Othuke Ominiabohs is a Nigerian novelist, poet and dramatist. A graduate of Computer Science from the University of Benin, Nigeria, his writings are influenced by experiences from the land of his birth. His published books include Chapters, a collection of poetry; Odufa, a play that was shortlisted for the 2014 Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature; Odufa: A Lover’s Tale, his first novel, which was shortlisted for both the 2016 Association of Nigerian Author’s Prize for Prose Fiction and the 2016 Grand Prix of Literary Associations in Cameroun; the acclaimed novel, A Conspiracy of Ravens; and his third and latest novel, Aviara: Who Will Remember You. He is also the Executive Director of the Nigerian publishing firm, Masobe Books. He talks about books, writing and publishing in this interview with CỌ́N-SCÌÒ MAGAZINE’s features editor Ehi-kowochio Ogwiji.
You come across as an eclectic writer in terms of preferred themes and genres. Though you do not yet have a full-length poetry collection, you authored a highly successful play, Odufa, and three successful prose works. Thematically, you have explored diverse themes of family, love, friendship, patriotism, militancy, corruption, betrayal, science, spirituality/metaphysical, fate, etc. All of these point to a rich mind. How did you evolve into this writer who writes across genres and themes? Which came to you first?
OTHUKE: I actually have a published collection of poetry titled CHAPTERS. For me, writing started with poetry. There was a time in my life where everything around me seemed to be unfolding or happening in stanzas. Poetry consumed me completely and I churned out poem after poem. I currently have 3 poetry anthologies that contain a total of about 400 poems. Maybe someday, I’d get to publish them and share this side of me with the world. Prose came next and Drama happened as a result of my desire to explore other forms of literary expression.
Currently, I enjoy prose the most because it gives me a lot of room to express my ideas better, even though you can still find my poetry in every sentence I write.
What led you to the crime fiction/thriller genre? It is common knowledge that this is not a genre many Nigerian writers currently write but you showed mastery of this genre in A Conspiracy of Ravens, and Aviara to some extent. What were your influences – any Nigerian writer/books among them?
OTHUKE: Writing for me has always been about three things: entertainment, the burning desire to express a profound thought, and a need to seek answers to one or more of the many questions that I have struggled to comprehend, like questions about life, death, fate and ancestry. And these ideas screaming to be let out, do not come in labelled boxes. They come simply as they are – stories ready to be told.
So when I wrote A CONSPIRACY OF RAVENS, I simply told a story I had always wanted to share, and didn’t care much if it was crime fiction, thriller or Literary fiction. The story decides its form, as can also be seen in the trajectory of AVIARA, my latest novel. And my greatest influence, outside the James Hadley Chase, Robert Ludlum and Sydney Sheldon books I binged on as a teenager, is my environment. If you live in Lagos for instance, writing ‘thrillers’ will almost come second nature to you, because an average Lagosian’s day in itself is a thriller.
Your highly acclaimed novel A Conspiracy of Ravens mainly explores Nigeria’s tricky socio-political landscape and the resource control agitations in Nigeria’s Niger Delta region. Being a Niger-Deltan yourself, how personal are these themes to you? Did the novel achieve what hoped to achieve, especially given the fact that the situation in the region remains largely the same?
OTHUKE: I grew up in the heart of the Niger Delta. I have lived through terrible roads, lack of infrastructure, insecurity and all the ills that could possibly bedevil a people. In fact, my community, a beautiful town called Aviara in Isoko South LGA, hasn’t had electricity in almost 15 years. So yes, the themes captured in my book are quite close to home. As a writer, I owe it to the past and the future to document this time period in the history of our people. I also owe it to the present to shine the light on our circumstances.
My tools however are pen and paper. Is it not said of the former to be mightier than the sword?
In its review of your most recent novel ‘Aviara: Who Will Remember You?’ the Daily Trust newspaper described your novel as a “metaphor for a nation in need of a saviour”. Was the book’s original purpose: to protest the ills in our nation? Or is this a label you would wash your hands away from like Pilate at Jesus’s trial?
OTHUKE: Aren’t all our books metaphors for a nation in need of a saviour? Our stories are simply a reflection of the times.
This brings us to the question of art for art’s sake or art for social good? Looking at the themes of both A Conspiracy of Ravens and Aviara, One may be tempted to assume you write with social good at the forefront of your intentions. Where do you stand on this?
OTHUKE: At the forefront of my intentions is a need to entertain. Of course to whom much is given, much is expected in return. This means I do not write in a vacuum, or rather I do not ‘entertain’ in a vacuum. There is so much to be said, so many questions to be asked, ills to be addressed . . . so much that even a thousand books will still not be enough to cover it all. So I write, first to entertain, and in the same vein, to question/address whatever pressing concerns there may be.
