Richard Ali is an Abuja based lawyer, author and publisher. He was born in Kano, Nigeria and grew up in Jos.
At 19 years of age, he became the youngest magazine Editor in Nigeria at the Kaduna-based Sardauna Magazine [2004—2006]. He is currently the Publicity Secretary [North] of the Association of Nigerian Authors and Editor-in-Chief of the Sentinel Nigeria, quarterly magazine of the Sentinel Literary Movement of Nigeria.
Richard co-owns Parrésia Publishers Ltd, one of Nigeria’s best in the publishing industry, with award winning authors like Chika Unigwe and Abubakar Adam Ibrahim. His 2012 novel, City of Memories, was warmly received.
How are you able to maintain a balance as a practising lawyer and writer?
Multi-tasking. It gets harder to do as one grows older, but the reminder app on my cell phones helps me keep multiple schedules. Law and Literature are very seductive ladies, Muses as I imagine them. And it is easy to have an uneasy mind if either becomes jealous of the attentions you have been paying to the other. I can’t say how I do it exactly, but then, I try. And it would seem I succeed? Perhaps it’s luck. A skill? Fate maybe? Who knows?
Your novel The City of Memories was well received by the literary community. What inspired it?
Growing up in Jos, a cosmopolis and resort centre to which my parents moved in 1988, and the atmosphere and story and milieu of northern Nigeria—these informed the novel. Reality and circumstance easily inform fiction. Perhaps it was an attempt to capture something being lost? At the time I was writing, we had already had several “ethno-religious” civil crisis in Jos. I was writing before the rise of the Boko Haram sect, but the idea of northern Nigeria being a quiet place within which one could travel was unravelling already. Consequently, the novel is set in Jos and in a fictitious town in the north east named Bolewa. A desire to capture a thing in the sad momentum of being lost, that is what inspired the book.
Which authors influence your writing the most?
J. M. Coetzee. Michael Ondaatje. I also admire the writings of Cyprian Ekwensi. Orhan Pamuk. Rushdie I enjoy reading.
For most, the lure of writing is fame but writers are generally seen to be poor. Do you think it is possible for a writer, in Nigeria for example, to earn a decent living from writing alone?
Not as a writer in Nigeria, no. I think it would be nice to earn a living from writing and I would like to say, someday, that I am a full time writer. But someone has to pay the bills. You. And writing, relying on the vagaries of the market, the appreciability of your craft and the abysmal distribution and marketing systems existing, just will not yield enough to pay those bills. Except if you are lucky enough to be in the school curricula and somehow get the better of pirates.
But to my mind, writing literature is as a sort of labour of love given to society.
Richard, you are a poet, novelist, editor, and publisher. Tell us, what does it take to become a good writer?
Reading a lot, and a curiosity about language. Having strong opinions and an above par grasp of logic and philosophy helps. And, finally, time to keep trying at writing. Writing really is like putting a double of yours in a room, locking yourselves in and saying “Na me and you today”. It is a wrestling match from which, in creative intellectual terms, you emerge more keen, more taut, better.
What would you say is the major problem of Nigerian and indeed African writing, especially publishing?
Absolute collapse of distribution and marketing infrastructure, leading to all sorts of expensive stop gap measures, including the reliance on independent one-shop bookstores. As opposed to bookstore chains. And the sheer expense of producing books. We don’t have a single operational paper mill in Nigeria, all paper used is sourced from abroad and priced by a cabal. I would like to see books priced so low that Nigerians in their millions can buy it, including the yan amalanke and the keke NAPEP pedicab drivers. But one simply cannot.
What publishing options are available for young, aspiring authors, especially those without access to traditional publishing?
The internet is there. Quite like a mirror, it accepts all there is and quite like a photograph, it can capture what there is for others to see. Some people have made a success of blogging their experiences and stories, whether they make money from it, I don’t know.
The Abuja blogger Umari Ayim comes to mind, also Pearl Osibu’s very interesting blog. It does get the word out.
Specialist publishing imprints like my own company’s Origami Books should also be considered.
Parrésia Publishers, and their authors and books, have been in the news for all the right reasons. What is the secret of your success in the rather stifled Nigerian publishing industry?
Great books by talented writers. An emphasis on the discovery of new writers, unpublished. Social media. And sheer sheer determination to try to make Parrésia thrive. The industry is stifling, true, but that is because we have not cracked open its vein of gold yet. Parrésia is here for the long run and we will continue giving that vein a crack at it until it crack cracks and voila, fame and fortune. Hahaha!
Being an author and promoter of literature, where do you stand on the debate about foreign literary awards like the Caine Prize determining which writers make it to the top echelon of the writing craft?
Let me quote Achebe; if you don’t like someone’s prize, go and set up your own. Or was that Chimamanda Adichie? But here’s the rub. “We” did set up “our” own prize, didn’t we, the Nigerian Prize for Literature sponsored by the NLNG. And how is that being run? Is it being run even one tenth as seriously as the Caine Prize? One tenth as decently as even a $5000 dollar prize abroad?
No. It is not about giving out $100,000 every few years. It is about structure.
If the Caine, and I think it does so rightly, “determines” the top echelon in the writing craft, it is because a prize is way beyond the prize money. Each prize always has an intellectual agenda—liberal or conservative, post structuralist, realist, a selection from a hundred possible agendas.
If you do not like someone’s agenda which affects you, go think out and execute your own agenda which benefits you. Compromises can come later, between intellectual equals, equals in agenda, where there is some parity.
But complaining where parity has not been understood talk less achieved is dubious, silly even.
Are you working on any project at the moment? Care to share?
Yes, I am working on my debut collection of poetry, due out this year. Recently, I became fascinated with the story of the Sudanese adventurer Ibn Rabeh who for six years until 1900 was the Master of Kanem Bornu. I think I might write some non-fiction about him.