Molara Wood, The Per Contra Interview by Miriam N. Kotzin
PC: When did you start writing?
MW: All my life I’ve kept journals, had the desire to write things down, held on to memories like jewels in a vault, and made sketches – mental and scattered scribblings – of books I might wish to write. Long gestation period, you could say. Seven years ago I mapped out the skeleton of a novel I wanted to write, gave it a title, then abandoned it. I started to write for publication just over five years ago, and the first flush was in the journalistic vein.
PC: Because your writing is so various – poetry, flash fiction and short stories, and essays. And, of course, your blogging [Wordsbody.blogspot.com] as well as your work as an arts journalist-I’m curious about how you see these interacting, or how expertise in one has influenced the other. Poetry and fiction?
MW: Of all the modes, poetry was the most tortuous for me to write. I constantly wrestled with this feeling, that I was not really a poet; real poets made it look easy. I have only about three or four poems that I feel are near perfect, that I’m really proud of, but the process of their creation was accidental in the main. And so I’ve decided that I am not a poet, and I no longer write poetry. The frustrated poet can still find expression in my fiction, I hope, in my use of language when writing prose.
PC: Flash and longer fiction?
MW: Flash fiction has not really taken off among Nigerian writers; the preference is usually for the traditional short story. I write mostly what you call longer fiction myself, but I am not resistant to the flash form. When I want to work on an idea, I tend to ask myself which story form best fits; it really depends on the subject matter, as well as the scope and intensity of it. A flash, when done well, is a perfect little thing. Also, I like the discipline of it, done in so few words; that discipline helps when weeding out extraneous content in longer pieces.
PC: Fiction and journalism?
MW: For some reason, many who read my non-fiction at the beginning said they could see a fiction writer in there somewhere. So I got tired of saying I didn’t yet write fiction, and powered on with it. I have written more journalism (and essays) than fiction, and the exactitude of the former helps the precision of language in the latter. I am pretty keen on the revision process of my draft stories, because a part of me reads them like a detached journalist-reviewer. Plus, journalism works on deadlines, and all writing, eventually, requires some adherence to deadlines.
PC: Was your interest in the arts a life-long interest? Has the emphasis shifted?
MW: I’d say it was lifelong. I contributed an essay (“John Wayne, Billie and Me”) to an edition of Farafina Magazine guest edited by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in which I traced my interest in the arts to childhood. A portrait of the artist as a young girl, you might say. The interest in literature was the earliest, I am happy to report. I’d read so much by the age of seven or eight, that some family members called me “the novelist”, when I didn’t really know the meaning. Not one person in my family has expressed surprise that I became a writer in the end. I guess they always saw a certain oddity, and now it all makes sense. Has the arts emphasis shifted? No.
PC: How long were you in London, and what took you there?
MW: I went to London as many of my generation of Nigerians went: to study. Three or four years max, was the plan. But life happens. You don’t see the years rolling into each other, then you wake up one day, and you’ve been in England 20 years.
PC: And why did you return to Nigeria?
MW: For my generation, there was always the prospect of returning at some ever shifting date in the uncharted future. Our parents and extended families were back home, and so we always referred back there. Our roots were elsewhere. We loved England but defined ourselves as Nigerians first. And then we had children, and for this new generation born in the UK, there was the pressure to be British and nothing else; and in that sometimes, there is a void. And so perhaps some of us older ones who could still trace an uncomplicated path back, facing up to our own void, started returning. Also, it’s a more optimistic time; and it helps that the credit crunch has so far avoided Nigeria. Just before I left London, I read a Washington Post article about a considerable counter-flow to Nigeria’s brain drain, and I thought: how true. My own return is not unconnected to my writing, most of which is about Nigeria. The more I wrote the more I felt like I had one leg in Nigeria – and now I’ve placed both legs firmly at home. I should add that the final push came in the guise of a job, as the Arts and Culture editor of Next, a newspaper being started in Lagos by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Dele Olojede.
PC: What role has blogging played in your career trajectory?
MW: I started blogging because a poet friend kept saying I’d be good at it. I always had more material than were usable in the traditional media to which I contributed, so blogging provided an outlet of sorts. I once heard someone say they were trying to make books cool – and literary blogs, to a certain extent, make books cool. I feel this is important in my part of the world especially, where we’ve suffered a steep decline in the reading culture.
