Interrogating a Continent’s Rhythm: Conversation with Three Illuminating Voices

Titilope Sonuga, Nigeria’s inaugural poet laureate, curator of the hugely successful SoulFest “Becoming” and Intel “She Will Connect” Ambassador combines the capacity for heightened utterance with an urbane cheekiness. Harriet Anena, Ugandan poet and short story writer bursts into the continent’s consciousness with her first book of poems, “A NATION IN LABOUR” and her fierce performance piece, “I BOW FOR MY BOOBS”. And, of course, poet, paleontologist, and brilliant scholar, Peter Akinlabi. In 2009, his poem, “Moving”, won the Sentinel Literary Quarterly Poetry Competition, UK. He was shortlisted for the inaugural Brunel African Poetry Prize in 2013. His poetry chapbook, “A Pagan Place”, edited by Kwame Dawes and Chris Abani was published in the 2015 New Generation African Poets series.

In this conversation with our Guest Editor, Gbenga Adesina, they wade through questions. Their contributions are as convergent as they are dissimilar, consistently illuminating, and informed, and occasionally humorous, cheeky, and revelatory.

 

Gbenga Adesina: I’m currently reading Mourning Diary by Roland Barthes and Tim Siebles’ Fast Animal. What books are you currently reading? Or maybe movies or songs. What’s the material right now?

Peter Akinlabi: I am, and perhaps will always be reading Lewis Hyde’s TrickstersMake this World- Mischief, Myth and Art and Harbinson’s The Eccentric Places. Reading these books – Ah!, add Jay Wight’s Boleros to the list – is  a moveable task, a life-time duty.

Movies? Let me just say I recently went back to see Saheed Balogun’s Eti Keta and Tarantini’s  Pulp Fiction again after a while. As for music, nothing compares to the Yoruba Gospels of the 1980s-90s – which I listen to every morning, except perhaps the ensnaring voices and skits of Odolaye Aremu, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, Adele, Ogundare Foyanmu, and Barry Wonder  –  which make my evening play list.

Harriet Anena: I just completed reading Adam Abubakar Ibrahim’s Season of Crimson Blossoms. The book is delicious, dark, compelling and many things. I will ask Abubakar why he killed Reza – a character who, despite living a life of drugs, guns, ‘forbidden love’ and all manner of crime, was so human, likable even.  I am reading Elnathan John’s Born on a Tuesday, and then I’ll start The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso.

I have put movies on hold, until I am done reading the pile of books I bought at Writivism. I am also working on my second poetry collection, so I only watch movies and listen to music to inspire the process.

Titilope Shonuga: I’m jumping between a couple of books at the moment and reaching back for older works. Helen Oyeyemi’s Icarus Girl and Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet.

GB: You know Peter, (you talking about Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald brought this to my mind), I’ve been listening, in the past weeks, to this song “They Can’t Take it Away From me”. The original version as sung by Fred Astaire, but also the peculiar versions brought to us by Billie Holiday, B.B King, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles (who am I missing?) cresting with Diana Krall. Listening to the same song ripple across different voices, different bodies, across time space and generations, the immutability of the song but also the minor ways it changed with each of the voices had an effect on me. And in that illuminated instant, I thought of how our lives too, our arts, if this world does not exceed itsshelf life yet and we are extremely lucky—how our lives might ripple across time, across different bodies, different interpretations. But I digress. Titilope, Harriet, I want talk about the idea of creating art and its ambiguous relationship with the lived live.Does living enhance the “writing”? Do we write, creating personas and characters, essentially as a way of speaking to the multitude of the selves?

TS: I always say that my writing is a kind of digging. Even when I’m unaware of it, each poem is an attempt to unearth something, and often it teaches me something new about myself. There is an essential truth that I’m after. I’m turning things over, looking at real or imagined experiences in different ways, through different characters as a way to sift out the truth, see if it holds up.

