Not my father, but my mother, is a story teller. She is at the epicenter of my narrative inclination. Her masterful exaggeration taught me that the narrator must sell a story to an audience — that you have to do all it takes to make your story listenable, you go the extra mile because you can.
She repeated the outlandish stories:
A woman who was pregnant for 4 years
A man and his son who were stealing yam and looked up and saw a big eye looking down at them
How she spent a full night fighting (and eventually overpowering) a man who locked her up and tried to rape her
I want to think that I inherited a fiery imagination from my mother. Imagination rooted in plausibility: she taught me to think of the world as a plot of super/natural happenings. You find the element of the outlandish, but you retain the element of the listenable.
It’s Women’s History Month and my mother is my narrative hero. It was her who taught me, in her own way, to pray a profound prayer.
Lagos, the shining and perishable dream itself. Our bodies tattooed with scars of survival, every one of us trading our narratives of killability, every time we meet menace. It’s a hustle, or business-like nonchalance; it’s ambition or plain listlessness.
This evening, look at the unmoving traffic, and imagine it’s the sea, without waves.
The man who’ll walk all the way to Alausa/Secretariat, all the way home, no tricycle or motorcycle for transportation, knows the extent of his anger. As he curses the Governor that has banned motorcycles and made him walk.
He’ll vote in 2015, aged and wiser.
We are not photographers, but it has become expedient to see. Past the crowded room, past the incessant brutalities of vain men, past the complaints that linger in our hearts because we are of this country. To see and see again is the task that has befallen us.
And beyond seeing, to record.
The first man says to the second man, we talk about this everyday, and yet see how unheard we are.
You are speaking too much grammar my friend, the second man replies.
The first man reverts to silence.
We, who have experimented with democracy, know the ambivalence that comes with resistance. What kind of government is this?!
Those idiots in power! One day God will judge all of them! Their children will pay for their sins!
And yet we speak and our voices are secrets of the marketplace. Everyone hears. But who is listening?
Between speaking and being heard there is an infinite silence.
The first man replies, if I am speaking too much grammar, that is all I have. If I complain, it is because I know no other expression. Tell me, what else I can do? Eh, tell me.
The other man reverts to silence.
[A first person speaks to a second person]
A: Facebook has democratized stupidity.
B: Shut up.
A: Facebook is the start of our attention deficiency.
B: Shut up.
A: Clicking a like button only confirms that we are half-hearted, pretentious addicts.
B: Shut up very much.
A: Too many posts since we joined Facebook and we have not said enough.
B: Your big mouth!
A: Someone said reading her twitter timeline gives her the feeling of trying to catch up while running.
A: If you say you’re leaving Facebook to sidestep the mundane, you’re probably guilty of taking yourself too seriously.
B: Your first intelligent comment!
A: So we’ll just remain spontaneously expressive
B: One more thing…
B: Share it!
A very basic story about meeting the love of your life in a danfo bus.
Part-inspired by shameless longing for a partner, part-inspired by the knowledge that ladies play hard to get only because they know they can be gotten, and part-inspired by your imagination.
Imagination is knowing the right word with which to begin the conversation.
Here you are; talk to the lady.
Being driven, what do you make of the world?
This traffic is so serious, Jesus Christ! It was like this last month, and the driver took Ojota. That’s why I’m telling this man to follow Ojota, he will not hear.
The most important lie you’ll tell yourself is you’re in this city to reach your life’s goal.
The road is always hungry, always wanting more movement, yet brittle.
That’s the way you’ve become, every word an assault on the bus driver, his conductor. You are trapped in a moving-dead metal box, and not the driver, not his conductor are pampering you with soothing words. Words you need after your hustle. So you assault them with words you can’t take back.
It is 11.30pm and you are yet to get to your house. Lagos is making us rehearse for an eternity of sleeplessness.
The president is in town. In the morning, as you left for work, you were costumed as a dignitary. Now you’re naked as a worm.
Because the most important lie you’ve told yourself is you’re in Lagos to reach life’s goal.
A makeshift cinema on a street shows mostly Hausa films. In the evenings, men sit in a half-circle facing a kiosk where there is a TV. Watching, commenting — being comrades. On their heads a halo of suspense.
[I want to go home and write...]
A man sitting in the dark outside the gate of a building with four floors. A cigarette is fastened to his fingers. He is unmoving as a stone; the night is steadily edging towards silence. When night is stealthily silent, the Underground awakens.
[I want to go home and...]
The door of a bus falling out while in transit, passengers screaming. Their cries lost in Lagos perpetual momentum. Two friends are yards away. They look back, then hurry on. No man for another man, God for us all.
[I want to go home...]
The same friends had seen a bus on fire, passengers safe-distances away, talk-shouting, hands on their waists. The friends were in a moving bus, Bariga to Yaba. Moving Bus passengers only watched in transiting kinship. Even shared suffering does not stay in one place. Tragedy has roots in the air. Alas.
[I want to go....]
A restaurant owned by a Lebanese immigrant. Two Nigerian ladies and two Lebanese men sitting on a table laughing, one man smoking. Pidgin and tobacco wafting into the air.
[I want to...]
The words on t-shirts: (i) I Facebooked your Mother; (ii) My money grows on trees like grass; (iii) Don’t tell my mummy; (iv) Nobody in my area has swagger like me
One Lagosian tweets: In-plain-sight tattoos are beginning to compete with earrings in Lagos.
Somali born artist and writer, Diriye Osman has featured regularly on Black Looks as much because I love his work but also because he is a dear friend. Below is an email interview we had a couple of weeks ago.
