Uche Umez is a award-winning Nigerian author whose works include the collections of poems, Dark through the Delta and Aridity of Feelings; the short story collection Tears in Her Eyes; and the two children’s books, Sam and the Wallet and The Runaway Hero.
Speaking at Civitella Ranieri, a kind of artists' retreat located in a 15th century castle in Italy, at which he is currently a writer-in-residence, Uche Umez talks about the responsibilities of authors, the loss of culture and the challenges facing the arts in Nigeria.
SE: Yesterday I spoke with Diego Mercaroni, the programme coordinator for the Civitella Foundation fellowship. One of the questions I asked was “what does Civitella expect in return from the fellows?” His response was nothing – the foundation does not wish to place any burden on the shoulders of the fellows. For some reason the word ‘burden’ has stuck in my mind so I’m going to start with a couple of questions around the word. I also note you use the word repeatedly in your poem 'I’m Set in a Burden to Sing'.
How have you managed the past 5 weeks without any expectations and the freedom to really do as you please; no daily chores, no concerns and no burdens? Is this an artist’s paradise – a blank sheet of paper? Or has it been difficult not having any expectations placed upon you?
UU: Civitella Ranieri is a residency for composers, writers and visual artists. They do not place any expectations on any of the fellows. I think the only expectations are the ones you place on yourself because you come to Civitella and you hope to get some artistic work done. I am struck by the two metaphors you use – one the ‘artists paradise’ and secondly ‘blank sheet’.
I’ll start with ‘artist’s paradise’. I wouldn’t want to put that utopian burden on Civitella Ranieri. Be that as it may, I believe Civitella is a haven for creativity and one of the things I find fascinating about Civitella is the serene backdrop of the castle: the rolling mountains, the winding roads, the expansive verdure, and the bewitching mist. Particularly during my stay, I have seen a lot of mist. Sometimes it makes me think of heaven’s breath. Of course I don’t know what heaven’s breath looks like but that’s the best description or to use your term, metaphor, I can think of any time I gaze out in the morning.
I’ve composed two simple poems inspired by the mist at Civitella and I feel so thankful to be able to behold the beauty of the mist, its ephemeral quality. More beautiful than any postcard of the Swiss Alps you can ever receive. I think Civitella Ranieri is awesome, also because of its generosity; all the facilities are tremendous, its repository of books! For someone coming from a country where a lot of things are left to rot and fall into disrepair, in terms of government functionality and social amenities, this has been a powerful experience of what an artist’s paradise might seem like. I feel a little guilty though, because I have a wife and children and I think of my loving wife having to shoulder all the responsibilities in my absence; most of which I should have been handling if I were back home. So while I am in paradise my wife is on the other side.
SE: You mentioned your wife and family are on the other side of paradise, where exactly is that?
UU: [Laughing] I was speaking with a friend yesterday who was wondering how many heavens there are. The Christians have their own vision of heaven. The Muslims have their own vision of heaven. And then other religions also have their own vision of heaven so is heaven going to be like a very big hotel, he asked. A penthouse, deluxe suite, different kinds of rooms and suites? I simply told him we would find it once we get there.
So the other side of paradise is Nigeria. I believe you are aware of the latest bombing of a Catholic church in Kaduna? It has become so tragic that every Sunday you wake up and another bombing has just occurred. It’s so painfully sad; that whatever paradise that’s still left of Nigeria is being threatened.
SE: Speaking of Boko Haram, do you get the feeling that the bombings and attacks against people are becoming so regular and have become so much part of our everyday experience that the way we respond to each successive bombing or killing becomes less of an outrage than the previous one? Are we now so used to the killings that unless the numbers suddenly treble or quadruple, no-one is really taking any notice?
UU: I may not be correct but I feel Nigerians are fast getting used to tragedy and, in getting used to tragedy, we become empty of feelings. Once you get used to tragedy you take it as a way of life. The sad part is that these are things we can avoid, but because we are getting used to it the outrage is going down. We pour so much ire on Facebook and Twitter, perhaps, and yet none of us have cared enough to scribble down such strong opinions in the dailies or online media. Sometimes, condemnation of such ghastly atrocities comes from certain quarters, while it is so shockingly silent in others; it is as if we have ethicised tragedy. We know which region of the country to sympathise with and which region to laugh at.
