Kaine Agary is the author of the award-winning novel, Yellow Yellow, which won the 2008 Nigeria Prize for Literature. The prize was worth $50, 000 at the time.
She holds a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Sociology and Economics from Mount Holyoke College, USA and a Masters in Public Administration with a specialization in Public Policy from New York University’s Wagner School of Public Service in the United States of America.
With over ten years working experience covering health care administration, policy analysis and arts/culture promotion, she now runs Takaii, Nigeria’s Premier Law-related Tabloid and it’s publishing arm, DTalkshop.
When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
I don’t think I ever wanted to be a creative/fiction writer. I was doing what I always wanted to do – writing policy papers and doing research writing. Writing a novel was just a way to address an issue that was personal to me, and I knew that although I had done research and written a number of articles on the issue, they were all academic papers that very few people would read. So the novel was a way to reach a wider group of people.
You were born in the US and you also had your tertiary education there. In a period when most renowned African writers are relocating to, or choosing to remain in the US in view of its favourable publishing environment etc, what informed your decision to return to Nigeria?
It was always my plan to return to Nigeria after school. Being a published author was not my ultimate goal in life. I have a Master’s degree in public policy and I wanted to do development work, and influence policy (particularly health policy), and I did not want to do that from abroad. But we plan, and life happens. And so even though my desire was to return and be involved in policy decision making at some level, I ended up having my novel published and entering the legal field.
In another interview, you stated that you are working on your next novel, also set in Port Harcourt: a story about loss and grief in which the main character loses a childhood friend and returns to Port Harcourt for the funeral. How far have you gone with this novel?
I have finished the first draft of the novel but have not revisited it in a while because I have been focused on other projects. Besides, I am not sure that I want to go through the same process that I did with my first novel – the novel was published by Dtalkshop, so I was essentially responsible for everything. That experience is not one I want to rush into again.
What is your work schedule like when you’re writing and what would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
I write mostly at night. I have bursts of inspiration and just go with the flow.
What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
Many things. I like to travel and hang out with my family. I used to like to cook, but I don’t cook much anymore.
Where were you and how did you react when you learned Yellow Yellow had won the NLNG Award for Literature?
At the time I won, they still had the Awards Gala Night. So that’s where I was when it was announced. I don’t remember exactly how I reacted but I was happy, of course.
Winning the NLNG Award for Literature obviously helped bolster your literary career; what other initiatives do you think that government and the private sector can implement to help sustain and encourage literary creativity in Nigeria?
We need libraries, we need stronger distribution structures. There are a number of private organisations and banks that are supporting literary events and writing workshops and that is great for capacity building. The Rivers State Government supports the Garden City Literary Festival, which is a platform to encourage literary creativity. But at the end of the day, we must also consider the enterprise side of creativity. Those who invest must make their money back. And those who create should earn a sustainable living from what they create. The enterprise part is the hard part.
The socio-political contradictions and environmental challenges in the Niger Delta provide the backdrop to your novel, Yellow Yellow. In what way or ways do you think that your book and subsequent activism have helped mitigate these challenges since you published the book? And in what ways do you these challenges can be further mitigated?
I hoped my novel would pique people’s interest in the Niger Delta and get them to look beyond the rhetoric at the time and connect with the issues on a human level. My novel addresses just one aspect of life in the Niger Delta. There are many other stories. It was not my intention to tell all the stories or solve the problems with my novel. The solutions lie in politics, leadership, and social structure, among other things.
In recent times, women writers tend to base the thematic concerns of their works on feminism and gender-related issues virtually by default. Your novel Yellow Yellow also belongs to this category. There are those who hold the view that this trend has become somewhat anachronistic. Do you share this opinion and hence feel that the time has come for women writers to diversify and move on to more generic issues?
I don’t see why writing about gender-related issues would be anachronistic. Are those issues no longer relevant in our society? Have we overcome these gender-related issues? What would these generic issues be? Politics? Are there no gender-related issues in politics? War? Are there no gender-related issues in war? It is easy to say that writing on gender-related themes is anachronistic when you are not experiencing life as a woman.
Aside from your work with DTalkshop especially and Takaii, do you plan on embarking on other non-literary projects in the near future and if yes can you share those plans with us?
I also write a weekly column in SUNDAY PUNCH (Pocket Lawyer with Kaine Agary). Most of my plans are for ‘non-literary projects’.