It is best that Richard speaks for himself, that I present this conversation without remarks. For suddenly, in need of an introductory note, I find that I have none, and that Richard’s responses sparks of completeness. In fact, I had no reason to respond to his first responses – perhaps silenced by the lengthiness and profundity of each response. And knowing Richard, knowing him as the Chief Operating Officer of Parresia, publishers of my first book, and having met him only once, yet feeling that I have known him for a much longer time, I daresay that I expected to be knocked down by the weight and compulsiveness of his erudition.
Richard Ali is a Lawyer, Editor of the Sentinel Nigeria Magazine and author of City of Memories, a novel, published in April 2012. For more of his writings, ensure to click on the links on the page where this conversation appears.
EMMANUEL IDUMA: When did you become conscious of the contribution you could make to life?
RICHARD ALI: I remember the period, not a specific time, and it happened in the resort city of Jos, Nigeria where I grew up—I must have been about seven or eight at that time. It came about as a result of a television series, The Wonder Years, about the junior high school years of a boy named Arnold—the way the episodes were shot and directed, there was a narrator speaking out the thoughts of Arnold, such that the viewer could hear this character think. For me, a somewhat introverted child, this was revolutionary—it opened a whole new world of thought to me. I could actually observe myself thinking, talking in my head just as Arnold in the show. With thought, of course, came all sorts of experiments. But I remember I was about eight years old then. I lived in a middle-class part of town and had a life just like Arnold’s with a bike and friends, and my days and holidays were spiced with playing baram, a hockey-like local game, against his baseball, and of course, my catapults and bird catching and mango tree disturbing were other pastimes. I realized that thoughts were a thing, very malleable like plastic, something I could play with while doing other things—a private place.
While the seeds of the sense of my Self came from then, it took a while to make the connection that thought could create impressions for other people, that one’s thoughts could be made into a context for other people to enter and live. That came in secondary school at Emmanuel College in Jos, in the friendship of my late friend Faruk Ibrahim Hamza. Prior to this, I was an avid reader of books and magazines wherever I found them. I started reading Time and Newsweek in the early ‘90s, regularly; I’d also read story books of the children’s variety and then my father’s books, which were an eclectic mix—I remember reading James Hadley Chase’s No Orchids for Miss Blandish, dozens of African Writer Series books—of which Peter Abrahams’ Mine Boy and Ferdinand Oyono’s The Old Man and the Medal are the first in my mind. Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North as well. All these were, shall I say, cosmetic readings in the sense that the sole job of these books was to feed my thoughts, to populate my mental spaces.
Things changed when Faruk, my tragic friend, discovered books on philosophy in the course of a holiday and shared his discoveries with our little clique. It was as if, you know that trick where a tablecloth is quickly pulled off a table so the tea set on it stays exactly where it was? Everything changed. That was Faruk. I remember him asking if we could be sure that the blackboard was in fact black. Relativism, the primacy of definition, rationality, heady stuff from Faruk’s reading that set my thoughts in frenzy. I saw that, like those philosophers who had created worlds of ideas for other people to think in, I could do the same thing. I was about thirteen; Faruk was a year younger. Faruk Hamza died the next year in a freak car accident in Kaduna. By the time I arrived in Zaria as an undergraduate and met the work of Leftist historians who had had their heyday in the ‘70s and ‘80s and begun my own student union activities, contributing to Life with a capital L was something I had already started doing and felt I would do even more definitively in time.
EI: Do you remember the first thing you wrote, and the feeling afterward? Is this akin to the feeling of being a first time author? Or has maturity replaced naiveté?
RA: I do hope some sort of maturity is evident in my present work—we are all dying and I don’t think the fate of Benjamin Button is a particularly pleasant one. The novel City of Memories is my first major writing out in the public, but it comes latest merely in a line of less, to use your word, maturewriting. My very first writings were memoirs and I was about thirteen—about the same time my conscious thinking started, my fourth year in secondary school. I had no idea that thirteen year-olds had no business writing memoirs, so I bought a notebook and skipping the first page, I wrote “Memoirs” in as stylish a script as my scrawl would allow. I remember it took many weeks before I returned to that page and wrote my full name at the bottom of the page—it was a heady feeling, to be a writer without his words yet. Perhaps later that night, I wrote my first entry.
