At a time the Nigerian literary scene is filled with booming young voices who are breaking boundaries as a strong force to reckon with, Olatunde Ojerinde, a graduate of Literature-in-English and English Language from Olabisi Onabanjo University and the University of Lagos respectively, is one of the few who are taking on the theatrical horn to voice their thoughts.
After years of sharing his writing with friends and family, he released his debut book in June this year. The book, Museum of Dreams, is an allegorical play that portrays Nigerian-specific anomalies mired in every class of the society.
The play, set in a fictional nation, Igeria (a possible spinoff from ‘Nigeria’), bares the frustrations of a working-class, the youth, who are caught up in a game of ethnoreligious sentiments that pose as barriers on their way to career fulfilment and self-actualisation.
“They play this anomaly card regardless of the suitability of the candidates for any position….Out of frustrations, the dreams and lofty goals of dreamers turn mere ashes without any glimmer of hope in the offing,” Babatunde Oyeyemi wrote in a review published on Nigerian Tribune.
In this interview with PREMIUM TIMES, the playwright throws some light on why revolution should be hinged on self-redemption before any sudden agitation. He also bares his mind on how he came about writing his first amidst a pandemic.
PT: You are a graduate of English. Did you always know you would become a playwright from the beginning?
Olatunde Ojerinde: Not exactly a playwright. I’ve always wished to be an all-round creative writer— being a poet, playwright and novelist. I’m quite comfortable doing any of these but this drama happens to come ahead of other genres. Generally, I’ve always loved to write and the passion to write across the genres is seemingly high and the same.
PT: How long have you been writing?
Olatunde Ojerinde: I started writing creatively from my secondary school days at Abeokuta Grammar School, almost two decades ago; but the art was private and I didn’t register anything in the public space. I had the privilege to meet Professor Soyinka in person when he came to AbeoGrams in 2000 with some foreigners to train interested students in drama and creative arts, I was not interested enough to join. I simply watched from a distance.
My writing began to grace the public space when I became convinced I could impact the society better beyond my sphere of privacy. So, purposeful writing dawned at undergraduate days at the Olabisi Onabanjo University, Ago Iwoye. The Department of English was a good platform and Muslim Students Society of Nigeria (MSSN) provided a wider and effective platform as well. I wrote for a campus-based magazine, AlBalagh, for three years as well as churning out creative weekly short homilies. My poems also adorned the notice board at the department and I kept doing that until I graduated in 2012.
I became more convinced and conscious of the energy in the art of creative writing so I kept it going and that will continue.
PT: For too many young Nigerian writers, exploring the green lands of poetry and prose comes with much ease than writing plays. Do you think drama is the hardest knot to crack when it comes to literary writing?
Olatunde Ojerinde: Yes, I agree that drama is the most complex of the three genres of literature. I believe it is easier to latch onto the openness of poetry and lay claims to some poetic licence to begin writing in verses; and no one can deny the basic feature of poetry as writing in verses and stanzas, notwithstanding the features such writings have. So, everyone and almost anyone can do this or tend to do this these days.
Prose can be rosy as well for everyone who can afford basic concentration and logic of storytelling. It is straight and how it tells a story is simple enough because of the quotidian structure of its language.
Drama is a distinct genre because what goes into it is beyond the words of a language. The ability of a playwright to imagine a stage as well as infuse meaning into every spectacle that graces the stage is vital. A playwright doesn’t just write a plot, he creates a plot, or plots, within a story in a manner that reflects complex interaction of ideas and extensive imagination that must be workable in reality. For me, I feel a playwright must understand the task of a director, a stage manager, a thespian and other human elements of drama production. This knowledge may not come cheaply without a creative mind and a rich experience.
It is not to say that poetry and prose are cheap to come by, quality work of literature, be it any of the three, must be separately evaluated from others that are written with less creativity. Just like every work in life, there are those to be reckoned with for their quality and there are those that must exist on the other side of quality.
PT: Museum of Dreams is your debut book. How long did it take you to finish all writing?
