Q&A: Words on the Times – Eriye Onagoruwa, author of “Dear Alaere”, & Ibiso Graham-Douglas, founder of Paperworth Books Ltd

AiW Note: We are delighted to be able to share here a set of Q&As based around the novel Dear Alaere, published by Paperworth Books in 2020.

Both the author, Eriye Onagoruwa, and the book’s publisher and founder of Paperworth Books Limited, Ibiso Graham-Douglas, have offered us their Words on the Times, an AiW Q&A series inspired by the spirit of community and resilience, initiated last year to connect the blog’s communities, of work and life, through their experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

We are also excited to be able to share extracts from the novel, Onagoruwa’s debut, Dear Alaere – you can find them below Onagoruwa and Graham-Douglas’s Words.

Words on the Times with Eriye Onagoruwa

Eriye Onagoruwa is a creative writer, author, lawyer and financial literacy expert. She is fascinated by the power of words and its impacts on individuals and society. Her first novel, Dear Alaere, a captivating tale of a woman’s persistence in the face of love, hate, rivalry, betrayal and other travails, was published by Paperworth Books Ltd in 2020. In Dear Alaere, Eriye examines a woman’s quest for the much-elusive work-life balance and societal acceptance in Nigeria’s commercial epicentre, Lagos. 

When Eriye is not imagining a fictional world of endless possibilities or contributing opinion editorials to leading media outlets in Nigeria and beyond, she is negotiating energy deals, impacting lives through corporate social responsibility initiatives or executing corporate affairs strategies.

Her passion for women’s causes, especially financial literacy and investment, is the pedestal upon which she addresses some of the largest and most influential women clusters in Nigeria and across Africa.

Forward thinking, goal-oriented and a fashionista by craving, Eriye can fairly also pass for an ‘Ajala’ – a globetrotter that finds inspiration from some of the world’s most amazing destinations. 

Her definition of success is living for impact and in service to humanity – and these are her greatest drivers in life.

AiW: Thank you for your novel. Could you tell us a bit about it?

Eriye Onagoruwa: My novel, Dear Alaere, is the story of a professional woman, Alaere, in the ever-bustling city of Lagos, where she seeks the much elusive work-life balance amid bizarre workplace experiences and countless challenges on the home front.

When Alaere gets a job at Criole, she is excited to be working for a multinational company, but it does not take long for her to see that Criole is dysfunctional and bears an eerie similarity to Nigeria. As she struggles to find her footing in her new role, she witnesses a never-ending theatre of murder, sexual harassment and mysticism.

At home, she is happily married to ‘Laja, but they begin to have problems when they experience difficulties having children and their situation is compounded by extended family interference.

It is a captivating story about love, rivalry, betrayal, career, womanhood, and the sometimes unexpected challenges of life in one of Nigeria’s most loved cities, Lagos.

And could you tell us a bit about your work more generally and how the pandemic has affected it? In what ways are you working now that you weren’t before? 

Since COVID-19 struck the world, and of course, not leaving Lagos Nigeria where I live, has introduced a new way for me to work in my 9-5 job and also as a writer. It is particularly so because I released my novel, Dear Alaere, during the pandemic when all physical bookstores were shut and only online channels thrived. My readings ever since have been virtual, with the advantage of reaching more people than one could possibly assemble at a physical location. Nonetheless, it’s been a lot to adapt to. 

As creative people, the period also birthed a lot of works. For instance, it was during the pandemic that I started work on my next novel. You know creativity tends to thrive better in isolation however the commercialisation of creativity is typically more “outdoor” – at least in the “old normal.” So, for creatives like me, we thrived a lot in terms of content development at the peak of COVID but suffered to an extent as far as profiting from our creative ventures are concerned.

Now that the economy is reopening and the restrictions on physical gatherings are being lifted, one is somewhere between the two worlds of the old normal and the new normal. And I must be clear that it’s been an interesting blend. 

What have you found most supportive and/or heart lifting in this time?

In the period I lost three close family members. It was personally traumatising. But the support of friends and family through it all, despite the troubles that came with COVID-19, was phenomenal. They rallied around me and ensured that as much as was within their powers, they were shoulders I could cry on and pillars I could count on. 

