A Landscape Of Speech: A Conversation With Tade Ipadeola
Tade Ipadeola, a Nigerian poet and lawyer, was born September 11 1970. He has three published volumes of poetry – A Time of Signs (2000), The Rain Fardel (2005) and The Sahara Testaments (2013) to his credit. He also has other notable works such as translations of W.H Auden into Yoruba and Daniel Fagunwa into English. He has published many short stories and essays. In 2009, he won the Delphic Laurel in poetry with his poem ‘Songbird’, in Jeju, South Korea. His third volume of poetry, The Sahara Testaments – a sequence of 1000 quatrains on the Sahara – is his latest work which won the Nigeria Prize for Literature 2013. It is regarded as a candidate for the African canon. At $100,000.00, the Nigeria Prize for Literature commands the largest purse for a literary prize in Africa. In 2014, Tade Ipadeola endowed the Kofi Awoonor Memorial Library with his Nigeria Prize winnings. Tade lives in Ibadan, Nigeria, where he writes and practices law.
BY PETER AKINLABI
This interview happened between Ibadan and Ilorin.
Peter: You were selected as participant in the 2019 International Writing Programme at the University of Iowa, US. IWP at Iowa has been described as the world’s oldest and largest multinational writing residency and is noted for bringing a diversity of accomplished writers across the globe yearly for readings, lectures, and general participation in Iowa’s intellectual life. Can you share your experience at the residency?
Tade: The International Writing Program is indeed the oldest and most diverse writing residency program in modern times. It has been around for more than half a century. My participation was sponsored by the U.S State Department. Some other members of the 2019 cohort were sponsored by private foundations or colleges, but the majority was sponsored by the State Department.
It was eleven weeks spent mostly in Iowa City, where the University of Iowa is. I had mid-residency trips to Chicago, Detroit and Washington. At each travel location, I got to see the main museums and other cultural landmarks. The American Writer’s Museum in Chicago, Motown in Detroit and Martin Luther King’s monument in Washington were high points in the trips. At Iowa, I split my time between writing, lectures and readings. I think I was very fortunate to be in the audience when Marvin Bell read from his collected Dead Man poems, for example.
The students were generally a joy to interact with. The University of Iowa has a very strong rating as far as the creative writing programs are concerned. Beyond the MFA in creative writing though, there are quite a number of MFA programs in translation and the book. The University of Iowa is known as the writing university and Iowa City has an alias, the Pulitzer City. I think it is logical to expect the kind of returns in good writing with the kind of investment the IWP and other programs have made in Iowa. I was a big skeptic about MFA programs before Iowa. I think I can see how a serious student can gain from the program even with a specialty in poetry now.
There was a weekly screening of selected films by members of the cohort and that was how I saw a couple of films I would never have seen otherwise. We had a chance to go out to meet local farmers. Cedar Rapids is literally minutes away from Iowa City and it is the home city of some of the largest cereal companies in the world including Quaker Oats. I had some fun telling the farmers how Nigeria supports the work they do in Iowa.
The natural landscape of Iowa and the natural fauna has changed drastically over the years. I learnt that the bison is still the official animal of Iowa State but bison population is so drastically reduced that I never saw one all through my stay. I was warned never to fish or eat fish from the Iowa River because of the heavy pollution from pesticides and herbicides washing into the river. It was sad to know that this is the present state of the natural environment in that place. The people were frank enough to warn you ahead.
I felt privileged to have been on the program at Iowa knowing the history of Nigerian participation in the program. Amos Tutuola, Kole Omotoso, Chukwuemeka Ike, Niyi Osundare, Femi Osofisan, Helon Habila and many other fantastic Nigerian writers had been there and the archives are there to show what impact these all had on the IWP in their time. By the time the program ended, I wondered why no Nigerian university had anything close to the IWP. It is certainly expensive to run at the scale Iowa does but it is certainly worthwhile to try at a modest scale here in Nigeria if we want to inject new energy into writing back home.
Peter: The fact that many Nigerians are now getting into MFA programmes in universities in the United States more than ever supports the point you raised concerning the need for writing and MFA programmes in the country. Yet, the challenges are also dire in many ways. One is the lack of or inadequate funding in public universities. Similar disinclination in private universities, despite their relative financial capability, may have to do with the risk of investing in such uncharted waters. One can also argue that these programmes in the West have had a rather difficult run in the past decade, due largely to the neoliberal pecking order of valuation. Do you think the aggregate of disinterest in structured writing training in Nigeria is symptomatic of the global decline in humanities education?
Tade: Your framing of the issue is quite thought provoking. I would say that for the most part, an MFA is concerned with the how, or the how of the how, of whatever it is designed to accomplish. It is to language what engineering is to science. If this way of looking at it is even remotely close to the reality then our situation in Nigeria is symptomatic of a deeper problem regarding how we produce and utilize knowledge, what kind of know-how we produce and how we distribute the products of higher education. Of course, there is a decline in funding opportunities for students who want to pursue an MA or MFA in the West, compared with, say, their colleagues who want to do an MSc in engineering. In my limited interactions with students, I saw the disparity in options and support and students in the sciences were generally better supported relative to students in the humanities.