My “Memoirs” was populated by thoughts about the world and about other people and why they were the way they were. I remember an essay on a friend who was heartbroken; I remember another about a girl who had bent an infant’s fingers backwards to spite its mother. This was my first writing—trying to understand the world in words, for I was introverted and never was a physically significant child. I consider these juvenilia and much of my early poetry as well, until about 2007; all these are mostly juvenilia and the sole purpose of such writing is to find the core ideas for the rest of one’s life—lacking elegance, the first task for a writer is to make his ideas elegant. Poetry came with taking Literature-in-English in secondary school and learning the dynamics of the genre. I was fascinated with English poetry and tried, as Robert Louis Stevenson exhorts us to try and fail, to copy their style. I never had the ear for the falling and rising notes of the iambic pentameter, but I contented myself with counting the syllables on each line and playing around with rhymes and rhyming schemes.
The first major break came in 2007 when, having stopped my imitations of the traditional English, I wrote a poem “Buddha Child,” which Chuma Nwokolo published in his African Writing journal. After this, my poetry became better as I had found the core of my poetics. So, yes, to my mind there has been a lot of maturing over the last decade.
EI: Are there schizophrenic tendencies in choosing whether to read or to write? I often feel tempted to write when I am reading, and a parallel feeling when I am writing. Perhaps it’s the same with you?
RA: Schizophrenic is a good word. It also means withdrawn, doesn’t it, to be withdrawn into oneself? I would use that word to describe the difficult feeling you ask about, but with a nuance. For me the choice is not between choosing to read or choosing to write, these two are so related as to be Siamese. On the other side is thinking. Thought. Especially with fiction. I’ll tell you about the cliché effect; it is the tendency to write what you have read—a lot of minor plagiarism is birthed in this tendency. Even major cases of plagiarism, paragraphs or pages long for example, these are sometimes innocent doings of people who can remember extremely long passages, but not where they got them from—quite understandable, even if rightly prosecuted. What a writer needs to develop, and the earlier he does this the better, is the core of writing—the dynamics—and for me these always border around very existential questions. The nature of truth and reality, for example, as seen in the theme of identity. Causality, as seen in exploring the context of actions, to better understand events and happenings.
Then there’s the question of freedom and how to be free—is it by knowing more or by knowing less, how does what other people know affect us? All these are for me a writer’s core negotiations and the answers to these inform literature truly, whether poetry or prose. If a writer has this at the back of his mind, if he wrestles mentally with these, if he has an active imagination, and even if he has just average skills in craft, such a writer will write true literature. That is why we feel Okonkwo from Things Fall Apart, even by German or Inuit readers, because Chinua Achebe’s existential, philosophical concerns, coupled with his imagination, saw him write a book that mined the human experience at its most basic. We must imagine Okonkwo, as we must imagine Arthur Miller’s character Willy Loman, or J. D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield, as Adamic or Babelian. Adamic in the broadest, most inclusive, most human sense of the word. Babelian not as dissonance, but as a One.
This does not come from reading books or writing books but by thinking, and this sort of thinking requires a style of schizophrenia. The reading-writing dichotomy, to use a very distrusted word, really depends on what you are reading, whether popular fiction or literary fiction within these two extremes. For example, if you are reading an Anne Rice book and you want to write, there is a choice between pleasure and effort. But if you were reading Umberto Eco and wanted to write, it is a less clear choice, because both are extremely similar things. I’ll give you an example from poetry; it is not possible, I think, to read T. S. Eliot or Yeats and not stop in places, bookmark, take a pen, and write—even if it is marginal notes. Difficulty in choice only comes when there is difference. Reading and writing what I consider to be true literature is a Siamese relationship.
Let me return to my earlier idea: it is dangerous to read too much true literature, because of the clichés of perception that this sublimates in a reader. The writer must create new perceptions, not the mimesis of others’ perceptions, however well-perceived these may be.
EI: It seems to me that you draw sensibilities from nationalistic concerns? Is it a sense of duty to a troubled nation like ours, or an attempt to extricate yourself from the laziness of being an onlooker?
