Poet and professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Ibadan, Remi Raji, speaks to GODFREY GEORGE about his successful writing and lecturing careers, among other issues
What fond memories do you have of your childhood?
I would say growing up with my grandmother is a point which is always alive in my memory. My encounters in the village when I was with her are a critical part of what has shaped my reality as an adult. When I got to the city around six or seven years, relating with my peers in the streets of Ibadan, I used to be part of a musical group. This is what is now referred to as Fuji music. During these Islamic festivals, I would join my friends and go around the streets and just enjoy myself. Then, there was the coming of age and being in the local football club. The memories I share of my childhood, I am sure, would be very different from what children of this time and age would have of theirs.
When did you know you could write? Was it a skill you learnt or some special ability you were born with?
They say that writing is innate. Almost every one of us has the ability to write. It is only those who are committed and who dare to set pen to paper that eventually become writers. So, certainly, you have to carry some heritage within you to become a good writer. You cannot write just because you read other people’s books. It has to be innate. In my secondary schools, the art of writing was considered an important pastime. We had press clubs. I went to Holy Trinity Grammar School and Oliveth Baptist High School, both in Oyo State, and these two schools contributed a lot to my writing journey. I went from secondary school to what was called the HSC, where you spend two years after your WASSCE. It was more like an advanced secondary school, and that was where I realised that I could write, and, of course, people would marvel at what you write. Then, many people would look forward to the new thing I wanted to write every week. Oliveth Press Club also played a huge role in this process. So, I began to build some basic confidence that I could actually write. Before I got to the university, I was already confident of my writing ability.
Did you know you were going to end up writing professionally?
I think I hovered around anything cultural. Whether I was going to be a performer, artist, painter, dancer or carver, I knew I was going to do something culturally artistic. Secondly, while some of my classmates were going to read Medicine, Law, Engineering, Architecture and even Political Science, I knew I was going to read Literature. Of course, by reading Literature, I had always imagined myself as a writer who should be read. I did not imagine I was going to make money out of writing; I just knew I was going to write. Writing was already ingrained in me. So, I knew this right from the beginning.
Were your parents supportive of your choice?
My father was not even around to know what I was going to be. He died when I was much younger. So, I was in the second year of Second Form in secondary school when my father passed away. My mother was not literate but she was highly-educated and interested in education. She didn’t know what I was doing; nobody knew what I was doing. So, it was more like providence and guidance. I had no one to guide me. I had no guidance counsellor to direct me on what I was going to do. In secondary school, I was a student reading all the science subjects until I got to Form Four and Form Five when I developed interest in literature. I began to read romantic poets in the African Writers’ Series. So, when I went home, I would teach myself literature. I didn’t take literature as a subject at the secondary school level. I practically taught myself. I took the exam correspondence tutorial. It was in Yaba then in Lagos. It is what we know as Distance Learning Centres. So, I opted to study literature through the exam correspondence college. It was at HSC that I solidified that interest.
You started writing poems at a time when the nation was going through some tough transitions. What would you say inspired you to keep on writing?
I would trace my writing to as far back as 1977 and 1978. I was simply imitating the romantic poets. I wasn’t writing anything that was topical or political or related to the Nigerian condition at that time. But when I got to the university and became more aware of my environment and became more aware of the political conditions and the economy of our geography and the geography of our history, I realised that the writer is at a very important point in the development of the conscience of a nation, or in the idea of building a nation. The writer is very central. I went to read English and met the tradition of writers like J.P. Clark, Christopher Okigbo, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka and read all of them. I read Soyinka’s ‘The Writer in Transition…’ and was blown away. I read about the function of the writer as a moralist and as a teacher by Achebe. Most of us who were members of the poetry club at the University of Ibadan saw that writing was not just going to be for writing’s sake. If it was no longer to copy English romantics in secondary school or to exhibit some brilliance and (seek) fame at the HSC level, it became much more a function of one’s resolve to mean more and to challenge the power of oppression within our system. Writing then became not just a part-time job, but an important signpost of my existence as a person.
What inspired your first volume of poems “A Harvest of Laughter”?
Harvest of Laughters took about 13 years to complete. I finished my first degree in 1984. I was under Professor Niyi Osundare. I had a collection which was presented for examination in his class out of which only one poem survived which I put in HOL. After I finished my apprenticeship, I started working towards creating my own collection which would be real and publishable. So, when I returned to do my master’s in 1986, I kept on writing. It was almost like a dialogue with my nation, a dialogue with my environment. There is a multiple inspiration for that kind of collection. It is not that kind of collection that you write between one month or one year. It took 13 years for that thought to form.
Scholars describe you as a poet who use his poems as an avenue to register his contempt for a system that makes him and his people slaves in their own country. Would you say that is true about your works?
