What you need to know:
- The Kingdom by the Sea by Robert Westall, there is something heartbreaking about that story, and it has stayed with me.
- So has Katherine Paterson’s Jacob Have I Loved which was sad and lonely. Lastly, Tanemera by Noel Barber, which wasn’t exactly child fiction but was such a sweeping narrative of the Orient, it left an impression.
Babatunde Oyateru is a writer, blogger and documentary maker. He previously worked as a speech writer and has also been a columnist for a Nigerian paper.
His first book, The Day the Madman Knew, will be available in print in February. He has collaborated with his good friend Ishaya Bako on the acclaimed documentary Fuelling our Poverty (2012).
where he served as a narrator. He is an alumnus of the UNLEASH Innovation Lab and the World Economic Forum, Global Shapers. He is an avowed cinema and music lover. He currently lives in Nairobi, Kenya with his wife and two children.
Oyateru spoke to Nation.co.ke about books and writing.
Tell me the three books that excited you the most in 2017?
Ta-Nahesi Coates’ Between the World and Me & We Were Eight Years in Power. It goes without saying that Coates is the new James Baldwin and his perspectives on Black American existence is beautifully scripted and a powerful counter narrative. Stay With Me by Ayòbámi Adébáyò is a fine book and continues in the tradition of towering Nigerian storytelling.
Having lived in both Nigeria and Kenya, how would you compare the literary scene and fiction writing in the two countries?
Not sure, I can draw too many differences between the two, to be honest; both came to prominence as a cultural counterweight to the otherness of colonialism. Both have produced giants of African literature from Achebe to Ngugi and Adichie and Binyavanga, and given the regional importance of both countries, a lot of attention is given to Kenyan and Nigerian talent. Both are still beholden to the giants of their past as well; they are evenly poised at the moment.
Which two books do you hold so dear that they can’t possibly be lent out?
I don’t think I have any book I haven’t lent out, but I always have a copy of Things Fall Apart (that is part of the Nigerian cultural starter-pack) and I always have a copy of Leo Tolstoy's War & Peace.
Your favourite childhood books? Why?
Ah, this will be a long list! Every single story on Tales by Moonlight which is a quintessential Nigerian childhood experience, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night which was my first introduction to the bard and Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame.
The Kingdom by the Sea by Robert Westall has something heartbreaking about it and it has stayed with me. So has Katherine Paterson’s Jacob Have I Loved which was sad and lonely. Lastly, Tanemera by Noel Barber, which wasn’t exactly child fiction but was such a sweeping narrative of the Orient that it left an impression.
Tell us a little about your published book.
My book, The Day the Madman Knew, is a story of a contemporary West African neighbourhood and the characters that make it up and how they interact. Ultimately, it is about how we all have different faces in coping with what can be harsh African realities. It is pointed, funny, realistic and above all timely. It is currently on Amazon Kindle Store and will be in bookstores in February.
If you were to dine with three writers dead or alive, who would they be and why?
Chinua Achebe so that I can ask if he knew the institution his book would become when he wrote it. Maya Angelou so I can hear her speak in her fluid prose and that reassuring baritone. Shakespeare, so we can put paid to the claims that it was a pseudonym for an institution rather than a person.
Most unforgettable character from a book?
That’s a tough one, but I would have to settle on two, Kane Rovnoski in Jeffrey Archer’s Kane & Abel, he was brought to life with such powerful swagger by Peter Strauss in a made-for-tv movie.
Archer’s is also the first book I read that made me want to create my own world by the pen. Honourable mention goes to Odewale in Ola Rotimi’s The Gods are not to Blame, such a tragic and human character.
What’s the most important writing lesson you have learnt in your years of writing?
Nothing is rubbish at the inception stage, put everything down and you can come back to it and edit the unwanted. So many gems have been thrown out in scrap paper and rumpled paper.
Do you think book festivals, literary prizes and writing workshops are important?
Yes and no. Festivals are important especially for African writers, not only because it provides a heightened avenue for writers to show their wares and coalesce, but it is also a great marketing tool, and African writers who often aspire to artistic nobility and purity need all the help we can get to become commercial. Is there an African John Grisham yet? My point exactly.
No, because if you write only for acclaim and endorsement, you will most likely get disappointed and not share a story which could very well be outstanding without the acclaim. We write for the readers and ourselves, or at least we should. Workshops, they can be helpful, I have never attended one, as I find there is no one way to write.
Among your contemporaries, who do you consider the most exciting newcomer in the writing world and why?
I am very excited about Tope Folarin’s debut novel; Tope is the 2013 Caine Prize winner. I am also very excited about Ayòbámi Adébáyò; she has a purity to her writing which is entirely African, no embellishments.
What are you currently writing?
I am working on an article titled Dreams from my Father; an expose on the failure of the Nigerian state in keeping its promise to this generation.
If you were sent off to Robben Island for a year, which three books would you take with you?
Wole Soyinka’s The Trials of Brother Jero because it's hilarious! Shakespeare’s King Lear and Richard Dowden’s Africa Altered State, Ordinary Miracles, which is a soaring tribute to Africa.
BY THE BOOK is a literary series that covers authors, bloggers, actors, academics and poets of note in the African continent. For comments or inquiries, e-mail: [email protected]