There is a specific Nigerian component to this problem and it goes back to the 1980s when the administration of Ibrahim Babangida introduced the Structural Adjustment Program (SAP). One of the points of contention back in those days was whether Nigeria ought to give in to the World Bank/IMF ‘conditionalities’ for the loan Nigeria was to take to implement SAP. One particular condition was scaling back public spending on Higher Education. Nigerian intellectuals at the time knew it would impact scholarship negatively. They were correct, as experience has shown. As an undergraduate in 1986, it was normal to interact with international students from Asia, Europe and other African countries on campus at Ile Ife. It is extremely rare to encounter international students in publicly funded Nigerian universities today. Private universities are not better off. This is the net effect of the brain drain from the 80s and 90s. The manpower is simply not there. The structures here are practically eviscerated. In my practice as an intellectual property lawyer, I see the effects first hand. In a recent court case, a Nigerian screenwriter registered his copyright to a work in Canada. When that work was then violated, as he feared it would be in Nigeria, he had to invoke the Canadian registration in a Nigerian court.
It is a double whammy for the humanities in Nigeria – the global trend being what it is and the vestiges of SAP continuing to gut funding for higher education in favour of supposed vocational education. This is not to say that science or engineering has done particularly well in Nigeria. Most of the graduates in those disciplines take the first opportunity they get out of Nigeria. There are no missile guidance systems that Nigerian research and development companies are selling to the Nigerian military. We do not produce drones and we do not manufacture pencils.
Looking at why institutions do not pursue MFAs in Nigeria, one has to look at the entire chain. The public library is comatose in Nigeria, whether we are speaking of the Federal level or the State level or the local government level. There are no public libraries to speak of so when one compares the situation with what obtains in North America where there are actually (presently) more public libraries than Starbucks outlets, the chances of writers in the US making a decent living is higher. Publications pay for reviews over there and public debate on literature is robust. All of these reflect the economic substructure on which the country is resting as well as the dominant values in society.
Peter: The idea of “dominant values” brings to mind another dimension to the issue of funding in higher education in Nigeria, which is funding from capable individuals, organizations and corporations. Of course, such funding practice is not totally non-existent, especially in popular forms as one can see in the movement of capital through that behemoth sub-sector, the Nollywood. Even then, many corporate entities (and even some government establishments) routinely sponsor literary events, mainly festivals and prizes. Yet, there have been calls in recent times for more inclusive, more deliberate funding structures which strengthen institutions of creativity and scholarship and ensure their sustainability. You have once served as president of PEN Nigeria as well as on the panel of judges of the prestigious NLNG-sponsored Nigeria Prize for Literature – the biggest literary award in Africa and one of the richest literary awards in the world. What is your take on this on-going conversation?
Tade: Perhaps, what we need most immediately is a truly transparent model for both the collection and the utilization of the educational tax in Nigeria. At 2% of corporate profits, it should ordinarily be more than enough to take care of higher education in Nigeria. The trouble is that many companies have successfully evaded paying what is due for so long because the institution responsible for assessment and collection of this tax is weak. There are billion-naira companies that have never paid this tax in years. More fundamentally though, there needs to be an overhaul of the thinking in funding culture in the country.
There is, generally speaking, a huge gap between needs and the needed funding in Nigeria whether you are talking about public infrastructure, science and technology or culture and the arts. One reason for this is that we have devolved away from traditional models for supporting art and culture embedded in our indigenous cultures. Any culture that produced on the scale of the Nok, Oyo, Benin, Ibibio, Ifẹ̀ and Ijaw must have had a sustainable approach to cultural production. In the cultures I mentioned, they had strong guilds and channels to both monarchy and market. As you know, the market and the monarchy are usually entwined where they coexist in Nigeria. Things have changed in the last 100 years and not all of that change is good for the culture. Our guilds are mostly comatose today whereas even the most capitalistic societies in the world retain a core of their guilds so that they can more readily know the state of the art and what needs tweaking.
If one is lucky to engage what is today only the vestiges of the hunter or drummer guild in Yoruba culture, the vibrancy of the Ìjálá, the panache of pressure drumming for which they are known is still palpable. These are about the only two traditional guilds (apart from coastal dwellers and fishermen) with the old way of doing things which can be evolved. It is a completely different mode of cultural production from what obtains today. It is good to know that a large private collection of our visual and plastic arts exist but does that necessarily translate into public education of sensibilities in society? It is great to have corporations sponsor reading programs and literary prizes but we know they do so for the sake of their own CSR and optics. What looks great for companies does not necessarily translate into a vibrant reading culture where robust debates are regular.
