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Friday, April 9, 2010

One on one with Commonwealth’s book prize winner

She quit her job after increasingly finding it “too hard getting up in the morning” to do a job she didn’t actually believe was giving her joy. She became a writer so that she could wake up late in her “pajamas and sit on my computer and create these worlds”, writes Dennis D. Muhumuza

As soon as the interview was over, I asked if it was okay to have her picture taken. “Oh yeah,” she said, and quickly rummaged through her heavy leather handbag, coming back with a small round mirror and a colourless lip shine which she suavely used on her full lips.

It was quite something watching this polished lady do this. For a moment, it was difficult to believe this was Sade Adeniran, the London-born Nigerian author whose self-published novel, Imagine This, scooped the 2008 Commonwealth Prize for Best First Book for Africa Region.

In her conviction that “every writer needs encouragement,” she grabbed the opportunity to spend a week (February 20 – 27) in Kampala mentoring and inspiring Ugandan university students of creative writing at the African Writers’ Trust Seminar. When she narrates the five years she toiled away, without guidance, writing Imagine This, you know she’s not blithering.
First she quit her job after increasingly finding it “too hard getting up in the morning for a job you didn’t actually believe was giving you any joy,” deciding she wanted to become a writer so that she could wake up late in her “pajamas and sit on my computer and create these worlds….”

It was not going to come easy creating these worlds though. What eventually provoked her to put pen to paper was an infuriating boss.

“He made me work a whole day before he told me he no longer needed me,” she says. “I remember feeling so upset, so mad.” She quickly adds with a smile: “Instead of killing him, I went home and started writing a story about a girl who gets revenge on the boss.”

Only to realise that was “rubbish anyway. But the main character of that story is very interesting because she’s in my journal; she kept a journal, so that’s how I started writing Imagine This.”

When did she first discover she had the blood of a writer? Adeniran thinks a little before responding: “I discovered the power of words when I was a teenager living in Nigeria with my dad. We didn’t get on; I could never communicate with him; when I tried to we would start screaming at each other, slam doors and everything, so all I would do is compose a letter about something that I wanted and the reasons why I should have whatever it was, and I would slip it underneath his door and watch him through his window reading it and shaking his head.

“And at university, I didn’t want to write a dissertation because I was quite lazy; I didn’t want to do research,” she says with a naughty smile, “so I said I’ll just write a radio play for my final year piece so all I had to do was sit down and imagine and that’s what I did.”

The play, Memories of a Distant Past, was accepted and broadcast by BBC, and that’s when Adeniran really felt she should be a writer after all.

It was with this confidence that she distributed the manuscript of Imagine This “to people I knew loved reading; loved literature” and the response was “so enthusiastic that I thought it must be good and because of that I got the courage to publish.”

To her shock, the manuscript was rejected by literary agents. She was not daunted though for she believed in those she had initially sent her manuscript, so she published the book herself.

Adeniran met a lady at a writers’ fellowship in Spain, who found the book “fabulous” and encouraged her to send it to the Commonwealth for the writers’ prize. She obeyed, not knowing her life was about to change.
“It didn’t have a proper professional editor and I was short-listed against all these professional books and I never thought that Imagine This had a chance; I was just happy to be short-listed. I had been acknowledged and I was happy with that so when I was actually announced as the winner it was almost beyond belief.”
Suddenly, even the literary agents that had initially shunned her were now clamouring for her signature.

“I now have an agent who I didn’t have before. In the UK they don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts from writers; you have to have an agent and getting an agent is even harder than getting a publisher.”

Surprisingly, Adeniran has not been influenced by other writers, “I guess I’m selfish; I just wanted to write my story; wanted my story to be heard,” she says. “Beyond that I really didn’t think about other writers.”

Talking of her second book, which is in the works, Adeniran says, “People think, yeah, ‘you have an award therefore you must be really good’ but I don’t consider myself really, really good. I find it hard; I procrastinated for two years. I don’t even call myself an experienced writer; I’m still on a level down there.”

To young and struggling writers she says: “Practice makes perfect; you can’t wake up one day and say I want to be a doctor. It takes years; you have to go to medical school; perfect whatever specialty you choose and maybe after you’ve killed a few patients [she laughs], you become good at what you do. It’s the same with writing. Be more persistent because writing isn’t always about being better –it’s about believing in your work and actually going out there and trying to sell it.”

Hearing her faultless British accent, it can hardly occur to you that this bright, towering lady from the age of nine spent over a decade in Nigeria before returning to UK where she has lived since.

I ask if it’s true great writers are great readers.

“I’ve always read,” she says simply. “To me the story always comes first; I don’t really care about the genre as long as it’s a good story.”

“Does that mean you have abandoned stories you have not found good enough?”

Her introspective eyes light up: “Yeah,” she laughs. There’s passion in her laughter as in her voice to hyponotise some men. And she’s single! “There are too many books out there; I’m not going to be able to read all of them before I die so I might just as well stick to the ones that are interesting.”

After the photo opportunity, Adeniran promised to return and explore the country.

--Daily Monitor, Monday March 29, 2010