Olatunde Ojerinde: It took me exactly one month to complete the writing but editing and certain adjustments continued for quite a while afterwards.
PT: What were the challenges of writing the book?
Olatunde Ojerinde: The main challenge I had was how to balance the tribal and religious tone in a way that would not be deemed offensive. These twin prejudices – religion and tribe – are the major fault lines defining social interactions in Igeria and Nigeria and I really wanted a depiction that will not be biased against any side of the actual divide for the intent is to have a refreshing narrative that will condemn such biases and promote genuine nationhood among younger generations.
PT: Have you ever acted on a stage play?
Olatunde Ojerinde: Yes, I did at undergraduate level. I took courses in the Department of Performing Arts where I did dance and acted on stage, as well. I acted the role of Baba Fakunle in Ola Rotimi’s The gods are not to blame. But I can’t see myself back on stage again though.
Olatunde Ojerinde: Nothing really, not something I fancy I should say.
PT: Your book tackles the many anomalies that characterise our today’s reality. Though set in an imaginary country called Igeria, an allegorical spinoff of Nigeria because it shares similitudes of everyday experience warped in despair and agony.
While reading through the play, I became very aware how religious sentiments and ethnocentrism become the dividing line. They often are conflated with each other whenever a situation accords it. Giving out less of the plot, what is the significance of class on the characters’ attitudes, beliefs, and behaviour in the play?
Olatunde Ojerinde: Let me assume the plot of the drama instead of Nigeria per se. Class struggle is a chronic malaise of a capitalist society because capitalism premised existence, wrongly, on strife. This strife is unfortunately accentuated by such divisive lines as religion and ethnicity common to a pluralistic society as Igeria because in the struggle for resources, as instigated by capitalism, everyone takes advantage of available means for their interests, notwithstanding the implications on the general society.
In this drama, class struggle is depicted along a generational line that pitches the old generation against the younger generation, the youth. The struggle is between those desperate to perpetuate a sulphuric status quo and those that must consciously end the toxicity of the status quo defined by crass prejudices that take sanity to the pit.
It is not about the popular class struggle between the rich and the poor or the rulers and the ruled. The struggle permeates basically all aspects of societal interactions; from academia to the public service and private businesses, with emphasis on the question of what must change and how to change it.
So, class struggle is significant to every society imprisoned in the hell of capitalism and the intent is to continue to project this senselessness of such strife for the progress of the society.
PT: With current happenings around the world, all having one or two things to do with class struggle, the latest example is the current situation in Mali where months-long mass protests against perceived government ineptitude resulted in a coup that eventually ousted president Keita.
To what end do you think class struggle could head in attaining harmony? Do you agree with Friedrich Engel and Karl Marx’s view that until the oppressed revolt against the oppressor?
Olatunde Ojerinde: The conception of change and the manner of bringing about changes cannot be seen from a single perspective. Every society must apply appropriate medication to their ailment; it does not have to be the same.
The example of Mali is most recent; Sudan is still as fresh in our minds; Libya and Egypt weren’t any much different or far off. The fact around these revolts is that they were wrongly conceived and badly executed and at the end, they left the people of those nations in seemingly worse context.
As for Engel and Marx, violent revolt might have been deemed appropriate for their contexts in the nineteenth century but that may not be the case in our context. Causing a change must necessarily be conceived to cause an improvement in people’s situation. What happened in Libya or Sudan is not desired and should not be beatified with the term ‘revolution’ because it left them worse off. True revolution should leave revolting people better than they were prior to it.
In the Igerian (Nigerian) context, the desired change must emanate from every member of the society because almost everyone is complicit in the overall problems of the society. It appears mainly that everyone is only waiting for an opportunity to perpetuate the same destructive acts harming the society. Hence, the most important revolt is for the younger generation to begin to push back and talk back on all these malaises before moving to take back the initiative of societal progress. By talking back, I mean, each youth must resolve not to join the old generation in their destructive act; let the youth begin to say NO to the old ones who are daily exploiting religious and tribal plurality for selfish gains; and let the youth begin to reenact a narrative of progress and reinvent true loyalty for the nation in their words and actions.
