‘The Popularity of Poetry is Suspect’: A Conversation with Denja Abdullahi
BORN IN 1969 at Idah, Kogi State, Denja Abdullahi is a poet, playwright, scholar and a cultural administrator. For his noted dedication to literature and its development in Nigeria, he has held several executive positions in the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA); presently he is the Vice President of the Association. Denja has a BA and MA in English (from University of Jos and Ilorin); currently researching for a PhD at Nasarawa State University, Keffi, on “Multicultural Aesthetics in Dramatic Literature”. He works as a Deputy Director (Performing Arts) at the National Council for Arts and Culture, Abuja.
He has published three collections of poetry: Mairogo: A Buffoon’s Poetic Journey around Northern Nigeria (2001, reprinted 2006 and 2008); Abuja Nunyi [This is Abuja] (2008); and A Thousand Years of Thirst (2011), as well as a collection of children’s poems: The Talking Drum (2008). He has co-edited Themes Fall Apart but the Centre Holds (2009; proceedings of a colloquium on the 50th anniversary of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart). His poems, short stories and essays have been published in a variety of national and international journals and anthologies. He taught literature for five years at Waziri Umaru Federal Polytechnic, Birnin Kebbi, Kebbi State.
Denja has an abiding interest in the deployment of literature to create understanding and subsequently build harmony among cultures and people. The influence of his teachers such as the late Professor Ngwaba, Prof. Olu Obafemi and Late Dr. Pius Dada engendered his love for poetry. Consequently, he is keen in mentoring other writers, discovering talents and positioning new writers for opportunities and recognition, and by so doing furthering the cause of literature, and ensuring its development. He is a firm subscriber to popular and accessible poetry.
His many unpublished plays have been performed at many fora, some of which he intends to publish eventually. In this interview, Denja talks about his writing, notably his poetry, Nigerian literature, the reception of his writing and creativity generally.
What would you like to say about your background?
Ever since I became aware of myself, I have come to understand myself as a very introspective person. Right from my childhood, I have been that person who could easily get lost in a book, who does not follow the crowd and who takes a quaint interest in what others would likely ignore. I grew up moving from one police barrack formation to the other as my father was initially a policeman before transmuting into a State Security Service officer. In a way, you could say this childhood informed my later pan-Nigerian outlook and easy comprehension of the multiple cultural traits available in the country. As a pupil and student in primary and secondary schools, I had a penchant for letters rather than figures, so I was not surprised finding myself studying English and Literature at higher levels of education. By origin, I am from a middle belt minority ethnic group by the confluence of the Niger and the Benue and the fact of this I feel also impinges on my sensibility as a writer and culture practitioner.
Do you see poetry as an essentially public medium rather than an elitist art?
Right from my early conception of it, I have always seen poetry as a public art form. This was re-enforced by my observation of the art among the people of my community as I grew up and my later study of it in the university. Words were spoken first everywhere before being written down so poetry since the beginning of time was a public art form until much later and recently when it has become conceptually elitist.
How did you get started as a writer?
I began with developing a passion for reading and from there transformed into outing my feelings to the public through letters to the editor in local newspapers. I remember I had my first published piece in The Herald newspaper of Ilorin while I was in form 2 or 3 in the secondary school. Before I left secondary school I had become a regular opinion page contributor in that newspaper. I started creative writing as an undergraduate in the University of Jos and I was excited into it by virtue of my being a student of English and Literature. Personal disposition is a key to the nurturing of a writer because not all who studied English or Literature ended up being writers. I recollected penning my first conscious poem after encountering Almajirai [itinerant pupils Qur’anic schools] feasting like vultures on leftover foods at a restaurant in Jos Main Market. That incident was a kind of cultural shock for me and I had to bemoan it in poetry. Now I have encountered the Almajiri phenomenon in Northern Nigeria long enough to respond to it creatively in a more robust manner.
You have been very active as a cultural administrator, a poet, journalist, playwright, among others. Which of these would you choose as your primary concern?
Every one of the vocations you mentioned has been a part of me in one form or the other since I came of age. I have been a culturally aware person since I was a child, even before I found myself working in the sector. In everything I do, the poet in me is never far off and I have practised journalism robustly enough to have it permanently there in my bag of skills. Play writing is what I have been doing for so long, in a laid back and behind the scene manner, that I have now decided to make it my next publicly acknowledged creative enterprise. Essentially, I am a person of eclectic disposition.
