Professor Vincent Chukwuemeka Ike is a popular writer, as well as a royal father. In this interview with Sumaila Umaisha, the author speaks on his literary journey, and his message to young Nigerian writers.
When did you actually start writing?
As far back as my secondary school days. It began in 1945 at Government College, Umuahia, in the present Abia State. The school encouraged writing and there was the opportunity for one to publish what he wrote. Every house had a house magazine. The magazines were handwritten, but later the school had a printed college magazine for the entire school. That was when my first story, a short story entitled ‘A Dreamland’ was published. Then when I went to the University College, Ibadan, there was also the opportunity to continue with the interest in creative writing. There was a magazine strictly for literary affairs, no student union politicking. You were invited to join the literary club if they felt you had literary interest. The publication of the magazine is funded by the university. I had my stories published in it. So these were the beginnings. After graduation I also had my short stories broadcast on Nigerian Broadcasting Service.
Writers like Cyprian Ekwensi read courses that have little or nothing to do with English or Literature. Was it the same in your own case?
No. English was one of the subjects I read. That had been my major interest. And the way my teachers marked my essays was an indication that it was my line. When I did the Cambridge Overseas Certificate examination in 1949, essay writing was an important part of the subject. We were asked to write an essay on ‘Narrow Escape’. And I created an interesting narrow escape. What I wrote was imaginary. It was a chance I took, because if they had not appreciated it, I would have failed.
When exactly did you start serious writing; novel writing?
Novel writing came much later. In fact, in those days that we were writing short stories none of us believed we could write novels. The novelists we read were from Britain. Though Cyprian Ekwensi wrote then. What actually made me feel that the time had come for me to attempt writing a novel was when my friend, Chinua Achebe, published his Things Fall Apart in 1958. We were friends during our secondary school days, university days and even after graduation. The fact that he could do it encouraged me to start a novel. Things Fall Apart inspired me. And by 1962, I had completed a novel, which I titled Toads for Supper. But it took some times of rejection before it was eventually published in 1965.
It seems in your days, once a writer is published, he never suffered rejection any more. Yes. When my first novel was accepted it changed things instantly. We were published overseas and the tradition was that once you got published you signed a contract with your publishers that you must give them the first consideration when you write the next one. And the tendency is that when you write the next one they will take it, , you write another one they will take it. So you are made.
There is so much humour in your novels, particularly Toads for Supper. Why do you adopt this style?
Well, I think that came from life in the village; life at home. There was the general feeling that humour is necessary to succeed in life. Even to convince your partner in an argument, humour can help to liven the situation and make things go well. Some literary scholars don’t like the style. They feel whatever has humour in it is not serious. But I don’t share that view.
You don’t seem to have successfully resolved the issue in Toads for Supper.
I don’t know… You know, when you end a story, there are usually many problems unresolved. And I suppose at the point I ended the novel, it was easy for me to say let me stop here. But, in order to resolve some of the issues, I have recently published a sequel to the novel. People from Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya etc. have been pressurising me over the years, so I have now tried to resolve the issues. It is titled Toads Forever and published by Longman. You will find that the end is different. In the novel, I tried to stress the fact that ethnicity should not be allowed to ruin this country. There is nothing wrong with an Igbo person befriending a Hausa person or even marry each other, in case of male-female relationship. That is the main message in the novel.
Like most novels, the settings of your novels are based on the period in which you wrote them. Comparing the happenings in Toads for Supper and what obtains nowadays, what’s your assessment?
Well, you know, there is universality. And human experience does not really depend on time. Take the relationship between man and woman, for instance. All that have happened in the past such as the relationship of Adam and Eve as written in the Bible is still happening today. And they will always continue to happen. So there are problems that are really not affected by time and such other factors. Therefore, from that point of view, everything need not change because the years have lapsed. However, it is also true that new problems crop up with time. Even in crime, there are new areas of crime that were not there in our own time. So, anybody writing today will have to be influenced by those developments. When I wrote the sequel to Toads for Supper, I had to remind myself all the time that I’m back to colonial Nigeria, so I don’t begin to say things that are happening in present day Nigeria. Though, like I said, there are things that generally remain the same despite the time lapse. Issues like ethnicity are still there.
But what is this idea of sticking to the past rather than treating the present pressing social realities?
Some issues are timeless. But I’ve also written novels that do not follow that pattern, novels that are written for the period in which they are published. Conspiracy of Silence, which came out in 2001, was a study on an Igbo societal phenomenon which I call fatherlessness. There are people who do not know their biological fathers, not because those fathers are dead, but they’ve never really known them. There are some women who marry wives. These wives produce children. These children have biological fathers but they are not accepted. There are also traditional women who do not want to marry but want children. So they would come to a man and say ‘I want you to father a child for me, it will be mine, no responsibilities’. This kind of child grows without knowing who his father is. I decided to write on this because this creates serious psychological problems in the society. I’ve read in the newspaper of a girl who threatened to kill her mother if she didn’t tell her who her father was. It is a cultural problem and unless it is eventually stopped it is still relevant as a theme.
What is your advice to the young aspiring Nigerian writers?
Young writers should continue writing and do the best they can, because what may not seem to get them something today may get them something in future. And what we ought to do, the Association of Nigerian Authors and everybody concerned, is to promote these young people, so that people will get to know what they have done.
There are few book reviews nowadays. In our time, whatever you wrote, there were reviews on them so that people could know about them. But this doesn’t exist any more. They should nonetheless continue writing. Even if you can’t get what you have written published, just continue, maybe some day that thing that was not published a long time ago may emerge. Even Achebe’s Things Fall Apart was rejected when he wrote it. My Toads for Supper was rejected too. But I went back to work and it was eventually accepted. After publishing three novels, even those who rejected it began to ask me to have my works published.
What is your message to both young and old Nigerian writers?
They should continue writing. They should be proud of their writing career. Wherever I go I introduce myself as a creative writer. That is my occupation, my passport. And I want to be so identified because there is something that comes through when you are able to communicate with your readers. They should not be unduly worried about the fact that things are not moving that well. They should see it as a mission to continue writing. And I think public reading of works can also encourage writers. It will enable people hear you even if you are not published. This is one of the areas that need development in Nigeria. I think everyone should just continue writing.