Meet Tolu Akinyemi; A UK-Based Nigerian Storyteller

Let’s get to meet you Tolu – full names, age/birth date, educational background and family background?
My name is Tolulope Robert Akinyemi. My parents didn’t name me Robert though. It was a name I gave myself in the third year of Junior School. I remember coming home with my results, my dad held my certificate and said “you this boy”, you finally made this name official”. Then he wanted to know what it means. “Bright Fame” I told him.  He just shook his head.

I was born and grew up in Ondo state. My parents where civil-servant who were also strict but loving Christian parents. I had to recite Ephesians chapter six verse one a lot, while growing up.

I obtained a first degree in 2008 from the Federal University of Technology Akure, where I studied Architecture. Then in 2010, I travelled to the United Kingdom in for a Master’s degree in Built Environment studies at the University of Greenwich. I currently live and work in London, United Kingdom.

Are you a full-time or part-time writer?  How does time affect your writing?
I am a part-time writer, but I doubt I will ever become a ‘full-time’ writer in that sense. Writing is just one of the many things I’m quite passionate about.

Where did your love for writing come from?
My mum (who is also an author) had a strong influence on my love for writing.  She has written over 20 books till date. She writes religious books and books on marriage and family.  Asides this, I believe it was my love for reading that gave birth to my love for writing. Every writer is first a reader. The commonest items in our house growing up were books and bibles. So on holidays when the television stations wouldn’t open until 4pm, or during school season when the Power Authority had cut supply, the only things left to do was were to sleep or to grab a book. As expected for a kid, they were storybooks and novels, and when I had read every one I could find at home, I would exchange with friends in school. When I ran out of people to exchange with, I had to pick up the bible. I enjoyed reading all the adventure stories in the New Testament.

How long have you been writing?
I’ve always being some sort of a writer since secondary school; debates, poems, short stories. I remember writing my first long fiction that I never finished. It was about a young detective who moved back home from abroad to find his town crippled by a menacing and elusive gang of criminals. So he made it his mission to unravel the criminal gang and bring them to justice.  I found the old manuscript recently and I had a good laugh reading what and how I wrote as a teenager.

I didn’t start writing poetry until 2009. This started on social media, Facebook precisely. It was around this time I began to take the poetry genre seriously and defined what my style of poetry is today. Four years later, the positive interest and feedback spurred the publication of my first collection: Your Father Walks like a Crab (2013)

What kind(s) of writing do you do?
I write short stories, but the three books I have written so far, and most of my writings that have appeared in other publications are poetry.  Currently I’m working on some new projects. One is Fiction. A folktale titled “Bobolaya the Land of Liars”.  The other is series of illustrated children’s book

Would you call yourself a poet or just a writer?
Like I said earlier, writing it just one of the things I love. While the labels of ‘poet’ or ‘writer’ is fine, I generally see myself as a storyteller, because that’s what I do; tell stories with words, photography (I’m a professional hobbyist) or with illustrations. Last year, I started an illustration series on social media called Halimaseries which is featured on a character called Halima and her barbed conversations. People took well to the series and I had to create a separate instagram page for her. (@halimaseries)

What were your goals and intentions in your published books, and how well do you feel you achieved them? 

There are stereotypes about what is generally considered ‘African poetry’ or African writing. They are typically seen as poetry marinated with angst and anger and themed around Africa’s socio-political and economic challenges; poverty, corruption, war, westernization, social justice issues, political instability and others.

However, I believe, an excessive focus on this issues creates a broken or incomplete story about Africa. My intention is to balance the African narrative with the less ‘sensational’ experiences of simply being human beings.  Being an African Poet doesn’t mean one has to be an ‘angry angst-filled’ African Poet.

While there is nothing wrong with being such a Poet, it’s wrong for the African narrative to be defined by its social and economic challenges. We need more writings that will tell more African stories of love and romance, humour, family values, social capital and the even the trivialities and whimsicalities of everyday experiences, observations and relationships. These are the things I try to do achieve with my writings and I believe to a very large extent I’ve been able to successful set that in motion. People already know why my writing is different.

Who are some of your favorite authors that you feel were influential in your work?  What impact have they had on your writing?
Wilbur Smith, Wendy Cope, Felix Dennis, W.H Auden. Charles Bukowski is also a guilty pleasure. There are also songwriters that have a major influence on my writing; Nigeria’s Asa, Robert Kelly and Mike Rosenberg (Passenger) are examples. The single thing that ties all of these people together is the clarity and relatability of their writings; and these are major features of my writing as well.

What do you like to read in your free time?
Well, reading is not what I do in my free time, it’s a part of my schedule.  Even though I am a creative writer, I spend more time reading Biographies, Self-development books compared to fiction.

