We first met Oris at Freedom Park in Lagos, during the opening ceremony of the Lagos Poetry Festival. We met him again in Ogun, at the Ake Festival. Since then, it has only been natural to meet him at literary events. Oris is a delight to chat to. He is witty, funny and intellectual. There is never a moment dull, bland or ordinary with him. So, we at Arts and Africa decided to share his fabulousity with the world (you’re welcome)?
Oris Aigbokhaevbolo is a writer and critic living in Lagos, Nigeria. He holds a Doctor of Pharmacy degree from the University of Benin, and has attended academies for film criticism in Germany, South Africa and the Netherlands. In 2015, Oris mentored film critics at the Durban International Film Festival. In the same year, he became the first winner of the All Africa Music Awards prize for Music Journalism. He is a film critic at This is Africa. And has appeared in Chimurenga, BellaNaija, The Africa Report and the Guardian UK.
We meet up with Oris at Freedom Park. And we are nostalgic. It is a quiet Sunday afternoon and there are no events happening just yet at Freedom Park. There is lot of laughter and moments to reflect. Like we said, Oris is fun and so, he often throws back questions at us which, of course, were off the record.
Oris is a traveller and we start the conversation from that premise.
Oris A: My parents are to blame. I was born in Benin City, had nursery school in Bida, primary in Ikeja and Agege, secondary in Auchi and Lokoja, returned to Benin for university. That is Edo, Niger, Lagos, Kogi—I was a kid so none of these movements was by my design, maybe except for university, even if JAMB had a say in that one.
When I finished studying for a Pharm D. degree at the University of Benin, I was tired of the place. But I couldn’t get a place elsewhere for the compulsory 1-year internship on time, and so I worked for a few months at the Central Hospital Benin, and then started all over in Abuja. Interns get moved around there. So first I was at the Asokoro General Hospital, then Maitama, then Gwarimpa and so on. I then served in Imo state, stayed in Owerri and Aboh-Mbaise for a bit, and then got transferred to Lafia, Nasarawa state.
Between getting to the university and finishing NYSC, a part of my family moved to Warri, Delta state. I had to go there on some holidays. I had friends or something silly to do in Port Harcourt, Makurdi, Anambra, Kaduna, Jos, etc. so I just went. The seed of restlessness was sown early.
Oris is an internationally recognized critic and full time writer. We ask him what the journey like and if there any particular hurdles along the way.
Oris A: There are hurdles still. Our culture space is small and soon, you get to meet people whose work you have written about. For example, within a week at a recent film festival in Lagos, I met a director whose film I had just reviewed and then a small group of mostly unhappy Nollywood directors, producers and actors surrounded me late one night.
The director came to me and said, “Oris, you were not fair to me…” For their part, the group kept me standing for a few hours arguing. “Why did you say my work was bad and then praise so-so director?” “What did you think of this film?” and so on. To their credit, they didn’t insult my parents and no one threw a punch. Up until that moment, I didn’t realise Nollywood was full of researchers. They were telling me about my own writing career, and their info was mostly correct!
Another hurdle is financial. To be any sort of critic, you need to invest time in the art form. If no one is paying for that time, it becomes difficult to dedicate yourself to the art you are reviewing and to the art of writing while earning a living doing other things. In Nigeria, finding a publication that pays is incredibly difficult. Same as elsewhere really but in Naija you risk death and not just poverty. I tried to take care of the writing and reading part of the deal. If I put in the work, then Lady Luck might come my way. In a way, she came. It’s not enough, it’s never enough, but considering our country, I can’t complain loudly.
It has helped that I learned early that it you pay attention to the sentence, you might be able to write many types of things, some of which could bring in honest revenue. As someone once said, “Any proper writer ought to be able to write anything from an Easter Day sermon to a sheep-dip handout.”
As for the journey, it continues. It started as the typical hot-headed adolescent foolishness of undergraduate ambition. At the time, I was yet to read a certain type of review locally, the type that is entertaining and by itself could be a work of art—this doesn’t mean these reviews were absent, I just hadn’t seen a lot of it. There was the delightful personality-driven prose of Ikhide Ikheloa in the defunct Next newspaper but he wasn’t exactly local; there was also Onoshe Nwabuikwu who wrote about television; Peter Okwoche who is at the BBC now used to write stuff on American culture for Hints magazine even much earlier, not reviews though. I was just a kid who felt there was a gap and so should contribute what he could.
