Libretto had a discussion with award winning Nigerian writer and publisher, Su’ur. Su’eddie Vershima Agema. Su’ur Su’eddie Vershima Agema, a husband and father, an editor, publisher, cultural enthusiast and development worker. He was listed on Nigerian Writers Award’s100 Most Influential Nigerian Writers under 40 (2017and 2018) and EGC’s Top 50 Contemporary Poets Who Rocked Nigeria (2012-17). He was also recently Curator, Black History Month/Project and founding President, African Writers [Society] at the University of Sussex in England, the United Kingdom where he earned a second master’s in International Education and Development under the esteemed Chevening scholarship scheme. He is also the convener of the Benue Book and Arts Festival, a past chairman of the Association of Nigerian Authors (Benue State Chapter) and former coordinator of the National Teen Authorship Scheme covering six states in Nigeria. Su’eddie is the author of Home Equals Holes: Tale of an Exile (Winner, Association of Nigerian Authors’ Prize for Poetry, 2014);The Bottom of another Tale (Shortlist, Abubakar Gimba Prize for Short Stories, 2015);Once Upon a Village Tale(Shortlist, Association of Nigerian Authors’ Children’s Literature Prize); and Bring our casket home: Tales one shouldn’t tell (Nominee, Association of Nigerian Authors’ Prize for Poetry 2013).
Libretto: Hello Su’eddie, we are so happy you could join us for this interview. It’s been an odd year no thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. How has the situation impacted your writing and the publishing industry?
Su’eddie: Thanks for having me. It has been an interesting year, true, and like everyone else, we experienced a million things. The best of it is that several people had a chance to relax, to take life more easy and reconnect with family. I spent the period with my family and I enjoyed it tremendously. As writers, we had the chance to introspect and of course, the experience created materials for several works across the genres that we keep seeing. COVID-19 also made us see the viability of the internet more. Most festivals this year are virtual, from the Abuja Literary Society’s festival to Quramo’s Q-Fest, the Lagos Poetry Festival and Ake festival, they all went online. Our Benue Book and Arts Festival scheduled for the first week of December is also partly virtual. The digital side of publishing became more prominent, particularly in our parts. Several people resorted to e-publishing and we had increased revenue as people were now more open to buying books online. Printing presses were shut and most publishers who had set release dates for books had to push them ahead. These are only a few, I could go on and on but I think this gives an idea.
Libretto: You’re a writer who has inspired many to take up the art, but what was it like when you started out on this journey? Did you feel confident that you were going to succeed as a writer?
Su’eddie: Hmmm, it has been an interesting journey and I was forced to think about it a couple of times this year. I started writing more seriously towards the end of my first degree at the Benue State University. I had teachers who were established writers like Moses Tsenongu, Andrew Aba and Maria Ajima. I also had friends like Elizabeth Onogwu who was a lecturer in my department and other classmates who inspired me. With time, I became more active in the Association of Nigerian Authors, met Sam Ogabidu etc. I wanted to publish by the time I graduated. I thought I was good enough and my material was worth presenting to the world but my guardian, Mr. Charles Ayede told me to wait. He even told me to cool down with my ‘literariness’ since literature would not put food on the table. The advice helped me because I shudder at what I might have put out at the time. I eventually met Hyginus Ekwuazi who changed my writing and continues to inspire me to this day. Somehow, I had other friends whose company gave me inspiration to keep writing too. In their company I did not feel the pressure or win too much. It was enough that I was writing, that I was reading, and improving my art. When I published my first poetry collection, Bring our casket home: Tales one shouldn’t tell, interestingly inspired by the death of my guardian, it was longlisted for the ANA Poetry Prize 2013. It was crazy and I danced! It didn’t matter that I did not win. It felt good. The next year, I won the ANA Poetry Prize and was shortlisted in the prose and short story categories so I had a huge confidence boost. In this wise, I kept gaining confidence to go on, to do more. If there was any pressure, it was self-imposed, not with a view to winning accolades or anything but just generally to get better with each passing day and get my work to the best form it can be. The confidence issues came some years later. You know, with rejections and stuff like that. Then, of course, there would be those editors who would tear your work and make you wonder. This is funny considering I am an editor as well. I have learnt though, sometimes it is not that one’s work is not good but that it just does not fit the mould of certain people. It does not give an excuse for laziness or lazy writing though. I keep learning and improving on my art, working with people whose opinions I respect, using works I admire as yardsticks to grow and ensuring that I am the best me I can be. When someone says something about my work in the negative, I check to see if I can share the person’s view. If I agree with it and it is something I can change, I try to do so or live with it. If it is something that I feel is a personal opinion and not true, I let it be. I have inner peace concerning my writings and that is the ultimate confidence boost.
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).
