If you are an avid reader of African literary works and you haven’t already heard of him, Caine Prize winning author, Olufemi Terry will soon become known to you as he is working steadily to become a household name. His short story; Stickfighting Days, originally published in Chimurenga Vol. 12/13, a Pan African publication of writing, art and politics, defeated several others to emerge as the 2010 winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing.
His talent caught the eye of The Chair of Judges, The Economist’s Literary Editor, Fiammetta Rocco, who is quoted as having said, “Ambitious, brave and hugely imaginative, Olufemi Terry's Stickfighting Days presents a heroic culture that is Homeric in its scale and conception. The execution of this story is so tight and the presentation so cinematic, it confirms Olufemi Terry as a talent with an enormous future.”
The experiences of this well-traveled writer who has lived and worked in Europe, Africa and the US are reflected in his works, which are set in places such as Kenya, and South Africa. He even writes about fictional places where he hasn’t lived, reinforcing Ms. Rocco’s “hugely imaginative” description of his work. This show’s he’s comfortable writing about subjects he likes, with characters set in various regions and from multiple perspectives.
His writings have also been published in New Contrast, a South African literary journal, the online magazine, Guernica, and The Africa Report. Also, the Caine Prize's 8th annual collection titled Jambula Tree published another of his stories titled Digitalis Lust, which is an exploration of isolation set in Cape Town. This means Olufemi has two stories with the coveted Caine stamp of approval, which is a major accomplishment. His works have been lauded by many readers and have inspired many other budding writers in Africa and the Diaspora.
I met with Olufemi Terry while he was in DC to hear his thoughts on his journey as a writer. Below are excerpts from our discussion.
Who is Olufemi Terry?
I was born in Sierra Leone to Sierra Leonean and Vincentian parents. I grew up in Nigeria, Britain and Cote d’Ivoire before earning university degrees in New York. Since leaving the U.S in 2003, I have lived in Kenya, South Africa and Germany, where I am currently based and working on my first novel.
What is the title of your upcoming book and what is it about?
It is a story of displacement and alienation set in Mid 1990s New York titled Sum of All Losses.
Why did you choose to write about this subject?
I’m not sure I chose to. Some books or stories just come out and are unconnected to human volition.
What made you believe you could become an author?
I’m not sure that I ever “believed” I could become an author. That’s not how I conceive of my trajectory to writing. I began writing a long time ago. Initially not seriously but gradually the process became more and more central to my life. It is difficult now for me to imagine going back to a 9-to-5 job.
Many writers are introverts. Are you an introvert and has that helped you become a successful writer?
I shy away from labels, so no; I wouldn’t describe myself as an introvert.
How was your month long residency at Georgetown University?
It was very enjoyable. Engaging with students regarding my writing and the creative process reaffirmed my feelings about the value of fiction, “African writing” and the idea that art is for art’s sake.
Based on your experience at Georgetown, is there anything you believe African Universities should consider to grant their students access to people like you?
Unfortunately, I think that a lot of it comes down to money. I’d be happy to go to Uganda’s Makerere University or Nigeria’s University of Ibadan to discuss writing, but I probably wouldn’t be able to afford to make too many such trips without support.
What do you believe people can do to encourage the reading culture in Africans in Africa and in the Diaspora?
I think it’s important to inculcate an appreciation for reading and books in very young children. There are so many competing distractions and it’s difficult to engage a six or seven year old child in the joys of reading if that child has already grown used to television and video games.
Having lived both inside and outside Africa, do you cling to the African writer title?
I'm a writer and I'm African. The two are separate.
How has living in different locations influenced your writing?
I feel free to write how I like about what I like.
You stated on BBC's World Today, “There is a danger in seeking authenticity in African writing,” which I believe is what some readers desire from African writers. What did you mean by the statement and why do you have that perspective?
Simply put, I think authenticity and verisimilitude are concerns for journalism and non-fiction. If I want to read about “real” African street boys, I can pick up a newspaper in Lagos or Nairobi.
Trying to create “authentic” characters is usually inimical to writing good fiction. As a fiction writer I must free myself of such constraints.
Being “grouped” comes with living in the West. However you are quoted as stating that you believe it is “unhelpful” to view African writers as a unique grouping of their own. Why do you believe that and what influenced your belief?
How often do we read about European or Asian writers? Does it mean anything to be an Asian writer?
What do you think of publishing in Africa?
It seems that there are three poles of writing communities on the continent: Cape Town centered on South Africa’s Chimurenga and one or two other literary magazines and publishers; Nairobi, centered on Kenya's Kwani Trust and Abuja, centered on Nigeria's Cassava Press.
How do you find inspiration?
Ideas and inspiration come from everywhere and nowhere. It’s different, I imagine, for everyone. I couldn’t really say there’s a clear path to inspiration.
Describe your writing process?
I try to get into a rhythm of writing 1000 words daily. I also carry a notebook with me everywhere, to put down my thoughts and ideas, so I don’t forget them.
African parents often desire and steer their children toward prestigious and financially lucrative careers, but writing isn't necessarily either and it's certainly not popular with most African parents. How did you convince your parents that this is the career for you?
I always had my parents support. I think they became used to my being wayward and unconventional when I was an adolescent. I did not begin to write fiction with much intent until I was in my thirties, at which point I was more or less free to do as I wished.
What do your parents think of your career now that you're successful?
My parents remain supportive and proud. It is most important for them that I am doing what I want to do.
Since you won the Caine Prize, literary agents and publishers must be seriously courting you. What publisher have you decided to go with?
I don’t have a publisher yet, and I am still editing the manuscript for my novel.
Lamu Squat, another short story you wrote in 2006 set in Lamu, Kenya, was published in the online magazine Guernica in early March 2011. Was there a reason for the five year wait?
I’d use the word ‘gap’ rather than wait. I edited Lamu Squat repeatedly and quite intensely before I began to submit it. And it’s a long short story that’s not so easy to categorize, so it was difficult to place.
What’s on the horizon for you?
Well, I can’t be sure. But I hope to agree to a contract for Sum of All Losses at some point and I hope to see it published in the not too distant future. Also, I have an idea for a second novel that I’m keen to begin work on.