Nigeria is not a complex country, as we tend to think; it is just that we are complicit in so many ways which, in turn, complicate how we handle pressing national issues. Achebe has reminded us time and again that writers should be bold to ask hard questions rather than bury their heads between their palms. By the way, I think his memoir There Was a Country is his own singular attempt to ask questions of himself and many key actors in the Nigerian tragedy; questions which everyone would rather not want brought to the fore. You see the complicity I just mentioned?
SE: So do you feel that writers are in any way burdened by the responsibility of having to ask hard questions? And why is it that most Nigerian writers, novelists and journalists tend not to do so?
UU: In a way, my own generation of writers seems not to be burdened with any political vision as two or three generations before. There seems to be more exploration of the self, identity, personal longing and follies, the whole individual experience in most current Nigerian literature I have come across. In those days, for instance, most of the poems you read had a very strong indicting political tone; they were not afraid of asking the questions that 'brought about headaches' to the ruling elite. But these days, a good number of us shy away from protest writing, and instead some would rather comfort themselves writing a kind of lament poetry.
SE: You think that the new generation, let’s call it, the post-military dictatorship generation of writers are not so focused on political or social commentary compared to pre- and post-independence writers?
UU: Their focus is not as overtly political as the pioneer generation of writers. Look at Achebe’s books, Soyinka’s, Niyi Osundare’s, etc. In their work, you will see that they were direct and unequivocal in their political indictment. But it seems that our own generation is not much bothered about the political; we are more concerned about the personal. This is how I feel. Someone else may refute much of what I have said. Maybe because Achebe’s generation inherited the insidious burden of colonialism, nationalism and independence, whereas the only burden we have so far inherited was military rule and the overwhelming ineptitude of civil rule. But still that doesn’t explain less political engagement. Well, we have all become global citizens, exploring new identities, subjectivities, sexual orientation and experiences at home and abroad – so, I think, all these largely define our vision.
SE: Don’t you think that one of the roles of writers is, to use a rather trite phrase, ‘to be the conscience of the people’? To use their pen or art form as critical thinkers and express that through their work?
UU: Despite the argument between aesthetics and commitment, or between art for art’s sake and social realism, I believe that every artist should use their art to engage with society in asking the hard questions and then hoping he or she can provoke a dialogue, which will bring better understanding, more empathy and make us more human. Sometimes I have this fear that we are losing our humanness, which is why I titled my last collection of poems Aridity of Feelings; we are becoming more arid, more barren of feelings. Nobody wants to sympathise with anyone anymore, and to think this wasn’t the case in the 80s.
I can still recall, in 2006, Professor Charles Nnolim, a foremost literary critic, criticised the present generation of writers for indulging in ‘carnal literature’; that is, literature of the flesh, literature that prances between the kitchen and debauchery, that our own vision is just to entertain, that there is no strong political content or statement. He went on to challenge the present generation to use their writing ability to provoke or engineer social change. For me, he is right to a large extent, even though as writers we are wary of prescriptive literature. But then every form of writing depends on the writers’ personal vision. For instance, my first book of poetry Through the Delta was very political. A reviewer said it was so full of passion and anger. My second collection of poems was also political. You mentioned my poem 'I’m Set in a Burden to Sing' – and you will recall I said in that poem that I wasn’t going to talk about maidens or romance, but would hold up a montage of familiar sights of despoliation in the Niger Delta – which, even as we speak, the government seems quite indifferent to. So I feel in my own little writing I should be able to 'indict the political structures for not being responsible and responsive to the people'.
SE: How important is it to draw from history when creating new writing because although the world is constantly changing, in another sense it remains the same? Is making the connection between the past and the present something that only concerns the older generation and is otherwise burdensome?
