James Eze began his career as a journalist with Thisday Newspaper in Lagos. There he established himself as a man of superb letters before joining The Sun Publishing as the Literary Editor of Sunday Sun. In this position, he met and interviewed the star novelist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The meeting marked the beginning of a friendship that would lead to the formation of the highly successful Fidelity Bank International Creative Writing Workshop series, taught by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie but co-ordinated by Eze who had moved to the banking sector to become the head of external communications at Fidelity Bank.
Eze came to poetry through Gabriel Okara‘s poems and had since established himself as a poet to reckon with. His debut collection, dispossessed, won the ANA Poetry Prize in 2020 and was longlisted for the Nigerian Prize for Literature in 2022. Beyond being a poet, Eze is a literary evangelist and a curator of many poetry and literary events. He also founded the Udala Nation Crew whose debut EP, Daybreak, blurs the line between poetry and song.
BY UGOCHUKWU ANADỊ
This conversation began at the Seminar Hall, Institute of African Studies, University of Nigeria, Nsukka, and was completed over WhatsApp.
Ugochukwu: How did you come to poetry, or rather, how did poetry come to you? I understand that you had granted Henry Akubuiro an interview where you spoke of your initial encounter with poetry, but can you please, for the sake of our audience who may not have read that interview, recount the story for us?
James: Poetry came to me as a pleasant whistling through the window of innocence. That was in high school when our English teacher, Ikechukwu Odoh – God rest his soul – dramatised poetry in the classroom. I was a sensitive, precocious child who felt every ripple in the river of my environment. So, watching my school teacher dramatise “The Call of the River Nun” by Gabriel Okara stroked my interest in poetry. I was stunned by the magnificent use of language, the ability to bury one’s thoughts in layers of meaning and the use of words in a way that paints a vivid, unforgettable picture of the image presented. I couldn’t resist the pool of Okara’s River Nun nor could I resist the pull of poetry after that. I was taken. I began to try my hands on poetry shortly after that. But I knew that what I produced then was anything but poetry. Not that I’m any better now, but I’m a work in progress.
Ugochukwu: Oh. The roles teachers play in our lives. May the soul of Mr. Odoh continue to find rest knowing that there is you, and that there are other of his students like you, who are who and what they are today due to his positive influence.
I like to think that we are all works in progress. I mean, the artist is always the first person to accept that there is imperfection in the world – that perfection itself is an illusion, yet, it is the artist who wakes up in the morning, even before the cocks have had a chance to stir from their slumber, to chase after perfection.
This endless chase of perfection is what makes an artist worthy of bearing that label, artist. It is acknowledging that there’s always a chance for improvement, the refusal to settle for the better when the best can be imagined. But I believe it’s a disservice to an artist to deny or ridicule or downplay previous improvements just because it can be better. On that basis, I disagree with you when you say you are not any better now. We all know that not to be true. But let’s not debate that. Let’s get into your debut collection, dispossessed.
What hits a first-time reader of dispossessed is the musicality of the poems contained therein, the soothing rhythm. This musicality makes your poems yield easily into songs. I think also of Bob Dylan, the American rockstar who became the first singer/songwriter to be awarded a Nobel Prize in Literature for ‘having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition,’ and the debates that followed his award. I now ask you a question which you initially asked the first time you came to this campus to read from dispossessed: what is the difference between a poem and a song? And is your resort to singing also your means of seeking new audiences for poetry?
James: Poetry and song are two closely related art forms that have influenced each other through the ages. They borrow heavily from each other to establish exceptionality of expression and purpose. The only difference is that song lyrics are written essentially to convey melody and set to music while a poem is written to be read or spoken as a piece of literature. A poem does not necessarily need a beat or melody to achieve its purpose but most poems strive for rhythm and harmony which are key elements of a song. If there’s a difference between poetry and song, it is that a song lays a huge emphasis on melody while a poem may not.
That said, I must observe that most poets and critics have always appeared to hold poetry that has strong musical resonance in high esteem. At the same time, songs that carry a deep pool of emotion, rendered in exceptional language are often hailed as poetic. It is fascinating how these two art forms have enriched each other. You cited Bob Dylan’s winning of the Nobel Prize for Literature. But at the recently held 65th Grammy Awards, a poet known as J. Ivy won a Grammy for his spoken word performances. Isn’t it amazing that a musician has won the Nobel Prize for Literature for creating a new poetic expression and a poet has won the Grammy Award for performance poetry? So, what really is the difference between a poem and a song?
