Let’s start with the usual; the story goes that you have been writing since you were five. Your father, Gbenga Coker, says that writing and storytelling runs in your family. Let’s read it from you: what’s the story of this narrative gene that runs in your family and what’s the general story to your writing?
Thank you for this question. My father is Gboyega Coker and not Gbenga. I am proud to say that writing runs in my family. I grew up seeing my father writing almost every day stories of cases he saw in the hospital in what he called ‘Hospital Blues’ and narrating some of them to me. While my mother told me some folktales and Christian stories from her school and church work. I then started writing my own stories. My aunty, Mrs Mobolaji Adenubi, is an award winning writer. She is the author of Splendid.
Let us in on your writing background so far? [In addition to whatever else you will write, please don’t forget to tell what genres you write in; books you have written or plan to write and the like.]
I began writing early, I like to think of it as five even though sometimes I think I began earlier. I was five in primary one. I can remember exchanging and reading books even in nursery school. I began reading early, most times way ahead of my class because I had parents who would read to me and aunts who I took strolls with along with mats in the quiet of the night to a secluded area. Lay those mats and tell stories. So for me stories were part of me. I began to write even when I didn’t understand what I was doing, I read books and saw them being authored and thought I could be one. I remember some of those jotters then, I showed them to my parents and told them I was ready for printing. They only told me nicely to be patient. I simply laugh now, when I remember.
Well, I began first by rewriting stories my parents narrated and read to me in my own way, stories I had read and had a better or more preferable ending and storyline and also stories I imagined. I continued writing and improving my skills from corrections done by my parents and Mrs Adenubi. While in secondary school, Chrisland College, Idimu. I developed interest in poetry and wrote over 30 poems. I write prose, fiction and non-fiction. I have written a couple of children stories, over fifteen short stories which I look forward to publishing a few before the end of this year and I am working on two Novels; one is on a serial killer. I have the storyline all plotted out but haven’t been able to do more because of school. I should begin work on it soon. I have written a couple of non-fiction articles, well, not as much as I would have loved to. Sometimes I’m incapacitated because of activities at the moment and the importance weans off with time. At other times I prefer to defer until I’m well armoured for the supposed theme I intend to tackle.
Your latest book, Promise of the Future, focuses on the plight of an orphan, Ajoke Celestina, trying to find her way through life. What inspired the story and what was your experience like when writing the novel?
In as much as I’d like to say Promise of the Future for me was so much in one, I’d refrain from doing so. Rather, I’d say it was a combination of stories I had at one time or the other thought about putting down on paper coming together as one and then making it into the desired story. Before I got into clinical school I had often wondered if HIV patients have to be doomed for life as regards marriage and having children. Way before this, even before tertiary school I had equally wondered if people had to be victims of an unending punishment simply because they were naive. Oh Yes! Ignorance is no excuse but we aren’t all exposed to the same information. Also, I watched a Nollywood movie with the persistence of my mother that I keep her company while she watched. The movie was very porous in that it was obvious the producer hadn’t done so much research. This further ignited my zeal to proceed with Promise of the Future even with my work load then, at school. For me so many people were being misinformed. I met the supposed movie half way but what struck me was the persistence of the man to marry a woman infected with HIV yet it was impossible. No information, no zeal to seek help and lo and behold the movie ended. It arose my thought of people suffering for past mistakes, people infected with HIV indeed living normal lives, coupled with my knowledge in clinical school on how this can actually work. It spans beyond this but I’ll stop at this.
There’s the HIV/AIDS theme to the story too. When you were writing the novel, did you set out to tell a particular story with specific themes or did the message come accidentally of its own spirit as led by the great muse.
I think I have answered most of this in the question above. I set out to write a particular story but so many other things came up along the line and it flowed. In fact it was effortless. Possibly because I had the story in me for so long.
When you write, do you do so for entertainment or do you have didacticism up your sleeves?
I write basically for entertainment. Promise of the Future was with that same purpose, although coupled with a specific goal.
You adapted your book for stage and have staged it notably. What is adaptation for the stage like and what is the experience of seeing your work on stage like?
Staging the play was for that intended goal with Promise of the Future. Its target was for stage play lovers and those who don’t like to read books. If it was purely for entertainment I would have stopped at it just being in a book form. The stage play took more than I expected in terms of funds but it was worth it as people enjoyed it, the turnout was good and the goal was achieved.
You won the 2007 Association of Nigerian Authors /National Examinations Council (ANA/NECO) Teen Prize for Writing in 2007. What was the experience like and how has it generally influenced you and your writing?
Winning the 2007 Association of Nigerian Authors/National Examination Council (ANA/NECO) exposed me into the literary world. I was opportune to meet other writers I never even knew existed, read more books, and it made me see writing beyond my scribbles.
What’s your take on teen writing and literary promotion?
Winning the award as a teen, I decided to promote writing among teens and give some of them the experience as young writers/authors.
You founded Teecoks Literary Initiative, an organization that is focused on organizing literary competitions for secondary school students in Lagos. What’s the story behind Teecoks Literary Initiative and what impact do you think it has caused so far? And what is the bigger picture for the organization?
The idea of the writing competition began sometime in 2012 but the birth of Teecoks Literary Initiative started in June 2013. I was with my father in the family sitting room when I suddenly told him that I would like to organise a writing competition among secondary school students in Lagos State and he told me to go ahead. After I had exhausted my energy and money my father sat me down, planned with me and gave me money. We printed posters, wrote to some secondary schools and I had to visit most of the schools. We had good response from the schools (19) but no major sponsors. Finally the 1st award ceremony took place January 30, 2014. For the 2nd edition we received entries from 54 public schools and 31 private/missionary schools. Still no major sponsors. The plan is to make it national. The initiative is going on course even though there are no major sponsors but I get the joy of my desire with its birth; achieving its goal with its mission and vision to promote reading and writing culture among secondary school students, expose them to the literary world and improve the exposure with technology.
What’s your take on literature and writing in Nigeria?
Nigerians are now aware that writing and literature can make the country great. We’ve produced many award winners even though I doubt most of them wrote with the intent of winning awards. Most lovers of writing write because they love to write and Nigeria is doing fine with this and getting International and National recognition because of this.
It seems that except storytelling, the love for medicine runs in your family, noting that your father is a Doctor. Who else in the family has the medical bug or intends to and how do you balance medical studies with your literary life?
Well, writing and medicine are going just fine in my family (Nuclear and extended). We love to help and we are passionate about being of help either through writing or through medicine. We are also very expressive and some of us prefer to do so through writing.
So, what is the promise of the future for Towunmi Coker?
Keep watch, the foundation for the future has only just begun.