Re-Imagining the Niger Delta Region and Its Literature: An Interview with Dr Sophia Obi, the Author of Tears in A Basket

Dr Sophia Obi is one of the creative voices speaking on the Niger Delta questions through imaginative literature in our time. She is a prolific writer who has deployed her creative writing skills to raise salient issues that border on the plights of the Niger Delta region. I was privileged to speak to this amazing Amazon and Jewel of the Delta recently and was intrigued by most of the answers she gave to the questions I put to her. I am glad to share with you her thoughts on Niger Delta issues and the role of literature and Niger Delta writers in bringing to reality the dreams and aspirations of the Niger Deltans. I began by asking her some personal questions, to which she gave clipped but intelligent responses.

Dr Eyoh Etim: Could you tell us about your background: birth, parentage, origin, family, education, work?

Dr Sophia Obi: Wow, this is a compact question. I am Sophia Obi, from Ogbia Local Government Area in Bayelsa State, Nigeria. I was born 4+ decades ago and I have seven siblings. I’m a Poet, Dramatist, Journalist and a Civil Servant, currently with the Ministry of Information, Orientation and Strategy, Bayelsa State. I have a PhD in Dramatic Theory and Criticism, University of Port Harcourt, Rivers State.  

Dr Eyoh Etim: When and how did you discover your love for writing?

Dr Sophia Obi: I can’t tell when my journey as a writer started, but I recall that during my secondary school days, I would always mimic musicians (like the Boney M ladies), the few actors we watched and those female newscasters in the 80s like; Ruth Benamaisia, Siene Allwell-Brown, Abike Dabiri and others. Most times I would write a song, story or just anything and my siblings and I would act them out.

I recall that during my NYSC days in Niger State, I wrote the play we took to Kaduna State for our drama competition and we emerged third. Even then, I never attached importance to writing until in 2002 when a renowned writer, an extract from the Niger Delta, Bayelsa State to be precise, Mr. Nengi Josef Illagha, saw one of my writings and commented that I wrote with a great deal of imagination and passion. He gave me a few tips on writing and, because of that, I became conscious of my works and started compiling them. That was how I published my first collection of poems, Tears in a Basket, in 2006. Since then, I’ve never stopped writing.

Dr Eyoh Etim: What is your social vision as a writer?

Dr Sophia Obi: My vision is to create characters and imagery that portray society for what it should be from what it is. Usually, my characters and situations are plausible, with the aim of imparting objectively to all and sundry.

Dr Eyoh Etim: How does it feel like to be a female poet in the Niger Delta?

Dr Sophia Obi: Well, I feel normal just like any other writer in different parts of the world; sometimes I am influenced by my cultural milieu, which I think is natural. So being a female does not make a difference. I only capture the fears, hopes, aspirations of my people and happenings in my immediate environment.

Dr Eyoh Etim: Who is your role model in Literature and criticism?

Dr Sophia Obi: I have the likes of Dr. Gabriel Okara, Maya Angelou and Joyce Meyer, even though she is not a fictional writer. What really inspires me about their works, is their ease and freedom of expression.

Dr Eyoh Etim: What are your views on Nigerian Literature?

Dr Sophia Obi: I must say Nigerian writers are really up to the task in the literary world, by winning awards too with our stories. We tell the Nigerian experiences, share our cultures and even the ones based abroad like Ben Okri, Nduka Otiono, Michael Afenfia, Chimamanda Adichie and the likes, vividly paint our stories. However, I would like that we adapt more of historical stories, more of our traditions and names; like what Ola Rotimi did with Akassa You Mi and Ovonramwen Nogbaisi and Ahmed Yerima’s The Trials of Oba Ovonramwen, use more of our books in schools to preserve our cultures.

Dr Eyoh Etim: What informed the writing of Tears in a Basket?

Dr Sophia Obi: Tears in a Basket is an epiphany of the so many struggles within and outside the human race. There were too many feelings birthed from my experiences and observations struggling within to express themselves and once I aligned with my muse, there was no holding back. So in Tears in a Basket, I let my emotions loose on issues of love, rage and desires.

Dr Eyoh Etim: Why is Oloibiri a significant geographic in the Niger Delta poetic narrative?

Dr Sophia Obi: Oloibiri, in Bayelsa State, where oil was first discovered in commercial quantity and exported in 1956, stands as a microcosm of the Niger Delta region. It is a situation of the golden goose of Nigeria, yet wallowing in poverty. A situation where what is given to the region is not commensurate with the so much extracted from the region; thus, most persons have become greedy, struggling to get the little that comes to the region and attention drawn away from taking care of the environment that depletes daily. So, lives are affected, sources of livelihood affected, yet the region keeps giving. Hence, the agitations and cry for resource control. For sure if there is equity, it would be rare to steal from where wealth and resources are evenly shared.

Dr Eyoh Etim: Would you say that Tears in a Basket has received the critical attention it deserves?

Dr Sophia Obi: Hmmm, Tears in a Basket has had many reviews, especially on the Niger Delta question, but there are other didactic issues waiting to be dissected and implemented to better our situations. So Tears in a Basket is still open for all to explore. . . 

