Onyeka Nwelue is a very talented young author and poet whose first novel ‘The Abyssinian Boy’ was published in 2009. He is the Founder of BLUES & HILLS Consultancy, an arts agency that champions the promotion of arts, editor at Film Afrique, a magazine about African film and cinema, and is currently studying film making and directing at Prague Film School, Czech Republic.
His poems and essays have been published in The Guardian (Nigeria), Times of India, NEXT, Punch, Daily Times, The Sun, Vanguard, ThisDay, Ecletica Magazine, Kafla Inter-Continental, Wild Goose Poetry Review,Maple Tree Literary Supplement, Insurance & Money Weekly among other publications.
Onyeka, 25, takes some time out of his busy schedule to speak to us about his writing and about Literacy Africa International, a book drive which he and his good friend Obinwanne Okeke are involved in.
Where did you grow up and how has that impacted on the person you have become?
I grew up in my hometown, Ehime Mbano, Imo State. I was a complete recluse. I think that had a big impact on my outlook. The few friends I had were characters from books. I was that weakling who kept looking for validation, the one who wanted everybody to love him, so I did many foolish things just to make sure that my parents loved me more than my siblings.
For some time – after I started writing and creating characters that behaved like me – I created characters that I wanted to have a life. Characters that would not go through pain and anguish… and I succeeded.
I am a writer today because I was mocked and trampled on; I was shamed because of my weakness. I was made to feel inadequate, so the worst thing I could have done was to stop writing, and to not create. To stop writing would have endangered my life/soul, and perhaps the lives of those around me. Writing made me whole and complete. It made me lose myself in another world that is transparent and genuine – a world that can be free of pain.
What was the motivation for writing your first book?
In March, 2006, I travelled to Mumbai. From there I headed to Delhi and then to Kurushektra which is a state in the north of India.
When I got there, I realized that there were many things happening in India that I could write about and I started brainstorming.
I started to stitch words together – to work on the linens of everything. I loved the country’s geography. I enjoyed travelling by bus, meeting new people, joining different religions when I could, and also worshipping a lot of Hindu gods.
I read books by Indians, on Indians, and about Indians. I began to understand the country better. It was a way to build that affinity and it happened slowly. As my love for India began to seep in, I started my first novel. I was only sixteen. That novel is called the Abyssinian Boy.
Tell us a bit about Literacy Africa International; the book drive that you are involved in?
My very good friend, Obinwanne Okeke, is a genuine activist. He is studying in Melbourne and has been gathering books to ship to different parts of the world. He came up with the idea and I volunteered to be a part of it.
We have planned massive music concerts to take place all over the world – to be able to get people to donate books that we can take to rural areas and teach children and adults.
Who benefits from this book drive?
People in the rural areas all over Africa are our main target. We want to get them to read. We want to give them books in different languages. We will have books in Portuguese to ship to Angola, books in English to send to Nigeria, books in French to send to Senegal, and so on.
How is it organised?
Obinwanne and I are working to involve shipping companies who will help make this happen.
Do you need any help (e.g. volunteers) and how can people contribute to this?
We need volunteers. We need people who will help us organize shows and not ask us for any money, because we don’t have any way to generate income. We are not selling these books, so there’s no way we can pay people and we don’t have investors or sponsors.
We are just alone on this journey. That is exactly what hindered us a bit in Paris. Some people started billing us and Obinwanne said to me, ‘we don’t have money to pay anyone, so don’t.’
Is this book drive an organisation or just a bunch of people who have come together in their individual capacities?
It is not an organization. As I said Obinwanne Okeke started it. I loved the idea and volunteered to help in any way I could. I am taking his shine already in this interview, which is not good.
Why books and not say medicine or clothes?
We figured that books are the only way to true freedom and mental empowerment. You can’t be anything if you don’t at least read a book.
As a young person who is socially conscious, how do you think that we can contribute to a better society?
I have never seen myself as a socially conscious person. I am actually one who is not interested in the ways people live their lives.
I strongly believe I am not good enough to say what is wrong or right, so I let people do what they want to do. Life has taught me that we can never change society, but as you said we can contribute to a better society. We can do this in different ways and on different platforms.
What do you say to young people who say ‘I don’t like reading’? And how can we change this mindset?
The moment I meet a young person who says, ‘I don’t like reading,’ I feel like I’ve found a new slave. I take such people as inferior and nothing changes that. There is nothing they do that will make any difference. I see them as shadows.
It’s one thing getting the books to the children. How do you ensure that they are actually reading these books? Are you also going to teach literacy skills?
My initial plan is to go and teach in the villages for about 2 weeks myself. Nneka, the musician, has been doing that for some time now – without screaming about it in the media. So I want to be able to take the books to them and teach them myself. I want to be with them for a while and chat with them over stories we can write together and things we can do together to change the world.
Any advice for aspiring young authors?
Talent is not enough.
What are you working on next?
I have just finished my new novel, The Orchard of Memories, and a memoir, The Peace Symphony. My agent is reading the novel and will be representing that one while I look for a publisher in Nigeria to publish The Peace Symphony here.
Where do you see yourself in the next five years?
In the next five years? I should be very famous.