You have to be like a child when you are writing for children, says Ezeigbo
Akachi Ezeigbo is a professor of English. Currently at Federal University, Ndife-Alike Ekwo, Ebonyi State, Ezeigbo is novelist, poet, gender expert and award-winning writer of children’s literature. In this encounter at the convention of Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) in Abuja last October, Ezeigbo spoke on a number of issues, particularly on how to successfully write for children
How is the convention?
It’s going very well. We just have to manage; this season is so different, but I am happy with the level of preparedness.
Even the turnout of writers from across the country seems encouraging, isn’t it?
Oh yes! Almost every branch has a delegate and that’s wonderful. We are many. I am sure we are over 500 people that attended; it’s interesting.
What does that say about writing in the country?
We are doing well, you know, because we are such a huge country. We will always have writers. You can imagine countries that have over 10 million, 20 million people; there is no need comparing them with us with a population of over 100 million. So, it’s not surprising that we are so many. The interesting thing is that so many young people are also interested in writing and some state chapters have also instituted prizes. They are trying to also raise consciousness about writing among secondary school children and that is very important.
It is like grooming the next generation of readers and writers, isn’t it?
Yes, so we can be sure that after us, Nigerian literature will be alive and well. One noticeable thing is that some of the writers are from other non-literary professions – law, medicine, architecture, biochemistry, etc. How do you respond to this interest?
Someone was introducing himself as engineer this, architect this; so many of them are invading the writing profession and, you know, that is the way it has always been. If you look at Russia, you have medical doctors, who were good writers. So, it doesn’t have to be someone in the literary profession.
What other thing appeals to you at this convention?
Many of the books on display here are well-produced. The quality of production is improving. Many publishers are now conscious of the fact that they must produce their books well. That’s part of it; the printing quality also matters, and we are getting books that are well-printed. I was looking at Henry’s Akubuiro’s new book, Prodigals in Paradise – I don’t know who published it, but I think they have done a good job. I have looked at it; I haven’t read it to see if there are errors, but at least the packaging and production quality are good.
The children’s literature prize seems to always have one problem or the other. What does that say about the writing of children’s literature?
Writing for children is a kind of specialised thing. Many of us do not take enough care; writing for children is a more careful craft than that of adults. Children are very intuitional; we don’t want to introduce them to books full of typographical and grammatical errors. If you look at children’s books published abroad, you will see the quality. The quality of illustrations is very high. Some Nigerian children’s books, when you look at the images you will see a child of eight, and his face is looking like he is 20.
So, these things are very important – the production quality, the illustrations, and the dialogue. You have to be conscious of the way children speak and their minds. You don’t write nice to them; that is, you don’t patronise them; you have to be like a child when you are writing for children. And, of course, the vocabulary control is very important. There are different levels. If you are writing for children like four or five years, the vocabulary control would be much simpler than when you are writing for children of 10-12 years. So you don’t just write like you’re writing for adults.
You know, when you are writing for adults, you are not conscious of how to control the vocabulary. What you want to do is just use the correct words, but for children you don’t do that.
You are a prize-winner in the children’s genre of writing. The Nigerian Prize for Literature for children’s literature category in 2015 wasn’t awarded because of poor entries. Do you think there is enough mentorship for writers?
You know, I was a member of ANA Strategic Planning Committee, which was headed by Prof. Sunny Ododo; that was one of the suggestions we made. That we needed to mentor writers more, especially the younger writers like the ones dealing with children’s literature and I think The Nigerian Prize for Literature started it in 2015. They had that workshop where they brought Prof. Kimberly Reynolds of New Castle University, U.K. and another expert on children’s literature. I was also one of the resource persons.
That workshop was enlightening and eye-opening. I am sure the 20 writers, who came, if they learnt anything at all, come next children’s literature competition we would definitely have winners if they do the proper thing. Prof. Reynolds is an authority in children’s literature, teaches it in the university and she has also been very much involved with publishers of children’s literature in the U.K. and was quite good. The workshop was very good. I even learnt one or two things from it even as a resource person. What happened at that workshop was very enlightening and I believe those writers took one or two things from it.
There should be winners come 2018 or 2019. In fact, many of them commented at the end of it. Also we brought masterpiece writings, many from the U.K. It wasn’t as if we wanted them to write like that, but for them to learn how to control their vocabulary, sustain how to create child characters, you know, that kind of thing.So, I believe what you said is quite correct – having workshops, mentorships – these things are very important in writing.
