His voice floats through the waves, slides smoothly into the T-mobile Sidekick 2 mobile device and flows softly into your ears. Here you are chatting with Akin Adesokan, award-winning writer, journalist, critic, university teacher and more. For many weeks, you’ve sought a chat with the soft-spoken novelist. But convincing him to talk has been like employing your bare hands to catch a breathing fish from the waters of the Lagos lagoon. Quite some task. Adesokan isn’t too anxious for a chat, apparently still seeing himself as a fledgling amidst the flock of Nigerian wordsmiths.
But then, not everyone seems to align with that position. Not the folks that awarded him the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) Prose Prize in 1996. Not those who, two years later, named him winner of the PEN West Freedom to Write Award. Not the organizers of the Villa-Aurora Writers in Exile Award who pronounced him winner of their first Fellowship. Not the late dark-goggled tyrant, Sani Abacha, who ‘compensated’ Akin’s literary efforts with a two-month incarceration in a solitary cell. And certainly not former American President Bill Clinton who publicly celebrated Adesokan, among other Nigerians, during a presidential trip to Nigeria in the fall of 2000.
Dr Adesokan is author of Roots in the Sky, a novel, and he’s working on a second. He’s been on a fellowship at the International House of Writers in Austria for a year as well as a visiting scholar at the University of California in Los Angeles.
Since 2000, he has lived in the United States where he, in 2005, wrapped up his doctorate in English at Cornell University in New York. Last August, he moved over to Bloomington, Indiana, to take up an appointment as an assistant professor at the Indiana University where he now teaches Comparative Literature.
Having moved around America, from the West through the East Coast to the Midwest, Akin’s years in Uncle Sam’s country should naturally be impacting much on his writing. But he insists that it’s the story the writer is trying to tell that will determine how to tell it, not really where the writer resides at the time of putting the story down.
“Living in the United States has not influenced my writing per se in a definite way, but I will allow that my experience of living in America is beginning to shape my personality, and that ultimately, it might impact on my writing,” he tells you.
“You don’t even have to be in America or in any country before the place starts impacting on your writing,” he observes. “I have written about India, and when someone saw it, he wondered how long I had been living in the country. He was amazed that I had never been to India. You know the writer, Franz Kafka. He wrote about America, and I’m not sure he ever visited the US.” What is uppermost, he contends, isn’t really where you are at the moment, but how far you can travel mentally, how far your imagination can travel.
Roots in the Sky, the novel that won him the ANA prize in 1996 just got published in 2004, about a decade after it was penned. Adesokan wouldn’t describe what he went through in those days while seeking a publisher for his work as a particularly gratifying experience.
Was it frustrating, you ask? “Of course”, comes the swift reply. “Oh yes, I got a lot of rejection from publishers. One, I had no agent, and the Nigerian publisher who had promised to publish didn’t fulfill his promise. You know, sometimes, writers get hundreds of rejections before being published. And we are talking of places where things are normal. In Nigeria, things were not normal. Publishers were simply not publishing novels. So you could imagine the frustration of going about with your manuscript for eight years before finding a publisher.”
Since the novel got published however, things have been looking up for the messenger and his literary message. Apart from completing his doctoral programme at Cornell (which he ran on full scholarship), and landing a job as an assistant professor at the Indiana University, the author has had some critical, yet positive, reviews of his novel in literary journals around the globe. He’s also been hosted to well-attended readings both in Nigeria and the United States.
Many artists use their works as a channel through which messages are conveyed across to specific audiences regarded by such artists as recipients of their creative product. Adesokan thinks literature differs from that kind of conventional product. The writer, he contends, is not in the same mold neither does he peddle the same message as, for instance, the slightly drunk paraga seller at Ojuelegba who goes about convincing less virile males of the efficacy of his anti-jedijedi drug. “Literature works at the level of language and emotion”, he says, adding that the emotion is contained within the structure of the language. He agrees however that it’s often difficult making a distinction between the language and the emotion.
So why does he write? He waits awhile, and you can make out a slight sigh in the background.
“I think there’s a difference between what a writer sets out to do and what he ends up doing”, he observes. “My writing is an attempt to bear an honest witness to my time, to the experience I have as a human being, as a Nigerian, as an African. The African experience – slavery, wars, colonialism, diseases, neo-colonialism. There are other dimensions of experiences that are perennial, that aren’t easy to grasp historically or as past events, and one tries to respond to these.” And his audience? “Basically, I write for everybody who can read English. And since that language can be translated into other languages, then I would say I write for everybody.”