By Sumaila Isah Umaisha (May 19, 2007)
All that the old writers can do is to help with editing the works of the young writers. Beyond this, I don’t think they can do much because, writing, you have to do it yourself. -- Labo Yari, Writer
LABO YARI, author of Climate of Corruption, the first novel in English language to be published in Northern Nigeria, is one of the renowned pioneer Nigerian writers. He is particularly famous for his highly imaginative narrative style that portrays the social realities of the Hausa/Muslim community vis-à-vis the Nigerian society in colours that scream for a change. Yet, the soft-spoken novelist and short story writer, who is one of the founders and life patrons of Association of Nigerian Authors, is among those who believe there is a limit to which writers can change the society. He made this and other observations on literary issues in this interview with me.
NNW: Recently you were honoured with the Fellowship Award of Association of Nigerian Authors, ANA. That says much about you as a writer. How did you work your way into being a writer of this fame?
Labo Yari: It all started from my interest in reading. I was reading quite a lot right from my early age. So by the time I became a student in the University of Oslo, Norway, in 1966 I had developed interest not just in African literature but in the literatures of other European countries. Specifically, I studied Norwegian Literature. It is from one of my lecturers then that I learnt that if you want to be a writer you don’t have to have a degree in Literature, all you need to do is read a lot; read literary materials that have to do with the area you want to specialize in. For instance, if you want to write thriller, read a lot of thriller novels. I took the lecturer’s advice and read a lot of serious works of literature. When I came back to Nigeria after my course, I joined the Federal Ministry of Information where part of my responsibility included taking foreign journalists to the war front. After the civil war, I was sent to Stockholm as a press attache in the Nigerian embassy. All this while I was reading seriously. And soon I began to write short stories. And after I have written about eleven stories, a Jamaica journalist and friend whom I met during the civil war advised me to publish a novel before short stories. Apart from this Jamaica friend, late Aminu Abdullahi, the then Editor of New Nigerian, was also a source of encouragement. Whenever I submitted my work to him he would criticize it strongly, saying; "This is rubbish go and rewrite it." Meanwhile, as I wrote the novel, Climate of Corruption, beginning from 1975, my short stories were being published by Spear magazine. When I completed writing the novel in 1976 I took it to Fourth Dimension for publication. And it became the first in the list of the books they published in Nigeria. The collection of short stories, A House in the Dark, wasn’t published till 1985. In 1979 Fourth Dimension asked me to leave the civil service and joined them. I joined them at their Kaduna office were I tried to get Northern writers published. But they were not forthcoming; I couldn’t get any manuscripts. So when I was approached by the Northern Nigerian Publishing Company (NNPC) to join them as a publishing executive, I went over. It was there I wrote my second novel, Man of the Moment, which was later published in 1990 by Fourth Dimension. From NNPC I moved to Gaskiya Corporation, another publishing outfit based in Zaria. It wasn’t easy to write there, because the company was down and I really had to work hard to revive it. Though government had 60 per cent share, it was purely a commercial company and we had to pay our salaries from within. So, while I was there, all I did was to publish other people’s works. However, I was able to write and publish once again in 1990 when I left Gaskiya Corporation to Katsina where I was appointed government printer. There I wrote the short stories which were published in 1995 by Ibrahim Sheme’s publishing outfit, Informat. The collection is titled A Day Without a Cockcrow. First I sent it to Fourth Dimension, but when Sheme, who was then the Arts Editor of New Nigerian, expressed desire to publish it, I withdrew it and sent it to him. So far, I have written four books.
Your works are very few, considering the time you started writing.
That is all I could afford in the prevailing circumstance. You know, Nigeria is not a country where you can live on writing. The publishing climate and book marketing is not favourable. And I have a family to take care of. So I had to divide my time between writing and doing other things that would sustain the family. Moreover, I was fully aware from the beginning that writing is just a sacrifice, one’s contribution to societal development, one is not going to be rich by it. Hence, making money was not part of what made me to write.
To achieve the noble objective of societal development, the writer’s works have to be widely read, especially in schools. But your works seem not to enjoy readership in schools; they are not in the school curriculum.
I think the publishers are responsible for seeing that what they publish get wide readership. They are responsible for the marketing. They gave me only ten per cent of the money realised from the sales of the books. And even the ten percent I had to go to their office in Enugu to collect it. So, as an author I don’t have to market my books. I have tried it and found it is not worth it. Some time ago someone recommended Man of the Moment to his students and asked me to print many copies. But after collecting the money from the students he just pocketed it. So when next somebody else came again with such request, I told him I was not interested. Yes, none of my books is being adopted by the West African Examination Council or any other similar body. But I don’t think it is my responsibility to do that. Essentially, I write for the general readers, not for schools.
Your works are also hardly seen in bookshops especially here in Nigeria. What does this say about the future of your literary contribution to societal development?
You know, books travel. My books have travelled to many places. Maybe some time in future somebody will reprint them again, because it has happened to other books.
That reminds me; I learnt that your works, Climate of Corruption and A House in the Dark are being reprinted and sold by Michigan State University Press without your permission. What’s the truth of the matter?
That is true. When you google my name you will see the two books being advertised by the university press on the internet. I don’t know if they got permission from my publishers, Fourth Dimension. I contacted them by email, to find out if they gave them the permission but I haven’t got their reply. I don’t know, but I doubt if Michigan State University Press would indulge in piracy. I’m still waiting to get an explanation from my publishers.
