Inua Ellams is a Nigerian poet, playwright, performer, graphic artist & designer based in the UK. Leanne Ellul gets the opportunity to ask him a few questions. 

Writing in general

In her essay Bye-bye Barbar, Taiye Selasi writes about the concept of “Afropolitanism”, a term that she popularised through the same essay. She claims that “‘Home’ for this lot is many things … Like so many African young people working and living in cities around the globe, they belong to no single geography, but feel at home in many.” In your bionote you claim you’re born in Nigeria, but don’t mention where you live. Where is your home? Do you share this same sentiment, ideology, that of being an African of the world? Does your homeland define you, or it is something else that you feel defines you and who you are?

There have been many criticisms of the term ‘Afropolitan’. To many, it occupies some of the same territory of the ‘Afropean’. Both suggest an upward mobility, a baselessness, privileged by wealth and European citizenship. It defines being an "African" in explicitly continent-wide and multiracial terms, and rejects all pretensions to victimhood. I have none of such privileges. I am an African, I still have a Nigerian passport and citizenship, therefore I cannot call England home. I am a victim, of sectarian violence, the legacy of which stems in British colonisation, which continues to influence my work and my life. Home to me then, is not where I lay my head, rather it is where and when I am most alive and free to create, and that is when I'm alert and my fingers are poised over my laptop and my face is lit by its screen and I’m writing. This is where I feel most safe, and it is not bound by borders. It is beyond.

The Cooperative Children’s Book Center compiles statistics that shed light onto diversity (or rather the lack of it) in children’s books. In 2018, 10% of the children’s books depicted African or African American children. Despite various challenges, African literature has become more and more visible and it seems that it was never visible as much as today. From your experience, are African writers at a disadvantage? If so, what kinds of disadvantages do they face? What sets African writing apart and what sets it back?

This question is couched in geopolitics, and its answer plays out accordingly. In which world are you a Black writer? What is the history of publishing in that world? What is the history and demographic of the readership of that world? Answers to these questions present very different realities. Growing up in Nigeria, Black African writers were not at a disadvantage, they dominated the market. When reading books, they’re about white protagonists, because I was surrounded by successful Black African people across all sector of society, representation was not an issue, and neither was racism; I didn’t care for the race of my protagonists. All I cared about was how good the story was. When I arrived in Britain, I faced a different reality.

Racism was stark and ubiquitous. Suddenly representation, positive representation deeply mattered, because here, Black African writers were at a disadvantage. Publishers thought White audiences would not “see themselves” in Black protagonists. They thought people of African descent did not read – and didn't care to discover how to market to and develop those audiences – so Black African writers were at a disadvantage. Thankfully, we know that is not the case. We have proved our marketability. The next step, is to make the trend, the books part of educational institutions, to demand that teachers introduce stories, our work to the entire student population, and to do so from earlier ages, and to teach it as art, not as anthropological texts. This is the next battlefront. 

You put black manhood at the heart of what you write; you express what it feels to be black, what it feels to be a man and above all what it feels to be both. To what extent do you feel you are narrating the stories of the marginalized, the others? Does this kind of writing make you more vulnerable?

I don't put Black manhood at the heart of what I write, neither do I express what it feels to be Black. I'm a Black man, who feels, and I've cultivated a space where it's safe to write down everything I feel, in the full spectrum of the ways that I feel them, which includes strength and vulnerability, from which I draw strength. Because I live in Europe the stories are at the margins of society, but beyond these borders, I am part of the global majority, which in turn gives me strength.

A lot of writers through the years had a lot to say about politically engaged writing. Some say all writing is imbued with political hues, others say that writers do not have a duty to be political … Having read The Actual I believe it is a very much needed political statement. I think that you speak for a lot of us. You voice what many of us think and think but lack the skill to put into words. What is your stance on all this? Should writers be political? 

I definitely don't think poets should be politicians. I think the office of modern politics necessitates a duplicitous mindset; to speak in prose, to promise in broad strokes rather than in the specificity required for poetry. Modern politicians have to lie, it feels increasingly like a talent show, a popularity context. Politics needs to be overhauled before it can become a safe space for poetry and poetics. Having said that, I think poetry is political and poetry’s jobs is to witness and simplify, to shed light on the gray areas politicians tend to paint in black and white and ask difficult questions. Poetry questions and holds power to account simply by being.

 

Literary genres

As I see it, poetry underlies other literary genres. It is what makes prose and scripts, for instance, poetical, rhythmical, moving. Dare I say poetry is to literature as ballet is to dance and blues is to music. It is at the core of what we write, it is entwined in our expression. First of all, do you identify yourself more as a poet or as a playwright? How do you differentiate between the different genres, if you do? Is there a process that you go through when moving from one genre to another? And maybe, is there a genre that you prefer?

