07 May Uche Peter Umez interviews Jerry Alagbaoso [Specks in our Eyes; Origami Books 2015]
8 Questions for Jerry Alagbaoso
“Satire does not hurt openly but it can hurt psychologically, if deep thinking is applied to its substance.”
Jerry Alagbaoso holds a B. Ed (Hons) History/Drama (subsidiary) and a Master’s in Adult Education, specializing in Industrial Relations, from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. He is a teacher, founding parent of a renowned secondary school, philanthropist and author. He has written over seven plays, namely Honourable Chairman, The First Lady, The Armchair Parents, His Excellency and the Siren, Signs and Wonders, Sorters and Sortees and most recently, Specks in our Eyes. He also has two non-fiction books to his credit: Eyes Right, and Officers and Men. He has endowed a couple of literary prizes in Imo State under the auspices of Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA). As at the time of the interview, Jerry Alagbaoso, who retired voluntarily from the Nigeria Customs and joined politics, is a two-time member of the House of Representatives, and in spite of his schedule, still creates time for writing.
Umez: It seems that you were already a public servant before you decided to be a writer. How did you start writing? What was the first literature you read that inspired you to become a writer?
Alagbaoso: It depends on one’s definition of a writer or who is a writer. From our secondary school days you could decipher a potential author through his or her writing talents and techniques. What I mean here is that although writing is an intellectual thing but I hope I may not be stimulating an unnecessary argument if I say from a layman’s point of view on creative writing that a good writer may not necessarily be an author of well packaged books.
To that extent, I only started creating and packaging books as an author when I became or was employed as a public servant – when I wrote some didactic books for students and some non-fiction books for adults, especially those inclined to paramilitary services.
The first sets of inspiring literatures which I read included Julius Caesar, West African Verses (Poem), Tale of Two Cities, Things Fall Apart, English Register, Mayor of Canterbury, History of Ideas, Wretched of the Earth, The Man died, How Europe under developed Africa and some books from African Writers’ Series. Of course, I read a lot of newspaper articles, biographies and autobiographies like My Odyssey by Zik, biographies of Ahmadu Bello and Aminu Kano and above all the Bible. While in university, I was taught Educational drama as a subsidiary teaching subject by Prof Adelugba, Prof Nwafor (then Dr Nwafor) in the Theatre Arts Department of the University of Ibadan and I must tell you, I enjoyed and appreciated watching live drama on the stage (if I still remember) like Our Husband has gone mad again Prof Rotimi, Langbode, (Festac 1977 play), Prof Osofisan’s Shattering and the songs, the Wise Ones by Soni Oti, Swaze Banze is Dead (South African play), Ipitombi (South African dance drama). There were many other plays, in fact, that influenced me because I became addicted to watching live plays nearly every weekend during my university days. So I can say that a variety of literatures inspired me into “writing” or “authorship”, if you like.
Umez: How do you balance literature, business and politics, seeing as you are well engaged in all three pursuits? How do you choose your subjects? Do you keep to a strict writing schedule?
Alagbaoso: This adage “give to Caesar what is Caesar and to God what is God” applies to me. First and foremost, I love academics and teaching. If I hadn’t joined the public service after my postgraduate studies in the 80s, I would have been a teacher or lecturer in the University; remember I studied some teaching subjects – Education, History and with Educational drama (Theatre Arts) as a subsidiary. Furthermore, I did my Master’s in Adult Education, specialising in Industrial Relations. So you can see how I have been able to manage the intersections of literature, business and politics in my life.
The role of Education as a profession helps me to be accommodating of literature or literary studies, while History and Industrial Relations provide me with the leverage for politics and business. Environment, it’s been said, is the master of man. So I am always conscious of my environment and I choose my subjects not only out of that consciousness but also based on organised observation, association, interpersonal relationship, listening and thinking.
Given my schedule, I usually write at night and on weekends.
Umez: I know you have written some non-fiction, so what made playwriting the right genre for you? How difficult is it to be a playwright, a satiric one, no less? Have you at any time considered writing fiction?
Alagbaoso: I am among those who believe that for anyone to be a playwright, they must be prepared to read, develop adequate writing skill, have and have the passion to work on a piece of work. You must learn to master some of the techniques of writing and, of course, create the time – to sit, be focused and write as well as continue to polish the work until it gets to a publishable standard. For me, a satire has to be instructive, revealing, corrective and, overall, humorous. However, the message you are hoping to pass across has to stimulate dimensional thinking without being a direct attack on issues, persons and institutions. A satire most times sends indirect messages and at the same time plays safe litigation-wise. For some time now, though, I have been thinking of exploring fiction, from the children or student’s perspective, in particular.
Umez: There is a strong humorous streak in your plays and they are all essentially satiric. What informs the use of satire in your writing? And what does it mean to you to be a satirist?
