BY SHAMAN MOMOH
On Sunday, September 25, 2016, TNS published a series of tweets in which UK-based Mary Okon Ononokpono accused Nigerian filmmaker Nosa Igbinedion of using her work in his Yemoja: Rise of the Orishas without giving her due acknowledgement.
Yesterday, Monday, we published an exclusive interview with Igbinedion where he denied the allegation claiming Ononokpono was simply craving some publicity. According to him, he gave her a “co-story” credit and argued that if indeed he stole from her, why did she go ahead to promote the work on social media?
In this extensive interview with TNS, Ononokpono has stated her grievance and her demands from Igbinedion:
How did it all start?
I met Nosa Igbinedion in October 2014 when we facilitated a Black History Month workshop together. During that workshop, I read Nosa an excerpt from a novel manuscript I was working on. His mouth literally dropped open and in his own words, I “blew [his] mind.” Following the workshop, Nosa and I kept in contact. Nosa had recently put out his short taster, ‘Oya: Rise of the Orisha.’ He told me that he was developing a feature length film. He then approached me about writing a mini-series for web, which according to Nosa was scheduled to go out via YouTube. I don’t have receipts for that conversation as it took place via WhatsApp call.
Was there any verbal or written promises as regards payment or credits?
I recall that I asked him about payment and he told me that ‘no one would be paid.’ Now, for the record, I only began writing fiction in 2013 following a return trip to Nigeria. Prior to 2013, I had been working in the fashion industry for over a decade as a stylist, then as an independent designer. The way I saw it, I have paid my dues. I have undertaken hours upon hours of free work, as a struggling single mother, and I had no desire to participate in any more creative work for no fee.
When Nosa informed me that ‘no one would be paid,’ my back went up instantly. Moreover I dismissed my concerns and agreed to collaborate with him, for the simple reason, that I respected his desire to create a different type of content for Black people. Nosa wanted to make a free web series as he was struggling to come up with part of the finance for his feature, and he didn’t want his audience losing interest. I informed Nosa of how heavy my workload was, I told him I would assist him, but that I would need time and advance notice before he requested a script.
Let me state, for the record, that I did have niggles at the fact that Nosa was essentially reducing African Deities that have been historically demonised, to superheroes. It was an angle I found to be deeply troubling, so I tried my utmost to steer him away from that without stepping on his toes. Let me also state that when it comes to writing for film and television, or any form of creative writing, I still consider myself to be a novice, a thing I have discussed in private with Nosa on several occasions. I told him that I did not fully know what I was doing, that I did not feel ready to write for screen. I fell in love with words, with language, through literature. I told Nosa I did not feel comfortable writing a script as I wasn’t familiar with the format. He disregarded everything I said. Instead he flattered me. Looking back, it was completely sycophantic of him.
When Nosa was consuming stories about superheroes via comic books as a child, I was consuming the Living Word. I was raised on stage with my siblings. We were part of a group called the Redemption Stars. Between the ages of five and fifteen, I toured British churches extensively with my nuclear family, reciting archaic versions of scripture and singing and playing instruments. We were raised on Homer. On Tolkien. On Tolstoy. Since winning the Golden Baobab in 2014 for my debut children’s manuscript, several people have asked me whether I’ve taken a creative writing course. I haven’t. The words now flowing from my Spirit, are words that I was exposed to before the age of fifteen. I am now thirty-four. In September 2014, I moved from Manchester to London in order to commence upon studying an intellectually demanding History degree at SOAS, University of London. It was while studying at SOAS all of the following transpired.
I must also add, that my ten-year-old daughter has been living with my father in Scotland for the last two years. It took a while for me to sort out permanent accommodation for the two of us. She only returned to me this July, just before my graduation. The last two years have been incredibly challenging for both of us. Nosa was well aware of this and other things. But back to Yemoja.
