Monday, May 20, 2024

Azu Ishiekwene: What’s in a book? You’ll never know, until…

What is in a book is the thing that might just change your life; but you’ll have to read it to find it.

• May 6, 2024
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Earlier this week, I teased on my social handle about my encounter with a deity. Of course, not in the sense that one might meet a deity in the groove of a village forest.

Yet, those who have met this man—who know him—might agree that Sam Amuka, fondly called Uncle Sam, is a deity of sorts. The trail that forged the seasons of his career goes back many decades to his years at Daily Times which at its prime, was Africa’s leading journalism shrine.

On Sunday I went to see Uncle Sam, to talk about my new book, ‘Writing for Media and Monetising It’. I had dispatched a copy to him in advance, but the ritual would be incomplete without a libation.

So, I took along an extra copy and went to his Anthony Lagos residence, where he has lived like a regular Joe for many decades. As I waited for him upstairs on the balcony of his house, I glanced back and forth between the Sunday newspapers strewn on a cane table, and a silver tray with a big flask, teacups, a box of Lipton and assorted teas, a bottle of honey, skimmed milk and over a dozen of packets of Kemps cracker biscuits. 

It wasn’t long before Uncle Sam emerged from the corridor, his imminent presence announced by the barking of a puddle that first accosted me when I climbed the stairs. The puddle was not here when I visited a few years ago.

“Superstar!” Uncle Sam teased, as he came out.

I replied, smiling, that 88 was good on him. He corrected me: “I’m 89!” He then tore a packet of Kemps crackers and sat on the bed-shaped cane chair to my right, waving the young man who had followed behind to make him some tea. 

The young man took out two Lipton tea bags, and after pouring hot water from the flask went on to add not one or two, but I think three teaspoons of honey. Then, he grabbed the tin of skimmed milk. I looked at Uncle Sam, thinking the young man was mistaken and expecting he would ask him to stop. He didn’t. Instead, he looked approvingly, even expectantly, munching his Kemps.

At 59, in my obsession to live a long, healthy life, only God knows how many things I have given up. I can’t remember the last time I used any sweetener, gluten-free or not, for my tea or pap, much less milk. I was puzzled to see an 89-year-old man having his tea not just with plenty of honey but also topping the brew with spoonsful of milk. 

Uncle Sam smiled as he took the steaming teacup from the young man, stirred it gently, and took a sip. As if to create the perfect ambience for his refreshment, he turned on music stored in a flash drive that was plugged into a player. 

“You don’t know I’m called Daddy DJ?” he joked in response to my puzzled look.

Sam Amuka, I know. Uncle Sam, I know. Who doesn’t? He is the Jimmy Breslin of Nigeria’s journalism. Writing about Breslin, who died seven years ago at 88, Tom Wolfe described him as, “The greatest columnist of my era.” And that, from Wolfe, a master of the craft in his own right, says a lot. 

In a tribute to Breslin, The Guardian wrote that he was the champion of the trials and troubles of the ordinary people in New York, noting that “he filled his columns with gangsters and thieves, whom he knew first-hand from drinking in the same bars. He told stories that smacked of blarney behind their anger.”

And Breslin himself once said, “Rage is the only quality which has kept me, or anybody I have ever studied, writing for newspapers.” That was Sad Sam, the tempered version of which we now know as ‘Uncle Sam’.

But ‘Daddy DJ?’ 

I was meeting him in that incarnation for the first time this Sunday morning. Yet, it made no difference. I could see a common thread of empathy and humanity binding the three persons in one man. I was happy and comfortable to share the story of my new book, in-between sips of my own tea—sugarless, milk-less—and yes, also in-between mouthfuls of Kemps cracker biscuits which I had not tasted for a very long time.

I did not start out to write a self-help book. As my career as a journalist crossed the 35-year mark and I inch closer to the sixth floor of life, it became increasingly difficult to ignore suggestions to share my experience in a more permanent form. I’ve been writing for the media since I was 22 and even managed to write a book on Nigeria’s anti-corruption war in 2008. But the urge to share more has increased. 

In yielding, I wondered what I could do differently. In recent times, I have been invited by universities and professional groups to speak on the challenges facing journalists and young writers, especially in light of the extraordinary explosion in the use of artificial intelligence in the workplace, at school and at home. 

Decades after TIME magazine famously predicted that journalism could be on its death throes and it turned out that the death was exaggerated, the technology appears to have sparked the second panic wave. 

So what? I thought perhaps it might be useful to combine my speaking experiences with decades of writing a weekly column now enriched in both audio and visual formats to serve the needs of a younger generation of content providers, especially students and those in the earlier stages of their writing career, trying to find their way. And not just trying to find their way – but also, trying to earn some extra money or attract value, while doing so.

The book title clearly suggests a media bias – media here meaning traditional and social media. That is deliberate as audiences in these areas are my primary focus. Whether you are still in school, just starting out on a writing career path or are, in fact, in the middle levels of your career, you would find this book useful. 

It draws not only on my personal experience – struggles and triumphs – I also interviewed professionals across age brackets who generously shared their experiences with me.

For me, writing this was like walking back through the years of my career, beginning from when there was even no career but just the dream to become a writer someday, to my schools when I was formally introduced to the craft, through many changes along the way, a good number of which I didn’t even see coming. 

You don’t have to wear my shoes or tread my path. But this book is a good guide for common obstacles many literary content providers face in the new world as they try to find their own way.  

I set out to do an online course largely on journalistic writing for value, not to write a book, but ended up with a resource that will benefit a much larger variety of audiences than I had envisaged. 

Uncle Sam listened patiently. When I finished, he asked one question, with a worried look: “How will you get this book out, and get people to read it?”

No easy answer. Research increasingly suggests declining interest in reading, especially among younger populations. I replied that I did what I could to make the book simple, anecdotal and relatable. 

“I’m hoping,” I told Uncle Sam, “that young people would see something of themselves in my stories and the stories of others across a generational spectrum and from it, chart their own course.” 

He didn’t seem fully persuaded, but he was in earnest for me – for us – to find a way. 

How can one claim to be a journalist, for example, without reading Peter Enahoro’s ‘You’ve Gotta Cry to Laugh’, Babatunde Jose’s ‘Walking a Tightrope’ or Alade Odunewu’s ‘Allah De’? Or even the more recent ‘Battlelines: Adventures in Journalism and Politics’ by Olusegun Osoba, to mention a few?

What is in a book is the thing that might just change your life; but you’ll have to read it to find it. On that, deities whether in journalism, carpentry, medicine or the good old craft of fortune-telling, might agree.

Ishiekwene is Editor-in-Chief of LEADERSHIP

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