Dr Eyoh Etim: Do you also think that the realities in the Niger Delta have been succinctly represented across the genres of literature? If not, what do you think needs to be done?

Dr Sophia Obi: Not really, when it comes to Niger Delta Literature, most of us are romanticising the problems of the region. We should explore the genres to tell more vivid stories that spell out the oil thieves and what should be done to them without fear or favour. We should be bold in our writings to point fingers at those destroying the environment, those aiding corruption and all activities inimical to the growth of the region.

Dr Eyoh Etim: Do you think that the war waged by Niger Delta writers have yielded the much-needed fruits? Or do we have more work to do? If yes, what is to be done?

Dr Sophia Obi: Niger Delta writers are really trying, but we need to seriously define the goals of the Niger Delta Literature, which to me, amongst others, is to underscore the facts that most of our problems are within. It is a situation of “dog-eat-dog.” In a bid to proffer solutions to problems of the region, our representatives must wake up to their responsibilities, they are not elected to satisfy their selfish desires or add to the sufferings of the people; and we must capture these in our literary works. Aside that, we should also explore the movie industry and means of performances, with balanced stories, to create the right effects both home and abroad. 

Dr Eyoh Etim: Comment on your perception of Ken Saro-Wiwa and what the upcoming writers should learn from his activism.

Dr Sophia Obi: I admired the bold and resilient nature of Ken Saro-Wiwa. His activism was against environmental degradation of Ogoni land and the formation of MOSOP was for the plea for justice, yet he was killed by the Abacha junta. And looking back from 1995 to date, has the situation of Ogoni land or the Niger Delta changed?  Let’s not forget the likes of Isaac Adaka Boro, the forerunner for justice and resource control in the Niger Delta. They fought with a sincerity of purpose. Hence, I urge upcoming writers to invest sincerity and vigour in their works. After all, Edward Bulwer-Lytton said, ‘the pen is mightier than the sword.’ The continuous presentation of well-researched ideas would take us somewhere someday.    

Dr Eyoh Etim: You recently released a new book entitled Sleaze Game (A One-Act Play). Tell us about it.

Dr Sophia Obi: Sleaze Game depicts some anomalies adverse to the communal growth in Pulouama (Oil Community) and Pulu State (Oil State), both representing the Niger Delta Region and the Nigerian society as a whole. There are themes like greed and corruption emanating from bunkering, pipe-line vandalism, kidnapping, marginalisation and other prevailing vices caused and aided by the very people crying about inequality. The play also has themes of honesty and humility; depicting that it is high time we stopped blaming foreigners or the multinational companies for our predicaments. Rather, if we need genuine change in the region, we should look inward to change the status quo; by restructuring the system, sincerely fight corruption at all levels; irrespective of whom the gavel will falls on.     

Dr Eyoh Etim: How does the creative writing process work for you? How do you find time and resources to write and publish?

Dr Sophia Obi: Well for me, my muse is triggered to write every day, at anywhere or place. Being a journalist has really helped my literary works. I am greatly influenced by my vicinity, just everything and anything (sounds, a word, feelings, and occurrences around me, just anything) could prompt an imagination. I am influenced by books and movies. I’m equally intrigued by queer characters; but in all, I prefer reading and writing in the wee hours. I also ensure my works go through several hands before publication.  

For publishing, most writers in this clime self-publish because most publishing firms are scared to bear the cost of production, due to poor reading culture, book piracy, high cost of production, added to this era of e-books. So how do they make profit? Well, for me I plan towards publishing my works and marketing them and so far it is working for me.     

Dr Eyoh Etim: How many books do you aim to write in your lifetime?

Dr Sophia Obi: Hmmm, this futuristic question is anchored on God’s grace. For now, I have published Tears in a Basket (Poetry, 2006), Floating Snags (Poetry, 2009), Echoes in the Heart (Poetry, 2022), Broken Pearls (Short Stories, 2013), Small Madam (Short Stories, 2022), Sleaze Game (Drama, 2023) Maxims on Marble 101 (Inspirational, 2022), The Flipsides (Inspirational, 2023), amongst other articles, stories and poems published online, journals and anthologies.

Dr Eyoh Etim: Many people aspire to be writers without getting to fulfill their dreams. What would your advice be to these people, especially to the aspiring female writers in Nigeria?

If you have the urge to write, please start writing. Start by picking a topic that tickles your interest, and allow your ideas flow until you exhaust them. Editing could come later. Put the excuses of ‘there is no time’, ‘I am scared of criticism’ or ‘making mistakes’ aside. At the initial stages, do not worry about the genre of your work or the volume, naturally, it will sort itself. Just keep writing as you are urged or inspired and feel free to share your works with literary expert. 

Dr Eyoh Etim: It has been my pleasure talking to you tonight, Dr Sophia Obi.

Dr Sophia Obi: My pleasure as well. Have a blessed night.

Dr Eyoh Etim: Good night.

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