Su’eddie Agema is a former President of the Association of Nigerian Authors, ANA, Benue State Chapter, 2014-2016, and a former board member of the ANA National Teen Authorship Scheme. He is one of three finalists for this year’s edition of the Nigeria Literature Prize for Literature. Prior to the announcement of the winner in October this year, Damiete Braide chats with Agema about his writing, how the NLNG Literature Award can be enhanced to affect Nigerian writers, and the role he played in fostering his love for literature through folktales, among others.
How do you feel about making the shortlist for this year’s edition of the Nigerian Prize for Literature (Poetry) despite nominations from some renowned English teachers, were you intimidated?
It’s nice to be on the list with Saddiq and Romeo, my brothers. We have been through a lot together and have a history. We are like brother soldiers who have gone through so many wars together; so, in the presence of such brothers and sisters, you really can fear nothing. The long list was made up of people I love too. I mean, Iquo Diana-Abasi, and I go way back, and our publishing house (SEVHAGE) even released their fascinating collection! It’s been an incredible season, which I didn’t see coming.
Are you optimistic that you will eventually win the contest and what will you do with the prize money?
I’m grateful to be here now and I’m taking every moment as it comes. Either way, I will continue to work on my craft, pushing the boundaries for younger, established writers by creating more opportunities, like what we are doing now with our initiatives at SEVHAGE Literary and Development Initiative, like the Benue Book and Arts Festival. .
Your work, The memory and the call of the watera collection of poems, can you give us an overview of what it is about?
The collection explores personal and collective memory with a healthy dose of contemporary happenings using water as the dominant metaphor. There is a journey through various themes ranging from love, family, culture, politics and depression to survival, hope and redemption. Considering this is a collection that took a long time to put together, there is a mix of styles and pieces from me from different phases.
What do you think of the NLNG literature prize, which is the oldest literature prize in the country with the highest prize?
Although this is the biggest literature prize in Africa, I think there are other older prizes in Nigeria, such as the ANA prizes, which have been in existence since the 1980s and which I had the honor of receiving in 2014. But to answer your question, the NLNG Nigeria literature award continues to evolve every year. It is a prestigious award that adds value to the Nigerian literary community, especially to those on the nomination list and those who win it.
You have won several literary prizes. Do you write to win prizes?
Prices generally give a good feeling. It’s always nice to have a nomination here or an award there. They let you know that you are doing something right. I learned not to rely on awards or establishment claims to know my worth. Soberingly, each award places a responsibility on me to work harder. All in all, a literary prize is not really the end, but the starting point where more needs to be put in to stay relevant in the hearts, which is the true prize of any writer.
In what areas do you think the NLNG Literature Prize can be improved to reach Nigerian writers?
Some say the contest should have more publicity and money for the nominated authors. Others say there should be increased publicity, touring and that NLNG should distribute books for its named authors. I agree that these are legitimate concerns that need to be addressed. However, it is the prerogative of the NLNG to deploy its funds in any way it deems best to serve its purpose or help the literary community. It is up to us to collaborate with them. Nothing prevents us from contributing to the promotion of the works of nominated authors and winners.
You are a writer and a poet, what are your writings about?
I try to record moments, thoughts and emotions. My poetry often responds to situations, hoping that a message passed on would touch someone somewhere and bring about a change. Do I dare to hope so much?
Do you agree that your early exposure to literature from your parents stimulated your interest in writing?
Certainly, but it took more than that. It took me a while to learn to read, but before that I had siblings – Taver, Gabriel, Sever, Ngodoo, Mlumun and Theodora – who drew comics and made toy men, which they used to tell stories. These affected my early creative experience, especially since they had a way of not completing their stories. I started drawing stick men and telling my stories. I didn’t have an audience, but I was happy to do my thing for me. When I finally started reading, my mother introduced me to the African Writers Series, and I remember reading Only son by John Munonye which was so realistic that I felt like I was in the world of this story. The other books in the series were so beautiful that I knew I wanted to do the same. Also, my father and other relatives told me folk tales and taught me songs from our culture. I could go on and on, but, in summary, these things were the basis of my creativity.
Can you give your readers an insight into your poetic work, Bring home our coffin: stories not to be told, that you wrote in 2012?