PA: I create a persona, a voice, being not a fiction writer.  But yes, all writing may be autobiographical. Mind you, an autobiography need not dwell entirely on the subject, but also may concern her friends, family and acquaintances, her opinions about social meaning and forms and so on and also her relationships with what has gone before, the past.

HA: Absolutely! A lot of my writing has footprints of what I live, experience, see, hear, watch, etc.
 

GB: I find myself, inexplicably, returning to Grief, Solitude, Love and Melancholy in my explorations these days.Do you find yourself gravitating towards any of these in your writing? Is there a pattern?

TS:I’m motivated by grief and the heart & body’s response to it. What new thing about our humanity is revealed in the tearing open? How do we persist inspite of it? All of my writing is ultimately insistent on love. I hold that at the center and allow everything to move into, away from or around it.

HA: All the three actually, and more, although I’ll need to check and see if there is a pattern.

PA: These are fundamental emotional states, deep and sedentary. I own them, but in different phases and planes, and often privately; I try not to imbue my writing with too much of it. In other words, this is to say I don’t follow solitude into the orangery. I like to keep the orangery at a distance, and hover above it in séances, all anthropological. What I am trying to say is that I seek to upend all emotional states, and bring them to metaphors all done up with degrees of discursive singeing.

GB:Let us now discuss believability. There has been a quite but relentless push back against the so called “author or artist/subject matter unity”. The idea that we function best as artists when our arts are also things we embody or are contiguous, in the least, to our every dayness. Aminatta Forna disagrees in this essay. I want to limit myself here to the boundaries of gender identities. Do you think as female writers, Titilope and Harriet, you will ever create a work (perhaps a novel) with a male character at the center of it? Will it be believable? I mean are there instances/examples to draw from? The reverse is naturally the case with Peter in this context.

HA: Lol. I will and I already did with some of my short stories – Watchdog Games, The Dogs Are Hungry and some titles I don’t remember. Read them. I’ll wait for your feedback on the believability of the male characters J There are lots of female writers who have done quite amazingly and convincingly well, having male characters in their novels, and vice versa; Abubakar Adam Ibrahim has a number stories with female voices.

So, it’s not about the gender of a writer but whether a writer can or wants to create a character of any gender of their choice.

GB: I completely agree

TS: Of course. I write what feels most urgent and give it the body I feel carries it best. There are a host of incredible characters in my life or otherwise to draw from and what I don’t know, I imagine. The entire essence of storytelling is to do just that, tell stories, and there’s a healthy measure of imagination required to do that. Reaching outside of my lived experience is essential and that means being able to forget the body I inhabit and become something or someone else. Whether or not it is believable is up to the reader I suppose.

PA:  I will pass. I will never write a novel, the male or the female me.

GB: I suggest we pivot a little from these “grand existential questions of time” and discuss the essential, lifesaving matter of love letters. Phew! I wrote a fair measure of those good stuffs, I confess.  A friend and I recently went on a nostalgic plunge. And she actually affirmed that all her writerly skills (and I speak of a very gifted writer here) came from writing those “missives”. Of course she was joking. Did you ever participate in that er..great exercise of the heart?

PA: Yes. I used to have a bunch of bound poem-letters to a girl called Adjoa, in the tradition of Letters to Martha. I lost it, conveniently, as part of the rite of growing up.

TS: I hide my love letters in poems; wrap them in a safe blanket of metaphors. It is such a courageous thing to write a true, bleeding heart, love letter. I honestly never have.

HA: Yep. I wouldn’t miss it for anything. Writing letters with words you hardly understood, and love songs to go with it. The innocence, the boldness, the adventure…Those were interesting days.

GB: Alphonse de Lamartin said music is the literature of the heart. Do you sometimes find yourself using a song as a navigation pole?

