‘Poor access to books limits literary conversation’
Denja Abdullahi is the president of Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA). His play, Death and the King’s Grey Hair, a metaphorical piece on tenured, monarchical leadership in an ancient African society, is one of the three drama pieces shortlisted for The Nigeria Prize for Literature Prize 2018. The prize is worth $100,000. In this interview with ANOTE AJELUOROU, he reflects on the prize, the challenges of playwriting and books in the country
It’s just a small step away before victory is assured haven been shortlisted for the prize. Does it seem like waiting for the ‘famous’ Godot?
The allusion to waiting for ‘Godot’ suggests an endless and fruitless wait. In this case, the waiting will soon end, as a winner is sure to emerge at the appointed time. Whoever is announced winner eventually would not have waited in vain and even the other two would have already received validation for their works being on the shortlist in the first place.
What are your expectations regarding wining the prize?
I believe my work is good enough to win. It has gone through the furnace of performances, reviews in newspapers and critical analysis in academic journals over the years. From my experience as a literary prize administrator in the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) for close to two decades, I have seen that every author who submits his or her work for a competitive literary prize believes his or her work stands a chance of winning or else the submission would not have been made in the first place. My own belief in my work goes beyond that whimsical self-belief, but I also realise that the ultimate decision lies with the judges, using their set criteria.
What makes your book unique and why do you think it should be the jury’s choice?
My work uses a mythical and transcendental idiom to examine the use and contest for power in a human society and the work has appealed greatly to readers and audiences over the years for its unusual take on power and leadership. I was also particular about language and precise and evocative dialogue in that work. I did not write the work in the first place with the expectation of winning any prize. I wrote it to capture an inspiration and document an experience. It went through long period of maturation and regular testing on various stages before it was eventually published. It is up to the jury to make their choice based on whatever they have been asked to look for as representative of a winning work as set out in their criteria for the prize.
From traditional to social media, do you think the prize has generated enough conversation, good or bad? And is the conversation coming as an informed one?
There is still the problem of access to books in the country. It is, therefore, difficult for any sustained and informed conversation around the long-listed or short-listed works to be done by anybody. Most people who could talk about the works have not read them. People in Nigeria are still not moved to buy works in contention for the prize to read even when available not to talk of those not readily available. Let me illustrate with what happened at the recent CORA Book Party held for the long-listed works for this year. Some of the works in question were on sale at that event, but how many were bought? Even after a work has been proclaimed the winner, what volume of sales does it attract? Do we care about books and whatever is in them in this country? Talking of conversation on the prize generally, a lot has happened over the years, including trenchant criticism and I believe the administrators of the prize have been managing it better with the feedbacks they have been receiving from the traditional and social media.
From the long-list of 11 playwrights to the book party and to just three playwrights, just how arduous has the journey been?
The arduous thing is in the conception and writing of the work in the first place. The work is what is in focus now and it is what is making the journey not the writer. It is the work that is being judged not the writer. Once you have written a work and pushed it out, you can never tell where it will go. And with a good work, it will continue its journey long after you the writer is dead.
From your experience in the prize journey, what are the challenges confronting playwrights and writers in Nigeria and how do you propose to mitigate them?
There is a huge gap between good books or required books and those that are supposed to read them. Distribution of books is the biggest problem we have now in this country. Good books are not in short supply but getting them to where they will be bought and read is the problem. Playwrights have the added challenge of testing their plays on the stage. A play is not complete until it is staged. To stage any good play at all is not a tea party. It is only in the academic campuses that plays can be readily put on stage with minimal cost using the theatre and performing arts students who often have to bear the brunt (cost) of such productions, as they are often part of their examinations. Playwrights who operate outside the academia find it very difficult to produce their plays except if the plays are good enough to attract the academia or other independent producers and sponsors. I know all these, because my play has been produced in several academic campuses and the major part of the work I have done in the public service for about a decade now is in the area of drama, theatre and performing arts.
For the prize, it will not be out of place for NLNG to sponsor a major production of the winning play and institutions and willing bodies should take it up from there to take the play around the country. Theatre and performance, for it to make any impact, is not a one-off thing; a play must be staged repeatedly in various forms to make an impact in people’s consciousness.
Should you win, is there any social or political or cultural cause/s you might channel part of the prize money?
I have worked in the literary and cultural world as an administrator long enough to know that arts in all ramifications need regular patronage to survive and transcend existential obstacles. I have some ideas of literary and cultural causes I will embark on if I should win the prize. I will keep the specifics of
what I can do in that respect to myself for now.
Your play, Death and the King’s Grey Hair, has serious political implications, especially for Nigerian and Africa, of sit tight leaders. Is the continent finally getting it right with democracy? And is democracy the right path so far, considering the lack of development all through the entire African continent?
Like I said at the CORA Book Party, Africa did not hear of democracy from Athens. The play itself in its own form tells us constitutional democracy is not alien to Africa and that the quests for tenured leadership and accountable rule have been part of our traditional governance system long before the colonial disruption. I cannot say with all sense of fulfillment that we have gotten it right with democracy. Yes, we may have been forced by circumstances to embrace electoral democracy, but we are still adept at subverting the electoral process itself. Even after the elections, what has been happening to the various institutions of governance that should deliver justice, progress and development to the electorates after the campaigns and elections? There is no alternative to democracy but our democracy must embrace our peculiarities while ensuring that we do not deviate from the basic tenets that have worked everywhere.