In those early stages when you have set out to write, with dreams of getting published and widely read someday, you don’t fail to realize that it is you alone who sees yourself as a writer. At this stage, all that you seek is a validation, a badge of recognition as a man or lady of the craft, something that certifies you as the person you have set out to be. Many others will refer to you as a ‘wannabe’ or better still, an ‘emerging’ writer. To get past this stage you need validation, and validation is everything. Mine came when I was invited to participate in the Caine Prize Short Story Surgery held in Port-Harcourt, Nigeria. I am going to tell you about that validation and how it shaped my understanding of the trade.
It was late September 2014. I was finishing up the manuscript for a novel – it was supposed to be my debut but for some reason, it is still a manuscript. One evening, I had put in some work on the manuscript and thought it good to rest a while. My phone always came in handy at those times. Sitting back in my chair, I surfed the internet to keep abreast of the latest happenings on local news forums, and there I saw the call for emerging writers to submit their short stories for consideration for the one day Caine Prize Short Story Surgery that was to be held as part of the events marking the Port-Harcourt Book Festival. My heart skipped a beat. This is my chance, I said to myself. Perhaps you won’t understand my excitement at that moment but it is not common to get information about literary events on time. You may be watching TV or reading some newspaper article and then you see coverage of some literary event sponsored by maybe Ford Foundation or some other big names being held in Lagos or Abuja. Dissemination of such valuable information is never widespread and there are too many eager talents waiting to hop onto such opportunities. It is more like passengers waiting eagerly at Eleme Junction on a Wednesday evening for any bus that comes braking to a halt.
So, back to me. I did not go any further with surfing the internet that evening. Gone was every intention to rest. I took the time instead to read up on the submission guidelines for the workshop, and then I began to cook up a story. The Caine Prize Short Story Surgery was the only thing on my mind for the rest of the day and by midnight, I had written my entry piece. As is always the case, I write a story first and then begin to deliberate on what title would be most suitable. Eventually, I settled for ‘A Measure of Pains And Comforts’ and submitted the story by morning.
The days following were days of waiting. I worked on my manuscript as I waited, and my target was to have a manuscript ready ahead of the event. Who knew who I would meet there, and I was determined to shop my manuscript around. The invitation to the workshop did not take long in coming. I was invited! Wow! I was one of the thirteen emerging writers selected for the workshop. With renewed determination, I tackled my manuscript and it was completed on time for the workshop.
The day came. I was in high spirits. Everything seemed fine. Even the weather was at its best. The venue was the Hotel Presidential – elegant and grand. I arrived early enough and took a stroll about the grounds. A huge tent took up one part of the grounds. Inside, publishers were stacking up their marked stands with books. I saw books I had not known to exist, books by African writers, some of whom I have never heard of. I never knew Prof. Wole Soyinka had written many other books apart from The Lion and The Jewel, The Man Died and Trials of Brother Jero. I was seeing You Must Set Out At Dawn for the first time.
The event was an eye-opener for me. I enjoyed the workshop and I got positive and encouraging feedback for my story, especially from Ellah Wakatama Alfrey – in case you don’t know her, she is more like the literary Kanye West for African literature and publishing. Seeing her in person was one thing and hearing her give such encouraging feedback for the story was something else. I mean, she really identified with it, and this was the high point of the event for me. It was the validation I needed, and it gave me the confidence I needed to plough on.
The downside of the event was that none of the people I met was willing to take a look at my manuscript. Oh yea, you have a manuscript? Nice. Good. But then they all bemoaned the dearth of publishing, and one took the time to strongly advise me against self-publishing. So I went home that day with mixed feelings – I had gotten my validation but at the same time I have been told that the road ahead was very much uncertain for me. Publishers, I was told, are not making any money from fiction writers who are not Chimamanda Adichie, and self-publishing is strongly discouraged if one’s work was to be recognized within literary circles or be eligible for prizes and grants. I got furious in the days following. There were many unanswered questions. What was I to do with my manuscript? What was I to do with my plans for writing? These and many questions plagued my thoughts for days and nights on end until I came to realize that every work of art demands for itself an audience. True, there might be gate-keepers to an audience but they are just one gate post in a trackless desert. So, if the keepers of the gate deny you access to an audience for your work, you the artist have to walk around and gain access away from the gate-post. After all, the desert is not walled and you have a responsibility for getting your works seen and heard.