I’m sensitive to Yoruba culture and language -Professor Akinwumi Isola
Tuesday, May 24, 2005

•Professor Akinwunmi Isola
Photo: Sun News Publishing

Like a dice has many sides to it, renowned writer and author, Professor Akinwumi Isola is also a man of many parts. He is an actor, dramatist, scholar, playwright and culture activist. The professor of Yoruba Language is quite an impressive personality going by his sensitivity to developments around him.

For instance, his first attempt at writing produced the epic drama, Efunsetan Aniwura. Shortly afterwards, he came up with a popular novel entitled, O leku. Along the line, Isola, who hails from Ibadan, realised the potentialities of drama as an effective vehicle of reaching the people when he stepped up efforts at writing more plays than prose. His efforts were rewarded with Koseegbe, Aye ye won tan, Oluomo Iyalode Egba among others.

Versatile and dynamic, the prolific artiste in response to his society entered into partnership with Mainframe Productions, a Lagos-based T.V. and Film production outfit. The collaboration gave birth to such chart-busters like Saworoide, Thunder bolt (Maagun), Agogo Eewo, and very recently, Campus Queen which was done in English. Now back home in Ibadan after his retirement from the Obafemi Awolowo University, Professor Isola reflected on his writing career, challenges of authorship, his dilemma as a bi-lingual writer, self-publishing and why writing is not lucrative in Nigeria:

I won’t say that there is a particular thing like an angel or something that inspires me. The subjects just come in the course of living and interacting with people. For example, my very first play, Efunsetan Aniwura, came about when I was reading Iwe Itan Ibadan, written by I.B. Akinyele around 1915. I am from Ibadan and I’ve read much of the History of the Yorubas by Samuel Johnson.
I saw a small section in I.B Akinyele’s Iwe Itan Ibadan (The history of Ibadan people) which tells the history of Efusetan Aniwura. The short story impressed me immensely and I sat down and thought about how I could turn it to a story. That was how I decided to turn it into a play.

My works
I wrote Efunsetan Aniwura between 1961 and 1962. Suddenly in 1965, I heard over the radio that there was going to be a competition for creative writers in Yoruba in the areas of poetry, prose and drama. So, I thought that would be a wonderful opportunity for me to test that play. I entered the play for the competition in the drama category. Surprisingly, the result was announced on the radio, Efunsetan Aniwura won the first prize in drama. It was a pleasant surprise. I was invited to the award presentation held at Ibadan Grammar School, Oke Bola.

At that time, I was a student at the University of Ibadan. So, that was the beginning of my creative writing career. The award came with a monetary prize of One pound, 1 shilling. My student friends told me that we should wash it and we spent a larger part of the money, drinking. After that, I wrote Oleku, Olu Omo and so on. At a point, I started preferring drama for the simple reason that you can easily reach the people through drama.

You would recall that in 1981 the management of the Broadcasting Corporation of Oyo State (BCOS) sponsored the production of Efunsetan Aniwura. Performed by the late Isola Ogunsola (I Sho Pepper). They were to perform that play at the Trenchard Hall of the University of Ibadan. However, they sold too many tickets and at the end of the day, the hall could not contain the audience. The play was shifted to the premises of the BCOS. A stage was constructed and they announced that everybody should come with their tickets to BCOS. Again, too many people turned up to the extent that there was a heavy traffic in the street. Even the governor, the late Chief Bola Ige found it tough gaining entry into the premises of BCOS.

When it appeared as if there was going to be another riot, the then General Manager of the station, Chief Adebayo Faleti had to mount the stage to appeal to people to keep their tickets and wait for further announcements. Eventually, the play had to be shifted to the Liberty Stadium. At the end of the day, it was reported that about 40,000 people turned up. That further shows that you can reach more people through drama.

After that I wrote Koseegbe. I wrote one in English and another in Yoruba. Another play that has become very popular is Madam Tinubu - the Yoruba version of which I entitled Oluomo Iyalode Egba- the story of Madam Efunroye Timber’s sojourn in Abeokuta. There is also Aye Ye Won Tan, The play became popular when we serialised it on television. So, writing drama gives the writer easy access to the people than novels.
Eventually, when the society changed, a little bit, and night life experienced a decline, theatre groups were no longer recording comfortable audiences. I think that was what led to the change in stage performances to the present home video.

