Femi Osofisan keeps things brief, in a shortish interview with Amatoritsero Ede in this month's issue of Sentinel Poetry Online. Noted for his many plays, some may overlook the fact that Osofisan is also a poet with several collections to his name (he also writes under the pseudonym, Okinba Launko). Asked whether one calling interferes with another, the answer was, No. It is "rather like having different limbs," in fact. Osofisan also touched on the lingering controversy with the NLNG prize for Nigerian literature...
You know I was on the Board which decided the policy, and so I am equally responsible for it. The reasons we have presented elsewhere, and I am prepared to defend them any time. However, the interesting thing is that, after all the controversy started by Odia, some of us were sacked rather unceremoniously from the Board, and a new Board set up. And what was interesting is that this new Board reconsidered the decision, and reaffirmed it! But I am glad to have been sacked, because it now makes it easy for me to compete!
And Osofisan is in competition for the NLNG Prize (awarded this year for Plays) this time round, as it happens. The former director of the National Theatre, Lagos, is one of 3 people on the shortlist, with his play, Ajayi Crowther. The other 2 on the very short list for the $20,000 prize, are: Ahmed Yerima (Osofisan's successor at the National Theatre) for Hard Ground; and Emeka Egwuda for Esoteric Dialogue.
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Further to Naguib Mahfouz, Hisham Matar (author of In the Country of Men) recalls a literary evening in 2004 in a Cairo hotel with the now departed great man of Egyptian letters. More like a secret rendezvous, really... Mahfouz's assistant has to keep tabs on how many cigarettes he has left, as he's limited by doctors to 5 a day; and Matar gets to ask a nagging question...
After one of the long silences Mahfouz turned to his assistant and said, "How many do I have left?"
"Three," the assistant said.
Mahfouz took out a cigarette and smoked it with obvious relish.
Then came my turn to speak. I suddenly became doubtful about my visit; there was so much I had wanted to ask, but now none of it seemed important. I have always felt ambivalent about meeting literary heroes. Margaret Atwood once said that "wanting to meet a writer because you like their books is like wanting to meet a duck because you like pâté".
I asked a question that immediately exposed me. I shouted in his ear: "How do you see writers such as myself, Arabs who write in English?" He said nothing and continued to look straight ahead. Feeling awkward in the silence I pressed on. "Do we belong to Arabic literature, or the literature of the language in which we write?" Words like "we", "belong", suddenly seemed weightless.
"A writer serves the language he writes in," Mahfouz said unequivocally.
A few of the gathered nodded in agreement.
I felt annoyed at myself, at my naked soliciting of an embrace. I had wanted him to say that, regardless of my exile, we were still brothers. I recalled at that moment what the Syrian poet Nizar al-Qabbani, who had lived and died in London but had never surrendered his Arabic language, had once said about young Arab writers who, due to their early exile, were now writing in languages that were not their own: in his eyes, we were like wild horses - untamed, beautiful, but lost.
Then Mahfouz said: "But who cares now where Shakespeare was from?"
This made me feel worse. He must have noticed my desperation and was being charitable. Mahfouz turned to his assistant and asked again: "How many do I have left?"
"Now, two," the assistant said.
Then Mahfouz lit another cigarette.
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