Now, as for the question of my efforts to seek new audiences for poetry through music, I think the line between music and poetry actually thins out to indistinguishable levels in the artistic expressions of the traditional society where griots and raconteurs are known to usually burst into songs in the throes of their performance. My poetry borrows a lot from that heritage as it strives to gain access to ears that are not accustomed to poetry. I have recorded a lot of songs that came out of my poetry and in May 2022, I released an EP titled “DayBreak.” It has seven songs drawn from my poetry and rendered by some young singers whose talents are finding expression under my Udala-Nation label. And from what we have going on at the moment, the journey has just started.
Ugochukwu: It is funny, isn’t it, that I got back from you the question I had asked? But I see what you did there. Sometimes, questions are not meant to be answered but to be explored. In such explorations we may raise more of the same questions but now with an increased clarity.
I love what you are doing with Udala Nation and I strongly believe that a new audience will come to your poetry – and we know the multiplier effects such can have, like how your encounter with Gabriel Okara’s poetry drew you to poetry. It is a candle which you have lit and I will urge you to guide it with jealousy so that the turbulent wind called life won’t blow the flame away.
dispossessed is replete with textual allusions, what one might call intertextuality or even rejoinders. For example, in ‘petals and buds,’ the opening poem in the collection, we encounter these lines: “and i sing/tongue-loosed in time’s ear/amid this bird nest of merry bards.” This reads like it is in response to Christopher Okigbo’s lines: “we must sing tongue-tied/without name or audience/making harmony among the branches.” A similar response is encountered in ‘april,’ where you wrote, ‘april is not the cruellest month,’ obviously in response to T. S. Eliot, who began his most popular poem, ‘The Wasteland,’ with the line, “april is the cruellest month, breeding.” This pattern runs through the collection with references to things like the Emancipation Proclamation and other historic events and phenomenal canonised texts. Were you trying to, in this collection, converse with not only the living but also our ancestors gone? Or, were you trying to be as much a historian as you are a poet? Or, is it both?
James: Thanks for that brilliant observation. I’m delighted that someone has finally read dispossessed thoroughly enough to detect the internal conversations which are so subliminal that the unwary reader might completely miss them. I would like to say that I take poetry seriously, as the orgasm of language. I came to poetry with utmost humility; as a seeker of knowledge. My quest began with Okara, and then progressed slowly upwards. As a young man, I was stunned by the astonishing declaration by W.B Yeats that “the world knows nothing because it has made nothing, we know everything because we have made everything.” That is a very audacious statement, but it speaks to the enormous powers of a poet and poetry.
I feel that a poet must be knowledgeable to produce good poetry. Again, Ezra Pound, a man whose thoughts on poetry have greatly influenced my artistic growth once said “It is a foolish thing for a man to begin his work on a too narrow foundation, it is a disgraceful thing for a man’s work not to show steady growth and increasing fineness from first to last.” This again speaks of preparation, apprenticeship and the imperatives of growth in the artistic enterprise. Mark his choice of words; “foolish” and “disgraceful.” Those are strong words from any poet. However, in terms of the necessity to engage important texts and induce a cross generational conversation between poets and the debt we owe our predecessors, T.S Eliot offered us a clear compass to that when in his endlessly referenced essay, Tradition and the Individual Talent, he declared, “No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone: you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead.” Eliot further underlined this as an important principle of aesthetics.
So, a conversation is important; because the subject of great poetry is still essentially the same across generations. What may differ is the trope, the use of language, as each poet responds to their calling according to their individual gifts and relation to the dominant concerns of their time. So, as a direct answer to the overlap of history and poetry, I think that certain kinds of poetry make certain demands on the poet. History offers a rich source of material to poetry.
Okigbo, one of my greatest influences, talked so much about the epic of Gilgamesh and the Babylonian conquest. His book, Labyrinths, has obscure allusions to ancient Greek texts and epic literature. He was deeply influenced by the Roman Poet, Virgil, with his famous work Aeneid. Virgil also had a tremendous influence on Dante. So, history offers any enterprising poet a rich canvas to create something of value. You may have noticed that in dispossessed, I paid tribute to the herosim of the 75 Igbo slaves who chose suicide as a weapon of resistance against chattel slavery in May 1803 in Atlanta, Georgia. That is in addition to veiled allusions to Emancipation Proclamation which enabled President Lincoln declare in January 1, 1863 “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free” in the heat of the American Civil War. That was 60 long years after those heroic Igbo slaves had taken their own lives to protest against the slave trade. I invoked that memory within the context of the existential threat faced by black people across the world against the backdrop of relentless racism threatening every now and then, to overwhelm the world.
The truth is that the black man is still dangerously dispossessed. In fact, the dispossession is now so complex that we can actually talk about it in terms of self-dispossession in certain contexts. So, in a sense, yes; poetry can borrow heavily from history, but a poet must not necessarily be a historian.