What is needed is a revolution hinged on self-reformations that must involve change of mindset and turn around of action set as well. A violent uprising, even when labelled or seen as a revolution in the guise of what happened in Libya, Egypt or Sudan will leave the society worse off because such conceptions lack harmony that is needed for real societal progress.
So, while I may not dispute Marx’s assertion on the necessity of a revolt by the oppressed, I take a different stance based on the context of our society and the recent events around other African nations. In the Nigerian context, the line between the oppressed and the oppressor is very thin and with a single action of accepting a favour, the so-called oppressed becomes an oppressor because most citizens are awaiting oppressors: what I call ‘a victim’s victim.’
Hence, a violent revolt that involves destruction of public property especially basic amenities, and more often loss of human lives, is not a means to harmonious societal change that will bring desired outcome; rather, the concentration, in our context, must be on real behavioural change that must emanate from strong desire to chart a new course and deep loyalty for the nation. So, at every given opportunity, we should expose the ills and name the actors; we must dispose of harmful acts, and repudiate the urge to join them. We must then begin to have a new positive view of progress as something that is inclusive of everyone in the society and not a rivalry based us against anybody approach. Most importantly, we must believe it is achievable, without violent destruction of the public space.
PT: The play is set in a Nigerian mood with its portrayal of intemperate political climate, deep malaise and feelings of betrayal that have enveloped the society. How did you balance being a prophet and a comedic at the same time?
Olatunde Ojerinde: A prophet? No! The trait of prophesying is an innate proclivity of nearly every piece of literature especially when it is a response to the realities of the society. One can recollect Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984 as examples of such prophetic literature.
However, I’d rather be satisfied with a simple notion of hope. I have hope that Nigeria can be better but things must be done differently for that to be achieved. So, I looked at the morrow with an eye of hope confident that the younger generation can unlearn the habits of today’s older generation then embrace a future devoid of caustic divisions and destructive tendencies that are seemingly inclusive of all members of the society.
So, while the tales of the society may be deemed to be more tragic, one can still afford to smile while the withered tree sprouts anew.
PT: The title of the play is allegorical. Museum of Dreams. If I’m to interpret it, it seems more like a catalogue of young dreams that may not be realised and only up for display. Is this not antithetical to the belief that the younger generation should brace up for a brighter future when, in fact, they may not live to achieve their dreams?
Olatunde Ojerinde: You’re correct only to the extent that it is a catalogue of young dreams that may not be realised but that is the brutal truth depicted by historical references made in it.
However, for the younger generation, the brighter future is hinged on a change of mindset, on the one hand, and a complementary change of actionset, on the other hand. And that is the reason the youth must necessarily take a different route. The old must be abandoned on their die-hard trade of bias while the younger ones must chart a fresher course to achieve that better morrow.
So, rather than say antithetical, it may be more apposite to consider it a warning, that except a change is embraced and the old generations are abandoned on their trade, the youth also stand to risk their dreams being mere artifacts in a museum where old dreams lay idle as relics.
PT: One of the highpoints in the play is the powerplay within the civil service that is wired to be of integrity and appropriateness but reeks of all forms of corruptions. Could you speak on why you felt it was important to highlight it as against the usual portraiture of corruption among politicians?
Olatunde Ojerinde: It is very important to highlight that particularly because we tend to downplay the role of civil servants in the society. The civil servants tend to hide under their abstract identity to perpetrate the worst form of corruption; and as though the society as a whole is in a conspiracy with them, few people talk about them. The focus is always on the politicians; meanwhile, the politicians are only as powerful as the supporting civil service, for or against the society.
Corruption in this society is not all about the actions of politicians. In fact, if we are to dissect corruption appropriately, the politicians may be somewhere in the fourth or fifth position. The civil service is the domain of corrupt practices and that sector is so powerful that without the cooperation of people there, the politicians lack the potential for the kind of corruption we have.
