It feels great that I can create good literature in multiple genres — Obari Gomba
Obari Gomba is a prolific writer known for his contributions across various genres. His latest play, Grit has been shortlisted for the prestigious Nigeria Prize for Literature, bringing recognition to his talent once more.
In this interview with thelagosreview, we delve into the mind of this university professor to understand the inspiration behind Grit, the impact of his global experiences on his writing, and the broader social and political themes that resonate throughout his work.
Terh Agbedeh: Congratulations on your shortlisting for the Nigeria Prize for Literature with your play Grit. Could you tell us about the inspiration behind the play’s storyline and the themes it explores, particularly the idea of the destructive impact of soul-less politics?
Obari Gomba: Grit is inspired by my own reflections as a citizen, but it speaks to more than a single nation-space. It is a play that situates a family at the centre of a dysfunctional community. Two brothers are unable to agree on how to participate in a political process. They become adamant without knowing that powerful persons are orchestrating their conflict. In the end, politics leads to chaos and the brothers suffer for it.
TA: Your academic and literary achievements are remarkable, including being an Honorary Fellow in Writing at the University of Iowa and a TORCH Global South Visiting Professor at the University of Oxford. How do you feel these experiences have influenced your writing and perspective on literature?
OG: I am grateful to all individuals and institutions that have given me their platforms to excel. I always cherish opportunities to learn new things and meet new people. My creative writing has benefitted from my immersion in global affairs. I have written about Nigeria as I have written about other countries. I gladly transgress borders and boundaries in my art. I believe the world is yet to come to terms with the range of my subject matters and the depth of perception.
TA: Grit seems to delve into family dynamics and societal unrest. Can you elaborate on the significance of the fictional community of Sonofa as a backdrop for exploring these themes, and how the characters of Pa Nyimenu’s sons, Oyesllo and Okote, contribute to the story’s narrative?
OG: Sonofa is a fictional community that speaks to actual communities in the world. Many persons and places can see themselves in the tragedies of Sonofa. Violence, destructive politics, deceit, corruption, unhealthy partisanship, and discord are themes in the play. But there is ultimate courage too, strong enough to pursue truth. There is sacrifice for greater good.
TA: Your body of work includes poetry and drama, and you’ve received several accolades for your contributions to both. Could you share your creative process when transitioning between these two forms of expression, and how it feels to be recognised for your efforts in multiple literary genres?
OG: I also write creative nonfiction and Masobe Books is on the verge of releasing my “Free Troubles: A Writer’s Eyes on the World.” It is up to the public to see that I invest aesthetics and gravitas in whatever genre I write. I have not been deliberate to note the particulars of my transition between forms, but I can say that there is a creative impulse that chooses the right form for the right subject matter. It feels great that I can create good literature in multiple genres.
TA: The synopsis of Grit hints at the manipulation of the brothers by powerful figures orchestrating conflict. How does this aspect of external influence reflect the broader societal issues you aim to address through your play, and what message do you hope readers and viewers will take away from it?
OG: Families and communities are vulnerable when they take unity for granted. External factors take advantage of internal factors. When a group weakens or undermines itself, it is likely to suffer dire consequences. In a world that is fiercely competitive, Nigeria and the rest of its ilk have continued to activate self-destructive buttons, and we are all disadvantaged because of that.
TA: You’ve curated an anthology and have been involved in various international literary programmes. How has your global engagement impacted your understanding of the universal themes presented in Grit, and how do you see your work contributing to a broader conversation on social and political matters?
OG: I expect Grit to find readership and reception around the world. You are right that there is a global dimension to its themes. I hope it can stir up the kind of conversations that will make the world a better place. Something is terribly wrong with the politics of the world, and it has to be fixed. If my writing is allowed to contribute in any small way to the world’s healing, I will be glad.
TA: Your play Grit highlights tragic consequences in the face of unrest. Could you shed light on the significance of the title Grit and how it encapsulates the resilience and determination of characters amid turmoil?
OG: The play depicts both courage and brokenness. We need to courageously speak truth to power. We need to ask for reforms. We need to insist on justice. There is too much turmoil in the world and that can break us as it does to the people of Sonofa. In the face of political darkness, this play can inspire us to rise up and fight for social justice.
TA: As someone who has been on the longlist before, would you say that your plans, should you win the $100,000 prize money, have changed?
OG: Yes, I have been listed for this prize before. I have been listed five times for this prize: Lengthof Eyes (Poetry, 2013), For Every Homeland (Poetry, 2017), Guerrilla Post (Drama, 2018), The Lilt of the Rebel (Poetry, 2022), and Grit (Drama, 2023). A lot changes over time, but one thing is constant. There is a necessity to produce and promote literature. If I win, I will set some money aside for the promotion of Grit.
TA: How, in your opinion, has the Nigeria Prize for Literature impacted writing in the country?
OG: The Nigeria LNG Limited deserves to be praised for making this huge investment in our literature. It is a wonderful reward system for an industry that has been neglected by the state and other organisations. Writers are inspired to pursue excellence in their craft. There is greater focus on literature and the cultural space is energised. The quality of book production has improved. In truth, we cannot quantify the value chain of this prize.