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Sunday, November 17, 2013

Etisalat Flash Fiction Top 20 Writer, Uche Okonkwo, Speaks

This is the last in the interview series and on anything Etisalat Flash Fiction Prize from me. It all started HERE. Go read past posts to follow how it began. 

I came across Uche Okonkwo’s story on the Top 20 list and I just liked it. You can’t read the “Neverland” and not be hooked. No wonder she’s made it thus far. She has less than 800 friends on facebook and as she said, in this interview, she did little or no campaigning at all. And that makes you wonder that maybe, maybe not all stories on the Top 20 had the strength of massive votes. Maybe some thin few were really picked for their artistry. Maybe. Or perhaps her prayers worked. :)

Read, share and savor! This is the last of the interview series.

TrueTalk: Tell us about yourself, your life in and outside writing. Let us meet Uche Okonkwo.

Uche Okonkwo: I always find this a hard question to answer. Thankfully this isn’t a job interview, so I’ll just throw in a bunch of random stuff: I’m the third of five children. I’ve never ridden a bicycle; I don’t know how. I was born and raised in Nigeria. I’ve worked as an editor, freelance and within a company. I like cats and ice cream, though the latter might be bad for me. One of my favourite books is Ngugi’s Wizard of the Crow. I’m female (one can’t always tell by my name).

I only write short stories (ranging from flash fiction to much longer short stories), and have no plans to write a novel yet. I’ve had two short stories published in anthologies: in 2012, Of Tears and Kisses, Heroes and Villains, and The Manchester Anthology 2012/2013, from my MA class. I write simply (or at least I try to), and with every piece my primary goal is to not bore the reader – everything else comes after.

My biggest challenge with writing is a combination of laziness and procrastination. I blog partly to help keep myself accountable.

TT: How do you think the internet is helping our writing?

UO: It helps to spread the word, for one; to get writing out there, especially from unpublished writers. It’s free to set up a blog, and many writers now have them and can build a fan base from them. And having a fan-base means there’s a ready-made audience if you publish a book; no publisher would complain about that.

I think the internet can also fuel creativity by giving us new material, or at least a new context or culture within which to write. The internet – and the world – is very different than it was say ten years ago, and as technology changes it affects how we live, what and how we write; how we see the world.

The internet is also invaluable for research, as I’m sure most people would agree. How did we ever do it before?

TT: I like the “Neverland”, it’s one of my favourites on the list. But I just couldn’t relate that title to the story. How does the title relate to the story?

Uche Okonkwo

UO: For me, the story is about nostalgia; it’s like a small slice of my childhood. The events in the story aren’t completely real, but I did have a close friend in primary school that was male, and his family and mine used to tease us about being a couple. ‘Neverland’ is the home of the fictional Peter Pan (along with Tinker Bell and the Lost Boys) who refuses to grow up, so I guess I chose that title because of a sense of longing for that time in my life. I don’t know that I would want to go back to being a child, but I certainly look back a lot. I’m not sure why.

TT: Looking at the large number of entries for the Etisalat Flash Fiction Prize at the initial stage, how strong was your hope? (I assume) Something must have been nudging you to have held faith all through the voting period. Let’s talk about it.

UO: I’d say I was reasonably optimistic. What I tried to do once voting started was fix my mind on other things, not think about the prize too much; and thankfully, I was well occupied for most of the voting period. I knew I had sent in a good enough entry, and I was satisfied to wait and see what would happen.

TT: So many things have been written on the Etisalat Flash Fiction prize in recent weeks. What do you think of the commentaries?

UO: I read only a few and I was mostly amused by them, especially the more fiery ones. I understand the distaste many people felt at having a writing contest where the public voted, and I certainly understand the concern that it might turn into nothing more than a popularity contest. I’m not sure why some of the commentaries were so aggressive, though; I didn’t think that was necessary. But people are (mostly) free to express their opinions how they wish, and so they did.

TT: How do you think this prize has helped our literature and growing unpublished writers especially?