RA: I wouldn’t say my sensibilities are “nationalist;” I would prefer humanist. But I am more interested in my local context than in larger, perhaps international or even interplanetary contexts. This local interest, often coinciding with very recognizable national settings in my writing, especially prose, comes from a belief that the universal is in the particular. I will illustrate this with the universality of myth. We have these grand Scandinavian myths of Loki and the Babylonian-Persian myths recorded in the Upanishads and we have the Ifa myths that predate the present Yoruba people, and all these are attempts to understand the elemental world. Yet, all these myths have similar, near archetypal characters—we have the Hindu deity Agni and Agni is similar to the Yoruba god Sango. Take a look at the Christian trinity and its Egyptian precursor, or its various Middle Eastern triune gods. I think these theologies are not only related, but are in fact the same thing. Imagine a plumb line into the core of what it is to be a human being or imagine various shafts leading to a common mother lode. I am interested in my path, my local environment, because I know it leads to the same place as his and hers and theirs, because it is as much human as his or hers or theirs. The nation is a microcosm of the world, my street is a microcosm of the nation—microcosms have all you want and you see the details of everything, the Larger Story, clearer than ever there.
EI: Why do you write?
RA: I assume you mean my fiction? Out of responsibility—to the authors and the books I have read, primarily. Perhaps I’ve read five hundred books in the last decade. Most of these have been literary fiction: Milan Kundera, the truly great Ondaatje, J. M. Coetzee down to Achebe and Soyinka, and all these writers have contributed the nuance of their understanding to the larger human story. I think a sense of indebtedness arises from having read all these—it is the sort of crucial indebtedness which, as a matter of honor, you seek to discharge and memorialize as soon as you receive that unexpected patrimony. This drives all writers, I think—the conviction that they too have something to say, something to add to the human story. Everyone has a range that their talent and experience allows them to observe. I never tire of restating the Igbo proverb about the inability to view a masquerade from one spot—you can only truly experience the spectacle of culture, literary culture in this case, and the humanity or humanism that underlies it, by a synthesis of vantages. These vantages are provided by various writers.
To write is to affirm—I also saw the masquerade, and this is what I saw! All the while you are aware that the larger spectacle is truly a collective one. An example comes to mind, a quilt! Each fiction, literary fiction, is a patch in a quilt.
The second reason why I write is because I enjoy working on my writing, both the stringing of words together and the finessing afterward. I think some of the most beautiful sentences in Nigerian writing belong to Wole Soyinka, many from his Prison Notes. When I write, I see the sheer beauty in Soyinka’s language. I know that beauty is accessible to me and I try to mine that aesthetic field and make my words latent with beauty and power as well.
EI: What is it about Jos that is endearingly beautiful? In your new novel your celebration of Jos might, to the careless reader, seem contrived. Did you seek to unravel the state of being in that city? What do you seek to do when making a work out of Jos?
RA: The city of Jos, for me, symbolizes the center of everything and I put my native city at the heart of my novel to further ground that symbolism—writers are allowed to play such private tricks. My sense of the world largely revolves and resolves itself into the religious Sufi idea of Oneness of God. Put simply, it means that while there may be Two and Three and Ten and possibly a universe full of numeric deviations, all these have a common fons et origo, and this is the One, and this One is the same numeric value as Zero and Infinity. All religious ideas, especially the great monotheisms, are mirroring of one thing. I am interested in what casts the reflection, less in the glass that reflects, and this primacy of interest is what Sufism is about. In the same sense, countries, modern African countries with their major issues and problems, always have a way-they-were-before. Jos is a resort town right in the center of the country; the first fact means it is a cosmopolis and the second dramatizes the idea of centrality.
Let me say something about centrality—the most artistically sophisticated culture in Ancient Nigeria was the Nok Culture, which thrived in the Jos-Southern Kaduna area at about the same time Xerxes was building Persepolis and the Greeks started writing. It means we were there as well; we, Nigerians, contributed to the world story—significantly. This is the meaning of Jos, the sense of historical authenticity that comes from always having been in the pulse of historical events, knowing that your story is wide enough and resilient enough to absorb all the sub-stories, seemingly discordant, forcedly antagonistic, that modern Africa teems with. There is nothing contrived about it, it is rather something challenging—if you can dare to imagine the Largest Possible Picture, you will find yourself in Jos, in Babel, in Eden, cosmopolises such as these. The modern city of Jos has seen a lot of politico-economic (masked as ethno-religious) eruptions in the last quarter century and many think adversely about Jos-ness. Yet, what is 25 years when your history is as long as 1500 years? When I write about Jos, this is where I write from.
