25 August 2017

Nigeria: 'Arts Should Be Fully Explored to Advance Our Society'

interview

Odafe Atogun is an Edo-born Nigerian writer and author of two outstanding novels, 'Taduno's Song' and 'Wake Me When I'm Gone'- both published in different languages including, Spanish, Turkish and Italian. Atogun spoke with Peter Uzoho at the maiden edition of Kaduna Book and Arts Festival held recently in Kaduna State.

Taduno's Song, your first book, has featured in two book festivals. One was at the Ake Arts and Book Festival, last year in Abeokuta, and just recently, at the Kaduna Book and Arts Festival (KABAFEST). So tell us more about the book?

Taduno's Song showcases the power of the Arts in society. It is the story of an iconic musician, who in the beginning sang about peaceful co-existence in society - about love, about peace. A time came when the country was under a ruthless dictatorship and he began to use his music as a weapon against the government. He used his music to condemn tyranny, corruption and many of the ills bedeviling his society. Of course, that got him into trouble with the government, so he goes into exile. In exile, he receives a letter from his girlfriend, telling him about the unwholesome state of things in the country - how things were sliding out of control. He comes back to the country where he is involved in a duel with the tyrant, the dictatorial President at the time. So basically, it's the struggle of this musician called Taduno to emancipate his country from a ruthless dictatorship.

What inspired the story?

The story was inspired by the life of the late Fela Kuti - what he did with music. I would say that Fela Kuti was a consistent campaigner for the rights of the downtrodden through his music. He attacked the government using his music as a weapon. I've come to realise that the place of the arts in our society is not being fully explored. It's a very powerful tool that can help advance society; that can really move society forward. So I saw the need to write this story to create that awareness - that the power of the arts is something that we need to use more in trying to elevate ourselves as a people or society.

When and where was Taduno's Song published?

It was published on August 4, 2016 by Canongate Books in the UK and has since been published in the U.S. by Penguin Random House - the biggest publisher in the world. It has been translated into German, Italian, Turkish and other languages. The Nigerian edition was published late last year by Ouida Books.

At what point in your life did you start writing?

I've been writing all my life but I did not take writing seriously in the beginning. I would call myself a lazy writer - yes I'm a lazy writer. I've been lazy most of the time and that's why I'd not gotten a publishing deal before now. But at a point in my life, some years back, I decided to give it my all. I started writing seriously, finished my first book and, fortunately, got a publishing deal that secured the world rights. So at that point, I decided to go full-time. But writing has always been in me; even as a child I've always had this love for literature. However, it's one thing to be talented and it's another thing to be hard working. So, given the success I have achieved so far, I have resolved to be more focused.

How do you feel being a writer?

It liberates me because I'm able to express myself; I'm living my dream and it's so good to be able to contribute your piece to society - to the elevation of society. Arts is about elevating society, it's not just to entertain. So contributing my little bit through my art is something that is very joyful, and I'm deeply grateful for it.

How would you rate the reception of 'Taduno's Song' by the readers?

That's for the reviewers and critics to decide. But for a book to have been published in over six countries, that tells you something. Like I said earlier, it was published last year in the UK and has since been translated into three languages - German, Italian, Turkish, and other rights have been negotiated but three foreign languages are already out in the market. So that tells you the potentials of the book. You can't be a full time writer if your book is not doing well. I mean, you need to survive; you need to pay your bills. So for me to go full-time that tells you a story.

Writing is one art that is highly time-consuming, and you are a family man - you have your wife and children needing your attention. So how do you juggle between them?

It's like the normal person that goes to work every day. You go to work; you come back to your family. So it's the same thing, you have to work. As a writer, the time you appropriate for your work is not different from a doctor, a teacher or an engineer. I'm just like every other normal human being.

What is your biggest challenge as a writer?

To be very candid, my biggest challenge now is the fact that I need to take my work more seriously. There are so many distractions in the world - from social, to family, to economic. You encounter so many distractions. But these are not peculiar to me as a writer. It's something that affects everyone, and I just need to rise above the distractions to dedicate more time to my art.

Would you love to see your son or daughter wake up one day to say he or she wants to be a writer?

I don't see any problem with that. As a parent you encourage your children to aspire to be the best they can be. You encourage and support them.

Apart from Fela Kuti, who was of influence to you, what other influence do you have, particularly in the art of writing?

I have many influences. There is Milan Kundera, the Czech-born French writer, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a Columbian; John Maxwell "J.M." Coetzee, a South African; our own Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, and so many other writers. But my biggest influence is society. Every artist derives his or her inspiration from society. It's the society that provides us with the materials we use for our art. Be you a painter, a musician, a writer, you get all your materials from society. So for me, society is my greatest influence because without society we will not have art in the first place.

Your second book 'Wake Me When I'm Gone' has just been published in the UK. Tell us about it?

To put it very simply, it is a story about grief, love, motherhood and breaking the rules. It is the story of the triumph of a single mother who stood up against evil traditions in a typical African village.

Finally, Book Buzz Foundation headed by Ms Lola Shoneyin has been consistent in organising Book and Art Festivals in Nigeria where established and budding artists across Africa and beyond converge to dissect societal issues. What is your take on this?

What we are witnessing is a revolution. And it is good that we all have the opportunity to be a part of it one way or the other. Initiatives such as this promote the collective development of our minds as a society.

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