But really, for me, the more established forms of writing have always come first, and blogging is only supplementary. I had maintained a weekly Arts column in the Lagos Guardian for 2 years before I started blogging, so it surprises me that some only know me as a blogger. That said, I was at a literary festival in the Gambia last year and I heard panelists recommending Wordsbody to lovers of African writing, so there’s no denying the reach of a blog. It can be time-consuming however, and I sometimes feel this is time I could devote to my own fiction. But things are the way they are.
PC: Do you think that for you writing in Diaspora is different from writing in Nigeria?
MW: Writing in the Diaspora has to be different from writing in Nigeria, but I’ll need to have been in Nigeria awhile before I can speak with any authority on it. While in England, my short stories set in Nigeria were mostly letters to the past, so you may detect a certain wistfulness in them, a certain nostalgia. The few stories set in London were broadly concerned with the question of being black in a white world. Race was an issue, because I lived it every day – both in the positive and negative sense. Here in Nigeria - the most populous black nation on earth - the fact of my blackness is neither here nor there. It’s not an issue. I wait to see the impact, if any, on my writing from here on.
PC: How are you readjusting to life in Lagos?
MW: I arrived and plunged immediately into the commute across the city to work on Lagos Island, sweating in the back of taxis forever stuck in traffic jams. A 30-minute car journey can take three or four times as long. You make the return journey in the evening in even more sweltering conditions; and you may get home to find that NEPA (the electricity monopoly company) has, in Nigerian parlance, ‘taken’ light. You’re in darkness, so there’s not really much to do but hit the sack. An avowed night person, I have lately become like Robert De Niro’s character, ‘Noodles’, in the film, ‘Once Upon A Time In America’. “I have been going to bed early.”
I’m fixing to get a power generator, as many households do. Lagos is chaotic, crowded, noise-polluted, sometimes difficult and – if observed encounters in the traffic are anything to go by – full of frayed tempers. But it is also a vibrant and life-enriching city; and there’s water everywhere. What I find most fascinating, are the human relationships; the sense of community; the fact that a stranger on a bus will offer you half his roasted corn, because it offends his sensibility to eat it all by himself. Everything is in full, blazing colour, and I find this inspiring.
Lagos, really, is no better or worse than any other megacity. It is only life, lived differently. I am just going to have to get over my little culture shocks, and get on with it. I am encouraged to see that my 10-year-old son has adjusted spectacularly well in the new environment. He’s very happy here. Barely two months in his Lagos school, he campaigned for an election as the Music Prefect – and won! Proof, surely, that all will be well.
PC: This issue of Per Contra includes a flash, “Free Rice” and a short story “The Scarcity of Common Goods,” that are connected by some related content. Would you tell our readers a bit about how you came to write “Free Rice” and why you wanted to integrate the incident in the longer piece?
MW: “Free Rice” is based on something I heard in childhood, about a load-carrier that fell into a river with his sack-load of rice. He shouted for the rice to be rescued in his stead, and forever became the butt of bad jokes for his poor choice. His very provincial Yoruba accent was also uncommon in those parts, and had a comic twist in his listeners’ ears. Rescuers ignored the load-carrier’s pleas and saved him anyway, but his survival is not much use for me in fiction. I guess he struck me as a ridiculous figure in my youth, but whenever I remembered the story as an adult, I wondered: what makes a man value rice more highly than his own life?
I was only going to write one story, the one I started first, “The Scarcity of Common Goods”. I wanted to explore the load-carrier’s condition via the predicament of his widow. I like telling stories through characters who are not obvious lead players in the narrative; and here, the load-carrier would be seen at a remove, via others’ recounts. But I had a blockage during the writing, and got stuck on the widow’s grieving scene. I felt very strongly that the narrative filters I’d put in place were inadequate – inappropriate even - for the intensity of the river incident. And so I left the story hanging and went off to write “Free Rice”, to look directly at the load-carrier. Weeks later I came back to “The Scarcity of Common Goods”; this time it flowed and became a whole other story.
PC: What are you working on now?
MW: I have not written a single line of fiction since arriving in Lagos, would you believe. I don’t quite know what to make of it; I’m not used to not writing. I’m wondering if this is creative rupture caused by the instability of relocation. Another thing: I am exposed to a thousand new stimuli here, hundreds of potential characters running past. Perhaps it’s only natural that the artist should feel a bit bamboozled. I imagine it will take a while to process all these new elements in one’s psyche. I am also very busy working on a wider canvas at the newspaper now, and this will require some adjusting in terms of my creative writing. But I’m confident that soon, interesting new characters will begin to walk into my stories.
PC: Thank you, Molara.
© 2005-2009 Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas