Sunday, 21 August 2011

Garden City Literary Festival Is Fast Becoming A Destination For Intellectual Tourism, Says Kalango

By Anote Ajeluorou

In the past four years, the Garden City Literary Festival (GCLF) has gradually made a name for itself as one destination point for literary activities in Nigeria. As this year’s festival date draws close (September 12 – 17, 2011), preparation are heightened at the Rainbow Book Club company, organisers of GCLF. Its chief executive, Mrs. Koko Kalango, who is currently holidaying in the Caribbean, made out time to field some online questions on this year’s festival and how the festival theme ‘Literature and Politics’ bears out the relationship between the writer and his society

You have organised a literary festival in the past four years. What has been your experience so far?
  When the Executive Governor of Rivers State, the Rt. Hon. Chibuike Rotimi Amaechi, sent for me in 2008 and gave me the assignment to organise an international literary festival, I had no idea what I was getting into. Nevertheless, it has been a challenging and rewarding experience; challenging because I had never organised an event on this scale and I had no example to follow.
  But, since we began, I have attended the London Book Fair and, on a British Council sponsorship, the Edinburgh International Book Festival and I have been encouraged that we are on the right path. It is rewarding when one gets feedback from participants. There is, for instance, a young man in Port Harcourt, Annah Dornubari, whom, after taking part in one of our workshops, got inspired and published a poetry anthology titled Tears for Ogoni.
  He has won recognitions including one by the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA). Ochogwu Abbas Onoja is another example. Onoja, a law student at the Plateau State University, got spotted by Prof. Wole Soyinka at the maiden edition of the Garden City Literary Festival (GCLF). With Soyinka’s help, Onoja represented Nigeria at Ghana’s Legon University where 90 Debaters from 30 nations converged for the preliminaries of the World Debate Institute. He emerged as one of the four best speakers from the continent and the first Nigerian to qualify for the World Final International Tournament.
  At the grande finale in London, where 170 universities from around the world took part, Onoja was acknowledged for his oratory skills and returned home to a hero’s welcome. He was received by his State Governor and on behalf of President Yar a’dua by the then Minister for Education. In 2009, Kyle Wanberg, an American student from the University of California, who was writing his doctorate on Nigerian Literature, came all the way to attend.
  Therefore, the GCLF provides a forum where we discover, nurture and promote literary talents. It is also becoming a destination for intellectual tourism.
What particular challenges do you face yearly in putting the festival together? And how did you overcome them?
  Putting together an event of this magnitude takes tremendous logistics and planning. I am blessed with a great team who go beyond the call of duty to ensure we deliver a good festival each year. The greatest work is the brainwork and I enjoy that. Once I am able to conceptualise the event and articulate a plan in my mind, I download to my team, get them to see what I see and we play out the script.
You have worked with various writers from various parts of the world. How has this enriched the content of the festival?
  Indeed, we have hosted writers such as Kenya’s Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Ghana’s Koffi Awonoor and American writer Petrina Crockford. This year we expect Ama Atta Aidoo from Ghana, Ms Lisa Combrink from South Africa and Mr. Ilyas Tunc from Turkey. Having writers from other parts of the world participate opens up the festival, making it not just a local or national event, but an international one. It gives our writers an opportunity to rub minds with their counterparts from other cultures, providing a forum for intellectual intercourse that would lead to the birth of ideas for the betterment of society.
Writers, like most artists, are sometimes difficult to work with. Have you had any untoward experience in relating with them?
  In every human relationship there is bound to be friction, an event like this is no exception. But I think I have come to understand what I call ‘the temperament of the artist’ so I am never really taken by surprise. We want to believe that with wisdom and maturity, we are able to scale through any rough patches.
The theme of this year’s festival is ‘Politics and literature’. What informed the theme, and in what way is it timely given Nigeria’s democratic experience in the last 12/13 years?
  We felt that literature in general, but especially African literature, is, in some broad sense, always aware of, or even concerned with, politics. The earliest African writing - and I'd go back to Olaudah Equiano's narratives - was interested in the big political issues of its time. African writers have focused on political and moral issues as slavery, colonization and other exploitative practices, disparities between different nations as well as between different sectors of given societies and, increasingly in recent times, environmental matters. Literature offers us some of the most insightful, subtle and complex ways of looking at political issues.
