Friday, January 11, 2013

Interview with Isaac Attah Ogezi, author of Under a Darkling Sky by newbooksnigeria

Interview with Isaac Attah Ogezi, author of Under a Darkling Sky by newbooksnigeria Isaac Ogezi, a lawyer and writer, has been variously described as having what it takes to reinvent and reinvigorate the declining Nigeria drama, a star whose iridescent light will not twinkle briefly but linger long on our literary firmaments, and an important and outstanding literary dramatist. For a record second consecutive time last year, he was awarded ANA/Esiaba Irobi Prize for Drama and that was coming at the heels of several other Prizes that have trailed in his literary career. His latest (published in 2012), Under a Darkling Sky, is a biographical drama based on the life of Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Nigerian environmental activist and writer who was hanged by the Military Government of General Sani Abacha, alongside eight others in the wake of a widely criticized trial on what many insist were thumped up murder charges with the sole objective of silencing his criticism of government and the environmental degrading activities of crude oil extraction multinational petroleum companies in the Niger Delta Regions. In Under a Darkling Sky, Ogezi tackles issues which are as relevant today as they were nearly two decades ago. The playwright talks about his aspirations and motivations for writing Under the Darkling Sky in this interview. The Book Congratulations on your recently published play, Under a Darkling Sky. I consider it an important work of literature for its significance to the Ogoni people of the Niger Delta and Nigeria as a whole, and an ambitious writing deserving applause. OGEZI: Thank you. You have succeeded in making me blush like a young lady who is told that she is pretty and she does know it. Oh God, am I not enraptured? Can you share a bit of your background with us to help us understand what made you write Under a Darkling Sky? What is your particular interest or motivation for telling this story? And why did you choose the genre of drama to tell it? OGEZI: Yes. I was born to the family of Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Ogezi about thirty-six years ago. Benue State-born, I attended both my primary and post-primary schools in Nasarawa State. I then proceeded to the University of Jos, Jos, for my LL.B (Hons.) after a brief stint at the then School of Preliminary Studies (SPS), Keffi, where I studied literature at the advanced level. I was fifteen years old and in my third year in the secondary school when I lost my father. His demise opened my eyes to the floodgate of injustices which my mother experienced raising a family as a widowed peasant woman. It was these injustices that I witnessed as a young, innocent child growing up in a cruel, dog-eat-dog world that informed my decision to be a lawyer. What motivated me to write Under a Darkling Sky was not only to expose via the weapon of stage drama the sham trial and execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the eight other Ogonis in 1995 but also to bring into the foggy memories of the living one of the darkest moments of our chequered history as a nation. Man has a penchant to forget the past and in the process, keeps recycling his mistakes without learning from them. The choice of drama as a medium came to me naturally given the fact that the subject matter could be best handled through the instrumentality of the stage, the theatre of dreams and emotions. Drama can speak to the literate as well as the unlettered. In a world of drama, the walls of class differences, creed and colour come crumbling down. Please give us a nutshell insight into this play based on the life of Ken Saro-Wiwa? What part(s) of his life did you set out to capture? OGEZI: Under a Darkling Sky captures the life and times of a post-civil war Saro-Wiwa in a tumultuous period when oil had become the mainstay of his country’s economy. His beloved homeland, Ogoni, bore the brunt of this oil exploration and exploitation. Devastated and brutally raped by the oil activities of multinational oil companies like Shell and Chevron, there appeared to be a concerted disregard for the health-hazards to human habitation, and what was worse, the development in Ogoniland is not commensurate with the amount of environmental degradation. Saro-Wiwa’s almost pathological love for his Ogoni people set him at loggerheads with the demented Abacha dictatorship but he remained undaunted until he was eventually martyred. What I set out to depict in this play was a Saro-Wiwa rather late in his life and his role as an environmental activist-cum-writer who could not compromise his stand until he had to pay the supreme price of losing his life for his Ogoni people. How do you make up for this in the course of the play for the early part of his life that would have told how he came to be the irrepressible activist he was? OGEZI: I didn’t intend to make it up in any way. When I was writing this play, I was fully conversant with the fact that there is a whole world of difference between a stage play and a television documentary. A playwright, who cannot draw a line of demarcation between these two variant forms of communication, may fall foul of prolixity which will definitely nauseate his audience. I totally agree with Soyinka when he said in the early stage of his dramatic career about five decades ago that the cardinal sin of a playwright is to bore his audience. Any aspect of Saro-Wiwa’s life that I didn’t include in this play was either not stage-worthy for me or that it was better suited for a television documentary. What part of researching and writing the play did you consider the most challenging? OGEZI: Well, taking a look back to the periods of incubation, research and finally settling