“Any creative artist who wants to depict the culture or worldview of a people must arm themselves with knowledge about the culture in question.“
Ugochukwu: I am curious as to what you mean when you say that your “quest began with Okara and then progressed upwards.” Emphasis is on “upwards” , that vertical gradation. Is it a ranking based on quality? Do you mean you progressed from Okara to poets of finer quality or by moving upwards you were referring to moving also outside the poets that may be directly referred to as African poets? The progress you speak of here is it on aesthetics or immediacy or something else?
I deeply appreciate that your poems apart from offering the beauty of language, which is what good poetry offers, also offer historical lessons. They invite us to seek our poet ancestors and see the way they understood what we are currently struggling to understand to see if there is anything to learn from them, to modify, to improve or to wholly adopt. And Okigbo. Oh Okigbo. I think we should discuss him too, seeing he is one of those ancestors who influenced your poetry a lot. Or what do you think?
James: The upward progression I talked about has nothing to do with the quality of Okara’s poetry at all. Okara remains a master, even in death. I will always be grateful to him for being the poet whose work revealed the beauty of poetry to me. But, if Okara was my first encounter with poetry, is it not only natural that I would evolve progressively to a larger universe of poetry? Is the trajectory of my artistic evolution not expected to expose me to wider poetic traditions in craft, thematic preoccupation, lyricism and what Eliott would call “the turning loose of emotion?” So, for growth to occur, there must be a vertical movement in which what we already have becomes a critical first step to what we must acquire in the journey to fulfilment.
As for Okigbo, I think it’s important that emerging poets from our literary tradition should not just discuss but study Christopher Okigbo. Personally, I’m still trying to place a finger on the genius Okigbo embedded in his poetry that is responsible for its eternal freshness. He is the only poet in our literary tradition whose work I have read repeatedly without losing interest. And I’m not alone in this. Successive generations of poets have also felt the pull of Okigbo’s poetry. It is as though Okigbo’s poetry is a place of worship. A pilgrim needs just one visit to become a convert. There’s this hypnotic quality to his poetry; this elusive beauty, which every reader wants to grab but never quite succeeds at, leading to more visits to the fountain.
Okigbo is so idolised by young poets that most of them have great difficulties stepping out of the shadow of his voice to find theirs. I’m deeply grateful to Okigbo for the magic of his poetry. My gratitude has led to the founding of a poetry festival in his honour called Return 2 Idoto which I co-curate with my good friend, novelist Odili Ujuboñu. The festival is held every two years in Ojoto, Okigbo’s home town, right at the front of the Idoto stream, made famous by his classic poem, “Heavensgate, The Passage.” The festival has attracted some of the best poets across Nigeria. It is an important item in Nigeria’s literary calendar. Okigbo deserves that celebration for the whirlwind that was his life and the mark of genius he stamped on our minds.
Ugochukwu: Exactly. I agree with you that there should always be an upward progression in our assimilation of poetry, of any craft at all. There is always a vast universe of beauty beckoning to us; and it’s in being critical of the ‘perfection’ we have experienced that we can become more perfect.
On Okigbo. For us lovers of poetry from Nigeria, from the African background, he is sure a towering unforgettable figure. Just on 10th February, 2023, the Centre for Memories, Enugu, opened an “exhibition of arts and writing collection,” titled Songs for the Weaverbird curated by Prof. Chuu-Krydz Ikwuemesi, “in honour of Christopher Ifekandu Okigbo.” And then there is the Return 2 Idoto series you are curating with Mr. Ujubuoñu. So, Okigbo’s esteem isn’t waning anytime soon amongst us. Please remember to inform me next time there is a trip to Ojoto for the series. It’s funny how close my ancestral home is to Ojoto yet it never occurred to me to make such a trip. Talk about things hiding under our very nose.
Decolonization of African poetry is evident in dispossessed. The centrality of the Igbo consciousness–our culture, symbols and totems, philosophy, language and speaking mannerisms, etc.– in dispossessed is not lost on me. I appreciate and congratulate you on that. How were you able to achieve this decolonization and what do you recommend our writers do to achieve the same?
James: You ask good questions. That is rare at a time when many young people are too much in a hurry to put any weight on details. Keep it up. To address your question more directly, it is generally believed not to be wise to prescribe or tell any writer what to write about. In fact, many writers would resist that. Yet, it is easy to see that writing is enhanced by the subject matter. But I also think that apprenticeship plays a major role in shaping the perspectives of a writer. In fact, apprenticeship is a very important growth stage in any career. Apprenticeship is not achieved only when someone sits under the tutelage of a master in a physical classroom. It could be a matter of a writer’s curiosity and attention.
