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#BookChaser: The thin line between poets and novelists

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Many believe that the lines between prose fiction writers and poets are sometimes blurred with time. But how true is this? 

By Nathaniel Bivan

I have heard many times that most writers start out as poets. I don’t know where you stand on this, but I also think so, and maybe it’s simply because I am in that category. I started out writing poetry from my university days. Friends and roommates along the way might remember the exercise books I poured out my heart in daily and how my voice rose as I recited to them. Yes, Friends like Henry Tokula, Eson Alumbugu, Kingsley Tagowa and several more. They will remember those times.

But years after school, something drew me to prose that I can’t exactly put my hands on. Maybe it was because I was tired of writing in ‘riddles’ or trying hard to hide meaning when in reality what I needed was for readers to understand what I was saying, no matter how hard I worked at blurring those lines. At a point, verse took over and remained with me (up till now, guess). But in the end, prose did really take over.

I can’t say other writers had similar experience though. Nigerian poet Jumoke Verissimo, known for her collection ‘I Am Memory’ and ‘The Birth of Illusion’, finally released her debut novel, ‘A Small Silence’ in 2019. The story revolves around Prof, a former academic who returns home after serving a 10-year jail term, and Desire, an undergraduate student of Lagos State University.

“Verissimo, unlike me and several others in my category, didn’t transition to prose. She is still very much a poet and may probably be always recognised as the latter.”

It’s not news that poets can be fantastic writers of prose fiction or vice versa. You don’t want to not read Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s poems (author of short story collections ‘The Whispering Trees’, ‘Dreams and Assorted Nightmares’ and the novel ‘Season of Crimson Blossoms’), which he sometimes shares on social media. They are awesome, so much that you’ll wonder why we don’t have at least two collections of his on our bookshelves. Well, time will tell.   

Even the publisher and CEO of Masobe Books is a poet. Yes, that author of ‘Odufa’, ‘Aviara’ and the soon-to-be reissued thriller ‘A Conspiracy of Ravens’. In his own case I can’t say he transitioned into a novelist but I remember seeing (don’t ask me where though) and surfing through an entire collection he’s written.

The US-based Nigerian writer Tope Folarin once told me in an interview how he went back to read and (if my memory serves me right) write poetry in order to accomplish the feat of writing his long-awaited debut novel ‘A Particular Kind of Black Man’.

Currently, two poets have hinted that they are working on prose works. One of them is Olumide Olaniyan, author of ‘Lucidity of Absurdity’ and ‘Akimbo in Limbo’. Yes, he dropped a hint on social media. But Abubakar Sidi, author of ‘The Poet of Sand’ and ‘The Poet of Dust’ did more than drop a hint – his was official. We’re expecting a novel!

There’s also not forgetting Richard Ali who is well-known both as a poet and novelist. It’s hard to say where his loyalties lie (I’m speaking for myself) the most as is the case with some writers, but his debut novel ‘City of Memories’ was published in 2012 and his poetry collection ‘The Anguish and Vigilance of Things’ in 2020.

“Whatever the case may be, whether prose or poetry, one thing seems clear – writers blur the lines of their art for anytime they want to and for different reasons. Sometimes the reasons are clear, other times they aren’t and remain as abstract as a poem that’s hard to decipher.”

I’ll conclude my column this week by sharing a few interesting positions regarding poets writing novels. On Quora, one Sharmeka Victoria Hunter wrote: “I always say a novel is just a narrative poem that have been expanded in all the areas that make a narrative poem and sometime more parts add (like additional climaxes and problems and other characters and places). Before tackling a novel you should really have learned what a narrative poem is, learning the structure of a narrative, will make writing the novel easier in some ways.”

Still, on Quora, one Nadine Gallo opined: “Poets sometimes do write novels. My own novel, ‘Impetuous Heart’, is full of poetry. Novelists use poetic language often. Dostoevsky did it. If the ear is tuned in to poetic language, it can only help the novel.”

I rest my case.

BOOKS

Four of Nnedi Okorafor’s books are finalists for Locus Awards

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As the awards and nominations keep piling up for fan-favorite writer Nnedi Okorafor, four of her books have been announced as finalists for the prestigious Locus Awards’ 2022 edition.

By Abdulkareem Baba Aminu

The Locus Science Fiction Foundation has announced the top ten finalists for this year’s Locus Awards, and the final winners will be announced on June 25, during the virtual Locus Award Weekend. Four books by Nigerian-American writer Nnedi Okorafor are on the list. Her books on the list of finalists are Noor (DAW) for Best Science Fiction Novel, Remote Control (Tordotcom) for Best Novella, The Black Pages (Black Stars) for Best Novelette, and the graphic novel adaptation of After the Rain (Abrams ComicArts/Megascope) by John Jennings, with art by David Brame.

Okorafor is a leading writer of science fiction and fantasy with a breath-taking body of work spanning close to two decades. She is also known for coining the term ‘Africanfuturism’ and defining the subgenre itself.

Okorafor is a leading writer of science fiction and fantasy with a breath-taking body of work spanning close to two decades. She is also known for coining the term ‘Africanfuturism’ and defining the subgenre itself. An unapologetic champion of diversity, inclusion, and originality in SFF, her works are often praised for inventiveness and innovation.  

