Nigerian writer and author, Iwu Jeff discuss writing and the role of a writer to the nation with ACEworld editor, Amaobi Uche while giving insight into his about to be released book, Verdict of the gods.
To me, names are a lot more than our identity, what does your name mean to you?
Well, in our African society, we attach significance to names. Names mean different things to different people, this is because our experiences differ— I mean the experience(s) that brought about the names we bear. To some people, the name serves as memories— memories of happiness or sadness. To some, it is just a means of identification. Also to some, it is a reflection of their personality or reputation.
My name is Iwuchukwu Jephta (Iwu Jeff). Mama and Papa call me, 'Chukwuebuka', meaning 'God is great'. I may not know what circumstances surround the name given to me, but to me, my name is my identity. My name is a reflection of whom I am and what I am. It is also a reflection of what I do and what I will be doing.
Your play, verdict of the Gods. Pretty promising book. How did it come about?
'Verdict of the Gods' came through inspiration. The inspiration came in 2012. I was a first-year student in the Federal College of Education, Kontagora, Niger state. I would always say this, Mama inspired me to write this play. One morning, Mama had engaged me in a conversation and told me stories about some of the things believed to have happened in our community. I am Igbo but I grew up in the North.
The stories Mama told me made me thoughtful about the past, the present and what the future would look like. I also related her stories to our general Nigerian society. I told her I must put this into writing, she watched me bring out a note and jot down some things. That was how the journey into the play started. I started reading about African cosmology—African traditional belief, our style of leadership and social interaction. I made the draft of the play, kept it and planned a journey to my community in the east. I needed to get some things right.
I needed to ask questions. I needed to know my settings. The journey I embarked on in December 2012 helped a lot. Some of the places I visited, I went with my pen and paper. And some of the places too, I was just an observer. The stories I heard, my observations and thoughts all morphed to 'Verdict of the Gods'.
What are the strategies put in place to make this play stand out among its kinds?
A creative writer is expected to be a creative reader. As a student of English, I read many books, talk plays, fictions, non-fiction, poems. I did a lot of analysis on style, characters, motifs and theories. Writing 'Verdict of the Gods' made me more creative in reading. I would pick up a book and most times my concentration would be not on the storyline but on the style adopted by the writer. I would reason how the writer is able to connect with the emotions of the reader just using words.
Having studied these things, I kept on working and trying to the best of my ability to bring all of the things I have learned into my play. There were times a thought would come into mind and I would abandon the things I was doing and just go on creating and recreating the things written in the play. I would sometimes sit in solitary, talking to myself, acting the actions as if I were one of the characters. I would put myself in the shoes of my characters and reason at the reactions, the dialogues, the smiles, the frowns, the sighs etc. I needed something unique. Something different from the norm— different from what is known to be usual. I needed to break boundaries of what we read constantly.
There are many stories about African societies. Stories about our belief system. So, while reading I read with focus and wrote with focus. At several times, I cancelled the things I wrote and started all over. I needed to show our realities to us, to reflect our image as in a mirror.
Your hard work really did come through. What does the play seek to achieve?
'Verdict of the Gods' is a play that takes us back to our roots as Africans— the traditional belief in the gods' phenomenon— an act of talking with gods which is not disconnected from our way of socialisation, stemming back to time immemorial. In this play, man recants his steps from the creator— the gods, and the outcome becomes calamitous; a prize for straying or taking his feet off the paths of the 'gods'. Bringing it home, the play is simply a compendium of the Nigerian society in doom.
A society in hunger and thirst for change. A society in dire need of a saviour (who would pay the price) to restore her to her lost glory. From the play, it is depicted that the unpleasant things and shadows of death we see in our society are brought upon us by the vicious attitude of our leaders who see evil and relax in it— issues of greed, corruption, killings etc. These things anger the 'gods' and we suffer for it— a case of a clash between two elephants— the grasses feel the pains. We need salvation for things to be normal again. So, 'Verdict of the Gods', calls for a communal effort or attempt to face our challenges and address them holistically.
