NIGERIAN LITERARY CRITICISM IS FULL OF QUACKS AND CRITICS WHO PRACTISE CHARACTER ASSASSINATION
W hether it is literary criticism, creative writing or legal advocacy, Ahmed Maiwada knows how to play the ace. The Abuja-based lawyer is one of the strident voices in new Nigerian writings. His works include Saint of a Woman and Fossils (poetry volumes) and Musdoki (a novel). His literary criticisms, which have always been controversial, have earned him many friends and foes. In this interview, Maiwada regales us about his creative enterprise.
Are you one of those people born as a writer, or did writing come to you later in life?
It is said that there is at least one book in every person. Therefore, if that saying is correct, I think I will call myself a born writer. In reality, however, I actually started writing as a teenager studying at the College of Advance Studies, Zaira. That was when, as a student, I was studying William Wordsworth, Gabriel Okara, William Shakespeare and Chinua Achebe, as recommended text in my English literature course unit. William Wordsworth particularly appealed to me and influenced me by his romantic, free flowing poetry. And, as it were, I immediately began writing poetry. Okara also influenced me with his musical, lyrical and symbolic poems. I also dabbled into drama from studying King Lear by William Shakespeare. You can clearly see that the writer in me only became real after I have activated the reader in me.
What do you consider the strength of your writings?
I have published two collections of poetry (Saint of a Woman, 2004, and Fossils, 2008) and a novel (Musdoki, 2010). From this list, you can see that I started with poetry, which actually reflects the genre of literature that actually started writing. Poetry, as they say, is immediate. However, for me, that applied only when I was still learning the ropes. These days one poem can linger in my brain for months before it comes out into a file, which I call 'Nursery' (the first environment where all my poems must pass before they eventually mature into full poetry for the public). This process can take a poem or a group of poems about a year to actually make a public appearance. Prose, on the other hand, is said to be difficult and time consuming. It has not always been the case with me. I do not have 'Nurseries' for my story, even though I can have more than three drafts before a story becomes a public chattel. It does not mean, however, that a particular story did not incubate in my mind for a while.
Talking in terms of the strength of my writing, I think it lies in the patient manner which I produce my thoughts on paper. I am never in a hurry to tell a story or to write that piece of poem. I have long realised that good writing requires patience; therefore, I slow it down, brood over it, making sure at all times that I communicate effectively and share the experience that I wish to share with the reader as perfectly as possible. In most cases, I am guided by the need to communicate with the senses of the reader in order that his experience becomes real and rewarding. In summary, the strength of my writing lies, I think, in my ability to communicate my experiences to the reader effectively.
What is the driving force when you write poetry or prose?
I write poetry primarily to share with my readers words and expressions that, I hope, would uplift their souls, transport them to that level of grandeur that would cause a gasp, a shake of the head in awe and wonder or even drive them into the depth of sober reflection that is akin to witnessing an epoch-making event in their generation. On the other hand, I am driven to write stories simply because I have a story to share. However, being conscious of the fact that every other soul equally has a story (or even stories to share), I try to write my stories in my own unique way that must necessarily be different from the other narrator. In that regard, as I attempt to be myself, one always discovers some elements of poetry in the prose that I write. I consider it courtesy to entertain my prose readers by the use of poetry. Therefore, one discovers that, even in my bid to share stories with my readers, I am also driven by similar impulses that drive me into writing poetry: the need to transport the reader to a level of grandeur probably not experienced before. However, I do not write drama. Maybe I will do one or two in future, when I feel sufficiently led and equipped to do so.
There is an observation that you are better as a critic than a writer?
I am hearing this for the first time! To be honest, I'm thrilled, because I know for sure that one cannot be a critic except he knows how to dissect literary works, and one cannot dissect except he knows the complete workings of the said works. Literary criticism is essentially essay writing, in that it aims at persuading the reader one way or the other about the work it discusses. There are several schools ranging from the one who believes in art for art's sake to the one that finds value only in didactic works. It is my view that I have written so little in this genre, in the formal sense, although I give criticisms on manuscripts privately and make oral criticisms, especially against bad literary judgements. That is why I am amazed that the very little I've done in this genre has already warmed itself into the hearts of those who you said rate me higher as a critic.
For me, it doesn't matter the genre in which I write; there is always criticism of sorts therein. Your report shall spur me into writing even more literary criticisms and publishing them. From past experience, I expect to lose more real and potential friends by doing that, because Nigerian writers and literary judges do not like to be criticized. But, it doesn't matter, as long as in the long run we're going to be rid of bad products masquerading as the best that our great nation can produce. Besides, I have found it very rewarding working in an environment full of folks waiting for my slip in order to do me in; that does fill me with fear, which in turn propels me into working harder in order to avoid their snares.
Your most recent work, Musdoki, has attracted both adverse and positive criticisms, what is your artistic purpose in the novel, nay, the latent thematic imports?
I'm particularly pleased that my very first novel has attracted a rash of interest, which led to those criticisms: positive and otherwise. It was the critic, scholar and politician, Professor Ihechukwu Madubuike, who, after reading my collection of poetry, Fossils, told me at the British Council, Abuja, that: 'Any book that leaves me cold is a dead book'. The criticisms, which Musdoki has attracted, and is still attracting, are a proof that the story did not leave its readers cold. Rather, it is such a novel that you take along with you even after you're done with reading it. It is a novel that excites, thrills, educates, informs, cautions, accuses and lashes all at once. No reader escapes a thrashing. But since people are not the same, some readers come out happy with the experience and some come out angry. I'm also aware that some readers exist who are so offended by the story that they would have the novel banned if they occupy Aso Rock. In all of these, the contents of the readers' response have been so rewarding to me, while the volume has encouraged me immensely. I use them as a yardstick to measure my incursion from criticism and poetry into the novel as a success.
What's your take on the critical enterprise in Nigeria?
I think criticism is gaining in confidence. In recent past, when we first came on the scene, it was an outrage in the literary community for a writer to raise a finger against any work of art; it used to be a grave offence! I have enemies among Nigerian writers who will not even accept my friend request, because I have critiqued their works. But I think the importance of critical input in the book process has begun to sink into us. More and more critics are disowning their praise-singing profession and taking up a more courageous voice to write what they have observed about books. This should be encouraged, because we are not even halfway there yet. The space is still full of praise-singers and outright quacks; people who resort to character assassination of authors rather than writing fair comments on the writers' works, which is what literary criticism is all about. The scholarly contents are absent in most critical works, which is evidence that the wrong people have taken up the pen into this rather loftier engagement of literary writing. We must raise our voice in condemnation of those species and their sponsors, for they are only in it to destroy our solid foundation of literary excellence in Nigeria.
What are you working on now?
I have a collection of poetry with the working title, 'Gas Chamber', in the works. In it, I try to widen the scope of my tropes in order to serve the reader a plate of even more enriched poetry than what I have served in the past. Also, I have succeeded in getting typed my historical handwritten manuscript based on the Maitatsine civil disturbance in Kano in the early '80s. Historical novels are valued by critics globally are the highest in rank of the novel sub-types. I hope this one will not be an exception, so that my dream of a masterpiece may come true. As at now, the materials are all in place. I still hope for the time and energy to roll past the polishing stage into a concrete script. It is as big as five hundred A4 pages! Already, I have a title for it: Healing. I'm also proud to say that I've obtained the permission of Sarah Russel, an American poet and Zen Painter, to use one of her wonderful images as my cover image. And I can assure that the narrative shall bear witness to the fact that a complex process has gone into its coming into existence.