By Anote Ajeluorou
Although it happened 41 years ago, the horrendous civil war that rocked the nation for 30 months six years after independence has continued to generate intense literary interest
ONE such addition to the body of literary works concerning the war is Tony Monye’s Between a Valley & a Plain (Oracle Books, Lagos; 2011). Although his first work, Monye’s novel shows remarkable maturity in its execution. Yet to be born when the war ravaged the South-Eastern part of the country like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (author of Half of a Yellow Sun, also about that war), Monye, a banker, largely sourced his raw materials from listening to stories told about the war by his elders.
From such intimate tales told by those who witnessed the war, Monye gleamed an undying passion behind the nation’s darkest period. As he confesses, “I am certain you’d be surprised when I say the inspiration came from one of the characters in the book – The Great Lion. Monye was once here on earth and it is the reason why I chose to leave his name unchanged. He was someone I heard his story during growing up years from my father and many uncles.
“Yes, Monye was the biggest inspiration behind the story. Apart from him, I also would say the environment and the many stories surrounding the darkest period of our national life – the Nigerian Civil War – spurred me. I just brought fictional characters like Chibia and the rest to make up a whole story. I have heard from readers who told me that I have chronicled their experiences during the war without realising it.
“However, I must say this – the book is not necessarily about the civil war. Unfortunately, over the years, we tend to know or care less about our country – its histories, important dates and events. The lessons from these events are yet to sink in as a result, and we repeat these mistakes all over”.
Interestingly, war and love have always been intertwining issues in literature over the ages. Monye’s story isn’t devoid of these conjoined extreme emotions as they play out in the lives of the protagonist in the work. For Monye, therefore, “These two ends always evoke strong emotions in man and I think to some extent it was some sort of struggle because I wanted the lines and the expressions of both emotions to come out quite well… So, when I talked about love, I put myself in the moods of lovers and when it was time for war, I imagine man at his worst emotions…
“The shared love between Chibia and Ijeoma; the affection between Ikenna and Kechi and the one even between Grandma and her grandson, Chibia. I guess the Civil War still evokes strong emotions in our country. I really think we, as a nation and as a group of people brought together by God, should move on. Let me make some confession; it wasn’t an easy swing journeying both ends. I tried hard to get the language right… It wasn’t that easy but I think I managed well”.
Writing, like every other art form, has long been established as a talent inherent in every individual, and therefore waiting to be brought to public light. Although a banker, Monye has managed to juggle the two, and the result is the manifestation of an explosive talent for writing, and which makes for a remarkable read: He enthuses, “It is the passion for writing. I always love to write. The desire to write Between a Valley & a Plain’ came out at the best moment. I never set out to do a huge book. I found myself punching the keyboard of my laptop… one page, the next and then another page. And, before I knew it, I thought I had something I could call a book.
“At first, I had many doubts but as the pages turned, belief began to set in. After a time, I just knew there was no going back. And, I am happy it paid off. But I always remind myself that I am an economist by training and God gave me the ability to string words together to form a sentence… and then, a book. On the other hand, I work in a bank. Writing and working in a bank are jobs I enjoy. I dreamt of being a banker as a child because I loved their smart dress code and here I am. I also dreamt of writing for the fun of it and here I am. See!
“The love of them drives the two of them. Combining both only meant that there would be many trade-offs – yes there were many. I let go social engagements and obligations. I angered friends and hurt family members – people I love most. I am hardly ever seen at such gatherings. Now, permit me to use this medium to apologise to friends, family and relatives… I fell short here for them. They happen to be my bedrocks. For they have consistently supported me… the sales so far have come from them. A friend buys a copy, he reads and buys for his own friends or he recommends it to another. It is just the same, too, with family members – they have been some huge form of support”.
Although Monye argues that he didn’t set out to teach any moral lessons, he nonetheless concedes, “If the essence of the book is brought out, anyone striving to move up the valley definitely has some tales to tell – the traumas, the pains, the agonies and the challenges of life of being at the bottom of the pyramid, the sacrifice and on the positive side, the determination, the denials, the discipline, the celebrations of little daily achievements and, above all, the support, goodwill and love of others”.
The banker and new author cannot fully express his pain at the sad turn of events regarding the flagging reading habits of Nigerians, which make writers endangered species. He, however, counts the passion associated with writing too strong a force to resist in spite of how gloomy the situation may be, saying, “Reading is not one of our favourite pastimes in this part of the world (anymore). It leaves a pain in the heart and a hole in my being. For me, reading is the best human activity second to none. President Goodluck Jonathan and the likes of Wole Soyinka are trying to get the nation to read again. I hope they succeed. I just wanted to write, and that’s all.
“For me, passion is one of the greatest drivers of most human achievements. So, I will say that the passion fed well into the drive and something good came forth. I took very conscious steps into the world of writers and creative writing not for pecuniary objective or motive but for self-fulfillment. But more strongly, I had a tale to tell…”.