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I'M AN UNFAITHFUL READER – EUGENIA ABU, ACE BROADCASTER

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When the history of television is written in the country, one person who would have a prime mention is Mrs. Eugenia Jummai Abu. Television viewers will always remember her charming face, infectious smile and good voice.

Interestingly, Mrs. Abu is not only a broadcaster, but also a philanthropist. She equally has great passion for writing. Recently, she made a foray into poetry, with the publication of Don't Look At Me Like That. Her previous publication, In the Blink of an Eye, a collection of newspaper articles, was well received.

Mrs. Abu, who hails from Kogi State, holds a first degree in English from the Ahmadu Bello University. She also has a master's degree in Communications Policy Studies from the London City University.

The ace broadcaster spoke with Saturday Sun on her passion, personality and others.

What inspired you into writing?
Actually, I have always been a writer. I began to write at the age of seven. Television, I must say, obliterated my writing. People knew me more for TV and had no idea that I was writing, except those who read The Guardian Newspapers, where I contributed twice a month on the features page. I am, first and foremost, a writer. My dream has always been to be an author. Finally, my dream has come true.

What is your vision for the book, 'In the Blink of an Eye'?

I discovered there are many things people, especially the young ones, don't know. There are many things that have happened that we seem to have forgotten. The book is to juggle the memory of the average Nigerian to say we used to be here. How have we improved since then? I write mainly social issues about life and I do a lot of interviews I hope people will take away some lessons from. To change the world does not mean you go on the moon or you fly a plane. You can change the world by your writing. I hope that society would change for the better just by this little contribution that I have made.

You were one of the judges of a literary contest in 2008. Did that give you some insights on the production of Nigerian literature?

I think Nigerian writers have fantastic stories to tell, but we have poor processes in delivering them and sometimes poor methods in delivering them. Again, the way we play with words also affects our work. Moreover, our writing is affected by lack of reading. You can't be a good writer if you don't read. A lot of new writers think that to write is a piece of cake. Writing is hard work. It requires a lot of reading and patience. In Nigeria, it requires a lot of self- improvement and pro-activeness. You also need other people's opinion, which a lot of writers are not willing to take. That is why there is a lot of vanity publishing. Once you have got what it takes, you go ahead and publish. Editing is not taken seriously in many literary works and good editors are hard to find. But they are there. Writers should give their works to good editors to look at. It usually attracts a fee.

It is difficult for someone to believe that it took two years for the collation of my first book and it took 26 years to write the essays that are in the book. It was not done in a day. Writers should write more to get themselves improved. My second book includes poems I wrote over 20 years ago. It took me over 30 years to put my first book in print. A writer should be ready to burn the candle and be ready for both fair and unfair criticism. That should not put you off. Your work should be original. Read a lot, and don't try to copy from another writer. Write a lot of things and show people your work.

As a judge of the Abuja Writers Forum short story competition for 2008, there were lots of good writings, but you were said to have been put off by a lot of mistakes, in grammar, spelling and poor syntax. What does this say of Nigerian writers?

Overall, Nigeria has a wealth of excellent storytellers, who just need polishing. This could be done in creative writing workshops. Also, editors, publishers would help in this regard. Government should also assist writers, which will, in turn, enhance reading culture.

How did you get into television?
I got into TV by accident. I had finished youth service with OGBC, Abeokuta and joined the Benue State Ministry of Information, Makurdi, where I worked for six months. While I was there, I was given the responsibility of producing and presenting the TV programme, called Benue State Government Half Hour. Before then, I had never really presented anything on TV; so it was just a learning process. After all the learning, the general manager of NTA, Makurdi asked me to join them. I did after I got married.

How do you combine broadcasting and creative writing?

I have learnt to manage my time well and with God ordering my steps, it is not such a big deal. Broadcasting is time-consuming and it is my full time job. During my holidays, I write and most of my work is done in the wee hours of the morning. Every writer has his work time. I recall Professor Soyinka, at a reading session in Abuja, saying he goes away sometimes for a month or more doing nothing but writing. I wish I had that kind of luxury. But Prof. Soyinka has paid his dues and is now a full time writer. One day, if God blesses me, that too will come to pass. Now I have to juggle full time work and writing because writing is a passion. Nigerians don't like to buy books and I need to pay my bills.

How do you feel mentoring children in creative writing?

Nothing has given me fulfilment more apart being blessed with my own children. It is a special thing when a child looks at you happily after scribbling his short story, which is pure, beautiful and original, even with bad spellings. One week of mentoring children annually, since 2007, has done much in my life. I am lucky to have some of the finest young people as facilitators. Our greatest thanks to our resource persons, who give their time. For our supporters, we cannot thank them enough. My husband's consulting firm arranges everything. As lead facilitator, all I really do is drive the process, engage with resource persons and provide organisation to the craziness around managing children. I give an hour or two a day through the week.

