Soji Cole is a Nigerian academic, playwright, film scriptwriter, and theatre practitioner. He has won the African Theatre Association (AfTA) Emerging Scholars Prize, and the International Federation for Theatre Research (IFTR/FIRT) ‘New Scholars Prize.’ He has also won the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) Playwriting Prize, and the Nigeria Prize for Literature, one of the biggest literary prizes in Africa. He has taken part in numerous theatre productions and a couple of films in Nigeria. He is an alumnus of the Fulbright fellowship to Kansas State University in the United States between 2014 and 2015. He has been invited as a fellow, guest artist and guest speaker at universities in Nigeria, the US, Germany and the United Kingdom. He taught Playwriting, Theatre and Film for almost a decade at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria, before leaving in 2019 to study for a second PhD in Interdisciplinary Humanities at Brock University in Ontario, Canada. He lives in St. Catharines, Ontario, with his wife and two young daughters.
You won the 2018 edition of the NLNG-sponsored Nigerian Prize for Literature with your play, Embers. What did this achievement, with the $100,000 cash prize, do for you?
$100,000 is a lot of money in the Nigerian economic context, more so for a poor, struggling writer/teacher like me. I am not someone who is fascinated by the idea of too much money, and I also tend to be reductive of the tangible manifestation that results after I have applied immense efforts on a particular thing. That is to say, I felt so ordinary after winning. It speaks so much of our quest to succeed as humans, all in the bid to enable ourselves with the vain things of life. I felt that way as well when I finished my first PhD program. However, aside that personal feeling that overwhelmed me when I won the prize, there were aftermaths that are considerably beneficial. First of all, there is some kind of social acceptance that gives one the confidence that one is indeed a writer. Such confidence that impels a creative outrage of “Now my works are in the eyes of the world.” That imposes its own constraints, because you have to strive to do better or be more cautious in your writings. As mundane as it may sound, subsequent works from most award-winning authors never turn out as great as the winning works! So, that is the limitation you have to live by with the achievement; the quest to do better. Generally, the award earned me some creative clouts, and the money…, oh yes, I was able to fulfil some of the significant plans that I have been mapping out for the previous two years. I was actually working on raising money for studies abroad with my wife. My wife already had the admission which she deferred, and I had already made my application for admission before the NLNG award came. It could have been extremely tedious with the economy of financing our studies, with two young daughters. We would have been in debt. The NLNG prize came at the right time. Even though my wife and I were given some scholarships by the different universities we are studying in, coming with the children, and having to settle down to a rigorous students’ life wouldn’t have been easy, if the award money didn’t come at that time.
What generally is the focus of your oeuvre?
I love to focus on social issues. I am inured to the social conditions of life of people who are regarded as the lower class. My background imbued that in me. Creatively, my works are patterned towards navigating the existence of these select people in the midst of the highs, the machinations of capitalism, and the social fabrication of tension, within all. I always see disruptions when I write. My creative vision is to see the end of it all; an end where the people at the lower rung give in their all, an end where the same people destroy the fabrics that holds the high class together. So, you will always find a tone of this in my works. While the work may particularly not be about the class struggle, you will find that underlying tension in each of my works. Albeit, I never lose the sense that my ultimate aim is to entertain people with stories crafted in sublime languages.
You were born in Mushin, Lagos. Has your background been of any significant influence to your art?
Absolutely. Learning a substantial part of life’s lessons on the streets couldn’t but have that effect on your creative output. Apart from being born and raised in Mushin, Lagos, I was orphaned too early in life. I couldn’t live successfully with family members. I felt cramped and emasculated in thoughts and fantasy whenever I attempted to live with any family member. The street is always beckoning to me. I was promiscuous to the street because of the amount of freedom it offers. I became the ‘black sheep’ of the family because of my rampant truancy and abscondment. I became a ‘white sheep’ on the streets. The streets gave me the creative lessons that I couldn’t learn in a home.