I have been apprenticed to many writers I never met. My apprenticeship to Okigbo and Achebe made me appreciate the importance of finding something of value in my cultural heritage and celebrating it in my own way. That is why, I’d rather talk about uli and ufei when my concern is about how to express my feelings about body art. Uli has a stronger significance in my cultural context than tattoo. But I had to immerse myself in my culture first to understand that long before Western tattoos became popular in my part of the world, Igbo women practised a body art known as uli which is the dark one and ufei, the red pattern. I must, however, say that any creative artist who wants to depict the culture or worldview of a people must arm themselves with knowledge about the culture in question. But at the same time, culture must not stand in the way of writing because writers also create culture.
Ugochukwu: Writers also create culture!
That and the need to apprentice, to immerse oneself also in the culture from which one writes, is a big takeaway. It is often repeated, but you know, clichés become clichés because of their inherent value.
What do you think is the place of poetry in society? I am asking in the context of this question, “ Can poetry speak to our present pain?” I am asking like the persona who in dispossessed asked, “Can the poet save the world?” I am asking if this page is not too lifeless to hold our story?
James: The place of poetry has never been more assured in our society than now. And that is, if we are finally able to make up our minds on whether there is a difference between a poem and a song. I say this because Nigerian music has taken over the world today. Take a look at the lyrics and tell me what you see.
Across generations though, poetry has always spoken to the burning issues of the day. There have been poets who built their entire careers on certain themes. The poetry of Dennis Brutus was like a javelin cast straight into the heart of Apartheid South Africa. His Letters to Martha paints a painful picture of life under Apartheid and helped the outside world understand the intensity of the fire within.
Langston Hughes dealt a powerful blow to segregationist America with the poem “I Too.” The Negritude poets of the pre-independent days deployed the power of the anger in their poetry to maximum effect in the fight against colonialism, racial discrimination and inequality. In fact, former Senegalese President who happened to also be at the commanding heights of the Negritude movement wrote some of the most amazing poems of his career to draw attention to the imperatives of balancing the views on Africa. Senghor was a most outstanding genius who holds a record of 18 honorary doctorate degrees from leading universities across the world. He was widely referred to as the “wise man of Africa.”
When Niyi Osundare declared in his poem that “The country is a lie/told with a crooked eye,” who do you think he was addressing? Okigbo’s Path of Thunder is a series of poems prophesying the Biafran War. The haunting beauty of those poems still shines through to this day. Chinua Achebe’s only poetry collection, Beware Soul Brother has a whole movement dedicated to the Biafran War. In much the same way, my poem, “Sit at Home”seeks to draw attention to the current socio-economic realities of the South East of Nigeria. Another poem of mine, “Crossroads”, engages the current Nigerian dilemma, the high drama of enfeebled politicians clinging onto the straws of entitlement to seek a sustenance of the hegemonic hold of the decayed political class on the people. So, yes, poetry can speak to our present pain. It can offer the society a fresh set of eyes with which to see itself, its incongruities, its absurdities and its chances of redemption.
And finally, how can we ever forget the special place accorded poetry by the biggest democracy in the world? How can we forget America’s Inaugural Poets; Robert Frost, Maya Angelou, Miller Williams, Elizabeth Alexander, Richard Blanco, and Amanda Gorman? Each time I read Maya Angelou’s “On the Pulse of Morning,” I scream at its beauty and magnificence. Amanda Gorman’s “This Hill We Climb“has been praised for its stunning vision and gorgeous celebration of America, not as a perfect union but as a country that has enough gumption and honesty to accept her imperfections and strive for a better union. So, when someone asks you “what is the place of poetry in our society today,” tell them that the human society is poetry in motion, grinding slowly through the crucibles of fate and time, in search of perfection.
Ugochukwu: I will never forget how I felt watching a clip of Gorman’s poem a day after Biden’s inauguration. Terrific it was! Makes me wonder when we will start having poet laureates for our major cities too. When will Nigeria have the tradition of crowning national poet laureates? For a country with talents like ours in literature, it seems we are not doing enough to recognize these talents.
“Sit at home” is not in dispossessed. Is it from your new manuscript?
Speaking of Biafra, ‘atonement,’ the last section of your collection presents you as a social critic and a public intellectual. You not only wrote on pressing societal problems, you also took an extra step to proffer solutions to these problems. Amongst some others, the issue of self-determination as it affects the Biafran struggle seems to be the primary focus of this section. The Biafran cause is one you are openly sympathetic to. Do you consider yourself part of the Biafran struggle and if yes, how?
