Thursday, March 03, 2011

Conversation with Kola Tubosun, Author and Linguist

Kola Tubosun, Author
I first met Kola Tubosun's writing in African Roar, a short story anthology edited by Ivor Hartmann and Emmanuel Sigauke and published by StoryTime e-Magazine. Kola describes himself as a linguist and has received education in Kenya, Nigeria and the United States. He agreed to be interviewed by ImageNations on issues ranging from his personal literary works, to the literary arts in Nigeria and his perception of literature on the continent. 

Brief us on your literary Works (as a writer, editor etc)
My first published collection of poetry was called Headfirst into the Meddle. It’s out of print at the moment. I have worked as a freelance editor for for a while now and a contributing writer for Sentinel Nigeria. I also have a blog at where I put my most spontaneous thoughts, and other creative writings: poems etc. Much of my other writings are online in various places. My short story Behind the Door was published in the first African Roar anthology published by Story Time. My poem “Here, Moving” also won the Sentinel Bar Challenge in 2006 and was published in Sentinel Online issue #49. These days I occasionally write travel articles for Nigerian newspapers, tweet when I am less busy, contribute to, and take pictures of places that interest me – all stimulating exercises, actually. In my day job, I’m a linguist and an ordinary guy, depending on who you ask.

My first encounter with your writing was Behind the Door in the African Roar Anthology. This was a very simple story but the anxiety, emotions, and tension that was packed in was overwhelming. How did you come to write that story?
Thank you. Responses to it have been overwhelming. Writing that story began with a real encounter at the hospital that I found quite moving but it began as an attempt to share my experience with friends. Then I sent it out to Ivor the editor of Story Time who wrote me back that he loved it. That gave me the needed encouragement. I worked on it a little more until I arrived at the final form that was first published on the Story Time website. Those who read it first on Facebook read a version with a different ending from that one published on the Story Time website, and so did those who read it for the first time in the African Roar anthology. It started out as a report of a hospital visit and ended up as a work of fiction with required embellishments. I like the fact that it gave me a chance to contribute to the discourse on health, attitudes, and society from my own vantage point. I try not to re-read it again nowadays because I still find things to add or remove. I’m glad you like it. I’m working on a few more.

You have a published book of poetry titled Headfirst into the Meddle. Tell us about this book: the overarching theme, about the title. 
Headfirst into the Meddle is a collection of much of my early poems written between 1996 when I started writing poetry and 2005 when I left the University. The subtitle of the collection was “consciousness sustained,” and the title of the book derives from my attempt to define that crucial period of questioning and turbulence. I decided to put them all in a book form because I walking away from that mental and emotional epoch that I may never recover, nor care about anymore after then. It is a crystallization of that early stage of my precociousness, and those who reviewed it agreed.  It has about fifty poems, including “Creation Story,” the one that won the Christopher Okigbo Poetry Prize in 2004. I can say that if you’re interested in my poetic development, influences and early foibles, you might find some insight in the work. More than a third of it contains lines exploring love. The other parts explore the many facets of life, using different poetic crafts that had influenced me up until then. I was a romantic once ;).

What do you love most about poetry: the sound of the words or the riddle nature of that art?
I got into English poetry because of a fascination with rhymes and the sound of words. It’s strange when I think about it. I mean, my father wrote and recorded poetry in a different language and I was interested in his craft at some point but I hadn’t been very interested in going deeply into that direction. He also had this huge copy of The Complete Works of Shakespeare in his library that I eventually cadged off him. But then I couldn’t read it because of the language. Then one day, someone showed me what had been in front of me the whole time and I’d not seen – that the last words of each line of Shakespeare’s poems rhymed with another, and I was amazed. It was like suddenly getting my eyes opened after a long period of blindness. I pored through the book like a maniac after then, amazed by each page turning to see that rhyming was such a huge part of Shakespeare’s poetry, and drama. So sound plays a very important role to me when writing poetry. It has become a fascinating challenge for me to be able to create something as fun and as beautiful without losing sight of meaning and craft in the process. But it’s as much about the music it makes to your ears and eyes as about the overall meaning it makes to the reader, and the relief it gives to the writer for having completed it. It’s a science of sorts, and I like science.