Su’eddie: One writer who has inspired me the most is Hyginus Ekwuazi. He especially inspired my poetry. His works opened me to new views that I had no idea of, considering I had been learning the formalities of writing in school. My writing has been impacted by such works as The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, Chuma Nwokolo’s works and Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s ‘Whispering Trees’, not the full book, the story and I think two other tales in the book. Khaled Hosseni in his works, especially The Kite Runner, hastaught me a lot. Other impactful works are Philip Roth’s Everyman and Tony Parsons’s Man and Boy. Chimamanda Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus and Helon Habila’s Measuring Time also had profound effects on me. I learnt new styles of writing from Chimamanda’s short stories, mostly published online. Uwem Akpan, in his Say You Are One of Them also helped me grow. Of recent, I am learning from Chris Abani, Kwame Dawes, Haruki Murakami and Helen Oyeyemi. Mohsin Hamid’s Moth Smoke and The Reluctant Fundamenlist have opened me to new and refreshing perspectives. There are several others but these are the ones that come to mind. On favourite excerpts, I could share a lot but one comes to mind now, if you don’t like somebody’s story, write your own. That is Achebe, and I think it was said in an interview.
Libretto: What is your best writing genre and how has it influenced the way you write?
Su’eddie: I used to think more in poetry but after loads of bashing from various people, corrections and having fights over lines, I have come to think more towards short stories. Although I express myself more through poetry, sometimes, I mix the both up. I believe my poetry comes out better in my prose while the prose in poetry is not always acceptable, considering people expect poetry to be more silky and versey than prosaic.
Libretto: Apart from writing, what other profession would you have chosen?
Su’eddie: Fortunately for me, this is a question I do not have to bother answering considering I do many other things aside writing. There’s the editing and publishing, I am a researcher, development worker, literary administrator, amongst a few other things. So, I am a writer and I am these other things too.
Libretto: You are the founder of SEVHAGE Publishers, one of the leading publishing platforms in Nigeria. At what point did you decide you wanted to start your own publishing firm?
Su’eddie: The decision came in 2012 thereabouts. There were too many things I saw wrong in the publishing industry and I made pitches to some publishing houses. I only wanted to see these things implemented, I did not even want to get any glory or be part of them. They mostly did not heed much of my advice, for practical reasons. So, I decided to take my ideas and start something alongside an NGO, what has now become the SEVHAGE Literary and Development Initiative to support writers and writings.
Libretto: As a publisher and a writer, why do you think a lot of writers find it difficult getting published?
Su’eddie: That is an easy one. There are too few publishing opportunities and publishers and too many writers and writings.
Libretto: This is often a source of debate among poets and literary critics, but do you think there’s such a thing as a bad poem?
Su’eddie: Definitely! As with almost everything else in life and especially in the arts, there are good and bad poems. The description of which is good or bad is often dependent on readers who in some cases are also critics. There are some universally bad ones, written without form, aesthetics or appeal.
Libretto: In the last few years, performance poetry in the form of spoken word as gained much interest. Do you see a future for page poetry or do you consider it an endangered art form?
Su’eddie: Page poetry, as you call it, will always have a place. As long as the arts live, there will always be poets and poems, in spoken form and written form.
Libretto: What was the process of writing your books (“The Bottom of Another tale” and”Home Equals Holes: Tale of an Exile”) like and how long did it take you to write the two books?
Su’eddie: Both of them are collections, the former of short stories and the latter of poems, with poems written at different points. I would say the stories in The Bottom were written over the course of say, five years. The poems took about two years or less. One day, I was eating somewhere with Ene Odaba, who was then one of our SEVHAGE team members when we decided to just look at some of my poems. We developed a thread and put them together. That was the foundation. I had to write some new poems, reconstruct most of what I had and ensured that the theme as captured in the title kept on echoing through the entire collection.
Libretto: Your book titles are always fittingly poetic. What are the boxes you think a good book title should tick for it to appeal to readers?
Su’eddie: I believe that book titles should be catchy, where possible, reflect the contents of the book and importantly, be unique. Once you have this, you let it go and hope it appeals to readers.
Libretto: Now to your forthcoming book; “Once Upon a Village Tale”. What is the book all about and how does it differ from your previous works?
Su’eddie: Once Upon a Village Tale was published last year. It is a children’s book and took me about five years or so to write. There were a million rewrites, different editors, illustrations and things of the like. It was stressful but fun though. The book is the tale of a father telling his children stories in the village, then one of them falls gravely ill and then, an adventure begins to save the child while the father tells her more stories to ensure she stays awake, and alive.
Libretto: In your view, how can the reading culture in Nigeria be encouraged?
Su’eddie: Buy books and give to people to read. Do more reading competitions and generally make the books we write more appealing.
Libretto: 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?
Su’eddie: Get into competitions, that is the easiest way but don’t put all your hopes there or you will be crushed if it does not pan out how you expected. Submit to magazines, journals and other places that pay. Submit to open calls too, even those that do not pay, get yourself noticed. When you get publishing, be your cheerleader. Put word on your work everywhere and if possible, beg people to buy and read. I remember that when I had my first poetry collection out, I actually did most of this. I even organised a launch, which I would not advice anyone to do except if you have loads of money bags in your personal circle, and went on air. I was on TV and radio, paid for most of these. I believe money brings money. I did not get much money but the rewards were enormous and I am still benefiting from these till date.
Libretto: So, finally, what are you working on next? What should we look forward to?
Su’eddie: I have just finished work with my editors, Amara Chimeka and Torkwase Igbana, on a collection of mostly funny short stories of the oyinbo experience from our perspective as Africans. It comes out this quarter. I am also actively working towards the SEVHAGE/Benue Book and Arts festival that is scheduled for the first week of December. What else? Let’s just stop there for now.