Generally, despite the inadequacies of the authorities and a complaint of citizens as a result of the treatment meted to them by a government that itself could not get on its feet, Nigerians rose to support themselves and ensured that as many people as they could reach within their vicinities were supported in cash and material things. The level of camaraderie among our people was not short of impressive. In those moments, our African sense of communalism reigned. Although COVID-19 has shown us a bit of the worst that is possible, we have also seen humanity at its best.

How can our blog communities best support you?

I think there are a few ways including support through the provision of channels for content by African writers to be exposed on a regular basis. This could be in the form of interviews and literary op-eds, for instance. The sheer number of creative writers I encounter regularly is amazing. The challenge for many however is a lack of the right platform for the exposure they need. They need outlets to reach more of their target audience. Quite a lot of writers also merely write and keep and are not sure what to do next. Sometimes, they expose their work only within their inner circles. A mentorship system would be really helpful for them and I would be glad to share some of my experiences, even as a first time fiction author, with them to guide as many as are open to it.

Words on the Times with Ibiso Graham-Douglas, Founder CEO, Paperworth Books Limited.

Paperworth Books Limited was founded by Ibiso Graham-Douglas. She has a BA Financial Services and Politics from the London Guildhall University, MA in Publishing from the London College of Communication, University of the Arts, a Certificate in New Creative Ventures from the London Business School and an MBA in International Business Management from the Griffith College, Dublin.

An experienced executive across public and private organisations in the different sectors to include Power, Government, Gender Development and the Book Industry. Ibiso is passionate about knowledge and books and about fostering their access across Nigeria and the African larger context.

AiW: Could you tell us a bit about your work and the ways that the pandemic affected it? 

Ibiso Graham-Douglas: I am a book publisher based in Lagos, Nigeria and our work entails managing the overall production and publishing process for both print books and eBooks. The main effect the pandemic has had on our business is in the area of marketing, moving all activities online and eliminating face-to-face interactions with customers and readers. We have had to cancel and reschedule book launches; book readings and book club meets etc. until such a time as we can gather without the restrictions. While technology had in times past dominated our back-end operations, deploying fully in the marketing aspects of the business have been cumbersome to manage and not yielded same results. This therefore calls for broader collaboration and support for businesses in the creative arts by blogs and other online media.

In what ways are you working now that you weren’t before?

Before the pandemic, our client interactions were on a 50/50 ratio for physical and online, but the pandemic has made this impossible, especially for staff with pre-existing medical conditions. We have therefore moved all meetings and interactions online. For the first time, we have published the books for authors we have never physically met.

How are things on the ground where you are now? 

Sadly, I lost my mum to covid in January and have seen first-hand how destructive the disease is. Therefore, we are maintaining covid measures in all our business interactions, especially as Lagos is on the cusp of the third wave. We have encouraged all staff to get vaccinated in order to come back to the office and while we have started physical meetings and interactions, we have suspended all physical events till further notice.

What have you found most supportive and/or heart lifting in this time? 

What I’ve found most heart warming and uplifting in these times is the resilience of human beings and how in the deep dark times, we are still able to be creative. I am a judge and official publisher of the Beeta Playwright Competition, and we just finished reading the entries for the 4th edition of the play and the common theme for most plays was the pandemic. I am amazed at the myriad stories mined from it and how each ending offers hope and a light at the end of the pandemic tunnel.

How can our blog communities best support you?

Keep blogging about the creative arts. Keep blogging about books, the authors, publishers etc. But most importantly, be authentic and organic in the support you give creatives and not just get on bandwagons. Be supportive of businesses, publishers, authors, and creators like mine who create local organic stories and do not necessarily have the budgets of corporates and international organisations backing them.

Excerpts from Dear Alaere by Eriye Onagoruwa

Alhaji Wasiu is off work today. Thoughts of my blue patterned bed sheet illuminate my mind as I hesitate between taking an Uber or the yellow bus. I picture the dreary-looking passengers on the buses whom I have become accustomed to seeing on my drive home. I hop on a bus that seems in decent shape, comparatively. The yellow scraps are held together by four battered tires. Duct tape holds scraps of cardboard on the edges of windows. A handheld mirror serves as the driver’s side mirror, taped to fit the frame.