EI: You write in “How Wild Horses Die,” an unpublished poem, “everything reels in a swirl of images.” To me the image is the trajectory of feeling. And evoking feeling is an important duty of the novelist. How do you manage, if you wish to plumb my analogy, to create reels in a swirl of imagery? Or do you feel obliged, even?
RA: I use a “swirl of images” there in the sense of a mental swirl; an image is something that exists but has yet to be experienced. Perhaps I could use your analogy and say mental images are feelings that have the promise to be experienced. You are right to say the novelist’s job is to evoke feeling. I think this is not so difficult to do, for the novelist is among the most observant people on the planet. Orhan Pamuk sits writing a book in Aladdin’s coffee shop in Istanbul and decides to pepper his story with descriptions of the real coffee house in fiction. What he has done is to take something very public, perhaps a hundred thousand people go through that same coffee house each year, and make it significant by writing about it. The same things happen to us all, what sets the writer apart and above the rest is that he writes about it—re-invokes it, such that the others to whom these things did happen, might have happened, or sought to have happen, identify themselves in his re-invocation. And, if a writer succeeds, how he saw what happened, becomes how it happened for other people for whom the events of course happened differently. In this sense, the novelist is a politician. He politicizes what to emphasize in his world through his fiction.
EI: How do you navigate the demands of the image as a poet or a novelist?
RA: Both are one and there really is no great dispute between a Poetry Faction and a Prose Faction in my head. Let’s say there are certain things that I would naturally tackle in poetry and others that have to be written in prose. I think poetry, at least my poetry, is the genre in which I try to find and express the truth of things. Poetry is difficult for me, yet I derive the most pleasure from my poems, because it’s difficult to write, I have very few poems and am only just thinking seriously of a collection. Some poets seem to have poetic lips or spirits or whatever, such that anything they see they can, forgive me, poeticize. I don’t begrudge these poets, though they do have a tendency to somehow write good verse on trivial topics and shift the burden of depth, and possibly truth, to the reader. I think this is a mischief.
The novel is far more luxurious, far more leisurely. As I said earlier, the most important thing about the novel for a writer is the form of the novel, which is very, very fluid. A writer should feel free and confident to experiment. Be aware of tradition, then set out to create a new tradition, each and every time. I try this in my novel, leaving some questions unanswered, involving the reader in a play of language while doing subtle tricks with plot—whether I have pulled it off or not remains to be seen. A novel is a thing that can be planned; as I sit here, I can see sketches of my next novel on the back of a calendar on the table and when the actual writing starts in a year’s time, this schema will be subordinate to the words and ways of plot that cannot be argued with. The demand of each is different, prose and poetry.
EI: In the last two, three years you have indulgently, even fascinatingly, edited Sentinel Nigeria. When did you consider you could facilitate that platform? What demands has it made?
RA: Sentinel Nigeria is one of the success stories of the Internet; it couldn’t have happened without the World Wide Web. Back in the early 2000s, in the pre-Facebook days, I was a member of a Yahoo! Group—the Sentinel Poetry Group—in which most of the “third generation” of Nigerian writers shared their writing and opinions, engaged in controversies, and we even had a monthly competition. I took to the Internet as soon as it arrived in Nigeria, having read about it in Time and Newsweek in the late ‘90s. I was fascinated and when it became reasonably cheaper, I think 500 naira (~$3) for 30 minutes, I joined the online community. People like Adebola Rayo and I were the green ones, in silence learning from our elders, most of whom had left Nigeria for various reasons in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Five years later I got an e-mail from Nnorom Azuonye, who had set up the Sentinel Poetry Group, offering me an opportunity to set up the Sentinel Nigeria magazine. I accepted. At the time of setting up the editorial team, comprising Nze Sylva Ifedigbo and Unoma Azuah initially, I hadn’t met either of them. I finally met Nze in Abuja after our third issue, and met Unoma after our seventh. As of our tenth issue, I have never met my boss and publisher, Nnorom Azuonye. Ivor Hartmann, I’ve never met him. Its demands have been considerable, but I have a solid team behind me and I enjoy what we do at Sentinel. We are all working pro-bono, so it’s a labor of love. I actually love editing together with the sub-editors, and I love it when an editorial comes out well. But editorials, like poems, are difficult to write; thankfully, I go through the trials of it only once every three months. Its demands are considerable, but they also bring pleasure.
