Yemi Adebiyi is the author of The Pastor’s Prostitute, Escape from the South, Pass on the Baton and Blood Sample. Hopefully, two more titles will be added to his oeuvre before the year runs out. The author, who is a trained biochemist, also has degrees in Journalism (London) and Business Administration (USA). Currently, he doubles as a technical consultant in the imaging industry and Secretary, Association of Nigerian Authors, Lagos Chapter. Before now, he was Kodak Brand Manager of CKC Investment Limited. In this interview with Damiete Braide, he reveals how pirates reaped the fruit of his labour.
Some writers say that they started writing in their mother’s womb, how and when did you develop interest in writing?
Since my primary school days, I developed interest in books. From newspaper reading, I graduated to James Hardly Chase’s novels. Then, at Notre Dame Grammar School, Usi Ekiti, I was the librarian. I became “greedy” with books or novels, The African Writers Series, newsletters, etcetera. Before I knew it, friends and colleagues started commenting on how good I was composing words into sentences and how captivating my letters to the opposite sex were. It was then I knew I would be a writer in the future.
University education and career development did not allow me to think about writing until I met some Nigerians on a KLM flight to Amsterdam several years ago. They were toying with their calculators while the Europeans on the flight were reading magazines and novels. I pointed my observation to my fellow Nigerians, who promptly replied that Nigerian novels were no more interesting. I was able to debunk that statement, but quietly learnt from them about their expectations in storytelling. This chance meeting during a business trip was the last drop of liquid that fired my urge to write. There, I sketched out a story, Welcome Teacher, Goodbye Lover, and I started to nurse the idea of revisiting the story I started when I was a corps member in Kano, and that made me to write Escape from the South.
Today, with jazz music in the background and a hot cup of coffee in my left hand, the process of my self-hypnotism sets in at midnight, and creativity begins. Within the period of sub consciousness, I usually come out of trance momentarily as I did when writing The Pastor’s Prostitute, to insert the fact of my research findings at Oloibiri, Rivers State, or experience of my engagement with an Ibadan prostitute. When I wrote Escape from the South, I infused it with historical dates of air disasters in Nigeria and other political details. During such interludes, another cup of coffee and the instrumentations of Teddy Pentagrass, Asa and Akeem Lasisi’s poetic songs help to continue my writing process.
What were you thinking about when you wrote your first book, Blood Sample?
I wrote my first book, Blood Sample, in 2008. What really motivated me then were the happenings around the seat of power. In Nigeria, we see things like tummy tuck by the late wife of one of the former presidents. In Ghana or Sierra Leone, we see the kind of nose pinging trying to make one’s nose to be like that of the Europeans. We saw that wives of those in the seat of power were involved in frivolous things not worthy of emulation. Then, I said: let me write something about what will reflect what goes on in the society.
What are you trying to pass across in your second book, The Pastor’s Prostitute?
I was travelling some years ago, and I heard a story –something about people in the Niger Delta before the advent of Christianity. They had a lot of power capable of making a man/woman impotent. Then, I heard another one that, during that period, they wanted to make somebody look like Mary the Mother of Christ, because, with the advent of Christianity, they reasoned that could make people follow that religion. It was because Jesus Christ was given birth to by Virgin Mary through the power of the Holy Ghost, and they decided to do the same using voodoo. They had their own called Francisca. The story has some environmental connotation because I travelled to Oloibiri, Rivers State, for three days to research on this story. The story includes the late Saro Wiwa and Adaka Boro; they are all embedded in the narrative.
Taking about Welcome Teacher, Goodbye Lover, what is the relationship between a teacher and his/her students?
The book is a motivational story. It is about a teacher that goes back to his alma mater to teach students but meets decadence. There is students’ apathy for Mathematics and, then, because he belongs to the school, he tries to change their attitude positively. Students, who were recalcitrant before now, change for the better. Also, some teachers who were not doing well, starts doing well. So, a teacher who was not welcomed initially becomes well accepted by the students at the end of the day. The teacher sees the students as his younger ones, and he does his best for them.
What were you trying to achieve when you wrote Pass on the Baton, a sequel to Welcome Teacher, Goodbye Lover?
I wanted to create a kind of fusion in Pass on the Baton whereby a teacher comes in –it can be a farmer or doctor. I only used a school community to send out the message about dedication, commitment and hard work. It shows the dedication of a man towards a community and that what actually happened in the previous book. The man leaves his job in a flourmill to return to the classroom, because he had interest in teaching. Some people may argue if this is possible, but it has to do with if people in the educational sector are well motivated. But, in this case, it is a self-motivating factor because the teacher had interest in his alma mater.
Why did it take you a long time to write a volume of poems?
When I decided to write poetry, I tried to look at my own environment because poetry is self-portrayal. When I started writing poems, I decided to put most of my ideas or experiences. A lot of those things happened during my time as a corps member and all other things I encountered after my service. I tried to let people see the happiness, torture, frustrations of every corps member and, not only these people but other Nigerians as well.
What was your reaction when you found out that one of your works, Pass on the Baton, was pirated?
I have books that had not received a wide reception, but when this work was pirated, I wasn’t happy. Lagos State government selected the book as one of the texts in their curriculum for students in secondary schools to read in 2016. But, in 2015, I went to publish more copies of the book. I equally took a copy to various secondary schools for them to see while the Lagos State government took 6 copies; but, by the time to send the books for the academic session of 2015/2016, the books were already in the market but not by my publisher but from pirates. I sold mine for N350 but pirates sold the pirated copy for N200. I collapsed when I found out that my book was pirated because parents and teachers supported the cheaper one. The work was stolen, and it wasn’t complete like the original one, and I believe that it was poverty that made people to accept pirated copy because of the cost of the book, not minding the quality. From my estimation, more than 500,000 copies were sold by the pirates while I was unable to sell up to 1, 000 copies of the book. That is one of the pains that I went through in the hands of pirates.