James: I think it would be such a wonderful idea for the government at any level in Nigeria to encourage writers and imaginative people by setting up some structures that will support their creative production. But that will not happen any moment soon. Look at the characters running for political offices across the land. Where will leaders that will support creativity emerge from that lot? The importance of having intelligent leaders who fully understand and appreciate people with a gift of the imagination cannot be gainsaid. The ANA Head office in Abuja would never have come into existence if Major General Mamman Jiya Vasta had not occupied the political office of Minister of Federal Capital Territory. So, if Nigeria begins to have leaders who have enough presence of mind to reposition the arts as an important space for national re-imagination and development, we shall eventually get to a point where major cities might have poet laureates and the president and governors might appoint poets to deliver inaugural poems when they take their oath of office. At the moment, there’s no basis for such hopes.
You said something about my poem, “Sit at Home.” Yes, it is not in dispossessed. But it is not even in my imminent work which will hopefully be out this year. This new collection will plumb the depths of a single theme, a familiar theme. My first collection took on so many themes, but this book focuses all its energy on one theme. Hopefully, “Sit at Home” will make the final selection for the work that will come after this one.
On my sympathy for Biafra, let us just say that Biafra is a sore in Nigeria’s throat. As a result of that, it is the aphrodisiac of any conscionable creative writer in Nigeria. War and conflict have always supplied invaluable materials to serious literature. Biafra is no exception. We remember War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy which was published in 1867 but still holds incredible fascination for readers today. War and Peace blends a war narrative with romance, history, and philosophy to paint a haunting landscape of the human condition. A staggering 20,000 books have been written on the Jewish Holocaust. These books range from fiction to non-fiction, memoirs, children’s literature, poetry, etc. In the same vein, several books have been written on the Biafran War by different people, including foreigners and non-Igbo.
So, my fascination with the Biafran War is not because I am Igbo. I’d still have written poems on Biafra even if I were not Igbo. Biafra should interest any conscionable individual who believes in our shared humanity. The magnitude of the human suffering in Biafra, the duplicity of friends who turned enemies at the flip of a coin, the darkness of the heart of some writers who devoted works of dubitable qualities to mocking fellow writers and erstwhile friends who found themselves on the other side of the conflict, the brief dazzle of the candle of ingenuity raised by Biafran scientists and so many other incredible footnotes of the war, are intimidating sources of enduring literature. These are things that will always attract writers to Biafra.
At the personal level, my poetry on Biafra is a debt I owe my people; my uncles and aunties that the war robbed me of knowing, millions of innocent people who died in a war they did not ask for and whose wandering souls have continued to demand a proper memorial from Nigeria. In a sense, Biafra has become a metaphor for justice, for righting the wrongs of a nation that has been on the cross for over sixty years. In that sense, therefore, we are all Biafrans. It does not matter if you are Igbo or Ijaw or Yoruba or Ogoja. If you wish for a fair and just Nigeria where no citizen is superior to another and where the entrenchment of fair play has made the agitation for self-determination seem irresponsible, then you’re Biafran. To me, Biafra is no more a symbol of war but the iconography of peace, justice, and fairness.
Ugochukwu: I’m deeply moved by your conceptualization of what it means to be Biafran. I also did not miss your angst against some writers who you believe were complicit in the war against the innocent. One such writer who you made your annoyance against publicly known is Ken Saro-wiwa, the environmental activist, who you dedicated the last poem in dispossessed to, in a not-so-fond way. For you, Saro-wiwa failed to keep that ultimate Achebean rule; not to align oneself with power against the powerless.
This reminds me of a little exchange we had on Facebook over Sandip Roy’s essay, “Should Writers Just Write and Not Talk? The essay was written to corroborate Rothfield’s essay provocatively entitled, “Writers Shouldn’t Talk–Stop Encouraging Them.” In response to the assertion that many writers are not good talkers, you mentioned Adichie, a writer whose oratory is not held in any doubt. Of course, for every Adichie there is a Nabokov who, not believing in his oratory skills, writes down all his speeches and interview responses before delivering them. What you failed to understand is that that essay is really about whether writers , by virtue of being wielders of letters, are also public intellectuals who can be called upon to pontificate on social and cultural issues they may have little or no expertise on. The writers of the essays I mentioned earlier believe that writers are more likely to make the best moral decisions while writing and not in conversations had in writers’ conferences. It’s ironic then that Saro-wiwa made his alignment with power against the powerless in writing. Do you think that being a writer automatically makes one a public intellectual whose opinions must be considered weighty on social and public issues?
James: Being a writer does not automatically make one a public intellectual, but it is a great step to becoming one. And when you talk about a writer here, I hope the definition is not so narrow that the only thing that comes to mind is the author of a book, a work of fiction or poetry. A writer, to my mind, should also include individuals whose written works and other forms of productions are circulated in open spaces. If we accept this perspective, then a writer is in a good position to evolve into an influential member of society whose expressed opinion on important issues will most likely influence the perspective of a significant number of people in that society. A writer is therefore very likely to become a public intellectual if he or she demonstrates observable interest in public affairs through a series of highly educative, informative, philosophical and persuasive contributions to a range of interests.