Every society has to find ways to make the culture sector grow more organically and efficiently. I am aware that Scandinavian authorities redirect a portion of lottery monies to fund culture and this is both a great and novel way to inject more life into culture in a methodical way. In Asia where the old guilds never completely died out, modern corporations evolving out of the old guilds redirect a portion of their profits into culture and innovation.
Our model now is too NGO dependent and therefore incapable of bringing about true growth. If the NGOs sponsor your book festivals then they have a seat at the agenda-setting table. If NGOs decide to stop supporting literary activities in Nigeria today, 70% of activities on the literary calendar will disappear. Perhaps it is a good thing that government does not have the money to do the old Midas trick. FESTAC was a great idea, but where is the legacy of that initiative today? Where are the world-class museums? The libraries?
I am rooting for basic, methodical, merit-based funding for the entire culture sector and not just Nollywood or Kannywood. We should be able to know who the best ayo players are the way we know who chess grandmasters are. There should be open competitions with reasonable prizes attached. Let young people in Nigeria understand how paper is made, how calligraphy has evolved into the digital age, how archives are maintained, how dance is scored, how music is noted, how kaolin becomes prized ceramic and how tiling can be part of monumental architecture. The emphasis has to shift to how things are done and merit has to have primacy.
“Let young people in Nigeria understand how paper is made, how calligraphy has evolved into the digital age, how archives are maintained, how dance is scored, how music is noted, how kaolin becomes prized ceramic and how tiling can be part of monumental architecture. The emphasis has to shift to how things are done and merit has to have primacy.“
Peter: I want to talk about your poetry now. Your award-winning book of poetry, The Sahara Testaments, was published about 7 years ago. What writing have you published between 2013 and now and what project(s) do you have on the horizon?
Tade: I’m taking my time working on a full volume of poetry and a book of contemporary Yoruba urban legends at the moment. I did publish a book of verse for children in 2015 titled Dreamrun. There was a sense in which I fell into a kind of accouchement after The Sahara Testaments but there is also a sense in which I just wanted to do something very different from what was originally meant to be a tetralogy, The Sahara Testaments being the first of four. I wanted to write on the Sahara, the Kalahari, the Gobi and the Sonoran.
The conditions didn’t seem right. My translator into Dutch who is a real student of deserts and who splits her time between Antwerp and Arizona took ill – I had planned to do a short stay at her place in Arizona to polish the Sonoran leg. I’d initiated paperwork for the Gobi desert tour in 2014 but that ran into difficulties with the Ebola outbreak and the anxiety of Asians at the time. I had actually begun working on the Kalahariat about 2015 when I got a residency stay at the Bellagio in Italy but that began to feel and sound too close to the Sahara so I decided to take a break and do something entirely different from the planned tetralogy.
All things being equal, a volume of poems should be out of the press by the second quarter of 2020. Fàbú Igboro, the Yoruba book, should be out in 2021, with nothing changing. I have to say that I wish I were more prolific. My last published volume before The Sahara Testaments was The Rain Fardel published in the year 2005. So it takes me about 7-8 years between books. Part of the reason why is having to make a living as a lawyer since writing poetry really cannot support anyone in Nigeria or in most parts of the world.
I also suspect I may be lazy. One reason why I think this is so is that I do have contemporaries who do top quality writing while engaged in 9-5 work. It has to do with my childhood. I learnt to read and write for enjoyment first and foremost. It doesn’t go to my editors or the press if I’m not enjoying it.
Peter: Could you speak more about Fàbú Igboro? For one, the idea of writing in indigenous language has become contentious since Obi Wali’s 1963 decolonial sentiment. The instance of Ngugi’s equally ideological attempt to return to writing in indigenous language has proved the limitations of such decision in the multi-ethnic, multi-lingual structure of the modern African state. This is not to talk of problems of accessibility for international readership. Yet, the recent growing interest in indigenous language, especially its new and exciting life in digital ecologies, cannot be denied. From which impulse did your own decision to writing in Yoruba spring? Is there a critical question or an exemplary idea you wish to amplify by so doing? Also, what form will Fàbú Ìgboro be: a collection of stories, fiction, non-fiction, book of poetry?
Tade: I’m aware of the seminal contributions of Obi Wali and of Professor Ngugi wa Thiongo to the language debate but my writing in Yoruba isn’t driven by specific ideological impulses as such. If anything, these stories owe more to aesthetic and personal impulses than to any other factors. The Yoruba language is fascinating enough to keep a writer busy for life writing in just that language. I also don’t think about the market coming from a background in poetry and in any case there are at least twenty million educated readers in the language and even a fraction of that number should give an author joy.
