‘Writing has made me less gregarious…’

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Reginald Chiedu Ofodile is an actor, lawyer, poet, playwright and novelist. He is based in Onitsha, Anambra State, where he is mostly involved in the production of plays. He also sketches dramas for stage, radio and screen. He is the author of the famous novel – A Night of Content. In this interview with Edozie Udeze he talks about his early years as a writer, what motivates his muse and more

What motivates your muse?

My instinctive answer would be ‘I don’t know.’  On further reflection, I think, ‘my instincts, my likes and aversions, my encounters, my aspirations and fears.’

When you read a book what are the essential things you look out for?

I like writing that is not shoddy or jerky or clumsy, unless those are devices deliberately deployed.   However, when I read a book for the first time, I’m like an explorer roaming in unknown territory.  The book might captivate or bore me, it might horrify or exalt, repel or seduce.  My responses of course would be determined by my personality, my outlook and limitations, and state of mind at the time of reading.

At what point in your life did you start thinking of being a writer?

I think it was in my early teens, in secondary school.  At about 13, I made my first bid at writing a novel, which I later abandoned.  Then at 14, I wrote my first play, The Entangled Web.  Later, when I was a law student at the old Imo State University (now Abia State University) I continued to write plays, and other works that I muster the cheek to call ‘poetry!’

What prompted you to be a writer?

I don’t know.  I was inspired, impelled, moved.  I can’t rationalize or explain it.  There were no professional writers in my nuclear family, although my late father and my mother were quite literary.  They both wrote very well and read considerably. However, they provided many books for me and my siblings, and I became absorbed in literature.  In those days, I would ask for N10.00, go to the bookshop in Upper New Market Road, Onitsha, and emerge with a collection.  It might comprise the orange-coloured African Writers’ series paperbacks, a Fontana imprint, and a foreign writer’s work. Then, from reading came the urge to write my own works.

As a writer, in what genre of literature do you express yourself the most?

I have written more plays than any other genre.  I have produced a substantial oeuvre of full-length and one-act plays and sketches, for stage, screen and radio.

Of all the books you have read which character struck you most and why?

It is ‘Meggie’ in Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds.  It tells of a priest who fathers a baby and doesn’t know that, until his old age when he has become a Cardinal and the son dies.  Meggie is the mother of the boy.  Her odyssey through emotional and spiritual tempests makes riveting reading.

Who are your favourite authors, home and abroad?

Wole Soyinka remains my literary hero.  When I read him – sometimes it’s ‘tussling’ with the book rather than relaxed reading – I know I am with a master.  John Munonye is high on my list of African authors.  Sadly, he never gained the acclaim he deserved before his death.  I appreciate Chinua Achebe’s  Arrow of God and Anthills of the Savannah.  Buchi Emecheta and Elechi Amadi I would definitely mention. I like the vigour and earthiness of Cyprian Ekwensi’s Jagua Nana.  I’d mention Fred Mustard Stewart and Colleen McCullough.  I’m confining myself of course to contemporary writers.  Otherwise I’d talk of Shakespeare and Marlowe, Thomas Gray and Wordsworth, Tennyson, Oscar Wilde, Ernest Dowson…

Has writing reshaped your life and in what ways?

It has made me less gregarious, craving greater solitude than I would have done if I hadn’t become a writer.  Writing has also detached me from materialism, confining me in small enclaves of words and imagination.  It has brought me what I call ‘two H factors’: hardship and heartache. I also reflect that writing immerses one in ‘three ds’: denigration, destitution and desolation.

Are you a re-reader and how often do you do that?

I am a re-reader. I often re-read.  Before my audition for Half of a Yellow Sun, the Director asked me if I had read the book.  I replied that I must have read it thrice or even four times.  Impactful books become friends that you love to visit. When you re-read a book, you realize there were aspects of it that you missed in your first perusal.  This is especially so when the second encounter comes years after the first reading.  Your comprehension would have been improved by years of experience and acquisition of knowledge.  Some days ago, I was re-reading Dillibe Onyeama’s The Story of an African God.  It is the biography of his grandfather, Chief Onyeama, which I first encountered over thirty years ago in my teens.  I felt on that second reading that I was traversing terrains I never even noticed on my first reading.

What book did you read last and which one do you intend to read next?

Just this morning, I turned the pages of Political Leadership in Nigeria, by Christopher I. Nwapa.  It was graciously given to me by the author.   I don’t know which book I’ll read next.  I’ve collected a number of books to research my next novel, which is set in the colonial era in a fictitious African country.  I have assembled historical/political studies as well as novels.  My next reading activity will probably be one of those research books.

How do you arrange your libraries both at home and in the office?

There are shelves around me, and many of my books are on shelves.  Many, however, are in piles. I am typing at a table piled with books and other documents. I write all my creative works longhand, and type them afterwards.  I sometimes share my bed with books and unbound papers.

When you meet any of your favourite authors, what will be your first question?

I might not ask any questions!  It is my habit in some situations to say very little, and listen and learn.  I’ve had the good fortune of meeting Professor Wole Soyinka on a number of occasions, and I don’t remember asking him any questions.  I also met Buchi Emecheta and Elechi Amadi, and I don’t remember that I asked them questions.  I was fortunate too to meet Maya Angelou in Exeter, England, in 1991, when I was a Drama undergraduate.  It was a spring day (May), I was in agbada print attire, and she asked if I was Yoruba.  I am usually content to be taciturn in the presence of scintillating beings, savouring their words and gestures. I am glad to gaze, marveling at their feats, and being inspired to strive continually to excel.

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