Do you think ANA has done as much as it should in terms of promoting female writers?
Well, I think that ANA is doing the right thing by promoting all its writers. They don’t have to be partial in promoting any particular gender or aspects. But I think, for instance, that women can also form sub-associations. There is no reason we cannot raise a female association. I think the state chapters can also do it. So, I think ANA is doing well. What we are saying is that when they have these workshops and mentorship programmes, women should be properly represented; men and women should be represented in whatever they are doing.
I think gone are the days, when women can complain that they don’t have chances. I think things have really improved for women in this country in terms of writing. Women have won prizes just as men, and there are many young women who are doing well. So, I think women are coming up and they are doing well. We have many women, who are writing well, both here locally, and even outside.
Look at Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. In fact, that is part of what the strategic plan is all about. We are encouraging ANA to do something so that writers in the diaspora can really feel that they are part of us. Our writers here have a lot to learn from them because experience matters so much. And the experience of these diaspora writers could be useful and I believe that Adichie’s yearly workshop has helped many young writers. I believe so because I have had some of them say that they benefitted from it. All this was discussed in that strategic plan. If you read the book that came out of it, there is a lot of vision from 2017-2022. And if ANA carefully and strategically puts in place some of those suggestions, I think we can move forward. I also think that commitment is also what is required from the members.
You know, the association cannot always do every thing; members, too, can also help. There may be members, who could even have money to give donations to ANA.
How can support for the arts and culture in the country be sustained?
Part of the problem here is that so many of us have no respect for our culture. There are many Nigerians, who are more British than the Britons; some who are more American than the Americans and yet some of them have not even stepped outside the shores of Nigeria. Sometimes, you see parents from the same culture, the same language area, and their children do not speak that language. You are a Yoruba woman and a Yoruba man, an Urhobo woman and an Urhobo man, an Edo man and an Edo woman and you do not teach your children your language. That is bad. We have to start early to introduce our children to our culture to make the children appreciate the culture. There is no way that child would grow up and not be a champion or champion the cause of that culture.
So, this is what we need to do; we need to make our people aware of our culture because without your culture you are nothing. Language is the carrier of a people’s culture. You cannot be more English than the English. If you go and see the way the English live, they live their culture. I am not saying we should not have a mastery of English; that is very important because that is the language we use in Nigeria.
A lot of parents do not understand that when a child has competence in his mother tongue that child would learn another language very easily, including English.
Yes, I am writing a novel in Igbo language because I was brought up knowing my language, speaking it and writing it. I can shift to any, either English or Igbo. I am still writing in English but I just wanted to write a novel in Igbo.
What themes are you addressing?
It is something to do with politics and gender.
What about the translation?
Well, maybe that could come later, but it is being written in Igbo and it is going to be published in Igbo. I noticed this, especially when I left Enugu for Abuja here, that most Igbo, especially the younger ones, don’t know how to read in Igbo, and many don’t even know how to speak Igbo. You know, one thing Peter Obi did when he was governor of Anambra State was to make Igbo compulsory in primary schools and even in secondary school up to a certain level. There is an association now in the east that encourages the speaking of Igbo, led by a professor and former Vice Chancellor of Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka. Things are changing gradually; they are educating young people, especially if you marry somebody from Igbo culture.
In fact, I told my children when they got married that “look, I don’t care who you marry; if it’s Yoruba or Hausa or Igbo you must learn the language of your partner.’ Because I don’t see how people can be speaking English to their children at home. I never spoke English to my children at home. In fact, my husband and I made a decision that we won’t speak English to any of our children until they are three years old and we kept to that. By three years, a child is speaking the language fluently. My children are very good in Igbo. I have also told them, ‘make sure you teach your own children. I have done my duty; it is up to you.’
So, I think the fault is with parents, not the children because children, before the age of nine or 12, do what their parents tell them. When they grow up they can rebel. Parents should be very careful about the first nine years of a child’s life; it is very crucial.
You published Roses and Bullets based on the civil war a few years ago, and one would have thought that more than 40 years after the war, the war should have been exhausted. Why is it still reoccurring?
Do you know that people are still writing about the American Civil War that ended in 1865? You see, any experience of trauma or conflict will always be narrated. Any situation of conflict is a good subject for literature. So, I believe that even people, who are yet unborn will grow up and write about the Nigerian Civil war from their own perspective. And they could come from the east or north or west, anywhere.
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