Writer in Residence · 07/29/2013

Interview with playwright and fiction writer Rotimi Babatunde

My month as writer-in-residence is coming to a close. I’ve very much enjoyed sharing some of my thoughts and concerns about global fiction as well as introducing the work of other global-minded writers to this magazine. I want to end with a bang, however, and so I’ve enlisted a wonderful Nigerian talent to address global fiction from the perspective of a writer based in West Africa. I had the pleasure of getting to know Rotimi Babatunde when I lived in Nigeria, and he is a tremendous person—funny, biting and kind—as well as an important author to watch.

Babatunde’s fiction and poetry have been published in numerous literary magazines and anthologies, and his plays have been performed in multiple countries and broadcast on the BBC. His story “Bombay’s Republic” won the 2012 Caine Prize, Africa’s foremost literary award for short fiction. He lives in Ibadan, Nigeria.

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Mary Helen Specht: Although Nigeria once had a vibrant international publishing landscape, these days most successful Nigerian writers must look abroad for distribution. Bookstores selling (non-pirated) books are few, and most Nigerians can’t afford new books anyway. How does this situation affect your life as a fiction writer and playwright based in Nigeria? Do you see this challenging situation for West African literature changing anytime soon?

Rotimi Babatunde: I see writing primarily as a means to discovery, not as a mere prelude to publication. So the creation of a literary work is satisfactory in itself. The created work, even if it forever remains a manuscript, is its own reward. Rather than hankering after publication, I am happy to keep on revising a work for years, discovering new things about it. Nevertheless, I wish for an upsurge in the number of first-rate theatres and publishing outfits in Nigeria and in neighbouring countries. It is essential to note that, in the past decade, some new entrants have arrived on the Nigeria publishing scene, and these new kids on the block are dedicated to putting affordable books in the hands of readers. However, the lack of reliable book distribution networks has been a big obstacle to the ambitions of these publishing houses.

MHS: While based in Nigeria, you travel abroad frequently for fellowships, awards and performances of your plays. Have you ever considered moving abroad in order to get more exposure or be closer to the international publishing industry? Why or why not?

RB: A room of one’s own, in its literal and figurative implications, is all one needs to write, as Virginia Woolf brilliantly observed. Any country that provides that is fine enough for me. I have no burning desire to move abroad because conditions amenable to creative work are still available to me Nigeria, despite the diverse challenges facing writers in the country. And, by the way, it wouldn’t be a bad thing if more American writers moved abroad; contemporary American literature has been accused by some critics of provincialism, and if more American writers relocated to other countries, like Nigeria, it is possible that there will be a widening of horizons.

MHS: How has visiting other countries and meeting the writers and artists there affected your craft or the content of your work?

RB: Interacting with dramaturgs, directors, and actors at venues like London’s Royal Court and the Young Vic, Stockholm’s Riksteatern [Sweden’s National Theatre Company], and Chicago’s Halcyon Theatre has privileged me with insights into the art of drama. And my discussions with fiction writers, poets, and scholars during the fellowships I have been awarded by the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, Ledig House in New York, and the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center in Italy, among others, have illuminated the other genres. But ultimately, as Emily Dickinson wrote, “there is no frigate like a book to take us lands away”.

MHS: While your work has been published and performed internationally for a number of years, winning the Caine Prize has brought you a larger international audience. Do you think about this when you’re writing and choosing which language/slang/idioms to use, for example?

RB: No. When I am done with a manuscript, I circulate it among a small circle of old friends who provide me with frank, and oftentimes brutal, feedback. Though I respect all appraisals, the opinions of those old friends matter more than reactions from other quarters.

MHS: Americans are known for being rather insular in our reading—we tend to read each other. What writers do you think we should be paying more attention to over here? Can you recommend some international fiction writers or playwrights who have influenced you or who you think are doing great, interesting work?

RB: I don’t discriminate between dead, old, or young authors, and I don’t care much about nationality; the important thing is for an author’s work to remain urgent and alive. American authors whose craft I hold in high regard include William Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy, Toni Morrison, Eugene O’Neill, Ezra Pound and David Mamet. From other countries, Chaucer, Aeschylus, St. John Perse, Peter Shaffer, Imru’ al-Qais, Saramago, Antonio Tabucchi, and Georg Trakl, to pick a random few, have been important. For contemporary voices from Africa, I would recommend Tade Ipadeola, NoViolet Bulawayo, Melissa Myambo, Chibundu Onuzo, Billy Kahora, Teju Cole, and Wazha Lopang. There is an efflorescence of new writing from Nigeria, so also look out for fiction from Emma Iduma, Ifeoluwa Watson, and Ukamaka Okisakwe, as well as works in other genres from writers like the poet Niran Okewole and the playwright Zainabu Jallo.

MHS: Can you tell us about what you’re currently working on?

RB: I am multitasking, as usual. At the moment I am adapting a colleague’s novel for the stage and putting finishing touches to two original scripts, in addition to continuing work on my novel-in-progress.

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posted by Mary Helen Specht