When Paperworth publishers sent me a copy of Piece&Pieces, I didn’t know what to expect from the book as I had never read any work written by the author. Reading this book was quite an experience. I enjoyed reading it. The stories were different and refreshing. I loved the exploration of new cultures and traditions. I loved the fusion of the old and the new – the traditional and the contemporary.
Paul is intentional about his stories and characters. You see this in the way they are unapologetic about their actions. The stories in this collection are truly Nigerian and when I was done with the last story, I found myself craving for more.
Enjoy the interview!
1) THE AFRO READER: Piece&Pieces is somewhat different from any collection of short stories I have read. They’ve been described by Shaibu Husseini as fresh, riveting and dynamic with evocative language. What inspired this collection?
PAUL UGBEDE: What inspired the collections in Piece and Pieces is the need to tell a story. There is this theme in Things Fall Apart about a people in darkness. I come from a part of the world where our stories are untold. More so that we are unlucky to be lumped into the Northern divide. This is strange as we share different languages and cultures. My stories are stories from these cultural background.
2) The setting of your book is way different from the settings I have been used to reading. What role did the setting of your stories play in influencing the story?
It is difficult for a writer to write outside his experience. The setting of the story is the setting I grew up in. It is the setting I have come to understand. Because of my knowledge of this setting and its cultures and peoples, I think naturally my stories should be set in these places I know.
3) Day after tomorrow was a powerful story and was long-listed for the 2014 Writivism Short Story Prize. How did you come about the story idea?
Sex and Sexuality are themes that resonate with me and if you read my stories you’ll see them criss-crossing all over the stories. Day after Tomorrow is a story about love and same sex relationship in the background of a nation that is neck deep in hypocrisy. The story came to me when the National Assembly came up with the 14 years jail term for same sex partners. I personally thought it was a draconian decree. Our nation is very religious and most of the decisions we make are based on our religious leanings. And I thought what if in the distant future there comes a government that is bent on wiping same sex partners off the face of the earth? It is the fear of this unknown tomorrow that built the story.
4) I am also very much interested in the themes you explored in Day After Tomorrow. How do you think writers can challenge societal constructs and why is it important for them to do so?
I tried to explore the theme of political correctness, the theme of hypocrisy. It is a common sight in this country that those who are supposed to keep the law are the ones breaking it. The problem with us is not same-sex relationship; the problem with us is we think we are better than others. So you see at the end we try to stop one perceived evil by another evil. But if we remove the log in our eyes before we remove the grass in our neighbour’s eyes, then this country will be better for it.
5) Which story is your favourite in the collection?
I really do not have a favorite story. It is like having a favorite child- LOL! Each story went through a painful labour and the experiences were different. While I enjoyed writing some, others were painstaking. For instance, Obete’s story took me only a day or two to write. Side by side took me about three years. Obete is a funny story so it’s natural for me to always like to read it.
6) What inspired the story The Incident? It was a bitter and painful read. What were you trying to explore?
The Incident was a story that came to me when I went to visit a community in Kogi State displaced by Inter tribal clashes. This is a community where two tribes were living together and inter-marrying. Among my people, both Christians and Muslims live as one. It is common to see a family where either parent is a Muslim or Christian. So it was a shock to see people who had lived together suddenly turn on one another. Seeing burnt houses and people displaced traumatized me for a long time. And I was just a passive victim. How about the one who was directly affected, the one who lost everything because of a simple misunderstanding? I then started asking myself; how do people deal with trauma? How do you live when you have lost everything in a twinkle of an eye?
7) The use of humour and tragedy are key features in your work? What draws you to exploring the extremes of both? Using The Incident and Obete Ogbegbe And His nine Inches as examples!
I like humor. I think for me, humor is the best way to pass a message no matter how serious. Tragedy also works for some stories and sometimes we learn a lesson when we don’t coach tragedy in humor but tell it as it is. I tried to do that in the two stories you mentioned. Our life is a pendulum that swings between the two extremes of humor and tragedy. That’s the nature of life. Sometimes we laugh and sometimes we cry. Sometimes we cry in the face of happiness and other times we laugh in the face of tragedy. In Obete and his Nine Inches, a tragedy has befallen a people but you cannot help but laugh at the situation. But how do you laugh at the situation in The Incident? So in my stories, I try to explore the two ends and balance them to suit the story I’m telling.
8) You’re an accomplished playwright. How was writing this different from your plays?
Writing a play is very different from a novel. The genres are different. The structures are different. You may think it’s easy but it’s not. Maybe it’s easy for some people but it was not for me. All my adult life I have been writing plays so branching out into a genre I thought I understood was cumbersome. First, I had to struggle with not writing a play because my stories were becoming more dialogical instead of descriptive. Sometimes in the middle of a story, a play idea will come and I would have to leave the story to write the play. The good thing was that my publishers were patient and they talked me through the process. I don’t think I would have been able to do this without Paperworth Books.