I write, first to entertain, and in the same vein, to question/address whatever pressing concerns there may be
There is a never-dying ‘self-publishing vs traditional publishing’ debate: some argue that self-published books are inferior to traditionally published books. This perspective is reinforced by the fact that several prizes only accept traditionally published books. On the other hand, there are many highly successful self-published books. As a publisher and author, where do you stand in this debate? Should writers consider self-publishing or keep chasing that traditional publishing deal?
OTHUKE: I think it’s a good thing to get traditionally published. It will save the author money, time and other resources that the traditional publisher will incur in the writer’s stead. But this does not in any way negate self-publishing as a viable option to get one’s book out there. Especially in this time and age of the internet and ebooks, any writer can access millions of readers within the blink of an eye.
I started out as a self-published author myself, and would totally recommend going that route in the event that you do not find a traditional publisher to take your manuscript off your hands.
Your publishing firm Masobe Books is fairly a new entrant but it is already a notable name in the industry, publishing several amazing Nigerian literature from big-name authors with high print quality. What is your motivation and, without naming figures of course, can you say you have matched the obvious literary success with financial success… or is this a long term project with future gains?
OTHUKE: I have a strong desire to give Nigerian readers a wide range of book options to choose from. One of the things I noticed as a writer and a reader was that the Nigerian literary space was dominated by literary fiction. I found this odd and disappointing as I hungered for other Nigerian stories: action stories, adventure stories, romance novels, Sci-fi, horror, middle-grade books… the list of possible sources of literary excitement is endless. I also realised that a lot of people didn’t fancy reading because they couldn’t find what they enjoyed and what was available wasn’t their cup of tea. So I decided to do something about it.
We’ve started a journey at Masobe Books, and at barely two years old, we still have a lot to learn, investments to make, so as to live up to the promise of excellence we made to our readers.
…a lot of people didn’t fancy reading because they couldn’t find what they enjoyed and what was available wasn’t their cup of tea.
Distribution is one of the biggest problems of the Nigerian publishing industry. This is followed by the high cost of publishing materials and a market that is increasingly turning to digital products. How is Masobe Books tackling these problems? Do you think the print book will survive the continuous onslaught of digital (literary) products for much longer?
OTHUKE: I honestly don’t think the printed book is going anywhere anytime soon. Currently, statistics show that the printed book is still millions of dollars ahead of ebooks in sales. But to reach all audiences, we’ve collaborated with notable platforms to showcase our digital products.
You can get Masobe titles from Bambooks and also from Amazon, and also from the Masobe Books website (www.masobebooks.com/bookstore) where we have a digital store.
It is tough enough to be either a successful writer or a successful publisher. But you have managed to become successful at both and, in Nigeria where the general consensus is that the industry is not profitable for both authors and publishers. How do you manage to combine them?
OTHUKE: Grace: The race really isn’t for the swiftest. Passion: This is what I have always dreamed of – to live a life of books. Determination: Anything worth doing is worth doing well, so I give it my all.
Writers often attribute their literary success to reading a lot of books from an early age and often advise younger writers to do the same. Is this true for you too? If yes, what books what kind of books do you enjoy reading?
OTHUKE: I agree. Growing up, I read a lot of books. Notable among them are, Arabian Nights, Cheer Up Brother by S.M.O Aka, When a Child is Motherless by Andrew Okogba, African Child by Camara Laye, One Week, One Trouble by Anezi Okoro. This list can go on and on.
Forgive me for thinking that you’re an introvert and/or a deliberately obscure person, considering that you play big in the Nigerian literary scene – author of acclaimed novels and a publisher with A-list writers like Abubakar Adam Ibrahim under your belt – and yet there seems to be very little of you online… Is this deliberate? Whether yes or no, can you use this opportunity to share a few interesting (obscure) things about you with our readers?
OTHUKE: This is who I am. I enjoy working behind the scenes. I love books, I play chess, I love listening to music and I’m a foodie.
What should we be expecting next from you?
OTHUKE: Not sure. But I’m considering a novel or a short story collection. Maybe poetry.
Lastly, for publishing-hopefuls reading this interview, does Masobe Books accept unsolicited manuscripts? Is there a submission period what are the preferred genres, if any?
OTHUKE: Yes we accept unsolicited manuscripts. Our submission period at Masobe Books is in February and March of every year. Visit our submissions page on our website at www.masobebooks.com for more info.