Language, like dance, for me, is a way of being in the world and I’m convinced there is a Yoruba way of being in the world. I have observed multi-lingual persons at close quarters and it always seems to me there is a kind of shift in psychic gears when they move from one language to another. The late professor Abiola Irele always struck me as more voluble speaking French or singing in Italian, more introspective when speaking Yoruba, particularly measured when speaking or writing in English. I’d go so far as to court controversy and say someone like Professor Karin Barber was born to speak and use the Yoruba language because she naturally can parse meaning in that language most beautifully. Once, the late Baba Okediji regaled Dr. Akin Adesokan and myself at Ọ̀yọ́ with the story of how he had called upon Professor Barber to come and witness falling hail “ko to yọ́” and she had gently corrected him and said instead “ko to yòòrò”. Now both words translate as “melt” but real acquaintance with the inner magic of the language is what her choice revealed. Also, a native speaker will almost instinctively know the difference between “radarada” and “rederede” but the closest that English gets is “haphazard”, perhaps. So those things fascinate me. Again, I have had some kind of resurgence in my interest in Yoruba word-making. Professor Wole Soyinka is one inspiration here. He gave us both ‘Ijegba’ and ‘Awosikun’. Imagine if he had more time to work in the language.
I grew up with my parents who were both teachers but it was my grandmother, Oyepeju Apinkẹ́ with whom I most interacted in Yoruba until she died at about 94 in the year I turned thirty. She was a great user of the language and definitely my first real inspiration to write in the language. She never went to school formally but she ensured all her four sons did. She also had a curious habit of asking, practically demanding, that you wrote certain things she had to say down. She did that to her own children and to me. She had whole fardels of stories and songs. If you wrote then you had to read what you wrote and you cannot read back to her in English.
In my twenties I enjoyed mixing with workmen of all descriptions – carpenters, builders, taxi drivers and farmers. There was a trained wildlife photographer who later decided to set up a photography studio in my village and he, with all the rest, were sources of such fantastic stories and urban legends. Kaylad the photographer particularly. Now all these stories were narrated in Yoruba and I have to say they had a different texture to them when compared with, say, Gothic tales or modern urban legends even when told by really skillful writers such as Stephen King. I felt there was a trove to be mined there.
There were the novels of Daniel Fagunwa and all his literary heirs and inheritors notable among whom is the late Professor Akinwumi Isola who have collectively created a body of work which we do well to revisit from time to time. If I were to do a genealogy of Fàbú Igboro though, it would lead directly first to Akinwumi Isola who first did the playful conversion from fable to Fàbú. The book is planned as short stories and flash fiction much in the character of the urban legends of night watchmen, taxi drivers and wildlife photographers regaling themselves with stories at the end of each day.
There is a personal aspect to Fàbú Igboro as well. It is my way of celebrating the life of my friend, Faderera Ogun, who was my childhood friend and much closer to me than a blood brother even as he was my personal palm wine tapper in Akinmoorin, my town. He was a hunter when not tapping palm wine and he had a way with stories as well. I considered our friendship a privilege and at least two of the stories were inspired directly by him. The way I see it, with life expectancy being what it is in Nigeria, if I should conk out today, I would have lived 90% of my life in the Yoruba language and it is therefore only natural that at least a slice of my writing should be in the language in which I lived the most part of my life.
Peter: The Sahara Testaments presents a mosaic of immense and wide-ranging representations spanning Africa, Asia, the Mediterranean as well as the occident in a sweeping narrative of immense scope and allusive erudition. It is this quality of sublimation that the scholar and critic, Dan Izevbaye, has described it as an “epic” in his review of that work. Did you set out to write an epic poem, or did that just happen along the way.
Tade: First, let me thank you for those kind words. I remember hoping that I could finish writing the arbitrary figure of 1000 quatrains that I set myself from the start for The Sahara Testaments but even then I thought of the project as a long poem. The most I had done before The Sahara Testaments were two slim solo volumes and an even slimmer duet volume with Temilola Abioye.
One thing that writing The Sahara Testaments revealed to me was that the subject can run away with you. I remember two or three incidents while writing the quatrains that became the Testaments. I had the habit of showing the work in progress to my friends and having them published in 234Next, the avant-garde newspaper in the country at the time before it sadly folded up. On one occasion, I got a long distance phone call from Professor Niyi Osundare and in his characteristic way, he asked me why I was writing more about the physical features of the Sahara and not so much about the people who inhabit the Sahara. He asked me in Yoruba and I won’t ever forget his tone of voice “ṣe kò si ènìyàn nibe ni?” where are the people of the Sahara? I think my writing took a different turn after that conversation. Then I remember running into another dilemma of whether to stick with 1000 quatrains or to write more as the spirit led, so to speak.