  The choice of the theme of ‘Literature and Politics’ is clearly pertinent to our current efforts to define our society, set ourselves new goals or ways of achieving old aspirations, and also to deepen our democratic culture. Writers have a lot to say about this ongoing effort to realize our deepest national dreams and to create a society that gives each citizen a sense of belonging and humane fulfilment.
Who are the principal guests at this year’s festival and in what direction would their presence influence the festival?
  Our keynote address would be delivered by Prof. Chinua Achebe. He would, however, do that via video conferencing, as he will be unable to attend in person. Other main speakers are Rev. Jesse Jackson, who would be addressing us on “The African Struggle for Democracy: Lessons from the American Civil Rights Movement".
  Also, Amma Atta Aidoo would speak to us on "Gender Spaces in African Politics and Literature". Invited to discuss politics and the Niger Delta are Ken Wiwa, Chimeka Garricks, Michael Peel (author of A Swamp Full of Dollars, an insightful expose on the Niger Delta militancy). Intellectuals such as Prof. Molara Ogundipe-Leslie and Prof. Maduka of the University of Port Harcourt would also be on hand to tackle discussions around the theme.
Right now only a few invited guests visit the festival from abroad. What efforts are you making to position GCLF as a global festival of ideas?
  We are growing the Garden City Literary Festival to become the number one literary gathering on the African continent. We believe that with the quality and variety of its different components, the calibre of writers we invite and the topical issues we tackle, GCLF would truly become a global festival of ideas. Already, we are being contacted by people from other countries who are interested in attending.
  Also, our visit to the London Book Fair and the Edinburgh International Book Festival presented an opportunity to network with people doing similar work in other countries. In Edinburgh, for instance, I met Elizabeth Weinstein, who works at the PEN American Center in New York. So this year, I was excited when PEN Nigeria approached us to partner.
  We are also taking full advantage of social media: facebook, twitter, You-tube and our World Wide Web ( and, to create awareness for the festival.
Are there plans to seek or source partnerships, local or international, for its onward march?
  Working with partners is an important part of our strategy. Our main partners are the Rivers State Government and the University of Port Harcourt. Sponsorship partners have been SHELL and TOTAL and Le Meridian, Ogeyi Place. Other partners include the Reading Association of Nigeria, the British Council, the Alliance Francaise and the Association of Nigerian Authors. This year, PEN International, the oldest organized body of writers worldwide, comes on board.
The Garden City Literary Festival has grown these many years. But how can it be made to truly be a grassroots festival to attain its objective of deepening literacy in the country?
  We realise that before we can take the festival to the world, we would have to gain strong roots at home. I would say our impact is primarily grassroots and our host society benefits the most from the variety of events that the festival presents: A book fair, interaction with authors, book readings, forums where upcoming writers can read from their works, talent hunt, drama presentations and so much more.
  The visioner of this event and governor of Rives State, the Rt. Hon. Rotimi Amaechi, has also promised to build a model, world-class library in the state. This is a fall out of this festival and it would put books at the reach of the inhabitants of Port Harcourt.
You organisation Rainbow Book Club has been campaigning to get Nigerians reading again. There are some who would argue that the campaign seems elitist in nature. How can millions of other Nigerians truly benefit?
  On the contrary, the majority of the students we have worked with over the seven years of our running the ‘Get Nigeria Reading again!’ campaign have been from public schools. For instance, whenever we have taken role models (like Governor Amaechi, Governor Fashola, etc.) to read to children, we always go to public schools.
  Our strategy in the first seven years was to raise an alarm, to draw attention to the lack of a reading culture and the high cost we would pay as a people if we do not read, hence we enlisted the support of high profile authors and other members of society. To an extent, I think we have succeeded. The next step is to implement our plan to sustain a reading culture; that is why we have been advocating for the establishment of libraries across the nation. We are working on another very interesting project, which we plan to enfold by World Book Day in 2012.
Rivers State Government has been a keen supporter of the festival. How can other bodies be persuaded to come to the aid of the arts? In other words, how can the arts be sellable? What are the drawbacks in being able to sell the arts for sponsorship or support?
  I must commend Governor Rotimi Amaechi for coming up with the idea for this festival and his support in general for the arts. Perhaps, our greatest impediment to marketing the arts to the moneybags is that we, artists, are not business people. I would recommend that artists enlist the help of business-minded people to scout for funds at a commission!
  That way we all win!

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