I went to Nigerian Copyright Commission, (NCC) in Lagos, and I observed that there was nothing they could do about piracy. Due to corruption, the agency can turn their eyes to the other side and let pirates have a field day. I filed my case with them and, at the end of the day, nothing came out of it. Even the Nigeria Police advised me that I had better forget the idea of getting the pirates, because I would spend more money on the case and I wouldn’t achieve anything meaningful. So, that made me forget the idea of pursuing the case, because I had spent much money on the case and, if I continued with the case, I would spend more money, and nothing tangible would come out of it. I went to a particular school, and found out that more than 400 pupils had copies of the book, while 399 were pirated copies; only a copy that I gave to the school was the original copy.
Why do you think that Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) cannot do much about the issue of piracy in the country?
I don’t think ANA can do anything about piracy, but what should be done is the enabling law on piracy. The law on piracy presently is not stiff on pirates, and pirates still continue on their illegal activities. From my observation, some of the pirates are the booksellers, because they know the recommended books for schools to use. They take a copy of the original to a printer to print more copies for them. Until, there is a law that will hold printers responsible to see the consent of an author to print more copies before they do so, then they will continue to do it.
ANA can only try to sponsor a bill against this practice at the National Assembly; but, if you say individually, nothing can be done, because the pirates are stronger, richer, unlike the writers who are poor, because many writers depend on their works for survival. As I said earlier, I collapsed when my work was pirated, not because of the money involved, but I was optimistic that the book would be bought and it would become a household name. It became a household name but I wasn’t able to recover the money that I used in publishing the book.
Only an enforced law can protect writers from piracy. I was at Oshodi, and saw copies of my work being sold as pirated copies. I went to the nearest police station and was told to write a statement which I did. The Divisional Police Officer (DPO) was asked by the policemen on duty if they should go to the bookshops to arrest the booksellers, but he said no, because the booksellers outnumbered the police officers, and they would be mobbed. Rather, he advised me to go to NCC, and I went, but they also could not do anything about the issue. Likewise, ANA can do nothing about the issue of piracy of books in the country.
Do you agree that writers should not write for winning prizes but because of passion, and have you submitted your works as entries for prizes?
There was a French man, Bethhoven –he wrote the song “Moonlit Sonata”, which nobody can write the same way. There is Akeem Lasisi, who wrote Iremoje, Wonderland, and other stories –nobody can write it like him. As a writer, you must, first of all, have passion in what you are doing in order to excel. You cannot say because an individual has won an award, I must write to also win an award. No two persons can write in the same manner; people have to write using their own styles. If a person decides to write by thinking of an award, such a person is going to fail, because you don’t know what goes into the other person’s work. You don’t know what has being written by other people when they submit their works for prizes.
The only thing that an individual can do it to hone one’s craft, to turn one’s craft into art so that, when you know the techniques of writing, let the muse in your writing come out; then, you can submit your works for awards, and you can win awards. After a writer has written his/her work, they should give it to people to help them edit properly so that it will come out better. If a writer, writes for prizes, that writer is bound to fail, and it will dampen his/her spirit.
When I began writing, I submitted my first book, Blood Sample, for the ANA Prize. It was selected to be among the best three books that year, but it did not win the award. I posed as a school principal, and gave three of the shortlisted books to three people to read them without them knowing that one of the books was mine to choose to determine which of the books was the best. They all chose my book as the best, yet it didn’t win an award from the judges. Sometimes, the best book selected by the judges may not actually be the best. If your work is not appreciated now, it will be appreciated later in future. Writers should write passionately and sensibly.
Is it true that judges in these competitions are partial, and that is why their favourite authors win the awards?
Judges may not be partial, but it is their perspective to choose who wins an award. I believe that year that I submitted Blood Samples for ANA Prize, I should have won the award, because it was better than the other two books. Judges look out for a particular theme and may decide to select a book to win the award. The best thing is for the author to write well and not expect an award but, if he/she wins an award, it is good.
Have you summed up that Nigerian publishers are not ready to publish good books and that is that the reason why you gave your works to foreign publishers?
I gave my books to renowned publishing houses in Nigeria, but they returned my works. I love the job of a writer, and that is why I am writing on a part-time basis. Aside writing, I am a biochemist –a chemical analyst. I do consultation for so some companies but writing is for me is a passion. When I finished my works, I tried it by giving it to a publisher, but they were not ready to publish works of authors who were not well known in the country and outside the country. I had to take my books to foreign publishers, and I had to pay for copies. It is left for the author to market his/her books because publishing houses will not do it for the writer.
As a writer and poet, does the environment have any influence on your writing?
The grain of salt that crystallised the idea of my work, The Pastor’s Prostitute was due to the activities going on in Niger Delta. One of the former managing directors of Chevron Nigeria visited Akure and told writers to write about the environment or people so that the company can use and produce it as a movie. In that book, I wrote about the degradation of Oloibiri in Rivers State, because I went there to make my research. In my other works, I wrote about the ills in the society such as bad roads or the lifestyle of corps members.
Are you of the opinion that Nigerian writers in the Diaspora do better than their compatriots in the country?
Perhaps it is because Nigerian writers in the Diaspora write in the perspective that the international community wants to read, and that is why they are winning awards. Nigerian writers at home may not be able to win international awards, because they are writing from their own perspectives, and not from the perspective of the international community.