So, I feel we need to talk about them and demystify their abstract disposition in the discourse of corruption in the society. I agree that it is easier to headline a news story with an elected official or a politically appointed official, the governor did this or the minister did that; but, those behind the scene are more dangerous, and those are the civil servants.
PT: What are your thoughts on rooting out corruption? From the top or bottom?
Olatunde Ojerinde: When we are fully decided to fight this menace, we will not ask either or. It has to be both ways, simultaneously, if we want to achieve any tangible result.
From the top, the leaders must take responsibility and be worthy examples. They must ensure all available machinery is effective in the fight against corruption. This is an exclusive duty of the political office holders in the legislature and the executive, not the common man on the street. Laws must be made and those must be fully followed to the letter.
But, the top needs a strong foundation to stand on and the foundation is the bottom, the ordinary people. The people must decide to do things right as well otherwise whatever is going on at the top and coming down from the top is dead on arrival. The garri seller must decide not to reduce measurement when selling and the wood seller must supply precisely what he is paid to supply, not an alternative of lesser quality.
This way, corruption will be substantially displaced in no time. We have to understand that corruption has been enculturated and to reverse the trend, all hands must be on deck, simultaneously. So, I’m afraid it is not a either-or- situation. It has to be top-bottom and bottom-up at the same time.
PT: The characters in the play all have names similar to different figures of speech to tell on their personalities. For example, characters like Ironi (irony), Xymoron (oxymoron), Zeug(zeugma) Imeric (Limerick) showcase what their names underscore.
What are your thoughts on “show, don’t tell?”
Olatunde Ojerinde: The concept of showing rather than telling helps to energise the message a writer is passing across. This is just a way to give life to the characters to further drive home intended messages.
So, if the characters are examined even without deep reading of the drama, the idea each of them represents will have some concreteness of form by virtue of their names.
For me, this is very important especially when a writer intends to have readers/audience draw lessons and also find their own quotidian experience in the storyline. This aids verisimilitude and meaning-making as a whole.
PT: African scholars have argued that writing should be art for life’s sake as against the romantic leaning of art for art’s sake. How would you contend this?
Olatunde Ojerinde: The idea of “art for art’s sake” has no basis really. I do not agree that there is such an art. Every artistic product is created for a purpose. If the purpose is “just for fun”, it doesn’t derobe the art for any purpose. So, generally, art delights and teaches without the former negating the latter or vice versa.
In other words, the arts that are deemed to be romantic, for fun, are not without a purpose. An artist has a purpose and she pursues her purpose with her arts.
Therefore, my position is that every artist has a duty to the world, his immediate society and or beyond. This duty is reflected in the purpose for which s/he might decide to create his work: to delight or to teach. For an African, the events of history, especially from the slave era through militarisation of governance, forced most African elites, writers in particular, to use their skills and arts to fight for the society. So, the purpose of their arts is to emancipate the society because of the peculiarities of our context as a besieged land.
So, writing becomes a tool in the liberation of the society and African writers fell for this because they have a duty to their society. I feel the same. I feel the need to impact society using the potential I have discovered in literature as an art.
However, it is not to say that all African writings must be for the same purpose. We can as well not assume that once a book is not about those popular lines of thought, they are not art for life’s sake. So, generally, I consider all arts as created for a purpose but African writers are compelled by historical events to be less concerned with romantic arts.
PT: What writing project are you looking into now?
Olatunde Ojerinde: I have a personal target of 100 literature texts. This is the first and I’m focused on the next 99, one after the other until then. I will be touching the three genres along the journey to the 99th.
PT: What do you see yourself grow into for the next 5 years as a writer?
Olatunde Ojerinde: I hope to see my writings making profound impacts in the society. I hope to see myself, the writer, and my writings at the heart of societal reformation. I see myself, five years from now, leading national discourse and driving purposeful changes that will lift Nigeria, especially the younger generation, out of the present doldrum.
PT: How would you advise writers after debut?
Olatunde Ojerinde: Purpose is key and consistency is vital. It is important to have a definite purpose and be consistent with it. While the art of writing is there to be freely used for different purposes, writers must prioritise societal interests that will help create the kind of society that we all desire.