EI: Let’s expand the conversation. There is the argument for home-grown literature, that we ought to globalize the local. I wonder if the present circumstances of being Nigerian supports this view. Compared to a decade ago, is the work being done inside Nigeria of interest to those outside the country?
RA: I don’t agree with “globalizing the local.” In that process, essence is lost and to be candid, any writing that is capable of or in need of being “globalized” is of doubtful quality. Did Chinua Achebe globalize Things Fall Apart? Cyprian Ekwensi’s novellas, did he globalize them, measure them up to some O’ Henry or XYZ somewhere “there”? Tayeb Salih? None of these guys internationalized anything they wrote. I’ve spoken on this earlier, but I’ll tell you again why they did not—because they wrote the core of the human experience and what is human in Umuofia is recognizable instantly in Beirut, and what is human in Vladivostok is easily identified with by just about anyone. Look at Anna Akhmatova’s poems! Or look at The Gulag Archipelago, yes, Solzhenitsyn versus Wole Soyinka’s Prison Notes. If Wole Soyinka’s The Man Died was translated to Russian, and a political detainee of the Soviets back in the days had read it, would he have needed any globalist modifications to identify completely with the persona? I doubt it. Both books go to the core of what it means to be human.
You only need to use artificial lighting when there is no natural lighting. No, I’m not a believer in globalizing literature—take the form of the novel, take the tradition of poetry, take what has come before, study it and re-imagine something new. If you have done your intellectual job well, the product of your re-imagination is instantly recognized without recourse to “globalization” or the wearing of similar funny hats.
EI: It might be simpler to ask—why should we be concerned with globalizing the local? Is the local not enough? And I think you misunderstand me—I argue from the point of your conclusion, that the local is eventually universalized, and so we shouldn’t struggle with the need of being globalized.
RA: My point exactly. We have no concern with globalizing the local in the same manner a man with full limbs has no need for a crutch. I’ll take your second question in two senses. In the sense of content, the fidelity of content, the local is self-sufficient because the core of the global is embedded in it. The only time when it is not is if the necessary mental effort hasn’t been expended and if the local is improperly imagined whether by mistake or mischief. In these cases, this is only a local so-called, an imposter local.
The second sense is that of market; if the local market for fiction is not enough, then why would a writer want to sell copies of his book in Ukraine and Alaska? The reason for this is vanity, and it is a very excusable vanity—to want to be read widely. Writers need to be able to say they got fan mail from some remote part of Australia; it sounds good and is sure to earn you points with women or men. I want to be read everywhere, like any other writer. But even more than being read in a nonexistent Everywhereland, I want to be read at home by my own country, my own continent—Nigeria, Africa first—because the story I am telling is one that’s theirs, happening down the street or in the country just two or three border crossings away. They should identify themselves and their environment in my writing.
To your last question: the revealing query is, at whose instance does the local become globalized? This is so immensely important that to assume it is not important is the single greatest mischief that can exist. I say the global must accept the local and come to seek it in its habitat, humbly and respectfully, not demanding and proud and rude like the Spanish Armada. The local must never give a quarter in the name of globalizing, for the simple truth is that the so-called global is someone’s local backed with a dubious power. This global, actually a scam-local, can, at best, be only parallel to my own local.
EI: You once mentioned Orhan Pamuk’s internationalization as a useful model for Nigerian literature. Could you elaborate on this?
RA: I read Pamuk after he won the 2006 Nobel. I read the Nobel Lectures of all literature laureates because, regardless of claims of “politics,” all laureates are at the very height of true literature—literary fiction especially. I then read his My Name is Red and his essays in Other Colors. Pamuk’s My Name is Red, as all his books, was written originally in Turkish and this came from a tradition of writing books since the early ‘80s that routinely sold tens of thousands of copies. My Name is Red itself sold over a hundred thousand copies in Turkey in its first week. The point is, Pamuk wrote for his countrymen first—the streets of Istanbul he describes are their own streets and he doesn’t fill in details of explanations as one would find in a tour book; he simply describes his settings elegantly. And the local Turkish market rewarded him for this by buying unheard of amounts of his books. In Turkish. When the West saw these sales figures, they came to him, bearing publishing deals and fellowships in America—I believe it was Columbia first among others. His books make no apologies, they wear no funny hats to impress. He was, to use your word, internationalized, via translation, on his own terms. When you read his essays, you understand why—and you understand that his concentration on Turkey did not mean he had a congenial career in the country, he had all the controversies and fights that make for intellectual ferment and creativity.
