June 21, 2024

Buguma’s early world of plenty, then of loss from Shell’s despoliation drove me to poetry, says Goodhead

  • January 5, 2024
  • 27 min read
Buguma’s early world of plenty, then of loss from Shell’s despoliation drove me to poetry, says Goodhead

* My father’s tenacity of will, purpose has been a valuable lesson for me as a writer

* Reckless oil exploitation has turned many rivers of the Niger Delta into waste land

In this interview with KALU UDUMA, US-based academic and writer Dr. Dokubo Goodhead talks about his writing, early life in his native Buguma paradise that Shell oil despoliation has turned into hell, his sojourn in the US for academic laurels and where his writing career is headed

Mourning is described as a poetry of loss. What loss is it—exile, deprivation, death, economic, identity?

MOURNING is indeed about loss. The losses that I place the greatest emphasis on are the loss of my late father—who stood up for what was right both as a Director of Public Prosecutions and as a high court judge instead of taking bribes to pervert justice or working hand-in-glove with corrupt politicians to destroy democracy in Rivers State or get away with their corruption—and the loss of my mother. My father died fighting one of such battles. The sheer shock of his totally unavoidable death turned me introspective, to reflect on the kind of society Nigeria is and whether we can be hopeful about its future. As someone from the Niger Delta, while I desperately wanted to be hopeful about the future of the country, barely anything that I was seeing with regard to the running of the country gave me reason to do so.

When you look at the Niger Delta, what do you see? You see an environment where a rentier class of postcolonial military men and politicians have helped the multinational oil companies to sow utter waste and destruction. The pristine rivers that those of my generation grew up with have become dead rivers. The fish have disappeared, making me nostalgic about my early years on the island of Buguma. It was impossible to go hungry in those days because the Asari River was full of so much fish and crabs that the river could have been compared without exaggeration to a gigantic fish farm. Even the brackish, muddy banks were teeming with mudskippers. So, even the laziest of the laziest island folk, who did not want to take the trouble of setting a canoe on the river to go fishing could gather mudskippers and water crabs to get a good meal. Of course, if you were even a little bit adventurous, like many of the kids on the island, who loved to explore the creeks—to swim, to hear the songs of the river as it made its way into the creeks or recede from the creeks at low tide, and most importantly to hunt crabs—you can hurl in quite a bit of seafood.

I was one of those kids and I remember that my friends and I would go into the creeks at low tide armed with rags and sticks. When we encountered the hole of a crab, we would poke a stick into the hole to find out whether there was a crab in it. If there was a crab in it, we would drive the stick vertically and farther down the hole, away from the crab, to prevent the crab from receding farther into the hole beyond our reach, after which one of us would wrap the rag around his hand, poke it into the hole, and hurl the crab out of the hole. By the time I was finishing high school, the Asari River was already in the throes of death. Shell had oil pipelines buried in the river. The loss of the river created impoverishment and drastically changed the diet of the folk on the island. The question I constantly ask myself is: “What kind of leaders are okay with such wholesale destruction of the environment?” Why are they comfortable with such catastrophe and widespread impoverishment of the islanders?

Frantz Fanon answered such questions several decades ago in The Wretched of the Earth, when he says, “The national bourgeoisie of underdeveloped countries is not engaged in production, nor in invention, nor building, nor labor; it is completely canalized into activities of the intermediary type. Its innermost vocation seems to be to keep in the running and to be part of the racket.”

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Dokubo Goodhead (PhD)

Mourning is too painful a title for a debut collection in the land of the brave. What is your experience in the US?
It has been a mixed bag. I came to the States because I wanted to achieve five major goals—get a PhD; become a professor; develop my craft as a writer and become an established writer; become a moviemaker; achieve enough success both as an academic and as a moviemaker to contribute professionally and economically to the fields of education, health, filmmaking, and agriculture in Nigeria, to further the project of sustainable development in the country, especially in the Niger Delta, where, as you and I know, reckless oil mining has devastated the rivers and the mangrove swamps, causing widespread poverty. I met the first two goals by getting my PhD and becoming a professor but lost my professorial job.

As far as my writing goes, I have written three different fiction manuscripts of over a thousand pages—The Fly; The Shoemaker; An African Moonlight Tale—and two shorter fiction manuscripts—Our Town and the Boy with the Magic Feet and The Island Beyond the Sea. The Fly, which was my MFA-thesis fiction manuscript, and The Shoemaker are not quite finished but I have finished An African Moonlight Tale as well as the two shorter manuscripts and I am, as we speak, trying to place all three works with publishers. I am also trying to place two of my poetry manuscripts, The Oil Archipelago and The Wild River with publishers. I have published works from both collections. So, I will say that even though my journey as a writer has not been quite what I expected it to be when I started writing and staging plays for my fellow students in high school, I have not been sitting on my hands either. Sometimes, I joke that I hope that I don’t turn out to be Vincent Van Gogh, who did not live to enjoy the financial windfall and recognition that his work has enjoyed for a long time.