down to write this play, I must confess that the experience was edifying as well as salutary. I quite agree with the truism that when you enjoy what you’re writing, the chances are that your readers will enjoy reading it. I was so carried away with the euphoria of chronicling theatrically the life of a great man that I cannot remember the birth-pangs that accompanied the whole exercise. Perhaps, if there was any challenge at all, I’d say it was the trial scene. Even as a practising lawyer, I discovered that Saro-Wiwa’s trial and conviction along with the eight other Ogonis alone were enough to make a full-length play. So the obvious challenge was how to deploy the dramaturgical resource of selectivity to trim it down to as few pages as possibly without estranging the reader or viewer with unnecessary legal jargons. The play is set in the volatile Niger Delta, would you say this is a volatile play? OGEZI: Not at all. I insist that my play is not volatile like the Niger Delta. This is because I’ve taken my subject beyond the enclave of the Niger Delta to the realm of universality. Just like in poetry, emotion can be individual and privatist and yet be garbed with the toga of universality through supreme artistry or craft. The life and times of Saro-Wiwa as chronicled in this play serve as a metaphor for all minority struggles against the backdrop of oppression and genocide, anywhere and anytime, and I want to believe that even if the Niger Delta crisis is over today, this play cannot cease to be relevant or become dated because the emotion encapsulated therein is universal, timeless and borderless. Is there any particular message you wish to send out with this play? OGEZI: Yes, it is simply the evil of dictatorship and the inexplicable waste of important lives. The “darklingness” of our sky is without doubt foreboding in Nigeria, nay, Africa as a whole and most developing nations of the world. The heart of darkness that is inherent in man despite our highfalutin level of civilization is quite alarming. I expect a lot from this play; I think a lot of people do. I certainly think the whole of the Ogoni people would expect a lot from this play, seeing as Ken Saro-Wiwa was their hero and martyr. Have you, in your own opinion, done this man and this subject justice? OGEZI: Personally, I’m always wary of self-aggrandizement. I’m not also a masochist to indulge in a macabre self-flagellation. I leave the readers and critics to judge whether I’ve done justice to Saro-Wiwa and the subject or not. But let my critics take warning on how they wield the critic’s scythe inordinately because I like taking on my critics on a head-on collision not minding the casualties that may be left behind in the process! Moreover, for a lot of people this might be the only glimpse of the man, back to life, as it were. How close to truth is this work? How much is fact, and how much fiction? OGEZI: In my brief introduction to the play, I did forewarn the reader not to expect a strict constructionist approach to the subject which would have been stale, stilted and jejune. Facts in real life when not skillfully handled in art can be stranger than fiction, and vice versa. Be that as it may, I want to assure my reader or viewer that this play is very close to truth based on my painstaking research, and to prove this, over ninety percent of the characters are real life characters with their real names and most of them are still alive and kicking. I had only utilized the dramatic licence to abridge time and space; to put my words into their mouths in line with their psychological make-up as exhumed by my research. I feel confident to say that the play is over ninety-five percent fact and the other five percent mere literary embellishments on fact to make up for any missing gaps. Merging fact and fiction, how difficult or easy was this for you? OGEZI: It was easy for me because of my free, self-confident spirit as a playwright and also coupled with the fact that I pride myself with knowing the nitty-gritty of the theatre. I was not under the bondage of ensuring that every episode was historically correct as many uninitiated playwrights are wont to be. After all, dramatic licence allows one to tamper with history to suit one’s purposes. In Soyinka’s great play, Death and the King’s Horseman, the incident of the play took place far before the Second World War but in the hands of Soyinka, the war was made to happen during the time of the incident and his aim was more than achieved to expose the beastly, not-too-perfect nature of the whites themselves from the eyes of the Elesin’s been-to son, Olunde. One of the things I find endearing about drama is the immediacy of the medium and how it brokers no romanticising. It doesn’t so much tell as show the character and ask you to draw your own conclusions. Still, it is easy to glamorize a character beyond reality. Does Under a Darkling Sky reveal any weakness in the man Saro-Wiwa? OGEZI: I’m afraid that that is a rather difficult question to answer. If I say yes, I convict myself and the same thing goes if my answer is in the negative. It is an unpalatable choice between the devil and the deep blue sea! Suffice it to say here that any objective reader who has gone through the gamut of historical materials on the Saro-Wiwa saga like I have done cannot help but feel deeply for the man and the other eight Ogonis who were judicially murdered. Admitted that the killing of the four Ogoni chiefs by the mob was unwarranted, unholy, ghoulish and unjustified, but to then kill nine people in their place before it was properly proved beyond reasonable doubt that they aided and abetted the killings was ear-wrenching. Don’t forget that they were executed when the time within which to appeal against the decision of the kangaroo tribunal had not elapsed. When I was