This week, Johanna McCalmont talks to Nigerian writer and publisher Ayò Oyeku about his latest book, the publishing scene in Nigeria and importance of language in African writing...
Johanna McCalmont: Would you like to start by telling us about yourself?
Ayò Oyeku: I prefer to be referred to as a contributing writer. Prose, poetry and screenplay are my forms of contribution to the creative chaos. Born in Ibadan – the city with rusty roofs, home to the modern African writers like Chinua Achebe, J. P. Clark and Wole Soyinka. This sleepy city woke me out from slumber with the snores of legends and pace-setters. I started reading early but began writing as a teenager. I signed my first publishing contract at 17. The journey has brought me seven children’s book, a young-adult novel, notable shortlists, worthy literary awards, guest appearances at literary festivals, a creative publishing house, and above all – a reason to contribute to matter.
JM: Did you always want to be a writer? How did you start writing?
AO: The four walls of the school library made me. Each morning I would dress up for school, skip the morning assembly, hide my body between shelves in the library, and bury my face in books. Reading offered me knowledge and freedom. Reading woke up my potential. I wanted to be an Engineer. I love inventions and I adore Einstein. But I guess I read too many books in secondary school, so much I felt I could tip the edge of the universe with my thoughts. That’s how I started writing and knew I would build a career around it. I was thirteen when I made this decision.
JM: What are your sources of inspiration? Do you have a writing process?
OA: The universe is a borderless expanse of inspiration. I take early morning walks and observe people, places and things. Each modicum of observation is added to the information I gather through reading and learning. All these serve as the catalyst for my story ideas today. Childhood brought me Enid Blyton, Carolyn Keene, Kola Onadipe, Cyprian Ekwensi and so many authors of children’s book across Africa, North America and Europe. These books made my imagination fertile, helped me to understand my identity, build my morals and made my childhood a fantastic one. Today, I read books on science, quantum physics, lots of African fiction, non-fiction, poetry, biographies, history, management, philosophy and others. These books connect with my career, outlook on life, and a firm understanding on how the world works. I write in drafts and pieces. When the ideas are fully formed, I sit down and complete the manuscript. I write every day, at intervals, without setting targets or word limits. It is a habit not duty.
JM: Can you tell us more about your latest book The Legend of Ataoja?
OA: My seventh children’s book is a testament to root, culture and power. This epic-fantasy tells the story of how Oriade – a rightful heir to the royal stool of Osogbo Kingdom – fled from the kingdom with his mother and acolytes in a wooden cart, after his step-father forcefully claimed the throne with magical powers. The death of his mother spurred him on a mysterious journey through time and places, as he sought to acquire the powers with which he could reclaim the throne and liberate his people. This captivating book with charming illustrations is suitable for early chapter readers.
JM: Could you say a few words about publishing in Nigeria?
AO: The last two decades has brought a lot of growth and development in the Nigerian publishing space. Publishers have been able to identify, introduce and project some of the amazing writers in the world of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, children’s literature, and most recently – graphic books. A few of the big publishers have been able to push sales to the West, and score multilingual editions of some of their titles. Nigeria is the most populous black nation with over 200 native languages. English is our bridge language, hence most books are published in this language, with a sprinkle of native words, banters, slurs and phrases. Leading publishers are also making efforts to translate some of their books to popular native languages. This is still at the inception, as the reception is not huge yet. This is the same for children’s books but more prevalent are picture books and early chapter books. In the coming years, writers of children’s literature would have to put in more effort in children series, middle grade, young adult, children’s novel and children’s poetry.
JM: How important is language when it comes to publishing in Nigeria? In general and more specifically for children’s and young adult books?
AO: Moinmoin is not bean pudding. Akara is not bean cake. Language is the native currency. How can we best understand people if we don’t understand their language? Leading writers, editors and publishing houses in Nigeria today are making continuous effort with their literary contributions, to ensure that our languages are well understood, properly expressed and considered. In the world of children’s fiction, good considerations are made with African symbolisms, name, places, food and identity. It helps the Nigerian/African reader to see themselves in the books they read, and in turn express themselves fully, without shying away from their root and culture. Language remains pivotal to our development as humans – it crumbles the Western boundaries. African children’s literature is just another wonder that encourages the reader (in whatever continent or space) to enjoy that which is native, amazing and engrossing.
JM: Are there any major challenges or new developments for publishers in Nigeria? Or Africa more widely?
AO: Acceptance. The need for readers within Nigeria/Africa to accept, adopt and support books published on the continent, seems to be a continuing battle. Different innovative platforms for audio, print and e-book publishing and distribution are springing up. These efforts are significant, yet it has not translated to massive sales, multiple print-runs or huge readership. The cost of producing and distributing books up the price, and makes book purchase a third or no option for potential buyers. Books are not affordable for the middle-class and low-earners in Nigeria. If this can be solved, along with more book tours and promotions, I believe we will reach the tipping point and get the much needed acceptance.
JM: How did you come to set up your own publishing house?
AO: Eleventh House started as a literary experiment. I wanted to build a bridge between obscurity and limelight. Numerous writers often go unnoticed because they write unpopular genres, or perhaps, the environment could have stifled their creativity. With a keen eye for talents and possibilities, I registered the company in 2018, to collaborate with these unknown gifted minds, to create something unconventional. A year passed before I began to see streaks of sunlight through my window. Today we have published titles related to crime fiction, history, affirmation, business and others. With time, we believe these unpopular authors/genres will make it into the limelight and achieve commercial success too. More titles are coming this year, and I believe our contributions won’t go unnoticed.
JM: What are you looking for as a publisher yourself? How would you like to expand?
AO: Rebels. I want to read something unconventional. I want to work with writers who have something new to say. Eleventh House currently offers self-publishing services, in the near future I look forward to offering traditional publishing contracts to our authors, and also assist them in getting multiple translations for their books. Eleventh House is seeking to collaborate with publishing houses and distribution platforms beyond borders. This motive is not just to expand but to educate millions of minds across the globe on how to see and understand the world differently.
Want to hear Ayò read one of his books? Then check out this video from the Akada Children’s Book Festival.