Monday, October 10, 2011

Tosin Otitoju Interview, Part I

Here is the first part of a just-finished written interview with Tosin Otitoju. I first came across one of her blogs thanks to a mutual liking of Euripides' The Trojan Woman (415 B.C.). In the blink of an eye, years have gone by -- so, before yet another year zooms by, here goes . . .

Erik's Choice (EC): You proceeded from a very successful stint at Queens College, Lagos, Nigeria, to Howard University in Washington, DC, USA. How old were you when you set out for Howard University? How did you adjust to the move?

Tosin Otitoju (TO): 1997 - I was 16. (Although I first went to HU in 1996 for a summer program in Electrical Engineering - departed right after Secondary school graduation on June 30) I was a worker-bee, so excited to have luxury and "opportunities." I guess my math was very good too and my school was very supportive. I'm sort of lucky it worked out so well at HU: challenging enough - I had to learn computing, African American history, etc., but with enough success -- straight As until senior year (after the grad school applications, the huge senioritis drop-off), good friends and Friday night movies (though I often slept through was sooo tired), internships . . . to keep me interested. Sometime in freshman year, the response to my preliminary application at MIT floated finally to my parents in Nigeria. (They screened international applicants with a small application first). So dad was on the phone like: should we do your MIT application? And I truly wasn't interested, I was like, I already have friends here. Hi Mike Zipf, Ani Onuorah, Lala Spiller . . . (Significant not just because I liked a highly-ranked school but because for years one huge MIT catalogue -- 1979 or so -- had been my window into the world of grown up education).

EC: You were awarded a Poincaré Fellowship at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), where you were a doctoral student and completed a master’s degree in engineering (Control and Dynamical Systems); you also acted in five plays there. Since returning to Nigeria, you’ve been teaching and have written two poetry volumes. How did you plunge into the arts by way of engineering, and how do you blend them?

TO: Was it five plays? Ok. I was drawn to one rehearsal, I drifted into the auditorium, and luckily Shirley Marneus let me stay. I really see the value of my theater education. I believe the standard Caltech education is highly deficient; utterly strong in a few selected ways. So I'm glad in the end I didn't run away from theater in the name of doing the right thing. I would be quite illiterate now, though way sharper in some ways. I miss Math, miss not being as good as I could be, but hope there's time to learn. Again, good call, Tosin. I'm doing a scene from The Misanthrope with some kids here. I really feel unqualified to direct even one scene, but like any good teacher I'll get the kids to do it themselves - we'll pick a director/directing team lol. I really really like acting; I guess I like the director telling me what to do, in real life don't try telling me what to do. But I let directors.

I can't wait to try some engineering/applied math research now that I know something about creativity and can guide my own work better. Then also there's social change, and how to force some of this "brilliance" to move the world in new, better directions. I don't have the luxury of hyperspecializing through my life, and I'm lucky to really bloody enjoy the challenge.

EC: Your first book (Comrade) is part of the Kraftgriots poetry series published by Kraft Books, Ltd., Ibadan, Oyo State, Nigeria. What is the Nigerian publishing scene like?

TO: Growing. Growing big time. But you wouldn't recognize it -- mostly self-financed publishing, no distribution. But I was delighted to find communities, readings, and such. Tolu Ogunlesi's answer: printing, not publishing, describes the state . . . [Here's a link].  But Nigeria's so dynamic, check again in one year.

EC: Comrade is divided into five sections: Government, Struggle, Haiku, Music, Childhood. Did these cluster organically or did you deliberately write poems shaped for each section, and in this order?

TO: Mostly Clustered. Wait a minute, yes, mostly. But I remember trying to do more "Childhood" poems, or more "America", more this section and that. Then in the end, I had more than ten sections then I met my publisher advised splitting the collection somehow. So Comrade got five sections. Yalla gets 4. And so on. Thank you for reminding me of the process.

To be continued . . .  One of Tosin's blogs is here
Comrade can also be ordered via Amazon.

Today's Rune: The Self.  


Charles Gramlich said...

Interesting. always fun to read about a literary movement that I know very little about. Sounds like exciting times.

Cloudia said...

you introduce us to such interesting folks!

Warm Aloha from Honolulu;

Comfort Spiral

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t said...

P.s. Here is Part Two

Thanks Erik!