…While everything else is failing in Nigeria, creative writing is blooming
…The Nigeria Prize for Literature is a reminder that we have not lost everything of value yet
James Eze’s maiden collection of poetry dispossessed is a revelation just like other collections in the longlist of The Nigeria Prize for Literature 2022. In this interview with ANOTE AJELUOROU, he narrates his epic journey to poetic self-discovery
It must be a special feeling for you being on the longlist for The Nigeria Prize for Literature?
THANK you so much. Yes, sir. It feels very special to be on the longlist of the biggest literary prize in Africa. Sincerely, I am literally dancing in the skies. I am grateful for this honour and the attention it has brought to my poetry.
Making the longlist on the back of winning ANA poetry Prize 2020 with dispossessed must mean something to you. What are your expectations regarding winning the prize?
Well, being on the longlist of The Nigeria Prize for Literature means a lot to me or any other writer. It is a big validation of a writer’s talent. I’m just excited at the way things have turned out so far. I had absolutely no expectations when I wrote dispossessed. But being on the longlist has brought me unspeakable joy. I feel like someone who has been chosen to participate in the Olympics. Not everyone who goes to the Olympics wins a medal. But anyone who participates in the Olympics automatically becomes an Olympian. So, it does not matter who wins or loses. What matters is that when the best poets of one’s time were called to a poetic dinner, one’s name was on the guestlist. That said, I have so much to look forward to!
What is the thematic preoccupation of dispossessed?
dispossessed is a mirror on life in its entirety, presented in three kaleidoscopic stage – innocence, transgression and atonement. This, in turn, is a subtle reflection of the three dimensions of a human being – the spirit, the soul and the body. A further distillation will also reveal the three stages of human evolution; childhood, youth and old age. Thematically therefore, dispossessed looks at life in its composite aesthetics; depicting triumphs, anxities and persecutions encountered at each stage in man’s journey of becoming and how each part flows into the other to form a complete whole. It is a comprehensive journey of life through three “stations of the cross” which invariably echoes sunrise, high noon and sunset in that other. One station prequalifies the wayfarer to the next station. No station can be skipped or cancelled.
Following the same imagery, dispossessed begins with ‘innocence,’ blossoms with ‘transgression’ and climaxes with ‘atonement.’ In ‘innocence the persona(ge) in the narrative is about to embark on a journey. But for the journey to have any meaning at all, he must first limber up with self-discovery and definition. So, he begins with poems invoking childhood and self-validation. In ‘transgression’ he discovers the landscapes within, developing the sensibilities and the intensity to appropriate and appreciate his environment and to influence and be influenced by it. ‘Transgression’ heaves with poems of love and loss. Then in ‘atonement’ he is weaned of all overflowing emotions. He picks up where his father left off and begins to ask the niggling questions of his day. Will these questions eventually make or break him? Find out in ‘dispossessed.’
How does the focus of dispossessed respond to Nigeria’s challenging political times?
To understand dispossessed, we must first realize that some of the love poems are actually political ballads depicting Nigeria as a tempestuous lover playing Russian Roulette with the poet’s heart. Poems like ‘a memory of love and loss,’ ‘tears on the pillow,’ ‘the end of a dream’ and “’will you be there for me”’ are the poet’s muffled lament over Nigeria; tightly woven in deceptive verses as love poems. But the subtlety and stealth in ‘transgression’ gives way to a more trenchant, if not angry tone, in ‘atonement’ where the poet feels a strong obligation to address the burning issues of his time. And so in the poem ‘war and peace,’ he expresses Nigeria’s profound dilemma in these lines, ‘my hand drips with fratricidal blood/the enemy is not a stranger/he is my father’s son/he is black like me/he smiles like me/he has my history tattooed in his palms.’
The title poem itself speaks poignantly to Nigeria’s political condition. In page 80, it deploys telling imageries to describe it thusly, “the watermelon is pregnant again/who shall midwife this strange birth/the soup has gone sour in our communal pot/the politician has become the priest/the priest has become the kidnapper/holding the congregation in economic captivity/can the poet save the world?” Other poems like ‘dilemma,’ ‘a song for the flutist,’ ‘brotherhood of the robbed,’ and ‘songs of freedom’ all point a finger at the Nigerian conundrum. In particular, ‘songs of freedom’ casts a prophetic rod on the current slide of the Naira against the dollar. That is how ‘dispossessed’ addresses the Nigerian condition.
Do you feel intimidated by the presence of heavyweight poets on the longlist?
No, intimidation is totally out of the question here. Without a doubt, I hold everyone on that list in high esteem. It is a huge endorsement to be on that list. But then, literature is one of the few spheres of human activity where intimidation should not exist because every writer has his own gift and his own style. In that context, we are all winners already. No one should feel intimidated in a literary contest.
How does The Nigeria Prize for Literature come across to you?
The Nigeria Prize for Literature is the greatest thing that has ever happened to Nigerian writing. Nothing else comes close. I have been in the business of promoting literature and providing platforms for people with a gift of the imagination for a long time. I curated a successful international creative writing workshop with Chimamanda Adichie and Helon Habila when I was with Fidelity Bank. I have also curated the poetry festival known as Return 2 Idoto with my friend, Odili Ujubonu for years now. In my own private capacity, I have held yearly poetry evenings with my personal initiative known as Under African Skies. I am proud of all these efforts.
