There are many things one can achieve with $100,000 — Henry Akubuiro

Henry Akubuiro has been shortlisted in the Nigeria Prize for Literature for his play, Yamtarawala, the Warrior King. In this interview with thelagosreview, the literary journalist and assistant editor at The Sun newspaper in Lagos, Nigeria  discusses the inspiration behind the play’s storyline and the themes it explores, his inspiring literary journey, as well as the plans he has should he win the prize money and a host of other things.

Can you tell us more about your journey as a writer, from your days as a campus journalist to becoming an Assistant Editor at Saturday Sun? How has your background in journalism influenced your approach to writing literature?

Journalism and creative writing have always been part of me. My late dad was a lover of books and newspapers. In his shelf, you would find assorted magazines and newspapers like Drum magazine, The West African Pilot and Daily Times, dating back to the 1950s, 60s, 70s, 80s, and beyond. 

So, I grew up immersed in journalistic writings and books. Little wonder, I wanted to study journalism in the university, but he objected on the grounds that it was a risky job. I had to choose English and Literary Studies, rather, which I knew was a related discipline in terms of communication.

Even as a student of English and Literary Studies, that journalist in me still showed. It was destined. I was very active on campus as a student journalist. First, I became the Editor of ELSA, changing the departmental  notice board to a platform for creativity, with students from other departments trooping in everyday to read the poems, short stories and articles students were publishing. 

Within a short time, the media revolution started on campus, with students from the Sociology, Law, Mass Communication and History departments replicating what I started on campus. Within a short time I graduated, alongside my team, publishing a weekly news magazine called FrankTalk in a big board covered with glass to prevent vandalisation, situated in the middle of the popular Love Garden at Imo State University, Owerri, running stories of bizarre happenings on campus and in town.

By the time I had gotten to the third year, I was chosen by the entire Department of English and Literary Studies to be the Editor of Elite, the creative writing magazine of English and Literary Studies. It was the first ever printed magazine on campus. It made me and my team more popular.

Based on that feat, I was approached by the student union government of the university to be the Editor of The Imo Star, the official newspaper of the university union. I created the concept of the newspaper, and, together with other students drawn from different departments, the first newspaper was born in the university. It was modelled after ThisDay newspaper, which was the rave of the moment then.

It wasn’t a surprise that when I  graduated, I chose journalism as a career. In my first year in The Sun, I won the ANA Literary Journalist of the Year. A few veterans cried foul, because they didn’t know me well. It was like a rookie coming from nowhere to win the only available prize for literary journalists in Nigeria. 

Unknown to them, I had already built myself as a journalist as an undergraduate. Therefore, covering literature in a national paper was a continuation of what I was doing in the university – it was a familiar terrain. 

What I did differently was to popularise profile interviews, where I used the simple present to write the interviews and recreating the atmosphere around the writer, which was similar to reading a novel. The column “Literati” soon became a favourite for many Nigerian and African writers, old and young, plus undergraduates, because it was also available online. We were getting reactions from the US, UK, Ghana, Turkey and beyond. I made new friends. The pages also included regular reviews and event reportage. Above all, the names we were featuring in the paper were writers everybody was looking forward to reading. It was a time Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie burst onto the scene, and we fed on her stories and books.

As you already know, the literary/arts beat is a specialised beat in journalism. You need to be an artist most times to function properly, which is why journalists on this beat are the least to be moved around, compared to other journalists in our media houses. So, I have been on this beat for almost my entire journalism career before I was promoted last year as Assistant Editor. Saturday Sun. But I still handle the arts and literary pages of the paper, for there is a chemistry that has been forged with that community overtime. 

I think journalism has helped me as a writer. Journalists are particular about details and in building a story to a crescendo to make the reader immersed. I have heard some people say each time they read my work, it’s unputdownable. Of course, that comes from journalism – you have to draw the reader’s attention from the beginning. Journalism makes you investigate and research well. When you read my works, you won’t miss that influence, even when they may be works of fiction.

 Your book of interviews,Conversations with 50 African Writers,” is in progress. Could you share some insights or memorable experiences you’ve had while conversing with these prominent writers? How has this project impacted your own writing?

That book has been long in coming. So many writers and scholars who have followed my journalism for over a decade have been pressuring me to publish this book. Odia Ofeimun, Prof Tanure Ojaide, Niyi Osundare, Ernest Emenyonu, to mention a few,  have persistently told me many times to bring out the book for posterity. Also, some of these interviews are missing online. Prof. Amanze Akpuda of Abia State University, Uturu, ensures he reminds me about the book project almost every year. He said what I had done with some of the biggest names in African literature should be compiled in a book. Prof. Ernest Emenyonu, in particular, has even volunteered to find a publisher for it in the US. He was startled by the names in the book when I told him. Of course, he has read some of the interviews himself because he keeps records. 