Embers tackles the societal tragedy that has become Boko Haram. Your 2014 work, Maybe Tomorrow, likewise deals with the crises in the Niger Delta. Do you subscribe to writers focusing on literary activism as it were?
I wouldn’t care what writers do with their arts. First of all, the things we want to see in arts are the sublime and the beautiful (apology to Edmund Burke). We adjudge that in writing with how writers deftly manipulate language to tell stories. That’s what arts should be about in normal circumstances. Unfortunately, we live in abnormal circumstances now! For me, it is a call to higher duty for writers to engage their works from some form of radical standpoint. I do not have a problem with writers who do not, but I can’t be that kind of writer! Every day I communicate with people at home, and the outrageous inflation on the prices of food items scares me, that is minus several other life-threatening issues ongoing. And the people at the lower rung are, as usual, the victims! We can’t be at that tipping point in our national life, and I won’t join my voice in seeking remedy—even if it means to use my works—to confront those who have brought us this far. It is an irreversible mentality for me.
Many young African authors and writers today are exploring novel and exciting stories in their works. What do you think is that significant thematic gap in Nigerian (or African) literature today?
This seems to be a contentious topic today in African literature, but for me it is a ‘laughable’ one. I don’t see any gap at all in African literature. As a matter of fact, I see the African stories developing into a local-global narrative. Americans write about American issues. Europeans and Asians write about their continents with some level of divestment in narratives. African writers are currently at the forefront of global writers who write sublime local stories, write great stories of African experiences in the west, and, or a mixture of the two. So where is the gap? Those were things 20th century writers like Samuel Selvon, Buchi Emecheta et al., tried in their energetic years. What is the problem of Africans telling other Africans who live abroad that the stories they are telling are not original African stories? These are the people who will rate the Marvel Studios/Walt Disney movie Black Panther as an authentic African story. It is no longer tenable for Umuofia to stay local as it was in the era of Okonkwo. People use all kinds of creative vision and technology now, so Umuofia must go global, otherwise other people would keep telling our stories in their ways. Let us tell it ourselves, and make our ‘little’ mistakes if we must. What is the problem of Africans telling those who write locally that they are not developing? What exactly is the problem when we now have multiple brilliant writers scattered all over Africa (Nigeria), and the world! I see development in African (Nigerian) literature. I don’t see any gap. I have said it in previous years that very soon all the writing prizes in the world would be coming to Africa. It is happening! Even Disney is excited to plunge into exploring the African story! So what is the gap? There are still major stories of ‘ijapa,’ ‘elede,’ or ‘ananse’ going on in core villages and cities of Africa. They are being told orally, and some writers are exploring them in their works. So, tell me, where is the gap that we keep talking about?
Of all genres to specialise your creativity into, why drama? We do not have so many dramatists in Nigeria today actively pursuing the genre. Infact, in a Guardian Art interview, you pointed out the “marginalisation” drama faces as a result of its nature. What special appeal, then, does drama hold for you?
Actually, I started with drama. I have experimented with lots of short stories which are published, but I am more at home with drama. My background training in theatre probably built that creative enthusiasm of the genre inside of me. However, at the risk of sounding narcissistic here, I think I derive joy in creating characters who come to life (and in some cases die) through my artistic machinations. You not only got to see their existence on paper, you see them in reality on the stage. I guess other genres got jealous of this mandate of drama, and are now out to get theirs also adapted to the stage or the screen. Drama’s appeal is in its eventual performance, the characters coming out from the text to speak in human form. I guess that is why it is a bit more tedious to read than other genres. You can read a novel and silently go to sleep in fantasy of its world. You can read poetry and experience the same thing. For drama, you have to imagine the characters actually coming to life to speak their dialogues to you. There is no room to discuss the innate cognition of a character, it has to be revealed in the dialogues, and readers have to imagine it. That is what typically separates drama from other writing genre and leads to some form of marginalisation.
What does African literature mean to you, and how is it evolving?