UO: Writing is a relatively difficult thing to make a living from, and so I’m a fan of writers’ prizes in general. Anything that makes it easier for a writer to do his or her work, and be sustained by it – even if it’s a thousand pounds – can’t be so bad. As for how else this prize helps growing unpublished writers, perhaps through exposure. I think it’s too early to say more at this point.

TT: Do you think the prize will give anyone who wins the bragging right even when some said the Top 20 is fraught with many poor entries due to the voting method employed?

UO: I don’t know about bragging rights, and I doubt there’s ever any sense in bragging. I think the winner(s) would do well to take their prize(s) with gratitude and continue improving themselves however they can.

TT: Reading through some of the entries, one realizes that some do not know what a flash fiction is before submitting. What is your own idea of the flash fiction genre?

UO: The way I see it, flash fiction is about capturing one core thing. Some people make the mistake of trying to tell a big story with flash fiction, and then instead of a story they end up writing the summary of a story. When I write very short fiction I focus on the micro – that elementary narrative arc that can be whole in itself even with so few words, without frills. And I’m minimalist about it; I decide what the core of the story is, and whatever isn’t absolutely necessary for that core to be exposed I take out. I don’t see flash fiction as the medium for extensive character portraits or detailed descriptions of place, though it is very possible to present character and place using very few, carefully selected words.

Also, I think there’s a way to read very short fiction, and it might be something of an acquired taste. Before I got to understand the short story I used to come away from them feeling cheated, like they were incomplete. But reading short stories – to a larger extent than novels, I think – is kind of like chewing cud; there’s room for the reader to digest and add to the story long after they’re done.

TT: About the Etisalat Flash Fiction prize, some popularly put this way: ‘it is a prize that has turned writers to hustling marketers, where only the best marketer wins’. How far do you agree with that comment?

UO: It didn’t turn me into a ‘hustling marketer’, so I don’t agree very much. But I only speak for myself.

TT: Your story reads well and still made the Top 20. Many pieces read well but couldn’t gather enough votes to make it to the Top 20. What campaign strategy did you employ? Tell us about your campaign period.

UO: When I first read about the contest and saw that the winner would be determined partly by votes, my heart sank and I considered not entering. I thought, with good reason and like many others, that it would all come down to who was most popular and who could make the most noise. I don’t consider myself popular, not in the least. I’m only moderately active on social media (and that’s being generous), and I’m almost religious about keeping my business my business. But I decided I would enter anyway. The prize(s) was attractive enough, and I already had a good number of stories that would fit the word count. I knew it wouldn’t take much.

That decided, there were things I wasn’t going to do for votes. I wasn’t going to beg – vote for my story if you like it enough. I wasn’t going to harass anyone – no tagging friends or followers on Facebook or Twitter, no repeated messages. I shared my entry a few times on Facebook and Twitter, once on my blog. I sent personal messages, and never more than one per friend, to some friends on BBM and Whatsapp who I thought might miss it on Facebook and Twitter. I told my family about it. I prayed. I set my mind on other things.

My family and friends were great; they did much more than I did in spreading the word. They tweeted several times, shared and liked and commented on Facebook, they BBMed about it, sent emails and got their friends and colleagues to vote and share as well, and they did all of it without me having to ask. They’re my friends and family so they were partial to me, of course; but I think they were also glad to do it because they genuinely loved the story and could see something of themselves in it. I’m very thankful to them; I had them, so I didn’t need a ‘strategy’. However it turns out, it felt really good to have had their support.

TT: Thank you, Uche. *hi-five*

I also blog about books on CLR

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Etisalat Flash Fiction Top 20 Writer, N. Bassey, Speaks

In this interview series, I started with Tee Jay Dan. Read that here. Today, almost three days after, I am engaging N. Bassey, the author of Dressed Like A Prince. For now, until I get more writers on the Top 20 list to interview other than those I had already done, I would say N.Bassey’s took more time of preparation. For days, we exchanged many mails and some phone calls (and as such, a part of this interview was transcribed). So, what you have now are days of mails and many minutes of calls. Interesting conversations we had and you can’t just be bored. Really interesting.

On twitter, she’s known as StNaija. With her writings, she’s N. Bassey. You are just about to know how she manages both identities and how she is passionate about writing.  In this also, she shares her (the) #Etisalat insults, her regrets, her pains, her campaign, her drive and all. Enjoy!