You are Somali by heritage and born in Kenya. I don’t want to presume your identity is Kenyan/Somali or Somali/Kenyan. Through which lens do you see yourself and what do these heritages mean in the context of a black man living in London in 2013? Do they have relevance to you and to how others see you?
Actually, I was born in Somalia. When the civil war broke out in Mogadishu, my family moved to Kenya. I have never considered myself a Somali/ Kenyan even though I spent my pre-teens to my late teens living in Nairobi. The reason for that is that when I was growing up in Kenya in the nineties, there was a real xenophobic reaction to Somalis in the country. It didn’t matter whether you were born there or whether you had moved there as an immigrant. There was a real, visceral contempt for Somalis in Kenya and even though I haven’t visited since I left, that feeling of not being wanted, of being reminded that you’re notwanted has always stayed with me. So I cannot claim Kenya as part of my identity although it has certainly inspired a great number of short stories (I think particularly of ‘Shoga’ and ‘Earthling’ as well as the title story of the collection, ‘Fairytales For Lost Children’).
I moved to London when I was seventeen and I love the city and all it’s beautiful complexities. I instantly felt more at home in London because it was the first time I had been to a gay bar, it was the first time I had experienced love in it’s purest form. London is also the place where I truly came of age. It was here that I discovered crucial facets of my identity, whether it was my sexuality or my relationship with the world outside of my own community, which is to say my family. So if anything I consider myself a Somali-born, British writer and artist. It took me a while to own this identity and I’m proud of it.
Some years ago you came out to your family. How difficult was that and what have been the repercussions? Any regrets?
It was really difficult because I was very close to my family. I come from a large family — eleven siblings — and so, of course, not everybody is going to get along. But I was always the one who listened to everyone’s grievances and cracked jokes along the way. I was shown a great of love and support and I felt cosseted by that. But at the same time I was also very self-protective. Sexuality, let alone homosexuality, is a huge taboo in Somali culture. There’s a fifties-style undercurrent of piety that’s always been underlined and I respect that. But where does that leave someone like me who is gay? I had no intention of being ‘a confirmed bachelor’. I fell in love and in doing so encountered a world and sensibility that had always been closed off to me. When I came out, the love and the support from my family was retracted. This broke my heart and it pained me to see people who were blood relatives (my father, my siblings) reject me in such a cruel way. I remember speaking to a gay support worker and he told me at the time that my pain would subside in two years. At the time, I laughed at this through tears, but he was right. By the end of two years the trauma had subsided and I was able to function. What made that transition possible was a wonderful coterie of friends and colleagues who helped me open myself up to the world. Not many people are as lucky as I was though. I read horror stories from across the globe of young men and women, most of them teenagers, taking their own lives because they have no one to turn to. This book is called ‘Fairytales For Lost Children’ for a reason. It’s for every man, woman and child who happens to be gay to learn to place value on their own lives. If I can do it, with every possible odd stacked against me, then you can do it too.
As an out Somali do you feel any responsibility to other young or old Somali queer / gay / lesbian? Put another way how did the Somali queer community respond to your coming out?
I feel a sense of responsibility not only to the Somali gay, lesbian and trans community but also to the global queer community. I really believe in Chinua Achebe’s assertion that a writer is a citizen of the world and must create narratives that reflect this. I apply this rule only to myself though because I feel that all artists must essentially express their own truth. The way I try to honor this impulse is to take the political and transform it into the deeply personal. The Somali queer community has always been wonderfully supportive. The gay and lesbian Somalis I have met are some of the brightest, most humane people I’ve had the pleasure of knowing.
Your genre so to speak is the short story. What was your first story and how did it come about? Did you know then you were a writer or was this something you chose after writing that first story?
My first story was a piece called ‘Looking Back The Way We Had Come’. The story was about a young Somali immigrant in London who, two days after arriving in the city, decides to visit a gay nightclub in Soho. Although later pieces were much more confident, the memory of that story is always the sweetest because I came to terms with my sexual identity whilst writing it. It was also the first story that convinced me that I could seriously become a writer. Everything before then had felt like an apprenticeship.
Why the short story?
I love the short story because to me it’s infinitely more satisfying than writing poetry or a novel. Lorrie Moore, who’s one of my favorite writers, once said that if the novel is a marriage then the short story is a satisfying weekend with a stranger. There are no shortcuts in short fiction — you get in, lay down your arms and get out. I like directness and that’s part of why the form appeals to me.
Your stories are concentrated in limited scenes. The focus is on the characters and dialogue. You set the scene then leave it alone to focus on the story. I like this style: there are no distractions. Is this a conscious decision or does it just happen that way?
It’s very much a conscious decision. I like exactitude and this is one of the major appeals of writing short stories. You set the scene and let the characters do their thing. I liken it to a bebop jam session where every individual plays off each other in an improvised but precise way. The characters dictate their own terms and if you try to pin them down too much, the whole narrative ends up feeling contrived. That’s why I write in small spurts. Sometimes I’ll spend weeks thinking about a particular scene before I actually write it down just so that I can get a sense of each character and how they would behave. ‘Earthling’, for example, took me six months to write, as did ‘Shoga’ for completely different reasons. With ‘Earthling’ it was a case of paring back. It’s one of the few stories that doesn’t have a stylized flow. It was 100% about the story whereas with ‘Shoga’ I had to get into a jazz poetic rhythm but with a very specific emphasis on Sheng (Kenyan slang), which has a musicality of it’s own. I think that particular style is taken to it’s end point in ‘If I Were A Dance’, which is about making each sentence dance on the page. That story was a challenge (how do you describe dancing in a sexy, accurate way?). It made me believe that anything can happen on the page, which is the thrill that short fiction gives me.