Returning to Mourning, as you can see, there is an aspect of it that addresses COVID-19 and the anti-scientific stance that some people took about it as well as the conspiracy theories that conspiracy theorists spread about the race for a treatment. As a former medical student, who once aspired to take my services to medically underserved communities, I thought it was the expression of ideology at its worst.

And, of course, there is the poem about George Floyd, which came from a broken heart. A police officer, who kneels on the carotid artery of a helpless man that he has pinned to the ground and handcuffed, should know that he will eventually snuff out the life of the man. What was particularly heartbreaking about the incident was that Mr. Floyd was reduced to a child in his desperate cry for the officer to remove the ax of a knee from his neck because he could feel his life slipping out of him. Not even that heart-wrenching cry could touch whatever it was that needed to be touched in the heart of the police officer to convince him that he was executing a harmless man or that what he was doing was a complete negation of his job as a police officer. In the words of Fanon, Mr. Floyd must have felt in his dying moments, “My body was given back to me sprawled out, distorted, recolored, clad in mourning ….”

Tell us about your life in the US?
As I have said, it has been a mixed bag but I am grateful for the successes that I have achieved, for example, my winning third prize with a chapter from my MFA-thesis fiction manuscript in the Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright national literary contest in 1999; my winning the Hall Prize for fiction in the MFA Program with another chapter from the same manuscript; and my nomination by the Program to submit a short story for Scribner’s Best New Voices in America; though, unfortunately, my story did not make the final selection. I also cherish my time as a writer-in-residence for the Seattle Arts and Lectures after my MFA, teaching short-story writing and the novel to high-school students, during which I occasionally performed African folktales, complete with an African drum, at Chief Sealth High School. It is one of the highlights of my life in the States.

I also cherish the good fortune that I have had in working with some of the most exceptional writers and scholars here. Charles Johnson, who won the National Book Award for his novel, Middle Passage, and the writer Shawn Wong, were my MFA-thesis manuscript supervisors. The late Herb Blau, a famous dramatist and theatre scholar, and Laura Chrisman, one of the leading scholars of postcolonial studies, were my doctoral dissertation supervisors. The late Hazard Adams, one of the leading literary theorists and critics of his time, was my teacher and mentor. And the late Jamaican-American historian, John C. Walter, who won the American Book Award for his biography, The Harlem Fox: J. Raymond Jones and Tammany Hall, 1920-1970, was not only a mentor, he was like a father to me through much of my doctoral studies. He often took me along with him to the Faculty Cafeteria to have lunch with him, a bountifulness he almost always prefaced with good-natured teasing that what could he do but give me free lunch because I was a poor graduate student. I was his Teaching Assistant in his very popular three-hundred-level course, Blacks and the Law. That course turned me into a voracious reader of American history and profoundly changed my life as a scholar of African American Studies.

And, of course, I will not fail to mention the joy that I have had in teaching and mentoring students. In that regard, one of the interesting things I have experienced is that no knowledge, as they say, is wasted. The four years I spent in medical school came in handy in my role as an advisor to those of my students that were planning to go to medical school. Some of them are now medical doctors.

I have, of course, also had severe knocks that have left me bruised and battered but I am doing my best to take everything in stride. Here, the words of Nelson Mandela come to mind: “Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.”

Your craft is classic in the collection. The imagery is intense and vivid, a clear departure from your UNN days. Tell us the journey to this excellence?
Thank you for the compliment and for pointing out the intensity and vividness of my imagery. It is actually a continuation of my journey as a poet from the University of Nigeria. I am sure that you remember my poem, ‘The Hermit Crab,’ which I published in the 25th anniversary issue of the Muse. The world that I inhabited as a boy growing up on the island of Buguma was a world of vivid images—the river, the fish, the tide creeping away to the sea to bring in the low tide, leaving the riverbed naked, only to return with the violence and flashiness of an angry masquerade and the full tide; the fishermen and women taking their canoes to the sea and returning with bountiful harvests from the sea.

