The subject of our stories
Thinking is the enemy of creativity. It’s self-conscious, and anything self-conscious is lousy. You can’t try to do things. You simply must do things. – RAY BRADBURY
Welcome to the first of my articles here in The Guardian. When I was approached about this gig, I took it without thinking. Without thinking about what I would write to fill a biweekly spot, or 800 to 1500-word article in what I have to say is my father’s favourite newspaper. Dad always liked The Guardian. He said it was a serious paper, with strong understated non-sensationalist headlines. This in contrast to most of the others which he called play-play newspapers. But I digress. The point is that my father is going to be reading these articles. Most likely . . . mostly . . . I am not sure. Because I can actually claim that no family member of mine has ever read anything that I have written. Not my novels or short stories, not my articles, not my Facebook posts.
That last bit is lie though. Everyone reads my Facebook posts. They are short enough that Facebook does not have to curtail them in its default thread. So with that out of the way, I welcome you, dear reader, to the first of my articles. I will be, throughout most of this run, be talking books. Not the analyses or critique of them, but the writing of them, the creating of them. I will be talking about covers, text, layout, writing tips. I will be talking about prizes. I will be talking about the market. I will be talking about audience and content.
I ran a publishing house for three years. I was the chief operations officer, a sexed-up general manager. I ran the business, more or less successfully depending on whom you ask, and I oversaw the editorial department. I revamped the company’s submissions’ policy. The submissions desk was where we read applications, for want of a better word, from authors wishing to be published. It was where the editors felt the pulse of what was important to Nigerian writers from a creating (note that I did not write “creative”) point of view. And while it was gruelling soul-destroying work—as in most endeavours, the really bad are what are most plentiful—there were times when the submissions editor would send a sample of writing that was well done and skilfully told up the chain of command.
We had monthly editorial meetings for the slush pile (that is what we called the submissions desk). We would read what the slush-pile editor (the submissions editor hated being called this) and listen to her defence of each story that she presented. Many times we would ask to see the full manuscript. This would be communicated to the author who would then send it in. And if we liked what we read, we would approach the author with a publishing contract.
But what I noticed from my three years in that publishing house was how limited the subjects were, how many people wrote on the same sets of subjects: there was always the loin-clothed hero, misunderstood by his people, and who only spoke in proverbs and with dibias; there was the love story between the noble horseman and his first wife, who was an anachronistically liberated woman in a patriarchal society; there was the king’s bodyguard whose sovereign had died, and who would have to be buried with his oga. Stories that had been told, and told again. Told to death.
I wondered then, and still wonder: In the years since the progenitors of these plots were written and gained wild acclaim, the demographics have changed, as has the agenda. We are not writing to prove to the other that we too exist, that we love, that we are. We have become a more urban population. And yet there are almost no stories about us, told to us. There is no story of the young man who lives in Mushin, or Enerhen, who wakes up each morning to go to the car wash. Who makes enough money to pay for a session at the local egg-carton lined music studio where he works on his upcoming album. What are his worries? What strives against him, insistent that he fail at his dream? There is no story of the urban, of the girl forced to make choices no one should have to make, or of the young writer working against all wisdom, at a profession that promises only poverty. Now to the over-wise: yes, I know that these stories have been written, and I know that you can come at me with several example to disprove what I assert. But I will counter that with this: There are always exceptions that paradoxically prove the point.
I once had a conversation with a friend about this dearth of diversity. And he suggested that our writers were being too precious, that everyone wanted to write only the Great Nigerian Novel whose primary audience was not even Nigerian. He suggested that this made all of blind to the gems right in front in front of most of us writers. I agree. And I say back to this: perhaps we should understand that our ordinary is good enough. That the stories to write are right in front of you, dear young writer. Write them. They may be ordinary; they may be normal. But that does not make them bad stories. Tell them. See the humanity right in front of you. Show us.Next time we will talk about the question of audience and who we write to. See you in two weeks.