Already my family had done their part. My mum is a huge Nollywood fan so I had seen many if not most of the older Nollywood films. My dad loved action flicks and B movies. One of my uncles had a bit more sophisticated taste, renting sci-fi and some Oscar winning movies. I saw everything and developed a hopeless taste. My own active part was to starve in school so I could buy books, old magazines and DVDs of films from way back. In the scheme of things, my starvation was a small price to pay. I was motivated by the thought that good prose can hold a Nigerian experience.
One day years later, I approached a staff of the European Union after a film screening at a cinema in Abuja. I said I wanted to write reviews for the European Film Festival, which takes place at Abuja. I had just finished my pharmacy internship and was idle and maybe a little too confident. The EU agreed and I wrote a review that night and two reviews every night over the next 13 days. Each evening I’ll go to the cinema, leave very late and write two pieces of prose same night and they’ll put it on their Facebook page by morning.
It was good practice. At the end I had a lot of material and got some of it published in our Guardian newspaper. Imagine the feeling for a wannabe: Four fine pages with my by-line. The folks at the EU saw it and were cool enough to invite me to their offices. The Czech embassy later contacted me for their own festival taking place at the film institute in Jos. Much later, I applied for the film critic projects in Durban, Berlin and Rotterdam. Getting selected by all three in one year was perhaps the turning point in my career as film critic.
There was also Metropole magazine, which deserves a place in our cultural history. I wrote the culture pages comprising pieces on books, film and pop music. And we had quite a team. Miles Morland fellowship shortlisted writer, the terrific Ladi Opaluwa wrote online on Fridays. Caine Prize shortlisted Elnathan John wrote on Thursdays. Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani wrote for the magazine once or twice, as did CNN African Journalist Awards nominee Chika Oduah.
Before these, I wrote a review of a collection of short stories and was going to enter for a competition in Abuja but the competition disappeared and so I sent it to The Sun back when they ran literary pages edited by Toni Kan. I was barely out of school and hadn’t really written anything to be published before. I got a response. The piece I think got published around my birthday.
We go back to his childhood. We believe that for most art lover there must have been something in their childhood that may have influenced their love for it. Here he tells us about his love for English, the dictionary and how his English teacher wanted him to study English in Uni.
Oris A: For some reason, I loved the English language as a child. I was bookish, and some people noticed. My earliest memory of a gift is a dictionary with some pictures given to me by a grandma in our neighbourhood. I was probably 5, 6 or 7 at the time. I can remember learning the words ‘chandelier’ and ‘clarinet’ from that dictionary. At the time, my family had a single volume encyclopaedia—I think I use to carry it around and so my uncles and aunts called me “mobile encyclopaedia”. All of this is to say that words were perhaps just as important to me as stories. From loving words to sentences is not a great stretch.
By secondary school, because of my grades in her subject, my English teacher and her colleague from a different school tried to get me to study English language at the university. I refused because, well, I didn’t want to be broke. Also I represented the school and made the state’s top 10 students at the National Mathematics Competition for junior secondary schools so I figured I had a future in science.
But clearly my English teacher was right. The best teachers teach and see things; the best students are still only children, blind and ignorant.
The literature/writing part came in my second year at the university of Benin. Three things—Time magazine, an anthology of short stories called The Art of Fiction, and the second volume of the Paris Review Interviews—let me know that writing was something I might want to try out. I mentioned it in a piece I wrote about visiting Ernest Hemingway’s house in Paris last year.
I wish I could say my love for literature was kindled because of a girl but we all can’t have interesting origin stories.
If you didn’t know, Oris a well-respected film critic. We just had to ask what his opinion on the Nigerian film Industry was.
Oris A: It’s a work in progress, as the cliché goes. There are a number of young filmmakers that I think have a clear artistic vision and will do something really big. Whether they will redeem their potential is not something I can tell even as I hope they do.
The other thing is, if they do, will the Nigerian audience support that vision? There’s a certain disregard we have for our own films at the moment. Yes, it is caused by the quality of the films themselves—but that is only part of the story. If the situation changes tomorrow, how would the audience know? And when the media doesn’t have true critics outside PR folks, how will those films get the attention they deserve? And if the media owners don’t pay serious critics, how will critics see enough films to bring the news of change to filmgoers? It goes on and on.
