Solomon Omorodion Uwaifo is an electrical engineer, poet, playwright, author and joint winner of the NLNG’s Prize for Literature in 2004. Uwaifo, who recently turned 90, spoke with ANDREW IRO OKUNGBOWA on his writings, Nigerian’s literary scene, his desire to see another Nigerian win the Nobel Prize for Literature, and other issues
As an engineer, what gave you the impetus to go into writing?
The idea to write is something that has been with me all my adult life, I would say.
As a teenager, in fact, even before I became a teenager, I considered myself a gifted storyteller because if I listen to a story the next day you will hear me telling other people the same story. In those days, of course, there was no electricity in Benin City, and during moonlight we gather in the street, usually I sit in the centre and they all sit around me when I am telling my story.
You know that our stories are full of chorales, people clapping singing and dancing. When I start singing, people will say ‘Omorodion is singing, he will tell story today.’
The moment anybody hear that they all come out and I will tell them stories. I was doing that I think at about the age of 10 or so. I think that is how it all started. Composition, writing generally, has been something I enjoyed even as a little boy. So, it all began very late though. I have wanted to write, to write some books about the age of 30, 40 but I was always too busy. I never really had the time to do that. But when I became 60, I said, ‘I’d wanted to write something, why don’t I do so now?’
It occurred to me that you are a professional engineer and that when you go out to try to buy certain kind of books in engineering you never really get them to buy, so why don’t you write one?
That means you started first with engineering book?
Yes. That is how I started with an engineering book titled, ‘Electric power supply, distribution, planning and development’. I published the book in 1994 and the second edition was in 1998. Before 1998, I wrote the book, ‘Let them bled’; I think that was around 1996/97.
Then I wrote ‘Fattening House’ that got honourable mention in 2004 in NLNG Nigeria Prize for Literature. It was one of the three selected for the first prize but suddenly they decided that they were not going to award the first prize to anyone of us then, however, Professor Wole Soyinka intervened and insisted that if you were not going to award the first prize to any of them then share the prize among the three of them.
That was how I became joint winner of NLNG Nigeria Prize for Literature in 2004. My first poetry collection, ‘Litany’, was long-listed for the NLNG Nigeria Prize for Poetry in 2006 too and since then I have been writing.
How old were you when you wrote ‘Fattening House’?
It was presented to the public in 2002 and I was 70 then.
Honoured at that age for a non-established and professional writer, how did you feel then?
It was totally unexpected. It both excited
and interested me, and it encouraged me to continue writing. That was why I went into poetry. The next edition of NLNG will be June next year and it will be on theatre (drama), I will be 91 then and I will compete. I will submit a play to compete with. I think I have some very good plays.
You think you will get a good review?
Well, if I could, without expecting it, come up like I did in 2004 and in fact, in 2006, I don’t see why not because I think I am a much better writer now.
Apart from age and maturity, I am a better writer. So let’s go and try; there is no harm in trying. If at the age of 91 I am still able to compete that is something to be glad about.
Which of the literary genres do you find easiest to handle?
I will say certainly not poetry. For me, I think novels are easier. Once you get your plot and things right then you let it flow. Drama in my opinion is a little more technical. But I also find it extremely interesting. Apart from Resourceful Mistress, I haven’t created any play.
That was my creation because it was an idea that came from events that actually happened in my office.
How would you describe Nigeria’s literary scene?
The literary scene in Nigeria is extremely vibrant. I think Nigerians are great story tellers. I won’t be surprised at all if the motivations are similar. People like Wole Soyinka are great influence. People like Chinua Achebe, those are great story tellers. We all have these stories latent in all of us; it is just a question of the skill and the internal urge.
Besides that Nigeria itself is a story and it creates several stories by the day. So, there are lots of things to write about like this Buhari’s administration. I think that anyone who has paid attention will write several stories in a day if he wants to.
Do you foresee another Nigerian emerging as Noble Laureate for Literature in the coming years?
Who could that possibly be in your own calculation?
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Quite frankly I rate high very, very highly.
You reckon she is in pole position for the award?
Definitely, she has everything that it takes to be a Nobel Laureate. But don’t forget that there is a bit of politics even in this Nobel thing.
However, if it comes down to just sheer quality of writing, the ability to write, I think she stands a wonderful chance. And I think there are quite a few other Nigerians that we know nothing about who are in the Diaspora and who are fantastic writers. I think a few of them are in America.
Have you had any physical contact or encounter with her?
Not really, there was once though that I wanted her to look at my manuscript but I didn’t succeed. I think she was either busy at that time or I didn’t approach her the right way but it does matter anyway, that me.
Any particular reason why you dwell more on Edo language and subjects in your literary works?
I told a lot of stories when I was young, I don’t remember many of them now but the themes still echoes in my head and when you write you like to have something to write about, so these themes come readily in my head. As a Benin man, our lives kind of revolve round the institution of the monarch and there are a lot of tales about the palace. They are kind of recurring themes that one likes to write about.
How fulfilling has writing been for you knowing that you are not writing for a living?
Extremely fulfilling, I am happy about it because all my life trying to get some of these stories to read in black and white, there is none. Everybody keeps it inside his head but when you tell your own and I tell my own we end up telling different stories. You narrate it the way you prefer to narrate and I narrate it the way I prefer to and maybe some of the concrete facts will probably remain the same thing.
But you see when you have it in black and white and people can read and understand it then you concretise it, you kind of cement the story that people now have not variable stories but story that is kind of fixed that they can now talk about. I am very happy about that.
All the Edo stories that I have written, you read them, you take them or leave them. I tell people that I wasn’t there when it happened. Some of the things you see there are my own creation. If it makes sense, fine, that is it. Because when you are telling oral history, oral history is oral history but two people can’t tell it the same way.