Dami Ajayi studied Medicine and Surgery at Obafemi Awolowo University Ile-Ife where he co-founded Saraba Magazine. He is now a medical doctor and also a poet, short story writer, book reviewer and music critic whose works have been published in several art journals and literary magazines including the GuardianUK.
In this interview with Dami Ajayi, there’s a lot of laughter and fun. We met Dami Ajayi a couple of times before and even had chats via twitter. We had also read about him and how he started Saraba with Emmanuel Iduma. We had read about how the pile of rejection letters and frustration led them to start this fascinating literary giant—Saraba. We found its growth and place in the literary community very inspiring.
So we decided to sit with him; no better way to learn about something or someone than hearing about it from the horse’s mouth aye? Not that Dami is a horse or anything, but we wanted a firsthand experience and we got it!
We are at the open-air bar at E Center, drinks in front of us, when the interview begins. Just before we field our first question, “Murder She Wrote” by Chaka Demus & Pliers blares from the speakers and Dami is quick to enlighten us on its history and his love for it.
DA: This song is probably one of the most covered songs in the history of music. It was done by Chaka Demus and Pliers. It came out in 1993. My uncle had a cassette and I almost listened to the words out of that cassette. (Laughs). It is very good music. People are still listening to it today. For us to be listening to it now means it has endured. It is a classic. The whole idea of classic music is that people always go back to revisit it. Another example is James Moody’s Mood For Love. It was a jazz vocalese piece which was made in 1949. Lyrics were written to the jazz piece and now, that song is one of the most covered songs ever. Think of any musician that has not covered it. Brian McKnight, Quincy Jones, Amy Winehouse all have versions. It is a song everyone wants to touch.
When he is done telling us about the music, we ask him his opinion on criticism. To answer this, Dami illustrates the role of the writer and the role of the critic and emphasizes that it is needless to bash the writer personally in criticism.
DA: I think criticism should be true to the text. The role of the critic is very different from the role of the writer. The role of the writer is to look at things and write, to bear witness. The role of the critic is to appraise and say okay, we have looked at what this man has written, and he looks like he knows what he is saying—or doesn’t know what he is saying. Or oh this guy is saying the right things; he’s the voice of a people. Critics can also say: this novel typifies so-so era well or the problems, conditions, atmosphere, zeitgeist are all in that work. If you want to experience Seventies or Eighties in Nigeria, listen to Fela. Once you listen to him, you’ll know this is the spirit and rhythm of that season. That is what the critic should do. A critic should be able to say whether a novel typifies a particular season or not. I don’t think the critic should mince words on writers whose works are not worth anybody’s time at the expense of other writers whose works are really important.
We also have to look at the job of the critic in terms of language. If you watch Weakest Link, you will notice that the woman insults as she likes. She could even insult your father and would say it in a very casual way. I do not think any critic should go all out like that. That is petty and unnecessary.
In the same vein, everyone is entitled to their opinion on the text. Literature is for the whole of humanity. That is why censorship has always plagued literature because there is freedom of expression, everybody can write what they like and anybody can read what they like, so if something resonates with everybody, everybody will read it. As a critic, just do your bit. For me, criticism should neither be soft nor hard, it should be true. It should be critical.
On inspiration and muse, Dami tells us about the circumstances that surrounded the writing of his two books of poems, Clinical blues and Day break (e-chapbook).
DA: I think it is what my eyes present to me that is my muse. It could be a beautiful woman, a book, a scene, a building, a movie, the environment. It could also be an incident. All these things affect me in different ways. My inspiration is basically what is presented to me by my sense organs. What I feel, what I smell, what I hear. These are the things that decide what I write.
Clinical Blues is a book of experience. I was in medical school, about to become a medical doctor. I was going through my own internal crises. When I started as a med student, I was very afraid of blood. I once fainted in 300 Level. (Laughs). I am not afraid of blood anymore though. But there was a transition. I had to go from that place of fear to the place of being bold. So I guess the book was about me coming to that place. The poems in Clinical Blues are about appraising medicine with the experience of humanity. It is a very cynical sequence of poems. Talking about diseases and illnesses and how man reacts to them and how doctors are to be saviors of sorts.
Daybreak is a different book. It is a book of seeing. I was writing about things I was seeing like the Blue Room, the room in the Amaokpala East-Side Motel. I’d just go there to see what was happening. Everyone likes Daybreak. It is a book of seeing as opposed to Clinical Blues, a book of experiences. My next book might not be about seeing or smelling.
In appreciating the striking growth of writers and poets in Africa and the influence of social media in today’s writing, Dami Ajayi has this to say:
DA: A lot of people are writing yet there aren’t a lot of publishers. Social media has however given a platform so much so that a lot of writers are shooting off. Saraba has published over 300 writers. There’s Jalada in Kenya, those guys are doing magic. There’s Short Story Day Africa in South Africa, Writivism in Uganda. They’ve pushed out several anthologies. You guys at Arts and Africa are contributing to it. There is Brittle Paper. These are platforms for people to put their stuff on.
Talent managers and agents hardly exist in Nigeria. The literary magazines are that place where people can publish their work, get noticed and win awards.
Dami Ajayi has been shortlisted for and won a number of prizes. He won the Dokita Essay competition 2010. He was shortlisted for the 2012 Melita Hume prize. He was longlisted for Erbacce Prize 2012 amongst others, and most recently, shortlisted for the 2015 ANA Prize for Poetry. Though he tilts more towards the poetic side of writing, Dami also writes good fiction. Here, he talks about the Caine Prize for African writing and the importance of literary prizes.