I think the first group of genuine artists that will succeed in bringing our cinema to a new place will suffer from a lack of attention and insufficient funds. Hopefully they won’t be struck dead by poverty. They will cure the apathy we have for our films with their blood and a latter set will reap the acclaim and/or box office rewards.
If today, we hear a good film is at the cinema by one guy with a Nigerian name that attended Uniben or UI or Unilag, many people will not go see it. They may only see the fifth or tenth film that has that same acclaim. It is at that point that things will change. A few people have to do great work first. Hopefully these ones get what they deserve. If not, will they continue to do what they can by staying true to the art and their vision? That there is the question.
At this point, it was important to ask about how his family had taken his full time writing. All writers know it is not easy to tell parents you want to be a full time writer.
Oris A: The issue with families and artists is almost always about finance and respect. You study pharmacy and your folks are happy that both are taking care of. The profession is quite lucrative for some people, and the family can always boast that they have a pharmacist. Since I dashed both plans by not practising pharmacy after I served, I have had to find ways to compensate.
It helped when I got accepted to the international film critic programmes. My dad relaxed for a bit; my mum wanted me to call her from Europe. For better or worse, I think each time I spend away from the country gives the impression that I am not doing badly financially. It is a kind of middleclass thought given how expensive travel is, especially for citizens of third world countries like our Nigeria.
As for the respect part, I think they were relieved to hear I won the All Africa Music Award for Music/Entertainment Journalism last year. My dad wrote a text saying “Keep it up.” Like I was back in primary school carrying my report card home. Maybe in a way I was. I laughed but I understood. Father of award-winning writer has a pleasant ring to it. Na who no like better thing?
For writers wanting to know: “do I need to travel to become a successful writer?”, here’s what Oris has to say:
Tricky thing. The obvious answer is yes. But over the past few years, we have had a few encouraging stories. After a long time, we finally had high profile books by Nigerians who have studied from primary school to university in Nigeria and are living here mostly. I mean the novels from Elnathan John, A. Igoni Barret and Abubakar Adam Ibrahim. There is also Sarah Ladipo Manyika’s new novel which was published by our own Cassava Republic and has gotten on the shortlist of the Goldsmiths Prize. Of course, the aforementioned trio don’t have the same profile as our bigger authors but that may have to do with the lack of a credible critical and awarding system here.
I mean, it will be difficult to say a book has critical acclaim in Nigeria because who exactly are the critics and publications that have accorded the said acclaim? As for awards, most of our awards are too shabbily organised and in a few cases are handed out by people who sometimes are stuck in years past or relentlessly think about agenda over art. This may not be bad in small doses but it has resulted in a few books getting nominations and prizes because they are deemed important by subject. The money is good always but beyond the cash price donation, it’s hard to see the utility of some of our prizes.
At some point, if our marketing and publicity and distribution works out, staying here can give an author commercial success by our standards, but for “literary” books, commercial success is only half the story. We need some kind of system of value. Speaking broadly, some belong in the cannon; others in the canal. It is for this reason, going elsewhere may be quite useful, if only for the whole shebang. You can also fail there but it won’t be because of the absence of certain things the greater literary world takes for granted.
We ask him what his ideal writing space is. Does Oris have any particular writing rituals?
Oris A: Table and straight back chair and some level of stillness; not to forget electricity since we are talking Naija. The table should maybe have enough space to host a few books. A steady supply of pounded yam before paragraphs will certainly help…
I used to write with a pen first and then type. I don’t know if that qualifies as ritual. Anyway, I don’t do so much anymore. I still go around with a Moleskine notepad though.
Here, Oris gives out valuable advice to writers. Know how to use a semi-colon he says
Me too, I am also looking for advice. I don’t think I am in the position to give anyone advice. What I can do is share lessons I’ve learned. Which I’d like to do with interested persons, students in particular. Maybe in Unilag next year. I’m still thinking about it.
For now, I’ll share some obvious stuff everybody knows.
Read, write, re-write. Know that you don’t have to use a semicolon. Cut down on social media.
A piece of prose is made up of sentences. Read out your sentences, and edit for content, musicality and technical correctness.
You will need a day job if you want to be a writer. If you want to be a critic, study your field and read the best critics especially those writing in the English language. A critic is first a writer before anything else so read novels, read reviews and interviews, read essays. Read everything; learn what works and what doesn’t; acquire a sensibility; form an opinion based on knowledge. Write, write, write. Don’t sell your soul.
Avoid clichés. Don’t plagiarise. Say hi if you see me.