If one is to talk about the greatest influence on your writing generally and poetry specifically what would that be?
The greatest influence on my poetry is our oral tradition and the depth of our cultural heritage which I take to be an inexhaustible pool which any poet can dip into for metaphors and form to say something innovative and brilliant about our world. Generally, as a writer, I am influenced by the humour and incongruities surrounding our world and human behaviour.
Which poet (Nigerian, African) do you admire the most?
My Nigerian poet of all times is Niyi Osundare—for being a foremost exponent of the Alter-Native tradition in the annals of Nigerian poetry and for being continuously relevant and brilliant in both content and style in his poetry up till today. I have not read intensely of late other poets from Africa, so I would not be able to hold out any others for admiration apart from the numerous Nigerian poets I am familiar with. But I know beautiful poetry is coming out of Southern and Northern Africa. But for poets of the past, Leopold Sedar Senghor and his team of Negritude poets are my favourites for their nationalism.
You taught literature for quite a long time before you made the switch to cultural administration. How has your work as a scholar influenced your own writing?
As a scholar, you have to be on top of your game and you have to constantly search for new ways to re-interpret the stale concepts, ideas and issues before you if you are to make any impact on those learning from you, on your peers and even contribute to general scholarship. That necessity of scholarship has helped me to always search near and far beyond the usual to enrich my writing and give a tint of freshness to it even when I am operating chiefly now within a genre that appears overworked or overextended.
In what way did Funsho Ayejina’s thesis about the Alter-Native nature of the 80s and possibly 90s Nigerian poetry appeal to you—or influence the way you write your own poetry?
I remember using Aiyejina’s thesis as a backgrounder to my study of Niyi Osundare’s The Eye of the Earth for my undergraduate final year project. I am a believer in the thesis which celebrates or highlights the need to write poetry imbued and informed by the richness of our oral tradition and cultural heritage. I also subscribe to the tenet of the Alter-Native tradition of writing poetry that is of populist-social concern, away from the earlier generation’s (earlier Okigbo and Soyinka’s poetry) preoccupation with private metaphors and elliptical Universalist allusions. That thesis was at the back of my mind when I started writing and my study of those poets like Osundare and others who best reflect the tradition in a way seeped into my own poetry. But it has to be noted that a writer can only be influenced by a tradition or trend if he or she is personally pre-disposed towards that potential source of influence. I have in all my intellectual and social postures been disposed towards social and radical activism of a sedate style, so as a writer I would not be seen grafting into a theory or thesis that suggest exclusion and undue elitism or privatization of knowledge or information.
Your poetry reveals that all acts of representation are inevitably partial.
Yes, because we represent reality from self or environmentally conditioned perspectives. No one, no matter his or her level of competence can be completely wholesome in terms of representation.
Looking at your well-received debut collection, Mairogo, which as you subtitled it is a poetic journey around northern Nigeria, employing as it does the figure of a wandering minstrel, a buffoon in the mould of Dan Kama or Dan Gambara so well known in Hausa culture, were you consciously writing from a decidedly “Northern Nigerian” perspective?
In terms of the subject matter, I must confess I did not completely maintain the Northern Nigerian perspective in writing that collection. I set out to maintain a distance in order to bring out my criticism of Northern Nigeria, though I can be taken to be embroiled in the Northern Nigerian milieu myself, being geographically from the region, having schooled and lived mainly in the region and sharing a faith considered dominant in the region. My perspective in the collection is mixed—made up of the probing and questioning insight of the outside eye as well as the genial engagement of an understanding insider. In that way, I am able to maintain a balance that is bound to make my ultimate output not socially, religiously or culturally offensive to the Northern reader yet with some bold criticism of Northern ways of life. But in terms of form, my perspective was completely Northern, though I must equally confess I was completely unaware of the Dan Kama and Dan Gambara traditions of the North when I was writing the work. The form I used in the collection was picked out from my observation of queer characters in the mould of half mad men, musicians, mendicants, praise singers and preachers that roam around the Northern landscape making fun of people and situations in an environment where undue frivolities are often unwelcome. I also took some lines and tropes from my association with friends and acquaintances from Northern Nigeria who were adept at recounting very incongruous situations and sayings common in Northern Nigerian life. I was therefore taken aback many years later after I had penned the work on reading a chapter on the Yan Kamanci tradition, written by one C. G. B. Gidley in Yemi Ogunbiyi’s Drama and Theatre in Nigeria: A Critical Sourcebook. Immediately I read that piece, I knew what I did in Mairogo was following an established tradition, though I had done that unconsciously. The surprise to me was that my immersion in the Northern Nigerian atmosphere threw a form on my lap that I never really thought existed as established as it really was in the past.