TrueTalk: Who is N. Bassey or StNaija as you are also known by?

N.Bassey: N.Bassey is a pen name. StNaija is a twitter handle. Part male, part female, part bot. :)

TT: On the social media, you are popularly known as StNaija and your writings carry the name N. Bassey, how do you cope with these two identities?

N.B: As said above, they aren't the same. So I suppose you want to talk with N. Bassey. :)

TT: It is the difference which exists between them that brought about the question of coping. And I suppose combining dual identities should be somewhat interesting. I also suppose there must be a reason why you created the different names for yourself. You are StNaija and at the same time N. Bassey.

N.B: A name is a brand. A twitter name for instance is not always what one would be known as in real life. StNaija is a Twitter handle that can be operated by more than one person. N.Bassey is a pen name, one useful for voting type competitions. :)

TT: I have read some of your writings on your blog, elsewhere and recently in the Etisalat Flash Fiction competition. I am fascinated by the way your writings marvel one with simplicity. How do you achieve this? What’s the place of simplicity in writing?

N.B: Thank you for reading my work, that's a huge compliment. (Smiles) I am glad you find my writing simple. I write to communicate, to entertain, educate, edify. That can only be done when one is understood.
Simplicity in writing is a good thing. But simplicity is not the same as being simplistic. The question every writer should ask him/herself is does my choice of words serve the form? The story? The audience? Or am I alienating my audience? With my bogus words?

TT: How did you come about writing Dressed Like A Prince? Have you always had the idea of the story before the competition or the competition inspired it?

N.B: Dressed Like A Prince is a story that I had been turning over in my mind for some time. The dominant themes and scenes: Insecurity in Northern Nigeria, child abuse, jungle justice, governments demolishing structures without humane alternatives etc, have bothered me for months. The competition was a catalyst though, it helped me bring all those thoughts together in less than 300 words.

TT: So many things have been written on the Etisalat Flash Fiction prize in recent weeks. What do you think of the comments?

N.B: What things?

TT: That the contest is shoddily organised going by the voting system; that the voting system must have sifted better stories out, which may be the reason why we have so many poor entries on the Top 20. Just to mention but a few of the comments. What can you say to those?

N.B: First, I will like to speak about the contest being shoddily organized. I disagree with that. It is a maiden competition. It is the first of its kind. Even a child that will be a president; a Nelson Mandela or Barack Obama, will have to learn how to sit, walk, stand and run before he can be elected for a political office. So, for a competition that is just starting, I wouldn’t say it is shoddily done.  I would say yes there was some inexperience. I would say yes they could have done better in some way. But no, I won’t say that it was shoddily organized. 

You also talk about the issue of bad stories. I don’t think there are any bad stories or any good stories just because some stories might not meet one’s expectations. In every story, there is always some good and some bad. There is no perfect story. All stories are in the spectrum of imperfection. Now, this competition told us the rules. The rules are not just about writing. I think they are looking for someone that is able to write, able to edit, able to promote, able to advocate, able to champion the cause of African literature. That is the sort of person they are looking for. You just don’t sit down there and write a perfect story that nobody reads. 

This competition wants to give us stories (as winners) that have been read and loved, read and loved all over the world. This particular contest is not just about writing, it is a complete package. Call it a hybrid and you wouldn’t be too far from it. That’s what I think they were trying to do. So, I am not at all bothered. Every story had its own space, its own time. Everybody was given the same amount of time. So, if know you had a good story, you should have gone all out and promoted it. If some other person with a bad story and better confidence and better contact outpaces you, you should just plan to come better next time. Every competition has rules. More important than good stories and bad stories is that the competition rules are followed. And rules are not changed in the middle of the game. 

You don’t call something you can’t reach sour grapes. It is easy to call something you can’t reach sour. That you can’t reach something doesn’t make it sour. It is just unreachable to you. And guess what, you can decide to reach it next time, you can buy ladder or borrow an helicopter (laughs) and reach it from the top of the tree.

