Our assistant editor, Uchenna Emelife, posed five questions to all the authors shortlisted for the 2023 edition of the Isele Prizes. The questions stretch from their writing processes, to the themes they are most drawn to, their inspirations, and more.

See Adedayo Agarau’s responses below. Also, read his essay, “Short Essay on Music”.

Uchenna Emelife: Could you talk about your shortlisted essay, its writing process, and what informed it?

Adedayo Agarau: I am profoundly honored and deeply humbled to be shortlisted for this esteemed recognition. “Short Essays on Music” serves as a compendium of memories, an anthology of intimate reflections, each essay a card delicately dealt from the deck of my most treasured memories. Through the evocative medium of these succinct yet potent musings, I traverse the intricate labyrinth of my cherished memories, guided by the mellifluous notes of music and the emotive power it holds over the body.

Within the confines of this essay, I find myself pondering and reexamining themes that are at once universal and deeply personal—separation, distance, absence, and the carnal dance of desire that weaves its way through us—consider a line from the essay, Twenty-One Pilots’ Car Radio was playing as we had sex. A distinct thread woven throughout my literary oeuvre is the intimate relationship I maintain with music—the remarkable manner in which I can pinpoint a story evoked by the notes of a song, how a single, poignant lyrical phrase has the power to transport me to a defining moment, forever etched in my consciousness, or even what memories I have of the names of Musicians. For instance, Obesere’s Omorapala album reminds me of an intimate moment I had with my mother in the flat at Odo-Ona Elewe, Ibadan. 

This essence, this ineffable connection to music, is encapsulated within “Short Essays on Music”. The focus of this essay rests less on the individual compositions itself, but rather on the ephemeral instants, the fleeting moments in which music possesses the extraordinary power to both amplify and intensify my experiences. By delving into these brief yet richly layered moments, I invite the reader to explore music’s profound impact, leaving an indelible mark on our collective memories.

UE: How do you tell a work is ready to meet the world?

AA: For this particular work, I reached a point of acceptance and readiness to release it into the world. I am truly grateful for Ukamaka Olisakwe’s editorial expertise, as it played a significant role in shaping the work into what it is today. Allowing my work to breathe for some time before sharing it has indeed been a beneficial practice, granting me the necessary distance to gain perspective and return to it with fresh eyes.

I agree that there may not be a universal standard for knowing when a work is ready to meet the world, as this decision often hinges on an individual’s unique circumstances, creative process, and personal thresholds. I think I reached a point where I was vulnerable enough to share personal narratives that include past lovers and family. 

UE: What does writing mean to you? 
AA: Everything o! Everything!

UE: If you could only write about one thing, what would you write and why? 

AA: I am focused on pursuing a memoir that delves into the harrowing history of ritual killings that occurred in Ibadan from 1998 to 2004. I believe it is of utmost importance to explore the history of these disappearances by weaving them through personal narratives. While I am uncertain about the full extent to which I can realize this ambitious project, my passion lies in thoroughly examining and interrogating this dark and haunting chapter in our history.

UE: Whose works speak to you? Why? And how do they do that?

AA: Currently, I find myself in my Sophie Klahr era. I am captivated by language—its capabilities, its potential, and its untapped possibilities. Klahr’s latest book, Two Doors Open In A Field, shattered me beyond repair. Yet, moving beyond the present, Richard Siken contributes to the tradition of surrealism and desire, as does Carl Phillips. However, Phillips does so with more precision in language and a keen attentiveness to the use of commas. In terms of music, I continually revisit the work of Noah Kahan on “Carlo’s Song,” the discographies of Alhaji Haruna Ishola and Yusuf Olatunji, and the collected albums of Alhaji Sikiru Ayinde Barrister.

About the Authors:

Uchenna Emelife: Uchenna Emelife is a literary curator, an arts administrator, a bookseller, and a human rights advocate. He is the co-founder and creative director of Book O’clock — a literary platform in Sokoto that hosts a literary blog, book clubs, and a bookstore. In 2021, he co-curated the first Book and Arts Festival in Sokoto and was nominated as Mediapreneur of the Year in the Founder of the Year Awards. Uchenna Emelife is as well an advocate for Child Rights, Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights, and anti-Sexual and Gender-based Violence. As a fellow of the African Youth Adolescent Network (AfriYAN), he has been contracted for various virtual campaigns to support the cause by Education as a Vaccine and United Nations Population Fund (UNPA).

Adedayo Agarau is a recipient of the 2023 Wallace Stegner Fellowship and a Cave Canem fellowship. He is the editor-in-chief of Agbowó Magazine. Adedayo Agarau is completing his MFA at the Iowa Writers workshop. His works have been featured in Poetry Magazine, Poetry Society of America, World Literature Today and elsewhere.