Over the years, I have interviewed some of the biggest names in African literature. Talk of Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Kofi Awonor, Kofi Anyidoho, Stukwei Ohai, Elechi Amadi, Eustace Palmer, Nadine Godimer, Lewis Nkosi, Gabriel Okara, Abiola Irele, Theo Vincent, Ama Ata Aidoo, Manthia Diawara, Femi Osofisan, Ernest Emenyonu, Okey Ndibe, Biyavanga Wainana, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Helon Habila  –the list is endless. 

Kofi Awonor, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Lewis Nkosi, who I met at the African Literature Festival in Ghana in 2006 in my early years as a literary journalist, were some of the simplest writers I have encountered. So humble. Listening to them share their stories and thoughts about literature was a most rewarding experience for me. 

I also know some of these great names closely, from Elechi Amadi, Gabriel Okara, Chukwuemeka Ike, Ernest Emenyonu to Odia Ofeimun. These are some of the writers I have visited more than once to interview them at home.

One of unforgettable encounters I have had interviewing writers and scholars was one with Prof. Lesley Ogundipe, the legendary feminist. I was interviewing her with Sola Balogun, the former Arts Editor of The Sun, in Port Harcourt, sometime in 2012 or 2013. In the interview, I  reminded her of Prof. Charles Nnolim’s essay on “Feminism and the Scandalous Path” in which he pointed out the discordant beats feminists were dancing to. So I sought her reaction to that.

Instantly, Prof. Ogundipe flared up. She accused me of forging that and attributing it to Prof Nnolim, and threatened to walk out of the interview if I didn’t apologise for misrepresenting her. 

Try as I could to prove my innocence from the accusation, she kept shouting that I was one of the haters of feminism. I was shocked. Eventually, Balogun apologised on my behalf for a crime I didn’t commit (laughs). When the interview session returned, I now asked her to explain how she made a first class result at Ibadan in a class that contained Prof. Wole Soyinka, and her face lit up with fond memories and excitement. She was now willing to continue the Interview on a friendly note.  

Yamtarawala, the Warrior King explores themes of ambition, power, and leadership. What inspired you to delve into the historical context of 16th century Kanem-Bornu Empire for this play? How did you approach the research and creative process to bring this era to life?

I am glad I wrote this play, which has been on my mind for many years. We must appreciate positives from other cultures. Nigeria is a riven country along religious and ethnic lines. Writers should be immune from all that. My respect has increased since I wrote this book. From Yoruba, Hausa, Igbo, Kanuri to Fulani, they say I have the spirit of a colonial officer, who goes into strange environments and brings out the beauties in them selflessly. This is akin with what Prof Ola Rotimi did with the play, Ovaranwem Nogbaisi, a Bini story.

I also think our writers haven’t done justice to our past compared to what European writers have done with theirs. I am not saying we haven’t done anything. Of course, we have. But much still needs to be done in this area. Look at the Roman plays by the greatest playwright on earth, William Shakespeare! We still study Julius Caesar and The Tragedy of Antonio and Cleopatra. Look at what he did with King Lear and Macbeth from his Scottish history! This is a writer who knows the importance of history. 

Literature and history are siamese twins. Historical literature is one of the dominant genres in literature. Some of the greatest writers in history have churned out literary classics based on history. In drama, this is common, especially Western drama. Our greatest work of literature in Africa, Things Fall Apart, is a work of history. 

What Yamtarawala, the Warrior King does is to go back in time –a forgotten past — when the Arab was making incursions into Africa. The story starts in Yemen when the Egyptian army attacked the palace of the Yemeni king. It then moves over to Kanem-Bornu, one of the greatest empires in Africa, comprising northeast Nigeria, northern Cameroon, almost all parts of Chad, southern part of Libya and Southeast part of Niger Republic. In the play, you can see the traditional society and an Islamic society juxtaposed. 

In the play, there is a leadership tussle in Kanem-Bornu that produces a loser –Yamtarawala – but not a bitter one. His ambition to become a king sees him move away from the capital of Kanem-Bornu to find his own kingdom. You can see conflict resolution here. 

This ambition, however, comes with a high cost – bloodletting. His bloated ego and fear of the unknown after assuming the reins of power also lead to his eventual tragedy, which is a big lesson to today’s leaders.

