Spotlight on Nigeria: IfeOluwa Nihinlola

Today launches a new angle of our Spotlight interviews: writing around the world. Over the next few weeks and months we’ll be chatting with a few of Flash! Friday writers from all parts of the globe to help us know our own community a bit better. Up first: the brave IfeOluwa Nihinlola, current FF judge with Dragon Team Seven, and writer from Lagos, Nigeria. Welcome, IfeOluwa!

IfeOluwa Nihinlola

Tell us about your writerly journey. 

I often say my writing journey started mid-2013 when I started a blog while living in Anambra, but I realise that answer is a bit misleading, if not downright untrue. I grew up in a house of books and had a dad who wrote, actively, everyday. I have always had the ability to put my thoughts into words with some level of clarity, and for a long time took that for granted. But 2013 was the year I really took to reading and writing with a deliberate aim to improve in both. I’m the guy who read Shakespeare and Hemingway in his early teenage years, but can’t remember a thing from those books. This is perhaps why 2013 is still a fair time to begin the calibration of my writing journey. 

I found Flash! Friday around that time and started to write fiction at least once a week in addition to blogging. I wrote lots of short stories in that period, many of which are useless and I’ve discarded, and many others that I’ve been editing forever, hoping they’ll one day be fit for publishing. Many of these stories were experiments borne out of reading. I would read a style and attempt an imitation. This often ends in failures that makes it difficult to put all of my work together as indicative of any kind of style I possess — this I’m choosing to see as a kind of success. I can’t say I prefer any genre of writing (really, what is genre?) but writing non-fiction is my comfort zone. I’ve done more of that and less of fiction this year.

You’re a massively busy person, with a full school schedule: how do you balance it all, and writing? 

Can’t say I am that busy. I know working mums who still find the time to write. Lately, however, the approach I’ve taken to writing is to pen lines and ideas on the go: use One Note in Danfo (yellow Lagos buses), pull out my notebook in the middle of a sermon or lecture, and just capture the things that flit through my mind. Then, depending on what I need to accomplish, brood over the scraps and join them all into something with some form of coherence. (That’s the way this interview got written.) Other times, I just block out huge chunks of time, stay in the room to read and write, and read and write, then return to life to catch up with what I’ve missed.

Introduce us to writing in Lagos. 

My thoughts on writing in Lagos are restricted to my experience — as it should be. And since I’m a socially awkward, near-reclusive person, those thoughts are quite limited. The best way to have a glimpse of what writing is going on in Lagos, and any other part of Nigeria, is to get on the internet. There’s a huge community of writers who are always creating and interacting online. Writers also meet at art events — festivals, exhibitions, readings — that happen across the city.

I’m just getting to see more of the places where people work in the city: small cafés, privately managed libraries etc., but those are few and hidden. A writer typing on a Mac in a Starbucks-like cafe is not an image that you’ll readily get in Lagos. I do my own writing in Danfos and kekes, or in my room, or in-between lectures, and I know lots of other writers just find their own space to write amidst the bustle of the city.

I have friends who are brave enough to allow me see their work, and comment on them, and there’s a particular group of five whose stories were the guinea pigs of my bid to understand the workings of good stories.

Many of the writing relationships I’ve formed have come from the three workshops I’ve attended over these two years of writing. And I understand workshops are how many writing relationships are formed, so that’s not strange. A few writing workshops occur from time to time in the city, the most prestigious of them being the Farafina Trust Creative Writing workshop that is led yearly by Chimamanda Adichie, and is one of the ultimate goals of many young, aspiring writers in the country. Contests also abound on the Internet, and many writing contests are open to international entrants.

Here in the U.S. writers struggle to get published; traditional publishing houses still churn out books by the big names, but it’s increasingly difficult to get noticed by agents, and many writers are abandoning that traditional effort in favor of publishing books themselves via Amazon or the like. What’s the publishing situation for new/aspiring writers in your circles — is it “easy” to get published? What trends do you see, and what challenges do writers face?

It’s impossible to compare publishing in Nigeria with the US. Our biggest publishers are  at best the equivalent of American indie presses, and they number less than five. It is a widely accepted thought that many young writers hope to get published outside the country so they can be properly recognized back at home. This often leads to questions about how writing primarily for an outside audience affects the kind of stories that are told and how they are told. These questions then lead to round discussions and loads of pessimism about writing and publishing opportunities in Nigeria, so I’ll try to avoid that.

Talk of writing in Nigeria is usually centered on literary fiction but, lately, there has been an increased interest in writing outside of the established realist fiction traditions. This year, Cassava Republic, one of the country’s best publishers, started a Romance fiction imprint called Ankara Press and published 6 books on it. Omenana, a journal of speculative fiction, also opened more opportunities for quality speculative fiction to be published in the country. And a manuscript project by Saraba Magazine, one of the best literary magazines in the country, is also open to well-written genre entries. So, the writing space is widening.

