Has he ever been bogged down by that phenomenon called writer’s block?
He ponders for a few seconds. “I don’t think so. The major problem that I have faced as a writer is having personal time. When I first started out, I was working as a journalist. So finding time to write became a major issue. But talking about being blacked out and not knowing to write, I don’t think that has been a problem. There are moments of course when I don’t feel like writing. But I don’t think that’s having a writer’s block. I think that’s a question of sensitizing yourself, putting yourself in a proper frame of mind for writing. And as I told you, one thing that I have gained from journalism is the ability to be able to give myself some kind of deadline, as if I am in the newsroom. So even if the ideas do not flow, it’s not that I am struck by the writer’s block. It’s just that I’m trying to find an appropriate way to write what I’m writing.”
Writers, Adesokan contends, shouldn’t see themselves as having answers to all situations. In fact, they should do more of asking than answering. He confesses to being impressed by the perspective of the Canadian novelist and poet, Michael Ondaatje, who says he doesn’t set out to answer questions but to ask them.
Another habit the writer should constantly put on like a perpetual garment, according to Akin, is researching. Indeed, stresses he, research is a tool the writer cannot do without in the course of his literary voyage.
“For instance I’m writing about politics in the late 50s and early 60s in Nigeria. Post-colonial politics, the Lagos and Ibadan politics in the late 50s and early 60s. This was a period I knew about in the historical sense, you know, the history of the nationalist movements. But as a writer, I’m not interested in the history per se. I’m interested in the historical moment, how these historical players acted out their own roles and what motivated them. Now I have to read a lot of materials from that period, you know, newspapers published in those days. I actually had a vague idea of what I wanted to write, but I needed to know the political mood of those days. How it was, having to take over power from the British. So I was doing research not necessarily to get the facts right, but also to get to the minds of the characters at that time.”
On November 7, 1997 while returning to Nigeria from a fellowship in Austria, Adesokan was arrested by Abacha’s goons and held incommunicado at one of the late tyrant’s notorious detention centers, alongside his friend and fellow writer, Ogaga Ifowodo. He remained in the gulag until January 1 1998. Did that experience in any way shape his personality? He’s silent for a while, apparently recalling the galling breeze of those harsh harmattan nights.
Adesokan says, in spite of himself, he still feels a deep sense of disappointment whenever he remembers his travails. For someone just coming back to his country after spending some time abroad to be forcefully hurled into jail was certainly not the kind of welcome he was looking forward to. “I had called my family on Tuesday morning that by Thursday, I would be in Nigeria. By that Thursday evening, I was already in jail and that would continue for the next two months. You can imagine the effect that would have had on my family and friends who in any case didn’t know where I was or what had happened to me. Some of those who had been detained actually died. My colleague at The News, Bagauda Kaltho was tortured to death in jail. Yar’Adua died about three to four weeks after I was jailed. So that feeling was there all the time that you were not safe while in jail. Then there was the Diya coup. And remember that during the earlier coup of 1995, some journalists were roped into the alleged coup. So there was also the fear that the same thing might happen”.
He’s however gratified that several groups within and outside Nigeria fought for his release, though he wasn’t aware of their efforts while he languished in jail.
He agrees that the experience had a strong impact on his life. “In fact, until Abacha died, I found out that I was suspicious of everybody. When I saw a car driving by, I would become jittery, thinking the State Security Service people might be coming. Whenever I was talking to people, I was never too open with them. But overall, it made me believe that dictatorship was evil. And it made my writing more political in a very profound way”. He was also advised by some close friends to quit this “journalism thing that keeps putting people in jail”. But his immediate family, especially his parents, were very understanding and gave him their full backing.
