Wednesday, June 15, 2011

ENGAGING ESSENTIALS on the Saraba Workshop

Late last month, Saraba Mag organised a writing workshop in Ife. Here's a concise report. More power to your elbow Saraba. Here's to years of publishing!

Our decision to hold a writing workshop was motivated by the need to engage with a wider, less virtual, audience of emerging writers. In a little above two years of operation, Saraba published the work of over hundred emerging writers, of both Nigerian, African and non-African descent. Yet, it seemed Saraba was only read by people introduced to our work online; and it is clear that there are more people offline than online in Nigeria, for instance.

We started Saraba in Ile-Ife, in the Obafemi Awolowo University campus, where from previous engagements I can tell that there are a good number of students interested in honing their craft. So, we set up an application system, talked with the management of the newly commissioned Natural History Museum, and printed publicity materials, with the hope that about 40 people would apply to be part of the workshop. Of course, knowing we had no funding, it seemed consequential to ask participants to pay a tuition fee.

We got less than ten applications, disappointingly, but this turned out to be a blessing in disguise. One student gave the excuse that Continuous Assessment Tests were on, and the price was too high – of course these were excuses, and we kept deaf ears to any insinuation for postponement or reduction of tuition fee (participants were required to pay the sum of N3, 500). 

The participants included Mobolaji Atolagbe, Ayomipo Adegeye, Damilola Daramola, Odunuga Busola, Tobi Adebowale, Onobraekpeyan Efeoghene, Ilori Tomiwa, Adebola Ajiboye, Emeka Oyiana, and our Publishing Assistant, Yemi Soneye. The Facilitators included Saraba’s publishers and editors – Damilola Ajayi and Biyi Olusolape (Poetry); Ayobami Famurewa and Emmanuel Iduma (Fiction); and Arthur Anyaduba (Non-Fiction).

The first day, 26 May, began with a talk by Emmanuel Iduma titled “On Alternative Careers and Artistic Practice,” which was hinged on the contemplation of merging the creative life with other career pursuits. We also had the opportunity of watching the video of Chris Abani’s talk in TED (2007). The video stimulated a long conversation on narrative and Africa, as well as a brief consideration of what it meant to be African, to write about Africa, and the ideal African representation in a work. And then Arthur Anyaduba gave a talk on “A Diverse Mind: The Artist as a Learner” in which he declared that all artists, not less writers, were ‘mad’ people. 

But Arthur’s declaration was less controversial than the second day’s conversation between the facilitators and participants. Tagged “Learning to Write – A Case for Teaching Creative Writing,” the facilitators were unevenly divided on the question of whether anyone can be taught to write, or what was the basic purport of creative writing schools. We watched the second video with relative peace – a short video by MIT’s The Media Lab, which raised the question of whether technology can be humanized. We had, from the first day, asked participants to write their reactions to the videos. This gave us the opportunity to receive and be engaged with a wide range of thought and perspective for subjects raised in the video.

Damilola Ajayi’s talk “The Artist and An Imagined Audience” seemed to probe the question of who the writer was writing for, whether a writer is an audience as much as a reader is. This talk was followed by a roundtable discussion of the work of participants. More participants were interested in fiction, and so we decided it was better if we sat in a single group and listened to participants read a part of their work and then talk about each work. Our final talk for the day was by Ayobami Famurewa who spoke on “Signposts on the Road to Publishing” which gave participants the opportunity to have a brief insight into the enterprise of publishing on a national and international scale. 

I believe the first two days built a momentum for the third, by which time Biyi Olusolape had arrived to join other facilitators. His talk centred on the need to reinvent the internet by artistic means, which seemed to have corroborated the amazing work of JR, French winner of the TED Prize 2011, whose video on TED we watched. After this, we listened to each participant and facilitator respond to “What I would like to read,” under one minute. This was followed by further interaction between the facilitators and participants on work produced by participants. Unlike the day before, there were two groups for fiction and one group for poetry, which made our interaction intense and individual. 

Perhaps our most ambitious project was a sort of ‘city meet-up.’ We walked from the location of the workshop to the campus bus-stop. We tasked ourselves with writing what we observed, under 15 minutes. This proved revealing and one participant, in his response, said it made him see things about the University he had never seen before. The final event of the workshop was a conversation between the facilitators on publishing and reading culture in Nigeria, and Saraba’s role in publishing and (re)building a reading culture. (All Talks by facilitators and this conversation are available for download on our website. Please see for photos of the workshop and for download links).

So, did we set out to achieve what we imagined? It is difficult to make bold claims, and I avoid such. We had blessings, and perhaps it is only our financial projection that fell flat. Our blessings, in disguise, included a good rapport with the Museum Staff (the kindness of Dr (Mrs) Yetunde Taiwo and Professor O. Ige is notable). Of course, there was the blessing of the small size of participants which helped us to achieve an intense process. And then, this enabled us to define and refine the fraternity that exists amongst us, those of us who work together for the apparent reason that we are friends, first, before colleagues. I think our friendship is important for what we are doing – otherwise a cashless enterprise like ours might have floundered a long time ago.

More importantly, I believe we engaged, for the first time, with the physicality and essentiality of our goal. Can young emerging writers be given the opportunity to grow? We have said yes to this every time, this time no less different. 

We have set up a post-workshop process, in which participants are to work with us for a period of 6 months, sending in their work and having our responses monthly. I like this, because I think it is more important than the workshop itself. And more fruitful.

This is the first of a series of workshop; we do not know when a second would take place. But I have always thought that Saraba’s walk, in any direction, always begins like a blind man’s walk in the rain. His eyes usually open as soon as he takes his second step. 

We shall take a second step, because growth is essential.

Emmanuel Iduma

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