Following his taster, Oya: Rise of the Orisha, Nosa sent me a partially completed screenplay which featured the same character – Oya. It was a series for television. He had the opening and the middle but did not know where to take it from there. He practically begged me on several occasions to complete his screenplay and turn it into a working screenplay for his feature. The Orisha mentioned in that screenplay were Oya and Shango. He was very insistent that I complete his screenplay for him, in spite of my clearly outlining my challenging workload (which I was struggling a great deal with) to him. I received several emails and WhatsApp messages which stated variations of ‘dude – my screenplay.’ I’m assuming that he wanted me to do it for free, as he never once mentioned payment or writing agreements. I ignored him and he finally got the message.
With regards to the web series which Nosa claims that he “co-created.” I wrote a treatment for Nosa after he repeatedly harassed me about it. I began fleshing out ideas last summer while my daughter was with me for the school holidays. I barely scraped through getting my university coursework in by the deadline, as after being under the spotlight as a result of winning the Golden Baobab prize, I went through a period of not being able to write a single word. My lecturers and fellow students can attest to that. I couldn’t write between November 2014 and April 2015. A prize winning writer. Imagine. It was awful. I had the worst creative blockage I’ve ever experienced and it lasted a few months. It wasn’t until exam assessment had been completed, that the words began flowing again.
With regards to the treatment. I authored ALL of it. The only thing that Nosa contributed to the treatment was the name of one of the characters, Dr Adebisi. That is because the name for the initial character was the name of an uncle of mine, and I was uncomfortable using that name. I came up with a water deity, because I was writing about a water deity in other fiction. One night, I closed my eyes and saw the image of a girl, sinking underwater in a botched suicide attempt that she survives because she is mounted by a water deity. The rest of the treatment sprang from that image. Nosa wasn’t even thinking about water deities at the time. He was still fixated on Oya.
You said it was a traumatic story of your life?
The protagonist, Amina, was partially based on myself. The reason she is a junior doctor in the series is because I had moved right next to a hospital. I have been suffering from chronic illness for around twelve years, something that should have been surgically removed around seven years ago. Moreover I was unable at the time to go through with the surgery as I had no support network for my daughter. I had a couple of nasty flare ups in 2015. As I hadn’t switched surgeries from Manchester to London, I spent quite a lot of time in A&E. The hospital faces my flat. My local bus stop is in the hospital car park. I had to cut through the hospital when it was raining to get to the train station for university. That’s where the medical angle comes from.
The antagonist – Dr Adebisi, who is also representative of Orisha Esu, was based on an ex-boyfriend. In the series, Dr Adebisi gaslights the protagonist quite horribly. The gas lighting is a point that I will return to shortly. The most traumatic aspect of the series features a younger Amina. When I was a toddler, I was accused of witchcraft by someone very dear to me. Gas lighting has been a recurrent theme in my life. As a child I was horribly gaslit by an adult. There was a lot of triangulation involved. It’s been an incredibly painful aspect of my past, which I have been facing through cathartic writing. In the series, there is a scene in which the protagonist is marched to church for prayer. It was intended to be an exploration of the clash between indigenous belief systems and Christianisation. That scene in which the little girl is marched to the front of the church, is based on one of my earliest memories. It’s a horrible memory, but I was ready to exorcise it. The entire series is a mashup of various scenes from my life. So for Nosa Igbinedion to claim that he “created” any of that, I find to be unscrupulous in the extreme.
I sent Nosa the screen treatment in September 2015. At the time he was working on a music video which was frustrating him, a video he walked away from. His initial timeline was supposed to be the script was finished by September, and shooting would happen a week or so later, in time for the series to be released on you tube ‘for free’ by October. I told Nosa that due to the challenging nature of my degree, for which I had just entered the final year, everything would have to be done before October, as after that point I would be solely focussed upon my degree and editing my children’s manuscript. His actions were dismissive.
