Soji Cole is 2018 winner of the Nigeria Prize for Literature worth $100,000. In this interview with Weekend Magazine, the University of Ibadan Playwriting and Theatre Sociology instructor talks about his award-winning play, ‘Embers’, why he didn’t give up since 2014 and more. Excerpts:
Weekend Magazine: Why did you choose to set your story in an Internally Displaced Peoples (IDP) camp?
Soji Cole: I wanted to write about our frustrations, our hopes and aspirations. Like every other writer who aspires to write about the nationality of the country, I tried to look for a particular local in which I could place my story and give it the needed dramatic aesthetics. I found the IDP camp a very good placement for the Nigerian story.
WM: What triggered the writing of ‘Embers’?
Cole: It’s the regular society. The frustration with our seeming lack of humanity.
WM: What did it take to build your major characters?
Cole: First of all, imagination played the biggest role. Then the reflection of such characters in people I see also influenced me.
WM: You were once long-listed for the Nigerian Prize for Literature, for your book, ‘Maybe Tomorrow’. Can you share some thoughts on that particular experience and why you didn’t give up?
Cole: Well, there is no issue of giving up for me. As a writer I know that what keeps me going is to continue writing. I know that I would still win awards for my writing. It doesn’t have to be NLNG Prize. And for certain, when I got long-listed and I didn’t make it in 2014, I knew I was going to try again. I am not like some people who attempt contests many times and because they have not won, resort to sob stories and puerile rants about the competition or the winners. I have seen some writers like that. They still abound. My contention is that if you want to keep contesting for a prize then keep contesting for it until you get tired. Not that at every point of failure you have bad things to say about the competition. If you want to criticize a competition then make that your vocation and you don’t need to enter for same. That will bring more dignity to your point of view which will be devoid of sentiment. I knew I was still going to try and what I needed to do was to keep on writing and improving. That was what I did since 2014. I stalked the competition. I read every winning entry since 2014, no matter the genre. By the time I was ready to submit ‘Embers’, I had great expectations. I wouldn’t have minded if it didn’t get to win but I was almost hundred percent sure I was going to be on the shortlist.
WM: How did writing begin for you?
Cole: I have always been a lover of literature, right from my elementary school. I read story books and loved the images printed on them. Sometimes I see myself as a character in some of the stories or even the storyteller. But then I had not felt the urge to write until I was in Junior Secondary School. A girl sitting close to me wrote and drew characters. I became somewhat envious and felt I could do the same thing. I tried to draw, but mine was so awful that I decided I should stick to writing.
On my writing journey I have had to tear up many manuscripts because I wasn’t satisfied with the output. But like other writers, I kept writing and later had my short stories published. My first publication was a short story in an international anthology.
WM: What challenges would you say authors face in Nigeria?
Cole: There are limited opportunities for authors in Nigeria. Also, there are no professional writers. What we have are people who write part time. If you decide to be a professional writer in Nigeria, you will be living on handouts because you are not going to have the resources you need to keep up with life. Most writers have families and needs. There are several challenges. There’s that of not having the right ambience to write, that of looking for quality publishing, the money to accomplish it, and also the challenges of infrastructure that could actually entice you to write something that could challenge your own cerebral output. For instance, while I was writing embers, I remember several instances where I had to lock myself up in the office and then electricity goes off and I would be bitten by mosquitoes all through. Probably if I were in a place where the challenges were extremely minimal, maybe the book would have been much better.
WM: What role do you think government can play to enhance reading culture?
Cole: This is a conversation that has been ongoing for the past decade or more. Having a kind of opinion for the government wouldn’t change anything. The government has to pick itself up and set out to work. It’s not all about literature now but education. The urge for education prompts literature, literacy and individuals and the community to move away from ignorance. Prominent and not so prominent people have shouted already on the matter and there’s nothing is being done, so there’s nothing I want to tell the government. We are all in a quagmire and have to find a way out of it.
WM: What would you describe as the biggest inspiration for writers in Nigeria?
Cole: It seems to me there is none. But I must be honest, a prize win like that of the Nigerian Prize for Literature might be a big moral booster. For me, it’s not about the hundred thousand dollars attached to it, but the clout that comes with it. Those are the enticements. If we could have other big organisations come out in full force and invest in literature, I think that may be some form of encouragement for writers.
WM: What plans do you have now that you are winner of the Nigerian Prize for Literature?
Cole: I’m ready to give talks, go to workshops and work with other writers to see how we can develop literature in Nigeria. Before now the name Soji Cole may not have been able to open some literary doors, but now maybe it can, and I am hoping to capitalise on that.
I have encountered many fantastic writers among my students and I hope to do something to cheer them up. There were opportunities I didn’t have as a student, so I have decided to go all out to see they get some of what I missed.
WM: What would you say is that ingredient that makes a writer stand out?
Cole: I always tell my students that once you have an adept control of the language you are writing in, the rest is easy. Everyone has a story to tell. But how well you can manipulate language is the key.