The 80th birthday of eminent Nigerian avant-garde playwright, Fred Agbeyegbe, was celebrated last week by his co-travellers in the literary arena. One of the Special Guests of the day was the former National Treasurer of the Association of Nigerian Authors, ANA, Professor Tony Afejuku. Himself a poet, essayist and lecturer in the Department of English at the University of Benin, Edo State, he spoke with Adeola Ogunrinde on the challenges of literature and the reading culture in the country.
What are the challenges of literature in recent times?
It is sad but we have no readers any more. Those who read literature are those who read literature books in universities and colleges. People no longer read literature for entertainment because of the nature of our society. All what children want to do is look at the television; they have no time to spend on profitable books. You can just sit with the television and watch video games, relaxing. Even when parents buy books for them, they read them grudgingly. These are all part of the challenge and it is very discouraging.
Apart from being a Professor of English, you are also a writer; what have been your challenges?
The world has been too much with me. I don’t have much time to do my writing. I have to do some other work like teaching which gives me my bread and butter. If the time I spend on teaching, marking of scripts and research; if I have all of that time to myself, of course I will write more than the three books that I have written. The main challenge for me is the challenge of finding time to write all that I want to write.
Has our education system affected our literature, I mean what we read?
I have just told you that children are no longer reading. The educational system is not really very helpful. First, there are too many students to the very few teachers in the system; it is a very big problem. Teachers are not communicating with their students the way they did in my time. Then, in primary school, we were not more than two in a class and there was a teacher to teach everyone of us. It can’t happen now. The way they treat teachers now is very poor. They owe them salaries in arrears, the salary is very poor and that can’t make ends needs. In schools, many women are now teachers and many of the women cannot maintain discipline.
What do you think about the younger generation of Nigerian writers?
They are not well-schooled, they are very impatient. Why do they want to write? Everybody says I want to be a writer without trying to go through the rigorous training of writing. When I write, the refuse bin is my best friend but these ones, anything they write they just want to publish. You’ve got to be tutored, mentored! But they don’t want to be mentored. They are in a hurry to produce and so they end up producing rubbish.
What do you think of the role of the new media, electronic media in our society?
I am not an online media freak and I don’t go there.
I don’t have the time for online media; the rigour is not there and with the condition we are in now, with no stable electricity and where everything just goes off in a second… In any case, I want to kiss the book, look at the book. I cannot just sit there glued to my laptop, to be looking at the book online. The real thing is the book.
Meaning you still prefer the physical text to the e-book?
That is what I am saying. You have to marry a book. With the electronic media gadgets, so many books are in there, it doesn’t make anything distinct really and once you lose it, you lose all. I want to romance the book and that is not what you find in e-books.
What do you think the government can do to encourage the reading culture in Nigeria?
There is nothing I will say in that regard because our governments really do not read anything. The government does not read the newspapers. They are just there to make money; they are not interested in the nation.
What do you think about this new government in Nigeria?
I have nothing to say about the government because all of them are the same. What am I to tell the government? Don’t they know that students are not reading; that books are very expensive? If you want to get a good book, an imported book, you pay through your nose. How many people can do that? I just came back from the United States where I bought a book for 100 dollars, excluding taxation and shipping! Convert that into naira. How many people can buy one book for twenty thousand naira? The government knows what to do. Books are very expensive and that is one big challenge in growing readership today.