The Moving Artist’s Point of View: A Dialogue with Tọ́pẹ́-ẸniỌbańkẹ́ Adégòkè

THE MOVING ARTIST'S POINT OF VIEW

A DIALOGUE WITH TỌ́PẸ́-ẸNIỌBAŃKẸ́ ADÉGÒKÈ

Tọ́pẹ́-ẸniỌbańkẹ́ Adégòkè is a writer and literary critic from Ibadan, Nigeria. He has contributed reviews and interviews on African literature, most notably, to Wawa Book Review and Africa in Words.

He is a frequent traveller, and has travelled with the Invisible Borders Trans-African Photographers’ Organisation on their 2018 Lagos – Maputo Road Trip.

Michelle Enehiwealu Iruobe

BY MICHELLE ENEHIWEALU IRUOBE

This conversation took place during the Benin Arts and Books Festival in 2023, via Zoom and email.

Michelle: Let’s begin with an introduction to your travels. Why do you travel? Is it work-related, because your job demands you do? Or is it purely for leisure, because you were curious about the places you’ve been to? If the latter is the case, what influences your choice of destination and how do you fund them?

Tọ́pẹ́: Most of my life, blessedly, I have only had one job: literature. It requires that I read and see life, that I think creatively and critically. I don’t know if this is why I easily get restless. But, on occasions when I feel the grass growing under my feet, I pack my bag and leave for another location. I hardly stay in one place for more than three months at a stretch. I like that travel offers me this opportunity to see life, people, places – simply put, to refresh my mind. I love the monotonous droning of a vehicle engine in motion. The lull of it together with the shifting geography is therapeutic for me. I travel because the charm of movement is a cure for my incessant boredom. It is not really about the destination itself but the process of travelling that works wonders for me. I think that this reflects Paul Theroux‘s idea of what travel writing is.

I travel because the charm of movement is a cure for my incessant boredom.

Travel is also real work. I knew this when I travelled with Invisible Borders during their 2018 Lagos – Maputo Road Trip. Prior to that time, I had been travelling only within Nigeria, mostly solo, and had the freedom to do anything I wanted. Sometimes, my unplanned pit-stop to explore a laid-back town was all that mattered to me, especially on my way to Benin from Ibadan during my undergraduate years. It was most enjoyable when I could easily branch off anywhere out of curiosity or just to kill time. I didn’t have to bother about writing, of course, so the writing always came later.

With Invisible Borders, I had to be more disciplined because my participation in the road trip was entirely funded by them. I had to deliver on my project, so I was writing as I travelled. Before we set out, we all had our different artistic statements under the umbrella of the overarching theme of the road trip. We could not lose sight of that. We used to workshop and critique our work on weekends while travelling. We were expected to produce a small body of work for the session, so there was no time for any fancy indulgences such as writer’s block. In the end, I got used to it and it became pleasurable. The thin line between travelling for leisure and travelling for work was blurred.

Michelle: What are some of the culture shocks you’ve experienced in your travels?

Tọ́pẹ́: Let me tell you about baguettes. My first time outside the shores of Nigeria was in Cameroon. Being a place where French culture has been assimilated over the years, it was no surprise that French taste and cuisine should be favourites there. But for someone like me, who was not accustomed to such, it was a bit jarring when I asked for bread, expecting succulent white bread, only to be given a longish, solid thing called a baguette. When I put a knife to it, it felt like a small tuber of yam. In fact, when cooked, yam is even more palatable to my palate than a baguette. I don’t understand how people pretend to enjoy that thing. I simply stayed away from their “bread”. However, I love chocolate croissants.

Benin City, unique in its own ways, is another place where I’ve experienced culture shock. Apart from the nonexistent infrastructural facilities that make the city almost rural, it’s how intensely they cling to their cultural and spiritual heritage that surprised me. When I first arrived there, I used to go outside of our university environment just to have a feel of the ancient city. The most noticeable thing at crossroads around the city is sacrifices offered to the gods. I saw different food combinations, charms, cowries, accoutrements of religious rituals, all placed at different crossroads. I think I even joked about it in one of my poems, that Benin gods cannot go hungry for a day. Anyway, before this time, the only place I used to see such sacrifices was at the High Court intersection at Ring Road and 110 Junction in Ibadan. It was the proliferation in Benin City that surprised me.

Michelle: Let’s talk about your refusal to learn French, as a form of protest against the systematic oppression/colonisation of Africans by France. Are there other instances where you’ve been compelled by your beliefs to preserve aspects of African culture in a foreign land?

