Let’s meet you – who is Reward Nsirim – the man?
It’s difficult to answer this question, because sometimes I wonder if I really know who I am. I’ll try the easy answer: I was born in Port Harcourt many years ago to two school teachers. My dad is now late though. I had my secondary education at Federal Government College Port Harcourt, and then went on to the University of Port
Harcourt where I studied Medicine and Surgery. Note that I said that I studied Medicine, not that I’m a doctor. I believe they are two different things (good place to laugh). I also had post-graduate Public Health training at the University of London’s School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. I have however been a literature aficionado for as long as I can remember, editing a number of publications over the years and performing on stage as a member of two different drama troupes at different times in my life. In addition, the garrulous character in me was also able to start a career as a compere. If I am to define myself therefore, I’ll pick the artist in me. Finally, I am married to my girlfriend of fifteen years and my wife of seven 🙂
Your collection, Fresh Air and other stories was published by Origami in June this year (2013). What was the writing process like and the publishing? How has the reception to the book been since its release?
I began writing these stories in 2006. Initially I was working on a full-length novel, but after a while I thought it might be better to dissect the work and extract some short stories from it. That I subsequently did, and then wrote other unrelated stories along the way. The last of those stories was written last year, meaning that I spent six years to write sixteen stories. You see, because I have been forced to do this medical and public health work all these years, I haven’t had the kind of time I would have loved to have. Writing done, I sent my manuscript to Parresia’s Origami imprint, and after many months of correspondence and terms and agreements, Fresh Air was published. It’s only been out for a couple of months, but I must say that I am excited and encouraged by the feedback I’m getting from around the world thus far.
You’ve had some readings since your book Fresh Air came out. Give us some insight to them, the reception and the general atmosphere. Note that I was there at two in principal capacities, so no adding of curry or I would tell for you… 😉
Yes I’ve had three readings thus far – in Lagos, Abuja and Ibadan. Lagos was my very first reading, so believe me, I was as nervous as one going in for a major surgery. I loved the reception from the audience though, and by the time I was to read in Abuja, I was a lot more prepared. Abuja reading was a lot of fun, partly because it was hosted by my ‘home club’, the Abuja Literary Society, and partly because the place was quite jammed with people. Ibadan reading was the third and God knows I will forever remember that reading because of how intellectually engaging the audience was. I have never met such a bunch of young people who are so widely-read and so able to link literature with history and philosophy. I felt so at home with the guys that even after the reading, up until the next day, I and some of them continued debating books and authors – from Tolstoy to Teju Cole. Those guys left quite an exciting impression on me. A few more readings are being arranged by my publishers to
complete the nationwide tour.
We have discussed this much but what is the motive behind the sorrow that streams across most of the tales in Fresh Air?
Well I didn’t know that sorrow or tragedy was that perceptible in Fresh Air, because I did my best to make it a subtle sub-theme in many of the stories. There is no other motive apart from the fact that sorrow abounds in the contemporary Nigerian and African experience. To tell a Nigerian story – or a series of Nigerian stories – without drawing attention to the pains and sorrows that individuals and our society as a whole experience would be somewhat farcical, wouldn’t you think?
Well, you do have a point. As a follow up to the last question, one discovers that most of your stories are imbued with a twin dose of humour and tragedy. What’s behind this mixture and is your lacing of humour deliberate or accidental?
When I began writing some years ago I discovered it was almost impossible for me to write anything without being witty somewhere down the line. In the early days I tried to fight this style – especially when I believed I was writing something rather important for which I would want people to take me seriously. It wouldn’t work. After a while I gave up fighting and got to accept that my voice is a humorous, quasi-burlesque one.
On a lighter note now, I suspect – and several people too – that some of those stories are near autobiographical or the telling of stories you have been witness to, any confession?
No confession (actually laughing). These stories are purely fictitious, and you know the usual caveat – any resemblance to any persons living or dead is purely coincidental. Now I know the particular story you have in mind, which is ‘Diary of a Troubled Traveler’. If you are asking me if I’m the protagonist in that story, I hereby plead the Nigerian equivalent of the Fifth Amendment (laughs again).
We would let you slide on that. But don’t think you are safe yet o! Now, give us an insight to your writing career so far.
It’s been exciting and challenging. It’s been exciting watching oneself grow as one’s craft is honed after series of creative writing workshops and courses, and of course years and years of acquiring and reading scores of works. It’s challenging since one doesn’t have the time that one would have loved to have to invest into this craft because one has to pay bills through another profession. Nevertheless, I do look forward to a future where writing – and talking – would be both my passion and my profession.
Do you have any writing mentors? Who are your favourite reads? And yup, leisure…
Chika Unigwe has been a wonderful mentor, and I’m so grateful for her belief in my work. Derek Fox was my writing school tutor in England, and Australian writer Moya Pacey taught me a thing or two about the short story while we lived in the same block in London. Eghosa Imasuen, Chimeka Garricks, Dike Chukwumerije and Elnathan John are friends and mentors at the same time. I owe a lot to these guys. As for favourite reads, it would be difficult to reel off any names. My library is eclectic, and inside it you”ll find Dostoevsky, Hemingway, Garcia Marquez, [Salman] Rushdie, [V.S] Naipaul, [Nardine] Gordimer, [Helon] Habila and several authors and schools of style in between.
When I’m not working, reading or writing, I watch sports; particularly football and tennis and rugby. I equally love to watch movies with my wife at the cinema, and also hang out at the park.
On a general note now, there’s a rising increase in short stories with more writers delving into the genre. It would seem that the world is taking it more seriously too with big prizes like the Caine focusing on it solely and now, the Commonwealth prize being zeroed down to this sub-genre. What’s your take on this?
