Narratives such as dropping out of school and focusing on a writing career in this part of the world are very hard to come by. The insinuation is often that most dropouts end up in despicable conditions. Yet, a young Nigerian writer, Hymar David, defies the presumed status quo and rewrites the narrative surrounding dropping out of university and making a deliberate choice at life.
Hymar, who had wanted to be a lawyer but ended up as a student of the Department of English, University of Benin (UNIBEN), would later drop out of the school in his second year to focus on writing. He has authored many works of art including “The Gun down” (a crime novel) and “I For Don Blow But I Too Dey Press Phone” (a memoir).
In this interview with Aishat Babatunde, Hymar muses on issues relating to his growing up, withdrawal from the university, and how he found his calling – writing. He also throws perspective about the Nigerian youths, the use of social media, and the social media bill.
Premium Times: What was growing up like?
Hymar David: I was born in Lagos, but I spent most of my early and teenage years in Ogun State.
We were pretty restricted, but we had fun. Maybe because we were many so my parents couldn’t keep their eyes on all of us at once.
Growing up where I come from meant understanding that you have to make do. That you have to eat fast. You have to do well at school or no playing at home for you. My father was hard on everybody, but he could be fun to be with some days. He would sit with us some nights and tell us stories.
PT: What’s your position in the family?
HD: I am the 4th child.
PT: How long have you been writing?
HD: I have been writing since I was eight or nine. There was this neighbour we had. For some reason, he liked to show me off to his friends as a writer. He would give me pen and paper ask me to write them letters when they visited. Little me would set about the task, wanting to impress him. Soon, it became a habit to write letters to imaginary cousins and then I was trying my hand at playwriting.
By the time I passed out of secondary school at 15, I was already fully into writing. I would find spaces in forty and sixty leaves notebook and write short stories there. I almost always gave my stories sad endings.
My older sister would read my work and get annoyed. She would be like, “You too dey kill good people, no evil-doer should go unpunished” and I would try to explain that most times, bad people get away with it. Even as young as I was then, I knew the world wasn’t happily ever after like Nollywood tried to make us believe.
PT: What was the specific event that happened in your life that made you realise university was not for you?
HD: I was in my second year. My first year, I was following them to do ‘serious student’, going to night class to read, reading in groups, all of that. The results came out, I did good. Very good. But in my second year, I started to observe a lot of things; asked myself lots of questions.
I wanted to learn writing. I didn’t want to learn about verbs and adverbs. I already knew that from Brighter Grammar in primary school. I took a look around, at the students, the lecturers and the system. Then it hit me. All this hustle, most of it was aimed at getting a degree to get a job. It wasn’t looking like my idea of education.
Everything was too rigid. Too laid out and predictable. I wanted more. I wanted more than reading to pass. I wanted to learn things. I wanted to be able to think. School wasn’t letting me think. Rather, I was trying to memorise stuff, I was trying to be a “scholar.” I didn’t come there to be a scholar. I didn’t come there to hustle for a degree.
I was reading some of the stories and novels my lecturers wrote and made us work on. And I would think, “what the hell?” I could write better than those guys. How can they teach me writing?
And by the end of the session, even though I managed to pass, my heart wasn’t there anymore. It just wasn’t for me.
PT: What was your family’s reaction to the news of your dropping out of school?
HD: I didn’t tell them. At that time, I was more or less on my own. To be honest I didn’t feel I owed them explanations. I didn’t go to them after I dropped out. I just left and tried to find my way in the world.
PT: And since then, what’s still their reaction?
HD: Ahaha…What could they do? In my family, everyone knows how I am. I have my own mind. It is a waste of time to try to talk me out of something I have already decided to do. So everybody just accepted it like that, instead of wasting energy. My mom especially doesn’t mind what I do so long I assure her I am fine.
PT: Do you think there is a misconception or unfair judgement on dropouts?
HD: Of course, yes. Nigerians are too narrow-minded. Our “I better pass” mentality doesn’t let us think wider in lots of cases. We have fixed sets of definitions on almost everything.
Someone who tries to thrive outside the system is frowned at and seen as irresponsible and all of that. It is only in Nigeria that a graduate who doesn’t even know what NYSC stands for will try to be condescending to you because he somehow managed to see his university education to the end. I am not trying to knock down on university graduates though; I am simply saying education is not that narrow. There is education and then there is literacy. You can be educated but not literate like some businesswomen and street smart men I know, and you can be literate but not educated.
Time is changing, moving faster and faster. You will be sitting in class for four years learning Mass Communication, someone else is out there taking short courses, working practical journalism, building something up, learning, getting experience. That’s how most graduates end up working for people who have little or no education at all.
PT: How have dropping out of school and focusing on your writing helped you?
HD: In a way you are freer to commit more time to your art, you are not boxed by rules or whatever. You just write. It isn’t easy because you have to pay bills, you can’t write anything on an empty stomach.
PT: How did you come about the title of your book “I for don blow but I too dey press phone?”
HD: It was at a point during the writing where I realised I was spending a lot of time on social media than I was writing. Ironically, most of my writing in the book had their roots on some of my Facebook posts.
My mama would complain I was always on my phone at home, so I said why not turn it into something? Especially something people can relate to. That’s how I came about it.
PT: Scholars have argued that art is an expression of the heart. Writing is art. How did you feel opening your heart to the world in your memoir? Did you ever feel restrained at a point?
HD: Scholars? You mean critics? Well, art is about translation. You are translating your thoughts, ideas, emotions into words.
The reader is reading and trying to re-translate it. The reader is thinking, so what is he trying to say here? What does this mean? How does this speak to me?