What ticks you more, Poetry or Fiction?
I’m actually a huge fan of drama and non-fiction. But I’ve written more poems than plays or prose fiction, so there.

What do you look for in a good fiction? You have listed books by Achebe, Soyinka, Coetzee, Feynman, Carlin, Dahl, Naipaul, and Milosz as authors of your all-time favourite books. What about these writers make you like them?
A good piece of writing for me must contain lucid prose and poetry and it must move. Those authors – some more than others – have shown how literature/writing can elevate human consciousness. Richard Feynman, by the way, is a physicist, and could as well be a poet or essayist if he had applied himself to it. I’ve been more influenced by his way of looking at the world through the prism of a series of simple truths of science. George Carlin – the Irish-American comedian is in my opinion one of the world’s best thinkers, and his ideas have given me new ways to look at language and craft – just like Orwell. You’d have noticed, what unites all these people you mentioned is that they write/wrote. Not all of them did fiction, but they all wrote well. Czeslaw Milosz’s Visions from San Francisco Bay took me on contemplations of new realities as observed through the eyes of someone removed by culture, epoch and language. You’ll most likely find me with works that situate themselves at such intersection of differing realities. I’m a big fan of literary memoirs too, so Soyinka and Naipaul come in nicely. I shouldn’t forget Maya Angelou either.

Any influences from these writers?
Plenty, of course. They have all written books that I will always buy and read over and over again. And let me not forget George Bernard Shaw with his highly irreverent plays and their equally irreverent, brilliant prefaces. These are some of the greatest thinkers that ever lived. A piece of writing is as good as how deeply it makes you think as how it makes you change the way you look at the world.

As a translator how much does language mean to you?
You mean, besides the fact that it puts food on my table? Plenty, in fact. Plenty of research by psychologists and neurologists has shown that bilinguals have a far lesser chance of developing Alzheimer’s disease, so that absolves me. There was another research published recently that claims that bilingualism can delay cognitive problems and increase one’s productive life. I think language is just the most fascinating tool known to man. It is what separates us from the lower animals – our ability to come up with the most complex, most arbitrary creative expressions from childhood to adulthood. A study in multilingualism makes it even better. It’s a whole new interesting world of fascinating discoveries, and it was inevitable that I’d find myself here. I’ve always been interested in words and their prospects. 

Recently, a whole argument erupted on the net over the use of language in literature: whereas some suggested that we should basically write in English because it is a kind of unifying language, others insisted that the language we write in isn’t a problem. What do have to say about this as a writer and translator?
I have written about my thoughts on that interesting debate on my blog and on What I believe is that even though it is inevitable that English becomes a global language of communication and interaction, writing first in a native language will add to the experience of that global identity rather than remove from it. Nobody wants to live in 1984 where everyone thinks and behaves in the same way, using the same speech. Were this not the case, there will be no Catholic Mass in Latin today and Moslems won’t pray in Classical Arabic anymore. I recently also discovered that the Yoruba language has also survived in much of its original form in the art and performance of the religion of the Caribbean. Candomblé, for example. What the sustenance of those languages in religious literature show us is that there is a particular kind of experience that can only be gleaned within certain linguistic or cultural frames. It is a disservice to the cultural kaleidoscope of the world today to try to deny us of such experience by shutting us up under one language lid. That that language must be English alone is worse, another contentious issue of its own. It insults the beauty of our collective cultural and religious diversities.