Sometimes, I look back at them with a sense of contentment. Some of the beneficiaries of these efforts have flowered into notable writers and scholars. But every writer needs validation at some point. Nothing compares to a writer getting rewarded for his exertions. That is what The Nigeria Prize for Literature has done more than anything else. And in a country where a crowd of youths get rewarded with hefty sums of money for volunteering to be locked indoors for three months of fun, The Nigeria Prize for Literature is a reminder that we have not lost everything of value yet. Can they make it better? Yes, think they can. But they are in a better position to figure how they can make that happen.
Only one female poet made the longlist. Would you say Nigerian poetry masculine?
Iquo DianaAbasi is a woman among men. I am fiercely proud of her accomplishments for so many reasons. She has been consistent as a creative writer through the years and I am glad that she’s getting the recognition she deserves. It is one thing to be productive but another to gain recognition from one’s productivity. Absence of recognition can be frustrating.
On the other hand, I am also proud of Iquo because she was a participant in one of the editions of the international creative writing workshop I curated in the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, while I worked with Fidelity Bank. The workshop was anchored by Helon Habila along with Diana Evans and Jamal Mahjoub who both flew in from the U.K. and Barcelona, respectively. Last year, another participant in that workshop, Obinna Udenwe (Colours of Hatred), had made the shortlist of The Nigeria Prize for Literature. Another product of the workshop, Ejiofor Ugwu, is a lecturer at Syracuse University, New York, where he is also completing his doctoral studies. These things give me joy.
But to answer your question more directly: I don’t think that having one female on the longlist this time is enough to draw the conclusion that Nigerian poetry is masculine. I have met a lot of gifted female poets. But it’s only those who submitted their works that are judged for the prize. Who knows, we may have more females in the next edition. If that happens, would it be right to consider Nigerian poetry feminine that time?
Over 250 entries were received. What does this say about creative writing in Nigeria?
It speaks to the resilience of the Nigerian spirit; our ability to see the sun through the dark clouds. It reminds us that while everything else is failing in Nigeria, creative writing is blooming. I have always known that if there’s one thing Nigerians excel in, it is creative writing. Our literary tradition is very strong; from Achebe-Soyinka down to Adichie-Teju Cole. We have a proud heritage. Are there readers for the production? Yes, there are. Readership is not restricted by time and space. When Things Fall Apart was published sixty-four years ago, what readership did Nigeria have? A good book will always find its readers. What has been my experience in terms of sales? I must say that my efforts to sell more units of dispossessed in Nigeria were cut short by Covid-19. The book was published a few months before the pandemic. The effect is predictable. However, my publisher, Fasihi Books, has done an amazing job in online sales. Copies of dispossessed are sold by leading online retail shops across the world. Don’t take my word for it. Just Google the book and see things for yourself.
What are the ideas behind Under African Skies and what has been its impact?
Under African Skies is my personal quest to plant a seed of creative excellence wherever I find myself. That initiative is firmly behind a yearly evening of poetry and songs in Awka, Anambra State, known as ‘A Flutter in the Woods.’ I have always been involved in the area of nurturing creative writers in Nigeria. When I lived in Lagos, my children’s birthdays were marked in my little house with poetry readings. Notable poets like Akeem Lasisi, AJ Dagga Tolar and Chike Ofili shared brilliant poems with my family and friends to mark my son’s first birthday. Multiple award-winning investigative journalist Emmanuel Maya was also there. That was long before I began the Fidelity Creative Writing Workshop series.
So, Under African Skies has kept me rooted to my convictions. I find beauty in the art of poetry. I’m at my best when I watch poets perform in the firm grip of their art. To that extent, it has helped me court my muse in a subtle, indecipherable way. So, yes, Under African Skies played a role in sustaining the sensibilities that sired dispossessed.
How long did it take you to write dispossessed?
The idea of dispossessed came to me in 2001. I was working with CentrePoint Merchant Bank then. I wrote the title poem and filed it away. I was not satisfied with my effort. I realized that I was not ready then. I had not read enough serious works that would lead to the crafting of the kind of poetry I wanted to write. My training came after I met Dagga Tolar in his Ajegunle residence. He lived in a house of books. I stepped into a new world when I stepped out of his house with a sack of books. I buried myself in the books and when I finally mustered enough confidence to write, I knew I was ready. I also inherited my friend, Nduka Otiono’s impressive library when he migrated to Canada. It was a magnificent piece of good fortune.
So, speaking more directly now, the preparation for dispossessed took ten years while the actual writing took four. I needed to fully evolve to a point where I could trust my sensibilities. The truth about poetry is that good poetry looks simple on the surface. It never quite reveals the intense struggle and self-censorship that bred it. What is fascinating about this is that the title poem was written five years before I began the intense reading that led to the book. The idea was maturing on my mind through the years, assuming shapes that were once strange and familiar, nudging me to tears sometimes and making me ululate with joy at other times. I knew that I wanted to shout. But I wanted the world to hear my voice.
Are you looking forward to the CORA Book Party?
Yes, I am excited about the event. Lagos is the cultural capital of Nigeria. It’s the melting pot of Nigerian cultures. Any serious writer would like to read in Lagos. That is the space where Nigeria’s cultural denizens thrive. I have not had any opportunity to read to a Lagos audience before. I have also not attended any of the previous editions of the CORA-NLNG book party. But I have read a lot about them. I’m told that it is the only event in Nigeria where creative writers are treated with a lot of respect and dignity; where writers are reminded that they matter, after all. So, who wouldn’t look forward to such an event?