What do your plans for future projects include?
For now I can’t go into specific details, but you can definitely expect more books. I do not intent to stop writing.

How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?
I have just finished with my third book “Funny Men Cannot Be Trusted”. This will be out early in February. Then there are the ones I talked about earlier.

What does literary success look like to you?
Well, if one day my writings become so popular that that get translated into a dozen languages. I think that’s a start to what success looks like. It’s my desire that people from all over the world get to read my writings.

What are your favorite literary journals?
I know I have repeatedly enjoyed content from New Ohio review, Kenyon Review, The Journal and Three Penny Review.

What is your favorite childhood book?
I enjoyed Enid Blyton’s ‘Famous Five’ series and the Nigerian Pacesetter books. If any book really stood out for me as a child, it was ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’ by  Mark Twain.

What is the most difficult part of your artistic process?
Choosing a book cover design.

Does your family support your career as a writer?
Oh Yes they all do. My Parents and siblings. Like I said earlier, my mum is a major influence being a writer herself.  Again, it becomes a lot easier for anybody to support what you are doing, when they can also see that you are making some impact.

How long on average does it take you to write a book?
It takes me about a year to write a collection.

Do you believe in writer’s block?
Of course, ‘writer’s block’ exists, and people experience it in different intensities. Luckily for me, I never struggle about what to write or how to get inspired. The one thing I sometimes struggle with is ‘laziness’.

You are based in the UK, any plans to move to Nigeria in the near future?
There is no immediate plans in that regard, but Nigeria is definitely the home I will have to return to one day.

What inspired the title of your two books?
I get this questioned every time, but besides the obvious intention of grabbing attention (as we all judge books by their covers), here is an insight.

Both titles were inspired by real life experiences. For my first book “Your Father Walks like a Crab”, it happened just before I started writing the collection. It was in Akure, Nigeria, I sat in the passenger’s seat of a car parked on a side street of a residential area, reading a book whose title I can’t remember. Four young men emerged from a street corner and walked towards the car in which I was seated. One of them had what I can only describe as a very dramatic disability.

As he hobbled towards me in the company of his friends, his legs made jerky, awkward bends, flying in all directions.  People on the street were casting pitiful glances in his direction, while some really looked worried for him, cringing each time it seemed he would plunge sideways into the open roadside drainage. A few were staring rudely as well and, unlike his friends, they looked like they would be embarrassed to stroll alongside this young man who was ‘walking like a crab’.

I do not know where those silly words came from, but that was the way my mind instantly captioned his gait – anyone who has had a chance to observe them would agree that crabs indeed have a queer way of moving.

The jolly pack had surprisingly taken no cognizance of the fuss they had stirred; they were too carried away with their cheerful banter. Eventually, they reached and walked past me.

After I had taken a few guilty glances at the side mirror and concluded the phrase ‘walks like a crab’ would be an interesting title for a poem (which later became the title of the collection), something struck me: it doesn’t matter how badly anyone or everyone else sees us, as long as we have the loyal covering of family and true friends who love us unconditionally, whether we walk like crabs, quack like ducks or chew like goats.

As I sat in that car, I remembered a saying in Pidgin English: ‘monkey no fine, but him mama like am’.

People considered as ‘embarrassing’ have faithful brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, parents and friends who are proud and protective of them. Even the most hated villains have people who love and adore them fiercely. True love is unconditional, unseasonal and sometimes irrational.

For my second book (I laugh at these skinny girls), it happened in London. I was walking on the very narrow pavement of a street in south east London. Ahead of me was a group of three or four chatty, attractive young women in the prime of womanhood. They would have been in their early twenties.  Ahead of them was an elderly lady trudging along with a pace and demeanour that suggested she would have been seventy years old in the least.

It was a fairly long stretch of narrow pavement around a curved part of the road bounded on one side by a stone wall and on the other, by a fairly heavy vehicular traffic. The old lady had everyone behind her moving at a very slow pace. To get ahead, there were just two options; either step off the narrow pavement into the busy road, or continue at the slow pace till the end of the narrow stretch.

I found this situation amusing, but the ladies didn’t. They got impatient and rudely, didn’t hide it from the old lady.

The poem “I laugh at these skinny girls” which became the title of the book, captures from a comical perspective what I consider might be a justified reaction from the old woman, towards the rude young women, who tried to bully her.

Do you belong to any writing community? If yes what are roles/impact to the community?I don’t belong to any writing community per se, but I am involved with a few organisations that promote Poetry and creative talents. One is the Stephen Lawrence Charity Trust.  Another is the Arts Council-sponsored organisation called ‘Poet in the City’. They help promote a love of poetry to new audiences through live events, projects, commissions and participation.

 

First published in Issue 15

Post Comment