Looking back now on the first four stanzas/quatrains which came to me, I think I’m surprised I stayed with the subject for the long haul even if I do feel I didn’t quite exhaust the ideas I had for the Sahara. Also, I remember a conversation I had with Rotimi Babatunde, the playwright, somewhere in the middle of writing that volume and how he weighed in favour of the style in Pablo Neruda’s Canto General. I think that this was the point at which I began to feel some anxiety about my original intention to write a linear narrative into the Sahara like Derek Walcott did with Omeros. I ended up writing what made the Sahara itself a protagonist and writing more than a thousand quatrains before yielding the manuscript over to Biyi Olusolape and Benson Eluma who edited it. These are two very different critics. Biyi typically inverted the opening I originally wrote and made specific interventions in about a dozen places in the text. Benson worked over a period of six months, turning the text into what became its final shape upon publication. So if I had any epic anxieties I would say it has more to do with whether or not I will execute the original plan of a tetralogy because that was how I conceived of the work initially.
Peter: I observe a certain “negritudist ethos” in The Sahara Testaments which is also noticeable in older texts like Soyinka’s Ogun Abibiman and Odia Ofeimun’s Under the African Skies or A Feast of Return. There seems, to me, a linkage of shared historical duty between your work and those two. Of course, that linkage could be extended across the Atlantic to Brathwaite’s The Arrivants and Walcott’s Omeros. This seems to me an intellectual effort to tell the “tale of the tribe”— an ambition that almost always provokes an epic run. Yet, with territories and identities becoming increasingly fluid and contested, there is a growing consciousness in black literature that has made such identifications a bit problematic. What do you think might be the fate of a literary work— such as The Sahara Testaments—that tries to re-gather local histories and spatialities in a time when cultures have become transnational?
Tade: I suppose the answer must be that no one knows what the fate of a text with determinate moorings will be in these times. Coming of age in the 80s meant reading J.P Clark, Soyinka, Okigbo and Achebe – the quartet so to speak. But it also meant reading Peter Abrahams, Athol Fugard, Alan Paton, Thomas Mofolo and Drum Magazine. Ngugi wa Thiongo was required reading in secondary school in those days. We didn’t have any such requirements to read North African writers but outliers among us still found Fanon for themselves and read him, though Fanon, for example, never subscribed to negritude as a creed. The net effect of all these readings and especially from those that were not prescribed such as Fanon or Ofeimun was to produce a certain consciousness in the young African growing up on the continent. Even though Niyi Osundare’s Eye of the Earth was the class text in my first year in university, I remember that reading it was sheer joy because the class was handled by the late Sesan Ajayi who was a first rate aesthete. Remember that Fela produced some of his best music at about that time as well.
As much as I must acknowledge the temper of the present times, I’m convinced that there is a kind of homing instinct hardwired into humans at the psychic level. You’ll see this in the great poets of Ireland and in Milton and Blake. I guess my point is that whether you were colonized or were the colonizer, that corncrake impulse is always present. Even when you compare the physical relocation patterns of a T.S Eliot, an Ezra Pound or an Auden, you’ll still see this. I was in the audience when Kwame Dawes read some poems and then addressed the Lagos Book and Arts Festival a couple of years ago and I could tell when his poetic axis shifted homeward – in his naming of fruits and flowers and people – even after living and working in the New World for so long. So, I think it is some homing beacon invisible to the eye that kicks in in your poetics and in your stylistic choices.
There is greater mobility and flux for writers, generally speaking, beginning from the 20th century and especially now in the 21st century. I also believe there is greater agitation in themes with subjects like sexuality and gender creating some elbow room for themselves in the current discourses. Africa predictably has so many writers in the diaspora now more than ever and all of these affect their sense of place and space.
We’ve never been here before as a tribe. I am talking about writers and specifically writers of African descent. The chances that an African writer will be writing in Arabic, English, French or Portuguese, foreign and imperial tools all, is so much higher than any chance that the writer will be writing in a language indigenous to Africa.
Now, for most of recorded history, people have composed poetry in their mother tongues. There is an implication for poetry and writing in that. The main Yoruba expression for ‘Country’, for example, is Orile Ede. Literally a landscape of speech. The other is ‘Ilu’. Literally a town. If today, writing is almost totally untethered from territory, there is still that vestigial connection which is virtually umbilical between language and land. I venture to say that this is why it is hard to find a poet of African descent among the Afropolitans. Those are mostly novelists. I cannot recall a single essayist or playwright describing herself as an Afropolitan. Yet, it is totally understandable that these other writers describe themselves, and by implication, their works, in those terms. Inserting oneself in the global circuit of value in publishing and film today practically demands this kind of fluidity.
I am currently reading three African intellectuals on these themes: Femi Taiwo, Akin Adesokan and Abiola Irele. It is interesting to observe the points at which their thought convergence as well as where they diverge in thought about what it means to produce work of value within the force fields of globalization and the ancestral claims of home and what home means today. These three are even more interesting to me not just because of the theoretical heft they bring but because they are also ‘transnationals’ as you put it. They have some real skin in the game.
