Richard Ali: Writing flows inevitably from reading a lot and I have always been a reader, right from primary school. Eventually, you realize that you too can create these very real contexts of words that your favourite writers create. So, you try your hand at it, a paragraph here and there, and sometimes poetry. These are the very first experimentations with craft. Sometime in senior secondary school, I decided to write a novel about a boy called Osita who runs away from home. I managed to fill out five sixty-leaf notebooks! I’m not quite sure what became of the notebooks but I don’t imagine it was a great loss, except for sentimental value, of course. Years later, at the time of the ‘ethno-religious’ crises in Jos, I decided to write a proper novel which became ‘City of Memories’.
Bookshelf: How did ‘City of Memories’ come to life?
Ali: I had this simple idea-what if the crisis we faced in Nigeria, and in my native city, Jos particularly, had started not as enmity and hatred but as a love affair? That was the story of Ummi al-Qasim who becomes the mother of Faruk in the novel. She showed up originally in a short story, a very long short story of about 10,000 words. I wrote it sometime in my second year at Zaria, where I was active in the Creative Writers Club. So when I left Zaria, it was easy to decide to write a novel based on the earlier short story. In the novel, of course, Ummi al-Qasim is already dead and four new characters flounder in the aftermath of her death and its significance.
Bookshelf: The characters, Eunice and Ibrahim are an children of your imagination, so to speak. How do you feel about them?
Ali: Very strongly. Eunice is particularly fascinating. When I was growing up in central Nigeria, we had these larger-than-life female politicians and public figures. I remember particularly the late Ngo Hannatu Chollom. There was also the late Catherine Hoomkwap. In the fields of politics, public service and non-governmental activism, these women had unparalleled influence and power in my imagination. So, they fed the archetypes of Eunice Pam. Perhaps the most public example of that sort of effective female politician would be Mrs. Pauline Tallen? I admire them all and from there, devised Eunice Pam. On the other hand, Ibrahim Dibarama is Eunice’s foil. I wanted to create someone who would be just like her but not make the fatal mistake she made-which is to equate entire people for the wrongs of individuals. So, I feel strongly about them. But beyond these two are their children, Faruk and Rahila, whose love forms the central conflict of the book and whose insistence on love points, to my mind, to a way forward.
Bookshelf: Where do you draw inspiration from and what is creativity to you?
Ali: From life, of course. The view of the street as I walk or through a car or office window, the news in the dailies, happenings in far-off places or to other people recounted in bars over a beer or two. I write fiction and some people have wondered, where do you get these ‘people’ from? The truth is that a fiction writer watches the world with a mind, and a special genetic ability perhaps, of ‘stealing’ from other people what is story-worthy. And this forms the core of the material, the inspiration for the writing. It really is life, with conflict and a few other tricks thrown in.
Creativity, for me, is essential to life itself. It is also an indicator to settled-ness in a sense-we create art, whether it is the Fulani woman decorating her calabashes in Gembu, or the village poet in Nsukka coining witticisms and beauty or the novelist writing his book, because we are able to find a place in order and calm within a mad, mad world. So long as we can still create, it’s not so bad for man on earth yet. But imagine the day when the level of chaos is so great that there can be no poems, no songs, no writing anymore. Imagine that.
Bookshelf: What are those challenges you have faced as a Nigerian author and how have you been able to overcome them?
Ali: The usual ones; electricity and rubbish internet access. The more unusual challenge would be the true weight, the inexorable burden of being a Nigerian in a country where there is so much pressure on the individual because so much, so many systems, do not work. It’s the combined pressure of senseless bureaucracies and corrupt officials from immigration to police to PHCN who want bribes for services they still will not provide. It’s the transport system that is unpredictable, the city of Abuja where you are toast if you’re caught in rain or sun. It’s never being sure how much of the petrol you paid for was actually put in your car and if what was put in will not cause engine trouble. It’s mechanics you can’t trust, neither their competence nor their words. All these things build up and the quiet necessary for literary creation becomes hard to find. Yet, the artist must create. This is the fundamental tension. All these add up, these are the challenges.
Bookshelf: What do you think contributed to your success as an author and what makes your writing unique in your own eyes?
Ali: My brilliance, my genius and my somewhat colourful personality perhaps? (Laughs). Seriously, it is impossible to assess ones success and even more so to put a finger to the why of it. Success is relative, and when we ask, “compared to who or what”, that’s often the recipe for misery. I like to think I am a man of actions, and that I have done stuff and that’s all. I try to come to situations with the best of my ability and talent and experience so that, subjective as these are, I can discharge myself after acting by not having a single doubt that I did the very best I could. The things often considered successes are merely things I did, in a line, hopefully long, of many more things I will do. It would be nice to give some bother to historians down the line but it really does not matter.
On my writing, I try to bring sensibility and a certain sensitivity to it. So, it really is unveiling yourself to the world knowing there are some, a few, who will read carefully and understand you. With these, one shares a dangerous confidence.
Bookshelf: Can you describe the feeling you get after you finish writing a book, to the point that is it published, being sold in bookstores and readers enjoy your work?
Ali: In the early days, there was with the feeling of elation a feeling of something akin to fear. You wonder, “Are people going to return the book and demand their money back?” for example. No one has done that yet, and it’s been four years since ‘City of Memories’ came, but that was my fear then.
It’s quite impossible to say when a book is finished. If you mean the first draft, yes, that must feel like giving birth, the sense of something potential in its ‘shapeshiftingness’ having been created. But several rounds of editing follows right up to the minute it goes to press. The minute you hold the first copy of your book in your hands is a spiritual moment though. I know no other word. There’s also the gratitude to the many people involved in getting the book out-in my case creatives like Abdulkareem Baba Aminu who gave me my first cover design, my partner at Parresia, Azafi, the writers Jude Dibia and Uche Peter Umez as well as the early critics from Dr. Passy Amaraegbu to social media friends.