Sunday, June 14, 2009

'Poor Citizens=Poor Reading Culture': Tolu Ogunlesi

When and why did you decide to become a writer?

I don’t know… I remember writing a novel – and actually finishing it – when I was twelve.

What is the secret to being a fine writer?
Wanting it so badly that nothing else appears good enough as an alternative. And sometimes, discovering that you are hopeless at every other thing helps.

Your first story published
My first real published story was titled 'Solemn Avenue', and it was published in the PEN Anthology of New Nigerian Writing (edited by Femi Osofisan, Remi Raji and Ronnie Uzoigwe) in 2003. Helon Habila’s “Prison Stories” inspired the story. But before then I had been writing loads of poetry.

Greatest achievement in writing career
Every bit of success, at the time of its attainment, insists on being the greatest. And that, I think is how it should be. When an email comes into my box telling me about a success (publication/competition), it doesn’t care about yesterday’s email, or tomorrow, bringing bigger news. All it does is ask me to rejoice, which I do.

Favourite writer of all time
I haven’t got any one favourite writer. Everyday I encounter new ones, each one loved for a unique reason

When is the best time for you to write?
Anytime… so long as I can quell the loud whisperings of all my procrastinating spirits

Which historical figure do you most identify with? 
King Solomon I think. He was a rich poet… which I wouldn’t mind being. Plus he wrote great love poetry. And his poetry outlived him.

Which talent would you most like to have? 
The ability to read people’s minds… or the patience to learn anything I’d love to be a master of.

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
Hopelessness… that state in which you look all around and all is silence and pitch darkness

What is your philosophy of life?
I don’t have any one philosophy, but if I had to say something, it’d be this: Life is Short, Art is Long, but No Long Thing (which I’d translate to mean: Work hard but never take yourself too seriously)

What is the hardest thing to write about?
Sometimes, everything can be equally hard to write about… the act of writing is in itself the hardest thing about writing. Which is why someone said: “Many people don’t want to write, they only want to have written…”

Who is your perfect reader?
A person who comes to a book with eagerness, curiosity and a wide open mind.

Who are your literary heroes?
Too many to mention. Seriously.

What is the last thing you read that made you laugh?
Brian Chikwava’s Harare North and Adaobi Nwaubani’s I do not come to you by chance. I love both books, and will be reviewing them.

What book changed your life?
One book? I’m afraid I haven’t yet read it. Books usually don’t have to change lives before they can be deemed successful… and of course books often have very different purposes; every book I’ve read has done something to me, in many cases you can’t tell until much later, months, years even… all the books I have ever encountered have changed my life in their own unique ways.

What is the strangest research you’ve done?
I haven’t really written on any strange topics yet… but I remember how agonizing it was to find out about the art of molue painting when I was working on a recent piece of mine… one lunch time saw me wandering around Obalende…

Have you ever imitated another writer’s style?
All the time. Okay, not all. But most of the time. You often can’t help it, what you read influences what and how you write, often unconsciously. Life as a writer is often about being at the mercy of a million competing voices in your head, offering possibilities on how and what to write about… what they call your voice or your style is a mélange of all these voices, whipped into shape by your own stubbornness and instinct…

How do you choose your characters?
I’ll go for the cliché – I don’t choose them, they choose me. And I say thank you for choosing me. What did you see in me that made you choose me?

What inspires your writing?
Everything… sights and sounds, visions and voices, dreams and doubts. A wall gecko in the morning bathtub is the father of an afternoon poem in the spiral-bound notebook.

What is the worth of a book?
Not the paper on which it is printed, not the recommended retail price. A book is worth the vision that inspired it and brought it to completion, it is worth all the time that went into it, worth all the crushing self-doubt that hammered it into shape…

Which of your works was the most challenging for you to write?
It doesn’t get any better, every one has been bloody challenging… a blank page doesn’t respect any credentials you shove in its face – at least in my case. Every time I have to start from the beginning.

What book would you give to someone who had time-travelled from another era, to paint a picture of the 21st century?
The internet – collected into a book

What sort of books would be your guilty pleasure?
In truth, no book should have to be a guilty pleasure. Some books are read to be struggled with, others to escape into… but I think that reading, like eating, should be a balanced diet, all classes should be represented on the diet. And with reading, unlike eating, junk is often permissible… so long as you have your notions of what is junk and what is not, and can defend them if you have to … I love to read biographies and autobiographies and business management books, and they are certainly not guilty pleasures…

Solution to poor reading culture in Nigeria
I’d hate to sound simplistic, but poor citizens is equal to poor reading culture. When people have to spend all their time making ends meet, what time – or money – do they have to read? The solution to what they call Nigeria’s poor reading culture is to increase the per-capita income… which increases disposable income. And of course, bring the public education system back to life again.

Five years on as a writer: what are your aspirations?
To have written and published a novel, and perhaps a full-length non-fiction book.

What does it mean to be a writer?
Hanif Kureishi defined it as “indolence, perversion, uselessness and hanging around.” I’ll let you know when I find a better definition. But in the meantime I’ll add “unexplained moments of pure, wild euphoria” to the list.

Tolu Ogunlesi is everywhere on the internet but can be found on his blog.

All bloggers are writers (well, in a way) but not all writers are bloggers; we are set to haunt out writers that blog. And guess what? You can suggest them to us...

Tolu was the first...hope you enjoyed this interview; send us your comments, it means a lot to us!


  1. Great interview Tolu!

    For writers that blog,may I suggest Abidemi Sanusi - her blog is

  2. Really good interview, Tolu. Great questions!

  3. Nice interview, I wouldn't agree that Naija has a poor reading culture, but say we did, lack of time has nothing to do with it imho. Access to books is the main problem, when I was a broke college student in the states I could pop into the thrift store around teh corner and pick up books for as low as 10cents sometimes, at this current exchange rate, that is like 15 naira, where in this our dear Nigeria will you find books for that price? Time is not a factor when it comes to reading culture, I say books are too expensive in Nigeria.

  4. lovely one uncle tolu!! :D

    bookaholic...gr8 work. keep it up!

  5. Nice interview. I am with thisday on this one. Nigerians READ. we do have to stop believing that we don't or else our books will never be read as we won't make any effort to push them out there. The problem is publicity and availability. Let Tolu tell me 5 accessible places in lagos I can find his novella.

  6. Great post, Bookaholic(s). I enjoyed the depth that Tolu Ogunlesi has put into the answers. I think he's right about how to improve the cultural lives of people everywhere, not just in Nigeria.

    & thanks for dropping a comment over at my blog - I'll add this one to my reader!

  7. Insightful interview, and the quintessential Toluesque humour nicely slipped in.

    uche peter umez

  8. Nice interview Bookaholic. I think I like you Tolu.

  9. Nice interview. Molara Wood blogs too, wordsbody i think

  10. @ Everyone: thank you all for your kind comments on this post. It's very encouraging...