In view of the intention to reach the people directly through my works, therefore, I thought about another medium and this lured me into writing scripts for home video. My technical partner, Mainframe Productions, Lagos, approached me, having read some of my plays, thought that we could work together to produce some of these stories. So, the project started in 1995 with Koseegbe. After that, we produced O leku I and II. Then, I wrote a novel which is yet to be published by Heinemann entitled Saworoide (Parable of the drum as the voice of the people). The film was very successful and it sold thousands of copies all over the world.

Collaboration with Mainframe
Since our aim is to promote Yoruba culture, we felt that we should promote the language of our people. Language is the nerve centre of the people’s culture. Therefore, we agreed that all our scripts must be in Yoruba. That is why, when you watch our films, you would hear no other language but Yoruba.
Recently, my technical partner said that we should try something for the young people. Reluctantly, I accepted, that was how we produced Campus Queen.

Interest in women
Another aspect of my creative writing efforts is my interest in women. You would see that I started with Efunsetan Aniwura, then, I wrote Madam Tinubu (English) and Oluomo Iyalode Egba (Yoruba); all because of this new European idea of the marginalisation of women in the society.
Among the Yorubas, women have been strong and powerful and they have played important roles in the society. So, the question of marginalisation is out of it. And the first example that comes to mind is the story of Oya.

Research Works
There are two plays I intend to write about Oya. I have written one in English and Yoruba. The English play is entitled Bellows in my Belly. We tried it on stage on October 1, last year at the Department of Theatre Arts, University of Ibadan. I am still working on the Yoruba version. You would recall that Oya was the founder of the Egungun cult. So, that is another aspect of my writings.

Target audience
My target audience are the Yorubas. Take as an example, Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman, the work has been translated into many languages. I have added my own voice by translating it to Yoruba.

But I always tell people that I did not translate Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman, because the original story was in Yoruba. The event happened in old Oyo, so it was Soyinka who translated it to English. What I have done is that I have retrieved the original Yoruba story at the back of Soyinka’s mind when he wrote the play. My own play is entitled Iku Olokun Esin. We also performed the play when Wole Soyinka turned 60 in 1994.

I have also translated and Soyinka’s Ake the Years of Childhood. But Fountain Publishers published Iku Olokun Esin. But Ake ni Igba Ewe, the Yoruba translation of Ake the years of Childhood was published by Book Craft.
The launch of the book has been delayed because would be accompanied by a CD. This is necessary to help those people who find Yoruba difficult.

Writing process
This is difficult to explain. But you know, if you’re going to be a writer. It is your mind that will start telling you to write. Sometimes, when I read a story, something will just prick me that, I can write like this too. I can recall when we were reading the late D.O. Fagunwa’s novel when we were quite young. Each time I read any of Fagunwa’s novels, the feeling was always; ‘Yes I can write something like this too’.
When I started reading Yoruba history and I saw the story of Efunsetan Aniwura, I then felt that I could make it into a play. So, it is the material you come across, or your experience in life that will tell you, or compel you to write.

And if you’re lucky and your first story is well accepted, it will encourage you. Just as my first play Efunsetan Aniwura won a prize. It encouraged me to write more. Actually Oxford University Press that published Efunsetan Aniwura wrote to tell me to continue writing and they promised that they would publish whatever I brought at that time. The sequel was O le ku and other ones, which they equally published.

How I write
When a story comes into mind, I’ll start thinking about it. I will keep the story in my mind and keep working on it. For two to three years, I would sit down at night when there would be no interruptions. I am alone in my room. My wife has her own room. After listening to the Network News, I’ll go to bed. I’ll sleep for about one hour just to calm down. Between 12.00 midnight and 1.00p.m, I’ll wake up and start working. I’ll work till about 5.00 am, after that, I’ll go back to sleep. I’ll stay in bed and listen to the early morning news and newspaper reviews. After that, I’ll have my bath and start thinking of what to do for the day.

Some time, visitors come, I go to the library. Apparently, you can hardly do any serious work during the day. Unless, of course, if you have the money and you go to a guest house, and stay. But if you have no money to check in into guest house. You would keep on working at nights.