Over the years, Okorafor has won some of the most prestigious awards, including three Hugo nominations, one for each of the books in her well-received and critically-acclaimed acclaimed Binti trilogy, which the first book won in 2016. She has also won a Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa, three Nebula Awards, as well as an Eisner Award and Hugo win (with artist Tana Ford) for the LaGuardia graphic novel, among several others.

Founded in 1971, the Locus Awards are conferred by the Locus Science Fiction Foundation. The 2020 awards are spread across 16 categories, with winners determined by polling magazine readers.

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BOOKS

Poems about gagged lips and lone voices: A review of Peace Longdet’s ‘Enablers’

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A look at the new poetry collection ‘The Enablers’ reveals a work that is at once layered in a most subtle way, as well as powerfully effective.

Title: The Enablers | Author: Peace Longdet

Genre: Poetry | Pages: 67

Publisher: Sevhage Publishers | Year of Publication: 2022

Reviewer: Bizuum Yadok

Every poet has a responsibility to communicate feelings, experiences, fears, aspirations, values and dissatisfaction on behalf of herself or her society. This form of communication is usually aimed at either creating awareness or igniting a radical solution. Whichever way, while at it, the poet always entertains and extracts emotion from her audience. Many scholars agree that the bulk of African literature, from colonial times (and especially in writing), is essentially a response to wide-spread tragedy, and as such it is usually characterised by protest; protest against colonialism, protest against the megalomaniacal claims of independence, protest against military juntas, protest against mammoth corruption colouring democracy, and protest against terrorism or other forms of man’s inhumanity to man.

Dr. Peace Longdet is ushered into the league of protest poets by her significant debut collection of poems, Enablers. Her poems are not just relevant but timely in a presently deteriorating society like Nigeria where dissenting voices are gagged, if not silenced permanently. It has reached a point whereby any person criticising the lackadaisical attitude of the government, especially with regards to insecurity, nepotism, and corruption, is hastily termed as a saboteur. Freedom of expression has now become a mere rhetoric and quite far from practice. However, poets like Peace Longdet have refused to be hushed. If their voices will not be heard, then their agitation will find expression in print. Her Enablers comes as a worthy example of artists’ weapons that are meant to cure societal ills while confronting social injustice at the same time.

The first poem in the collection, “Thoughts in Print”, aptly welcomes the reader to a potpourri of thematic concerns mostly tilted towards protest against ineptitude of leaders and collaboration of followers marked by complicitous participation, herd silence and ignorance. The 9-lined poem reads:

Treading, yet knowing

The ground is unholy,

Giving, yet knowing

The gift is abominable,

Taking, yet knowing,

The gift is temporal

Dreaming, yet knowing

The morning breaks

At Last!

Nearly all who conspire to create an ailing society are present in the poem above. Ironically, they are in the full knowledge of their contributions whether by treading on unholy grounds, giving abominable gifts (e.g bribes) or taking fleeting gifts. In any of the cases, they are always in the state of “knowing”. It is rather absurd that the same set of people are dreaming – perhaps for a better place – yet still “knowing” that “morning breaks” when their secret acts come to light and the end result is an anarchical society. The poet’s projection of effect, from the cause, using the principle of economy, is nicely captured in the brief poem which lays a good foundation for string of angry poems such as, “Gagged”, “Hallowed Gong”, “Terror”, “Few”, “Killings”, “Blessed Yet . . .” among others.

In some of the poems, the poet doesn’t just expose injustices but also firmly resolves to meet her obligation as a person. For example, the poem, ‘My Pledge’ offers a more radical, even militant, perception of herself in the sense that she uses the ‘Tigress’ as metaphor for her self-concept. She reiterates, “I am a tigress” in lines 1, 12, and 18 to assert her manner of confronting any factor that seeks to subjugate women, using the weapons of her physical, mental and emotional strength represented by claws, teeth and speed of the tigress. Consider the first six lines of the poem:

I am a tigress

Armed to breathe with my claws

My claws the pen

To speak with my pen

To drum with my claws

The rhythms are coals of fire

Pouncing in the direction of the hunter

A tigress has been proven to be more vicious than the tiger. From Longdet’s description though, we do not see the poet as a wild animal but a mentally armed and ready-to-fight phenomenal woman. Thus, she shifts from the semblance of the prey to become the predator. At this point, it doesn’t matter who the hunter (enemy) is, but that tigress is willing to launch an attack to protect her cubs (hapless women and children) as seen in lines 8 & 11, ‘The cubs depend on my razor-sharp teeth/ . . .For the cubs must know the myth of the hunter.’ She restates her point in lines 18-20 with her emphasis on attack as a form of activism which is quite necessary in a jungle-like nation:

I am a tigress

My passion is my weapon

To speak up in the land of the dumb.

A similar conviction like that of the above can gleaned in lines 17-21 of the poem, “Wandering Loner”, where she says:

This fire must burn!