Public intellectualism is a special space for people whose intelligent contributions on a wide range of issues, that are of great interest to the people, have gained significant acceptance. It is not an exclusive field for creative writers and workers of the imagination. However, a public intellectual whose reputation goes beyond the usual perspectives expressed in the mass media to include well received books and scholarly works, stands a greater chance of being more idolised and respected because of the extraordinary rigour involved in producing enduring creative works. But as has often been the case, many creative writers do not have the showbiz personality that the business of public intellection requires. They have no time to cultivate such social skills since their nature is often reclusive. That is why only a few supremely gifted creative writers court the limelight.
So, should writers stick to expressing themselves in written communication only? I don’t know. I’m more bothered by writers who choose silence when speech is needed. I think the guilt of silence is a great moral burden that no writer should live with in comfort.
Ugochukwu: The picture of the writer as a recluse is fast fading though, I must say. With the advent of social media, writers are now coming out from their creative reclusion to engage the public. The gap between the writer and the reader has been greatly bridged. In fact, it is now taking a worrisome turn where a new author’s social media followership contributes a lot to their success with publishers.
In my review of dispossessed published in Cọ́nscìò Magazine last November, I questioned your motive for writing “now it’s getting hard to tell the new face of terror/ is it the man with the long beard and a long white robe/ or the sweet boy…” I was thinking of Islamophobia when I wrote that review. Recently, I was rereading the review when I found out that I had not questioned your association of boyhood to crime. Maybe it is because we do not yet have the term pedophobia to refer to hate of children. That got me thinking of freedom of speech and the freedom of artistic expression. I am thinking of the constant (self) censoring artists undergo today, not just to avoid the kind of attack we recently saw the novelist, Salman Rushdie, experience, but also to avoid cancel culture, a culture always quick to invent one phobia or the other to dismiss, gag and demonize writers and celebrities who hold opinions contrary to the politically correct, generally accepted ones. Do you think that there is any virtue in cancel culture as we have it today, or is it just mob action and jungle justice in intellectual disguise?
James: Art must be truthful to itself to endure the eternal fires of time. Any art that floats on the fast current of falsehood or convenient pretense is stripped of the immortality of great arts. Such art eventually ends up in the incinerator. Great art must be as close to life as possible. Children have always been both victims and agents of violence. In my part of Africa, the phenomenon of child soldiers has been an aching tooth in the mouth of a sympathetic world. Uzodima Iweala’s Beast of No Nation offers a devastating view of this reality. Should art have turned away from that? Once in every while, school children storm their classrooms in the US with a gun and blast their friends and teachers to untimely death. Should art look away from that? It is not the business of art to yield to categorizations and name calling. The business of art is to stay true to life, to portray it in its beauty and hideousness.
On cancel culture, I think it’s a regrettable phase in the evolution of mankind. I think it was created by a world that is increasingly opening its hands wide to insensate hatred, extreme intolerance and childish thief-catching. Cancel culture thrives on hate in a world that does not even have enough love, a world where everyone needs a second chance. I am not so naive as to miss the factors that necessitate the cancel culture, though. Factors like the need to hold powerful people accountable and to protect minority groups from the overwhelming incubus of the strong. But the explosion of social media has opened it up for abuse and as I said in a poem in my upcoming collection, it’s no longer easy to tell who is guilty or innocent. It is as though we now have people who have assumed the position of thought police waiting for influential people to say the wrong word.
Happily, there’s a growing tilt towards the “call-out culture” in place of outright cancellation which is vindictive, retributive and savage. The call-out culture is more benign and reformative, giving the public figure who stands accused in the court of public opinion the chance for self-appraisal and redemption. We should never get tired of giving people a second chance except in extreme cases of life and death.
Ugochukwu: It’s better to call out than to cancel because just like you noted, we’re not some corporeal angels. We’re humans and our missteps are testaments of our flawed humanity. If we are all flawed, why then are we quick to capitalise on other people’s supposed blotches to bring them down? We really do need more rehabilitative rather than punitive approaches.
Talking of call-out and cancel culture, Ken Saro-wiwa, a reputable writer and activist is someone I can refer to as your literary enemy. What is the genesis of your antagonism towards this ‘canonised’ activist-writer? In ‘re: epitaph to biafra,’ were you calling the late author out or cancelling his legacy?