Tọ́pẹ́: Yes, my critical perspective of French policy in Africa was shaped since I was in secondary school when we studied The Old Man and the Medal (Vieux nègre et la médaille) by Ferdinand Oyono, translated by John Reed. The novel transported me back to the colonial period in Africa. It gave me a visceral representation of an African state under French rule, when French’s policy of assimilation was fostered on the people. They placed a premium on French citizenship and culture, encouraging Africans to abandon their own culture and languages in exchange for a troubled identity, as Meka, the protagonist, finds out at the end of the book. To borrow the cliché of French thinkers, it is just “absurd”. It is even more absurd because of the position that many Francophone countries are in today making a mockery of their supposed hard-fought independence.

I find it distasteful that France still holds a leash on their former colonies through policies that ensure that the economies of these countries never mature and are completely dependent on theirs. For instance, France’s Central Bank and a major French printing company continue to print money for most of these countries. He who pays the piper dictates the tune, right? If that is not enough, what about the colonial tax that different francophone governments have been made to pay? What about the coups sponsored by France to topple leaders unwilling to pay or dance to their tune?

What I mean to say is that I am only critical of the French government’s policy in Africa, not French people. Some of the best authors I have enjoyed reading are of French origin: Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Patrick Modiano. If I make a U-turn on my decision about the French language, it will be because I want to read Camus’s chef d’oeuvre, The Stranger, translated by Stuart Gilbert, in its original language, in order to have a deeper understanding of the novel.

I first read The Stranger during my final year as an undergraduate and I have found time to read it every year since then. The novel follows the lackadaisical life of a protagonist called Monsieur Meursault, who is brutally judged based on his perceived indifference to social norms. My Twitter name, Monsieur Meursault, is an homage to the protagonist of that novel. The book is timeless, deceptively simple, yet deeply profound. I once joked with a fellow writer friend of mine, Ranjit Hoskote, that I might quit writing altogether if I wrote a phenomenal work that is also commercially successful as The Stranger. Camus has influenced me a lot and it is no surprise, really, that there is an echo of absurdism in a play I have just written.

Michelle: You’ve implied in your travel essays that elements of your local culture make you happy whenever you encounter them abroad and you realise that you miss having them around you. However, are there elements of foreign culture/foreign experiences you’ve missed as soon as you returned home? And conversely, are there other foreign elements/experiences you were only too glad to have left behind?

Tọ́pẹ́: Nigeria’s pop culture has gone global. The preference for Nigerian music, film, literature and art is charming, making Nigerian creatives highly sought-after. You just have to take pride in that. Imagine being in a foreign place, where their official language is not even English, and the driver that is taking you to your hotel turns up the car radio and all you hear for the next fifteen minutes are Nigerian songs, before any of that country’s artists get a chance on the airwaves. Again, you just have to take pride in that.

There will always be shame-inducing contrasts when you see basic infrastructure that we don’t have in Nigeria elsewhere. As a Nigerian who grew up shouting “Up NEPA” when power was momentarily restored, I thought it was the norm across Africa. Please excuse my naivety. Our situation has become so normalised that we are conditioned into this assumption. Apart from stable electricity, I must admit that I envy the clean streets and roads of Kigali. In contrast, the economy of DR Congo was so grim that transactions on their streets were not in their local currency but in US dollars instead.

Michelle: You’ve always intended to return home whenever you travel. Like an actual migratory bird, you’ve perched on branches and taken off soon after. Would you, however, consider perching on a foreign branch and refusing to fly away?

Tọ́pẹ́: I think you are basically asking me if I have a japa plan. Are you? (Laughs) Well, to answer your question, no. I like travelling and coming home because the idea of uprooting myself into another society completely is not enticing to me at the moment. Until I have a clear idea of how my life would be planted, watered, and nurtured, I don’t think I’ll ever want to subject myself to the indignities attached to the climbing of a socio-economic ladder of a foreign place as a migrant. Especially not in Western countries, where you’re already disadvantaged because you are a Black. Let’s see how the future will unfold.

Michelle Enehiwealu Iruobe

Michelle Enehiwealu Iruobe is a writer, editor, content creator, and Law student. She has work published or forthcoming in Lolwe, Kalahari Review, Isele Magazine, and elsewhere.

She was on the longlist for the Isele Short Story Prize in 2023. She was the assistant coordinator of the English and Literature Students Association’s Creative Writers Workshop (ELSACWW) at the University of Benin in 2022 and now serves on the advisory board.

She is the current General Press Coordinator of the UNIBEN Lawsa Press (ULP). She is wildly passionate about remarkable writing and visual arts.

MICHELLE ENEHIWEALU IRUOBE

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