What action will you take against them if you find out they did not take permission from your publishers?
What can I do? Like I said, I doubt if they did not take permission from my publishers.
Do you see this as an opportunity for your works to be read widely?
Yes. But they should have informed me.
If they eventually inform you would you permit them to go on printing and selling them?
Even without royalties?
Yes, because it is not all about money but societal development.
Let’s talk on your themes. Would you say your works have religious undertone?
There is religion in whatever I do. It is just that I don’t make it open as people would like me to. There is this morality and spirituality in what I write. And I think that’s what a good writer should do. Just tell the story and leave the interpretation to others. Even if it is politics you are writing about you don’t have to be too specific. This is how I was influenced by the European writers. As a writer, it is a bit risky to be religious in your writings. Because if you are not careful you are going to annoy your readers. Someone once queried; "Why is it that you never mention Allah in your works, did you attend Christian mission school?" My answer to him was that I chose that style to avoid the risk involved in introducing religious sentiment into literature.
But your Climate of Corruption seems to criticize some undesirable behaviours among some Muslims.
What I did was to expose the behaviours, not to condemn them. It is the writer’s duty to expose such behaviours so that the coming generation will know how the society was. And from this they may try to effect changes that would make the society a better one.
Would you say then that it is better for the Muslim writer to criticize the excesses of his fellow Muslims while the Christian writer criticizes those of his own fellow Christians? I asked this question because I know that some of the issues you touched on in the Climate of Corruption would have been perceived differently if you were a Christian.
Religious is a delicate matter. If you want to cause controversy and be famous by it as some European writers have done, it is easy. But the consequences are always deadly. You could be objective by criticizing the adherents of the religion without criticizing the religion itself. But the temptation is always there to condemn a religion you don’t belong to. In my own case, I don’t actually criticize but expose people’s behaviours which are not in conformity with the religious doctrine. Through this, corrections could be made and the society will be better for it.
Looking at the situation highlighted in your Climate of Corruption, and what obtains in the Nigerian society today, would you say your exposition in that work has helped to change the society?
I don’t think writers can change the Nigerian society. Writers cannot change Nigeria. This is because readers are not many. Books can only change those who read them. I think journalists have more influence on the Nigerian society than creative writers. Because despite the poor reading culture some people still read newspapers. In fact, I’m not writing because I think I could change the Nigerian society. I’m not writing for today and I’m not writing only for Nigerian readers. My contribution is to the whole world and for all time.
How would you describe the publishing climate in Nigeria now as compared to what obtained in those days?
Of course, the publishing climate was more favourable then. All I did was to send my manuscripts to publishing houses. They invested their money in it and did the marketing. We had many multi-national publishing companies and few indigenous companies. But as the foreign companies gradually disengaged the indigenous companies seemed to lose their ability to publish and market indigenous writers. The bookshops too developed the habit of not making adequate returns to the publishing houses. So they went down. This pushed many writers into self-publishing and launching of their books. This is not good for the writers. The literature of a country depends highly on publishers. They determine what is to be published and what is not to be published. What happens now is that writers determine their own literature. They see book publishing as a means of making money. So they launch these books regardless of their quality. They make their money and that is all, when you go to bookshops you don’t see such books. The launching culture is gradually destroying the entire system. Maybe ANA should do something about it. It should establish a publishing house and try to see that books published conform to all the publishing obligations.
Don’t you think government should also intervene and regulate the system?
You see, the government now is government of deregulation. It can’t come into publishing. It is only a body like ANA and publishing associations that can join hands and tackle the problem. The publishing houses can be encouraged to publish general books including literature books rather than just publishing text books. It will be better. Another solution is that universities should have viable publishing outfits where they can publish general and literature books. They should also set up writers’ residency programmes. ANA can talk to them in this regard.
You seem to be saying writers are partly responsible for the ugly situation.
Yes. The attitude of writers is also not helping matters. Some writers are so proud they see themselves as extraordinary people. But a writer is just like any other human being. You have to conform to standards by subjecting your works to vigorous editing. Don’t claim to be perfect. I was surprised to learn that some of the books that won last year’s ANA prizes were full of errors. Why should you give such works prizes? You can see that it starts from the writers themselves. Publishers are out to make money, therefore, if they perceive that your work cannot be marketable due to low standard they won’t publish it. So ANA should ensure that works meet the standards before prizes are awarded to them.
Don’t you think old writers like you have a role to play in this regard?
All that the old writers can do is to help with editing the works of the young writers. Beyond this, I don’t think they can do much because, writing, you have to do it yourself.
What about moral support, such as attending ANA conventions, for instance. Only a few old writers attended the last ANA convention in Bayelsa.
Maybe the old writers are staying away because the young ones have grabbed the association. ANA has undergone a lot of transformation; it started deteriorating when they started the state chapters. The standard of being a member became very low. Normally, nobody should be a member unless he is a writer. And in the case of self-published authors, standards must be considered before one is admitted as a member. But this rule is not followed because some members want large membership so that when there is election of the national executive council officials at a convention, they would get many votes. ANA itself is not helping writers.
What work should we expect from you now?
I’ve written the biography of Alhaji Muhammadu Dikko, the late Emir of Katsina (1885-1940). It is a work I started long ago. It will be out soon.
After that I will like to write, but I have a problem with my sight. I have allergy. If I have money I will reprint my works, especially Climate of Corruption.
Originally appeared in EverythingLiterature.