Now we are back to the contentious issue. I do not want to sound academic here, so I’ll just keep it straight and simple. African literature means so many things to me; works written by Africans (regardless of their location) on issues concerning Africa or Africans (regardless of where the issue happens), with the thought of provoking the African sentiment (and herein lies some slight problem). So, if a European writes about Africa, or on African issues, do we admit that as African literature? My answer would go to the motive first, and from there we’ll realise what kind of sentiment such writer is trying to provoke. Mostly, it is understandable that there are dual or ‘unAfrican’ intention associated with this kind of writing, so they cannot be considered as African literature. That is my description of African literature. Like I mentioned earlier, African literature has evolved to the level of revolving its stories and narratives between the local and the global. Fundamentally, there are upsurge of young writers now who are dazzling the world with their writings.
What is your writing routine like?
Well, I have learned to work under intense conditions. I just ‘grab’ ideas from any circumstance that interests me, then I begin to build on the idea. I make lots of jottings of storyline, dialogues, situations, etc. I let my ideas ‘simmer’ for several months before I start to write. I do not start to write if I don’t have a beginning and an end to my story. The middle comes naturally from the characters.
In an interview with Channel’s Book Club, you are quoted to say you don’t write your plays for literary competition and contests. Could you throw more light on this? Is there a risk involved in writing for contests to win?
I guess I was not able to fully articulate my point regarding that Channel’s Book Club interview question. I knew that such issue is controversial, and people would need more answers, especially as I just came out of winning a competition. Now this is it: I want to write good works that would win awards. I suspect that most writers want that, too. Most of us dream to win the Nobel Prize someday. I am never one who hides my intention, so I will tell you categorically that Embers was written specifically for the NLNG award. My other play, Maybe Tomorrow, made the longlist of the 2014 edition of the competition. Actually, I was thinking that I would win that year, and I was already dreaming of a holiday get-away with some of the prize money. I didn’t win. I was shattered. I didn’t write that play for NLNG. It was published around the time of submission, and I felt that I had a good chance. As soon as I lost out in the 2014 edition, I made up my mind that I would write a play specifically for the 2018 edition. Now this is the issue; I do not enter for, or subscribe to competitions which would define my creative expertise. For instance, if NLNG award had stipulations like the kind of dramatic genres, number of characters, number of acts/scenes, thematic preoccupation, etc., I wouldn’t have entered for the competition at all. Those kind of competitions emasculate my creative intent, and as such defines what I want to do. The NLNG is a free competition where you can write on what pleases you. It does not define or limit your creativity. That is my meaning. I want to write award-winning creative works, but I would not subscribe to my works being defined by any competition. Fortunately for me, we have several options now.
What is your take on African literary prizes today, and what do you perceive are the gaps that need to be closed up?
There are scanty African literary prizes today. While the NLNG literature prize has an overwhelming amount as prize money, other prizes are not enticing at all. I have advocated, before winning the NLNG prize, and after (even at NLNG sponsored programs) that the NLNG money is too big for one writer, and should be split. I have met other arguments against mine, chief of all; that the Nobel Prize is never split, and the NLNG is conceived as a mini Nobel. Of course a sponsoring organisation determines the way it wants to administer its prize, so case closed. Now, what are other organisations doing to help literature, especially in terms of initiating prizes? I know that there are a few, but we need to come up with competitions that would meet the clout of the NLNG awards. This is where local writing associations should come in. There should have been systematic advocacy from our local writing associations. I believe that the NLNG award shouldn’t have even started in the first place without the blessings of those frontline writing associations. But things are the way they are now. The prize sponsor determines what they want, but what is the level of clout from these associations, in offering some kind of intervention along the way? You read many stories about these associations now and you get the jitters. I know that there is an African writing association, but I keep wondering how much impact it truly has on African literature. The truth also is that literature has become a business for some people, and it is a ladder to climb one step higher in the economic and political figuration of things. If these gaps are not closed up, no big organizations would take literary prizes serious as to warrant heavy sponsorship.
There is the opinion in some quarters that a “full” creative writer should be an academic. Soyinka, Achebe, Ngugi, as well as many newer writers teach in universities. You are currently studying for your second PhD. Has your decision to teach been of any much help to your creative career?
