cc With this year's Caine Prize for African Writing shortlist now announced, Mildred Kiconco Barya interviews Segun Afolabi, the 2005 winner of the prize. The winner of the 2009 prize will be announced at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, on Monday 6 July.
Segun Afolabi was born in Kaduna, Nigeria, and grew up in various countries including Canada, Indonesia and the United Kingdom. His first novel, ‘Goodbye Lucille’, was published in 2007 and won the Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award. His first book, ‘A Life Elsewhere’, a short story collection, was published in 2006 and was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. Afolabi was awarded the 2005 Caine Prize for African Writing for his story ‘Monday Morning’.
MILDRED KICONCO BARYA: Why do you write?
SEGUN AFOLABI: Curiosity, a desire to tell stories, a love of psychology, trying to understanding human behaviour – all sorts of reasons.
MILDRED KICONCO BARYA: At what age did you start writing creatively?
SEGUN AFOLABI: In my mid-20s.
MILDRED KICONCO BARYA: Describe your writing journey.
SEGUN AFOLABI: Necessarily slow. A journey of discovery – of writers who helped expand my view of the world.
MILDRED KICONCO BARYA: What are the thematic concerns in your writing?
SEGUN AFOLABI: I don’t think in terms of themes, but rather issues, problems, and dilemmas that need to be examined, picked apart, even understood.
MILDRED KICONCO BARYA: What inspired you to write ‘Monday Morning’?
SEGUN AFOLABI: A sentence that popped into my head one chilly winter evening in London: ‘“I want to piss,” the boy said…’ I had no idea who this boy was or what the story would be about, but often that’s the joy of writing – discovering a story as the words surface onto the page.
MILDRED KICONCO BARYA: How did you know about the Caine Prize?
SEGUN AFOLABI: I didn’t.
MILDRED KICONCO BARYA: What was your initial response when you won the Caine Prize?
SEGUN AFOLABI: Bafflement, glee. I didn’t understand how I had been shortlisted in the first place, since I hadn’t entered it into a competition.
MILDRED KICONCO BARYA: What has been happening or not happening since winning the Caine?
SEGUN AFOLABI: I’ve published two books, a collection of short stories (‘A Life Elsewhere’) and a novel (‘Goodbye Lucille’), which won the Author’s Club Best First Novel Award. I’m working on a new novel and more stories, but as I’m a part-time writer everything happens very, very slowly.
MILDRED KICONCO BARYA: If you were to rewrite your submitted story what would you change?
SEGUN AFOLABI: I don’t feel it’s my story to change – the characters have their own lives and histories. Perhaps I’ll feel differently in ten years’ time.
MILDRED KICONCO BARYA: How often do you revise or redraft your stories?
SEGUN AFOLABI: I don’t keep score, but the revision process seems, necessarily, endless, which used to bother me, but I now realise it all adds to the creative process.
MILDRED KICONCO BARYA: What’s your take on writing?
SEGUN AFOLABI: Discovery, bliss, frustration, despair, boredom, excitement, solitude, anxiety, dissatisfaction, poverty – all thrown into one pot.
MILDRED KICONCO BARYA: How do you deal with a writer’s rejections?
SEGUN AFOLABI: I tend to think of rejection as an opportunity to examine the writing, refine it to another degree – another stage in the editing/revising process. But, honestly, rejection never gets any easier.
MILDRED KICONCO BARYA: Apart from writing, what else do you do and why?
SEGUN AFOLABI: I work full-time, as an editor. Always have. I like to be part of the world, with all the interaction, excitement and frustration that comes with it. I’m not sure I could write full-time – the ideas wouldn’t flow as easily, I don’t think. I might get bored and stuck.
MILDRED KICONCO BARYA: Forty years from now where do you see yourself?
SEGUN AFOLABI: On trains, crossing continents, travelling with family and old and new friends, still writing and reading, still learning.
MILDRED KICONCO BARYA: What’s your best quote?
SEGUN AFOLABI: ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.’ (Philippians 4:13)
MILDRED KICONCO BARYA: Which five authors do you admire most and why?
SEGUN AFOLABI: This list changes according to time of day, week, month, year etc., so it’s rendered almost meaningless: Graham Greene, James Baldwin, Ernest Hemingway, Jamaica Kincaid and J.M. Coetzee.
MILDRED KICONCO BARYA: List your favourite five books.
SEGUN AFOLABI: Again, take with a pinch of salt: ‘The Magus’, ‘The End of the Affair’, ‘Farewell to Arms’, ‘L’Etranger’ and ‘Beloved’.
MILDRED KICONCO BARYA: What genre do you read most and why?
SEGUN AFOLABI: I used to read anything: horror, science fiction, comics etc. I rarely read anything apart from literary fiction now (and non-fiction), since there’s so little time to devote to anything else, although a colleague recently recommended ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’.
MILDRED KICONCO BARYA: If you were to make a wish right now what would it be?
SEGUN AFOLABI: The discovery of a cheap, sustainable energy source that obviates the need for oil/coal etc., which would end the rapidly developing environmental crisis.
MILDRED KICONCO BARYA: If you were to have powers of a genie what two things would you change?
SEGUN AFOLABI: I’d redistribute climates so that there’d be more rain and it would be cooler in Africa, Australia, the Middle East etc., and hence dryer and warmer elsewhere. An inbuilt propensity for altruism in everyone.