ON THE SPOT (ISSUE 7): “Poetry displays an intensity of feeling, emotion”– Professor Akachi Ezeigbo
In this engaging interview, Akachi Ezeigbo, an esteemed writer and a Professor of English, talks about herself, creative works, Nigeria’s publishing industry, reading culture, poetry and other relevant literary-inclined matters.
We are honoured to have you interviewed. You are a lecturer, writer, essayist and administrator. How and when did you become a lecturer?
I was appointed a lecturer in 1981 by the University of Lagos (my alma mater) where I had been a graduate assistant in the English Department for a few years. But before returning to the university, I had taught briefly in the secondary school system after my National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) year.
How fulfilling has it been for you as a lecturer?
I have had a fulfilling career as a lecturer. It’s a profession I have a passion for. I like teaching and I enjoy imparting knowledge to young people and mentoring them.
What would you consider as your high and low points as a lecturer?
I feel elated that I have been able to produce highly qualified human resource for my country, especially in the supervision and training of doctoral candidates. I was able to successfully supervise twelve PhD theses and about one hundred Master’s dissertations at the University of Lagos. The low point has been any time when I feel frustrated about the lack of adequate infrastructure to perform my duty as a lecturer.
You are retired but not tired. How do you keep yourself busy after retiring? Is lecturing worth it in Nigeria?
Retirement does not really mean that one is tired. If you are blessed with good health and are in a position to render service, you can do that in different ways after retirement. It could be voluntary service like working for charity, especially in the Church or even in your community; it could also be remunerated service such as working in an organization or institution. A retiree could also engage in consultancy services or start a business. Many retired people have taken up one form of service or another. As the saying goes, “Professors don’t retire.” They can go on and on giving service or conducting research, years after their retirement, as long as their services are required. In the best tradition, the training of an academic is specialized, thorough and ongoing. Highly qualified professors remain productive and relevant all their days. I am still in service and will give my best until my service is no longer required or I choose to stop. Then I might do other things. And don’t forget I am a writer, and writers don’t retire! (Laugh)
Lecturing is worth it, especially from the point of view of a committed teacher, researcher and mentor like me.
You are a writer and an essayist? Could you elucidate us on the difference?
A writer, especially a creative writer, deals with ‘imagination’ while an essayist, especially one who is in the academic profession, deals with research and the publishing of essays developed from that research. I am talking here as one in the Humanities where essay writing is the height of productivity. You must ‘publish or perish’ as the cliché goes.
What makes a good writer?
A good writer is committed to the profession and has a passion for writing. A good writer has the ability to communicate his/her message to the reader clearly, using language that is appropriate to the context or situation. A good writer hones his/her skills and does not rush to publish a work without proper editing.
How many books have you written?
Answer: I have written more than forty books.
Although authors are not expected to rate books written by them, which do you consider your ‘best’?
You’re right; I am not in the habit of rating my books. But some people have told me that they think my first novel, The Last of the Strong Ones, is my best so far. Well, that’s their opinion.
Are you earning royalties that can sustain you as a retiree in Nigeria?
Some of my publishers pay me royalties, but such royalties cannot sustain me if I were to depend on them solely.
What is the “best return” you have made on any of your books in terms of financial earnings?
In a particular year, I received over two thousand pounds (Sterling) royalty on my children’s novel, The Buried Treasure, published by Heinemann of UK (now by Pearson, UK). I was also a joint winner of the Nigeria Prize for Literature (NLNG Prize) with my children’s novel, My Cousin Sammy, in 2007, and that brought a substantial amount.
Can one live off writing? What is the way forward for book publishing in Nigeria?
I do not think that a writer can live off writing in Nigeria. Most publishers do not pay royalties to authors and even when they pay, they do not pay enough. Moreover books are not properly distributed in the country for books to rake in good sales. Worse still, the reading culture is still not vibrant and many people neither read nor buy books. There are many problems in the publishing industry and this situation affects writers. The e-book culture has not stabilized and many people in Nigeria do not patronize e-books.
Publishers must make an effort to publish good manuscripts that are available and to distribute and market the books they publish diligently. They must be honest with their authors and pay them royalties on an annual basis. Heinemann and now Pearson pay royalties two times a year – on a six-monthly basis. Nigerian publishers ought to emulate this; they should pay royalties to their authors at least once a year. Credit must go to the few publishing companies that do this regularly, like University Press Plc (UPPLC), Ibadan. Self-publishing is not the best practice, but if a writer is unable to find a publisher, no one can blame the writer if he embarks on publishing himself.
Please in one sentence, tell us in sincerity the status of reading culture.
In one sentence? What can I say in one sentence? Many people in Nigeria do not read. Do you know that most students do not read? Parents and teachers do not encourage their children or wards to read for leisure. I am always shocked when I discover that many undergraduates have not read Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and other important books by the time they are admitted in the university. It’s a shame. If they haven’t read Achebe, who else have they read, you wonder? Then when I mention a writer like Ngugi, they look at me as though I am speaking Greek. (Laugh.) Yes, it’s that bad.
What in your opinion could be done by relevant agencies in Education and Culture ministries to re-position these sectors?”
We need proper reorientation. The culture of reading must be encouraged through the building of libraries in the cities, rural communities and, especially in schools, even as it was before the civil war. State governments must operate Mobile Libraries so that books can be taken to schools in remote areas, as it was done in the 1960s, in Eastern Nigeria, for instance. This made students develop a passion for reading in those days. People, especially students, should also be encouraged to buy books for themselves and read.
Where did you stop being a lecturer and became an administrator?