James: I was doing neither. I was simply engaging with his legacy. You may recall that we had talked about the importance of cross generational conversations in literature earlier on. I have nothing against Ken Saro-Wiwa. What I do have is a disagreement with his decision to deploy his art in the service of power against the powerless. I was deeply offended when I came across his slim collection titled Songs in a Time of War, which captured his thoughts, politics and partisanship in the Biafran War. The poem “Epitaph for Biafra,” on page 33 of the book, left me wondering at his humanity.
Now, if you recall, some members of Nigeria’s first generation of writers played shameful roles during the war while some were heroic, not just with their writings but with their direct involvement in the war. The poet Odia Ofeimun had taken J.P Clark down with a slingshot titled The Poet Lied, which has become a classic in its own right. Odia had taken affront at Clark’s choice to mock his erstwhile friends and fellow writers who had found themselves on the other side of the conflict. When Clark had found out about Odia’s poem, he had halted the publication of the book with a lawsuit. It’s a long story. But, it is an important chapter in our literary history because The Poet Lied marked a rupture in the tradition and set the stage for angry poetry.
So, when I came across Saro-wiwa’s poem mocking the citizens of the defunct Biafra with lines like:
“What will they do now?
They’ll have toads for supper
They had snakes for lunch
And lizards for breakfast
Reptiles are a delicacy
On the survival menu”
I was deeply touched enough to respond in my own collection, using the title of his own poem to sustain a gaze on his legacy. In doing so, I was not attacking his legacy. I was merely drawing attention to the breadth of his legacy; I was simply saying that this minority rights hero was once happy at the trampling down of other people’s right to self-determination and the genocide committed by a powerful federation against its powerless federating unit. I was fascinated by the obvious irony. As we all know, Saro-wiwa was claimed by the same forces he had lionised for their genocidal powers. So, in my poem; “re: epitaph for biafra,” I was simply reminding him:
“when we dance on the grave of friendship
or erase memories of comrades in a plume of smoke
we write a fitting epitaph for our tombstone
you dared to bury the sun before it rose from the roost
but there’s no epitaph for truth buried alive
and in the bleeding pores of ogoniland
in the toxic minds of kidnappers and ransom seekers
set loose by the imprisonment of truth
we relearn the wisdom of forced unity
when the seed of injustice is watered
by the blood of the innocent
broken epitaphs fall off the tombstone of history
and this is why your ‘epitaph for biafra
is a plume of lies from your crooked pipe.”
Now, Saro-wiwa was a smoker; he smoked pipe a lot. The word play with deliberate repetitions of references to “plume of smoke,” “ took a drag from your pipe” “crooked pipe” and “plume of lies” was intended to drive home his personality and his decision to lend himself to a path that has called his legacy as a writer to question. And as you rightly observed, I agree with Chinua Achebe that a writer or any worker of the imagination who has a conscience, should not take sides with the strong against the weak.
Ugochukwu: It’s a testament to your courage and integrity as a writer, I must commend, to turn your gaze towards this particular legacy of Ken Saro-wiwa, not minding the fact that it may not sit well with your literary colleagues, many of whom take Saro-wiwa as the literary Fela Kuti. After reading ‘re: epitaph for biafra,’ I read up on writers and critics who had previously questioned Saro-wiwa’s legacy and one thing was common: they were often met with attacks. It’s a troubled water you stepped in, but isn’t it said that it’s not the duty of the poet to make us comfortable?
Now let’s speak about your friend Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie who recently became Odelụwa Abba. As the head of external communications at Fidelity Bank, you helped organize her Purple Hibiscus International Creative Writing Workshop series. Can you lead us through the process of putting together that workshop and why has it folded? I am also asking you to speak on the sustainability of such literary events like lectures and workshops and festivals seeing that you have been part of many, some of which are now defunct.
James: On Saro-wiwa, I think it is the business of literature to offer us uncomfortable truths. The nature of literature itself forbids convenient lies. That is why the German poet, Bertolt Brecht once observed that “Art is not a mirror for reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.” I think that good literature should go beyond being society’s mirror to becoming a device for shaping it. I will say no more about my conversation with Saro-wiwa.
On the creative writing workshop with Chimamanda Adichie, I think the story has been well told. I met Adichie when I was a literary journalist. In one of our several conversations back then, she remarked rather offhandedly that one of the things she would like to do if she had the resources was to set up a “Writers Colony.” That was her exact term for her dream then. It sounded like wishful thinking then because it would require a reasonable amount of money. Not long after, I left journalism for Fidelity Bank. Interestingly, I had always loved the performance of literature. In fact, during my son’s first birthday, I organised a poetry reading in my house in Lagos. Notable performance poets like A.J Dagger Tola, Akeem Lasisi, Chike Ofili and the legendary investigative journalist, Emmanuel Maya, came to share their works with us. While the poets performed their poems to the small gathering of friends and relatives that turned up for the celebration, the investigative journalist shared extraordinary tales of his exploits and how he had embedded himself in an armed robbery gang for about a week to unearth the information that would lead to their arrest. Emma’s stories were hair-raising. He also shared a story of how he had embarked on the audacious trip to Europe by land, a journey that took off from Badagry Lagos and ended in Tripoli, Libya. Yes, we had such amazing evenings in my place in Lagos. Writers always strolled in.