Being born on the continent and receiving what I now recognize to be regular Yoruba education into my formative years, mostly at the feet of my grandmother who never spoke a word of English except to poke fun at those who did, there is always going to be, in me, that tie that binds to territory, even to dialect. I do the bulk of my thinking in Yoruba even as I do the bulk of my reading in English but I do not see any binaries as such even as I recognize the differing psychological disposition in those two languages. If ideas are what matter then my experience is that many times, the mother tongue has a crystallization of an idea so vivid that the same idea rendered in another language or even a mathematical equation is only embellishment. If one understood the Yoruba language sufficiently, for example, one recognizes the song ‘Konko jabele, kaluku lo mi se tire’ as a rather elegant rendering of the Nash equilibrium for which John Nash received the Nobel Prize. Game theory has been around for ages.
My grandmother, my mother and my father, all departed now, were also all multilingual and multidialectal yet they retained a sense of place that I can at the end of the day only attribute to their mother tongue or if I may play a little, their mooring in Akinmoorin. All of them travelled and lived outside their geographies of birth and my mother was actually born in Zungeru so she spoke fluent Nupe which, interestingly, is the language my great grandfather, Kiisaaku, spoke. I cannot recall which wit said it first, perhaps Chesterton, but the idea is that there are two ways to explore the world. One is by travelling it and the other is by staying in your place and pondering it. I think poetry is a wonderful tool for pondering the world. And if, as I learnt regarding Elon Musk’s proposed project to have a colony on Mars, poets are not enthusiastic about joining the experiment, you probably shouldn’t be, either, even if you’re armed with advanced degrees in astrophysics and chemistry.
Peter: It is interesting what you said about the rarity of the Afropolitan poet. It speaks in a way to the growing but problematic contours of that concept in the last fifteen years, as both a marker of identity and culture and a descriptor of a style, practice and sensibility. The prose fiction—the novel—has become the emblem of its somewhat neo-liberal worldliness. That a genre like poetry, with its characteristic introversion, will be unequally yoked with this aesthetic glitziness is quite coherent. This is not to say there are no poets that by the virtue of location and mobility can be described as “Afropolitan” but there is an ongoing debate that if Afropolitanism indicates an emerging “poetic of the world” as Achille Mbembe sees it, it has also become tricky because of the categories of creative production it excludes.
Do you think that poets hesitate to proclaim their Afripolitanity because they work in a genre that might be its own reward, to quote Uche Nduka, a genre that is underwired to run against cultural rages and globalizing distribution of capital and prestige, among other modish exchanges?
Tade: I think there is help toward understanding what drives Afripolitanity when we go back to the sapeurs (Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes) of the Congo. There’s also some clue up the alley of the phenomenon now known as Africapitalism – a phenomenon not unrelated if one looks hard. For me, there’s a lurking danger in dressing Africa in borrowed clothes. The main preferred term of sapeurs, Afropolitans and Africapitalists is hybridity but there’s no mystery in that although it runs a terrible risk of approaching monstrosity.
There’s a world cosmopolitan culture and Africa is a part of it for good or ill. Historically there was Bubastis. Today there is Casablanca, Cairo, Nairobi, Lagos, Accra, Mombasa, Johannesburg and Capetown are all a part of this culture which has Paris, London, Shanghai, Antwerp, Delhi, Dubai, Singapore, New York and Los Angeles as global centers of activity. We can throw in Milan and even Kigali for good measure. One doesn’t want to be superficial or supercilious but these places represent major points on the global map for capital flows and for literature, fashion and film. The global South in the present configuration represents points of extraction and of market creation while the North represents agenda-setting points. I stand to be corrected on this but it was a question of when and not if for the emergence of sapeurs, Afropolitans and Africapitalists.
I’m not sure that poets and poetry come into the contemplation of the world “movers and shakers” the way novelists do. The argy-bargy surrounding American Dirt, for example, is something unimaginable regarding poetry. Who puts the kind of capital involved in these campaigns at the service of poetry? No one. One might as well imagine mobilizing that kind of capital for philosophy. It would be a massive waste of money in the long run. My point is that when big capital ventures into the terrain of culture, it has always found better reception in art forms where big spending doesn’t raise too many eyebrows. Novels linked to films, paintings and the plastic arts linked with auction houses—are more suitable for those purposes though we must quickly say that a lot of substantial artists work in these genres and utilize these forms without surrendering their essence to global publishing capital or the circuit of value it drives or the politics of literary prizes.
Poetry still strenuously resists the modishness that is required to be in the flow and therefore serves as a disruptive influence. The temper of poetry will always be closer to the condition of man before the invention of money or its flow around the world. This is a good thing. I have China in mind here. All the great poets of China that have come to us in translation have been the masters before the age of Chinese role as a global player in world finances. I can’t name even a single poet from China who has said anything seriously profound in contemporary times. Granted that Chinese critics and scholars I’ve interacted with are few, yet it is hard to shake the feeling that another has risen since Lu Xun.
