Jerry Chiemeke is a lawyer, writer, editor and critic who lives in Lagos, Nigeria.
His articles have been published in the Kalahari Review, Brittle Paper, Viva Naija, Pulse Nigeria and True Nollywood Stories.
A lover of finger foods, he runs a column on Bellanaija where he critiques African literature on behalf of Okadabooks and he also reviews books for Nigerian literary blog Bagus Mutendi.
The winner of the 2017 Ken Saro Wiwa Prize for Book Reviews and Literary Criticism spoke toNation.co.keabout his literary favourites and fantasies.
Which two books do you hold so dear that they can’t possibly be lent out?
I am not always quick to lend out my books, unless I have read them for, like, the eleventh time, or I find the book(s) a tad uninteresting.
I admit that I am a bit of a hoarder, but the two books I won’t give anyone, even if held at gunpoint, are Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s award-winning novel Tram83 and H Rider Haggard’s AllanQuartermain, the latter is stuff for the ages.
Why do you think Nigerians are winning all the literary prizes?
Hahahaha! I don’t think that is the case, I mean, only one Nigerian has won the Etisalat (now 9mobile) Prize for Literature since its inception, and the 2016 edition of the Writivism Short Story Prize was won by Uganda’s Acan Innocent Immaculate.
Sudan’s Bushra Al-Fadil won the 2017 Caine Prize, it was Lidudumalingali in 2016 and Zambia’s Namwali Serpell in 2015.
So, you see, Nigeria does not in any way have any sort of monopoly when it comes to literary prizes.
I agree, though, that Nigerians tend to be frontrunners when it comes to vying for top literary honours. My country’s population means that a significant chunk of the active population is interested in writing, and ultimately translates to intense competition.
Everyone wants to be at the top of their game, and in typical Naija spirit, we are everywhere, killing it, dominating the African literary space.
As a book reviewer, do you think book reviews influence readers’ choices on the continent, why or why not?
It takes a lot of faith to invest money in someone’s creative output, particularly in the face of economic constraints and individual scales of preference, so, people often look forward to “expert opinion” before rescuing a book from a shelf. I know someone who decided to buy Odafe Atogun’s Taduno’s Song simply because it had Marlon James’ blurb on it. Beyond that, a good review motivates readers to get the book, while a bad review stirs curiosity too.
Don’t let anyone tell you that people don’t read, they do. And while aggressive marketing may push sales for a book, book enthusiasts also consider opinions from credible sources. I remember a lady in my book club who changed her mind about purchasing a novel after seeing my review of it.
What are you currently reading?
I only just got my hands on Lesley Nneka Arimah’s short story collection WhatItMeans When A Man Falls From The Sky, so that’s what I’m currently reading.
Her short stories have been treated to rave reviews in the past 24 months, plus, she majors in speculative fiction, so it would be interesting to see what a full-length literary offering would look like, never mind that it’s not exactly a novel.
Your favourite childhood books?
I grew up with English classics, American action thrillers, books from the New World sub-genre and then the African Writers’ Series, so I guess it’s fair to say that I had a lot to choose from. I enjoyed reading most of the books I came across, but since we are narrowing things down to favourites, I would say; H. Rider-Haggard’s KingSolomon’sMines, Cyprian Ekwensi’s An African Night’s Entertainment, Peter Abrahams’ MineBoy and Chinua Achebe’s ArrowofGod. I won’t fail to mention The World in My Pocket, Mallory and Want ToStayAlive? , all written by James Hardley Chase. (I still nurse dreams of Want To StayAlive?” being adapted into a movie, with the trailer voiced by the guys at Arab cable station MBC 2.)
If you were to dine with three writers, dead or alive, who would they be and why?
This is funny, because sometime in 2013, I published a blog post based on a lengthy dream that featured dead famous writers, from William Shakespeare to Christopher Marlowe to Charles Dickens.
If I had known that Kofi Awoonor would join the list of the creative dead one month after that post, I would have included him too. In any case, I would love to dine with; Chinua Achebe (because he made me fall in love with African literature), Ernest Hemingway (because I’m curious to know how his mind worked) and Oscar Wilde (because I loved ThePictureofDorianGray, and his saying “the love of one’s self is a lifelong romance” remains a favourite quote of mine.)
Why do you write?
Whew! I see this question everywhere, from personal interactions to Instagram accounts of book clubs, and I always make it a point of duty to evade it but I’ll make an attempt this time. I write, mainly as a release of sorts, an outpouring, purgation, insert other synonyms here. I write to give flesh to an idea, a train of thought, or a series of “what-ifs”. If I don’t feel it, I don’t bother putting it down.
If you were sent off to Robben Island for a year, which three books would you take with you and why?
Thank goodness this is 2017 and not 1963. While I love solitude, I don’t fancy Robben Island as a top vacation destination.
Well, if I ever get to end up there, I’d want to go with Alex Haley’s Roots (because the confinement story would be relatable), Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings (so I can finally complete reading the book, as it’s very long), and Ngugi Wa Thiongo’s WeepNotChild (because, well, it’s Ngugi.)
Do you think literary prizes are important?
This question is one that will never go away. Some are of the view that it commercialises and “taints” the direction of the creative process, but I like to think that anyone can write for whatever reason(s) they choose to.
There is nothing wrong in seeking validation for one’s brainchild, and no one will shy away from receiving something, well, tangible, to show that their work is being taken seriously.
Literary prizes are not the ultimate, but yes, they are pretty relevant. Those red eyes, scattered tables and rejection mails have to count for something in the end, right?
Prizes do not make you automatically better than the next writer, but someone has to show recognition for what we do, and while the criteria differ, it motivates us to really put the work in.
Do you consider yourself an African writer?
I’ll answer this question from two perspectives. First of all, critiquing a work of art is an art in itself; it takes a thinking man (or woman) to digest literature, appreciate it, and go on to hand in a detailed, informed opinion about a body of work.
Secondly, I used to (and still write) a lot of short fiction and creative non-fiction before delving into this critiquing/reviewing business. My pieces have made it to a few literary magazines of note, so I guess I can confidently say I am an African writer.
BY THE BOOK is a literary series that covers authors, bloggers, actors, academics and poets of note in the African continent. For comments or inquiries, e-mail: [email protected]