Ayo Oyeku

Inkuru Series Interview: The African Story- with Ayo Oyeku

Ayo Oyeku is my name. My foray into the literary world began from childhood, but when I turned 13, I was certain I wanted to be a writer. Not only did I make the school library my home, I also had a close circle of friends who were writers too, and the rumour that Wole Soyinka read all the books in the school library (Government College Ibadan) gave us the surge to accomplish. When I turned 17, I signed my first publishing deal. Two of my children’s books were published in 2004, one of the books was selected by the World Bank for distribution across the country.

In 2011, I published my first young-adult novel, Tears of the Lonely, which later won Ezenwa Ohaeto Prize for Young Novelists by the Society of Young Nigerian Writers. My poems have appeared in a number of local and international journals. One of my poems, Reeds on the Rivers, earned me a Puschart Prize Nomination in 2016. I was also shortlisted for the Golden Baobab Prize in 2016, and later emerged as one of the multiple winners of the same prize in 2018.

In 2019, my most recent children’s book, Mafoya and the Finish Line, won the ANA Prize for Literature. It happens to be my most popular work, so far. I have a total of seven children’s book. I have coauthored four books or thereabout. My forthcoming children’s book, The Legend of Ataoja, will be published by Eleventh House where I serve as the founder. Even though I have delved into the world of science, technology and business administration, yet being a writer has stood out above other achievements.

Victoria: Give us a peek into your writing journey (how did you discover you wanted to be a writer?) Was it a book or just the rumour about Wole Soyinka’s literary prowess? Did any point stand out?

Ayo Oyeku: I never wanted to be a writer, I only wanted to try. Trying is all that matters. My dad could write and illustrate, yet he never made a career out of it. I read his works and writing came naturally to me afterwards. The milestone I reached in 2004 set the motion for me .My books brought positive feedbacks, and I knew I had a many stories tangled in my hair, so I kept writing.

So it’s fair to say I found writing, took it, and tried my hands on it. And I’m still trying. Not only did I make the school library my home, I also had a close circle of friends who were writers too, and the rumour that Wole Soyinka read all the books in the school library (Government College Ibadan) gave us the surge to accomplish. It’s a rumour. But Wole Soyinka is a legend. It was a privilege for me to pass through the same college he passed through. He even visited the college, when I was in J.S.S 3 (not sure), and that experience drowned all rumours and tales — I think he actually read all the books in the school library. Although, I never did.

Victoria: What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?

Ayo Oyeku: Childhood came with lots of quietness and space, giving me the privilege to create my own imaginary worlds. My brother kept to his room and I enjoyed mine too. This became normal to me, and as I grew, I realized how much solitude meant to my career. Nowadays, I spend days alone in my house, in order to create. And other times, I take long walks, just to find the solitude to create.

Victoria: What is worth writing about?

Ayo Oyeku: Sometimes I build up stories because of words, characters, places, ideologies, and an opportunity to relive my childhood. Not all these stories make it into a full manuscript. Sometimes I merge them together into a finer piece. But something keeps resonating in my stories: the need for readers to find themselves in the stories they read.

The cliche, you can’t take sand to the beach, also applies to writing. Since I write mostly for children, I want the African Child to find themselves (place, name, colour, food, voice, language, etc) in the stories they read. Once I have achieved this in the formation stage of my drafts, I would flesh it up into a manuscript. Identity is all that matters to me in writing. You don’t have to do same. Nnedi Okorafor once implied anyone can’t be taught how to write. I agree with her. But this has worked for me, and you might want to also consider it. Nnedi also implied there are no rules to writing, so don’t ask her for writing tips.

Victoria: Where & how did you get information and ideas for your book?

Ayo Oyeku: Reading. It all begins with reading. Online. Offline. Literature books, historical books, books on science, and sometimes I read meaning into illustrations I find online, and that brings the needed spark. Also through observation. I have learned the difference between looking and seeing, and I have chosen the former. Then the third one, which is as important as the first two is, returning into the world of children. I spend time with them. I watch what they watch, read what they read, and find meaning in what makes them laugh. They are my audience, and it’s important to see the world as they see it. These three provide the ideas and information I need for my books.

Victoria: Describe your writing space.

Ayo Oyeku: Oh well, you can already imagine I have a room to myself for writing. It’s true I have books stacked everywhere (on the shelf, floor, etc). There is no sound system, but my phone and earpiece provides sound whenever I need them. I also ensure there is a cross ventilation. My wall has a single colour — yellow. Multiple colours take away the calmness, for me. I also have a few quotes on writing, philosophy, self and the universe on small cards (about the size of a postcard), which I flip through. What else? A bottle of water or wine.

Ayo Oyeku
Image via Ayo Oyeku

Victoria: What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating your books?