9) Why do you write?
I have this maxim: Writing is not about writing something; it is about righting something. We are in a world were problems plague us every day: corruption, hunger and poverty, man’s inhumanity to man, etc…
10) What keeps you motivated during writing slumps?
I think my duty as a writer is to draw attention to a better world. It is what motivates me, the idea that my writing can bring healing to people. So when I have a writer’s slump, I think of the many people who will not learn something new, the many wrongs we may not right, and I get up again to write.
11) When did you realise writing was it? Can you describe the first time you felt you could really create beautiful stories?
I started writing prose fiction from secondary school. I was in St. Charles College Ankpa Kogi State, SS1, a Science student. I realised I had no interest in the sciences but in reading stories. I could read two James Hadley Chase books in a day. I was that voracious. I think it is natural when you read you will want to write. So I wrote my first story While There is Life in an exercise book. I thought I was already an author and I gave it to my English Teacher Mr. Odiniya who was also my Vice Principal Admin. He looked at me and said, ‘you will be a good writer. Just give your works time to flower.’ I have never forgotten that timeless advice. It set me on this journey.
12) The general rule is that for you to be a great writer, you must be a greater reader. Growing up, what books did you read? And how did they shape your ability to tell stories?
I read a lot of books growing up. As young stars we were introduced to Pacesetters series, James Hadley Chase, Mills and Booms, Books by Agatha Christie, Nick Catar and then there were works from Cyprian Ekwensi and Chinua Achebe which structured our growing up. One single thread that ran through all the books I enjoyed and why they stuck was the power of description, the ability of the authors to take you from your world through the pages of the books into another world. You not only become a reader, you become a participant. You have empathy for the hero and you want him or her to succeed at all cost. And at the end when you want to tell your own story, these writers become your reference point. You want to write like them until you find your own voice.
13) What are some of the struggles you face when you write?
For me basically I struggle with finishing a story. Many things call for the attention of the writer at the same time; your family, friends, domestic problems. And in this era of social media, you want to leave what you are writing and immerse yourself in the world of Facebook or Instagram. It takes discipline to finish a work on time.
14) What writers are you friends with and how do they help you become a better writer?
I am friends with Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, author of Whispering Trees and Season of Crimson Blossom. Abubakar was my friend from school. We were in the same department, the same class. At a point in my writing life I was derailed from writing and Abubakar kept on. He was the one I looked up to and it was his encouragement that made me go back into writing. I respect him so much because he’s a great writer. I try to learn a lot from him and when I feel down, I look at him and say if Abubakar can, I can! Binyavanga Wainana was also my friend and he kept saying ‘Paul write a book!’ Chimamanda Adichie was my workshop instructor and she said I had great insights. At a point Chimamanda recommended me for an editorial job at Farafina but that really didn’t work out. That boosted my confidence.
15) What is the most liberating thought you have ever had and what did it liberate you from?
I was working for Golfers Africa, a golf magazine outfit started by Yinka Suleiman a very good friend. Things were really not working out for me. Yinka was a great person but I was not really feeling good with myself, because I was not doing what I loved, which was writing fictions. One night I said to myself, ‘Paul did you not start as a writer of fiction? What are you doing here?’ That was how I left the job and focused on my writing. It was the best decision I made.
16) Packing for a journey and allowed to take one book. What will it be?
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. I have read it like 20 times and I’m still not tired. It is my go to book. I am even writing a play based on the character of Okonkwo.
17) Recommend 5 books you think everyone should read.
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
Tomorrow Died Yesterday by Chimeka Garricks
Whispering Trees and other Stories by Abubakar Adam Ibrahim
Death and the King’s Horseman a play by Wole Soyinka (A Playwright will also pick a play! Lol)
Love in the Times of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
Oosps! I took six!
18) Memoirs, Essays, Fiction, Poetry, Non-fiction. Which is a favourite?
19) Advice to young and up-coming writers and best advice you have gotten?
Never be in a hurry to publish. Always allow your work to flower.
20) Describe African Literature in one word!
Paul Ugbede has a BA in Mass Communications from the University of Jos, Nigeria and is currently the Director, International Centre for Playwriting Development in Africa (ICPDA). He is the author of several published and performed plays to include Drooping Palms, Raping the Land, Trading Places, Two Characters Undefined, August Meeting, Fela: Arrest the Music, Dialing Love and Our Son the Minister. His articles and short stories have appeared on Waza Online, Muwado and Jalada Online. His play Fire in the Night and Other Stories was included in the 2014 Writivism Anthology edited by Sumayya Lee. Paul is the winner of the inaugural Beeta Playwright Competition. He lives in Lagos with his family.
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