Who is Dami Ajayi?
I am a Nigerian writer and doctor, working in a psychiatric hospital.
I write poetry, fiction and a bit of criticism, but mostly on music and books. I also publish and edit fiction for Saraba Magazine. I am an author of two books — Daybreak and Other Poems (2013) and Clinical Blues (2014).
When did you start writing?
I'd like to say I started writing much earlier as a kid. I think I wrote my first essay and my first poem when I was 11. A friend's mom wanted to start a magazine, although it failed, the idea of writing stayed with me. I would say I started taking writing seriously in 2007, when I was just about to move into the clinics and I discovered that writing is what I really wanted to do. After reading a lot of contemporary writers, I really thought 'I can do this.' I started out with poems and tried with the short story, but this took a little more time and more discipline. I was in Ife studying medicine, and it was difficult to go all out with fiction, so I just wrote poetry because I was doing many things at the same time — studying, having fun, and editing the medical journal and another magazine.
Tell us a little bit more about Day Break and Other Poems and why you chose an online platform for it.
In 2013, in a small village in eastern Nigeria, I had finished writing Clinical Blues and had submitted it for a British award. It was shortlisted but didn't win. I then started looking for a publisher to get the book out. I felt constipated and I started writing new poems about the place I was and the space I was. In 2012, two of my friends — both doctors, both young and bright — died from natural causes. With the trauma and living in a new place, I started writing new poems about love, loss, home and nostalgia.
Emmanuel Iduma, my partner at Saraba, and I talked about it and wondered why don't I just self-publish the poems as a chapbook. This also comes from what I had observed that the people who submitted for the [prize] all had chapbooks out, and I did not. All of them had MFAs and MAs and I was only a doctor in Nigeria. I decided I would do a chapbook too.
What about Clinical Blues?
The story of its publication is very funny. In 2011, I met the publisher of Onyieka Nwelue's Abyssinian Boy. I gave him an earlier manuscript of Clinical Blues and he liked it and said he wants to publish it. But he had to queue it in. I was not worried about this because if I won the award, I would earn a publishing contract. I eventually sat down with the publishers and starting working on the book — all the way to the layout. But the publication did not happen because they kept postponing it. By end of 2013, the book was still not published and I asked. They had publishing problems and they wanted to buy me out of the contract.
Later I was approached by a group of friends who were interested in my fiction, but at the time I did not have anything ready and I told them about my poetry. They read the book, liked it and signed it up. And that's how the book came to be.
Following your experience with Clinical Blues, what would you say about the publishing industry, not only in Nigeria but also in Africa?
We are talking about the renaissance of writers and writing but we do not have a publishing industry to support that. In Nigeria, there are like three or four publishers who publish literary fiction, and hardly do they do more than one book per year. You can imagine how many new voices there are. And it is not only in Nigeria but also everywhere. The best of writing has to come out one way of the other. Now you can only get them in literary magazines, on blogs and on the internet scattered everywhere. It is still a mess really.
How did Saraba come about? And what has the response been?
I met Iduma, and we were both young writers trying to write but could not get published. On the impulse we needed to be published, we decided to publish ourselves and started Saraba. After we were done with ourselves, we were now tired. We were published, so what next? We had to now sit down and do it properly. Give it a structure and subscribe to a certain aesthetic and this involved putting our money down and such. I think things are getting better for the magazine and it will be doing better things.
The response is overwhelming. I mean you look at something you started innocently grow into a life of its own. By the third month of starting Saraba we were already being named in the Guardian UK. And we have had opportunities to travel — this is my first time in East Africa — and I have met people who know Saraba and who know me much more than I know myself.
Connecting between online spaces and publishing, do you think publishers and writers in Africa are taking advantage of these spaces as a way of telling stories?
I think we are. Kwani? Chimurenga, Saraba, Lawino, Kalahari Review and the rest are all sprouting out and pushing material and is not ghosts writing for them. The book is dead as we know it.
Do you think prizes are necessary, especially since most of them are viewed with the 'western eye'?
The thing about awards is that they have their uses. Many times when you set up an award, you are trying to make yourself into a gatekeeper and set yourself into a canonisation of sifting of selective works that you think has true literary value. That is necessary because new material is coming out and we need to grade it, and that's what awards are good for.
Awards are judges by people, and people have their politics. The politics reflects in the kind of books they give the awards to. There is a certain kind of aesthetic and people who are winning certain prizes. And there is a certain pattern to them like how a lot of African in Diaspora are winning major literary awards, why? Because they have the structure over there to hone their skills and happen to be or seen to be the best because of the opportunities the diaspora presents to them as opposed to those of us here. Awards from the west will subscribe to the Western aesthetics. The awards in Africa need to have substance to them because we don't have a kind of aesthetic or cultural value to which we subscribe to.
Which writers in Africa are you reading now?
Currently, I am reading Tendai Huchu's The Maestro, the Magistrate and the Mathematician, Larry Peter's selected poetry and Harriet Anena's A Nation in Labour.
Any new works in the pipeline?
A contemporary novel about leaders and a handful of music reviews. There is also a new poetry collection but it is still being chiselled out.