I know that promotion is tough for writers. Most of us are introverts. Some of us think, how can I, a great writer, go and ask an okada man to open my page and like this story. There is a need for writers to connect with their readers.

TT: The first stage, which is the major process, of the competition is primarily based on voting, and you seemed to be everywhere on the social media campaigning for votes. How was your campaign like? 

You have over a thousand and five hundred followers on twitter and quite a followership on your blog. Do you think that gave you an edge during the campaign period?

N.B: Really? I doubt that. 99.9% of Nigerians don't even know that there is an Etisalat Flash Fiction contest.

My campaign was fun, I had a fantastic team and overwhelming support from my family, friends, followers and fans. #TeamDLAP kept the flag flying throughout the thirty days. Frankly, I didn't have a clue on how I was going to sustain a campaign for thirty days but they made it happen.

TrueTalk: You talked about having a team, #teamDLAP, on ground. You must have been astute, perhaps desperate, at seeing “Dressed Like A Prince" go far in the contest. What can you say to that?

N.Bassey: I was not astute and I was not desperate. I was only passionate. I was passionate about literature. I have always been passionate about literature. Promoting a story is not just a new thing to me. And it is not new to most of my friends who are writers on twitter. We write and promote our works every day. When you go on twitter, you’ll find out one writer or the other promoting their blogposts. I even have a friend on twitter who actually pays people to read his posts and asks them to answer some comprehension questions. 

I was very shocked and afraid of some of the hate mails and threats that I got because of the promotion I did. If you no fit run, no dey go track. If you no fit fight, no dey go boxing ring. No so the thing be. The promotion I did was just 10% of what I had planned to do. So, I don’t understand when people say I am desperate. The promotion I did was just phase one of ten. Some did reviews for me. Some did videos for me. As for me, to add to those, I really wanted to do rallies, road shows, t-shirts, dances and parades. Those are the things I wanted to do. Maybe I need someone to educate me a bit on what I did that was desperate. I disassociate myself from that word. Passionate – yes. Consistent – yes. Teamwork – yes. Excellent - yes. I used the little time and resources I had. 

This is one of the few issues I had with the competition: If I am going to host a competition and bring out 400+ strong men on that longlist, then I should give out resources to them to help them with the promotion. It wouldn’t have been out of place for Etisalat to give #20,000 worth of airtime and other support to all the writers to promote their stories. It is a win-win.
My regrets about the competition are few.

One, I regret that we were not given any money to start with. So, some of us had to start with fundraising first of all. Some of us had to do with little fund. We had to use the materials we already had, diverting them from their previous uses to do what we are passionate about. I would have loved a situation whereby you are given 2million naira and 2 months to promote your story, then we’d know how much some of us are passionate about literature. I didn’t just suddenly become so passionate about literature because Etisalat decided that let’s have a Flash Fiction prize. 

I also want to say that voting is just a part of the contest. Even if a man has billions of votes, it will still have to be left to the judges to pick the winners. Even if you campaign so much, you cannot by your sheer votes scale it all. At that level, the votes don’t really matter. So the issue of desperation is just out of it.

TT: Few days after your story made the Top 20, you posted on twitter that you have severely been insulted. You called it the “Etisalat insult”. What really brought about the whole “Etisalat insult” issue?

N.B: That's not what I posted. :)

TT: Oh. My bad. What you really posted (to quote you now) was: 'I receive grace not to respond to all the #Etisalatreads insults. To ignore the voices crying "Sour Grapes!" To smile, silent, at the dogs in the manger. To shake my head and walk past the Leaven of the Pharisees.'. Tell us about the insults. Why the insults?

N.B:  Oh that, I wrote that in response to the tweets I was reading about the prize, especially those from writers who had entered and/or supported writers for the prize. The rules of the prize were clearly stated from the start. It would have been wise to protest then, six months ago, not now, after it is clear that one's entry didn't make the top 20.

TT: How do you think this prize has helped our literature and growing unpublished writers especially?
N.B: Yes and No. Yes, it helped to get the word out but no, in the end it was just a few that were committed in the end.

TT: Do you think the prize will give anyone who wins the bragging right even when some said the Top 20 is fraught with many poor entries due to the voting method employed?