On feeling restrained, well, I am not afraid of being open and exposed. When you live as I live, when you grow up fighting feelings of ‘outsiderness’ and ‘otherness’, you lose a lot of shame, reservations, inhibitions. Of course, I am still self-conscious. I still get awkward among people I don’t know. But I am learning to open my heart wide, to live without restricting myself to the familiar and comfortable and safe.
PT: What pleases you most about how your book turned out, especially revealing that most intimate part of your life. Did you ever fear people would condemn you?
HD: I like that I am getting credit for the amount of creativity I put into the book, into the pages, into the cover, into the bio, into the blurb. I mean, people haven’t read it but they are buying. I feel like I scored a ten over ten on the marketing aspect of the book.
PT: Your style of writing is a uniquely captivating one embroidered with ingenuity and street credibility. This is laid bare more in your memoir. How did you arrive at carving this niché for yourself on the Nigerian literary stage? What was the push?
HD: (Smiles) Wash but thanks.
I wanted to write English as we speak and understand English. Simple as that. I wanted to write a book for Nigerians. Because I can relate to being a Nigerian and they can. You may think this is a bad marketing strategy as abroad people no go buy. But to hell with that, if they listen to Fela then they should read my book and use Google to find words dem no (they don’t) understand.
We have been doing that when we read them too. Simple African name they won’t make an effort to get right. They should stop being lazy.
PT: You argued in your book that social media offers the youths succour away from the daily life struggles in Nigeria. How would you contend the claim that Nigerian youths only laze about on social media showing little concerns for sociopolitical issues in the country?
HD: People who accuse Nigerian youths of not caring about Nigeria’s problems are not being totally honest. We troop out to vote, we get shot at and threatened. We troop out to protest, we get butchered in hundreds and thousands. We call them out for corruption and trend hashtags on social media, they introduce a social media bill to hang us.
And the world is silent. Nobody cares.
The thing here is, the system is heavily rigged against young people. Against change. If you fight it, you will be lucky to make it out alive. People want young people to die for nothing to prove silly points. The Shi’ites that died protesting, who is paying for the deaths?
Abeg I no wan talk politics for here jare. E no sweet (I don’t want to discuss politics, it is not palatable).
PT: On the social media bill, what are your thoughts?
HD: I don’t do well with people trying to shut me up. I mean, growing up I was the one who always talked back. I was the one who my friends and colleagues would privately beg me not to say something because “na old person, no mind am.”
I for don blow but I too dey talk my own back (I’d have blown but I was always fired back at indicting comments).
The worse is if the bill is passed and I am still in Nigeria, I may go to jail for sure.
HD: Because it is what it is. We were raised wrong in this country. We were raised not to question things, not to talk back even if we were being victimised.
We were raised on a diet of by force respect for elders. I am not that way. I think every human being deserves respect. I am not the man that will berate a kid for not greeting him. Nothing happens to me greeting him first.
PT: You blend Nigerian Pidgin with the English language in your book; what did you seek to achieve?
HD: Like I earlier explained, I was trying to write something Nigerians can relate to and maybe encourage more writers to see that the English language is there for them to experiment with, to master and control in their own way, not to be following grammar rules around.
PT: What do you think about language being a barrier sometimes in writing?
HD: The world is full of people who speak more than one language. Translators help bridge the language gap. Recently, I was reading a book by a Spanish writer translated into English and I felt something was missing. I felt even the best of translators are limited in the sense that there are some things you write that lose their power when they are rewritten in another language.
Imagine me writing, Ogun kee your papa! and someone translates it to “The God of Iron will kill your father!” It doesn’t sound the same. The vehemence can only be grasped on the original Nigerian pidgin. But I guess the purpose of translation is to provide understanding, not exact originality.
PT: Is your book, I for don blow but I too dey press phone, a first at attempt at creative nonfiction?
HD: I don’t know about being the first attempt. I write a lot on my Facebook posts. But yes, it is my first published creative nonfiction.
PT: Creative nonfiction is an emerging genre in African literature that is fast gaining grounds. What are your views on this?
HD: Yes, it has been an avalanche of fiction works. We hardly see nonfiction by Africans on our shelves except those image laundering books by politicians and big big men. I think that’s because all the literary prizes are in fiction.
Maybe if more prizes for non-fiction open up, writers will sway towards that direction. Writing here has to be profitable that’s why most writers write to win awards, to be big, to blow.
PT: Do you see yourself in that shoe?
HD: (laughs). I am a competitive person but when it comes to my writing, I don’t really care about writing for awards. Awards are nice but I am more concerned with what I am writing. I am too busy trying to tell my story. If I was aiming for an award, I wouldn’t use a title that got my white and East African friends sending me message to ask what the hell the title means.
Like I said, awards are nice. E no go bad to see free money( it’s not bad to earn prizes from writing) but I am too loyal to my craft, I can’t bend my writing to win prizes.
PT: Why writing?
HD: If I asked you why are you breathing, what would you say?
PT: (Smiles). Tell me more.
HD: My point is, it is what I do. It is what I feel I was cut out for. It would be awkward to even begin to answer.
Okay, writing is essential to my
survival. I was a kid with serious complex issues. I couldn’t relate with people. I was shut off from the rest of the world. Until I discovered writing. Writing helped me with access. Writing helped me understand and be understood. That’s basically what it is.
PT: Are you currently working on any writing project?
HD: Yes, a collection of short stories.
PT: What is your favourite literary genre?
HD: I don’t have one. I just read.
PT: What’s your future outlook?
HD: Hopefully, I will write more novels, be big enough to start up a publishing house to give young Nigerian writers a chance and a decent earning from their writing.
PT: What advice might you offer other young creative writers?
HD: I am a young creative writer myself; so, what do I know?
I don’t give advice.
PT: It’s been a wonderful time with you. Thank you for your time.
HD: You are welcome.