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LitNaija interviews Richard Ali for ‘Ordinary saviour’

“Ordinary Saviour: New Stories from Nigeria’s Northeast” is an anthology of short stories edited by Richard Ali and Abubakar Adam Ibrahim. Comprising eleven stories written by the Northeast Regional Initiative’s NEIEF Fellows, the collection provides a voice for local experiences of the conflict as well as counternarratives. It was published by Parresia Publishers Limited for NERI. It was publicly presented on the 29th of August at Abuja.

Considering your experience as a short story writer, what made the editing process for the recently launched anthology of stories from northeastern Nigeria, “Ordinary Saviour”, unique?

The very conception of the project by the Northeast Regional Initiative (NERI) was unique. You would recall that a few years ago, the Office of the National Security Adviser (ONSA) articulated a soft approach to countering violent extremism? I became very interested in the issues of counterterrorism and CVE at about that time and with my background as a writer the fabric of whose hometown—Jos—was destroyed by extremism, I have always wondered what role literature can play in saving Nigeria from extremism. So, when the idea of a short story collection by NERI’s Northeast Intellectual and Entrepreneurial Fellowship (NEIEF) members was mooted by NERI’s leadership, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim and I were very interested. That initial contact was at the core of the activities that became the book “Ordinary Saviour: New Stories from Nigeria’s Northeast”. I wish to publicly thank Felix Abraham Obi for recommending us to NERI.

To answer your question, I was fascinated by the idea of curating new voices from a region synonymous with negative images—Boko Haram, the Chibok Girls, IED explosions and so on—who were intent on showing a different, more nuanced image of the northeast. The arc of progress, in terms of quality, from the initial story ideas to the final stories was priceless.

Are the stories featured in the anthology fictions or are they based on real life experience?

It is an anthology of fiction, so all the stories are made up. However, your question touches on an old and un-endable debate on where stories come from. Stories often come from our experiences so the question really is about to what extent a story has been made up and to what extent a writer feels a need for fidelity to the inspiring experience. This is a question only the writers can answer.

What were the challenges you faced while editing the anthology, Ordinary Saviour: New Stories From Nigeria’s Northeast?

Editing is always a challenge because you are trying to find someone else’s best words, to find the very best words for them to tell their story as best as they can. Your hand, as an editor, should be invisible. There are the potentially complex questions of your relationship with the story, where you situate yourself as an editor vis a vis the text and so on. The major challenge was the fact that most of the participants had not written fiction before. We were able to address this through the structure of the project itself—a creative writing workshop followed by editing and then the publishing process.

What part in the process of publishing the book from conception to launching was fun for you?

In the way that hard work can be fun, I would say the entire process was fun.

What is the main objective of the anthology?

The main purpose was to create a new platform for stories by those directly affected by the Boko Haram insurgency in the northeast. It is important for people to speak about how they see what has happened. In the rush of news cycles, the tendency to sentimentality and outrage often leads to the muting or silencing of what a friend expressed elegantly in French as “le premier victimes de la repression”. Ordinary Saviour was designed to correct this. At another level, Ordinary Saviour is meant to provide counternarratives to the propaganda of groups like Boko Haram and its supporters and enablers. It is my belief that this is an important part of the fight against terror and against extremism.

What would you say is the future of the newly launched anthology? Is it a one-time thing or will it continue with new editions and new writers?

In the immediate future, I would like to sell as many copies of it as possible. It is important for every Nigerian to read these stories and understand that the people of northeastern Nigeria are not another sort of Nigerian, are instead their own fellow countrymen. That is important, finding a language for empathy and solidarity so crucial to defeating Boko Haram. In the longer term, we have been in talks with NERI and it is highly likely that this will be an ongoing project and we can expect three or four more anthologies in the coming years. I would like that and so would Abubakar. Let’s see how that goes. I remain committed, of course, to preventing and countering violent extremism using literature through the ANA PCVE programme which I run.

 

Richard Ali, a lawyer and poet, is the co-owner of Parrésia Publishers Ltd. He used to edit the Sentinel Nigeria Magazine, and was Publicity Secretary of the Association of Nigerian Authors from 2011 to 2015. His debut novel is City of Memories [Parresia Books, 2012] and a poetry collection is expected from Konya Shamsrumi. He is a member of the Nairobi-based Jalada Africa collective and sits on the board of Uganda’s Babishai Niwe Poetry Foundation. Richard is presently the Programme Manager of the Association of Nigerian Authors Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism Programme (ANA PCVE).

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