27 Feb Q & A: Bolaji Olatunde the Author of Hang No Clothes Here on Music, African Customs and his Favourite Authors.
Q. Tell us a little about yourself.
A: I’m a young Nigerian male, in case there’s any confusion. I was born and bred in Benin City, Nigeria. Daytime accountant, night time aspiring writer. Music lover, movie goer, news junkie.
Q. What prompted you to write Hang no Clothes Here?
A: Hang no Clothes Here was written because in the course of reading recent novels by relatively younger Nigerian writers of the 2000s, I’d noticed that Nigerian police officers were grossly underrepresented. Police officers are on the fringes of these stories—waka pass, as we say in Pidgin English. For such a large demographic, I felt that was a bit out of order, especially for a population of law enforcement that is almost 400,000. Plus, I grew up reading Nigerian police stories written in the 1970s and ‘80s. I felt I had to contribute to filling the void.
Q. In your work, there seems an argument that people in the diaspora should come back and develop the continent. Please comment briefly on that.
A: The main character in Hang no Clothes Here, John Braimoh, expresses that thought and it’s a view I share, by and large. The Asian economic giants, Japan, South Korea, et cetera, did not develop because their intellectuals fled from their homelands and never looked back, or never added their intellect and expertise to national development efforts. I exclude the “sweet” art of criticizing Africa’s leaders from this term “intellect” because I’m considering the actual hard work of training Africa’s youth, tomorrow’s leaders, as the cliché goes. The cowardice of training Africa’s youth “through the global classroom of the internet” will not be sufficient excuse for those who are training the West’s youth, and the offspring of Africa’s thieving leaders, in the relatively affluent cities of that part of the world because as I’ve heard one of these elite diaspora African intellectuals say, “Poverty is overrated.” There has always been a trend for African intellectuals to flee the continent, and never look back, and it’s because few are interested in doing the dirty work. Africa’s most revered scholars have been those who lived most of their lives teaching in the West, for instance Ali Mazrui, whom I adore. The African ethos of “community first” is a dying concept. “Me first” is the new “community first.” Africa’s development isn’t going to come about by having its brightest and best brains outside the continent. These top brains are raising western brains and propping up even further western economies to remain the domineering forces they’ve always been. So, it’s often amusing to witness the condescension with which Africans in the diaspora regard us, the home-based, putting our energies into developing the continent. When black Africans find themselves interacting with Caucasians, they attain god-like status in their own eyes, and in the eyes of some of us home-based. Internalized racial inferiority. You said briefly. I’ll leave it here. Q. You seem to have to have a liking to Yoruba cosmology. What is your opinion of African Traditional Religion, culture and western religions?
A: Writing the novel was a journey of self-discovery. I grew up without wide enough knowledge of Yoruba cosmology; I learnt a little bit about the Bini cosmology in secondary school, but it wasn’t wide either. Over the four years I spent writing the book, I interacted with knowledge of Yoruba cosmology as best as I could, speaking with those who had greater knowledge than I had, and reading as widely as possible. Wole Soyinka once said our mythologies shouldn’t be considered inferior to imported ones. I believe he was referring to the mythologies that accompanied the Abrahamic faiths that are predominant in our society now. I agree. Many Nigerians consider the cosmologies of their ethnic origins to be fetish. That’s just sad.
Q. A discerning reader notices that the influence of music on some characters in the novel. So, who are three most favourite individuals?
A: Music is the best thing ever invented, outside food and sex. Without music, my writing would have been very different. One of my addictions is listening to music while writing. I don’t do that when editing though! Editing is a more serious business for me. It’s been a habit of mine to infuse the emotions that different types of music elicits in me, in my writing. For instance, if I need to write a dark scene, I seek out dark music on my playlist and put it on repeat. When you spot a music title in my work, you can bet your last kobo that it’s a sort of diary of the music I was listening to at the time of drafting that particular portion of the work. For instance, while writing Hang No Clothes Here, a beautiful song, Salif Keita’s “Tomorrow,” helped me to channel the feelings of a father who has just lost a son.
My three favourite characters in order: Dennis Omoruyi (the most fun to write, despite his flaws), John Braimoh (for his strength and love of family) and Kerry (for her fierceness and knowledge).
Q. In some quarters, it is believed that African literature should stop engaging the past, rather it should portray and speculate the future. The real question is, do you think literature should continue to engage history? how?
A: Of course, yes! Literature should continue to engage history. Someone wants ALL African writers to join the Afrofuturism School—not going to happen soon. Creative people should be left to write as “the spirit leads.” I often say that I write about the “only type of living I know”—my writing is rooted in reality. I’m still trying to process the past and the present, and my writing does that for me. For those of us who have demanding day jobs, there’s little time to understand the bigger picture of the day to day happenings around us, which is why I set my novel in 2011 which was an epochal year not only personally for me, but also for Nigeria, and I needed some benefit of the hindsight to understand it better. I’ve given it some thought though, to be frank, but I’m presently not at that phase in my creativity. Never say never. I could move in that direction someday.
Q. Who are greatest influences in literature and writing?
A: It’s a long, long list! Norman Mailer, Wole Soyinka, James Baldwin, Chinua Achebe, Paul Theroux, Fredrick Forsythe. I enjoy reading a lot of nonfiction too, biographies, autobiographies and historical accounts of epochal events.
Q. Who are your two most favourite authors?
A: This is a tough one o! Gun to my head—I’d pick titles by Wole Soyinka and Paul Theroux. There’ll always be something for me to learn, and humour too.
Q. Are you currently working on anything?
A. I’ve got two projects going on simultaneously. One, a nonfiction project about one of the first wave of Edo citizens who migrated to Italy in the 1970s, and returned to Nigeria, a very colourful character who has had a successful life. The second project is fiction, and a lot less serious than Hang No Clothes Here—something light, like the Falz song goes.
Q. Last words
A. Last words are for those who haven’t said enough. Okay, seriously, Nigerians, please support your writers o! Stop asking for free copies of the books we publish—they cost money to produce. If we gave everyone free copies, with which money would we produce new books?