Most challenging work
When you’re creating, there are some delights in your mind. But when you write a sentence and it doesn’t really fit into what you’re writing, you would drop your pen and for a whole hour think about how to go about it. I think that the work that has given me the greatest challenge so far is my yet-to-be- completed work in English- the Campus Queen story. It also happened on the Madam Tinubu (English version).

When I am writing in English, it becomes more challenging to me because the words do not flow unlike when I am writing in Yoruba.
When I write in English, I create my own images and when I want to express it in English, I’ll start wondering if I can say those things in English. So, most of the time, I’d have to start looking into the dictionary to see if such a statement is acceptable. So, it takes me longer time to create in English than in Yoruba.

Writing in Yoruba
I won’t have any serious challenge in expression. The story itself may give me a challenge. The challenges of creating in English are different from writing in Yoruba.

My favourite work
I don’t know. Perhaps, the question would have been, which of my works is the audience’s favourite. Efunsetan Aniwura is loved by the audience very much. But some people also love O le ku more than Saworoide. Actually, it is not for the author to pick a favourite work but the audience.

Writer’s block
I don’t deliberately switch off. But what I am saying is that, if you have a story to tell, but you may keep working on that story allowing the story to emerge. When you start thinking about it, the story may move in a particular direction, which you don’t like and you may have to think about it again. When such a situation occur, I would wait, keep thinking.

Suddenly, some twist in the story comes to your mind, and you would say oh yes! That’s the way it should be. Then you should pick your pen and start writing again. In one day, you may write many pages, whereas in a whole week, you may not be able to write two pages. When you are convinced that the story is going in the right direction, you can go on writing, but when you don’t know which way to turn, you could be stucked.

Choice of themes
They just occur. It may be something happening in the society, like in Saworoide story. My themoss are influenced by what I read, what I listen to on the radio. When such issues strikes you, it may be that you want to discourage a particular thing or you want to encourage it. When I wrote O le ku, for instance, many people wrote me letters, asking me while I allowed the man character again to die.

Other people wrote me tell me, Oh, this is your life story. We know that you like women. But I am just a man who would react to women like every other men. I am not particularly a casanova. Writers collect experiences from different angles. You have your own personal experiences, other people have their experiences, and in the third category are the experiences that you read about or stories that you hear on radio or reports coming from everywhere.

A writer can select from those categories and weave the story together. If the story that comes out of it is nice, when people are reading that story, they may believe that, what you have written, really happened. That was what happened about O leku. Many people tend to believe that was what happened to me when I was a student at the University of Ibadan. I was not even married at that time, I got married after graduation.

But some of the events in O leku happened to my friend. So, that is the way writers weave their stories.
Writing comedies
I have not written comic plays but I have a collection of Yoruba jokes. They would soon be published.

Comic relief
Oh yes, I make use of humour. If you want people to enjoy your works. If you want to sustain people’s attention, you have to create comic relief for the audience. But it’s the readers who must identify the use of humour in my works. It’s not my duty to start analysing my writings.

Financial reward for writing
There is no money in it. Hook! Don’t let me mention a particular publisher. Currently, I have about five books with publishers and in a year, I may receive just about N25,000. When we were spending pounds, my royalty in a year never moved near 1000 pounds. In fact, with one particular publisher, all I got in a year was N2,000.
It may not have been rewarding financially, but I was not writing to make money, but mainly to promote Yoruba culture and bring up the younger generations to the use of Yoruba language.

Making a fortune out of writing
For example if one of my books is translated into English or any other international language and it is sells all over the world, you can make real fortune. A novel can make you a millionaire if it is written in English.

In other countries, writers who have written what some of us have written would have become millionaires. But I did not start writing in English just because I want to make money. The Yoruba people deserve their own literature. If I write in English and become a millionaire, well, there is nothing wrong, but I will be shirking my responsibility of giving something back to my society.
In any case, if writers don’t struggle to safeguard their culture, it would be difficult for others to do so.

Self publishing
It is not good because the standard may not be very good. If you give your book to a good publisher, he will send it to other readers who would carry out a correct assessment of it. I know that today, writers want their books published while publishers are not publishing many books, many writers have gone into self-publishing but it is not the best thing to do.





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