Soon after his release, Abacha suddenly passed on, and democracy was restored. But then, many allege that the country’s rulers are yet to shed the military toga, maneuvering the people however they choose. Adesokan insists that the present ‘democracy’ in Nigeria doesn’t yet give any cause for cheer, and the writer has an obligation to combat the menace of tyrannical civilian rulers with considerable aggression, just like he did in the days of Abacha. Akin would also want every Nigerian to be “constantly suspicious of political power”, because political power is very corrupting. “And I’m not advocating any type of quietism. I’m not saying people should run away from politics. Far from it. I’m saying that we have to be on our guard and remain critical of how politics is played in Nigeria. Obasanjo was in jail like all of us. And we had thought that would bring out the new Obasanjo, a man that could identify with the people. But we were all wrong”.
Adesokan is not too happy with the organizers of the Nigerian Liquefied Natural Gas Prize for Literature for excluding writers based outside the country from the award. “It shouldn’t be a question of where you are, but what you write,” he asserts. How did he feel when no work was considered good enough at the award’s premiere? Adesokan says he was put off by the organization of that initial outing, which was poor and porous. He however says that there are many good writers in Nigeria who are not yet popular and whose talents are waiting to be explored.
Does he see any Nigerian winning the Nobel again? “Why not”, he queries, adding that there are several people in Nigeria meriting the prize. “Whether there would be more in our time is what I don’t know. Don’t forget that the Nobel Prize is for writers all over the world. And it’s not always the best that gets it. At any time, maybe it’s 3,000 or more writers who deserve the prize. And you can only have one per year. Sometimes, very rarely, two. I think it’s possible for another Nigerian to win the Nobel again. When that might happen again is what I don’t know.” He advocates the institution of more literary awards that could better showcase African writing.
When former American President Clinton publicly applauded Adesokan as one of the writers that fought for Nigeria’s democracy during the former’s visit to Abuja in 2000, not a few of his friends were marveled that Akin could be recognized by such a personality. How close is he to Clinton?
“Are you kidding,” he asks, his voice rising a little in mock alarm. “We have never met,” he continues. “There was a time I saw his motorcade in Los Angeles, when he was still president. That was the closest I ever got to him. It was even after the motorcade had passed that someone told me that that was the president that just passed. Wh
en he came to Nigeria, I was already in the US. I didn’t even know that he mentioned my name until people started sending me emails and someone forwarded the speech to me. I wouldn’t know how my name got in his speech, because people like Abiola, Kudirat, Enahoro and co, those were the activists. I mean, who was I? Maybe his speech writers did some research and found the name of one Akin Adesokan. ”
Many writers in developed countries survive solely on their works. Adesokan does not see such happening in Nigeria at the moment. “I think it is desirable, but I don’t think it’s possible now in Nigeria. A few writers have actually done nothing but write in the last few years. But they’ve been outside the country on fellowships. Even in America, you have to be a best seller to be able to live solely on writing.”
Adesokan is excited by the movie industry in Nigeria, now tagged Nollywood. In fact, parts of his doctoral dissertation were done on the industry. He sees the industry’s growth as “fantastic”. He is however worried that many of the practitioners are mainly in it for the profit, and not for the development of the arts or the cinema. “It’s like people selling pure water. Once you have your money, then you can go into it. It’s an all comer’s affair. That is worrisome”. He would want the government to support organizations like the Nigeria Film Corporation in Jos, and the Independent Television Producers Association of Nigeria so that quality could be brought to the industry.
Akin is in every way an eligible bachelor. With a novel, a PH.D and a good job in an American University, he definitely should be thinking of tying the nuptial knot. So you ask, when will the wedding bells ring?
Silence, while he ponders your words. Then he bursts into a prolonged laughter, and, infected by the mirth from the other end, you too start to chuckle.
“Is that part of our chat,” he asks.
“Sure it is”, you assure him.
“You can’t be serious, Tope”.
“Oh, I am. Trust me.”
He hesitates again. “Well, I’ve been thinking about it really. And that will happen as soon as I find someone who accepts me,” he laughs. “But seriously, I intend to settle down soon. The pressure from people like you has been intense and I hope to settle down very soon. I will let you know. I promise.”