I commenced my studies and then I heard from Nosa in either October or November – the night before he was due to cast, and that was the day he asked me for a script. I hadn’t began the script. I was too busy with other work. I was also doing a lot of challenging internal work which left me feeling raw and vulnerable. After having explained the nature of my workload on several occasions, and specifically requesting that he gives me at least two weeks notice before demanding a script, I found Nosa’s request for a script the night before casting to be dismissive and unprofessional in the extreme. I ignored him again.
I didn’t speak to him again for a couple of months as I was going through something and his behaviour was aggravating me. When I did speak to Nosa again, I felt bad for ignoring him so I apologised. He then began begging for me to send him new work. Cut a long story short, I have been in close contact with Nosa for several months in the run-up to the release of Yemoja. In that initial conversation, he told me he had filed the series, but inferred that he had used the treatment as a starting point. Nothing more. I had niggles about it but left it, as I had much else on my plate.
Nosa did mention the series to me on a couple of occasions this year. The first time was to ask me to contact an artist who had just dropped an incredible music video. He wanted to use the artist’s song in the series. I don’t personally know the artist. We had tweeted each other a few times as we have a mutual friend and I really respect his work. I told Nosa I didn’t have the artist’s contact details as I had deactivated my twitter and wasn’t intending to reactivate it for a while. I asked that he contact the artist himself. He never did. The other occasion was during a conversation where Nosa cussed out his producers. After listening to his diatribe, I asked Nosa whether he had paid the producer. He responded with some lengthy waffle but the general gist was that no – he had not. I did tell Nosa at that point that it is unprofessional of him to expect people to work for free.
There are many things I find disturbing about this whole process. Nosa once let slip in conversation, that he had a screening for cast and crew. I mentally noted that I was never invited. He was incredibly secretive about precisely what he had done with the series, to the point where I was going to pull him up on more than one occasion, but I’ve been listening to inner guidance a lot recently. My direction was don’t ask him, wait and see.
This brings me to the most troubling aspect. In January of this year, I sent Nosa the opening of a manuscript in process. It’s a work that is dear to my heart. So far I have had one chapter published from the manuscript. You can read it for free via world reader. The chapter is entitled Inyang and is published in Water: New Short Story Fiction from Africa. My water deity is in there but in a precolonial Transatlantic context. I am very proud of the work that I sent to Nosa. Moreover, after having sent him quite a lot of work, I became concerned that it may be shopped around. I specifically asked him not to share my work with anyone. Whether the has done so or not is a different matter.
I had another flare-up of illness in March of this year, just before examinations assessment. The flare ups I’ve had recently have been so bad that they affected my lymphatic system. As a result, I suffered a series of mini-strokes over the easter weekend. I have suffered more since then, but Easter was the worst. I was physically unable to walk, but in spite of that, I completed my coursework, got up and sat my exams a few weeks later. I graduated in July. Shortly after that weekend I felt haunted by the shade of death. In confronting my mortality I felt an urgency to get my work out. I still fell that urgency. I have been awaiting corrective surgery now for almost seven months. Due to the strain the NHS is under, my surgery has been pushed back several times, including last Wednesday.
I began to feel paranoid that Nosa was misusing my work in May of this year, when Nosa contacted me to inform me that he wanted to get his comic artist to illustrate some of the work I had just sent him. I told him he couldn’t use my work in that way, to which Nosa responded that I was ‘coming at him crazy.’ This is for telling him to back off my work and requesting writing agreements.
So there was no agreements in place for Yemoja?
There were no agreements in place for Yemoja.
It is stupid, I know. I have no defences for it apart from gross inexperience. I placed trust in a person that I should not have trusted. Moreover if I have been foolish, I have also been completely transparent. I realised the extent of my error after the series was released.
One of Nosa’s point in defence is that if he indeed stole from you, you wouldn’t go ahead to give him that much promotion on your platforms.