I notice three common themes in your work: mental illness, betrayals and non-conformity. I see so many connections in these three themes and I do know from our previous conversations that mental illness is something that interests you. My own thoughts on this are that it is quite insane to live without some deep questioning of why we are here not to talk of the structures of control and obscene violence. Is this the madness people fear?
Whenever I think of the term ‘betrayal’ I remember watching awful American soap operas like The Bold and The Beautiful where the term was bandied out in practically every episode! But I see what you mean. Yes, those themes were important during the writing of this book because my own life at the time felt very soap-operatic which fed into the fiction. Mental illness has been a large part of my experience because I suffer from bipolar disorder. Part of the appeal of writing the book was that it kept me afloat during many crisis points and manic episodes. In that sense a lot of the difficulties that some of the characters face, health-wise, were fictionalized accounts of my own battles with mental health issues. I really did contemplate suicide like Zeytun’s character does in ‘Earthling’; I really did see a less heightened version of mental hospitals like the one Cat Power works at in ‘Pavilion’. And of course, the themes of mental illness, betrayal and non-conformity are heavily intertwined with issues about family, immigration, painful relationships, beautiful relationships, and the exquisite yet perilous nature of childhood — all these tropes bleed into one another. I like the idea of the short story being a form that’s just as serious about social issues as the novel.
Where do you find your characters?
I would say that every character is a mashup of real and imagined people. For example, the lead character in Earthling is a young woman who has long, startlingly white hair. Her experience of mental illness mirrors my own, whereas her relationship with her girlfriend is inspired by the kind of loving lesbian partnerships I’ve come across over the years. Her long, white hair is inspired by the film director, Jane Campion’s mane. Another example is the character of Cat Power in ‘Pavilion’. I first discovered the music of Cat Power in 2006 through her album The Greatest. I was completely riveted by the music but also by the fragility of the singer. I have always loved animation and dance (particularly the work of Alvin Ailey’s company). I kept seeing this image of a gorgeous animated short in my head where a beautiful Somali transvestite danced to Cat Power’s The Greatest. Of course, I’m not a filmmaker but I really wanted to tell the story of a feisty drag queen who chose the name Cat Power because the music had such symbolic meaning for her. It was only until I watched Easy A in 2011, the quip-filled comedy where Emma Stone presents herself as a latter day Hester Prynne from The Scarlett Letter, that the whole story came together. I literally wrote ‘Pavilion’ in two weeks, which never happens to me! So characters come from really strange places before they appear on the page.
Who were some of your first authors that influenced you? Who do you read now? Have there been changes in your choice?
There have definitely been changes. When I started out I was reading Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, Zadie Smith, Manil Suri. And then I discovered Nuruddin Farah whose work opened me up to the complex ways in which Somali characters can be presented in literature. I was also heavily into Nigerian and Ghanaian writers like Buchi Emecheta, Ama Ata Aidoo, Ayi Kwei Armah, Chinua, Chimamanda Adichie, Soyinka. I haven’t traveled for nearly twelve years and so my mind has had to do the traveling. I love Alison Bechdel, K. Sello Duiker, David Sedaris, Janet Malcolm, ZZ Packer. My taste in writers is constantly shifting. Right now I’m really into Grace Paley, who was this genius American short story writer. Every line in her stories has the liquid flow of a well-timed zinger. She’s wonderful.
There is a growing community of writers from Africa and the Diaspora on Twitter. I note you don’t tweet. Any particular reason?
It’s because social networking is addictive and there’s so much to be getting on with. It really is that banal.
What are your thoughts on social media and writing and the internet and the fact that it has allowed so many of us to write who previously would not have had an outlet at least not one with the potential to reach millions of readers?
I think it’s a wonderful thing. As writers the greatest thing we can hope for is to find a readership and the internet has democratized the process of getting the work out there and finding an audience for it. I think it’s healthy because it allows for a much more diverse array of voices to come to the fore.
What are you working on now?
I’m not working on anything at the moment. I love the freedom of not having a project on the horizon and it will probably be that way for a while.
We have talked about Diriye the writer but you are also an artist. Can you talk about your artwork and how it connects with your writing?
Well, usually I do lavish paintings and drawings. They require the same level of focus and precision that a short story needs in order to work. So they’re connected in that way. Painting is a language — a visual one — but a language nevertheless. That’s where both mediums — writing and art — meet: through language. If you look at my paintings they stand alone as aesthetic works but as a writer I like to contextualize the symbolism behind the art through essays, so that’s part of my visual practice. For me, painting is a way of trying to order the world, a way of trying to make sense of my interior landscape. It’s about turning destructive emotions like anger, hatred and mania into something beautiful, transformative even. In the book, there are black and white illustrations preceding each story. These illustrations have the feel of tattoo designs complete with Arabic calligraphy. I like the magpie nature of being an artist.
Lastly could you talk a little about what I call performance photography?
Bjork said something very beautiful once about how she felt the photographs that she commissioned of herself were an extension of her musical expression. I like coming up with outlandish concepts and approaching photographer friends and saying let’s go for this. In my daily life I’m so low-key that the concept of makeup doesn’t even enter the equation. You’ll find me wearing a frumpy T-shirt and tatty shoes as I dash to my local corner store. But when I’m in front of a camera I like to loosen up and play dark, sensual roles that riff on my sexuality. We’re often told as men that masculinity is the only natural mode but I reject that. You can be whoever you want to be. As long as you look tight, it’s alright!
