Oris Aigbokhaevbolo on writing style and the death of criticism

Anyone who has ever met Oris Aigbokhaevbolo would tell you about his outspokenness, wit and difficult-to-pronounce last name. My first encounter with the award-winning critic was in 2015, when the Bantu-leading live music fiesta Afropolitan Vibes could still fit within the repurposed prison walls of Freedom Park, Lagos. It was my first time visiting the place, which had become a sort of haven for artists, who mix conversations about film, books and music with liquor and puffs of smoke. I was introduced to Aigbokhaevbolo, who was not left out, just after I looked up from the piece he had written in the festival’s 30th issue. I asked for the pronunciation of his last name, which he apparently doesn’t share at first contact.

“It is pronounced Ai-gbo-hai-wolo,” he says now. He’s opposite me on a navy blue couch in his apartment, where he recently relocated to in the suburbs of Yaba, Lagos. “I think the part that’s hard for everybody is the ‘vb’. In my language it is pronounced as something close to ‘w’. The ‘kh’ might be tricky too.” The “k” is somewhat silent. A bookcase nearly kissing the white ceilings, and already filled with books, is the only accompaniment for the blue couch in the room. A balcony visible just behind one of the floating curtains veiling the wide view in front begs for music and clinks of glasses to complete its 80’s throwback. And Aigbokhaevbolo’s countenance is that of someone steeped in the traditional and modern.

His journey to being a writer isn’t unlike that of many who schooled in Nigeria and had reasonably good grades in their formative years of education. He wanted to be an engineer and follow the footsteps of his father. His uncle thought he should study law, but his plans were thwarted by another who sold him medicine—concluding the triad of respectable Nigerian careers.

It was his English teacher, probably the only one able to catch a glimpse of the future, who had proposed a different path. Aigbokhaevbolo laughs as he remembers this. “She said I should study English but I’m Nigerian and I told her that I didn’t want to die broke, which is funny actually because now, look at me.”

He eventually studied Pharmacy at the University of Benin (UNIBEN). There, he recalls, from his 2nd or 3rd year, three publications changed the course of his life. “Two of them were books, one was a collection of interviews of writers by the Paris Review. The second volume [of the collection] had an interview with Ernest Hemingway that was so impressive, I just destroyed my life because of that.

“Two,” he continues, “I was reading TIME magazine a lot. I used to like the culture pages—their book, film and music reviews. The third was an anthology of short fiction. It had the greats: Scott Fitzgerald, Flannery O’Connor, Yukio Mishima. James Joyce, too. I think it also had Baldwin’s ‘Sonny’s Blues’. Within those three things, it just seemed to me like I had to do something about this.”

At the time, there weren’t too many people writing reviews—at least in the way he thought that they could be written—and much later, true to his resolve, he got a part time job as a culture writer for the first edition of Metropole, a lifestyle-cum-city guide magazine based in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja. Soon after, a trip to Nigeria’s economic capital, Lagos, inevitably followed. In 2014, after hearing about the film festival academies in Germany, South Africa and the Netherlands, he set to apply for all three. He got them all.

“I think it was foolish now but at the time it felt like a great big idea to take those three things happening in the same year as an endorsement,” he says, with a hint of solemnity in his voice.

In the midst of expected opposition from family, Aigbokhaevbolo has done well for himself. In 2015, he mentored film critics at the Durban International Film Festival. That same year, he became the first winner of the All Africa Music Awards prize for Music Journalism. For months after, he says his life was great. “My father actually sent a text saying ‘keep it up’ and my mum, too, felt the same way. I think for parents, they want the respect of having a doctor, or an engineer, and the knowledge that the kid can take care of herself without having to lean on them after they sent you to school.”

Aigbokhaevbolo is now well-established as a critic. In 2016, he was writer-in-residence at the island of Sylt, Germany. His essays, reportage, and reviews have been published in Chimurenga, the Africa Report, This is Africa, and the Guardian UK. But getting recognition and getting paid is not something he takes lightly. “I think, getting paid for writers is an ongoing problem, always,” he says.

“I’ll say the environment has changed a bit in the sense that there’s more awareness about criticism, which is a good thing. I used to say that part of the problem was that at the time my generation—that’s anyone born in the late 70’s to 90’s—grew, most people who consumed culture products—film, music, books, popular culture—were not particularly told or didn’t really know that people could exist whose major function is to write about or tell people that this is why a film or book is probably good or bad, and so in a way, the critic is an intruder.”