This is not to say that poetry is immune to modishness altogether or to passing raves. It is something of a wonder to me now that if I were to stand at the quadrangle in the University of Ibadan and ask random questions about the Martian school of poetry, I would be lucky to get any informed responses. As an undergraduate in the 80s, if you were in literature then you knew who the Martians were and could reasonably discuss Craig Raines or Christopher Reid. Perhaps I should speak for myself in this particular matter of the Martians because I received a rejection slip signed by Christopher Reid himself in the mid-nineties for poetry I submitted directly to Faber in those days. I took it personally at the time but the important thing is that even when the poets are being modish, they are still significant disruptive influences in a world too easily commodified and mercantilized.
Peter: Still, it is interesting how Afripolitanism is becoming the new pan-Africanism. The intellectual bulk of that transition has been recently headed by Achilles Mbembe and Simon Gikandi. Abiola Irele in his latest book, The African Scholar, nods that way too, calling for African literature to move beyond “postcolonial determinations” and chart a new course for new knowledges rooted in the immediate conditions of the continent. His proposed “ideological imperative” is however different in specifics from the initial reservations of postcolonialism from critics like Esiaba Irobi or more recently the cheeky derision of postcolonial studies by Chimamanda Adichie. The realities of the lived experience in Africa at least do not seem to support Irele’s call. There is still so much in the life-world of former colonies that are conditioned by imperialism. For one the media in Africa, including literature and film, are still entangled in the web of postcolonial conditions. So what is your view about postcolonial knowledge production from the perspective of one writer who is also invested in public discourse?
Tade: Professor Abiola Irele being one of the earliest scholars to theorize the ambivalence embedded in Africa’s engagement with both the colonial and the postcolonial phases of life in our neck of the woods, was also one of the first to recognize that African literature has since displaced what used to be the central tropes of colony and the post colony with other tropes. The reality today is that empire is not what it once was and it was only natural that the writer would recognize this and engage with those phenomena that justify the labour of writing what is the truth about the people today. I’m happy you mentioned Esiaba Irobi in this context because apart from his essays, his latter plays showed where his energies were being expended and he had moved away from interrogating the white man to scrutinizing the black man. One can say the same for the plays of Rotimi Babatunde or of Diran Bepo.
All of these have not diminished the importance of postcolonial studies, of new challenges in the dialectics of neo colonization or of constructing new theoretical frameworks for greater efficiency in the discourse of the post colony. The work of the philosophers on this crime scene is only just beginning but the creators of imaginative works have a duty to take the people beyond the crime scene and into new possibilities. I think this is because literature is better suited to quests and becoming while philosophy is a great tool for inquest and questions relating to being.
What is happening today as far as race relations are concerned is not any different from what happened when Shakespeare wrote Othello. Great writers like Leo Tolstoy recognize that Africa was grievously wronged and hint at some form of restitution toward Africa but the logic of the marketplace is a strong argument for Africans to reconsider the terms on which we participate in the buying and selling.
Technology is a very important way for black Africans especially to exit the cellars which capitalism will prefer we occupy but the Humanities are a surer route to the kind of future black Africans want. This is why I thought it most unfortunate that any writer of African descent will glibly say postcolonial theorizing is something professors made up to keep themselves occupied.
As someone with substantial skin in the game, I’m happy that some of the most capacious minds from Africa have made and are making great contributions to the world’s understanding of what it means to be of African descent whether on the continent or in the diaspora. Harry Garuba on animist realism is almost required reading for anyone who wants to engage with current advances in ecology, what scientists now call the Anthropocene, geophysics and even epigenesis.
It requires some serious education in the Humanities to recognize that what the superficial and supercilious will regard as superstition is actually a thoroughly thought out ecological measure put in code to preserve the environment. We don’t have enough of these scholars and workers but one way the deficit is being filled is through postcolonial studies.
Peter: Harold Bloom’s theory of anxiety of influence seems to me very instructive in tracking the development of Nigerian poetry. In a specific sense, there was that well-choreographed, attempt at patricide by the younger poets of the Alter-Native tradition in 1970s and 1980s who sought to dethrone the so-called first generation poets. Then there is the quieter delinquency of the so-called third generation poets whose cosmopolitan ant-nativist sensibilities can be seen as a form of subversion of the ideology of Alter-Nativism.
Of course, I am speaking with all the awareness of imprecision and unwieldiness of literary categorizations along any lines at all; I am mindful of interstices and outliers. Still, literary critics categorize. I think your own work may sit simultaneously with either “third generation,” as drawn out by Sule Egya at least, or the emerging, but yet to be demarcated generation. What are your thoughts about all these? And are there poets with whom you have agonistic connection in Nigeria, Africa or elsewhere?