In the university system, every lecturer is a potential administrator, especially when you reach the status of a Senior Lecturer, Associate Professor or Professor. You could be a Head of Department or a Dean of a Faculty or even a Deputy Vice-Chancellor or a Vice-Chancellor. These are just a few of the administrative positions in the system. I was a three-time Head of the English Department at the University of Lagos and was also in Hall Administration, as Hall Mistress for three of the female halls of residence, at various times.
Have you ever served in any Federal Government Committee/Board?
Looking at your numerous books and contributions to the promotion of literacy in Nigeria, do you consider yourself qualified for a national merit award? Or do you have one already?
No, I have not received any national merit award yet. But I have received many awards in the past for my writing, research and other achievements and activities.
You once taught in secondary schools and a Teachers’ College before becoming a lecturer. Which are these schools? Share with us your experience teaching in the mentioned schools.
During my NYSC year I taught in a Government Technical Training College (GTTC) in Makurdi, and after that I was employed by the Federal Ministry of Education and I taught at Federal Government Teachers’ College in Makurdi before moving further north to teach at the Federal Government College, Kaduna. I taught English Language in these schools between August 1974 and December 1977. I was able to travel extensively in the North during this period and interacted with people from these places. It was from Kaduna that I returned to the University of Lagos as a Graduate Assistant in December 1977.
In your opinion how would you rate teaching then and now?
I must say that teachers were highly motivated and more dedicated to duty in those days than now. For instance, we gave continuation classes to students without getting or demanding extra remuneration for it. There was more mentoring in schools then than now, and the classes were smaller then. However teachers’ salaries were paid promptly then and teachers were not owed several months’ salaries, as is the case today. Most people who became teachers then took the job because they loved it; but today some people are teachers because they cannot find other jobs they prefer. So, there was job satisfaction at that time more than now.
What is the difference between teaching and lecturing? If you are not teaching/ lecturing, what would you be doing or love to do?
A teacher is someone whose job is to teach, especially in a school – a primary or secondary school teacher. Ideally they are trained specially in a teacher training college or university for the job. But a lecturer is someone who teaches in a university or college. He or she might not have had any formal training as a professional teacher. However, a teacher and a lecturer do the same thing – they impart knowledge.
There was a time I wanted to be a journalist or a broadcaster. Not anymore, though. If I am not teaching, then I would only want to be a full-time writer.
Cases of male lecturers harassing female students are common in Nigeria. Were you ever harassed by any male student throughout your teaching/lecturing career?
Yes, there have been cases of male lecturers harassing female students, but when the harassment is reported, it is usually investigated by a panel set up by the authorities and appropriate action is taken against the lecturer. However many of the female students are reluctant to report when they are sexually harassed for fear of perceived reprisals they might suffer. But I advise them to always report such cases. It should be noted, however, that sometimes female students harass male lecturers sexually either because they like them or they want to pass the courses taught by the lecturers. I’d rather not discuss the second part of the question; it is unnecessary.
Poets in Nigeria appointed you as Chair of the judging panel for Nigerian Students Poetry Prize 2017. What would you say about the organization’s forays promoting poetry reading, writing and performances in Nigeria?
Excellent. I commend Poets in Nigeria (PIN) highly for what they are doing with poetry. They have changed the face and place of poetry in Nigeria; they have made poetry more accessible and enjoyable for everyone and for the reading public. Because of them, poetry has become truly topical.
What is poetry to you?
Poetry means a lot to me: I live it and write it; I breathe it and I love it. It is a form of literature that can be performed or realized in a written form that has pattern, rhythm and sometimes rhyme. For me, poetry is song as well. Poetry displays an intensity of feeling, emotion.
As a former National Treasurer of Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), how was ANA then and now? Any suggestion for a better ANA?
I was the ANA National Treasurer for two years in the 1990s (I did not go for a second term, as I was to travel to South Africa for a Research Fellowship at the University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg). In those days, ANA was better funded and received grants from some foreign donors resident in Nigeria such as the British Council, Ford Foundation, Henrich Boll Foundation, etc. We had a very good Secretariat in Surulere, Lagos – a whole building and its compound. In fact ANA Lagos Branch and Women Writers of Nigeria (WRITA, National) used it for their meetings and other activities. The major problem ANA has today is funding. New strategies have to be devised to raise funds. Members must realize that they need to pay their annual dues regularly and promptly. The well-endowed members must also be prepared to assist ANA financially. In addition ANA national should reach out to our fellow writers in the Diaspora to encourage them to register as members and also help to raise funds for the association.
You have written several children’s books. How would you want to be described in this regard?
I have written over 28 books for children. I am satisfied to be described as a children’s author.
What inspired you to write books for kids?
My children were growing up when I started to write and I wanted to write the type of books they would enjoy – books with relevant culture content, local colour and written in a good style and appropriate language. Books that were/are different in a way from the children’s books in the bookshops – the Ladybird series, the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, The Secret Seven and Famous Five series – in short, books written for the Western audience and so were not relevant to our culture. I wanted my children and other children to read beyond those series and encounter children characters that behaved and talked like them.
Are your books being used in schools?
Yes, quite a number of them are read in Nigerian schools. Some are studied outside Nigeria, especially The Buried Treasure which is used in schools in Pakistan and The Prize (both published by Heinemann/Pearson, UK).
What do you do presently?
I am presently teaching/lecturing at Federal University Ndufu-Alike, Ikwo, Ebonyi State. I have been there since 2015.
How would you want to be described?
I want to be described as a writer, teacher and an African cultural theorist.
What parting words do you have for the younger generation of writers?
I strongly encourage them to be determined, committed and passionate about their writing and to hone their skills. They need to be patient and not give up even when they receive ‘rejection slips’.