Part of my work this week has revolved around reading and researching the problems of the Nigerian book/publishing industry. Today I completed a list of questions/posers (included in a brief for an event my firm is working on) which I believe are central to the challenge. By ‘central’ I do not mean exhaustive, and I hope that this post will generate sufficient responses from people passionate about deploying strategies for sustainable change in the publishing industry. (Henry Chikava’s Book Marketing and Distribution: The Achilles Heel of African Publishing was very instructive.)
Illiteracy: Close to 60% of Nigerians are said to be literate in the English language (National Literary Survey, 2010) and yet the usual argument is that ‘Nigerians don’t read.’ Does the problem transcend the number of Nigerians that are literate, and extends to the willingness/ability of content providers to deploy content for the tens of millions able to receive and access content?
Marketing: What are the ways in which publishers can win the attention of the potential book market, get it to buy and read books, and sustain its interest in books which is, as highlighted, potentially huge in a country of over 150 million people?
Marketing concepts: Have publishers in Nigeria sufficiently applied marketing concepts to the business of publishing in Nigeria?
Infrastructure: Do book promoters possess the basic infrastructure for promotion of books? What are these infrastructures?
Market research: How much information is available to the publisher who is interested in researching the market? Are there channels through which adequate information about the market can be obtained?
Distribution: Will aiming to make books “widely available and inexpensive” as opposed to offering books with “the most qualitative and innovative features” drive the interest of a greater number of book buyers?
Multi-sector approaches: What roles can other practitioners in other sectors of the creative industry play in driving a multifaceted approach to book distribution?
Publishing as business or responsibility: Should publishing be considered primarily as a business or as a cultural responsibility? Or both? In a related context, should publishing be audience-driven or author-driven? What are the advantages or disadvantages of either option?
Booksellers: How can publishers and booksellers enjoy a hitch-free relationship, ultimately putting the customer at the centre? Also, how can the void created by the absence of large department stores be filled?
Future of the book: Is new technology the only direction to be considered in relation to the future of print books? Interestingly, Kyle Bean remarked that “books also have personality — they have textures and smells which the internet can’t offer.” Is the argument perhaps one of seeking alternatives to the book-form and not only arguing that the time for its demise has come? To what extent can the argument that paper books have visual appeal (as opposed to digital books that are intangible) keep it in the market for as long as possible?
Quality control: Is it possible to define and evolve a quality control regime for the country’s publishing industry? Are there adequate regulations, and how could they be implemented?
Class structure: How does class structure affect interest in book sales? In Henry Chikava’s opinion: “General books, including fiction, do well where there is a developed middle class with more time for leisure and a disposable income.”
Poverty and underdevelopment: A poser on profiteering in the book industry is found in Henry Chikava’s declaration: “…a vicious circle which is difficult to break out of without tackling the larger problems of poverty and underdevelopment.”
Book development council: what are the prospects, advantages, challenges of such an initiative? How may it function? How can the industry avoid a saviour-mentality from international (donor) organizations?
Dealing with government: To what extent is government assistance for the book industry necessary? To what extent is it useless? Can industry practitioners deal with the government in a manner that will not be considered slavish? Are there possible/genuine fears about censorship?
Intellectual property: Will the ultimate assault against piracy be a book industry in which demand for books by consumers is equated with supply by publishers? Is piracy the only threat to intellectual property in Nigeria? Are there other malignant challenges?
Victor Ehikhamenor defies stereotype — a master at multi-tasking and multi-thinking and multi-creativity. He has produced, to critical acclaim, short stories, photographs, illustrations and paintings. He “needs no introduction” in the Nigerian art scene, as YNaija pointed out. In this conversation with novelist Emmanuel Iduma, Ehikhamenor highlights what probably stands him out and admits that his mind is always “pendulumic” and “constantly swinging.” The newest offering from Victor Ehikhamenor is his new book, Excuse Me! which is released by Parresia Publishers on 29 November. He states his expectation for the book, and what he intended to achieve. Ultimately this short conversation is a peek into the mind of one of Nigeria’s finest contemporary artists.
I know Milan Kundera was not referring to non-fiction when he said “the art of the novel came into the world as an echo of God’s laughter,” but do you share his sentiments? How much of laughter reverberates through life?
So, you are starting this interview with a communist exile’s quote — this should be interesting. To a large extent I can reason with Kundera and his religio-philosophic approach to the birth of the novel. And in that case I would like to say the art of non-fiction writing came into the world when humans took over the laughter from God. You know laughter can be contagious. To me reality makes us laugh quicker than fiction because laughter is an integral part of human nature. Even at funerals, if you observe closely enough, you would see some people laughing in the midst of that grim sombreness.
What kind of success would be success enough for you? Especially for this new book?
The word success is relatively individualistic. What I probably consider a success might mean a different thing to another person. However to find a suitable answer for your question — that the book is getting published at all is a success already, because the first Nigerian publisher I offered the manuscript sent me a very nice and wonderful rejection email. Another success for the book would be if it inspires new writers to write creative non-fiction and engage issues that beleaguer Nigeria.
When I heard someone say Nigerians are suffering from visual illiteracy I wondered what that could mean. Could it mean that there are few of us who try to record what we see, our ‘mundane’ experiences?
To be honest with you, this is new to me, I haven’t heard that before. Whoever said that to you is the one probably suffering from that malady, because there is a lot of output from Nigerians in various ways — especially in the art industry. When next you encounter such a person, tell that individual: “shine your eye!”
Don’t you think Excuse Me! as a title gives us both the idea of arrogance and politeness, especially when we think of how we often use it in these parts?
‘Excuse me’ is a very versatile phrase — the meaning lies in the swagger and attitude in the tonal inflection of the speaker. However for the purpose of this book, it is the one said when you want draw someone’s attention to a serious matter.