So, when I moved to Fidelity Bank, I was barely one year into my new job when Chimamanda won the Orange Prize. It was a remarkable point in her career because it launched her into a new stratosphere. I persuaded my boss at the time, Emma Esinnah, and he accepted the idea that the bank should hold a reception in her honour. That event marked her entry into a new hallway for achievers in Nigeria’s social memory. It was a big endorsement of her talent and a boost to her creative impulse. The bank went on to sign her as its ambassador after that event and subsequently splashed her image on billboards across Nigeria. She became the first writer among her generation to ascend to such iconic status. It was also at that reception that a formal announcement of the bank’s collaboration with her on what would become the Fidelity International Creative Writing Workshop was made.
The workshop took off a few months later with Jason Cowley, former editor of Granta and Binyavangah Wainaina, the late Kenyan writer. I coordinated the workshop which took place in Ikoyi, Lagos and Nike Lake Hotel, Enugu. All these took place in 2007. The second edition came a year later. American Dave Eggers, author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genuis and Marie-Elena John, author of Unburnable, who hails from Antigua were co-teachers of the workshop with Adichie. It was later renamed Farafina Trust Creative Writing Workshop when her association with Fidelity Bank ended and finally Purple Hibiscus Creative Writing Workshop. When Adichie moved on with Farafina Trust, I persuaded Fidelity to continue the programme. I reached out to Helon Habila and we kept the workshop going for a few more editions until I left Fidelity for another bank and the workshop ended.
Why are such efforts always short-lived?
I think the writing workshops and literary festivals can only be sustained if there is an endowment fund establishing them on a firm footing with a clear philosophy and operational guidelines. Any other structure that leans heavily on one individual or an organisation will be difficult to sustain over a long period. Enthusiasm is not enough. I personally set up Under African Skies which ran a series of poetry evenings in Awka titled “A Flutter in the Woods.” I funded the initiative from my personal resources in the hope that after a while, it would attract support from the government or the private sector. None came. When I ran out of funds, it went on hiatus. It has not been re-established to this day.
Ugochukwu: It’s terrible that these important literary events founded and pursued by passionate and enthusiastic Nigerians, almost always, end after a few years. Even our literary journals and magazines are not left out. There’s truly a limit to how far our vehicles can run on the fuel of enthusiasm.
I wonder, why are the people and the organizations with the resources not interested in sponsoring these events on a long-term basis? Could it be that our writers have finally rendered ourselves and our art irrelevant to the average Nigerian?
On your next collection, I have been eagerly waiting for it and my anticipation heightened when I learnt you have sent it to your publisher. You mentioned that unlike dispossessed, it will focus on a single theme. What, if I’m permitted to ask, is its working title?
James: It would be an abominable thing to say that Nigerian writers have rendered themselves irrelevant to society. That’s not even remotely possible. Did you notice the viral circulation of Niyi Osundare’s poem titled “My Lord, Tell me where to Keep your Bribe” shortly after the recent presidential election? That poem was published a few years ago, but it went viral after the election when the winner arrogantly told the losers to go to court. The poem has been forwarded to me several times by friends who don’t even understand poetry but who nonetheless felt the fire of its truth. I guess that speaks to the question of relevance. But sincerely, what is behind the survival woes of literary festivals and creative writing workshops in Nigeria is the tragic decline in our values. It has nothing to do with the state of our economy.
The question is, what does Nigeria consider important? What is the singular obsession of the Nigerian leadership? Are truth, honesty, justice and fairness important to us as a nation? In a country where the government plays a key role in subverting the electoral will of the citizens and charges the aggrieved to go to court because the judiciary itself is a pawn in the hands of the executive arm of government, why would anyone think highly of writers? In the end, blinded by the opaque vision of leadership, the citizens themselves. including the corporate citizens, turn away from serious themes and refocus attention on things like the voyeuristic Big Brother show where idle youths are richly rewarded for showing exceptionality in nude displays, hard drinking and partying. But a society that develops a strong aversion for imagination and rigour has no future.
Thanks for your kind words on my forthcoming book. I really wish I could share the title with you, but we haven’t decided on that yet. The manuscript is still undergoing peer reviews and muscle-building.
This dialogue was edited by our Senior Editor, Tamanda Kanjaye.