writing this play, I did not contrive to make Saro-Wiwa an angel that couldn’t hurt a fly but I allowed the creative muse to guide me. The rest is left for the critics to do their work. And the other eight who were hanged along with Ken Saro-Wiwa, is there room for their veneration in Under a Darkling Sky? OGEZI: In the play, they are shadow or minor characters in this play and belong to the crowd. They only feature somewhat prominently during the trial scene. We don’t know them much about them. Even in the historical materials and sources I was privileged to study, they were unknown until their execution along with Ken Saro-Wiwa shot them into limelight. I leave that judgment for my readers and critics to determine whether I have venerated them in this play or not. I would have imagined that you would have courted a closer association with the historical subject of this work in your title, for instance, or by the use of a sub-title. Was this something you considered and then decided not to pursue? OGEZI: No, I never for once thought of appearing patronizing to the reader. I abhor with every ounce of passion in me any air of condescension and patronage from any author of a work of art to his reader. In as much as I hold my reader in very high regard as an intelligent being, I also feel that titles that court a closer association with the historical figure-character or subject of the work like the use of sub-title would only belittle the artistry of the work. Writing about Sir Thomas More in 1966, Robert Bolt did not need to use an associative title but simply A Man for All Seasons, and it is still a timeless dramatic piece till date. Can you imagine Ken Saro-Wiwa in the year 2012, what do you think would have been different in Niger Delta and Nigeria? OGEZI: Yes, Saro-Wiwa in year 2012 would have been a better Nigeria for us. His fight for his Ogoni people was the microcosm for all the minorities in the contraption called Nigeria and beyond. His life was ruled by passion – truth, justice and true federalism. There would not have been any militant group in the Niger Delta today let alone any fabulous amnesty were the Nigerian nation-state sensitive to the Ogoni and other minorities cries more than a decade ago. Let us not forget that it was Saro-Wiwa’s state-orchestrated death that conflagrated into the Niger Delta crisis that we have today. Since non-violent dialogue of MOSOP was viewed as an anathema by the barbarous Abacha government, perhaps, the Niger Delta people felt the language of violence would be more comprehensible to the government, hence the birth of several militant and counter-militant groups in the Niger Delta. What are your expectations for Under a Darkling Sky? Have you considered staging it for a live audience? OGEZI: What sets drama apart from the other genres of literature is akin to the dichotomy between the written word and action, that is, when the written word is made flesh on the stage. While the former cannot shoot a gun, happily enough, the latter could do worse than that. It can incite the audience into taking to the streets to enforce the changes that it has long yearned for. In 1925, when the American most famous playwright, Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms was staged, it caused a lot of furore just like his previous play, All God’s Chillun Got Wings in 1924. I expect the reader or audience to be touched by the charade of justice meted out to Saro-Wiwa and the eight other Ogonis enough to stamp its feet emphatically on the ground to resist any future re-occurrence. I also expect the reader or audience to be fundamentally entertained and moved by the high sense of the large-scale tragedy of a great man enough to attain purgative height of catharsis. Yes, there are grand plans underway to stage this play in Abuja, Port Harcourt, Bori (the headquarters of Ogoni people) and all the major cities of Nigeria. I see this play being staged on the Broadway in the US and all the major capital cities of the world, not to mention several languages that it will be translated into. I expect it to be a phenomenal box-office success with the author being conferred with a chieftaincy title in Ogoniland. If readers would like to read more about Ken Saro-Wiwa, what books would you recommend to them? OGEZI: I’ll recommend only those works I found illuminating in the course of writing this play, such as Saro-Wiwa’s A Month and a Day, and his short, prophetic story, “Africa Kills Her Sun”, and several internet materials fully acknowledged in my introduction to the play. I didn’t bother to read, and I have no regrets whatsoever, few other works such as Saro-Wiwa’s On a Darkling Plain and Ken Saro-Wiwa (Jnr)’s In the Shadow of a Saint, to mention but two of the most prominent. What is next after Under a Darkling Sky? What are you currently working on? OGEZI: I don’t know as I’m still waiting to hear from God. It may be my first collection of short stories or another play, I don’t know right now. I’m currently working on an evangelistic play which I believe will be more effective than many hell-fire-and-damnation sermons in our churches. I’m also researching for a historical play on a major town in Northern Nigeria. Let it remain nameless in the meantime. Tell us something about you we would never guess from your writing? OGEZI: I have four passions in my life in what I call acronymically the four L’s – Lord, law, literature and love. I’m always in deep communion with the Lord in my daily endeavours and can only act based on His direction. Law brings food to my table as a lawyer, while literature keeps my heartbeat palpitating with life. I’m also a true, honest, committed and passionate lover in the mould of Romeo; in fact, I’m the last love martyr standing on his feet today, no thanks to my childhood addiction to Indian love films!