I do not buy that opinion at all. Writers shouldn’t be academics if they don’t want to. There are more creative writers outside of the academia than inside of it. Of course, we need to realise that some schools in Europe and North America do invite creative writers to service some of their curriculum, but they are mostly not employed as full teaching faculty. Most of them even serve in the MFA program, which requires more practical experience than theory. My decision to teach may not have had the biggest significant impact on my writing. The fact is that I took up teaching for economic reasons: you will die in Nigeria if you call yourself a writer without any meaningful way of subsistence. By that, maybe I would have been better, or produced more works, if I were earning ‘big time’ from writing. So it is neither here nor there. Brilliant writers would be brilliant writer whether they are in the academic arena or not. Writers must, of necessity, be philosophers, but they mustn’t necessarily be academics.
What living African writer do you admire best, and why?
I love Ngugi Wa Thiong’O. Once I read Weep not Child in the early years of secondary school, Ngugi stamped his creative authority in my memory forever. I am quite sentimental about the book, especially about the character of Njoroge. Njoroge encapsulates the ideal me in terms of my emotional and psychological troubles as a teenager. I was the imagined reality of Njoroge. I ‘textured’ many of his nuances in my thoughts and fantasy. A character that came close to doing that to me as a child was Chike in Chinua Achebe’s Chike and the River.
As visiting fellow at the University of Roehampton as well as lecturer at the University of Ibadan, you stand on two divides. You’re then able to make a more informed comparison. What do you say the African creative industry lacks the most?
My visiting fellowship at the University of Roehampton was just a brief academic/creative event. I personally feel that it does not deserve much emphasis, and it only appears in my CV for ‘academic-clouting’ purpose. I left University of Ibadan in 2019 (after more than 7 years of service), to engage another course of life. So you can see that I no longer stand on the two divides! What African literature lacks is the systemic mentoring and compensation for writers. Those things are nowhere. Good writers cannot boast of making money from their writings. There are predatory elements like pirates, publishers and incorrigible systems, pouncing on their efforts and works. The African creative industry also lacks creative writing associations which are devoid of politics and political intention, and are structured to truly help writers develop and get compensations for their works.
What else would you have been if not a writer/playwright?
Maybe a cat-fish pepper-soup seller. I love the way the slimy fish meander their ways in the basin. I love how the seller strategises and systematically traps one out of the basin, and knocks its head with a heavy stick, and watches it until death or near death. Then while washing, the fish wriggles and gently springs to life; an idyllic aftermath of an after-life which continues even in the steaming pot. Then the quiet stillness which signifies the end of its life. It’s a creative way to live life. I would have enjoyed watching that happen every day, though with some feeling of remorse for the hapless fish whose lives are daily imperiled.
What work of yours is your favourite?
Really, I can’t choose. If you asked me this about my academic works, I would readily tell you the ones I love and the ones I hate. I divest myself of any sentimental attachment to my academic works. For creative writings, every work seems like a child to me. They are my babies. It is difficult to choose.
What is your advice to the young, unpublished writer today?
This is actually the toughest question I encounter in an interview. Over the years, I have realised the fact that I cannot answer this question. What advice would you want me to give to young unpublished writers who are already writing way better than their age?! What advice would I give to those whose works I read, and I marvel to myself who gave them this kind of creative prowess? What advice could I give to those I aspired to write like, or more specifically, those who are surpassing what we are writing? It is difficult. The other day, one of my young friends who is a creative writer, one Sa’id Sa’ad Abubakar, wrote something on Facebook about God creating the universe, and after the creation, there were fragments left which couldn’t be pieced together to form any coherent structure, so He threw them down into the world and those things became Nigeria. Those were not his exact words (of course he is a more brilliant writer than I am), but I couldn’t get over the imagery for days. I had to tell him to quickly find a way to ‘patent’ it unless I’ll steal it from him! Those are the young writers you are requesting me to advise? Okay, maybe I should just tell them to not go hungry when they write.