Oris is not wrong. Long before the internet became everything, one had to go to video stores once a movie was out to buy or rent. Then came street vendors in stalls and stands holding out CDs in stapled printed paper while music blared from speakers to attract passers-by. Conversations around movies rarely exceeded the stars and highlights, and with music and books, you just danced or read them. A trend which, Aigbokhaevbolo observes demurely, persists even with fast evolving technologies and easier access to a global audience.

“The critic in Nigeria has to find a way to be paid, which is incredibly sad because you’re supposed to be functioning on the other side of PR,” he said, gesticulating as if to enhance the grave importance of his words. “It’s tricky because media publications do not really want to pay a critic and in a sense, I can see why.

“Unless it’s a very good review, criticism is not the most directly connected thing to sales, and most artists just want sales, not an argument about quality. So how do you now make money as critic? The easy answer is that you don’t. I guess, which is why I encourage the critic to be a very good writer, and by that I mean you should be able to write anything. You should be able to write a profile, an interview, an essay or a memoir, but the problem is that because we do not have real training for writers, it means that many people do not have the ability to even write a decent review.

“If you started out like me, just wanting to comment on the world either via fiction, memoir, or reportage. It means that the basic thing you needed to learn was how to put sentences together. And if you could do that, you can translate that into other forms and identify opportunities to monetise.”

Aigbokhaevbolo’s point is clear. As a writer, you have to figure out how to get better. “Forget better, just be good at least,” he quips. With his upcoming workshop just around the corner, the critic wants to provide people with the tools to get good depending on the level they are.

“If you want to understand how you can imbue your writing with some kind of distinctiveness, which is what style is about, even if you write for pleasure for your blog, I want you to write it as well as you possibly can.”

He catches himself going on about the use of semicolons which he calls “a basic error” among writers of different capabilities in Nigeria, just before hanging this pet peeve on a declining educational system. “Maybe if people had someone to tell them directly how these things work, we can just avoid something like that.

“A part of my workshop actually is to just explain to people the structure of the review form. The review form is not quite the same thing as say a memoir, a regular essay or fiction, clearly. It’s not quite the same thing as an op-ed. You should spend some time talking about the synopsis, if you have a judgement you should know when to insert, and also be lively.

But sometimes it’s not only about writers. And given the quality of content emanating from the culture scene, the critic agrees with me. “Nollywood directors are killing film criticism,” he says.

“I think it’s because they’re not putting enough thought. You comment a lot on how bad an actor is acting a scene, the two leads have no chemistry, or the script has way too many clichés. You want to go beyond that as a writer who has to just get better with every material. If you have critics who are stuck writing about basic issues, it’s difficult to have them grow, either as writers or thinkers and that is what you need from your critics. Ideally it should be both.”

Aigbokhaevbolo, however, argues that despite the tendency to be stuck in a place where opportunities for growth is curtailed by the work delivered, there’s a need for the critic to be exemplary at least in his own space.

“What moral standing do you have to talk about a filmmaker/musician who is producing a bad script or terribly written song for instance, and you can’t take care of the fact that you cannot quite write or think well?”

I recall an incident in September last year when rapper Jude Abaga, a.k.a. MI lost his cool during a Loose Talk podcast hosted by the trio Osagie Alonge, Ayomide Tayo, and Steve Dede over what he argued was an improper review of his album.

“Even if you always wrote a negative/positive review and you give them something they can think about,” Aigbohkaevbolo continues, “you see that they cannot point to your ridiculous wrong use of a semicolon or comma, that’s how you build some form of respect. It’s necessary that you also read, of course. That’s the only reason why I think it defeating to equate mediocrity with mediocrity.”

The motivation for those who do excellently, however, may just be left to personal achievements because of the lack of a credible critical and awarding system in Nigeria. “I mean, it will be difficult to say a book has critical acclaim in Nigeria because who exactly are the critics and publications that have accorded the said acclaim?”

Aigbohkaevbolo speaks of starting up a critics association in Nigeria. The legal part is done and he expresses hope that a bigger organization can fund some of the things lined up.

Before he went to South Africa in 2014, and after then, there have been two or three other Nigerian critics who have gone to the talent campus in Durban. He tells me of his hope to inspire better writers and critics, especially film critics, as platforms like Nollywood get better and more exposure. “We have to have people who are thinking, writing and commenting on these films regularly,” Aigbokhaevbolo says. “If we can do a bit more work, workshops, and more people get foreign encounters, maybe in five years we might be able to have a decent body.”

Oris Aigbokhaevbolo is organizing a workshop for writers in Lagos, Nigeria, on 25 and 26 August. You can apply here.