The collection was mainly inspired by the deaths of loved ones, in particular my second father, Mr Charles Ayede, and my father, Mr TV Agema. Hyginus Ekwuazi, who wrote the foreword to the book, helped me with part of the title and also inspired the poem, “Tales One Shouldn’t Tell.” The book also contributed to the birth of SEVHAGE editions. It captures words of escape and understanding the pain of my loss, while pointing out some societal ills. Some sections have love angles, while I also managed to sneak in some mischief. All in all, it’s a multi-part book that will speak to readers and inspire many, even those who don’t think they really understand poetry.
In 2014, your second collection of poetry, Home Equals Holes: Tale of an Exilewon the Nigerian Authors Association Poetry Prize, what inspired him?
Home Equals Holes is a collection of approximately fifty-six poems inspired by our experiences in exile. As with my general works, it captures deeply personal and communal experiences. By re-reading certain poems, I realized that I had poured a good part of myself into this work.
Can you tell your readers what your collection of short stories, The bottom of another talethat’s all ?
To borrow from the official book description, it is an assemblage of twenty-six captivating short stories of varying length that capture different aspects of contemporary African life in simple yet beautiful language that would leave a lasting impression on readers. He goes beyond the ordinary to explore supernatural elements, questioning where reality begins and ends. I have enjoyed working on this collection and so far the book has received a warm reception based on the feedback I have received from readers.
What motivated your decision to write and publish a children’s book in 2019, Once upon a time there was a village tale, and what does it imply?
I wanted to create a book that captured the folklore and stories I had learned as a child, especially since those stories are no longer told. Strong sections of our cultures and tales that have helped to anchor several values are being lost. The book centers on a father telling his children folk tales in the village, filled with songs. One of the children falls seriously ill and then an adventure begins to save that child while the father tells her other stories to make sure she stays awake and alive. I had the first completed version of the work in 2015, but I was not satisfied with it and continued to rework. There were a million rewrites, different editors and illustrations. When my wife and I welcomed our daughter, Msen, in 2018, I knew I had to let the book out into the world.
Which is more difficult to write, a collection of poems or a collection of short stories?
They all have unique challenges and are getting harder and harder for me to complete, as I’m much more deliberate in my writing and compiling now. However, the poetry has been kind, giving me most of my writing laurels so far. I now have three collections of verse in the public domain, all of which have been nominated or won major literary awards locally and internationally. So, in sum, poetry has its challenges, but it’s been kind to me.
As managing director of SEVHAGE editions, how did you manage to achieve a balance given the large number of publishers in the country?
Ah, I was not able to break even o. The publishing industry in Nigeria is a crazy place, especially when it comes to literary publishing. It’s largely a labor of love, and when you see what people like Servio from Winepress, Amara from Purple Shelves, Azafi from Paressia and Richard Ali, Kukogho from WRR, etc. are going through, you wonder if they are not crazy. happening in the sector (laughs). It’s common knowledge that you need a second career as a back-up if you’re in the business or you’re a caput! That said, the publishing industry is evolving and things are changing, not because of any government effort, but by brave individuals leading the charge to make sure writers get a better deal, like those that I mentioned earlier, and others. There is a lot going on, and as we have more Nigerians trying to set up literary presses, magazines, etc., especially from abroad, there is hope for more remarkable progress. More than a year ago, Kenechi Uzor launched Iskanchi Presswhile Ukamaka Olisakwe launched Isele Magazine with a stellar list of publishers. There are also people like Adedayo Agarau, Salamatu Sule, Carl Terver and others, who are not primary publishers but create publishing channels or connect people with opportunities. So there’s a lot going on, but it would be great to have more support in the industry with grants or even writers supporting publishers. Only then can we break even.
After winning the NLNG Literature Prize competition, some writers tend to run out of steam. Will this also apply to you when you win the competition?
I don’t think it’s fair to say that the writers are running out of steam. We can perhaps say that they are silent. People preoccupy themselves with other projects or deliberately hide from the public eye for any number of reasons, which is allowed. The unspoken part of your question shows that there are writers like my good friends, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim and Jude Idada, who are still actively writing while remaining in the public eye. As God guides me, no matter how it goes, I hope to continue writing, supporting literature, and doing my best in all ramifications.