Mairogo is an innovative, performative poetic rendition of a cultural milieu that is northern Nigeria; yet that milieu is offered as it were as faction. How difficult was it to wedge the necessary line between the reality you fictionalised and the ensuing poetic rendition of that reality?
The issues raised in Mairogo are very factual but the form as I conceived it then was completely imagined. The characters, to anybody that has lived long enough in Northern Nigeria are easily recognisable, and those who lived in the actual cultural space where I wrote the book around the period I lived there too may even point out some incidents and personas in the book that have their correlations in reality. I allowed the fact and the fiction in the book to seamlessly flow into each other. I drew from a lot of places, situations, angles and viewpoints and fictionally imbued a single persona with the superhuman ability to carry all these through in poetic rendition laced with folksy humour. The difficulty I had was in creating a single multidimensional fictional character to voice out my observations and criticisms of Northern Nigeria in the persona of Mairogo, the lead character in the collection. Reality itself has a lot of fictional dimensions and that is why as writers we need to look closely at reality to discover its fictional dimensions. What we often call fiction is mostly undiscovered or largely ignored reality brought to our attention by someone concerned enough to do the necessary highlighting in literature. Mairogo as a fictional character may look so colourful and memorable but there are definitely more colourful and memorable personages in actual reality if we care to seek them out.
In the preface to the second edition of Mairogo you envisaged a Hausa translation of the book and even hoped for a sequel. Has that been done yet?
I am suspicious of the reception of the book in Hausa speaking areas of Northern Nigeria. I have a feeling that people in the North have not been honest enough in their reception of the book. I am amazed that nobody has been moved to attempt a translation of the book into Hausa. Sometimes I ask myself if it has to do with the highly critical views expressed in the book about life in Northern Nigerian. At the same time, I know Nigerian writers and scholars are very poor or lazy in translating works from one language into another. I cannot believe it that Magana Jari ce, the classic of Northern Nigerian literature, by Abubakar Imam, is yet to be translated into English or any other widely spoken or read Nigerian language. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe is yet to be translated into the Igbo language, the source of the beauty of the text itself. The few translations that have been done of some classical Nigerian literary texts by some painstaking people have remained largely scholarly experiments that have not been put out to the ordinary reader for any meaningful engagement. I must commend the effort of scholars like you who have been advocating for more translations to be done and supporting that with practical measures put translations out there in the public sphere. I attempted once to lure a colleague of mine into translating Mairogo into Hausa and the person turned back to me to fund the process and I had to put a stop to it because I do not believe that I should be inflicted with facilitating the translation of a work I have originally written .On the sequel, my conception of it is to continue the discourse in Mairogo by venturing into a different cultural milieu with a different narrating poet-persona who would not be Mairogo but who would share a lot of characteristics with Mairogo. I tentatively started something entitled Elekebu (a Yoruba epithet, meaning roughly ‘The Cheek of Abuse’): A Poetic Rigmarole Around the Children of Oduduwa, which I later abandoned and which I would get back to sometime in the future if the sequel to Mairogo is to be realised
Currently in its third edition (and not discounting the possibility for further editions, given the acclaim and rave reviews it continues to garner); why do you keep returning to Mairogo? I am sure this is a question you must have asked yourself a lot.
