Chijioke Amu-Nnadi is a journalist-turned-poet. He is the author of three collections of poems: The Fire Within, Pilgrim’s Passage, and Through The Window Of A Sandcastle. In this interview with TONY OKUYEME, he talks about his passion for poetry, his days as a journalist in Daily Times, Port Harcourt Literary Society, book publishing, among other issues
Most people know you today as a poet.
My name is Chijioke Amu-Nnadi, but I prefer not to use my first name with my poetry, for a simple reason. I believe that what we write is bigger than us; what we write is more eternal than we can ever be.
What we write survives us. I believe that in creating these things we assume a certain measure of God, we speak with his voice; extend creation.
Therefore, the only name I felt was compliant to that was my family name, my family survives me. It is the one that my father gave me; it is the one that I am going to give my children. It is the one that my children are going to give their children. So, I write with my family name.
But you started as a journalist. How did you get employed in Daily Times?
I was very lucky because I didn’t have to write an application to get into Daily Times. I made the best result in Mass Communication from the University of Nsukka (UNN). And part of the prizes I got was the Daily Times Prize for the Best Graduating Student in Mass Communication. I was very lucky, very fortunate.
I don’t know if in the history of Daily Times anyone rose as fast as I did. I joined Daily Times in 1987 as a sub editor; by 1988, I was a senior reporter; by 1989, I was a line editor, editing an eight-page pullout every Saturday, called Weekend Pullout. In 1990, I became the Deputy Editor of Poise Magazine; and by 1991, I was appointed Deputy Editor, Times Week International. In 1992 I left. I resigned on September 14, 1992.
Because it became difficult for me to work in Daily Times. I haven’t spoken about it all these years – 25 years after – because it wasn’t something I really wanted to talk about. But it was something that defined my life afterwards because journalism was my life.
I loved my time in Daily Times; I loved spending the nights, sometimes sleeping on the table with newsprints as bed cover, so that we could meet our deadlines and publish. So when I left Daily Times, it was difficult to reconcile myself with the loss of that passion and my dream.
What really happened?
I don’t really know. I do remember that I was in Abuja to write a story on the relocation of the headquarters of Nigeria from Lagos to Abuja, and I was going to talk to then President Ibrahim Babangida.
I had already gotten approvals to speak with Gado Nasco and Mariam Babangida. I was doing a story on the Gwari people who were being relocated; the loss of their ancestral lands, some of them had religious importance.
And I had an uncomfortable encounter with the then Managing Director, Tola Adeniyi. I was being quartered in the Hilton Hotel, Abuja, at the time, and he wanted to know who was paying the bills.
My first instinct, even though he was my managing director, was to tell him, ‘I don’t have to tell you’.
My take was that nobody was bribing me to write the story. I wasn’t collecting brown envelop to write the story.
I thought it was a story Nigerians needed to know about; I also thought that writing on the state of Abuja 100 days after Ibrahim Babangida relocated from Lagos to Abuja was a good story, for no other reason, the social impact of the relocation of the Gwari people, their dislocation at that time – 1992.
So, when that happened, the then managing director, Tola Adeniyi, was quite upset with me. After that, each time he saw me on the corridors of daily Times, he called my full names and say: ‘Brilliant journalist, but you are too ambitions’.
Eventually, one of my friends called me and said to me: ‘I think you are a victim of your own brilliance. You are too good for your own good.’ Not long after, I resigned.
And I began to spend more time at the British Council Library reading books, trying to improve my literature, working on my first novel, Fragment. The experience was good for me too in a sense because it taught me deeper understanding of the philosophy, the dynamics and the mystery of poetry and writing. I became a better writer because of the times I spent at the British Council library reading those books. And it also led me to my wife.
I saw her reading the book Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, in a shop. This was in 1994.
I was surprised; I didn’t know someone so young would spend time reading Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, considered as one of the greatest works of literature. And in other to impress her, I told her that I write as well, and I showed some of my poetry.
This was in August 1994, and by that time, I lived in a haze; my hearts, my spirit broke. It affected my mind; my family knew I wasn’t the same anymore.
Then I met my wife, and one thing led to another, and she saw my poetry, and after some time, she was so upset with me, that people thought I was useless, when I have a mind like this. One thing led to another and I broke down.
She told me much later that she had never seen a man cry so much, because I was telling her my story in Daily Times. But it was good for me because after that, I became better. It was like cleansing for me. That was when I knew I would marry her.
What is your view about book publishing in Nigeria today?
Publishing is tough; our economy is really not good.
There is very poor institutional funding, support for publishing, for intellectual work.
Even in the universities, people are not reviewing books, writing critical essays, and unraveling works of art, because they are not properly encouraged.
A lot of them would rather write proposals for consultancies than write critical essays.
The bookshops are not there; they are not selling. No publisher would tell you that he is making money from publishing.
So they are doing other things; they are promoting festivals, going into art exhibitions, buying and selling.
So, it becomes difficult for a young writer to get published because you need to believe that book will make money.
If the book is not making money why would you want to publish it? So, only very few people get published because they have already made a name; and you know that whatever happens, they are going to sell.
That is why a lot of them go into self-publishing.
What is the idea behind the Port Harcourt Literary Society?
What we are trying to do is varied. One, we want to encourage a new story about our society, Port Harcourt and the Niger Delta.
It’s a beautiful place. I believe that people who want to invest should come back; it’s not about militancy. It is a lot safer than people imagine.
We want to tell those stories; we want to have activities were poets from Nigeria and around the world can come and engage with us and read their works, present their books and sell them, would have an opportunity to tell the stories of the Niger Delta, recreate our role models, like Queen Kabasa, who ruled 500 years ago in Bonny, the first female monarch in the Niger Delta, in a society that is deeply patriarchal.
We want to tell stories of Margret Ekpo; we want to tell the story of J. P. Clarke; we want to tell the stories of Gabriel Okara, of Elechi Amadi. We want to tell the stories of those who fought in the old days for Nigeria to become what it is today. We want to tell the stories of Nana of Itshekiri, King Jaja of Opobo.
There are so many beautiful stories to tell, and we can interpret them in dance drama. We want to go round the Niger Delta telling these stories.
We want to recreate heroes so that people would have a reason to come, and that is why sometime next year we are going to have two major literary activities – The Ancient and Moderm, a cultural performance and the Port Harcourt Arts Festival. We have also created the structure, the Port Harcourt Literary Society, and the board of trustee is led by Dr. Amutan, working with the government of Rivers State, working with Shell, and built a great edifice.
They are also going to add other arms to it, the auditorium, the Amphitheatre, offices and hostels for residencies so that people can come there, spend months writing their books or doing research, and having access to library that would help deepen their work.
As a writer, poet, what are the challenges?
My greatest challenge as a writer, as a poet, is to find the best way to write a line. It is not financial; I can exist anywhere.
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