Still on the issue of language, how easy it is for you when you are translating from Yoruba to English? Are there always one-on-one expressions in Yoruba and English?
Translating from Yoruba to English is easy. I don’t get paid to do that much. What is hard is translating from English to Yoruba, and this is because of many elaborate ways in which the Yorubas express themselves. And since I work in the field of information technology, it is always hard to come up with one-to-one translation equivalents from the one language to the other. One more difficulty comes from realizing that improvisation is not always the way out, except one is translating fiction – in which case, it’s comes easier and more interesting. On the bright side, being on the front lines on the field of language technology makes it easy to say that it will become better and easier the farther we go along. I’m already compiling my own personal translating dictionary that others can use.

I didn’t want to ask you this but it is nudging me to ask. What’s the writing process like for you?
I’m erratic and compulsive at the same time. I could go for days without writing more than just a few emails and blog posts (and I consider those writings, by the way). Then when I want to get serious, I usually tell myself a few days ahead: “It might be a cool idea to write about this, or that, about the link between the attitude to names and human behavior” or some silly idea like that. Then I leave it and allow my subconscious to work up its many examples and references. And it always does. Usually, everything I see or hear from then on finds itself relating to the pressing idea in my head. So when I finally begin to write, I don’t stop much. I just sit down and get everything out. If it’s a blog post, I show it to a few people, and then publish it. If it’s an article for a newspaper or magazine, I close it and leave it for at least twelve hours without looking at it again, then return to it to edit later. This distance affords me some time to bring in a new perspective. 

Poetry is a little weirder. Out of nowhere, the inclination to write just takes over. I could be busy writing a homework assignment, or chatting with a friend, and then I’ll go silent, open a page, and write a poem, then return to the conversation. This is usually frustrating for the person on the other side of the conversation, or fascinating, depending on who they are.

I wrote one poem a few weeks ago when I was irked by the situation in Egypt when the president Mubarak was dithering on the demand that he resign. I had opened the blog page to write a post, and then I got disillusioned that anything I said wouldn’t make any difference. So I wrote a poem instead. I had not planned it. I started the first line and everything else came. I published it and went to bed. The next morning, I realized that it actually looked presentable, and I did a little editing. Many more people have reused and shared it since then, and that was encouraging. Sometimes, you never know how good something is until others have given feedback on it. In this case, it satisfied my own purpose of contributing to the discussion. There was nothing in prose that I could have written that could have achieved that level of impact with little effort. There’s something about a blank page that moves me to write – like an invitation to defile it. When I was younger and I used to draw, the urge would be to look for colour materials to spear the paper. Now, I’ll just write. Or draw. Sometimes the product is good, sometimes it isn’t. I don’t worry about it. Many of them are now lost in drafts in my inbox and laptop, and papers around the house. The poem, by the way, is titled "Like Mubarak, Like Gbagbo, Like Mugabe", and you can find it online via google. I encourage everyone to read and share it as widely as possible.

In this year’s shortlist of the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Africa Region, Nigeria has the second highest nominations in both the First Best Book and the Best Book categories with four nominations following South Africa’s seven. Do you say that this is a physical manifestation of an upsurge in quality literature coming from the region? Or is it just the presence of the bold publishing houses such as Cassava Republic and Farafina?
I think it’s a result of bold experimentation by writers, as well as the presence of bold publishers willing to take risks. 

African writers have complained that they find it harder to get published on the continent; hence it’s become almost every writer’s wish to leave the continent and fulfill his dream of becoming published. What can you say about this? 
Which African writers say this? South Africa is in Africa, isn’t it? I’m sure that most of those books shortlisted for the Commonwealth Prize were published in South Africa. I know that Penguin has its base there. I’m sure that if a book is good, any local or international publisher (residing on the continent) will publish it. The question is whether what the writers get in return for this offer is the same as what they will get from foreign publishers. I’m for a better publishing industry on the continent, no doubt, but I won’t knock those who decide to publish outside first. Let the writers choose their audiences and their mediums, but the work must be good, or it won’t matter where it is published.