Yes, I have asked myself this question over and over again. The conclusion I have drawn, whether rightly or wrongly, is that the book appears to want to etch itself on my personal literary landscape as my magnum opus or my Bakadamiya as they say in the parlance of popular Hausa oral poetry. It is a book I sometimes wonder how I came about writing and what spirit was governing my creative sense as at the time I was writing it. A lot of readers have pointedly asked me these same questions to which my reply has always been ‘I just had to write it as at the time I wrote it’. I do not know if that answer makes any sense. I have a feeling that every good writer writes only a book which is re-written and re-invented severally in the course of that same writer’s career. I know there must be a theory somewhere to back up this assertion. In my study of writers such as Soyinka, Achebe, Rushdie, Osundare, Okri, Marquez, Chimamanda and many others, I have come to understand that it is all a struggle to write that single great work in variegated ways translated into several books, which amounts to the same great book masquerading under different titles. I therefore keep returning to Mairogo because it is my best work so far and it signposts some of my greatest concerns as a writer in terms of content and form. Like every other writer, I am still in the struggle to say it differently at every new outing. I can say I would not return to Mairogo in the form we have it now but a stage or film version may be the next thing that would be made out of it.
The form Mairogo takes and the humour it invariably evokes, are they something you see as somewhat endemic to the book’s referential world? Why does that “world” need to be seen and depicted with buffoonery and satiric jabs of a clown? Couldn’t it be seen in a more “serious” way?
The form of Mairogo as conceived and believed as at the time I was writing and as revealed in later research is derived without doubt from its referential world. Humour and comedy exist in plenitude in Northern Nigeria like every other place in the world; except that in the religious North, unnecessary diversion that comes with being humorous is frowned at or out rightly censored. Humour and comedy thus struggle against society’s negative perceptions of these. Therefore, the purveyors of humour or comedy must adorn themselves with the garb of the court jester, the mocking praise singer, the madman and the irredeemable type in order to be left alone. I could not have said all what I said in Mairogo and be left alone if I had not used the voice of the jester and the buffoon; do we not all know that the court jester can abuse a tyrannical king in that same king’s presence without losing his head? Saying all what I said in the book in a more “serious” way would have fetched me a fatwa from some quarters or led me into engaging in a trenchant defence of a clearly literary experiment. I was not ready for all that but I was ready to say the “unsayable” and I realised I could only do that under the guise of a buffoon, the otherworldly character with a license to be unreasonable because he was not expected to be reasonable in the first place.
Don’t you think Mairogo is liable to be seen as a subtle political bashing and yapping of Northern Nigeria as Haruna Penni hinted at one of the comments printed at the back of the book?
Indeed Penni was right and I did not expect any other close reader of the work to see it differently. No wonder I later discovered that the book had a kind of strange allure to readers from other parts of the country and studied even in some Universities in Southern Nigeria. They were like on first reading exclaiming “Yes, this is one of them telling it as it is”—but I do not know what they make of it on close re-reading. As I said earlier, the reception in the North has been suspect, with the occasional smiling reference and lots of quiet approvals, but with no one bold enough to engage the writer in a counter-discourse or with a counter-text or promoting the text in the wider Northern society. On the other hand, I must say I know of two or three writers in Northern Nigeria who have been inspired by the form of Mairogo to do something similar on the peculiarities of their own immediate societies.
What is your view about the current state of poetry in Nigeria today?
I will have to repeat myself here for I have been asked this same question in other interviews and my view has not changed. The good, the bad and the downright ugly have been the lot of poetry in Nigeria like any other writing. I have seen very delightful poems being released showing great subject matters and great craft and I have equally seen works that should not be on the shelf at all there in the name of poetry. People think it is easy to write poetry but it is a genre with a deceptive simplicity of production but which must strive harder than any other genre to make any impact. I am a poet, but I can be very impatient with some of the poetry we see around today that have nothing new to say and to worsen matters have not been able to delight the reader in terms of an exceptional use of language which should be the hallmark of poetry.
Presently, poetry appears to hold sway as the most popular genre in Nigerian literature, but it has often been argued that much of this deluge is simply drab. What would you say accounts for this?
The popularity of poetry production is suspect as most people who write poems today dabble into it as the quickest route towards being called a published writer. Just string some words together, without great thought or rhythm, maintain a falsified emotional poise and pronto you have become a poet! Attempting a play or a novel will need a greater amount of creative stress and research which most people who write poetry today do not have the right frame of mind or facility for .So poetry becomes an all comers thing, the default genre and the mistress of everyone laying claim to creativity. However, in the midst of this general mediocrity, we see flashes of brilliance in some poets and which are duly acknowledged by those who know what poetry should really be.