I think of myself as a poet most of the time, and work primarily in poetry. I perform as well, and think of performance as being additional, an extension of the craft of writing. To borrow from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, when writing, I think of myself as Bruce Banner, the quiet scientist at work. When I perform, I think of myself as a mongrel, a beast frozen between the scientist and the green eyed monster. When I write plays I fully become the Incredible Hulk, using dramatic lighting, smoke and mirrors, the full range of emotion to tell a story, and when other actors perform my plays, I become Nik Fury, the force that pulls The Avengers together. But it all begins with poetry. Typically, I stumble across an idea or story, and if it is better served by many voices or a longer stretch of time, then it becomes a play. If I had to choose a genre, it would be poetry.  

Nowadays, writings by authors such as Maggie Nelson, Anne Carson, and Han Kang are defying genres and in turn creating genres of their own; genres that benefit from not having a label attached to them. Bernardine Evaristo (who had nothing but praise for your latest book of poetry) in her award-winning book Girl, Woman, Other challenges the conventions of prose by avoiding most of the punctuation. Now, you yourself, challenge us readers in The Half-God of Rainfall by presenting us with a narrative in a lyrical form. In The Actual you challenge us by using visual line breaks. Your poetry transforms itself into a symphony that oscillates between poetry and prose, creating something that goes beyond prose poetry. Is this a reflection of your life as an immigrant, going past socially constructed borders? Do labels only stifle writers? And do you envisage a particular reader to your work? 

The form in which The Actual is written definitely reflects my life as an immigrant; in trying to go past borders, in being aware of them, yet trying to render them invisible. It is also a reflection of some of my most favorite hip-hop artists, who would bend the rules of time and the constructions of the music that held their voices. They stayed fluid, even in staccato. But more specifically, The Actual was laid down in the ways the poems came to me, always in transit, always between meetings, constantly hurtling through London. I wanted the readers to feel that tumbling-urgency, and removing punctuation and the ways in which poetry had been traditionally demarcated on the page felt right. I don't think labels stifle all writers, but they stifle me because I've always been a hyphenated-soul and writer, I have a hyphenated sense of nationality, I have always contained multitudes and for this reason have never imagined a particular reader. My ideal audience are multitude.

 

Story/History

I am also particularly interested in the retelling of stories and of history. You have excelled in retelling both in your play Three Sisters, a retelling of Anton Chekhov’s play with the same name from the perspective of three sisters in Nigeria during the Biafran war. But you have also retold stories and histories and myths in The Half-God of Rainfall, Barber Shop Chronicles, Thirteen Fairy Negro Tales, and Circe/Odysseus, to mention a few. What does it mean to retell a story and to what extent a story can be retold? Do you see yourself breathing new life into such work? Is there a fine line between what is written by you and what has been written before by others? Do you believe that there are still new stories to be told? Or has everything been written before? 

Earlier, I discussed growing up and not feeling like I needed representation, because of who I was, how I thought of myself, and the multitudes I contain. However, the world has become more binary, and more focused and identity politics, in which the need for specific representation is constant and amplified. When I read the classics I understood their characters, empathized with them. I saw why they were classics, and wished to dramatize the lens through which I perceived their characters, which was an extension of my emotional or empathetic family. This is how I wrote Three Sisters. I understood the limbo the sisters found themselves in as the limbo in which the Biafrans were, and I understood the three sisters, as my own actual three sisters. When I retell stories, I am honoring and thanking the original writers and sharing my internal conversation with them to wider audience. But there are always new realities, new ways of seeing the world and new stories to tell, and I am working on quite a few.

Our memory is kind of tricky. We remember things, we forget others. Our memory prioritise what we remember or what we’d rather forget. Moreover, we remember what we think happened and so our memories are often distorted, fragmented episodes that we piece together later on in whichever way we please. Do you feel a responsibility when narrating your nation? What role does the memory (both personal and collective) play in recreating these stories anew? Is this an act of trust?

There are as many worlds as there are people and I am from many worlds. If you add my Nigerian-hood to my Irish-hood to my British-hood, then there are three different realities or truths of the world that I subscribe to, that I come from. Trying to represent them all ... that way lies madness. I never try to tell the truth based on my memory, I never tried to tell the collective truth, instead I tried to tell my truth, a truth, one of many truths. Within that, I consider that I am completely wrong, that others will disagree with me, and I try to create space for those disagreements. I research as much as I can, but also accept that even the research material might be flawed. Antonio Porchia, the Argentinian writer and poet of Italian origin wrote, "I know what I have given you. I do not know what you have received" to acknowledge the gulf between writers and audience. All we can do is trust in the transaction of ourselves and our work, that something IS given, and something IS received. The transaction itself is holy. 

Inua Ellams will be participating in the annual Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival organised by Inizjamed on the 27th and 28th of August at Fort St Elmo, Valletta. Tickets can be bought from showshappening.com. More info: inizjamed.org

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