Does this mean that you believe solely in how things were handled prior to contemporary times?
Talking about how things were handled before contemporary times, Africans are good people from the very beginning. They had values and morals which when followed can make our societies better and habitable. Some of us have allowed ourselves to be psychologically conditioned into believing that all about our dear Africa or 'Africanness' is bad.
No. This is not always true and this is why literature serves as a powerful tool which negates all false beliefs and stories propagated in the society. Just as we have areas that should be disapproved, we also have many areas that should be applauded. So, I believe in the good ways things were handled prior to contemporary times.
Now beyond Africa, say after we have addressed our challenges here, do you think that these methods can be presented to the rest of the world? Or do these proposed methods apply majorly to whatever we face in Africa?
Ans: There are no people without challenges, Africans or not Africans. We have to face our own internal problems before extending helping hands to others. The truth is, many problems inundate us here— political and social problems. Let me say, sensitive and serious issues that need urgent attention. When our house is on fire, we think of strategies to use in quenching it and how to keep the house safe; how to avoid further disaster. Not neglecting it.
If we must proffer solution(s) to the problems of others by that I mean the rest of the world, we must make sure that our walls are well secured. We must make sure that our roofs are no longer leaking. The nature of challenges may differ and what works here may not work elsewhere. We should not start what we cannot finish.
Now how do you view art in general, do you consider it paraphernalia for change?
Art is and always will be paraphernalia for change. This is because art (literature) is potent. It is therapeutic. It explores, evaluates, validates and even clarifies the ways of life of a people. Like I said before, many problems inundate us— political and social problems. Like Ezekiel Mphalele said in his book, ' The African Image', the artist is the sensitive point of his community.
As a sensitive member of society, the artist is expected to show a sense of responsibility. How? It is the duty of the artist to use art as a tool of sensitisation to the people. It is the duty of the artist to use art to consciously ask for a change in the issues of society. Art should be used to make uncomfortable the people who perpetrate the noxious tendencies that ruin our political entity. The primary function of art is to serve humanity; I call this change.
And how do we achieve this? Who should be the front runners?
Credit should be accorded to our African writers, especially our literary parents, who for long started fighting and are still fighting for this cause. The literary artists have always been the front runners, this is why at most times the political leaders often react when writings cause discomfort to them. We have seen cases where writers are detained or exiled for speaking against the ills of society.
Writers are still at the forefront and should not be tired of this until change comes. Society needs to support literary artists as they cannot undertake the task of social engineering or regeneration alone. As writers, we can achieve a lot by writing, that is, educating and sensitising the people. The change would come. The society can also achieve a lot by reading; reading exposes people to their ignorance. Reading gives strength to people and stirs them up to the point where they speak for themselves.
The society should adhere to the sermons of our writers too. Writers are visionaries and should continue to be by showing commitment to their art. Without works of art, society remains in the dark.
How was it for you writing a play for the first time? How challenging was it for you?
Playwriting is very technical but I really enjoyed the writing process. It was not easy. It took me off some of my normal activities and mind you I was a student during the writing process: from my NCE school days at the Federal College of Education to the period of my university bachelor's degree. A time came I had to take a break after the first, second and third drafts. I left the play and went into the writing of my first novel which was later published as eBook before the play. But that has its blessings too.
Having spent so much time and having gathered all those experiences, what career tips would you offer up and coming writers?
Well, I am still an upcoming writer too. (Smiles) But as is general knowledge, hard work pays. Young writers must really work hard. When one tries a thing and it does not work at first, keep trying and keep building yourself. Success only comes to the prepared mind and prepared hands too. Stay positive and have a vision in everything you do. Know that everything has its time and season, so, where you are not today, tomorrow you might be there.
Thank you very much for speaking with us Iwu Jeff, we hope to read more of you.
The pleasure is mine.
Iwu Jeff's 'Verdict of the gods', published by Trans-conventional publishers is set to be out in July.