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Nigeria news: Interview with Osondu, 2009 Caine prize winner

In this 2007 interview conducted by Molara Wood of the BBC, E.C. Osondu,  winners of the 2009 Caine Prize fo African writing, laments that ‘Africa has not produced a major master of the short fiction form’

You co-edited an anthology on the late Ken Saro-Wiwa. How do you balance editing projects with your creative writing?

The Ken Saro-Wiwa book was done a long time ago. I’m hoping to find an outlet for yet another anthology of Nigerian writing from writers based abroad. The good thing about anthologies is that they enable you to feed a multitude instead of an individual. Balancing, well when I was in Advertising back in Nigeria I hardly had time but here in Syracuse aside from a few hours of teaching duties I spend almost all my time writing.

Where do you draw your inspiration? Any influences?

I have no influences to declare at this time. On inspiration, I think for me this comes from reading, as I find myself twisting other people’s stories, giving them my own endings and wondering what I would do with the same material. Sadly, Africa has not produced a major master of the short fiction form.

You are now based in the United States. Have your thematic concerns changed, considering you are now writing from the Diaspora?

Milton conceived Paradise Lost as an epic that attempts to “explain the ways of God to man.” I think the African writer in the West has this burden of explaining our ways, as it were. Of course not forgetting Achebe’s statement about the black man not living in one long night of savagery from which he was woken by the white man’s benevolence etc. I think the credo by which one is expected to write or perhaps the hound that breathes down one’s neck keeps howling – explain! explain! explain!

There is this belief in Nigeria that the West is a more conducive environment for a writer. Has this been your experience?

Is this not an assumption akin to the grass being greener on the other side? But then again one should be honest and admit that there is actually no grass back in Nigeria. I mean let’s face it; no Agents, Publishers, the whole thing about a publishing industry, the structures that a writer needs to do his work is, as we speak, non existent. So yes, one can admit that some other place – in fact anywhere else – may be better for the writer than Nigeria. South Africa has journals, I mean literary journals, major publishing houses, literary prizes; and India too, so the West may not have it all. It is just that Nigeria has nothing at all.

You are one of three Nigerians short-listed for this year’s Caine Prize.

I’m glad to be in such great company. Amy Hempel, a wonderful teacher and writer, had mentioned Ada Udechukwu to me and actually drew my attention to her short-listed story. I have read Uwem Akpan and heard a couple of anecdotes over at The New Yorker. So again, glad to be counted among the elect, so to speak.

Your short-listed story is Jimmy Carter’s Eyes (published online in the literary journal, AGNI). It’s an unusual story to find on award listings, which is a remarkable feat in itself.

Blindness, or the subject of blindness in fiction, has always fascinated me. From Jose Saramago’s novel of that title to Raymond Carver’s awesome short story, ‘Cathedral’. By the way, Carver used to teach here at Syracuse University and his ghost still roams the Hall of Languages. I also happen to have had a neighbour who is blind and I remember chuckling when I was moving into my apartment and there was this sign that said “Blind Person Area”. Still on this neighbour, he was anything but your typical blind man, if any such exists. The first time we met he told me a joke that was, to put it mildly, risqué – where did the 85-year-old man who just got married spend his honeymoon? At Viagra Falls! The story itself – ‘Jimmy Carter’s Eyes’ – is an attempt at allegory, which is all I can say about it.

What next for you, writing-wise?

I have a short story collection that my hardworking Agent Jin Auh of The Wylie Agency is trying to place. I guess the respectable thing to say is that one is working on a novel, so I will go ahead and say it; I’m working on a novel.