So, why are Nigerian and African writers not doing the same thing? Why should a Malawian be more interested in a bad review in the New Yorker than in a positive review in the KenyanDaily Chronicle? I know dozens of writers who have spent money vanity-publishing themselves in America, some small press in Kalamazoo, and their books, sometimes their very first books, are not available in the book store at the corner of the street in the town where they live—a town in which their writing is set. If a writer writes as best as he can, his first market will be the one he breathes the same air with. Others come later. I intend to be around for a while and write a hopeful four more novels—yet, I am still thinking whether or not to get an agent and if I would accept a publishing deal from one of the majors were it offered for any of my subsequent writing.
EI: Should writers read the kind of books they want to write next?
RA: I don’t think you should read the sort of book you would like to write next. I’m a believer in originality and, above that, authenticity. The easiest way to lend yourself to deliberate or mistaken plagiarisms is to read about the next book you wish to write—believe me, the temptation to not attribute sources, where such unoriginal unauthentic ideas exists, is a strong one, one that may even require, to use Wilde’s quip, great strength to not fall into.
But then, maybe I’m doctrinaire? I know a young man, one of the more talented younger Nigerian writers, who declared he was not original and that being authentic was not a goal he wished to aspire to. I smiled, because I knew then that pretty as his writing ever would be, it would be of little value to me—for he as a person simply had no core to him. So, I do not agree with this theory of yours, for it is incompatible with my cherished ideas of originality and, possibly, authenticity. Now, look at it this way, between me and the young writer I just mentioned: if he is right and I am wrong, what would that prove if not that we are all damned already? Redemption, not damnation, should be the idea associated with creative artists.
EI: I like you for many reasons, one of which is the divergence of your preoccupations—from Coldplay to Occupy Nigeria to Sufism, and more. Do you see beauty in this collagist identity?
RA: Sufism guides my life and these seemingly disparate personalities are all in harmony—and yes, I think I am beautiful. I started pluralizing myself quite early, maybe even as early as the phase I realized the action of thought during the time of The Wonder Years. I have spoken of the Sufi idea in answer to an earlier question, so let me seek another illustration, a chemical one, to capture what I feel to be this collagist identity. The core of this is informed by being from central Nigeria and living in Jos, at least in part.
Manifestations of Self, in its protean variety, feeds into the master work of my life. It is a work I cannot say anything about, quite in the same way a patchwork in a quilt cannot describe the quilt of which it is a part.
This reality brings up a number of possible reactions, the most obvious of which is existentialism in the French sense of it, as alienation and the sense of living life as being absurd. My point of departure from Camus’ existentialism, however, is that there is no dichotomy between man and the world—we do not have the one seeking order and the other being definitively chaotic. If this dichotomy does not exist, it follows that there can be no “absurdity” and suicide does not come up in my world. For me, both man and the world are all, to use not the best term, matter, beneath their seeming natures. If one probes deep enough, you will find a basic harmony. This puts me to mind of the dialectics of Hegel, Marx, and their descendants. Unlike them, I am interested only in working backward and finding the One rather than working forward and predicting the future. This is how I see my protean personalities, as feeding a deeper logic of my Life—all these, all Me, are beautiful like the skirt of a Sufi dancer spinning round and round in one spot in love for the One.
EI: Have you ever responded to an online debate as though you faced your opponent in real life?
RA: I always respond to online debates as if I were facing my opponents across the table. The image in my mind is of those great disputations, the First Council of Nicaea, right down to the Renaissance disputes. I admire the Renaissance thinker Pico della Mirandola who, in sheer audacity, offered to debate any of his 900 theses with any man alive—the gesture presupposes that Mirandola had thought out each of these theses and had a firm position in his own mind about each of them. For me, Mirandola is the archetype of The Thinker.
Setting out one’s ideas is a serious business; it is to ask normal people to trust the product of your Thought; it is also to ask fellow thinkers to test the fidelity of your Thought. In these situations, I remember when Einstein said God did not play dice. I similarly see no reason to give quarter. In the folly of intellectuals lies the ruin of civilizations, and the ruin of civilizations is not a joke. This informs my contributions to disputes.
