Su’eddie, thank you for being here.
Q1.I am beginning to think that teaching and literature have a strong tie. Do you think this as well?
I know several literary artists who aren’t, weren’t and might never be teachers. Especially outside our country. A good number of them are even introverts who would never entertain the idea of teaching. To give swift examples, we can look at John Grisham and Sidney Sheldon. If we are to bring it home, you will discover that the only reason why many of our writers might have taught in their life would be because of the National Youth Service Corps that somehow forces most people to be teachers. And after service, these people just never go to the classroom again. So, I think your premise is wrong, as I can easily think of several literary artists who aren’t teachers. However, is there a link between teaching and literature? I would think so. Not, teaching as a profession of standing in the classroom to facilitate lessons but maybe teaching as a way of passing messages which help bring some transformation, whether intentionally or not.
Q2. Along the course of building a career, most literary writers dapple into teaching. What is this connection with teaching and literature?
We can view this connection in two ways. First, teaching and literature have a connection in the sense of passing messages and helping people learn new things. Just as I mentioned, previously. This is the point that Chinua Achebe was pursuing when he wrote his excellent essay, ‘The Novelist as a Teacher.’ In our writings, you find gems that can guide you through a lot and show you new things as you might never have taught. Chimamanda Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun is a solid lesson on the Nigerian Civil War which few history books will give you in such detail, and from the human perspective. Elnathan John’s Born on a Tuesday and Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s Season of Crimson Blossom are excursions to the heart of Northern Nigeria to see practices and lifestyles that you might never have known. Several people got to understand the often underplayed realities of the LGBTQ community in the poems of Romeo Oriogun and general writings of the multi-genre writer, Unoma Azuah. When I write, or you read the works of Moses Tsenongu, Debbie Iorliam, Maik Ortserga or my brother, Pever X, you get a good learning on the Tiv cosmology. Read Chuma Nwokolo, Sibbyl Whyte, Servio Gbadamosi, Iquo DianaAbasi, or Agatha Agema and beneath their amazing words, you will find profound meaning. If you want us to go back a bit, I can mention Things Fall Apart which was a vista to the African experience and a history that for several years the white man had misrepresented. Should I mention Flora Nwapa’s Efuru, Buchi Emecheta’s Second Class Citizen and The Joys of Motherhood or Zaynab Alkali’s The Virtuous Woman (amongst others) which all teach about the story of women in different contexts and time spaces. That, to me, is the connection between teaching and literature. Secondly, some graduates of Literature often end up teaching because it is the profession their course guides them to, which they are comfortable with too. Some people want to help mould people to be better citizens and think that teaching is the way to do this. Others generally go with the comfortable option of using their degree to teach, believing that the only proper job for a Literature graduate is teaching. It is why you would notice that most literary artists who did not study Literature or English in the university, do not end up teaching in any way.
Q3. As a creative writer, who has just obtained an M.A in Education, how do you chronicle your teaching journey and experience?
My M.A is in International Education and Development, so it is somewhat hybrid and not the traditional education degree. I have been teaching for a long while now, starting majorly from my service year about eleven or twelve years ago. From teaching Literature and English to senior secondary students about to write WAEC who could not understand a word of English, it has been a long journey. How do you teach those types Shakespeare’s plays or all those difficult grammatical rules or the literary devices? It was an adventure. I have gone on to teach as a facilitator at several workshops for children, and in universities, both in Nigeria and England. I am currently an education associate and mentor at the school, where I did my MA – that’s the University of Sussex and it is an interesting experience. My biggest fight as a teacher in formal learning circumstances was having to create lesson plans and stick to them, then marking of scripts. In the first school where I taught, I always had scripts in hundreds, whether as tests or exams. Then, we would have tight deadlines to deliver everything back. It scared me from formal teaching at secondary school level. Having to supervise undergraduate projects at some point was also tiring because a good number of my students could have done better. I guess the system teaches brilliant students to become lazy and do copy and paste so when you challenge them, it becomes hard for them to shake out of their slumber. A good number of them did and it was always fulfilling.
Q4. People argue that secondary school students rarely benefit from creative writers. Do you think this also?
I know several creatives who are doing amazing things for secondary school students. Some of these creatives are teachers, and others are just supporters of creatives. When Pever X, who I mentioned earlier, was a teacher, he did amazing things for his students. He exposed them to new books, to competitions, and turned them into deep thinkers, some into writers. It is the same thing with Sewuese Leah Anyo, and of course, Jennifer Chinenye Emelife who even went the longer mile to start an NGO, Teach for Change Nigeria which goes beyond supporting secondary school students to support teachers too. The organisation has a teacher prize that runs annually, which you were recently in the top 3 for. I am Team Lead at SEVHAGE Literary and Development Initiative, and with my team including Biachi Anointing, Oko Owoicho, Carl Terver, amongst others, we have done several secondary school campaigns and competitions that have not only created improved reading culture but rewarded readers and writers. The Association of Nigerian Authors, at the National and state branches, have also done a lot to support secondary school students and their writing. They have the Yusuf Alli campaign which is an annual literary campaign – in the form of book donations, readings, competitions etc – to support reading across secondary and tertiary institutions. In Benue State, where I was the ANA State Chairman for some time, we have several campaigns of such in secondary schools, the Benue State University here, prisons, IDP camps and others. I was not the first to do it, other creatives who were Chair, including Sam Ogabidu, Charles Iornumbe, Elvis Ogenyi, Moses Tsenongu, to mention a few names did their bit too and trust me when I say, all they did was not anything little. If I remember right, there are currently several competitions for secondary schools. There are book campaigns and book mobilisations, donations and fundings like Apochi Owoicho’s Book for Change, and several others. Perhaps I should conclude this answer by pointing out the work of another creative doing amazing things: Itodo Samuel Anthony? He is a change agent doing superlative things wherever he goes, and especially for secondary school students.