It is a blessing and I always learn from the children, even though I am the one teaching them writing. It's hard without major sponsors, but our supporters give drinks, books, and snacks, provide venue and logistics. I want to single out Napo private school in Maitama, for giving us their venue for two consecutive editions; the Corps Marshall, Mr. Osita Chidoka, for his interest and support and Yaliam Press, our printers, for excellent work in the printing of the books by the children and giving us some concessions.

How would you define creative writing?
That's an interesting question. I am pretty lucky to write across genres. Not everyone is so gifted. I am a poet, a short story writer and an essayist, and hopefully I will add novels to my collection. Occasionally, I do short plays. I have heard people say essays are not creative work, which is really unfortunate. Dr Reuben Abati, for instance and some of our great columnists, engage all of us in sheer creativity when they take something less than ordinary to the height of continuous bliss, with elegant writing. Adewale Maja Pearce writes beautiful essays; so does Abubakar Gimba. Read international journals. Writing essays is a special creative gift. The latest Nobel winner for literature is an essayist. Most successful fiction writers also engage in essay writing. Not everyone is an Eddie Iroh or a Reuben Abati. It comes from years of research, hard work and much reading. Not everyone can be a successful columnist, not everyone can even write a column.

Creative writing schools across the world recognises travel writing, essays and biographies as creative writing (non-fiction). They are also categorised as life writing. It is for this reason that some people have a good story to tell and they need a creative person or writer to help with telling the story. Some successful writers only do creative non-fiction writing. It is an art. So it is an ignorant person, who classifies essay writing or travel writing as non-creative because it is not fiction. Any writing that resonates, that is well crafted, that engages you, that drives you to tears of joy or sorrow with the creative string of words is creative writing. Period. I would like to see more prizes for creative writing (non-fiction) across board. This is how to make our writing, in some of our papers, more bearable and improve them. Bad writings even abound in a lot of our papers.

In the past, it was where we learnt how to write; from columnists whose writings we have enjoyed. Let's return to the days of writing glory, fiction or non-fiction. In the past, our more famous writers, apart from Chinua Achebe, and all our writing elder statesmen, were newspaper columnists. A collection of interviews is a body of creative work. Take note of the interviews of Achebe and other writers in the African Literature Today series; they are illuminating. Creative writing is all encompassing and those who write in certain genres should not consider themselves better than others in a certain area. Creative writing is a gift from God and we should be grateful for the craft the Lord has seen fit to bless us with instead of being arrogant and self-opinionated.

Now that your poetry collection is out, are we expecting your short stories soon?

That's a difficult question. This is because I have met a lot of fans of my short stories, who are angry with me for not putting out my short story collection first. I am still refining them. As they stand, some editors think they are good enough, but I will like to push the envelope. I have a collection of about 13 and three are in progress. I guess when I am done with these three, then I will know how to proceed. But I also have a collection of inspirational pieces, a finished work and a cookery book. My publicity and strategy team is still working on what's next, but I am not even supposed to talk about it yet. As the poetry collection, 'Don't look at me like that' has just come out they will want to leverage on it and promote it. So all other works are not to be discussed at length for now.

Is there a novel in the works?
I have one finished novella and two novels in progress, but you know how it is to conclude these. I need to go away to a cabin somewhere far away where I can write and write and write and when I am tired go to the village market wherever it is in the world and eat fresh fruits. Where will I find that luxury and for someone other than me to pick up the bills? One day and I hope soon.

What has your involvement with NTA International been like?

NTA International is a management's decision to put NTA on the global map and sell Nigerian's culture and goodness to the rest of the world. Indeed, we are a great nation of good people. Nigeria has some of the warmest people in the world. It's just a small number of people giving us a bad name. We should promote the good in us. For me, NTA International is a learning curve and I will give it the benefit of my experience, as I do with all assignments I have had over the years.

Who are your favourite writers and why?
How does one begin to answer that question? I am a voracious reader intrinsically drawn to the written word wherever it is; from books to newspapers, journals to magazines. I think I am a written word junky. I enjoy Chinua Achebe's wit and simplicity and love Soyinka's poetry. The writings of Uwem Akpan, the Jesuit priest in his award winning short story collection, Say You Are One Of Them, blew my socks off. Phenomenal short stories are difficult to believe that the characters are fictional. He is a truly gifted writer. I thoroughly enjoy Doreen Baygana, the Uganda author of Tropical fish. Outside Nigeria, I was a James Hardley Chase addict, as a young girl, for his elegant use of words. I was completely in love with him and still read him. I am a Dennis Brutus fanatic. I am blown over by his poetry and was largely influenced by him.