It is a quest like an enchanted Diva,

Prowling with the words of fire

To wake them from sleep

To give them a voice

The reoccurrence of the word “fire” in this poem, just like in her other poems, connotes the fury or righteous anger that the poet is filled with and it is employed in the pursuit of justice. She doesn’t just create awareness but lends her voice to the voiceless so that more voices of protest could be heard. In the same vein, the poet makes loud her commitment to positive change in lines 21-30 of the poem, “The Voice”, by saying:

I do not possess the power to stop the carnage but

I will stand high on this space;

To utter

To oppose

To shout

To protect

To heal

To reawaken

All that I am and all that I can

There is an inexhaustible list of the violent killings across Nigeria prior to and especially during the tenure of President Buhari, who had earlier promised to put a stop to all kinds of terrorism orchestrated by Boko Haram, Fulani Militia also known as bandits, and Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB). He fails woefully in tackling terror and almost all other arms of government combined are reluctant to point accusatory fingers at him. However, Peace Longdet bravely holds the government by the balls, reminding it of its fake promises in poems like, “Deceit”, “Haribu”, “Sleeping Shepherd”, “Double Standard”, and “Quest”. Her fearless confrontation of the powers that be are not even encrypted in the poetics of modernists, rather it is concise and readily accessible to every reader. In this regard, I concur with the literary critic, Paul Liam, in his statement that, “Longdet is a poet for every reader.”

It would be unfair to state that Longdet’s collection is all about protest as some poems are private and they depict supposedly personal or second-hand experiences. Poems like, “Memories”, “Unleased”, “Son of the Wind”, “You Drank”, “Entagled Wind”, and “The Vow”. This collection of 57 poems offer a variety of societal topics in dire need of an elaborate discourse and sometimes follow-up action. The poet pays little attention to sound devices but the optimal imagery makes up for the spice the sound devices might have rendered. Most of the poems are short and captivating as though the words were calculated before each poem was composed.

Like Lebanon’s Khalil Gibran, Nigeria’s Niyi Osundare, or South Africa’s Oswald Mtshali, posterity will keep making reference to Peace Longdet as a phenomenal poet who supplied her intellectual arsenal to fight against all forms of oppression and injustice. Enablers is a book of poetry that will require very little effort of salesmen because it will sell itself by the quality design, print and content therein.

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BOOKS

#7Questions: How I settled on Africanfuturism – TJ Benson

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TJ Benson’s first book, a collection of short speculative fiction called ‘We Won’t Fade Into Darkness’ (Parresia, 2018), crept into readers’ heads about four years ago. Since then he’s had a second book published, with a third one on the way. Here, the writer/artist/photographer answers seven questions in the way only he can.

By Abdulkareem Baba Aminu

Your first book, the novella ‘We Won’t Fade Into Darkness’ divided readers, causing many to try and force a label on it. How would you describe it?

TJ Benson: I started writing the stories with the intent of making an African sci-fi world, but when I was done I realized I had created something different from that. My characters used indigenous technology, which is regarded as witchcraft today. They also mostly never leave the continent. I didn’t have words for it until I came across the term ‘Africanfuturism’ coined by the celebrated writer, Nnedi Okorafor, and had an ‘aha!’ moment. So, Africanfuturism.

“I didn’t have words for it until I came across the term ‘Africanfuturism’ coined by the celebrated writer, Nnedi Okorafor, and had an ‘aha!’ moment.”

Your sophomore effort, ‘The Madhouse’ (Masobe, 2021), is causing similar reactions over genre. Where would you place it?

TJ Benson: I fought against the category ‘Magical Realism’ right up to the month of publication, because I felt the supernatural governs the lives of many people who share a country with the characters. Yet the spiritualistic elements in the book weren’t of any specific culture which would have made it African Spirituality, like Ben Okri’s ‘The Famished Road’, so ‘The Madhouse’ is definitely Magical Realism.

What can you dish to us about your upcoming novel ‘People Live Here’?

TJ Benson: Not a lot, I’m afraid. It’s a much smaller novel than ‘The Madhouse’, and more linear in structure, even if I admit it has a lot of twisty turns. It’s me, after all (laughter). All I can tell you is that I’m really excited for it to come out.

You’re also a visual artist, as well as a photographer. How do you approach that aspect of your creativity, and does it feed into your writing work?

TJ Benson: There was no intersection between the mediums I practiced until the global lockdown of 2020 when I lost all language. I started drawing on my photographs and realized I draw from the same well in my spirit that I write from. One pulls the other. Pure photography on the other hand is like speaking an entirely different language for me.

“There was no intersection between the mediums I practiced until the global lockdown of 2020 when I lost all language. I started drawing on my photographs and realized I draw from the same well in my spirit that I write from.”

While it’s too early, what’s your next project, after ‘People Live Here’?

TJ Benson: Another short story collection with a little bit of magic, and a little bit of science fiction. That’s all I can share for now.

At what point in your life did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

TJ Benson: To be honest, I decide every year. But the earliest was when I showed an aunt a novella I had handwritten when I was eleven and she told me to make sure I kept the exercise book safe.

What are you reading – and enjoying – these days?

TJ Benson: Unpublished manuscripts (laughter).

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