(Dul Johnson is a multiple award winning film maker, writer, theatre practitioner and academic scholar… He published two books, Deeper into the Night and Melancholia (both with SEVHAGE, 2014… Melancholia was shortlisted for the Association of Nigerian Authors’ 2014 National Prize for Drama. As part of the SEVHAGE Conversation series, he had a talk with Su’eddie Vershima Agema on his writing, awards, reading and his general passions. You can find Su’eddie’s personal notes on him by clicking HERE or read his wikipedia info HERE. Meanwhile, the conversation flows…)
Congratulations on your twin publication of Deeper into the Night and Melancholia. It’s been some time since your last publication, Why women wouldn’t make it to heaven (a collection of short stories), which was published years after your first Shadows and Ashes. What informs the long time passage between your publications and what has been happening with you since the publication of Why women wouldn’t make it to heaven?
Thank you. You are right; it has taken more than ten years for me to publish something since Why Women. But I think that I’ve more than made up for it by coming out with two books, a full length novel and a play. In fact, the novel has been long awaited by those who knew when I started work on it. And I have also expressed the hope that the long wait was worth it. It took this long for two reasons. The cheapest reason would be the lack of time to concentrate on the work, but it was also the case indeed. But the real reason was my realization that good literature demands not just time, but the life of the writer; your heart, your attention, your energy, your love. Sometimes it demands your tears. Once you come to this realization you cannot rush it. This is not to claim that I’ve given this work the much it deserves, but I’ve done my best in the circumstance. As I read or hear readers’ responses I always wish I could undo history.
A second congratulation on the shortlist of the play, Melancholia, in the 2014 Association of Nigerian Authors Literary Prizes under the drama category. Let’s start with talking prizes. What is the feeling like being on the shortlist and what are your general expectations?
It’s good to be on the shortlist. It’s a recognition. So it feels good. But making the shortlist is not the winning. They are two different things. So I don’t have any expectations at all. And I’m being honest about it. My play is one of five on the shortlist. I may not even be number two or three. One does not write to win prizes; I’m not sure that writers, serious writers think of prizes when they set to work. But then, prizes are a recognition, and so, when they come, one should be happy and grateful. I think it is the same with being on the shortlist. I’m happy and grateful. But I won’t lose sleep if I don’t win.
What are your perceptions of literary prizes in general and what is your take on literary prizes in Nigeria in particular?
I have heard a lot of comments about literary prizes, most of them negative. But I don’t believe those, even though I don’t know the processes. Of course, I’ve been involved in judging literary works before and I know how rigorous it can be, and sometimes how difficult to make a decision. Especially when the judges are many. In spite of guidelines, people respond to works of art differently, and sometimes coming to a consensus is difficult. I sent my novel for the fiction prize as well, but it didn’t even get a mention. That does not mean that my novel is not good. What the judges were looking for, which they didn’t find in mine, they must have found in those that made the shortlist. I think that we should all have a positive attitude to literary prizes. They encourage production and excellence.
What inspired Deeper into the night? Considering that for many writers, the destination imagined is not always the destination reached, what did you have in mind when you set to write Deeper into the night and did you realize it in the end?
Professor Hyginus Ekwuazi’s review of the novel gave me a smile. What it tells me is that a critical reader can find the writer’s destination. If not wholly, at least to a large extent. The word inspiration would be too nice here. I wish to talk about the compulsion, in the sense of the push, rather than an inspiration. I wanted to; I needed to comment on power; how it is acquired and abused. But in particular, I was worried about how we make and raise devils in the name of heroes in times of threats to our corporate existence. This happened a lot during the crises in Plateau State and other parts of Nigeria. I see it as a dangerous trend, and thought I should open our eyes to it before it is too, too late. True, for many, my novel is too late in coming. But the unknown future is far larger and more important than the past. Deeper into the Night calls upon us to learn lessons from the past. As to whether or not I was able to realize my goal; to get the reader to that destination, is left for the readers and the critics. But I do sincerely hope that I have been able to get them there.
Leadership, settler issues and a dose of Tarok culture seem to be at the heart of Deeper into the night. It also seems that you have examined them from different perspectives. There are indications that if you had followed the path of the settler/indigene crisis, the book might have found its way to being a classic. What informed your leaving that path to concentrate on leadership and internal communal crisis as evidenced in Mamzhi taking centre stage? Do you think perhaps that there are other ways the novel might have gone to make it more captivating?
