Students of Government Senior College Maroko and Ilado Community Senior Secondary School visited the ZODML Community Library on October 30 to meet Kaine Agary, author of the award-winning novel Yellow-Yellow, for October’s Senior Secondary Reading Programme (SSRP) session. Her book, which won the NLNG Nigeria Prize for Literature in 2008 and the 2007 ANA/Chevron Prize for Environmental Writing, deals with various issues affecting the Niger Delta region, including environmental degradation, poverty, and a lack of social amenities. Agary, an Isoko from Delta State, was born in America and moved to Nigeria at 10 months old. She was raised in Port Harcourt, the capital of Rivers State. Her grandparents bought her books and instilled in her a love for reading at an early age. Agary never intended to be a creative writer, but after receiving a Master’s in Public Policy and carrying out in-depth research on the Niger Delta crises, she seized the opportunity to put these issues in the spotlight. Yellow-Yellow was first published as a short story for friends and family, but a cousin encouraged her to make it into a novel for a wider audience. Agary, who is also a lawyer, writes a weekly column in The Punch called “The Pocket Lawyer” through which she attempts to improve the legal literacy of Nigerians by shedding light on various human rights issues.
At the beginning of the session, Agary asked the students if they enjoyed reading Yellow-Yellow. Although they all answered in the affirmative, they expressed some discontent with its conclusion, which they had found unsatisfying. Agary asked them to share how they thought it should have ended, and the students were enthusiastic about coming up with alternative endings and in discussing their favourite characters in the novel were. The author encouraged them to hold onto their excitement about books, saying that “reading broadens your mind, opens your world, heightens your adventures and takes you places you’ve never been.” Agary also read her favourite passage of the book aloud to her students. During the question and answer session which followed the discussion of her novel, one student asked Agary how she could control her imagination, as her friends found her stories “dumb” or strange. Agary advised her to embrace her imagination, as well as to find an encouraging editor and readers. She also shared that she, too, faced challenges with her work: in the process of writing Yellow Yellow, she encountered writer’s block and limited time to dedicate to writing, which often made her discouraged. Another student asked Agary to tell them about Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Ogoni writer, businessman, and activist who was executed for treason by the Abacha regime in 1995. Saro-Wiwa brought global attention to the environmental destruction resulting from by the Shell Oil Company’s activities in the Niger Delta. Coincidentally, the anniversary of his sentencing to death by hanging fell on the same day as the SSRP session. Agary also asked the students to maintain open minds regarding their future professions as she had done (an economics and sociology student during her undergraduate years, she only recently considered pursuing law). Towards the end of the session, three students – Robinson Emmanuel, Pius Daniel and Eze Chinonyerem Thelma – had their extensions of Yellow-Yellow’s ending (which they had worked on at school) selected as the top three from the group. The three students each read their continuations aloud, and the author was called upon to judge the strength and creativity of their writing. Robinson Emmanuel was picked as the winner, while Eze Chinonyerem Thelma came second, and Pius Daniel came third. All three were given gifts as a reward for their hard work. After taking pictures with Agary, each student was presented with a take-home gift, which included Cyprian Ekwensi‘s Motherless Baby, a ZODML-branded T-shirt, and writing materials. After this, Nkechi Nwoji, ZODML’s Chief Librarian, took the students on a tour of the library and signed them up to become members of ZODML’s Community Library.