You have lived for many years in Abuja, you have in the tradition set in by the late Mamman Vatsa eulogised it in your second collection of poems, Abuja Nunyi (literally: This is Abuja). Has Abuja, or your attitude to it, changed?
Abuja as a city has not changed from the way I painted it in that book. I avoided the overtly political to dwell solely on the descriptive, while pointing out some incongruous elements apparent in the people and places described. As a writer, I find it hard to merely describe without pointing out the beauty or ugliness in what I so describe, so in Abuja Nunyi, you will find eulogy intertwined with subtle social criticism. Now if I have to do any other piece on Abuja, it would be critical and biting, because it seems Abuja lives are lived far removed from the realities impinging on other parts of the country.
What is the main emotion that ignited your writing generally?
Empathy. I have to love and understand a subject so much to be convinced to shed some creative light on it or expend some creative energy on same.
Would you like to describe your current work?
My current work out there in the market is A Thousand Years of Thirst which I can call my poetic historiography, signposting how I started out as a poet, the turbulence of my imagination as a young writer and the many imprints I have tried to make on people and places as I journeyed through life.
A few words about your many performed but as yet unpublished plays.
While I was doing my graduate studies at the University of Ilorin in the very early 90s, I was taught creative writing by the legendary Prof. David Cook who had taught Ngugi Wa Thiong’O at Makerere University. He encouraged us to try our hands on all the genres. I remember showing him my first full length play entitled Truce with the Devil which is a satire on the later abandonment of the creed of Marxism by its adherents, a kind of mockery of turncoat revolutionaries. Prof. Cook’s comments on the play were quite critical and instructive and encouraged me to work more on the craft of playwriting. I later wrote and entered a piece for the BBC Radio play competition entitled Fringe Benefit, an expose on the happenings in our ivory tower in which I was then a participant observer. Another full length play of mine Death and the King’s Grey Hair based on a Jukun’s myth of young kings and short reigns was performed by the Kebbi State NYSC Drama Troupe in the mid-nineties at their DG’s Drama competition at the zonal level but could not be brought to Abuja because of its metaphorical cum radical slant which would not be palatable to the politics of the maximum ruler in power in Nigeria as at then. While I was lecturing at the Polytechnic Birnin-Kebbi (now Waziri Umaru Federal Polytechnic), I established a theatre troupe called Tashimana Theatre Troupe where I wrote and directed many skits and sketches for the school’s and community’s enjoyment and contemplation. When I got to my present place of work, in the course of my duties in the Performing Arts department, I have had cause to script several plays and sketches on national issues with multicultural predilection. Like I said somewhere before now, hopefully my next creative outing will be a play of historical dimension on a legendary historical personage who in history was accused of being the cause of the demise of an empire instead of being its grand protector.
In addition to three collection of poetry, you have also written one for children, The Talking Drum; how easy or difficult was it to make the switch between writing for adults and children?
The switch was difficult as I had not before then consciously attempted to write for children. I was pushed into it because I felt we were not talking to our children in the grand manner necessary to inculcate in them a deep love and understanding for their cultural heritage. However, I found it hard reducing some cultural concepts and spectacles language-wise to the level of little children. What I had at the end in Talking Drum is fitting for children at the higher levels of education such as senior primary schools and secondary schools. I would have loved to be able to engage younger children at their most impressionable stage. Writing for children is much more difficult than people think.
You are from the Middle Belt—a region that is seen as a literary haven in comparative terms with the rest of Northern Nigeria which is equally seen as a literary desert (in terms of paucity of cultural production of English expression). What do you think account for relative prolificity of literature (especially from your state: Kogi) from this region when compared with the rest of the north?