If it is to challenge power or square up with tyranny in all its ramifications – political, economic, social, religious – yes. I think writing should serve as a force for change. That has been my training. We are coming from a tradition which is almost Marxist and it is essentially sociological. You want to express your contempt for all kinds of expressions. You want to shine light on all areas of darkness. I think this has been what is consistent in my writing. Even when I am writing love poetry or something simiar, I do it all for my country. It is not just love for women or love for men, but love for society and love for my country. I always want a situation where right triumphs over wrong.
You must have faced some kind of antagonism from the powers that be. How did you handle it?
When I wrote HOS, this was the period of military rule. This period didn’t favour a lot of my writing colleagues from my university and other universities, who had formed some form of a union. We were the young ones of the Association of Nigerian Authors at the time. We had to square up to power at the time. A number of us were arrested on trumped-up charges. One of us was found dead. His body was found on the streets of Abuja. One got missing. For poetry, you have to speak the language where you have to balance up between that attack and then put it in a way that you would be able to defend whatever you have said. There is darkness all over. There has always been friction between authors and authorities. For the African writer, they are ‘public enemy number one’ for the eyes of those in the establishment. Whereas, in other countries, even in Senegal, at that time when the Nigerian author was seen as an enemy, the Senegalese authors in the 1980s and 90s were seen as collaborators in the very positive sense of the term. They helped develop a template for the development for that country. That is where we all look forward to. But in my own country, you get arrests, attacks and so on. A lot of people were harassed out of the country and they had to go on exile. In the 80s, a lot of writers had to go on exile.
Your writings, though they talk about a number of sociopolitical issues, still end with a sense of hope for the common man. Is this intentional?
Oh! It has to be. For every dark moment, there must almost be a shining light that ends the whole story. I believe so. You will not catch me writing a tragic text. If I am writing one, it would be to put across a message, but I still end up with a ray of hope. I think it was what informed the collection of Love Song. I am an incurable optimist. It might be seen as childish and almost idealistic, but I think all of the time, the writer must use his words to lift people up, even when the economy is in a recession. The writer must end up with a sign of hope, survival, triumph.
The country is plagued with a lot of challenges ranging from insecurity to agitations for secession coupled with killings all over. What role can poetry play in nation building?
Poetry matters. It informs. It challenges. It builds and pricks conscience also. We must have a literate society where people can use all forms of languages that we have. Whether it is English, Igbo, Hausa or Yoruba, we must use language to prick the conscience of people and build a nation. A nation must be built on good ethics and that is what good literature is about. There is no evidence of that achievement for literature, but it has changed nations. It can destroy nations. It can also save nations. We have to save ourselves from ourselves and that is the optimism that I am talking about. That is why writing is more and more a privatist affair. This is why we need to have groups. Nowadays, we find more and more people not even understanding that writing means something. There is a lack of a national policy. This nation has commonised and diminished the importance of writers in the development of a nation.
The current regime has shown to be one that is intolerant of criticisms. How do you think the people can stand against bad leadership especially in the face of antagonism?
Language must continue to confront. We have to continue to speak the truth to power, no matter who is in office. I may not see myself as a Yoruba patriot or Igbo apologist or Fulani defender, I see myself as a nation builder, as a writer for the whole essence of this country. That is why those in power must be aware that they are being watched and whatever wrong they do would be written about. Not just in poetic terms; but in prosaic and dramatic terms as well. The writer must wake up. There must not be any kind of laxity or delay in the imagination of the writer to challenge. The writer is the unacknowledged legislator of a nation. I think that must have been said by one of our English poets. We must not relent. We must continue. Writing must be a marathon affair. Telling the truth must be constant.
You are widely travelled and have had some education abroad. As you clock 60, are there changes you wish to see in the country?
In spite of my optimism, sometimes, I feel regrets that this nation has turned out to be not just a ‘half-child’ – to use Wole Soyinka’s term – but it almost continues to qualify more as a stillborn. Sometimes, that sense of regret comes. Some of us had the opportunity of getting out of this country or leaving. But if we do so, what happens to others who can’t? Are we going to have foreigners come and rule or deliver our own environment from ourselves? That is the problem. It is more of a regret. The kind of promises we had in the 70s when I was a teenager; there were a lot of things that we were doing as a nation then that we can no longer do now. Despite my sense of optimism that things are going to get better, things are getting worse and worse. That is the problem.
How have you been able to have such a successful writing and lecturing career and maintained strong bonds with your family?
Writing is a privatist affair, but you need to have a good home; you need to have supporters – wife, children and relatives – who are aware of your kind of vocation and who’ll support you. I also have a very understanding family. I have been successful, but you know success is relative. We manage to survive. In spite of everything, we survive. The thing is just to be committed and be focused. I keep writing, teaching, researching and all the things that God has given me the ability to do.
Turning 60, what are you most grateful for?
I am most grateful to God for good health. I witnessed almost a year ago that I was going to be counted as a victim of COVID-19. I survived. I tell myself that if I could survive COVID-19 in Nigeria, I could survive everything. This is a thanksgiving among many other thanksgivings. I have a family and I give glory to God for everything that He has given me.
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