Maybe writing is an attempt at self-interrogation? Does this resonate with what you tried to do with Excuse Me?
I think it was Pablo Neruda who said “I speak to you and myself.” Excuse Me is not so much a self-interrogation but a careful examination of events and issues about our/my reality.
The word that comes closest to understanding how you work both as a writer and visual artist is schizophrenia, especially since it is defined in terms of mind splits. Do you make any attempt to distinguish your approach to prose from your approach to visual arts? Is it technique or artistic vision that makes this distinction?
Was God schizophrenic when he started creating plethora of things? Schizophrenia is too strong and bristly a term to use for the process of creativity, although some psychoanalysts have argued otherwise. I think artists and writers are what I would call multi-thinkers and restless doers. Many people think of a creative idea and hinder themselves with “it cannot be done” or “I don’t have time for that”, whereas an artist or writer thinks of the same thing and devices a way to make it happen and visible for others to appreciate or abhor.
But I must admit that my mind is always pendulumic, constantly swinging but not in the sense of mental instability. I have made art and written for quite some time now and I am no longer conscious of the processes that demarcate the two forms. What I know is that sometimes I feel like painting, drawing, carving, photographing and other times I want to write. I tend to gravitate more towards painting/drawing because it is easier and more enjoyable for me than writing. Writing is a difficult form of expression, but I love it like an obstinate lover. The whole process of stringing words like my grandma in her weaving loom is just scintillating.
The message I want to pass across makes the distinction, because that is what dictates the technique and the artistic vision all the way to how it is executed.
Is there a false division between laughter and thought, between comedy and seriousness?
The lines are blurry. We don’t just junk things that make us laugh into the mind’s trash can. When you go to a comedy show and the comedian jokes about a serious situation, you laugh first and then ruminate and sometimes go — “That is so true!” and continue with your laughter.
And how can we laugh and not forget? I am very curious about knowing your thoughts on this.
Extreme laughter has the same weight as extreme sadness/crying. You cannot afford to forget what made you laugh, even if you do, it is only temporary before something triggers your memory again.
I found no other way to ask this question, but it has nagged me since we began this conversation. How do you see?
With my eyes first, like every other human being that I know. Now how I process what I see is another thing totally different. I am constantly seeking and composing, deconstructing, formulating, arranging and re-arranging within seconds with my eyes — that is what being a photographer does to your ways of seeing.
Let’s return to God’s laughter. Howard Jacobson says God laughs at the idea that we can think our way out of the unthinkable. In Excuse Me! do you want us to laugh at things we would otherwise be pessimistic about?
The primary purpose is not really for you to laugh but to arrest your attention to something you would probably gloss over. When I was a kid, there was a malaria medication called Nivaquin, which had the nastiest taste ever. Back then the packaging of “tablet” was crude, and you had to either deal with the “bitter pill” or remain sick. Now, you have pills encapsulated in tasteless casings and the bitterness is contained and cannot be tasted. Some pieces in Excuse Me! are bitter pills encapsulated in laughter. So, in the book I want you to laugh and ponder.
You say you regarded NEXT as an institution of higher learning. Maybe it was for all of us too, because when it folded up, we all ‘graduated.’ What do you think? What did you (and all of us) graduate from?
I graduated from the school of excellence and hard work. One couldn’t have worked with Dele Olojede and not learn how to smell news and package it; or Amma Ogan the most elegant and exciting editor with a tongue the sharpness of a Nacet blade; or with Molara Wood who will never let go a feature until it is whistle clean even if you put a gun on her head; or Kadaria Ahmed who was like a war General and a mother Theresa at the same time; or Kayode Ogunbunmi whose patience and gentleness yet fierceness in chasing a story would make a cheetah cover its face with shame; or Dapo Olorunyomi who teaches meekness yet would sink his teeth into a hard untouchable news and won’t let go of it until he unearths the underbelly that stinks to high heavens; or the entire creative unit with some of the craziest, best and tenacious artists I have ever met. I can go on and on naming great names because the place was filled with really awesome Nigerians that believed in the country and what NEXT was all about.
Will you be tempted to work less on a new book now that Excuse Me! is out?
No. I get bored easily. I must keep myself busy. I don’t have a novel out there yet even though my short stories have been published in various journals and magazines. Also I would like to see if what Milan Kundera said about God’s echo of laughter as the origin of the novel is true. So I’m working on that.
One of my very girl-best friends calls me and after we exchange a string of sentences, she asks me, “are you happy, Emmanuel?” I respond without thinking, “yes.” I respond without thinking. She asks me if I am happy, and I respond. Yes.
I think I am happy. I think I know the value of happiness. Or not.
Hours earlier I was with Ekiko, alias Sogolo, alias GÃ¼nter. He’s an old friend, now in his early 30s, studied in Ife. Studied philosophy in Ife but was by all means a literature student. Wrote his undergraduate thesis on Dostoyevsky — and his lecturers, before they approved the topic, two months before the submission deadline, wondered how literature intersected with academic philosophy.
Wondered how literature intersected with philosophy.
It is an evening of beer and malt and waffles and cookies. A bar somewhere close to Domino, Sabo-Yaba. Behind us is a Baptist Church, the dominant feature of Raymond Street. House number 7 on Raymond is our friend Adebiyi’s office. Adebiyi is a Research Analyst, Ekiko is an art dealer, I am a Senior Project Manager– the description on our cards. At Ife, we were nothing else but students who were in a system that handicapped us — we were studying Mechanical Engineering, or Law or Philosophy, but our souls were entrapped in the pursuit of language, literature, everything we weren’t being taught. Adebiyi said, once, which he has repeated time and again, which seemed to have been Mark Twain’s words, “I have learnt not to let my schooling interfere with my education.”