N.B: Bragging rights? Do you mean something to be proud of? If yes, then yes of course. The winner should be very pleased and proud of themselves. First, for having the guts to enter the contest and submitting their entry before the deadline. Second, for playing according to the rules, being a good sport about the contest, not crying murder halfway. Third, for hosting a successful thirty day long global campaign. Fourth for writing a story that wins the Judges' nod. Yes, they would have quite a lot to be proud of.

TT: Thank you StNaija (or should I say N. Bassey? *similes*.

 N.B: You are welcome. :)

Monday, November 11, 2013

Etisalat Flash Fiction Top 20 Writer, Tee Jay Dan, Speaks

You may have been wondering about what were on the minds of the Etisalat Flash Fiction Prize contestants before and after their stories were published, how they went about campaigning for their entries, the influences behind the entries and how some of them made it to the Top 20. All those you will know this week as TrueTalk interviews some selected writers who have scaled it all to the Etisalat Flash Fiction Top 20. 

Today, we are engaging Tee Jay Dan, the author of "The Seamstress". One interesting thing about Tee Jay Dan is his engaging style in attending to questions. I found him a good interviewee. Enjoy!

TrueTalk: Tell us about yourself, Tee Jay Dan. Is that really your name?

Tee Jay Dan: Tee Jay Dan is my artistic name. I am a writer and filmmaker. Actually, I trained as a screenwriter with New York Film Academy in 2010. I am currently studying again, this time around online. I am one of the CEOs of Topnotch Films.

TT: What was the influence behind your story, “The Seamstress”? One of your readers once said it is more of a poem than a flash fiction. What can you say to that?

TJD: This question makes me laugh. There are lots of fake poets on Facebook. You must have encountered such guys. They write boring lines, desperate rhymes, lazy imageries, baseless rants then proceed to tag hundreds of people. I have plenty of them as friends on Facebook. It's depressing. I have had to warn some of them to stop tagging me. These fake poets inspired The Seamstress. They are always busy writing disgusting love poems for some girl. Then also, a lot of people treat matters of the heart like some dialectical process. I wanted also to preach that love is to be shown, not talked about - proclaimed by deeds rather than speech. As for those who think that The Seamstress is more of a poem than a flash fiction, well, isn't that the beauty of art?

When I entered, I was too excited about the prize that I failed to notice the voting condition until three days later when Etisalat emailed me the link to my flash fiction. But even if I had seen it earlier, I still would have entered. Contests excite me.

Tee Jay Dan

TT: What can you say about the various comments that have trailed the Etisalat Flash Fiction prize?

TJD: A wise man once said that everyone has an opinion, and at each point, a very different one. Some of the critics commented out of genuine concern for literature. These are the people who faulted certain aspects of the prize but made meaningful suggestions. These people I respect. Then there are others who commented for reasons best known to them. A lot of illogical comments have been made so far. Some are hilarious whereas others are straight up stupid. Take a pause brother, breathe then examine this exercise with a neutral eye. You'll see that etisalat actually have human beings, not machines, overseeing the contest. These people know good stories. If some whack stories made it to the Top 20, is it not possible that they could be the best of the whack stories entered for the prize? I'd like to see someone point to a flash fiction that ought to be on the shortlist and isn't. That'd be better than plain criticism.

When Pearl Osibu said that she was depressed after reading the Top 20 stories, I laughed. I was with Gimba Kakanda when I read it. Ask him, I just laughed. To be fair to her, her entry is better than some that made it to the Top 20. But is it better than all? I'd prefer Uche's story or St. Naija's over hers anyday. And yes, bad stories could be depressing. I understand. But she wasn't objective to have drawn such conclusion.

TT: How do you think this prize has helped our literature and growing unpublished writers especially?

TJD: The prize has created tremendous awareness both for the genre and the prize. A lot of us knew nothing about Flash Fiction before now. The prize has promoted this wonderful genre in Africa, Nigeria in particular. You'll see. Also, it has seduced a lot of passive literary observers into writing. I know a lady who wouldn't take writing seriously, but she actually entered for the prize. I am happy about this. Her name is Anita Adamilo Wasah. You can check out her story. I hope this experience will encourage her to finally take writing seriously.