Q5. Secondary school is where passion is forged and career choices are made. How we invest in this sector will definitely affect reading and writing culture in Nigeria. In light of this, do you think creatives have done enough for students in secondary schools?
Several people are doing a lot and giving back. Saddiq Dzukogi is at the University of Nebraska but is affiliated with the Hilltop Arts Centre in Minna that primarily caters to building teen authors, especially at secondary school level. I am also affiliated with the same organisation and was a part of the festival that they conducted earlier this year, as spearheaded by B. M. Dzukogi. I came back last year, from the University of Sussex to organise the Benue Book and Arts Festival which featured a competition for secondary schools in terms of art and culture. I just spoke about Jennifer Chinenye Emelife’s Teach for Change Nigeria organisation. She is currently studying at the University of Sussex, rated No 1 in the world for development, but she facilitated and was part of a trip for her Nigerian secondary school students to a TedX Education club conference in New York. I have mentioned these three or four instances sharp sharp as they came to mind. Imagine the others that might come up if I think a bit more.
Q6. I love that you have extended the Benue state literary festival to even secondary school. I must commend that this will motivate the coming generation of writers from Benue state to amplify their voice. To tell the Benue story in ways that will intrigue readers. Thank you so much. What other ways do you intend for secondary school students to benefit through the platform?
The Benue Book and Arts Festival is just one out of many programmes that the organisation I am Team Lead at, SEVHAGE Literary and Development Initiative, have in place for schools – not just secondary schools. But let us focus first on the festival aspect. The platform allows students to meet with outstanding writers from all over Nigeria, learn from them and also get some form of mentorship. It gives them a chance to meet Literature beyond the confines of the book and/or traditional classroom. There are competitions with monetary prizes for them in the festival as well as several book donations which, as you know, is also essential. The space for meeting with students from other schools also creates an opportunity for them to increase their social influence and balance. Importantly, there is the experience of the festival in many ways that will meet the needs of the various students at individual level. Who knows what that inspiration would do? But like I mentioned, asides the festival, we have other projects that focus on schools since we believe that education is a key way for the reformation of any society, especially ours. And when I mention education here, I mean it beyond simply just the teaching and learning in class.
Q7. Going forward, how do you think creative writers can give more to secondary school students?
There are several ways and I have mentioned a few in the course of this writing. I think creatives can be mentors to students. They can visit schools and discuss literature with them. We can do book drives and donations, sponsor competitions and things of the sort.
Q8. Su’eddie, which do you consider more important: intelligence or happiness?
Happiness, without thinking twice. No matter how intelligent you are in this world, or rich, or successful, once you lose your happiness or joy, if you will, you have lost everything in the world.
Q9. I am deeply grateful to have you here.
My pleasure. Bless you.
S. Su’eddie Vershima Agema, a husband and father, an editor and development worker, is a past Chairman of the Association of Nigerian Authors (Benue State Chapter). He was listed on Nigerian Writers Award’s 100 Most Influential Nigerian Writers under 40 (2017 and 2018) and EGC’s Top 50 Contemporary Poets Who Rocked Nigeria (2012-17). He was also recently Curator, Black History Month/Project and founding President, African Writers [Society] at the University of Sussex in England, the United Kingdom where he earned a second master’s in International Education and Development under the esteemed Chevening scholarship scheme. He is also the convener of the Benue Book and Arts Festival.
Su’eddie is the author of Home Equals Holes: Tale of an Exile (Winner, Association of Nigerian Authors’ Prize for Poetry, 2014); The Bottom of another Tale (Shortlist, Abubakar Gimba Prize for Short Stories, 2015); Once Upon a Village Tale (Shortlist, Association of Nigerian Authors’Children’s Literature Prize); and Bring our casket home: Tales one shouldn’t tell (Nominee, Association of Nigerian Authors’ Prize for Poetry 2013).
Among other awards, he also won the Mandela Day Short Story Prize (2016) and was shortlisted for the Saraba/PEN Nigeria Poetry Prize 2013, Association of Nigerian Authors Prize for Prose Fiction (2014) and the Soyinka Prize for African Literature (2018).
He is the chief executive/lead editor at SEVHAGE Publishers, and team leader/lead researcher at SEVHAGE Literary and Development Initiative. Su’eddie blogs at http://sueddie.wordpress.com and is @sueddieagema on Twitter/Instagram/Facebook.