I tell Ekiko he is wrong to be regretful about how he played out his life as a student, missing logic classes for two weeks and all the while writing a logical equation that disproved the existence of God through biblical injunctions. He was wrong to be regretful because he had been trying to transcend a conventional educational system, one that had no regard for outliers, prodigies. I told him that, and for a brief second I had a pang of regret, I had been a conformist, never having the guts to fail Law courses, careless and self-righteous, in a quest for greater truth.
A pang of regret lasted a brief second. Or longer.
There is a man in the bar sitting behind me who feels there is a practical reality and a theoretical reality. He is a lawyer, graduated from Ife in ‘97, when, as he says, there was no GSM. For Chinedu, we are the theoretical realists, with our high-sounding ideas that do not work in real life, because in Nigeria ‘intellectuals’ are not respected. They are, even abused, even denigrated. I want to tell him that I am not an intellectual, but I am not sure, or I am sure, or I have not read Edward Said enough to know.
I am not an intellectual, or I am not sure, or I am sure.
Ekiko and I end the evening talking about living, and dying, the shortness of life, essence, writing, art criticism, and a small group of us that were friends in Ife. I hug him twice at Ikeja, where the Computer Village, like existence itself, is staring at us, daring us to move. I hug him twice, because I am happy seeing him again. I am happy.
These things pass; tomorrow like the day before I will find a bus to Yaba, then to Sabo, then I’ll walk ten minutes to Alagomeji, somewhere on Herbert Macaulay Way. Life will go on. Then perhaps I’ll stop in the middle of something and think of being 25 and the world at my feet. Or I’ll think of my friends who are 27 or 30 and how age is an illusion, or not; and I am listening to Yaasin Bey and The Brooklyn Philharmonic, live in concert, Coming Together, “I think the combination of age and a greater coming together is responsible for the speed of the passing time.” This is what Yaasin Bey says in tandem with classical music.
“It’s six months now and I can tell you truthfully few periods in my life have passed so quickly. I am in excellent physical and emotional health. There are doubtless several surprises ahead. But I feel secure and ready. As lovers would contrast their emotions in times of crisis, so am I dealing with my environment in the indifferent brutality, the incessant noise, the experimental chemistry of food, the ravings of lost hysterical men, I can act with clarity and meaning. I am deliberate, sometimes even calculating, seldom employing histrionics except as a test of the reactions of others. I read much, exercise, talk to God’s inmates, feeling for the inevitable direction of my life.”
That’s all — an evening of friendship, happiness, and the inevitable direction of my life.
And then, Tade Ipadeola, President of PEN Nigeria, wrote an interesting essay bothering on the accusation against Rotimi, who was alleged to have plagiarized Biyi Bandele’s Burma Boy, a novel. The essay can be found in the latest Issue of Saraba Magazine, which can be downloaded for free.
In October, a few close friends and I hope to send some days with him in his Ibadan enclave.
My friend, Richard Ali, has also written about Port Harcourt as the World Book Capital City 2014. I consider his thoughts refined, and even apposite.
Here is an excerpt:
The sense of achievement in this win is seen at the popular level, but the significance of this win is even clearer amongst writers such as me. It is the primal significance of illumination, how a stand is made against the chaos of a world without words–so that I can introduce myself as a writer proudly. The core of Greek mythology is found in the stories of benevolent, Fire-stealing Prometheus; the Judeo-Islamo-Christian monotheisms locate the start of the human story in the creation of Light by the Deity. It is the same way that the year 2014, with this great victory, will hold up the book in the same manner as the Statue of Liberty’s torch to the world, the rays of the activities planned falling first on Nigeria, which surrounds the pedestal, and then rippling in happy, harmonizing words around Africa and then on to the rest of the world.
My short essay on the successful bid for Port Harcourt as the World Book Capital for 2014 by the Rainbow Book Club appears in YNaija.
Here’s a short excerpt:
“Port Harcourt as the World Book Capital of 2014 will thrust books, and literature into public glare. It is not the case that Nigerians and Africans are not a reading, or ‘literary’ public. It is the case that we need to enliven our books: adapt them into films, exhibit excerpts from them alongside photographs, convert them into formats for mobile devices, serialize them into soapies, adapt them into comic strips, read them aloud as podcasts and audio books, broadcast SMS excerpts from them–endlessly reuse them. So, we need an incident, an event, to galvanize literary efforts within the African continent. Port Harcourt as World Book Capital 2014 is thatevent.
I recognize the gift this successful bid is to collective memory, to what Nigeria is, to whom Nigerians are. Port Harcourt is a historic city, by all ramifications; a centre point for British military operations in World War 1; Nigeria’s most prominent oil city; a symbol of the struggle for equity and environmental sustainability. From this standpoint of history we can imagine a coming history, when Port Harcourt is described as the outpost of Nigeria’s literature.”
The 2012 winner of the of the £10,000 Caine Prize, Africa’s leading literary prize, will be announced at a celebratory dinner at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, on Monday 2 July. To promote the new crop of young writers, 3bute.com in collaboration with the Caine Prize will be adapting (so readers can mashup) all the stories shortlisted for this year’s prize before the winner is announced.