Tade: I think the larger argument Bloom advanced in his seminal work on the anxiety of influence is sufficiently instantiated in our growing traditions of poetry in Nigeria. While agreeing with you that the generational categorization of poets is tenuous for the most part, it is also useful in mapping influences. That generation we acknowledge as the first in Nigerian poetry, the Okigbo, Clark and Soyinka generation resisted the influences of those who wrote verse in English before them such as Nnamdi Azikiwe and Dennis Osadebe. Though we refer to them, and I include Gabriel Okara in the first generation of poets though he was something of an outlier, they came after some others who had published their poetry as Nigerians in the English language. And I don’t think we’ve paid sufficient attention to why it was easy to discount the Dennis Osadebe/Nnamdi Azikiwe generation of poets and have the formal reckoning begin with Okigbo, Clark, Soyinka and Okara. The politics of canon formation had a hand in it in that the ‘first generation’ were competent critics and quickly set the terms upon which not only their works but African poetry generally will be accessed (and assessed) for a long time to be come. No other generation of poets has since come up with anything like The Horn. I think Harry Garuba comes closest to doing for his generation of poets what the first generation did for themselves but for the centrifugal forces that ensured the poets didn’t stay together long enough but went into the diaspora. Harry Garuba is an outlier too when viewed as a member of the second generation of Nigerian poets. Naturally the second generation found both lacuna and problema which they felt called upon to redress in the preceding works of poetry. Whether they succeeded is a question for the ages now that a third generation is here. Now do I see myself as a part of the third generation of Nigerian poets? Unlike most poets normally located in the third generation, I was born in the year that the Nigerian Civil War ended. Only now have I really began to understand why I was especially drawn to poets like Odia Ofeimun and to specific volumes such as Casualties by J. P Clark.
Remi Raji Oyelade, Afam Akeh, Obi Nwakama, Toyin Adewale – Gabriel, Ogaga Ifowodo and Uche Nduka were all born before or during the Civil War. I think it shows in their poetry. I think it is almost impossible not to see the scars of that war in their works. I know it is untidy to generalize this way but I have read these poets from my early twenties till date and I really am convinced that they ought to have a category of their own. Sylvester Onyeji and Sesan Ajayi should be in that category.
Among poets born after War such as Niran Okewole, Yomi Ogunsanya, Lola Shoneyin, Lola Abioye, Damilola Ajayi, Benson Eluma and others, there’s, I think, much less reaction to Nigerian poets who have been published before and a more global outlook. I stand to be corrected, of course.
I’ve found much to admire in a poet like Ismaila Bala whose commitment to craft is exemplary and who has done much for translation from Hausa into English. He is a punctilious writer and not at all drawn to the public sphere though I wish he would get around more. Another reclusive poet is Benson Eluma.
To address your inquiry about agonistic relationships, I really doubt that I’ve had gestational time for individual poets and their poetry, though I obviously have favorites. This is because my father made me read poets daily from when I was eleven, different poets, different poems. By my late teens it had become a part of me. It’s a strange way to train a poet but my father was the first to realize I was going to be a poet. Sometimes, he’d give me his Basho in translation, some other times he’d make me read his Spenser or his Wordsworth or Yeats. It was like a slalom through this huge library. I remember a discussion with a Chinese scholar in Iowa in which we discussed Lu Xun. I had no idea Xun was actually esteemed for his fiction in China. I read his poetry and I think I have to be one of the first poets from Africa to reference him.
My first (faux) agonistic relationship with a poet of my generation would be with the late Opeyemi Okusanya, a gifted poet and stage actor who was also a lawyer. We lost him at the peak of his powers a couple of years back. His strength was the lyric and the narrative verse. He was also a diarist, having made entries daily in his diaries from 1991 to 2018. He won one of the MUSON prizes for poetry between 2000 and 2001.
My father had this habit of cutting out poems published in Nigerian newspapers and this was how he introduced me to the poems of Ogaga Ifowodo in the 1990s. I mentioned this to Ifowodo some time ago and how I hated that he set standards which my dad approved and all that while I also published in Daily Sketch but never saw a single cutting at home. So, Ogaga would be, in retrospect, one of the first to give me a hard time though he had absolutely no idea he was doing so. He wrote really fine protest poems in those years of military rule and was even incarcerated. That is more than Brownie points.
Lately, I have encountered the poetry of Troy Jollimore and Malachi Black. Fantastic poets. Also the poet and philosopher Robert Gal who works with axioms and aphorisms. I think with me poets come in three categories—those I admire, those I revere and those to whom I’m indifferent. I think I’ve only been truly indifferent toward Ryszard Kapusinsky and he was more journalist than poet. He nevertheless wrote powerfully but not sufficiently for me to be imaginatively or emotionally invested in his poetry.
Peter Akinlabi earned his BA from the University of Ibadan and his MA and PhD from University of Ilorin, Nigeria. Akinlabi is the author of A Pagan Place, issued as part of the APBF Chapbook Box Set: Eight New-Generation African Poets 2015 and published by Akashic Books, and a collection of poems, Iconography, which was long-listed for the Nigeria Prize for Literature in 2017. He lives in Ilorin, North-central Nigeria.