The history that is replete in Nigerian literature is mostly the encounter between the West –Europeans– and our forefathers. Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God, Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman, for example, have echoed this narrative. Yamtarawala, the Warrior King goes farther back in time to depict a society without European incursions yet one having a historical intercourse with the Arab civilisation. 

To write this book  I worked with the magnum opus, A History of Biu, written by the legendary Bukar Usman, which recounted the implosion in Kanem-Bornu when Abdullahi (Yamtarawala), the prince of Ngazargamu, the capital of Kanem-Bornu, fell out of favour with the Ngazargamu establishment and decided to go his own way to find a kingdom in Biu, south of Borno. It’s also a story about the Biu Emirate.

The locals see Yamtarawala in the same light as King Shaka of Zululand. Queen Amina of Zazzau, Oduduwa and Queen Moremi of Yoruba. These are great personages who have fared well in modern Nigerian literature, compared to King Yamtarawala.

My travels to Biu Emirate in Borno State, amid risks, while researching for this story, opened my eyes to the hidden gems in that part of the country. I went to a distant community called Viukuthla where Yamtarawala used to go hunting more than 500 years ago. I also visited historical sites that have been preserved for centuries. I met the Emir of Biu and saw what his palace looked like with vital artefacts. I met custodians of culture, who taught me the art of traditional warfare. I visited four different local governments in the Biu Emirate, including Marima town in Hawul LGA, which is the centre of Bura culture. 

The Yamtarawala dynasty compelled dramatic attention the more I ventured into the emirate. In the play, the culture of Bura people, dances, and language feature prominently. This part of Borno has succeeded in maintaining its culture despite the influence of Islam. And you would be amazed how similar some of their traditions are with what we have down south, especially the folklore. 

The play addresses subjects such as love, deception, family and war. How do you balance these diverse themes within the narrative? Could you elaborate on the significance of these themes in the context of the story?

The first time I took the manuscript to the National Troupe of Nigeria at the National Theatre, Lagos, three of the most senior people there screamed, “This is the kind of play we love to stage. This is a total theatre with historical significance.” I have watched a lot of boring plays on stage where the audience sneaked out twenty-thirty minutes into the performances. So, in writing Yamtarawala, the Warrior King, I didn’t want to make the same mistake. Therefore, the storyline incorporates love, especially unrequited love. During his conquests, Yamtarawala, in the play, messes up with many hearts. He falls in love, gets what he wants and zooms off, sometimes killing the women. The love parts in the play serve a useful purpose in calming tension caused by wars and losses.

Wars in the play function to increase the spectacle of the performance, because there are clashes here and there, from the Egyptian army pillaging Yemen to the Yamtarawala army conquering territories on his way. There is also a great deal of pantomime to vary the excitement.  Deception is a tool Yamtarawala deploys effectively in the play. It’s not as if his victims are gullible, but he exploits their weaknesses to get by whenever things come to a head.

Your role as Jury Chair for the 2023 James Currey Prize for African Literature is quite prestigious. How do you envision the impact of this prize on contemporary African literature? Are there any particular qualities or themes you’ll be looking for in the submissions?

The James Currey Prize for African Literature has established itself as an important prize in African literature. Each year, writers look towards the calendar. 

The quality of entries received this year is a pointer to the popularity of the prize. It may not be among the most financially rewarding prizes in Africa, but we must appreciate that it’s being run from the pocket of an individual. The organisers of the prize aren’t strict on specific themes but good African stories. Reading through the manuscripts this year, the variety of stories submitted by writers takes me on journeys to different nooks and crannies of the continent without being physically present. 

Given the enthusiasm shown by writers this year, I have no doubt that the prize is going to become bigger. Another plus for the prize is that it is part of the Africa Literature Festival in Oxford taking place next week, organised by the James Currey Society founded by the Nigerian filmmaker and writer, Onyeka Nwelue.

As someone deeply involved in promoting literature through your work with ‘The Sun Literary Review’ and your career in journalism, how do you view the relationship between literature and journalism? How does your experience in both fields influence your perspectives on storytelling and communication?

They are closely related. Journalism was a later invention, long after literature had been in existence in many cultures. While journalism is spontaneous and may centre around chronological or isolated events, literature is broader in its exploration of life. Both, however, have a target audience driven by writers who deliver messages and opinions to readers from different backgrounds. Journalism, as a trite says, is literature in a hurry. A writer takes more time to prepare his brew, and when he is done, there is a possibility his brew may outlive him. Shakespeare, William Wordsworth, P.B. Shelley, William Golding, Chinua Ache, Cyprian Ekwensi, to mention a few, easily come to mind. Writers hardly die. A journalist with his onion doesn’t die, too. We still remember the genius of Dele Giwa.