Drop dates for the Caine Prize 2012 ’3butes’:
- Stanley Kenani (Malawi) ‘Love on Trial’ — May 27
- Melissa Tandiwe Myambo (Zimbabwe) — June 3
- Constance Myburgh (South Africa) ‘Hunter Emmanuel’ — June 11
- Rotimi Babatunde (Nigeria) ‘Bombay’s Republic’ — June 20
The problem is not that Ahmed Maiwada has complained of the similarities in ‘Bombay’s Republic’ and ‘Burma Boy.’ It is the manner in which he has done so — choosing to make a hurried conclusion before a logical argument, and choosing to, despite being a Lawyer and critic, assert his position non-evidentially. And what is more, he has done so in informal terms, in a manner that borders on vindictive desperation. But that cannot be a primary grouse, as I wish to clearly avoid lapsing into bouts of sentimentality. My interest is in laying bare larger concerns that he seems to have unintentionally (or abusively) raised. Since his Facebook profile is public, and since he graciously accepts friend requests, I believe the diligent reader will consider visiting his profile for an introductory session.
The accusation is simple — Rotimi Babatunde, author of the Caine Prize shortlisted ‘Bombay’s Republic’ plagiarized, ‘Burma Boy’, by Biyi Bandele. Two general statements are to be made. First, plagiarism cannot be proved aside the ‘intent’ of the plagiarist. And two, plagiarism, is not, on its face value, a tort (in fact it is referred to as a crime against morality, and not necessarily an illegality). To prove plagiarism, one has to hinge the offence to the offence of copyright infringement — a case of stealing someone’s work or idea, passing it off as an original, and making gain through this act. Each of these elements, I emphasize, must be taken independently. Each of these elements must be proved.
Did you just cringe from this direct affront of a title? Then that might be the hypocrite in you, the sappy morality you probably incurred from a decent upbringing and/or religious beliefs. I am of a modest upbringing too: a good childhood, a roof over my head and parental censorship, one of which included my mother knocking off the TV set while it broadcasted a sex scene in the Black American Drama series, Soul Food.
At the tender age of five, I once asked my father how little babies came about? His reply was that it took long periods of prayer to the Almighty. Now that I am grown, I am wont to imagine intercession by couples in several sexual positions.
Saraba has taken a taboo subject to discuss in her 11th Issue. We were quite aware of the delicateness of this salacious delicacy, if you will, its ‘political incorrectness’. But the reality of sex either as a tool of procreation or as an object of pleasure can not be easily swept under the carpet of propriety. Nigeria as country has experienced a population explosion for instance; about two-thirds of her citizens are under the age of thirty. This speaks of an unequivocal consequence of unprotected sex.
So, I was one of the cyberspace moralists that put in word for Okeoghene Ighiwoto, the now famous Nigerian patient who has been ‘saved’. How might one begin thinking of this matter in a post-salvation mode, now that we feel good, sigh gratefully, relish our success? But, as we find, success is often an imagined word. And that fact applies no less here, now that we walk the uncertain terrains of morality, sentimentality, and virality. We hear that Okeoghene’s matter has been taken over by the Delta State government. This is a triumph, obviously. It is the kind of triumph that happens when a first goal is scored. One must not be happy enough.
It has become Government matter. Government matter reminds me of how macrosystems often overwhelm micro-systems, so that no matter how much we try, we are faced with the need for an institutional overhaul. We cannot speak of a working health system, for instance, without the signing into Law of the Health Bill. Without, what is more, the justitiability of socio-economic rights, such as the right to good health, which is not included in the Nigerian constitution as a fundamental right. How can the right to life mean anything without a corresponding right to good health? How can the death penalty suffice as punishment if living corresponds to dying (unfortunately, Nigeria remains resolute on state-killing)? We keep creating microsystems — cyber-campaigns, rallies, walks, talks — focused on advocating for and ensuring good health, but the macrosystems are frustrating us.
The dots are easy to connect. We are successful in a limited sense. And our limitations mean more people are dying from a broader insensitivity. Our sentimentalities are not forming adequate constellations; the challenge is that the missing pieces are not within our reach.
[For an insightful background into #SaveOke, see the images of Okeoghene Ighiwoto on Linda Ikeji’s blog,read Temitayo Olofinlua’s piece, and read Oke's story]
Jason Russell and his cohorts have shown us how ‘viral’ suggests infiniteness, a geometric progression, an x. He gives us certain terms of reference, which when considered (mostly) at face value, we find implications that outdo Kony 2012 in fundamentally useful respects. I am interested, in joining my voice to #SaveOke, in telling ways in which KONY 2012 implicate readings of virality. If a YouTube film has changed the way we consider transmissibility, what lessons can we learn when the dreams of one of us currently lies at his feet? Especially if we are really, really interested in the pursuit of happiness.
In the first place, we have been taught the convenience of categorization — Kony is very very bad, Jacob is the good boy who is overrun by Kony’s badness. In this respect, it seems it does not matter how much relativity we have accorded morality, or how much scepticism we have bashed it with. As long as the earth remains, we will probably classify one act as good, and another as bad. I discern it is easier to proclaim morality than amorality — one cannot say there are no absolute terms to define good and evil and in the same breath proclaim the holocaust as utterly reprehensible and the abolishment of slavery as triumphantly pleasant. Agreed, then, we understand that certain actions can be in the interest of good. Whether or not we accept the lure to donate $30, or despise the irresponsibility of Russell and co, it comes down to a fundamental need to overrun badness, unhappiness. Continue reading →
In a meeting last week, I made the point to my colleagues that Twitter was the greatest webtechnological innovation of our last decade. There was stifled laughter, mockery lingering in the faces of my listeners. I have re-contemplated that stance, each time coming to the same conclusion. It takes quite a lot of fiery compositional intelligence to make sense in 140 characters. But it takes some patternized diligence to conceive a project on a twitter platform.