I also recall that the morning tide crowded the river with so much fish that if you put your canoe out on the river and drop anchor or hold the canoe to about the same spot with your paddle, moments later, your ears would be assailed with the sounds of the fish. In many ways, it was a magical world. I do not use the phrase in a flowery way but in the sense of a deeply-felt experience from the eyes of a child. The term is particularly apt for describing that world of vivid images because when the great famine of the river came after the oil leaks from Shell’s underwater pipes brought death to the river, that world disappeared, as it were magically. A ghostly silence took over the river and it was the vividness of both worlds—the world of plenty and the world of loss that came after it—that drove me to poetry.

So, I came to poetry with that world—the world of vivid images. As such, I have always been drawn to the kind of poetry, where the poet deploys images like a General marshalling his/her troops to the battlefield. Thus, at UNN, poems like Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,’ Mathew Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach,’ John Pepper Clark’s ‘Night Rain,’ T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, and, of course, African traditional poetry, which at their finest are delightful feasts of images from the beginning to the end. As such, early on, the challenge for me was how to deploy images delightfully, as deployed by, for example, the poets that I have just mentioned. I am, of course, by no means not yet where I want to be as a poet. I am still working toward that destination. Perhaps, after I place all seven works of poetry that I have been working on with publishers, I will know with some measure of certainty that I have reached my destination, even if not a perfect one.

Tell us about your Nigerian experience compared to your experience in the US with regard to your creative writing?
The first notable difference is that I was immersed in the world of the theatre when I was in Nigeria. I lived and breathed the theatre. I won my first literary prize in the theatre, with my play, The Third Wife, in an inter-House Cultural Competition in high school, Federal Government College, Port Harcourt. As a matter of fact, in 1992, before Living in Bondage, the movie that is said to have launched Nollywood, was released, I had an agreement with the late Amaka Igwe, who was Amaka Isaac-Ene at the time, to adapt two of my stage plays into movies. As you know, she had become a national icon by then because of her work as the writer and director of the highly successful soap series, Checkmate.

In that regard, that is, my immersion in the theatre back in Nigeria, the story has been different here. Instead of applying to do the MFA in theatre, I applied to do the MFA in fiction, which I thought I had a better chance of getting admission to do, even though, I had been working in the theatre since high school, and had been the in-house playwright and director for two different student theatre groups at different times at the University of Nigeria as well as done theatre work for and with various organizations. However, because I had done all of that work as a non-professional theatre man, I thought I stood a better chance of getting into a graduate program in fiction than in theatre. That decision has dramatically changed how I have developed as a writer. Do I think that I would have achieved more if I had done the MFA in theatre instead of the MFA in fiction? In retrospect, I do. By the time I applied to do the MFA in fiction, I had had about a decade and a half of theatre experience. That said, I have done a lot of work as a fiction writer and remain hopeful of publishing the work.

And yes, filming and Nollywood. What’s your involvement and experience in both countries?
The closest I came to doing work in Nollywood was the project that I talked about earlier—but that was, as I have pointed out, even before Nollywood officially came into being. Had I been able to raise the money to make the two movies with Amaka, I think that at least one of them would have been released at about the time that Living in Bondage was released. Over here, I had a terrific opportunity to study with the legendary screenwriter Stewart Stern, the writer of the screenplay of the iconic movie, Rebel Without a Cause, in the certificate programme in screenwriting at the University of Washington.

I am currently finishing the MA in film, with emphasis on production. My time in the MA programme has given me the opportunity to work on some of the projects that I have always wanted to work on—feature-length dramas and animation shorts. In that regard, I have written three feature-length screenplays—The Chronicles of a Rap Artist; Our Town and the Boy with the Magic Feet; The Magic Sea—and two short screenplays—Aya, Warrior Princess of the Seas and The Princess and the General. I am looking for money to make them. So, if you know anyone with the money to finance a movie project, put me in touch with him or her.

Racism, tribalism, politics, structure, etc. How are these treated in both countries? Can both countries learn from each other?
It is unfortunate that we are still talking about racism and tribalism in the 21st Century. On the issue of tribalism in Nigeria, I think it is worth turning to Fanon again, since what he said on the issue in The Wretched of the Earth, shortly after African countries like Nigeria threw off the shackles of colonialism, is still appropriate for our time. He said: “National consciousness, instead of being the all-embracing crystallization of the innermost hopes of the whole people, instead of being the immediate and most obvious result of the mobilization of the people, will be in any case only an empty shell, a crude and fragile travesty of what it might have been. The faults that we find in it are quite sufficient explanation of the facility with which, when dealing with young and independent nations, the nation is passed over for the race, and the tribe is preferred to the state. These are the cracks in the edifice which show the process of retrogression, that is so harmful and prejudicial to national effort and national unity. We shall see that such retrograde steps with all the weaknesses and serious dangers that they entail are the historical result of the incapacity of the national middle class to rationalize popular action, that is to say their incapacity to see into the reasons for that action.”