I sent an email out to members of my network, and I also publicised it on my Facebook page. In his cowardly response, Nosa asks why I call him a thief if I publicised the work. Let me state clearly, at the time of publicising the series, I hadn’t seen it. After being informed that ‘no one was being paid as it was going out for free via YouTube’ I discovered that people had to pay to watch the series. At that point, I was still operating under the assumption that he merely used the treatment as a starting point. I didn’t know that the entire series was essentially my treatment, scene for scene. I had to wait for six weeks for it to play out.
Nosa has a screenshot of your name in the credits section after the film.
Nosa credited me right at the end of each episode with a co-story credit. And he is standing behind his statement that he is justified in that.
I contacted Nosa mid-August after it was brought to my attention that in an interview in Okay Africa, a publication I have a tremendous amount of respect for, that he had taken credit for the entire series. I have since contacted Okay Africa and will be forwarding them this information. I don’t blame the writer. Nosa lied to her by virtue of omission. She was not to know what occurred.
When I confronted him, he gaslit me. He used sensitive personal information I had shared with him to attack my confidence. I was so distraught that I wrote him a very apologetic email. It was only after sitting with the discomfort and rereading my initial email, in which I requested proper creditation and future writing agreements, that I became angry. I felt incredibly disempowered by the situation and took to my Facebook to voice my displeasure. But that was only after trying, to no avail, to get him to be reasonable. I told him that my biggest concern was that I have shared substantial elements of my novel plot with him unwittingly, which he is now claiming co-authorship of. This in spite of the fact that the ideas he is attempting to claim have already been fixed in written form by myself. I have cautioned him very strongly about using that work, and it is one of my main reasons for making this information public.
In all of this, I have never once tried to claim credit for creating Rise of the Orisha. Something Nosa tried unsuccessfully to accuse me of. I only requested due credit for the web-series which is built entirely on my treatment. Nosa deliberately misspelled the name of one of the characters – Nkiru. I consider it an attempt to change minor elements in order that he can claim authorship. Nosa never paid me for my work. I created the treatment under the assumption that I wouldn’t be paid. My biggest gripe with this Yemoja mess is that after a verbal contract in which I agreed to write for Nosa under the proviso that the work would be aired ‘for free’ Nosa has profited in secret from my childhood and adult trauma. I consider it a gross perversion of what I set out to do.
What are you asking of Nosa going forward?
What I would like now, is for Nosa to change the screen credit to reflect the fact that I authored the work. I would even be satisfied with a co-creator credit, although I still don’t see what he co-created. Is it not enough that he has directing, writing and franchise credits? Why does Nosa think the spirit theft of a black woman’s work is permissible? Any subsequent interviews will be written up based on the credits in the work. If publications are claiming he is the series “creator,” it is due to the information he has provided to them, and as such, I hold him entirely responsible. I will be contacting his producers for payment, although that was never my intent.
I have been cornered into sharing highly sensitive information of a personal nature with strangers. Nosa and his girlfriend, Lorraine Stodel, have repeatedly accused me of ‘playing the victim.’ This is incredibly uncomfortable for me, but I share this personal information, for the same reasons I am exploring themes of abuse, consent, vampirism and gas lighting through my fiction. I share it in the hopes that it will help someone going through something similar.
I have made no secret of the fact that I have navigated troubling abusive situations for decades. My writing is an attempt at healing the damaged aspects of my persona, of soul retrieval. I am currently exploring themes of witchcraft accusations and abuses wrought during the transatlantic era, amongst other things, as I desire to get to the root of what ails me as a black African woman. I am tired of seeing black people in pain. All manner of pain. Deep rooted pain. I write what I write in order to heal for my child. I write in order to break the cycle. In my chapter Inyang – I explore greed and the nature of transatlantic commerce, by deifying trade. For Nosa to latch on to Spirit led work in this manner, and claim authorship, is a classic example of one of the types of abuse I address within my work. Enclosed is the treatment on which the series is based. Make up your own mind.