Publishing in Nigeria thrives electronically more than any other form, and OkadaBooks, a self-publishing app, is the best representative of this. Now, while self-publishing is still largely a mess because of the lack of regard for good editors, it is an option many pursue with varying degrees of success. How many books get sold, and how much profit is lost to piracy is another topic that can’t be properly discussed here.

Tell us about a book and/or author who’s particularly inspired you, and why/how.

My answer to this question changes with the weather. Today, I’m finding it difficult to choose between Dostoyevsky and CS Lewis, so I’ll just lump them together. Finding a dusty copy of Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot in a library three years ago, at a time I was going through Lewis’s oeuvre, was the catalyst of my transition from an engineering student with modest career goals to someone who agonises over sentences.

Who are your favorite Nigerian writers (of all time, and contemporary?)? For someone unfamiliar with Nigerian writers, which authors/books would you recommend starting with?

Favourite Nigerian Writers of all time: Chukwuemeka Ike and Mabel Segun. They were the Nigerian writers of my childhood.

More contemporary writers: Rotimi Babatunde for his short stories, Teju Cole for his essays, and Chimamanda Adichie for Half of a Yellow Sun.

Anyone interested in Nigerian writing can start with Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon, a book that has an alien invasion set in Lagos, or Igoni Barett’s Blackass, another book set in Lagos, but like a reverse-Samsa where a man wakes up and finds out he has become white save for the patch of skin on his buttocks. Then they can also google Nigerian books and follow the links.

As a introduction to newer Nigerian writers and stories that I like, the following is a reading list: Lesley Nneka Arimah, Chikodili Emelumadu, Bunmi Familoni, Wole Talabi, Pemi Aguda, Ayobami Adebayo.

What are you reading now?

I just finished reading Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, which took me longer than usual due to a combination of illness and school work. This extended time I spent with it probably affects how I view it. There’s something about experimentation with form that excites me, especially when the writer is able to take it beyond being merely art-for-art’s sake, into a story that moves me. I laughed in some parts, took pictures of some pages to send to a friend, and lowered my hand in a bus after some chapters just to catch some fresh air and view how the world around me fared. Books I read recently and liked: Diane Cook’s Man vs. Nature; Nell Zink’s Wallcreeper.

Tell us about someone who has inspired you as a writer.

I’ve never had a teacher who inspired me into any kind of writing. None. For a while, however, Timi Yeseibo, who runs Livelytwist, where she blogs about life and posts  short fiction occasionally, has been a huge inspiration. She’s one of the first people I met when I started blogging who, while being very skilled, interacted with my work without any hint of condescension. The grace she takes into her conversations with strangers over the internet is the kind of thing that I keep in view in a world where brilliance is taken as an excuse for douchebaggery.

What words of encouragement/advice/suggestion do you have for the FF community? 

I have nothing but admiration for the FF community; I really can’t suggest anything to improve on what is happening already. The warmth in the interactions I see and the mutual respect these writers of immense talent have for one another is something I enjoy watching from a distance. Sure, part of this is because of Rebekah being a great host, but I know that’s not all there is to it. I can only ask members of the community to continue whatever they’re doing to make FF such a wonderful place of/for writing.

Anyone who has been writing for upward of two years can just ignore the advice I have to give here. But what I’ve found helpful, over anything else, is immersing myself in good writing wherever I see it. So I’ll say, read everyone: the dead Russians, the reclusive Brazilian and Italian women, the Jamaican prize winner, the racist British men, the brilliant black American essayists, the prolific Japanese men, the loony Irish short story writers. Take in as many experiences outside of your own, through books, as you can. Then write. Someone somewhere is reading you, and even if it’s not obvious yet, your best efforts are noticed and admired by them.

17 thoughts on “Spotlight on Nigeria: IfeOluwa Nihinlola

  1. IfeOluwa, thank you for your perspective. I really enjoyed reading your interview – your humility and dedication in the field of writing was deeply felt and appreciated. As a mama of three boys, I was touched by your accolade of writing mothers (like myself) – in America, writing mothers are not given as much as you have shown (motherhood, in general, is not). It also impressed me of your earnest perception on how much courage it takes for writers to share their work. So, thank you and best to you in your writing pursuits. May your voice provide clear resonance in a world where clarity is not always so kind or true.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Writing is hard enough. Anyone who can do it while taking care of little humans is only cape and spandex away from joining the Avengers.

      I still don’t know how to share my writing with beta readers without being anxious while waiting for their response, so I respect people who choose to send theirs to me.

      Thank you so much for your kind words.

      And I hope you find joy both in motherhood and writing.


  2. Wonderful thoughts, IfeOluwa. I love the hopefulness and precision here. I need to read more out of the usual circle of literary minds; if only reading well was all life required of us. 🙂


  3. Someone says ideas come from reading, so good advice about reading. We know this, I guess, but making the time…
    “…capture the things that flit through my mind…” I do this too. I might not remember ‘it’ later…

    I have been an inspiration? Now that’s a humbling thought. Thank you, Ifeoluwa! 🙂


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