Ayo Oyeku: You asked for one, so I’ll provide one; I learned that writing for children also meant writing to their parents. Knowing this came as a surprise. But once I learned this, I factored it into my writing.

Victoria: How many times did you revise your first book?

Ayo Oyeku: Let me shock you. I never did. I believed I had an halo on my head, the prodigy that was born to write. Then my first editor made me cry. He canceled, canceled, and ended up abandoning my manuscript. He said it was trash. But my publisher believed in me, so he got me another editor, and I spent hours, days and weeks with the editor, as we worked on the manuscript. At the end, we had a fine piece. Lesson learned.

Now, I edit and edit until I decide to look away. Trust me, a part of me would keep telling me there is more to edit but I’ll let my editor make the next decision. And when they do, I pay attention and take to corrections.

Victoria: How did you publish your first book? (Share your process).

Ayo Oyeku: I was 17, I was cocky. I actually submitted 5 manuscripts. And we ended up publishing two. Signed the deal at 17. My first two books came out when I was 19. It was a painful wait, but worth it. I owe this to my brother. Remember, I started writing at 13.

So I had the desire to publish my first novel at 17. Since I read mostly foreign books, and James Hadley Chase was my favorite, I started writing crime stories.

There was this particular one I wrote at sixteen, my brother loved it. He started telling everyone he met that I was a gifted writer. He ran into my publisher (who was just starting his small press) and repeated the same tale. The man was interested. We met. He read my samples. He liked them. Then he told me to write him stories for children, and I refused. My brother advised me to start by writing for children, and subsequently work on something bigger.

I agreed. Signed the deal. The publisher gave me lots of children’s books to read. He also have me a big Oxford dictionary. I read and wrote. At the end I submitted 5 manuscripts.
The editors worked on them, and 5 manuscripts were whittled down to two. I also worked with the illustrators too. Two years after, the books got published. The first one, got me the World Bank Selection. My royalty made me smile and I bought my first desktop computer.

Victoria: What was your favorite part, and your least favorite part, of your publishing journey?

Ayo Oyeku: I won’t want to use the word ‘favorite’ because preference is a blend of many things, and favorites don’t really exist to me. So I’ll say a memorable part of my journey as a writer was when I was shortlisted for Golden Baobab prize in 2016.

I was the only Nigerian finalist sandwiched between South African writers.

Then, Lola Shoneyin reached out to me, requesting to read the manuscript. I guess some of the best things in life happen to those you can’t imagine. Two years after, Ouida Books (owned by Lola Shoneyin) published the manuscript also making me their first author on the Tanja Imprint. An unmemorable part of my journey was losing six years of my writing career.

After my first books were published in 2004, I kept sending more manuscripts to my publisher. Somehow — I suppose we had a fallout or breakdown in communication, and my manuscripts were ignored and never published. Before I realized what was going on, six years had passed.
Out of the need to prove I was still as skilled as ever, I self-published my next book in 2011. I continued scouting for another traditional publisher, which I didn’t get until 2014. That experience taught me a lesson that beyond talent or skills, relationship with others is very important.

Victoria: What literary pilgrimages have you gone on?

Ayo Oyeku: A literary pilgrimage to me is a place of meaning. Reading Lola Shoneyin’s Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives made me travel round Ibadan, like I was visiting. Soyinka’s Lion’s Den (his home) is another place to remember. There are other places that haven’t come to mind now, but I vividly remember Kwame Nkrumah’s Memorial Park and Mausoleum.

Victoria: What is your favorite under-appreciated novel?

Ayo Oyeku: Weep Not Child by Ngugi wa Thiong’o. The literary community hasn’t said enough about this book. It’s phenomenal.

Victoria: Do you have suggestions to help us become better writers? If so, what are they?

Ayo Oyeku: I am sure you are already familiar with the first rule: read, read, read. Write, write, write. If not, make that number one suggestion.

Learn through imitation. I actually learned this from WS. Read a literature book and study it so well that you can imitate the writing. This looks simple but it is one of the hardest thing to do.

Take a complex idea, turn it into a simple story that everyone can read, but write it in a complex way, so that your voice and style can stand out in your writing.

There is nothing called ‘young writer’. Don’t be held in that cage. Just manifest and you’ll be surprised by the way the world would embrace you.

Victoria: Share a character Inspiration. (Example; from Mafoya and the finish line).

Ayo Oyeku: The character, Mafoya in my children’s book, Mafoya and the Finish Line, is actually me. There was this hill I usually went to play, with my brother and other kids in the neighborhood. We often experienced a minimal whirlwind on the hill, and we would run whenever the wind was surging towards us. All the kids would flee believing the whirlwind could carry us and transport us into a strange land. This image remained. My childhood remained. I fused it into the story and it was easy to do because I was writing to myself, just that I changed my gender. How convenient.

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