an interview with Bibi Ukonu
Nigerian Award-winning publisher and author, “Things That Start Small but Sweet“.
Libretto had a discussion with award winning Nigeria writer and publisher, Bibi Ukonu. Bibi is an architect, poet and novelist. He is published online, and in print magazines, such as Pyramid Magazine and Twilight Musings of the International Library of Poetry. He is also the Editor of CityDezigns Magazine, and writes about Architecture and Sustainable Development. Things That Start Small But Sweet is his second collection of short stories, which won the 1st Runner Up Prize for ANA/Abubakar Gimba Prize for Short Stories. He is also the Managing Editor of Griots Lounge Publishing (a Yagazie Media Limited publishing imprint). Bibi lives in Manitoba with his family, and sometimes in Lagos. Twitter/Instagram: @bibi_ukonu
Libretto: Hello Bibi, I am so happy to have you here. What prompted you to become a writer? When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
Bibi: I’m honoured to be interviewed by Libretto, especially in a confusing season such as we are in. Thank you so much. Maybe I became a writer because of events like this, like the pandemic, poverty, naming ceremonies, struggles and parties. I realized I was a writer when I began documenting such realities of life, although as fiction. It was also when I had the courage to let go of my writing for the world to have and read. I can’t remember at what age, but as a kid I was surrounded by writers and storytellers such as my Dad and Uncle who was one of the first writers to write Igbo stories for children.
Libretto: What is your best writing genre? Apart from writing, what other profession would you have chosen?
Bibi: Fiction. It was first poetry, but something happened along the line. I can’t remember what happened that made me run to fiction. I think I found out I loved stories and the magic behind them, and also their ability to create images in your head, and possibly take you on a trip. I’m also an architect and a facility manager. Recently, I have started embracing publishing, branding and marketing, with the technologies that are required. I think publishing is a very interesting field for me.
Libretto: How did Griots Lounge become a Publishing home for writers? What does it take to get published through your firm?
Bibi: Most people don’t realise that Griots Lounge Publishing started in 2012, and we launched our first title the same year at The British Library in London. The launch was an event hosted by Africa Writes in 2013. It was well attended. We launched Andrew Eseimokumo Oki’s BONFIRES OF THE GODS at that event. But after that, no one heard from us until 2017 when my collection of short stories was released. Since then, we have been out with more titles, and we have expanded to West Africa and North America. We are a traditional publishing company. Recently, we called for submissions and it was overwhelming to receive over 200 excerpts of finished manuscripts from all over Africa.
Libretto: How can the reading culture be encouraged in Nigeria?
Bibi: I don’t think the reading culture in Nigeria is dead. I think the publicity is poor. Nigerians read what interests them. They read blogs and gossip. Nigerians have been following up on the current pandemic and the conspiracies surrounding it. I think investments in PR are low among publishing houses. You have to sell a product by making it look sizzling. You have to also release great literature, not just because you have a friend that is a writer and you want to help. These things affect the reader’s psychology towards a book and make them want to buy and read. The Nigerian reader wants to be convinced why he must read your book. And that is a valid desire.
Libretto: What was the process of writing your first book like for you? Is hard or easy when you were writing a book? Did you give it a second thought or you just decided to see your first book published? How long did it take you to write the book? What inspired the title “Things That Start Small but Sweet” and why this title?
Bibi: Things That Start Small but Sweet wasn’t my first book. I already had a collection of short stories, first published by an Indian publisher, before then. I also had a collection of poems. But this particular short stories collection took me a few journeys and communion to write. I had to interact with the beautiful people of Egun, who occupy the length of waterfront or coastal Lagos. I visited Makoko a few times as well, and had to commune with the people. My collection is about them, their joys and cries, and every uncertainty and victory that life throws at us.
Libretto: What can you say to upcoming young contemporary writers who wish to achieve more in writing? Also, as someone who has been in this industry for years, can you share your views on how you think someone can benefit financially and otherwise from writing and publishing?
Bibi: Everyone should continue writing. Travel around and discover new stories around the world. Find an editor and keep polishing your writing. I don’t know how you make money from writing, but I know if your work is great, you would definitely be found by grants, residencies, prizes, paid interviews and events, and so on. You may also channel your interest towards academics. It goes back to the PR thing I mentioned earlier. It has the energy to draw the interest of bigger financial players to the book world.
Libretto: Who are your favourite writers? And which books have impacted your writing the most? If you do not mind, you can share with us some of your favourite excerpts/lines from the book(s).
Bibi: Teju Cole and Nnamdi Oguike. I enjoy Ukamaka Olisakwe’s writing as well, and can’t wait to have her new writing.
Libretto: What does your family think of your writing?
Bibi: I’m actually not a writer at home. I’m more like a playmate. We read stories together, ranging from African writing to fairy tales, and also the Holy Bible. My job is to share these stories with the kids. I find time to write without them noticing it. I haven’t been writing so much recently, anyway, apart from Facebook posts. But I have been reading a lot of books.
Libretto: what is your take about the pandemic happening globally? Would you say it has been destined to happen? Has the crisis anyway affected the publishing industry?
Bibi: I have no interest in any conspiracy or why there’s a virus. There are people that it is their job to find out these things, and some will find the cure. I am simply praying that they resolve this as soon as possible, so we don’t lose our beautiful lives. I am anxious to see the end of this.
Libretto: So, what are you working on next? What should we look forward to?
Bibi: I am building relationships around North America, based on publishing and sales. We have book launches for our authors in the United States, Canada, Nigeria and South Africa planned this year. I pray they happen. But if the pandemic continues, we would have no choice than to respect authorities and cancel these plans. I am currently producing my first audio book. I have also finished a collection of poems.
Libretto: Thank you, Bibi.
Bibi Ukonu is an architect, poet and novelist. He is published online, and in print magazine, such as Pyramid Magazine and Twilight Musings of the International Library of Poetry. He is also the editor of CityDeigns Magazine, and writes about Architecture and sustainable Development. Things That Start Small But Sweet is his second collection of short stories, which won the 1st Runner Up Prize for ANA/Abubakar Gimba Prize for Short Stories. He is also the Mahaging Editor of Griots Lounge Publishing (a Yagazie Media Limited publishing imprint). Bibi lives in Manitoba with his family, and sometimes in Lagos. Twitter/Intagram: @bibi_ukonu