DA: The Caine is very legit. The prize itself looks like it is trying to redefine itself by opening submissions to previous winners. In the past, it was general assumption that after you win the Caine, you launch off into an illustrious literary career. But now it looks like they are trying to become more of a short story prize where you can win this year and try to win it against in the next year.
People are having less and less attention span these days. People are becoming more readers of short fiction. For this reason, the Caine Prize continues to remain relevant. That said, it is important to realize that, in some sense, there is a bit of protest going on and it is taking different forms. An example is Binyavanga Wainaina, who said the prize has not really done much for African literature and that it is a western prize to all intents and purposes. Another former winner has queried the fact that someone who won the prize before can try to win it again after ten years. There are also questions about submissions and how the prize itself is administered. Apparently, entries are not submitted blind; judges see the names of the authors of the stories they read. The prize is not perfect but it remains an important one. It has helped raise voices and made these into more important voices. We need more of such on the continent.
How did Dami Ajayi even come about writing in the first place? He talks about his childhood in Ado-Ekiti and Lagos and in which of these two places he first discovered his love for writing.
DA: I had two kinds of childhood. Spent some of my childhood at Ado Ekiti, where my dad was an economics lecturer, in the Eighties. In a way, everybody in my family is an author of sorts. My dad wrote an economics textbook. My mum writes for children—instruction manuals for arithmetics.
While in Ado-Ekiti, my dad worked with the state university and then the polytechnic. The money was not good and there was a brain drain which didn’t quite take him out of the country but to the “booming” banking sector. He became a banker in Lagos.
I used to play a lot but when we moved to Lagos, not so much. It was a different type of childhood in Lagos. I could not play all over as I used to. They would lock my siblings and I in the house because my parents did not want us to mingle with the other children. We lived in a working class environment and my parents were trying to raise us as middle class children, and that was when I started reading books. That was when I discovered my love for books. The family, co-tenants living above us had seven children and each had their own set of literature books which I read. When I got into secondary school, I studied literature up to SS3 on the insistence of my mum, which I think was a very important decision. I understood or read more about literature and this only expanded my knowledge. I read works written by Soyinka, Achebe and Lenri Peters who later became a major influence on my poetry. That was essentially how I found my literary calling.
Lola Shoneyin, commenting on Dami’s book Clinical Blues said that he has a very old soul. Considering that statement, we want to know if it also applies to his music taste. Well, let’s say, we are partially right. We are, of course, very aware of his interesting music taste, but we also want to know how this came about.
DA: People say I am old. I have always been a lover of music. Growing up as a kid I liked Fela’s Teacher don’t teach me nonsense. There was the kerekejikeke refrain my father had to loop into a long playing cassette. As a teenager, I listened to a lot of R&B music. However, going into Ife to study medicine, I lost a bit of contact with that kind of music because small towns are different from cities. In small towns, the taste of music hardly changes. If you go to Akure now, in the taxi cabs and the bars, you’ll hear people singing Orlando Owoh or his music being played, it is like the staple there. Go to Ilesha, I can assure you now that the Prison Staff Club is listening to Ebenezer Obey. I can hear it. (Laughs). The music does not really change. Though my dad used to listen to these music; it wasn’t until much later I began to appreciate them because they were part of our culture. I became interested in juju and high life music and began to listen to a lot of old tunes. Eventually, I decided I was going to write about Rex Lawson because I became very passionate about him. Rex was a very interesting character. He died a long time ago but his music still remains relevant.
I listen to a lot of Fela because Fela’s music is non-pareil; the kind of work he did with his music protecting the masses, speaking for them, he was the voice of the people. These are the things I was listening to in Ife. I acquired my music taste which ranges from Agidigbo all the way to R&B and Jazz.
The next best thing to ask is how much music has influenced his writing.
DA: My friend and boss, Niran Okewole, who knew when I was writing Clinical Blues, said that it is part jazz, part highlife, part afrobeat. And yet, there are some others who insist that this is R&B. I don’t discriminate against any music. I reviewed MC Galaxy’s album—the Sekem guy. I reviewed Oritsefemi’s album. I reviewed D’Angelo’s album. I don’t discriminate; I listen to juju, apala, fuji. I listen to everything because you do not know where you’re going to get your next muse from. When I was writing Daybreak, there were some lines I was just translating from Yoruba to English and I put it in my poem. There’s a poem called Dreams in Daybreak. It is essentially about Obey’s Paulina. Look at some of the great Wole Soyinka poems, you find that he is thinking in Yoruba. He is just mining that language, seeking parallels. Someone once told me something that happened at the Royal Court in London. One of their accomplished playwrights was asked how he came up with his original ideas. He said that he was lacking inspiration; he goes back to the 17th century and digs out some material and adapts it to contemporary times. So you see, no idea is original; nothing you want to do in this life has not been done before.
Dear upcoming writers, Dami has some very simple yet important advice for you.
DA: Understand that you’re in this for the long run. If you are a writer, you are a writer, even if you try and run away, you’re still a writer. It will always come back and catch you and bite you on your black ass. (Laughs).
You have to embrace that your realities first and then strive to make yourself a better writer. Because it is work, if you write something today and something tomorrow, you must compare the two works for improvements. It is hard work. As a young writer, the internet has complicated things for you, so that you’re not competing with yourself but with the world at large. You have to live it up, and how do you live it up? Read like no man’s business. Read like your life depended on it. Read more than you write. For every hundred words you write, read about ten thousand words. Never give up on the dream. Rejections are a part of the process. It is important for you to get your fair share of rejections. Not everyone would like what you write. Some people would love what you write and would read every thought you pen down. Try to finish everything you write, though you might not publish them all. Not everything one writes should be published. I have more unpublished works than published works. Then, pray.