In Addis Ababa last December, I had a momentary feeling that I was accommodating too much self-love, too much disdain for the Other. Being a Christian as I am, I am taught to consider myself more lowly, to think in terms of others. And I’ve readied myself for the bliss that comes from opening one’s self.
To achieve this, I thought of how we are enveloped by the facts of life, the fixated and systematic renderings of existence. And how this fixatedness transcends a person, for laws are no respecter of persons. In many ways life is expressed in Laws, and the absolute will always overcome the relative. In many ways, we walk within firm parentheses.
So, my #FoL project, or ‘play’ject is an attempt to reach to the firm parentheses of life, to see and record facts that appear universal. For instance:
“Waiting is a convenient excuse for idleness.” And, “Some churches will accommodate everything except your admission of impeity.”
What Twitter affords is the ability to state unequivocally, without the space for debate. The truth and falsity of each statement is often left undebated, as I guess most people who come across my tweets will either smile, shake their head disagreement, or look away.
And we must also recognize the hilariousness of our Twitter life, the humour in its narrative. You will find @toluogunlesi useful in this regard (a week ago, I met a man who, meeting Tolu for the first time, was surprised at the unassuming face behind the ROTFL tweets.)
So, if you may, and only if you may, follow me @emmaiduma, and let’s declare the Facts of Life together.
Olaniran Osotuyi, one of my closest friends and colleagues, appeared before a court for the first time on Monday 27. Earlier, a few days earlier, another friend, Abimbola, had also made her first appearance. We were amongst a total of 3726 Lawyers that were called to the Nigerian Bar on Valentine’s Day. When Olaniran updated his Blackberry Messenger status to state he would be making an appearance in a couple of hours, I felt for the first time that I should be in a courtroom, not facing a computer screen.
In the months following the completion of my studies at the Nigerian Law School, I have worked as a freelance writer/editor/blogger/web administrator. These slashes have ensured that I remain fed, although if I didn’t have the luxury of living with an uncle, things might be different. I knew from my first year in University that I didn’t want to practice Law, and each year that passed in my undergraduate program reinforced my choice, trammelled my legal destiny. Incidentally, I finished few points away from a first class, and finished with the same class at the Law School. I assert these facts intentionally, yet perplexingly — how is it that I survived six years of studying Law, this vocation I did not intend to practice?
I’ll leave that question unanswered. What I might be able to answer is the glaring ambitiousness of the alternative career I have chosen, this literary path, this worded life.
I arrived Lagos in early September 2011, the same evening I attended a job interview. I was offered the job, but declined when it was going to clash with the trans-African project I was involved in. Life went on. I started keeping a beard. I started writing more non-fiction, started working without pay.
Being in my early 20s means I am highly impressionable. In seeking to record my latest adventures, this foray into unknown territory, I consider the relevance of stating lessons I have learnt from my ongoing projects. The premise upon which I state this is the fact of unpredictability, the diverse unity of my projects, the compendious and yet elaborate nature of my artistic view.
They come to us in the name of God, for evil has taken the guise of virtue. They say they are speaking a collective language, premised on restating the religious utopia created by their prophet. Their prophet. Clearly, their God and their prophet are imagined. Evil has taken the guise of virtue.
I realize that, in the final analysis, what Boko Haram wants is to silence our freedom. They want to introduce a regime of creative stagnation. I understand that creativity begins at the threshold of freedom. Let me explain.
There is a story of vines that have a life of their own. It was said that in a certain Mayan ruin, these vines would screech and vibrate like ringing phones, luring the innocent tourist into the forest of vines. In the forest of vines, the tourist is unable to move again because the vines have wrapped itself around that tourist’s body. And if the tourist were to escape the forest of vines, below the ruin there are armed Mayans, who will not let any person touched by the vines to escape. It is, therefore, a question of the carnivorous vines or the murderous Mayans.
The absence of freedom, then, is the absence of the creative option. It is a demeaning choicelessness. This terrorist group will create a dystopia, a state of nature, first, and then they will give us no choice but to follow their dogma. They will kill hundreds of people in the wake of their dystopic agenda, each bombing increasing in the intensity of its barbarism and the extent of its carnage. All of that killing leads to the moment when freedom (of thought, religion, and speech) is exchanged for life. Continue reading →
Something dies in you. You feel disconnected from your dream of a glorious aftermath. For the first time in your life you felt whole, framed within a bigger picture. You spoke, chanted, demanded. You were a witness, you and a million others. You were a revolutionary. Now things have returned to normal. Normal because there are moving cars, stores are open; the street is calloused, as before, by the movement and the people. And the normalcy. You hate that things are normal. This was not what you dreamed of. At all.
But what did you dream?
The horizon of your dream was of a better life, a different form of existence, a tangible and measurable difference. You saw that the debate about fuel subsidy removal was the opportunity to dream of change, because this was a protest above all protests, because this protest seemed naturally logical. But you forgot that in dreaming one does not feel, the night happens so fast, and very soon you are awake. Continue reading →
No one will speak for me if I do not speak for myself. Tell this to those who have formed groups and begotten labels in my name: I will join you if only I hear my voice in yours. Not earlier. In this regard, I refuse to be called ‘the Nigerian on the street’ because there are Nigerians OUT OF the street.
If I am on the street it is not because of anybody. It is because of me.
I say this because I must divest myself from every resistance that collaborates. Clearly, there are those who wish that a revolt continues because it creates for them an ‘other’, thereby perpetuating their actions, their desire to stay on. These people wish to look at me and nod their heads, ‘yes, someone is agreeing with me in my irresponsibility.’ Continue reading →