Sasi Miet Jaja is author of ‘Justice Club’, which won the 2018 ANA/Abubakar Gimba Prize for Short Stories. He is also author of novels such as ‘A Treacherous Game’, ‘Wade Across Freedom’, ‘Abiding Dream’, and ‘Cosmopolitan Fables’. Here, he talks about winning the prize, his writing journey, and more. Excerpts:
You won the 2018 ANA/Abubakar Gimba Prize for Short Stories. How did you feel when you got the news?
I was pleasantly surprised. From the onset, I didn’t think of putting the book forward for any literary competition. I belong to a literary club, and was on our Whatsapp group chatting when one of our members advised me to send ‘Justice Club’. I decided to give it a try, and did so a week before the submission deadline. My mind instantly went off it because of what I know usually happens in contests. You either win or lose. I had such an experience in the Nigerian Prize for Literature contest where my book was only shortlisted.
Sometimes authors title their entire collection using one of the story titles. You didn’t follow that pattern. Why ‘Justice Club’?
It’s a fictional club in a tertiary institution which sits in mock court trials. Stories are told to members and the jury are drawn from members of the public, who make up their minds based on the facts presented. I patterned the five stories after jury trials. We don’t have jury trials in Nigeria, but for me it was an opportunity to explore, stretch my imagination and see how a jury trial would work peradventure it is adapted into the Nigerian legal system. In jury trials, lay people, members of the public, are drawn, and they watch a trial from beginning to the end and determine based on what they see whether somebody’s rights has been infringed on or if an accused person is guilty. Then the judge thereafter, based on the decision of the jury, applies the law to the decision.
At the beginning of the book a Justice Club is formed, a club of five young people. The book is divided into three ambits. The first is the narration, where the story is told in present tense to bring the narration alive to the reader. A reader can picture himself at the scene of a crime. In the second ambit, the judge, who in this case is a senior lawyer who is like a chaperon to the Justice Club members, begins to tell them what they should look out for in the story and how they should arrive at their decisions. When the judge is done with that part of illuminating the law, members of the justice club now give their verdict. It doesn’t have to be unanimous. There are dissecting view. The decision is usually taken based on majority vote. So, that is the way the stories are structured. Each story starts with the narration, then the legal aspect and the decision making.
Are you of the opinion Nigeria should adapt jury trials?
To a large extent, I think yes, in certain trials. The jury is a reflection of the society and the perception of what the society is. However, they have their own challenges. If you go on social media, you will be amazed at the sentiments people express. Sometimes it’s based on religion or tribe, and objectivity is not there. All the same, literature has always served as an instrument of change. For example, when Charles Dickens wrote Oliver Twist, we were being told that there were changes in the welfare system of England. He brought to the fore what orphans were going through. Fiction doesn’t recommend or postulate. It only brings alive a reality for people to see. As a writer, you are supposed to tell a story without pushing your opinion on anybody.
How has being a legal practitioner influenced your writing?
I was called to bar in 2001. I spent the first six to seven years in practice before I moved to law reporting. In Lagos I worked in a Law reporting company where we assembled judgements of the supreme court and broke it down for lawyers to be able to employ them in the courtroom. Incidentally, ‘Justice Club’ is my first work that explores literature in this manner. My other books have been purely adventure and romance. I have always wanted to marry my profession with my hobby. There is a strong nexus between writing and the legal profession. These days a lawyer is required to be a better writer because every trial is a story. What the lawyer is supposed to do is tell the story in a way that will convince the judge. It’s about being able to harness your theme.
I have sat in courtrooms and realized that everything is a story, even from the pleadings. Writing your pleading is telling a story. Even the rules say one shouldn’t bring evidence, but rather, narrate. We see legal thrillers from America and read novels like John Grisham’s. We don’t seem to have such books. The first book I read that was a courtroom story by an indigenous author was when I was a child.
Your first book, published in 2003 is a novel titled ‘Treacherous Game’. It focused on cultism in the university and became so successful that it was adapted into a comic book. Why did you choose cultism as the story’s theme?
By then, a lot of people didn’t know what happened within cult groups. Several chapters were about the initiation and I had to carry out investigations. I wrote it during my final year in the university and so related with a lot of people involved in it. What I learned from them helped me build the story. It may look like an alluring organization, but the repercussions are horrid. I know many who were desperate to leave and regretted it. I had a friend who told me it was his mother’s prayers that kept him. So, I wanted to discourage others, especially those who are yet to get to that educational level.
The last novel you wrote was ‘Abiding Dreams’, which tells the story of a father who wanted to live his dreams through his son. His son was art inclined, but he wanted him to become a medical doctor. What inspired it?
I had a very good friend who had a similar experience. So, it’s a fusion of his story and two others. Having gone through a tertiary institution, I saw cases where students were on the verge of suicide because they were frustrated. For example, if you are in a school like Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile Ife, you would see students who are terrified and doubt that they will graduate. I think in a school system more should be done in terms of guidance and counselling. It’s not true that what you read guarantees employment, and that is what ‘Abiding Dreams’ is all about.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m working on a novel titled ‘Native Foreigners’, about two Nigerians who meet in the United Kingdom and fall in love.