Tolu Ogunlesi is a young Nigerian journalist popularly known in the Nigerian newspaper reading circuit for his weekly column on NEXT Newspapers, Ongoing Concerns. He is also well known on Twitter for his witty commentary in 140 characters or less on a wide variety of national issues.
Born in 1982, he originally studied Pharmacy at the University of Ibadan but years later began pursuing writing full time in 2009. In 2009, he won the Arts & Culture Award at the CNN African Journalist of the Year Awards for his story, ‘What the Truck?’, which was chosen from among 836 entries from 38 nations across the African continent. He is currently a Masters degree student at the University of East Anglia.
Read our interview with him below.
Interview with Tolu Ogunlesi
Thanks for joining us at CP-Africa Tolu! Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I’m a writer – journalism, fiction, poetry. I work as a journalist with NEXT newspaper in Lagos, but at the moment I’m finishing a Masters degree in Creative Writing in England. For my undergraduate education I studied Pharmacy at the University of Ibadan. I think that about sums it up. I also try to pass myself off as a photographer.
How early did your romance with writing/journalism begin?
I like the use of the word “romance” – it reminds me of the former Speaker of the Federal House of Representatives who famously declared, a few weeks ago, in response to WikiLeaks revelations about her love-life: “I am free to romance anybody.” My story didn’t quite play out that way, I realized early on that I was not free to romance any art or writing genre I wanted. Writing was one of the few things that seemed to come naturally. I tried singing, acting, perhaps even dancing. My earliest writings, which took place in my pre-teenage years, were inspired by my reading, which was heavy on Enid Blyton. Then I started writing seriously again in University: some journalism for my Hall of Residence, and a lot of poetry.
You flirted with other occupations early on before dedicating yourself full time to writing. When and why did you decide to write full time?
Another romantic word – “flirted.” Unlike flirting with women, flirting with jobs is not likely to deeply or permanently hurt flirter or flirtee, instead it’s a wonderful opportunity to get to know yourself better, and answer the questions: what do I like? What can’t I stand? I decided to write full-time in early 2009. I got a writing fellowship at the University of Birmingham, quit my job in Corporate Communications with Visafone, and made business cards that said “freelance writer.” Then the CNN award came, and then the NEXT job.
Who has been your most impressionable literary influence?
Tough question to answer. Very tough. Too many to list. But I adore the prose style of the Economist, and the rhythms of that style (the paper’s “Leaders” and “Obit” section) are a sort of subconscious soundtrack for my imagination.
Apart from fiction, non-fiction and poetry, what other literary areas or genres have you so far explored?
That about sums it up. Would be a good idea to try my hands at song-writing
Which genre of literature do you enjoy writing the most?
Poetry seems to be my first love (I think we’d better stay on this theme of “romance”). But these days I do far more journalism than anything else. A few years ago I was writing poetry almost exclusively.
Which genre of literature do you feel you struggle the most with?
Fiction. It’s so hard to create compelling characters and then have to balance story and language.
Do you see some of your training as a Pharmacist influencing your approach to writing and critical analysis?
It’s hard to draw any clear lines between the two. But I think of it this way – anyone who survived pharmacy school in Nigeria will probably survive anything else. Who knows – perhaps my science background has given me some aptitude for applying methods of scientific inquiry to politics. It’s difficult to tell.
Your column Ongoing Concerns on NEXT has quite a following among Nigerian internet buffs in the newspaper reading circuit. What do you enjoy most about writing the column? How do you think the column has influenced you/helped you evolve as a writer?
I’d always wanted to write a regular column for a Nigerian paper. Before NEXT I was sending stuff to a lot of Nigerian papers, so I had opinion pieces published in The Guardian, Compass, Daily Independent and New Age. I also did a 12-week travel column for the Sunday Guardian in 2008. I was delighted to be offered a NEXT column because it meant I didn’t have to worry about sending stuff out blindly and having to wait for an uncertain response. The NEXT column started as an online-only column. And then after a few months it became both print and online. It’s been great so far, the deadlines have helped me become more disciplined.