There are more standing passengers who hold on to the levers than those sitting on makeshift chairs. The air is a mix of stale sweat and bad breath. Luckily, I find a seat beside a full-bosomed woman who looks like she can feed several babies and still have some milk to spare. I try hard not to stare but other passengers are less discreet. A big-eyed man in a ragged suit ogles her chest, he starts a mundane conversation about the shape of the driver’s head. He keeps his eyes on her chest rather and seems not to notice her blotchy face and the garish pencil lines drawn in place of her eyebrows. She pays no attention and seems used to gazes from lecherous men. 

The conductor growls, “Sango bus-stop, get ready to jump!” 

The woman stands up and moves closer to the door as the bus slows down. As she prepares to jump out of the bus, the man’s gaze is still fixed on her melons. He cries after her with angst in his voice, “You mean you’re leaving me? So soon?” The bus driver revs and drives at full throttle while the lady and her melons fade away in the sooty smoke. 

Soon, a thick-set woman with an unnatural yellow complexion and dark knuckles appears and holds up a tube cream for the passengers to see. “You see this cream? It is called Zazako. Zazako is the number one tried and proven cream for impotency. How many men’s things have stopped functioning? Raise your hands! Don’t be ashamed. God sent me to you.” 

A number of men, seemingly fascinated at the thought of their libidos returning, raise their hands as if hypnotized. The woman rambles on, “If you rub Zazako twice daily, your thing go harrrrddd! Na your wife go beg you! E go stand kakaraka like baton. Na only one thousand naira. Buy am today and save your marriage. Save your affair with that fine girlfriend.” 

I laugh out loud until my sides hurt. She pays no attention to me as Zazako cream is exchanged for rumpled nairas. She counts them with an undisguised ingratiating smile. She puts the Zazako cream away and waves a slender container in the air. “This one is called Anamabia. It has wholesome goodness inside it for women whose wombs have never seen children. I have testimonies from at least five women who took it and were confirmed pregnant. It’s one a day for thirty days, to be taken first thing in the morning with warm water.” Buoyed by the success of Zazako, she cries even louder, “Raise your hands if you want liberation from barrenness. Don’t allow your mother-in-law to die without carrying her grandchildren in her hands.” She turns to me, “Buy it! Buy it! Delay is fatal.” There is a show of hands and then more hands. I feel her gaze and it digs a hole in my body. I don’t think Anamabia is the solution to my problem, but I do wonder for a few seconds about the veracity of her claims. This product costs one thousand, five hundred naira. She sits down and counts her money with the same ingratiating smile. Business is good today. 

The noise never stops. There is never a dearth of items to sell or topics to pontificate on. Another seller shows up. His potbelly is the size of a football and stretches his legs to look taller. In an authoritative voice, he tells us to surrender our lives to Jesus today. “If you go to bed without Christ, you may slip into the great beyond. That, my friends, is pure, unadulterated hell fire welcoming you. If you think living in Lagos is hell, my friends, that is just an appetizer. Raise your hands let me pray with you.” 

Again, there is a show of hands. Vacuous prayers are offered. He bellows in a voice louder than his call for salvation, “An offering bag is going around. If you have been blessed mightily as I’m sure you have, do well to bless this humble man of God in return. The first ten people to donate cheerfully will receive a divine visitation from God this night. God will be with all of you till heaven calls you.” The red velvet offering bag is full by the time it makes its way back to him. 

The bus conductor is soon heard in his gruff voice, “Pataki junction next. Get ready to jump out.” As the passengers jump off the bus, he slows down a little to allow more passengers on the bus. The bus driver announces, “Hold your change to avoid do-you-know-who-I-am! Na my first trip today! I don talk am — I no get change o.” 

The conductor stands on a lever with his head sticking out of the window as he bangs the side of the bus like a drum. The driver steps on his accelerator and the journey continues. I get off at the next bus stop and walk home. I got my money’s worth from today’s ride. 

Dear Diary, What a day! Pierre is back at work. ‘Bobo says the things that happen in Criole sound like real-life fiction. The incidents have a hyperbolic ring to them but sadly they are real. What eyes have not seen, nor ears heard are the order of the day in Criole. And what about that bus ride? The outside world must look at us with undisguised awe. We are easily swayed by any and everything — and the poor have it worse. Creams to cure impotency and untested pills are touted as the lasting panacea for the all too familiar health challenges we face. Prophetic merchants’ prey on the unsuspecting and as with most things, women are the most vulnerable.

Follow Paperworth Books Ltd on Twitter @PaperworthBooks

Categories: Conversations with - interview, dialogue, Q&A, Words on the Times

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