Yet, Time has taught me to stop engaging in online debates or disputes. This is because without a raconteur, without a court registrar, there is a perverse species of disputant who enjoys dispute for its own sake, who have no true stake, and so do not mind imagining they argue cyclically, even when chunks of the circumference of their arguments have been carved out by their opposition.
EI: I suppose you’re a lover-man. Otherwise I find no other explanation for the blissful imprudence in the final stanza of “She-Shell” (unpublished):
Between eternities, my mind explores the subterns – whiffs
Of perfume, cadenced laughter, chance glances glimpsed
At market squares, and such ephemera. Dreams are groves in psyche Beckoning to our trust. I close my eyes and melt into her dream.
RA: I guess you can say that—I love women very much and they inspire a lot of my poetry. Yet, in these love poems, I also try to code the idea of love for God that informs the poetry of my predecessors, such as the sublime Rumi. Some poems are merely carnal love, others bear love for what is greater than mere carnal love. That poem was written for a girl, Elizabeth, who I came to love at her core. Sometimes you are lucky and a woman bares herself in a way that is done hardly, and sometimes what you see is beautiful. So, you love. In that affair, we can say both sorts of love poetry found balance. It is one of my favorite poems.
EI: I always get the feeling that you believe in this generation of Nigerian writers more than the earlier ones. Is this correct? Do we have a “unique selling point”? Has this informed your efforts with Sentinel and your publishing firm Parrésia?
RA: Absolutely. I think this new generation of Nigerian writers is more home-grown than the last, the so-called Third Generation, who are still mostly diaspora-based. This generation, unlike the Third, do not have to bother about the geo-psychological politics of expatriate, exile, or émigré life—all those tedious, false, immensely crucial arguments with self about proximity from “home,” hyphenation, and so on. All those real and imaginary things that plagued the creative phase of the Third generation, we do not have those concerns. Nnorom Azuonye, Esiaba Irobi, Olu Oguibe, and Victor Ehikhamenor—these guys were plucked in their twenties and put under the immense pressures of forced acculturation. I cannot imagine that really; I can only deeply empathize. We, on the other hand, are in our own country, albeit one that is rapidly dysfunctional. We are the parallels of the First Generation of Nigerian writers, Wole Soyinka, J. P. Clark, Achebe, et al. We are in times of great social ferment and perhaps this informs the vibrancy of our writing. It must, in the very least, be closely related. Read up on Ukamaka Evelyn Olisakwe and Ifesinachi Okoli, read up on Abubakar Adam Ibrahim and you too, Emmanuel, and one can’t help feeling the pulse of new creativity. This is a generation that is defining itself by itself, like the pre-independence guys. There are no foreign influences, so there is less a need to place funny hats on this generation’s creativity.
The increasing availability of the Internet, of objectionable quality but nonetheless available in urban areas at least, has seen great intra-generation communication and collaboration. I told you about the way Sentinel Nigeria is run. Parrésia is run the same way, with a heavy reliance on e-mail and Skype and Internet services. Our key files are backed up on cloud computing services that are remotely accessible, such that if there is a hardware loss we can be up and running in next to no time. BlackBerry Messenger is another platform, allowing for intimate groups of just 30 people who share their most private ideas and develop authentic senses of themselves each day. Our unique selling point is that we are the Unapologetic Generation. I foresee the rise of ideologies of Nigerian and African writing from this generation; we will have ideas and factions and schisms—the whole works. And we will leave a mark. We are already making an impact, because for us the purpose of tradition is to aid us to be at the start of a new tradition. There are no foreign influences to overwhelm, for we have seen the harm of unoriginality and, I am hopeful, we largely value our creative authenticity.
EI: In my review of your new novel, I accused you of attempting to soak “us in the beauty of language, of philosophic declarations, that we forget the loose ends that are tied up in other, less ambitious stories.” Could you speak for yourself?
RA: I liked that sentence in your review. It marked you as a perceptive reader. I’ll tell you that I believe a novel should have something inexplicable, the explanation of which the reader will bring out by various techniques—textual criticism, imagination, whatever. An example of such a question is: why does Eunice Pam, one of the characters in my novel, take the fatal step to aiding genocide? I do not answer it and deliver you a novel that is neat as a box of chocolates. I leave the action inexplicable because, in playing with the form of the novel, I wished to mirror life. Why did Hitler take the fatal step of solving the Jewish Question in the manner he did, such that by 1944 trains headed to Treblinka and Auschwitz had more priority over those taking material to the war front of his speedily shrinking Third Reich? That is the Inexplicable. Why did Pol Pot start killing intellectuals, making anyone with even a pair of glasses a counterrevolutionary liable to be shot, even as his Marxism came from an intellectual tradition? That is the Inexplicable in life. In my experimentation with the novel, I include the reality of the Inexplicable.