The profusion of literature from the Middle Belt region may be attributable to the multiplicity of the socio-cultural and historical experience of the many ethnic groups making up the region and from where many of the writers originated. The first generation of writers from the Middle Belt started their literary careers by mining metaphors, themes and tropes from their immediate cultural environment, often going further back into orature. They did for their ethnic groups and enriched the discourse space of literary productions in the English language exactly the way Soyinka and Achebe did for the Yoruba and Igbo ethnicities in their writing. The region is also one that has suffered in history (pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial) one form of hegemony or the other and writers born or made in this kind of environment are bound to find a lot of materials to write about or at least assume a poise of cultural assertiveness that leads to the discovery of themes and forms to graft into their writing—to make their voices and that of their people heard. An example from Kogi is Olu Obafemi whose first and most celebrated play, Night of a Mystical Beas,t is based on the agurumo myth of his people’s resistance to the pre-colonial Hausa Fulani cum Nupe hegemony. This myth was radically extended in the play to comment on the socio-political situation in Nigeria as at the time of its publication. Olu Obafemi’s latest play Ogidi Mandate which won ANA 2011 drama prize, is in a way an extension of Night of a Mystical Beast but the concern this time is in exploring how collegiate cooperation by people suffering similar problems as manifested in the past can be used to overcome seemingly impossible obstacles. I have not found writers in the rest of the Muslim north reaching far back into their cultural resources to re-interpret or interrogate their societies except for a few examples such as in Ibrahim Tahir’s The Last Imam, Mohammed Tukur Garba’s Eye of Eternity and lately Aliyu Kamal’s Hausaland and some others that may not have received critical attention.
In another interview, you characterised your poetry as one with purpose and mass appeal. Could you say more in that regard?
It is very easy for the ordinary reader out there to see poetry today as a genre without purpose, a mere exercise in word play and verbal gymnastics, sheer revelling in meaningless rhythm and this leads to poetry being seen as something not to be enjoyed but to be studied. On the other hand, people approach a novel with the eagerness to be told a tale. I am yet to meet anyone who does not want to be told a good or sweet story. A play is anticipated with bated breath for there is bound to be conflict over issues leading to the eventual climax. In essence, there is a ready market for a novel or a play but poetry must struggle to be relevant in order to find a slice of the market. Therefore, springing from my creative ideology, which is popular and people oriented, I make sure the subjects of my poems are such that elicit interest from a wide class of people while not sacrificing the basic expectations of` what is expected of poetry. I am yet to see a writer who writes without a purpose, but there are many who write who do not have a rather clear purpose. Every piece in my poetry collections was written to impart a message or present a perspective to the reader out there—beyond the scholars or the literary critics ready to feast with their theories. I feel gratified that I have achieved my purpose when my readers meet me and commend me for writing poetry in a way that it could be engaged with with enjoyment and laughter. My poetry too has received a measure of critical attention from students and scholars in our universities.
Nigeria’s federal capital, Abuja—the subject of your poetic panorama in your second collection of poems, Abuja Nunyi — provokes different emotion and reaction in different writers given its history. A case in point is a painting by Obiora Udechukwu titled “The Road to Abuja” which inspired many poems very critical of Abuja and what it symbolises by among other poets: Tanure Ojaide and Ogaga Ifowodo. And here you are eulogising the city.
I am different from all those other writers who wrote overtly critical of Abuja because I have lived long enough in it to grow to understand it, love it and acquire the license to romanticise it like Vatsa did. Femi Osofisan said somewhere ‘Mention a city and it mentions a poet’, so Abuja cannot be denied its own poets because it has its own enchanting history, inspiring environment and apparent incongruities which a poet passionate enough can subject his or her poetry to unravelling or eulogising. Tanure Ojaide and Ogaga Ifowodo have done a lot romanticising of the Niger Delta in their poetry and Mamman Vatsa and Denja Abdullahi did just the same with Abuja, just as Odia Ofeimum, Simbo Olorunfemi and a host of others have done with Lagos.
What, if any, is the connection between the environment and the creative process? In an earlier essay, you queried northern Nigerian writers for not taking advantage of what you called the “enchantment of their environment”.