TT: Do you think the prize will give anyone who wins the bragging right even when some said the Top 20 is fraught with many poor entries due to the voting method employed?

TJD: The Seamstress has given me the bragging right already. It's out there for anyone to tell me what's wrong with it. Yes, there are many poor entries. No, the Top 20 is not entirely fraught. I have read some of the comments. I am insulated from whatever jibes anyone throws. The Seamstress stands on its own and I am comfortable with it. Fullstop. I did not like the voting method, but it was fun. Look on the bright side, man. Millions now know about flash fiction because etisalat said we have to vote!

TT: Reading through some of the entries, one realizes that some do not know what a flash fiction is before submitting. What is your own idea of the flash fiction genre?

TJD: Sometime before an angel told me about the Etisalat flash fiction prize, Ejiro Eghagha had given me a collection of stories that were shorter than short stories. I was to adapt some of the stories into screenplays for a Hollywood agent. So I knew about flash fiction before the Etisalat prize. I knew about Ernest Hemmingway too before then. I had read a couple of flash fictions in the past that blew my mind and caused me to fall in love with the genre. So I did not think twice before entering for the etisalat flash fiction prize. I was too excited even to notice the voting condition then. In short, I think the etisalat prize was the push I had been waiting for. Writing The Seamstress was a new and awe-inspiring experience for me. I just couldn't stop after that. I have written up to ten flash fictions ever since. And my company will be making a short film of The Seamstress sometime this month. It's fun all the way! You'll see.

I keep one thing in mind when writing a flash fiction and this is it: "is the story smooth and fast-paced enough for a reader to finish before he finishes a stick of cigarrete?” The flash fiction genre is as challenging as it is fun to write.

TT: How do you think the voting system has affected the prize?

TJD: The voting system ridiculed the prize in a way, but not as bad as some critics will have us believe. I do not even believe that the Top 20 stories were selected purely on number of votes. Of course the votes counted, but it wasn't the sole determining factor. I think. I mean, I know some guys who made the etisalat contest a central point of their lives throughout the month of October. Every day and everywhere they went, they were all about canvassing for votes. None of these guys made the Top 20. Only three of my good friends promoted my story. I told some good friends to vote for me as well. Some very close pals did not even know I was in a contest. In fact, there were days that I totally forgot about it. My point is that a lot of the stories that were dropped had more votes than mine. 

TT: What do you think the organizer can improved on about the prize?

TJD: If I am right in thinking that etisalat's purpose for the voting system was to generate a buzz for the prize and for their brand, then the goal has been achieved. I'd like to see the voting system scrapped. But if I am wrong, then, by all means, it should be sustained. People vote for certain music awards. People vote for the Afrinolly shortfilm award too. Why can't people vote for writing? What's special about writing and writers? This is art, just like music and filmmaking. Come on, let's have some fun too. It is arrogant to dismiss the etisalat flash fiction prize as a popularity contest. I read St. Naija's and Uche's stories. St. Naija aggressively campaigned for his story; I do not think Uche did same. They are good and would have gotten to this stage even without the voting system. Then there is The Seamstress too. A lot of the guys who didn't make it this far are more popular than I am. And I am yet to receive a single Facebook friend request simply because of the etisalat flash fiction prize. Besides where is it a crime for writers to be popular? We should be celebrated as well like our counterparts in the music industry. Like film stars too. We are artists too!

I'd like to see etisalat organize workshops for some future entrants, if not all. They should include great books as part of the prizes. Writers love books. So they should give us books too. They offer us money and smart tablet devices and a published book deal, really cool, add some books and we'd be more inspired.

TT: What do you think of the suggestion that all entries on the Top 20, aside the winners, be given consolation prizes?

TJD: All entrants who made it to the Top 20 should be given a couple of fine books. Really. But it's etisalat's show. If they decide to console everyone, fine and good. If they don't, all the same. It's been fun. Really.

TT: Thank you, Tee.

TJD: Thank you too, TrueTalk.
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