Writer Mike Ekunno has presented on national Nigerian television and worked in radio as special assistant to the chief executive of Africa's largest network, Radio Nigeria. He wrote for The Guardian on Sundays before working as a senior speechwriter for Nigeria's former Minister of Information and Communications. His fiction, essays and poetry have appeared in The African Roar Anthology 2013, BRICKrhetoric, Ascent Aspirations Magazine, Sentinel Literal Quarterly, Storymoja - the last two coming with wins in continent-wide contests. He now works in film classification in Abuja, Nigeria and freelances as a book editor and proofreader.
In this interview with our Letters Editor Dariel Suarez, Mike talks about identity, working for a cabinet minister and life in Nigeria.
DS: What inspired you to write "Me and My Pseudonyms"? How do you see the idea of identity in relationship to writers and their work?
ME: It was initially about man’s ambivalence – you want to be anonymous and you want to be known. As often happens, the Holy Spirit took it over and brought in other perspectives and co-incidences. That’s basically how I write. An idea hits me and I leave it to simmer while jotting down root words and ideas linked to or contrasting with the central one, until one day I flip to my scribbling and, fiam! I just know the meal is done already before I ever put sauce pan to fire. Then I just sit down and key in the words. Questions of identity cannot be wished away in deconstructing the works of any writer. Your work is a piece of you – either the dominant part or the recessed. It helps if a writer has lived a life and can laugh at himself without being too self-conscious.
DS: How does living in Nigeria influence your writing? What would you like your audience to get out of your work?
ME: Nigeria is the canvas on which much of my work is created. The ingredients come from what one hymn writer calls “the daily round, the common task.” Getting sullied, bruised, humanized or ennobled in the hustle is invaluable and no matter what one may say about internet research, you can’t beat the lived experience. And Nigeria offers enough drama to make fiction look like a poor imitation. My audience? It’s their prerogative to make what they will of my writing. But seriously, I’d be flattered for suspense and wit. Those are more challenging.
DS: Can you tell us about your previous work as a speech writer and your experiences working on radio? Have these experiences found their way into your fiction, poetry, and nonfiction?
ME: Those were positions where I worked as aide to chief executives – one a cabinet minister and the other, the boss of a public service broadcaster with over thirty stations on its network. Both were very challenging positions but the writer’s rebellion is always at play in the corridors of power. The tussle between conscience and duty becomes sharper while the make belief can be gut-wrenching. There’s an insidious disdain for intellection among the ruling elite. But it was very fulfilling as a speechwriter to sit back and read my own words in newspapers the next day with the boss as proxy. There’s no way my experiences in these positions would not seep into my writing like I referred to earlier on identity. It’s only the extent of embellishment that differs. However, all the themes in my works are not necessarily about my experiences.
DS: You mentioned in your bio that you work in film classification. Can you explain what this means? Is film an important or common topic in your writing?
ME: Nigeria has a vibrant, though young, movie industry called Nollywood. I work in the regulatory arm that deals with previewing movies and grading them and licensing cinemas. Film does not feature in my writing except if you want to reckon with the pictorial way of imagining that is at the root of both good screenplay and prose fiction.
DS: Who would you say are you favorite writers? What about Old Testament stories do you find most engaging?
ME: I like racy stories with lots of humour, wit and subtexts. Tomes don’t interest me no matter how engaging the tale. I got work to do, you know – write, browse, watch, blog or do nothing. I find a lot of writers in the shadows of the Achebes and Ngugis under-appreciated and I do go back to the works of these people – Chukwuemeka Ike, Elechi Amadi. Among the new generation writers, Eghosa Imasuen, Adaobi Nwaubani, Okey Ndibe. For OT stories, King David is it. He evinces so much strength and grace at the same time. That he was a creative writer does nothing to detract from my admiration of him. I have had to teach my children the words of his lamentation over Saul and Jonathan, a very moving classic.
DS: Do you have a preference between fiction, poetry, and nonfiction? How do you choose what genre to write in at any particular time?
ME: I weave in and out of the three depending on my mood. I find that most of my writing is about mischief and message. Poetry draws out more of the mischief, CNF more of the message and fiction is somewhere in-between. Prose works better with me at dawn and poetry, at dusk.
DS: What projects are you working on at the moment?
ME: I’m pruning an 80,000-odd word short story collection before looking for a publisher and hoping in the interim to get all the stories published separately in litmags. Now maybe I’ve gone 60-70% (ThriceFiction just accepted ‘Work in Progress’ for early spring publication). I’m also working on a full length novel which is at about 40,000 words. My day job gets in the way but I intend to move it to 60,000 words this year. I never felt my essays needed compilation into a volume but friends have been teasing me. If I get around to it, I can easily make a fat volume.
DS: What can readers expect from you in the years to come?
ME: A short story collection within a short time and a novel in two to three years. I’ll do more of Creative Non-Fiction this year.