And for those, who indulge in the kind of zero-sum criticism that absolves the elite of postcolonial African countries through whose retrograde agency tribalism continues to persist in postcolonial Africa of any blame and ascribe everything to neo-colonialism, granted that is still a factor in postcolonial Africa, Fanon has an apt answer for them. He says, “This traditional weakness [tribalism], which is almost congenital to the national consciousness of underdeveloped countries, is not solely the result of the mutilation of the colonized people by the colonial regime. It is also the result of the intellectual laziness of the national middle class, of its spiritual penury, and of the profoundly cosmopolitan mold that its mind is set in.” When Fanon talks of the cosmopolitan here, he is not talking of it in the sense of it that sees all of humanity as one extended family. He is talking of it in the sense of it that is closer to its popular usage—association with the high-flying modern city and the fashionable. In other words, Fanon is critiquing the unhealthy attachment of the postcolonial national elite to the metropolises of the West.

In the main, the postcolonial African elite who control the levers of power and the structures of the postcolonial state covet the ultra-modern world of the West but refuse to do the work that is necessary to reproduce such centers of modernity in their own countries. These twin evils—the evil of tribalism and the evil of a postcolonial African elite that is besotted with the metropolises of the West in the wrong way, looting the wealth of their countries and repatriating it there; receiving manufactured goods for raw material instead of turning raw material into finished goods; living in blissful contentment and obscene opulence with the money that they collect as a rentier class from multinational companies exploiting natural resources like crude oil and natural gas in their countries; etc.—are still with us.

On the other side, I mean in the West, more specifically in America, racism is still, as the saying goes, well and alive. Here, as in the rest of the West, this has been compounded by the work of nativist nationalist movements, who seem to think that their societies are under attack from modern-day Barbarians, who are swarming their countries to undo both the composition of their societies and their culture.

That said, I also want to point out that when you look at how far America has come—from slavery through Jim Crow, with all the terror of the Ku Klux Klan that accompanied it in the American South—you can say with cautious optimism that the country is, indeed, as former President Barack Obama put it, working toward a more perfect union.

As to what both countries can learn from each other, of the top of my head, on the Nigerian side, I will say: the sense of community that helps to smooth out the many ills and rough edges of the society for the individual. That sense of community is very strong in Nigeria and, I think, it is what is keeping the country together. In a country where official statistics show that roughly two out of three people are living in multidimensional poverty, without that sense of community, with the few who are above water doing their best to keep afloat the majority who are below water, there would have been a very bloody revolution in the country.

On the flip side of it, on the American side, a report just came out in USA TODAY that says that, “One in two adults in the U.S. are living with measurable levels of loneliness – it’s a broader swath of the population than the number of people with diabetes ….” The report also says that “43% of young adults reported increases in loneliness since the outbreak of the pandemic.” There is a strong sense of individualism here, going back all the way to the founding of the country. I don’t think that is going to change because the postmodern world has, I think, put even more emphasis on it, a sentiment aptly captured by the popular saying, “You do you and I do me.” However, I think that as the problem of loneliness gets exacerbated by the Internet and TV, there is likely going to be a concerted effort, especially through the birth of new ideas and theories, or old ones put in new clothes, to push for the vital need of the individual to strike a balance between the sense of individualism, as worthy of praise as its Enlightenment antecedents may be, and belonginess or strong attachment to various loci of healthy community.

There are, of course, many things that Nigeria can learn from America. A quick example is the diametrically opposite ways in which the courts of the two countries handled complaints arising from their immediate past presidential elections. I am not in any way saying that American courts are perfect but the stark difference in the way that the two court systems handled their presidential election petitions is clear for all to see. While in one, even Republican-appointed judges, strove to, in the main, do everything to uphold the spirit and letter of the law, in the other, the judges did everything to dismantle the provisions of the Constitution and even their own rulings on similar matters in the past. Everything was done to achieve a particular goal, obviously established even before the first ballot was cast in the election that a particular candidate must emerge as the winner of the election, and to that end, nothing, not even the Constitution and established precedents, were allowed to stand in the way. Until we come to the place where our courts can, in the main, act with the kind of integrity and respect for the law in election matters that US court after US court exhibited with regard to the country’s past presidential elections, our democracy is going nowhere.