UU: History enriches our writing, enhances perspective. I was reading an article by Teju Cole, I think, a piece on photography which can be summed up as: photography is not about capturing people’s faces but about capturing an age. So when you see a photograph you begin to think of the era, the memories it stirs up in you. But reading some of the poems by younger people, I feel they are not strongly rooted in history, by this, I mean culture – and I’m at fault in this area too. While my generation is ambitious – nothing wrong with that, you know – and trying to be very globalised or post-modern we are losing affinity with our own idioms, rhythms, myths and symbols, which primarily enriched the poetry of previous generations. I find it puzzling that we can easily and delightfully appropriate idioms and symbols from other foreign cultures and suture our writing with it, and yet we can barely draw on imagery from Ijaw, Tiv, Efik, Nupe, Isoko, and so on in our poetry. The poems of Niyi Osundare, JP Clark, Tanure Ojaide, and even the late Ezenwa Ohaeto etc., are rich storehouses of history and culture. If you look at our own poetry it lacks the cultural ferment which has always made reading the poetry of the poets I just mentioned a vintage experience. You cannot do without history which is the backstory of our writing, a signpost, a necessary foundation. What I am saying is that you cannot escape history entirely in your art. Even when you create a dystopian [or utopian?] literature, the back drop is still going to be essentially history.
SE: I wonder whether someone like Odili Ujubuonu writing historical novels would ever get selected for the Caine prize for African literature.
UU: The Caine prize is for short stories though. If Odili’s strong cultural-driven stories would be recognised and appreciated by a Western audience, if that’s what you mean, I can’t yet say for sure. I have met a handful of Westerners who don’t even know anything about Nigeria as a country. How then can they really appreciate the context and cosmology of an ethnic literature? Now whether we like it or not, Western readership defines African literature for the most part. I recall a friend sending his manuscript to a publisher who claimed it was ‘too unpalatable’ for an American audience. Now some people would have reworked the book to suit an American audience. With this kind of tricky situation one finds himself in Nigeria, it becomes rather justifiable for people to strive to get accepted in the West. So unless we are able to take control of our own narrative which will also depend on how well and viable our publishing and distribution structure are, the West will decide whom to celebrate and whom it would rather pass over.
SE: This raises the question of who are you writing for when there is such a paucity of bookshops, booksellers and libraries leaving so many Nigerians without access to literature. Maybe in Abuja or Lagos but the country is well beyond these two cities.
UU: It’s a question which keeps recurring and one is faced with its grim reality. Sadly, humanities have been given so little support by the government or private sector. The only government that has been consistent in this area is the Governor of River State Rotimi Amaechi. As it is, every scholarship or support goes to sciences and petroleum fields. How ironic can that get? We spend billions of naira sending and training Nigerians overseas, and yet we can’t manufacture a wheel spoke or produce good quality kerosene. Well, if we can successfully run Petroleum Trust Development Fund, why can’t we set up same for visual artists, composers, creative writers, curators and other art practitioners? Estonia, Finland, and other forward-looking countries keep sponsoring and it is a fact that some of the great contemporary composers are from those countries. Here in Nigeria, we keep lamenting that nobody is reading. How can people read when the spotlight on literary activities is so dim you can’t even feel your knees? Private companies as well would rather dole out millions in sponsorship to small-minded reality shows that nearly every youth has become hooked on, like crack, and now half of the youth aspire to become instant celebrity – how small-minded can we get? I don’t know but we are nurturing a demographic with tube-mentality, simply one-dimensional.
Take Civitella for instance. It didn’t take heaven to start it. Over the years, it has encouraged humanities and can access funding from private individuals and the government. But should you start something like that in Nigeria no-one will support you. It will look like a drainpipe. It is even laughable an idea, a government that barely pays its workers’ salaries, or pensions, promptly, how then can it support humanities or the arts? So in a society like ours where nothing functions properly, the creative artist will attempt to explore other opportunities and find a way to seek acceptance from whoever may be interested in their work. Everyone who is an artist is then tempted, or even compelled, to pander to outside, foreign interests; so if you can get a good publisher you will have no qualms about writing the kind of book they want. The way things are going, if we don’t try to revive a strong cultural foundation in Nigeria we may find it difficult to even tell a Nigerian story because the publishing industry is not there. There are small independent publishers but they are also challenged so it becomes like getting stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea.
