very launching of a book generates interest in the community at large and inspires others to write their own stories and launch their own books.


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