A writer does not emerge from a void; he or she is imparted on by his or her historical, cultural, social, intellectual, ideological and physical environment. All these shape in so many ways the creative perspective of a writer and the purpose of his or her art. The connection between the environment and the creative process is always there if we study the writer closely enough and his creative preoccupation within a given milieu in his creative career. Put starkly, to use myself as an example, I could not have written Mairogo if I had not lived in some parts of Northern Nigeria at the time I wrote the book. Also important to the writing of the book was my station in life then and my given ideological disposition at that time towards the issues examined in the book. Each environment has its own enchantments in recurrent images, bizarre motifs, overwhelming landscapes, heroic deeds, great injustices and tragic stories and all these are ready source of inspiration for a writer. In the essay you referred to, I saw the northern writer as not adventurous enough in taking advantage of the sheer enchantment of his environment. The northern Nigerian filmmakers are more adventurous in this respect, which is an anomaly because in the creative sphere great literature is always the precursor to great film making.
In delineating writings from the so-called “core-north” (as opposed to, say, the so-called “Middle Belt”) you argued that writers from the sub-region are necessarily caught between the dogma of Islam and the secular sensibilities of the creative process. Could you say more about this?
Let me go back to the example of the northern Nigerian filmmakers. Were we not witness to the barrage of sanctions and arrests they suffered when the fanatical and tyrannical Abubakar Rabo was at the head of the Censorship Board in Kano? That censorship regimen nearly killed the industry in Kano and the filmmakers had to relocate to Kaduna, Abuja and other northern cities with a more relaxed atmosphere for creativity to thrive. The filmmakers were persecuted for not producing films in accordance to the Hausa–Fulani culture which to people like Rabo is purely Islamic. After decimating the filmmakers, he attempted to cage in the writers and I remember we stoutly resisted that at the Association of Nigerian Authors. Writers from the “core north” have for ages lived under this same stifling environment where the natural pre-disposition is for them to write in conformity to religious and social dogmas and I can tell you that is a difficult environment for a writer in the real sense of it to thrive. In a way, writers from the Islamic north are operating in an atmosphere of self-censorship which restricts the frontiers of their creativity and delimits the choice of cultural resources usable in their writings. Literature produced in such an environment will not go beyond banality and didacticism. A measure of subversion is needed to produce any great and enduring literature.
Aren’t you being reductive when you simplify the question of Islamic influence on northern Nigerian writers when you claimed that such writers lack authentic cultural source base other than their religion. You see the dominance of Islam as abrogating the indigenous culture and therefore depriving the writers the necessary creative tropes to further their writing?
Cultural authenticity is very important in the creative sphere because that may be all a writer has to contribute to world literature. In a situation where the northern Nigerian writers deny or ignore the cultural resources embedded in the pre-Islamic past and where the society’s gatekeepers are forever alert to beat down any manifestation of diversion not conforming to the acceptable norms of Islam, writing would be poorer for it. Islam is a religion and not a culture though it fosters a particular way of life on its adherents that can be termed cultural. Religion itself, be it Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and the rest, is an absolute, but it has not stopped its adherents from committing rape, murder, injustice or showing great love, passion, longing, bitterness and the rest emotions which are materials for literature. Writers everywhere must necessarily know that there is still a dividing line between what is religious and what is cultural and as agents of cultural development of their societies; they must ensure their creativity is not reined in by undue sensitivity to religious dogmas.
What position would you like to see Nigerian literature have in the world canon, and where is it most vulnerable in relationship to that position?
We already have a place in world literature with great writers such as Achebe, Soyinka, Clark and several other younger writers following in their footsteps. I am afraid that place may be endangered by some crops of writers from our midst today, who live abroad, who are writing to satisfy the literary appetite of the West. We endanger our place in the canon of world literature if we continue to write what I will call literature of apology and if we continue to allow others to set for us paradigms which our writings should follow. I am not saying we should not write about our ills but we should do it for ourselves in other to overcome them and not to pander to the cravings of an audience that hardly understand our lives.
Are there any of your Nigerian contemporaries to whom you feel particularly close poetically?
I am close in terms of cultural sensitivity and empathy to the bilingual poet Moses Tsenongo, Akeem Lasisi, Idris Okpanachi and Abubakar Othman. I may not be able to give you other names because I do not read other poets in order to compare their style to mine; I read them just to enjoy myself.
Finally, if you had to single out one characteristic of poetry that is missing in the works of your contemporaries, which would it be? And in your own work?
I find the absence of grand thematic sweep in contemporary poetry appalling and I sometimes wish my poetry could be more metaphoric and lyrical.