Being a journalist makes you a better writer in a way. In history you will recall great journalists who became literary icons like our own Chinua Achebe,  Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain, James Baldwin, Charles Dickens, among others. 

Yamtarawala, the Warrior King seems to bridge the gap between drama and ritual, offering a rich narrative experience. Could you share how you balance the dramatic elements of the play with the ritualistic aspects? What techniques did you use to immerse the audience in the world of the Kanem-Bornu Empire?

Drama, right from time, has incorporated rituals. The Ghanaian writer, Kofi Awonor, once said: “African religious beliefs, such as propriation, cleansing, sacrifice, thanksgiving and initiation, are all extensions of the African real life into an area of make believe, which expresses a religious reality.

Similarly, one of Nigeria’s greatest playwright, Prof Ola Rotimi, affirms that ritual drama is a microcosm of contemporary African drama; ritual is a byproduct of an ancestral oriented society, a society that aspires to have a constant communion with the Supreme being. 

In traditional African drama, the advent of rituals was informed by the necessity to acquaint the general public with the mysteries of hitherto confined ritual codes, proven taboo and sacred rites. Yamtarawala, the Warrior King combines elements of traditional African drama and the modern.

[Woke] Soyinka holds the view, too, that drama originated from ritualised activities, hence it cannot be separated from its communal significance. In his drama, he has consistently used ritual archetypes, such as Ogun, Obatala and Shango, to drive home his point, which reverberates in theatre till date. 

Let’s not forget, this primordial phenomenon isn’t restricted to African drama. In Greece, where drama originated, rituals abound in the yearly Dionysian rites. So, drama partly developed in reaction to the period of barbarism from which Greek society was emerging. This explains why the religious mission of Greek tragedies have often led to immolation.

Abdullahi, who metamorphosed into Yamtarawala in the play. Yamtarawala, the Warrior King, also committed self-immolation in the tragedy. Remember this play is set in the 16th century, and a bit of it contains sacred ceremonies from a part of Nigeria –northeast – we haven’t paid close attention to as writers. These rites, myths and history shouldn’t be wished away. It’s our role as writers to tell untold stories through literature. Thus, you will encounter rituals of kingship, wars, defiance, passage and celebration in it. When you watch this in live theatre, it blows your mind instantly. You probably haven’t seen anything like it in any Nigerian theatre in a long while.

It reminds me what Esiaba Irobi did with rituals in his plays, Nwokedi, The Fronded Circle and The Other Side of the Mask  or what the great Wole Soyinka did with rituals in Death and the King’s Horseman, The Road, etcetera. Isidore Diala did same with The Pyre

What plans do you have should you win the $100,000 prize money?

I don’t like counting my chickens before they are hatched. There are many things one can achieve with $100,000, especially for a writer like me writing with candlelight in Nigeria. Number one should be popularising the play through live theatre performances nationwide. We have to bring drama to the stage by all means. It’s all on the cards to collaborate with Nollywood to see how this play can hit the screen and transport it to a wider audience. This is an important African history that should be recreated on the screen, too. I think a story like this is a potential box office hit. 

There are other things on the cards for writers and journalists in terms of capacity development. But let’s leave that at the moment until we cross the bridge. Writers like us living in Nigeria and writing with candles will naturally up the ante with a lifeline like this. 

How, in your opinion, has the Nigeria Prize for Literature impacted writing in the country?

One of the biggest things to have happened to African literature is the Nigerian Prize for Literature. It’s a prize everybody in Africa looks up to each year –who’s going to be the next winner? The high standards of the prize and its prize money are part of what makes it unique. It’s also encouraging that we have passed the stage of controversies, which affected the prize a bit whenever it wasn’t announced for obvious reasons. 

Some of the past winners of the prize have done well for themselves by taking their crafts to the next level. These are the kind of success stories that encourage the prize organisers, NLNG. If you win this prize and relax, you have not only done a disservice to yourself but also to literature. It ought to spur you to do more.

Writing in Africa isn’t as profitable as it is in the Western World or India. Stories of African writers earning royalties in six digits are almost a fantasy. So, to be rewarded with a lump sum for writing, which NLNG does, is next to manna from heaven.

I have personally followed the Nigeria Prize for Literature since 2005 as a journalist. So, I am a witness to its success story, too, having celebrated the winners and the longlisted writers several times, interrogating the process, critiquing books of writers involved in the competition and promoting the prize itself. From the aforementioned, one can say NLNG has lifted the quality of writing in Nigeria with the Nigeria Prize for Literature. The spirit of competition it has introduced among writers is fantastic. 


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