I also think that it should break anyone’s heart the way that Nigerian politicians, especially the governors, treat the common wealth as their personal estate as well as the way they wield power as demigods, often with scant regard for the law, knowing full well that they can get away with anything because of their immunity from prosecution and their ability to buy favorable judgments with their stolen wealth after they leave office and, where these two fail, to jump from their political parties to the ruling party. As you are aware, a former national chairman of the APC openly told opposition politicians after the APC won the presidential election in 2015 that if they join the APC, whatever sins that they have committed against the Nigerian state would be forgiven. I do not see that kind of wholesale abuse of the office of the governor here. The law will deal decisively with such a governor.

As a scion of the Goodhead family, how does it affect or resonate in your life and writing?
I will limit my answer to this question to my late father. As you can see, Mourning is about him. His example of trying to be an upright public prosecutor and, later, a high-court judge in an environment where those in government, especially politicians, act as if they are a law unto themselves and have no qualms about doing whatever they think they need to do to get what they want, has always stood with me as a North Star. To act in such a principled manner in an environment like Nigeria requires enormous courage as well as a fierce tenacity of will and purpose. Of course, as a writer, such tenacity of will and purpose has been a valuable lesson for me, as I write even when I am going through the darkest times. As a matter of fact, some of my best writing has come out of the darkest moments of my life.

He has inspired me in another way—writing fearlessly about the problems of the Niger Delta. My two poetry collections, which I am currently trying to place with publishers, The Oil Archipelago and The Wild River, have characters in them that speak from a place where the reader cannot but pause for a moment and listen. They demand that kind of attention. There are moments in The Wild River when the king character turns to polemics but like all polemicists, he takes that turn to force you to listen to him. Reckless oil exploitation has turned many of the rivers of the Niger Delta into waste land. Meanwhile the age of fossil fuels is fast coming to an end and the rentier elite who are superintending this catastrophe are acting as if it is non-existent. And, then, of course, there is all the legitimate fears about global warming. Should some of its projected disasters befall the country, we would see most, if not all, of the riverine areas of the country go under water, leading to massive internal displacement of people and upheaval in the country. Yet, we are doing nothing to address the problems, not even something as simple as stopping the flaring of gas. The rentier postcolonial elite are satisfied with just gorging themselves on stolen oil money—either directly from the coffers of the state or indirectly through the dishonest award of oil blocks and oil contracts—and watching the people live in multidimensional poverty and the land suffer.

How can your book be accessed in Nigeria?
I have not made any plans yet to publish it in Nigeria. I am thinking of doing it as part of a project that includes other works.

Some critics say that African literature is white mapped. What is your reaction to this accusation?
If by white-mapped, you mean that some African writers elevate the performance aspect of their writing above everything else in order to sell their books in the West, there is, of course, some truth in the charge; but, I think, it would be wrong to say that every African writer follows that script. We should, of course, also understand that even the writers that do not pander to the Western audience in the vulgar way that we are talking about have to take that audience into consideration, even if it is just in terms of writing in such a way that unfamiliar terms are made familiar contextually.

There is, of course, also the inescapable desire of writers to reach as many readers as they can with their writing and because we are truly living in a global village today, writers can take up issues, topics, themes, and characters that will resonate with readers everywhere without compromising their integrity as writers dealing with local issues with the depth and specificity that such issues require. To put it simply, the African writer writing today, writes for a global audience that is more alike in its interests and concerns than African writers of, say, the Achebe generation. Take for example, concerns about the environment, climate change, and global warming. These are concerns that are shared globally. What about the issues, struggles, and concerns that young people experience living in the city in a postmodern world in an Internet Age? Such characters whether they are in a short story or novel that is set in Port Harcourt or London are experiencing concerns that are common to young people everywhere, even though how the concerns manifest themselves may differ due to the specificity of place.

At the end of the day, there will always be writers who will pander to Western audiences in a vulgar way to sell as many books as they can and win as many laurels as they can. And there will also be writers who will write with integrity. That is human nature and is not peculiar to any one place. So, it will be wrong to lump every African writer in the first category.

What is your view on publishing and the state of writing in Africa today?
This is a very interesting question, very interesting because, in my view, publishing in Africa is nowhere as robust as it needs to be, but as devastating as that could have been to African writing, we are actually experiencing another golden era in African writing, one comparable to the generation of Achebe et al, who left quite some impressive writing with us, especially through the Heinemann African Writers Series and laid a solid foundation for modern African writing across the genres. However, I wish to point out that the boom in writing has disproportionately impacted the short story and the novel. Here, I think, I should not forget to applaud what prizes like the Caine Prize have done for African writing.

* Uduma Kalu, award winning journalist, critic and writer was the Literary Editor of The Guardian, Lagos

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