As for language, I am pleased that you ascribe beauty to mine. Writing is, in a sense, a labor of immense love and nowhere is the nature of this love shown than in what a writer does with sentences. Read Hemingway’s sentences, read Michael Ondaatje’s—each sentence exists as the heir of perhaps fifteen that were erased, deleted, re-formed. Read Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lionand Divisadero, also The English Patient. Do you remember in The English Patient where Almásy instructs Hana on how to read the first paragraph of Kip? It is because what a writer does to sentences, how they rise and fall, where the pauses are, the commas, therein lies all the labor of love that some have called style. I try to make my language beautiful because I love words. I love my story and I love my readers and I can only give them the best of me and the best of me is, I do not doubt it, beautiful in my variedness. The trick, of course, is to do this and not impede the plot. Did I succeed in doing that? I am waiting to read further criticism in the hope that some other critical reader might pick up on what you’ve sniffed out.
EI: I am curious—your book is dedicated to two daughters and “their” mothers. Do you have a flawless argument for polygamy, or two marriages?
RA: Oh no, far from it. I do not believe in marriage. This unbelief comes from two perspectives. The first is that my chosen, maybe coined, philosophy in gender relations is described only possibly as post-feminist. It means that I assume that the objectives of feminism have been achieved and that the assumption of absolute gender equality informs my relationship with women. With all women, but especially with women who have had the benefits of a liberal education of which feminist ideology and gender studies are a part. This gender equality is borne on the back of physiology, which has shown conclusively that there is no difference between the brains of either gender, and that the sexual differences are more adaptive than definitive. Following all this, why should one party, one gender, “marry” the other? That would undo the entire gains of the feminism that informs my post-feminism, wouldn’t it? Marriage is an anachronism from the patriarchal, pre-neo-feminist social structure and it has little place in a feminist world and no place at all in a post-feminist one. What we can have is negotiations by competent, equal parties. My daughters Zourain and Semira were born as a result of such negotiations—the particulars of these negotiations are my private life and I cannot share these here.
The second perspective informing my unbelief is an artistic one, that which seeks to avoid all clichés of perception. One of these clichés of perception I would rather do without is that marriage is beneficial in any way to men, women, or their children. Sadly, this cliché of perception is ingrained in boys and girls each and every day by our mis-educational system. I choose not to be mis-educated, while respecting everyone else’s right to participate wholly in their own mis-education. The key to harmonious gender and parental relations is love, mutual respect, seeking to aid self-realization, and emotional availability. I am less interested in the filigree around a keyhole, more interested in having the right key in my hand.
EI: Do you face the difficulty of alternating between careers—that of a writer, a publisher, an editor, a lawyer, an administrator, a man? Maybe there’s a formulaic manner you deal with this difficulty?
RA: The difficulty is of course that the time in each day is finite and the demands tend to make outrageous, jealous demands. But then, I try my best and I hope to learn to delegate responsibilities even more. I did recently discover a system, you will be surprised I came so late to it. I leave reminders and alarms on my smartphone, synchronizing everything.
Smartphones always remember, see, that must be why they are smart, no? So, I re-remember to do things in their own time, whipped on my slave master of a silicon chip made by RIM. All said, I have a philosophy that what is meant to be will be and what is not fated to be would not happen regardless of how much one tries. You might have heard that? My nuance is that I assume everything is meant to be until it is apparent that it was not. The glorious Koran states famously, “Maktub; It is written.” But you will remember Ali in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia—he replied, “For some men, nothing is written unless they write it.”
Mentions and Awards:
Essays, Fiction and Poems:
Five Poems - African Writing Journal No. 4
3 Poems in Voices on The Four Winds, Saraba's Poetry Chapbook
Three Poems in Prosopisia Journal 2011
Published by the Academy of raitas*and World Literature
Vol II No. 2
Follow Emmanuel on Twitter @emmaiduma
Africa, Gambit, Nigeria, Orhan Pamuk, Richard Ali