I think it’s good to have these ‘big’ prizes focus on the short story, but at the same time I worry when people start rolling out works in a particular genre because there are prizes to be won. Art should flow naturally. I don’t think incentivization necessarily produces good writing.
What’s your take on Nigerian writers and writings?
I think there has been an explosion in recent years, especially with the international success and recognition that some young Nigerian writers have achieved. The problem however is that many of those delving into writing these days ‘because Chimamanda did it’ aren’t prepared to undergo any training or tutelage. I have met many
self-acclaimed writers who, upon the slightest palpation, confess to not having read some of the most common Nigerian novels. I told the Ibadan audience about this guy I met who claimed to be a poet. I could however not classify what he was blabbing as poetry, and when I inquired if he had read any works by Niyi Osundare or Odia Ofeimun, he replied in the negative. He didn’t even know who they were. There was therefore no need to ask if he had read T.S. Elliot or Edgar Allan Poe.
What do you think we can do to take writing, writers and the literary arts to the next level in this country?
I believe our biggest challenge is being able to create demand for what we write. It is a fact that despite the recent literary boom in Nigeria, there is no corresponding boom in sales of works of literature. There are challenges such as piracy, which is indeed stifling creativity in this country (my book hasn’t been pirated though. If anyone tries it – Wallahi! I will send Sergeant Rogers after that person). However, the greatest challenge with getting people to read or increasing demand for literary works in my opinion, is technology. With 24-hour cable TV, the internet and dozens of social networking sites, never has literature – especially the hard copy book – had so many enemies like in the 21st century. In order to take literary arts to the ‘next level’ according to you, we would have to quit whining and think of creative ways to make these ‘enemies’ of literature work for us. Already, the e-book concept is doing this, as people are now able to download books on their mobile and android devices and read on the go. We need to do more of this with our books in Nigeria. Also, we need to take more advantage of social media to publicize and sell literature. Finally we need to create literary TV game shows that can attract young people and encourage them to read books. I have a number of ideas in this regard and someday I believe that the funds or sponsorship to propel these ideas to the ‘next level’ will locate them. I didn’t hear your amen…
Amen!! I know that you dance well to almost all the genres of literature with a big appetite for general reading. The question is what other genres of literature or writing would we find you singing to?
Interesting question. I have indeed ‘danced’ around all the genres at different times in my life. When I used to perform on stage I had a huge interest in drama and did scribble a few plays, but somehow that interest fizzled out later. Then poetry became a huge obsession for me. In fact, I was working on a poetry collection for which I had already had some correspondence with Egbon Odia Ofeimun, but then somehow, I completely abandoned it and began work on the novel that I abandoned to work on what eventually became Fresh Air (laughing real loud).
Any works in progress? What do we expect from you in the near future?
I have started work on a full-length novel. It took me quite a while to decide what theme to write on, and after that developing a preliminary plot took even longer. But I believe I am ready to delve into it in the months ahead as time permits me. Just pray that I do not abandon it and go back to plays (laughing again).
We say a big Amen to that! Best of luck Reward and do keep on rewarding readers with the great prose you flow. Cheers!
Reward Nsirim is the author of Fresh Air and other short stories. You can read three great stories from the collection, ‘The Testimony’ and ‘Diary of a Troubled Traveller’ (discussed above). There’s also the beginning excerpt of ‘Forensic Investigation’ here. Find Fresh Air and other stories on Amazon here. Follow him on Twitter @rewardsrhetoric. He blogs here.
- THRILLY HUMOURING YOU WITH FRESH AIR by Su’eddie Vershima Agema (sueddie.wordpress.com)
- A First: What to Write Forms the Puzzle (sevhagereviews.wordpress.com)
- A Review of Reward Nsirim’s ‘Fresh Air’ by Oriyomi Adebare (sevhagereviews.wordpress.com)
- Port Harcourt Book Festival 2013, Expected Guests For “Literature and the Creative Economy” (beyoumagazineph.wordpress.com)
- Emerging Amazons Showcase Potentials (abujawritersforum.wordpress.com)
- Africa’s leading book fiesta – The Port-Harcourt Book Festival (tennygee.wordpress.com)
- Parrésia to Release Two New Books at PH Book Festival 2014 (parresiablog.wordpress.com)
- BRING OUR CASKET HOME: Tales one shouldn’t tell- Information and Stores (sevhage.wordpress.com)
- thing you never knew about the ALUU4 victims (ultracutenessblog.wordpress.com)
You can get Fresh Air and other short stories at the following shops across Nigeria:
Lifestyle Store, SILVERBIRD GALLERIA
Silverbird Galleria, Abuja
Cassava Republic Bookstore, (autographed copies)
Arts and Craft Village,
Opposite Abuja Sheraton Hotel and Towers,
Ladi Kwali Way, Abuja
Booksellers, (autographed copies)
City Plaza, Adjacent First Bank,
Ahmadu Bello Way,
Area 11, Garki, Abuja
Flomat Bookstore , Benin
Booksville World, PH
Patabah Bookstore, Surulere, Lagos
LITCAF, Sabo, Yaba, Lagos
Foresythe Books, Awolowo Way, Lagos
The Booksellers,Jericho, Ibadan
Odusote Bookstores, Oke-Bola, Ibadan
Options BookHouse, Olororo, Ibadan
UI Bookshop, UI, Ibadan
UI Bookshop, UCH Branch, Ibadan
WriteHouse Bookshelf, Alalubosa, Ibadan