The Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2024: an interview with Olajide Omojarabi

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Olajide Omojarabi (Nigeria) is one of five shortlisted African authors for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2024. (Photo credit: Chioma Owhor)

The Commonwealth Short Story Prize is awarded annually for the best piece of unpublished short fiction from any of the Commonwealth’s 54 member states.

The stories on the 2024 shortlist were selected from a total of 7,359 entries. Small countries like Mauritius, Rwanda and St Kitts and Nevis have authors on the shortlist for the first time.

“Today, perhaps more than ever, it is storytelling that will help inspire the love, compassion and understanding that our world so desperately needs,” commented Dr Anne T. Gallagher AO, director-general of the Commonwealth Foundation.

Jannike Bergh conducted interviews with the shortlisted authors from Africa. Below is an interview with Olajide Omojarabi.

Hi there and congratulations on being shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize for “House no. 49”.

Could you tell me about your country and what you experience as story material in the country you are from – and why?

I am from Nigeria, the largest black nation in the world. A nation so widely populated with diverse tribes, cultures and traditions certainly provides material for building a fictitious world. Apart from its cultural excellence, the country has also experienced socioeconomic setbacks, both pre-independence and years after gaining freedom from colonial rule. First-generation Nigerian writers like Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka and Cyprian Ekwensi have used the country’s social and political challenges to create fictitious worlds as a form of protest against military juntas and democratic governments. As a writer, I draw inspiration from my country’s diversity to build a unique and believable world. In other words, I derive my story ideas from the way my people relate to one another – how they navigate their lives around the personal, political, social and economic difficulties they’re dealing with.

Could you tell us more about your short story, “House no. 49”,  and what inspired you to write this specific story?

My story is about five teammates who collectively pursue their dream of football stardom. Most young people in Nigeria want to play professional sport. Growing up, I saw many boys and girls give up so much to play top-flight football, which often didn’t work out as planned. To this day, it is still a dream widely chased on Nigerian streets and in underfunded football academies. I wrote this story to identify the struggles of these young people and let them know that their dreams are valid, regardless of the circumstances surrounding the pursuit of this career.

Do you think stories can make a difference? Tell me about a story you have read that you still think about.

Stories definitely have the power to make a difference. While I have read countless stories that remain with me long after I put them down, Tobias Wolff’s Bullet in the brain is one that I constantly think about. The way the world in this story was crafted, the protagonist’s worldview, the story’s pace and the narrator’s voice all made the piece highly memorable. 

What is the importance of being shortlisted for a prize like this?

Being shortlisted for a prize makes you feel hopeful about your art. It’s a message that pleasantly informs you that your writing is so highly effective that it has caught the eyes of an international panel of judges. Beyond this, the recognition fuels your passion and signals that you may be on the right career path.

As with many art forms, writing can be a solitary practice – perhaps the most solitary pursuit of them all; there is no stage, no gallery wall with an audience or a visible reaction from viewers. What is your writing process, and what do you typically do once you have finished a piece and sent it into the world?

I don’t have set rules for my writing. Sometimes I try to write in the morning in bed if inspiration strikes. Otherwise, I let whatever ideas come to me, build up in my head before putting down the first word. Once I send a piece out into the world, it ceases to be mine. I let the world welcome the story and interpret it however they deem fit.

Artificial intelligence is here – many creatives fear or resist it, while others embrace it and include it in their creative process. What are your thoughts on the matter?

Artificial intelligence should never be used in place of one’s creativity. The joy of every writer, I assume, is to see how the world relates to the material that the artist creates from their imagination. This is a feeling that writers would never experience if they employed the services of AI. While some writers may have used it for secondary purposes like editing, I still think the entire writing process is worth it when we see our work change from a rough first draft to a perfect final draft, through our own writing and rewriting and editing process. In the end, this makes the writing life a pleasure and a torture, and nothing is more fulfilling than this combination.

Also read:

Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2024: an interview with Jayne Bauling

Press release: 2024 Commonwealth Short Story Prize shortlists announced

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