Let me begin by answering the last question. There are always many different ways to skin a cat. The plot/storyline in the hands of a different writer with a different ideology would certainly have produced a different outcome; perhaps a masterpiece. But as you indicated in your previous question, a writer focuses his mind on something he wants to share with the reader; a destination he wants to take all to. This dictates the choice of how the material would be handled. The way the writer handles his material reveals to us his mind. Indeed it is the hardest part of writing; making those decisions consciously. It determines your diction and your choice of words. It determines the tone of your work. It determines your characterization. It determines many things. Let me return now to the main question. I’m not sure that I’m capable of writing a classic even if I had toed the line you suggest. But then, I was circumscribed by my thematic preoccupation—acquisition and abuse of power—which actually has wider implications for my personal ideology. In my serious fiction and film, I’m always looking for balances: of ideologies, faith/beliefs, power, points of view, etc. I do not easily award victory to any side. I want to live in a world in which we can always understand one another. I like to build bridges. The settler/indigene crisis is important to the story and it is palpable in the story. But it is not as important a take home message as the theme of power acquisition and abuse. This is partly what Mamzhi epitomizes.
One thing I need to mention here. In Deeper, I tried very hard to do a multilayered story in which every reader will find something and someone to like as well as to dislike, or even hate me about. It’s my way of achieving that balance of forces I talked about earlier. People are born neither saints nor devils. We acquire these attributes as we grow up, depending on the circumstances around us!
Melancholia is a play that mirrors the Nigerian and African political drama—pun intended—through Mumude and his interesting partners and associates. Considering it is a near-realistic portrayal that could have been tragic, what informed your decision to make the play comedy?
A tough question. If I tell you that I know why I turned it into a comedy, I would be lying. The truth, though, is that the Nigerian political drama to me is a comedy. I think it is wise for us to laugh so that we do not cry. Look carefully at Nigerian politics; the bulk of those who get into the offices via “electoral processes”, and what they do when they get there. Isn’t the whole thing a comedy? Now, it is not only the elected person; what about the persons they appoint into important offices? Does it give you any good feeling about our political system? I get the feeling that we are always having one Mumude or another.
As Melancholia progresses particularly after the election results, it begins to look like an absurd play. The life of the President seems unrealistic in its portrayal and even some of his behavior. However, somewhere you make a brilliant twist at the end. What informed your style in the play?
Again, a tough question. I can’t say exactly why I adopted that style. I know that I wanted to play a game with the reader/audience. Politics does make idiots of many people, especially those who, like Mumude, lose elections after having spent stupendously. They tend to live in a dream world like Mumude. Many have actually lost it, as a result and have either taken to the streets or committed suicide. So, I wanted the reader/audience to enjoy the comedy before the twist.
So, generally, what was the writing process like for the two pieces?
You won’t believe this, but Melancholia took a longer time to work on than Deeper into the Night. It took that long because I was looking for that twist you talked about, simple as it appears. There were different versions of the play in which Mumude’s unrealistic life was simply not convincing. So, I dumped, went back to it, dumped, went back, dumped! And then, finally, I screamed “Eureka!” The writing process for both was grueling. But I think it is also because I’m a lazy man. Plus, I put my hands in many things. I’m writing many things at once, and at the same time trying to make many films. There is a novel on my plate right now, the draft of which I completed before I started work on Deeper into the night. Writing comes with pains and joys at once. But with Deeper, there was so much pain. The restrictions I placed on myself came with their own (artistic) restrictions, dictating directions and choices I was not comfortable with. But, there I was, a slave to my own creation. Melancholia’s pain was in one direction, Deeper’s was in many.
What do we hope to get from you in the immediate future or would we have to wait many more years to hear a literary solo from you?
I have learnt that talking about works in progress is a dangerous thing. People begin to expect, and are always asking about the work. You always don’t have reasonable answers. Already I have let out the fact that there is a novel draft on the ground, older even, than Deeper into the Night. I hope to return to it, and I sincerely hope that I can gather the courage to work on it the way I would want to.
As a bonus, what would you generally want to share with readers…?
Writing is a very difficult, even painful task. But our pain pales away when readers begin to talk about our work. That is every writer’s reward. Our pains double if we are not read. Reading is a rewarding experience even for writers. But writers need readers. I want to sincerely thank my numerous readers, and to ask more to join the team.