Have you personally experienced this?
I was first published in Nigeria by a publisher without global links – which explains why the book is not on Amazon. But it really doesn’t matter where a book is published as it does what kind of prospect the publisher brings to the work, or what value the work brings to the world. If I publish my book again in the United States, it will be so that it is available to more people, especially those who would like to buy it online.

Nigeria is described as a literary giant on the continent. What do you think has contributed to this feat?
Size, mostly. We’re not smarter than everyone else.

How’s blogging at KTravula been like?
It’s been great, but I’ll have to direct you to my article in Saraba Magazine’s anniversary issue 7b. It’s titled “The Blank Page: On Blogging and other Botherations” except you have specific questions. In the article I wrote in detail about my experiences, frustrations, influences, and hopes for the blogging medium.

Which literary projects are you involved in? Any upcoming publications?
I recently rewrote one of Soyinka’s most famous poems, adapting the subject matter from racism to gender relations and attitudes. It is not yet published, but that was one exciting project to undertake. It will most likely be published online first so look out for it. I’m currently working towards my second collection of poems but I can’t tell you when to expect it in a book form either without the pressure and assurance of an assertive publisher. It will consist of about five year’s worth of writing, mostly less experimental than the ones in my first book. Again, they will be defining a certain time period in my creative development.

Last year, I was involved with a project to translate Richard Berengarten’s poem Volta to all world languages. I handled the Yoruba version, now available online. I’m currently translating one contemporary full length novel written by a Nigerian author in English into Yoruba, and that is very stimulating. The author has been very cooperative. When I’m done, we’ll still have to find publishers willing to put their weight behind it as a prospective adventure. Literary translation in Africa has usually been one-way: African language into English. With enlightenment and new technologies and sensibilities, there opens more prospects to get works translated back into the original languages and have people appreciate it on that level.

Thanks for taking time to response to these questions.
You are quite welcome. It’s been a pleasure.
A Note of Thanks: ImageNations seek to thank all writers who have been interviewed on this blog and would be interviewed in the future. It's not been easy getting authors to interview. There are those who believe that their 'status' does not allow them to be interviewed on tiny blogs such as this. However, I believe exposure is exposure. You might not know what a tiny blog could do to your readership. Besides, I am neither paid nor punished for the work being done here. Hence, I lose nothing when one declines to even reply such a request. I only increase in confidence. Thank you my readers for always taking time off to read and comment. I appreciate what you have been doing.


  1. Your interviews are always insightful regarding African literature and others that I may not be familiar. Thank you.

  2. So interesting, and I love that comment about Nigeria's size, not smartness, being responsible for it's literary status. I wish all writers were as candid!

  3. I like the question you asked about Nigerians and S. Africans dominating the commonwealth award. His answer is brilliant - publishers must take bold risks. I certainly agree with him. Interesting interview, bro.

  4. @Geosi, thanks. I believe so. We need to do this in Ghana too.

  5. I loved this interview, and think that Tubosun sounds like an amazingly intelligent and ambitious man. I remember the day that poetry opened up for me as well, and I began to really understand it, not only for it's words, but for it's ideas and construction as well. I would love to read his book of poetry, and thank you immensely for sharing this very interesting and stimulating interview!

  6. Thanks Zibilee. I really feel what you are saying.

  7. This interview is great! Love the selection of questions and his answers were insightful. I especially liked his description of the writing process - "something about a blank page that moves me to write – like an invitation to defile it." On a slightly different note, have you reviewed "Behind the door?" I would love to read it... and perhaps the book itself.

  8. @yeh, thanks. Actually Behind the Door is a short story in the anthology African Roar which I reviewed on this blog almost a year ago. This is the link

    It contains some brilliant pieces too.

  9. @yeh, sorry I gave you the wrong link. Besides, I used the wrong link in the interview. I have changed it. This is the correct one;

  10. Wow, what a fantastic interview! So much here that makes me want to go learn more. And the rewriting of Soyinka's poem to tackle gender relations and attitudes sounds fantastic too. Thank you for this!


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