‘…Nigeria is a paradox of beauty and chaos, with resilient people molding the rubble of collapse into beauty’
Saddiq Dzukogi is a poet and U.S.-based academic who succeeded in translating his personal loss into universal metaphor of mourning aptly distilled in Your Crib, My Qibla. In this interview with ANOTE AJELUOROU, Dzukogi gives voice to some of the urgent liteary and political concerns of the day
Congratulations for making The Nigeria Prize for Literature 2022 longlist. Of course, this is your first time. How does it make you feel?
Thank you very much for your note of congratulations. It is very kind of you. I feel honoured for my work to be honoured in such a big way. I am grateful for the validation of the prize and its judges. There are a lot of amazing poets currently writing important work in Nigeria today; to be in such a company is quite satisfying, to say the least.
How much healing did writing your collection Your Crib, My Qibla afford you after the loss of your child? Have you had another child now since the loss as ‘compensation’, so to speak? Will you write or have you written for the new child yet?
There is no healing; there is just the resilience of shouldering the grief and learning its many facets afterward. Every year is another kind of grief; just two days ago, I was having a conversation with my wife about how old our daughter would have been. 6 years. I thought about her in a six-year-old body that would never be. I imagine this question of wonder would never be answered as I, too, grow older. I anticipate a different kind of grief each time. I concede that it would be a different kind of wound that I will have to nurse. To say we heal is to say we become alright. That the wounds become scars. Lost is a wound that never scars. It is a wound whose pain we become accustomed to. So, no, I have not healed, because I miss her and her presence every day. And that absence, the spaces she vacated, are still there in my world and in the world of my mind. I don’t like that your question talks about compensation…
You returned home after bagging a PhD to a warm reception in Minna. How did that make you feel?
No, I have not been in Nigeria for the past four years. They did celebrate in Minna, which was nice but I followed the proceeding via social media. However, it feels warm to be embraced by one’s home even if it is in their absence.
Your friend Romeo Oriogun titled his collection ‘Nomad’? Will you return abroad as a nomad for greener pastures as most young Nigerians are currently doing because of economic conditions at home?
Yes, Romeo is a wanderer and a chronicler of the beautiful journey that both his mind and body undertake. But I am here, in America, doing the thing I love the most, which is writing poems and teaching students how to write poems. Nigeria is undergoing a brain drain, but I love to think that the people of Nigeria, despite some of the stifling conditions back home, are thriving in the field of music, arts, and sciences and creating a significant soft power for the country that can be leveraged upon to gain economic and political clout. A serious government would use this to pitch for both foreign and domestic investment, in the vast human capital and resources that abound in the country. Nigeria is a paradox of beauty and chaos. And in that mound of complexity, resilient Nigerians are molding the rubble of collapse into beauty.
Although your collection probably isn’t political, but is Nigerian literature responding enough to the politics? How political have your other works been?
I do like to prescribe for the artist what their work must do. Nigerian poetry is political, always attempting grand gestures of political articulation and permutation. My work is political, even though it is personal. Life is the constant negotiation of things. That is politics. The act of writing into existence the inaudible desires of the individual is also political. I do not confine my writing to the inflexibility of the socially constructed definitions of things. And so in that way, I will continue to be led by the thrill of finding a new language to transcribe both human emotions and experiences—physical and metaphysical.
Over 270 poets entered for the prize in a country where reading is challenged and universities are shut for over six months now. But you went abroad and had seamless academic sessions that delivered you your degrees in record time? How does this make you feel for your fellow youths trapped in this needless impasse, as it were?
What is happening is terrible. But I also want us to hold the government accountable for its neglect of the educational system. Some fights are necessary. I commend the teachers and hope that more sectors and more Nigerians will hold the government accountable and demand good leadership for the country.
What possibly explains the boom poetry is experiencing at the moment even when the political and economic spheres are falling apart? What gives writers like you motivation to still write?
The pursuit of sanctity in the midst of chaos, the hunger to understand things and find language for the things that before know do not. To understand the culture and preserve it. To wrestle with the shortcoming of history, its erasure, and misunderstanding, and to forge a path to a future that understands itself. To seek the beauty and divinity of ordinary things. A lot of Nigerian poets are curious about this madness that gives clarity in the face of immense chaos. Nigeria is a nursery for art, and many poets are alive to its music and committed to documenting these sounds of Nigerian reality.
You wrote this collection outside the Nigeria; it must have its own peculiar charm, isn’t it? What was your writing process and hwo did the ‘right’ conditions over there facilitate it?
The joy of writing has sustained me for a while. I do not have any expectations. I am just enjoying this moment and giving thanks to many many people who have led and accompanied me on this journey.
You wrote this collection outside Nigeria. It must have its own peculiar charm, isn’t it? What was your writing process and how did the ‘right’ conditions over there facilitate it?
I actually wrote most of it in Nigeria, and about, say, 30 per cent and the revision process in America. Art will emerge anywhere. In fact, I wrote more when I was in Nigeria. Of course, there is more access to books here but being away from home is not as easy as a lot of people imagine it to be.
Some poets on the longlist are familiar names to you in this prize quest, some professors of English even. Does that intimidate you?
This interview questions came before the shortlist was announce. But I, too, am an Assistant Professor of English. I believe that does not make any difference because the prize is for poetry and has nothing to do with professional qualification other than rewarding the best poetry books regardless the academic standing of the poets.
The Nigeria Prize for Literature is almost two decades old. What do you say for its longevity so far in lifting the country’s literature?
I think the prize has come a long way and it is quite commendable its longevity. I just hope that it will continue to grow and grow.
How can the prize be improved to serve the community of Nigerian writers better?
I think the prize should facilitate the purchase of the longlisted books and ensure they are distributed to all libraries across the country. I will also encourage other corporations to invest in the cultural and artistic production in a similar way as the NLNG to spearhead more growth in the arts.
Reading culture is said to be falling, yet so much writing is on offer. Who are you as a poet then writing for?
I think this myth has been debunked. People read, a whole lot. Each time someone says this, I ask what is the empirical evidence that points to this so called dearth. Many Nigerians read, many young people read. The problem is access to books. Where there are books, you will find readers. Also, when this debate rages, we do not factor in the internet. There are many online literary journals whose data point to Nigeria as places that generate the most traffic. Those are real people and not ghosts, I tell you. Also, I mean the amount of writing being done, alone, disabuse this form of lazy assessment on the part of many. But to answer your question, I want to be a poet of my people, my country, and my world. I want to document, to preserve and surely, someone would read, as many are doing today.
On a final note, I want to thank you for the generosity of affording me the space to have this conversation. Thank you a million.
- Your Crib, My Qibla by Saddiq Dzukogi is shortlisted for The Nigeria Prize for Literature 2022