SE: We in Nigeria are always reminding ourselves of the richness of our oral literature. I think we all grew up hearing stories told by our parents and relatives. My point is that if we are not reading and we are not hearing these stories, particularly those living in urban centers, then what happens to these stories? In ten, twenty years they could be lost.
UU: I wouldn’t want to be that pessimistic, but it is not unlikely. It could come to that. How many youths of today speak their own languages fluently? Either we are speaking English or pidgin. Some people get ashamed of taking part in certain cultural activities or things since they feel it conflicts with their religious beliefs, say, Christianity, for instance. It will be a big challenge no doubt, but I hope someone will collect these oral stories and history. This is an art form that dates back to a time before Nigeria was formed. Even till this day, puppetry is still much a cherished tradition in Romania, Japan and China. In Nigeria, a good number of the functionaries in the Ministry of Culture barely give two kobo about culture except, at times, the culture that celebrates young girls in skimpy outfits parading themselves in a pageant. You’ll be stumped if I told you the number of pageant proposals I receive in my office. Now, I have nothing against pageant since no-one forced the girls to objectify themselves for the male gaze, to begin with. But can’t we be more creative than laying out a number of attires and encouraging girls to slip them on, so we can admire their contours and curves? Oh, and now, a few states have become crazy about organising carnivals every year, and sadly enough, the theme is largely alien in scope, more Brazilian than African. Are we Nigerians not simply amazing? See, some of us are quicker to celebrate Halloween in Nigeria than we would New Yam festival. The truth is that you can’t speak about culture without nurturing and supporting a virile foundation for humanities. As I said earlier, I don’t want to sound pessimistic, but the age-old culture of storytelling is fast dying out.
SE: You mentioned that you were writing a 'comic tragedy' and we need laughter. Can you tell us about the place of comedy in Nigerian writing?
UU: We need laughter a lot. It’s a crazy world what with all the ghastly news that stare us in the face every minute. I do think people sometimes forget to laugh as you get so weighed down by the basic challenge of being a Nigerian. These days, I meet a lot of people and they can’t even crack their lips open. They look so grave-faced that Medusa herself might have recoiled from view if she had bumped into them. I don’t blame them, especially if you have to be heckled by traffic, potholes, and then you come back home and where is the light? The taps not running, or at times it takes you about an hour to fill a bucket to bathe with. Anyhow, I try to laugh as much as I can. I have to commend Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani who wrote I Do Not Come to You by Chance. It’s one of the most hilarious books by an African writer, about a 419 scam. Then Chuma Nwokolo , his Diaries of a Dead African is a very funny book in the same vein as Amos Tutuola’s books. And there is Burma Boy by Biyi Bandele. As for my work-in-progress, I am hoping I can pull it off effortlessly, perk up the story with some humour.
SE: I didn’t know you had written children’s books.
UU: I have written a couple of children’s books. But I had one terrible experience with a publisher. Meanwhile, two of my manuscripts have been accepted for publication here in Nigeria. One is for seven to twelve year olds, while the other is a young adult novella.
SE: James Baldwin said the writer cannot write out of his or her time. What time are you in and what time is Nigerian in? And are you in harmony with each other?
UU: A tricky question.
SE: What I am asking you is what point are you in your career as a writer. Are you just beginning or where are you?
UU: For me, these are early days. As a writer you keep on having to improve your craft. I never studied literature at school or university and I discovered literature in my twenties quite accidentally, and like most things I am a latecomer. But I have been working hard to improve my craft so I think I am in my teenage years and I think Nigeria is equally in her teenage years! [Laughing] So we both are in harmony even though her life is much more dramatic and volatile than mine. I have some control over my life but I don’t know if Nigeria has any control over hers.
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