 TS: In another life I must’ve been a musician. In this life, I torment my family with my terrible voice and guitar playing. Music is a really important part of how I write. It transports me and puts me in a place where everything seems clearer. My playlist is extensive and very random, but right now I’m listening to a lot of Ibeyi, two songs I keep going back to are River and Mama Says. The Wild Youth EP by Daughter is on permanent rotation, particularly a song called Youth. Start Again by Falana is also a go to when I write.

PA: No. My approach to music has been summarized by Mani Rao:

The songs we like are the songs we know,
and every song on the radio is about us.

So if music is a universal language, I let it stay within its social and political functions. Unless it becomes transgressive that is crystallizing some kinds of aesthetic sensibility. This, unfortunately, does not happen often in contemporary music. Mani Rao might have this in mind when she wrote:

The longer we look, the more we recognize
and anything we could say is too obvious

HA:There are songs I listen to during specific moments – but especially when I have lost steam to write. Currently, I listen a lot to Stay and Wait by Hillsong United, Blown Away by Carrie Underwood, A Thousand Years by Christina Perri, Boo Piny (a contemporary Acholi song) by Leo P’Layeng and Let it go – in Disney’s Frozen. I’m sure the list will change next month, it always does.

GB: Titilope, “Becoming” seems to me a startling invocation. I read the reviews. The color, the songs, the range. How do you pull off something that awesome? And why it is called “Becoming” by the way?

TS:It still feels a bit like a dream. It’s not something I ever could’ve done on my own and it came together in ways I had not actually imagined. I had a lot of help, from a team of people who showed up for me in the most magical ways. It is called Becoming to represent the ever evolving, complex and sometimes painful journey into womanhood. It is bone breaking work to become a new thing, to grow. It is an attempt to articulate this state in which we are constantly changing and healing and blooming. I wanted to marry poetry and music to mirror my own creative process but to also capture the energy and urgency of some of the most transformative experiences of my life.

GB: Awesome. Harriet, what’s driving “I Bow for My Boobs”.The energy, the cadence. Are we looking at a poetic revolution here?

HA: I Bow for my Boobs is a poem from my first poetry collection, A Nation in Labour. It’s a poem about uneven power relations between an eternally drunk and abusive husband and his wife, who after enduring beatings, insults and neglect for a long time, looks for ways to hit back and set herself free. While standing before the mirror naked one day, she looks at her breasts and for a moment imagines them turning into stones so she can pelt her husband. So, essentially, we see a woman pushed against the wall and looking at the most unlikely of options as a weapon and that is often what happens.

It’s from the poem, I Bow for my Boobs that I put together the performance I staged at the Writivism Festival, 2016. Besides I Bow for my Boobs, other poems whose themes rotate around politics and erotica were included as part of the performance. Some of them are from my second and upcoming collection.

The performance as a whole, like you pointed out, had energy and tempo, and I believe it was the best way to deliver the messages of love and hate, of hopelessness and faith, resilience and coming out strong, as derived from the 16 poems I performed.

GB: I think I want to bring things to a head now. What’s your view on the needless or perhaps needful debate that seem to surround the idea of a dichotomy between the page and the stage, i.e performance poetry and what some will rather just call “poetry”? I will save time and not segue into the histories and metamorphosis that surround this “differentiation” and push back over the years.
 
TS: It is an exhausting and rather boring debate. One that is inherently steeped in the idea that one is inferior. I reject that idea and affirm that there is room enough for both. There is undeniable power in both. I enjoy moving in both spaces and I feel no obligation to choose. Sometimes I want hip hop and sometimes I want Jazz. Sometimes I drink tea and other times coffee. Some days only Vodka will do. Who cares? I’ll borrow from Angel Nafis and say: “you can call me spoken word or hip hop or whatever the fuck makes you feel better about the fact that no one falls asleep when I read my poems.”