There are usually witty and sarcastic undertones that are evident when you write columns on contemporary Nigerian issues. Why the choice of sarcasm as a literary device?
I don’t know if it’s a conscious choice. I like humour, and I think no one should take life too seriously. And I get some pleasure in making other people laugh. Besides Nigeria’s situation is often so bad it’s funny. All you can reasonably do is laugh. If you keep getting angry at everything even that already dismal ‘life expectancy’ age of 48 would probably elude you.
What would you say are some of the perils of having one’s writing on the internet/open to real time public scrutiny?
It means that people assume they know you, even when they don’t. I put out a lot of writing online, as articles and tweets and Facebook updates. That is me as a writer cum social networker. You can’t know much about Tolu the human being, the person, from the social networker Tolu. The allure of the internet is that it enables us to create personas. The internet is a legit Multiple Personality Factory. We should always remember this, and refrain from abusing or misunderstanding the illusions of intimacy that are a strong component of the online life.
How best do you think young African writers can best equip themselves to compete/differentiate themselves in the new digital age?
The thing with the new digital age is that it supplies most of what you’ll need to succeed in it. i.e. you don’t have to go to a special school or get a certificate to thrive as a writer in it. It’s important therefore to come with an open, curious mind, and a yearning to experiment and learn and connect with people from whom you can learn.
Why did you choose to pursue a Masters?
Well, I wanted something to spur my fiction, which explains the choice of a Masters in fiction. I could have gone for a Masters in journalism, but I thought I needed more help with my fiction. I’ve also toyed with the idea of a Masters in African Studies.
Do you think some elements from your coursework and Masters training has influenced your writing?
I’m still in the middle of the learning process, but yes, I can already see how school has influenced the way I think about, and approach, my fiction.
You are a prolific writer in both the domestic and international press scene. Where do you get your literary muse from and how are you consistently able to lend your opinion to a wide array of issues?
I don’t do much else beyond writing and tweeting, and maybe travelling. I’m aware people have loads of hobbies that take their time – everything from shopping to playing long chess games. I live a rather isolated life at the moment; most of the time I am by myself, so I guess it means I can do quite a bit of writing and a great deal of tweeting. My ideas come from everything and everywhere, and my mind is constantly processing bits and pieces of information and ideas. I’ve started to fall in love (that word again) with the idea of analyzing things and drawing patterns and isolating trends. I suspect that’s as a result of my love for Malcolm Gladwell’s work.
What are your thoughts about Western stereotypes about African writing? Do you think African writers are constrained to writing about certain topics so as to garner critical acclaim from the West?
There are topics and themes that sell more than others. It’s just like on Twitter and Facebook; there are those posts you know will generate more attention than others. Publishing is as much about the market as it is about the content – there’s little anyone can do about that. We can only hope that more people will demonstrate the boldness to tackle fresh themes, and hopefully create their own audiences. I’d love to be a writer who, through the beauty of my work, creates my own audience, instead of one who perpetually seeks to exploit and manipulate “hot” topics and guaranteed crowdpullers (not like there’s anything wrong with that though)
Where do you see yourself in the next 5 years?
Working as a journalist and novelist, and writing “happily married with children” in my Bio
What book are you currently reading?
I’m often reading multiple books at the same time; dipping in and out of them for variety. I’ve recently started The Bridge, David Remnick’s book on Barack Obama. I’m also reading Achebe’s novel, Anthills of the Savannah. I’m also reading Christie Watson’s recently-published debut novel, Tiny Sunbirds Far Away, which is set in Nigeria. And then I try to regularly read the London Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement, which I pick up in the library. A lot of my reading is also to be found online.
What should we expect to see more of from Tolu Ogunlesi in the coming years?
More writing. Hopefully a novel, a children’s book, a non-fiction book about Nigeria and a collection of poems.
Thanks so much for sharing with us Tolu!