Alagbaoso: I am aware of the kegs of humour in me and these I usually transfer into my plays. Moreover, I grew up under parents, uncles and aunts who would usually send didactic and moral messages through humour and satirical proverbs, commentaries and anecdotes. Of course, satire does not hurt openly but it can hurt psychologically, if deep thinking is applied to its substance. After all, it has corrective and educational socio-political and religious underpinning which may be beneficial to the society, if decoded objectively. To be a satirist, one must be careful, creative, resourceful and lawful on how to put it to use and the limits of lampooning a particular subject or object.
Umez: Your plays are equally didactic, obviously aimed at moral rejuvenation. Sorters and Sortees exemplify the issue of sorting in tertiary institutions, the corrupt practices between lecturers and students. Signs and Wonders unravel the duplicitous practices by religious charlatans. The First Lady is very timely and telling, in that it reflects the electoral fraud and the practice of over-voting. Do you think literature can be deployed as a vehicle for social change?
Alagbaoso: This question seems to me as being over-flogged. If literature is not deployed as a vehicle for social change, is it for chieftaincy title ceremonies or social parties that it will be deployed? As a matter of fact, literature makes one listen, think, feel, observe, teach, act, speak, empathize, ask, seek and knock for more and more changes in the society. Every literature can be utilised as a powerful tool for socio-political, moral and cultural change, which is why writing and reading of literature ought to be encouraged at all times and in every learning space. Usually any time I write, I not only think of the messages or teachings that my works are meant to convey but also what I hope they might elicit from the readers.
Umez: Your latest play, “Specks in our Eyes”, has some strong-minded female characters, especially that of Lady Ijeoyibo. Was this in any way deliberate?
Alagbaoso: Yes, it was deliberate in the sense that I was once a Special Assistant to one time Assistant Comptroller General (ACG) in the Nigeria Customs Service: Mrs. Kofo Olugbesan. She had a strong personality in the Customs then. I admired her strength of character as far as the discharging of her duties was concerned. Lady Ijeoyibo reflects such strong female personalities.
In the House of Representatives, I have come across, especially during our oversight functions in the Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs), such like-minded determined characters like Aruma Oteh, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Stella Oduah, Omobola Johnson, Ochekpe Serah, Prof Viola Onwuliri, Olajumoke Akinjide, Hajia Zainab Maina, Akon Eyakenyi and Patricia Akwashiki. Lady Ijeoyibo in my play represents any of them.
Also in the House of Representatives, I have interacted with uncompromising women of honour like Rt. Hon. Mulikat Akande-Adeola, Uche Lilian Ekwunife, Abike Dabiri-Erewa, Elendu-Ukeje Nnenna Ijeoma, Nkeiru Onyejeocha, Khadijat Bukar Ibrahim, Apiafi Betty Okagua, Khadi Kaamuna Ibrahim, Binta Bello Maigari, Eucharia Azodo, Nkoyo Esu Ntoyo, Stella Dorgu, Ojakovo Omavosan Evelyn, Princess Stella Ngwu, Peace Uzoamaka Nnaji, Beni Lar, Christiana D. Alaaga, Rose Okoji Oko, Olajumoke Thomas, Blessing Nsiegbe Ibiba, Aisha Ahmed Dahiru, Rafeequat Onabamiro, Ayo Omidiran, Adebukola A. Ajaja to mention but some. There are some cerebral female legislators in the Senate, too. My play, Specks in Our Eyes, is a tribute to their charisma.
There are other strong willed female writers who come to my mind as I reflect on Lady Ijeoyibo in that play. Writers such as Prof Akachi Ezeigbo, Prof. Mabel Evwierhoma, Gloria Ernest-Samuel, Tess Onwueme, Funke Egbemode (a Sunday Sun columnist), Eugenia Abu (Executive Director programmes NTA) and Chimamanda Adichie, the multiple award winning novelist.
So the Lady Ijeoyibo, a strong character in Specks in our Eyes represents an honour to them and other women in the midst of male chauvinism. Of course, Ijeoyibo is the name of my late elder sister who loved and nurtured me the way any mother might, when I lost my real sweet mother. So the character Ijeoyibo in the play is part of my attempt at immortalising my late sister.
Umez: How has your being a politician change the way you think about literature? Has it much affected your artistic vision? Can you say a little about what your passion for literature has taught you?
Alagbaoso: Venturing into real politics has not in any way affected me negatively, regarding my artistic vision. I have said it in many fora that if everybody is interested in literature it means that everybody is into socio-political and religious guidance and counseling, which may provide a level playing field in all our human endeavour. After all, literature not only teaches but also corrects and remains a major factor in shaping positive or negative human inclinations. Indeed, my passion for literature has modified my system of thought and appreciation of education, in matters of life and death.
Umez: Who do you write for? Do you write for yourself or with an ear for your audience? And what are you working on now?
Alagbaoso: I write for students, the civil servants, and generally, the public. I write to elicit reactions, either positive or negative, from the audience. In fact, I support audience and actors/actresses-participation, for it allows for group cohesion, collective or general feelings and impacts, than individual feelings. My writing, of course, contains one or two useful messages that may stimulate dimensional thinking. Now, I am thinking aloud on what to work on, although it actually depends on how much time I am able to squeeze out of my crowded space.