For short stories, Nadine Gordimer is a masterful creator of some of the finest. I think the young Turks back in Nigeria are doing very well - the Helon Habilas, the Jude Dibias, the Chimamandas, the Kaine Agaris, the Uzor Maxim Uzuatos and the recent Caine prize winner, E.C. Osondu. Sefi Ata is also a fantastic short story writer. I greatly enjoyed Lawless And Other Stories.

Where do you begin when you have old school, when you have the great Professor Ngugi, the phenomenal professor J.P Clark, Gabriel Okara and those who set the path for women writing in Nigeria Buchi Emecheta, Flora Nwapa, whose ANA endowed prize I was privileged to have won in 2008? These are all fantastic pioneers whose wisdom we drink from. If anyone has read Zadie Smith's White Teeth, Tony Parson's 'Man and Boy, then they know that I love books that are completely hilarious, both in their depth and storyline. Humour never hurt a book and when it is so subtle you need to sniff it out. I love that. I can laugh out loud when reading a book to the utter shock of my co-travellers in a bus or train. Recently, I have been engaged with Asian authors and the cultural kaleidoscope they bring to the table is awe-inspiring. I am in love with Arundhati Roys The God of Small Things; Karen Desais' The Inheritance Of Loss and the works of Kazuo Ishiguro. I also totally loved Anthony Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha and Isabella Allende's Aphrodite.

For multi-genre master, Abubakar Gimba, I enjoy everything he writes. He is a master essayist, novelist and poet. He continues to inspire me and I enjoy Emman Usman Shehu's poetry; Ken Ike Okere's Igbo poems in translation; Diego Okonyedo's from a poet to its creator; the angry poems of Musa Idris Okpanachi, Jackie Kay, Nigerian born Scottish award-winning poet, novelist and short story writer, whom I met at the British Council Cambridge Writers Seminar in 2007. Indeed, it is difficult to choose my favourite. I am a rather unfaithful reader; I confess to a roaming love and not stuck to one writer. My mood also plays a major factor. Generally, it is difficult to find a favourite author with someone like me because I usually will find something good even in an ordinary book. In between, I check out award winning books or a book that there has been a rave about. There must be something in them and I find that thing and enrich myself.

To what extent did your undergraduate background shape your broadcasting and writing careers?

I think going through the curriculum of Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria's English Department, in the seventies, with all the books we were made to read, the round theatre tradition every two weeks, where you watch live plays, and then being under the watchful eyes of a great teacher, Professor David Ker, were years that sharpened my writing and polished me off for writing and broadcasting. I was the acting editor of the English literary magazine, Kuka, in 1980. Those were great times.

What was the Communications Policy Studies programme like?

The Communication Policy Studies course at City University London, which I took in 1991, was an incredible course, combining telecommunications and media studies. We studied satellite technology, the radio spectrum and the global telecommunications industry. We also studied communication policies of several frontline countries in the telecommunications industry. In the media, areas of interest included media deregulation and the sociology of media audiences, among several media related issues. My MA dissertation was on The Role of the Radio in Women and Development using the better life programme as a test case. I came away from the course with a distinction, one of two persons in a class of 37 and a place for a PhD, but I had missed my family too much and returned home. Indeed, it was, as I said earlier, a really engaging telecommunications and media course and with it, I can work in the telecommunication industry anywhere in the world or in the media.

In one the essays in your book, In the Blink of An Eye, you expressed concern about the state of the nation, when you analysed the terrible fuel situation in 1989. Do you think anything has changed?

Fuel shortage continues to be a challenging issue in Nigeria. It does seem to me that from the time I wrote the essay on fuel scarcity in the early 80s, nothing much has changed, which is sad. I believe stakeholders should find answers to the unfortunate situation.

What is your opinion on new Nigerian writing?
I know that there is a renaissance in Nigerian writing. I believe that in a short while we will take over the world. It is my firm belief. Back home, there are fantastic writers who are not well known because they don't have the publicity that Nigerian writers who live abroad have. We need to publicise our home-based writers more and buy them more, support them. I was in Australia last year when Chimamanda opened the Sydney writer's festival. She was celebrated in almost every Australian paper. With Nigeria popping up every now and then, that's heart warming. Back home, the Nigerian writers are coming. It is a good thing, but they need support across board. A reading nation is a leading nation.

You have great passion for women issues, especially in your collection of essays. How far do you think women have come?

I do have a passion for women issues. I just got back from being a panellist at a tribunal on issues of girl child education organized by an NGO called Change Masters International. The stories are sad. There was a 13-year-old house girl whose salary is used to pay her brother's school fees and you could see anger in her eyes as she told her story, and she is illiterate. After Beijing there was so much hope. However, I don't think women's issues are as hot on the front burner as they ought to be. I doubt that it affected the increase in the number of women writers. Most literary men do not tell our stories well. It is time for the women to pick up the gauntlet.