PA: I am not sure if the situation is really dichotomous. All poetry is oral, at least at conception. So all poetry can be ‘performed’.Now since even performance poets so-called, have often had to start from text which then is read directly or, having committed it to memory, recited. What has now passed for performance poetry started as a very black thing, very vernacular. Even today, as an art form, it is aware of its derivativeness and its will to subject itself to expanding medium and reception. Have you seen those itinerant performance poets at venues of events, what do you think they are doing? Dichotomies suggest some kind of rivalry, a state of comparison, but I don’t see how that can be so. Performance enriches already written poetry, externalizes the prosodic. Now if a performer doubles as poet (as is the situation I suppose you mean to draw attention to) then, her poetry’s worth will be best seen in text. Performance is performance, poetry is poetry. Their relationship is derivative I think.

HA: I had reservations about performance poetry for a long time; first because l believed l wasn’t cut out for it (until l proved myself wrong this year) and also because l didn’t grow up seeing a lot of substance in poetry performances. In fact, poetry performances (at least here in Uganda) do not get the critical review that page poetry goes through; the content is hardly reviewed with a literary lens and so a lot of time, anything goes as long as one can wow the audience with their voice or body or whatever delivery trick they have. I believe that if a poet can deliver both on the page and stage then it is a plus because poetry is a misunderstood genre of literature and if one can make it accessible through recital or song or dance (although dance and music are forms of poetry as well), then it will improve appreciation and understanding. We just need to give performance poetry the same scrutiny, the same hard work we accord page poetry.

GB: Another pivot. I want to ask a seemingly mundane question now. What are your favourite Nigerian songs? But I want to situate it within a literary and scholarly tradition. In the Harlem renaissance as we know it, the sass and energies of Jazz and Blues artists such as Duke Ellington,Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong to name a few burst forth alongside the world bending writing of Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, Zora Neale Hurston and others. Closer home, I believe it was no coincidence for instance that the sociopolitical interventions of  Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe in our post-colonial chaos through literature happened at the same time as Fela Anikulapo’s much more varied and can I say relentless musical interventions. The music and literature of a time often parallel each other in interesting ways. Peter, I came across a brilliant essay of yours on the sound of our time. There is also a very open and inclusive essay here by the poet and culture Journalist, Wana Udobang. I come from a lineage of music scholars so naturally I pay attention to these things.  Titilope and Peter, what are your favourite Nigerian songs and In Harriet’s case (favourite Nigerian and Uganda songs?)

PA: Songs, you say, not contemporary, or pop or pidgin songs or anything. I will make you a list:

 

Olowe Mowe- Odolaye Aremu

Eeyan n la lo- OdolayeAremu

Any BayoAdegboyega

Most Tope Alabi

Any Brymo

Any Mode9

Oju Elegba by Wiz Kid

On my wedding day – 9ice

Ibadan nimowa –

Any Jesse King

ah, any Tunji Oyelana.

 

HA: Aha…there are Nigerian songs all over our airwaves but somehow the titles elude me. When I hear it, I know it and when it strikes a chord, I nod.

Ugandan songs? Boo Piny by An Acholi artist, Leo Pa Layeng, Woman, by Juliana Kanyomozi, Ujuwe by David Lutalo (l have no idea what his song means but it’s the one l dance to these days), and Jose Chameleonand any of Jose Chameleone’s songs

TS: I want to behave myself and say something safe like a song by Asa, who is easily the love of my life. But my friends know the way to get me moving is to play me anything by Olamide. I’m also currently in deep love with a song by Kiss Daniel called Mama.

GA: Just one more now, what are you currently working on?

HA: I am working on my second poetry collection and a non-fiction work

TS: I’m working on Becoming 2016 which will happen on October 28th at the Muson Center in Lagos. I’m shooting the next season of a TV show in which I play a character named Eki. The series is called Gidi Up. I’m working and reworking a collection of poems about disappearing women. A spoken word album is also on the horizon. I’m also doing some really exciting work as an ambassador for Intel called She Will Connect, to empower women and girls to embrace technology.

PA: I am in the middle of “a work-in-progress”. (Or to go with the bard: dreams at work)

GA: Thank you guys so much.

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