WORDS THAT OVERTAKE: Darlington Chibueze Anuonye In Conversation With Chimezie Chika

CHIMEZIE CHIKA, a graduate of Literature, had been a finalist in the Africa Book Club Short Reads Competition (2013). In 2015, he participated in the Writivism Creative Writing Workshop in Lagos. His fiction, nonfiction, and poetry have been published in numerous literary journals and blogs including Aerodrome, Black Boy Review, Brittle Paper, Praxis Magazine, The Kalahari Review, etc.

Darlington: I listened with awe to the renowned biographer and critic, Ezechi Onyerionwu, as he spoke glowingly of Professor Isidore Diala, referring to him as “one of the hopes of African Literary Criticism”. Thus, substantiating the veracity of the late Professor Ben Obumselu’s and Professor Ernest Emenyonu’s statement that: “Diala is one of the most cerebral literary critics of this generation.” “Colonial Mimicry and Postcolonial Re-remembering in Isidore Okpewho’s Call Me by My Rightful Name“, Diala’s winning essay for the NLNG Prize for Literary Criticism (2014) is such a pioneering masterpiece that not only draws attention to the ingenuity of Okpewho’s decisive novel, in which he, as Diala puts it, “harnesses the distinctive virtues of the African imagination and worldview to both complement and interrogate Western paradigms of knowledge”, but also rises as a gripping commentary on African Literature—ancient and modern. Having learned at the hallowed feat of that extraordinarily brilliant teacher, what do you consider his defining virtues as a scholar?

Chimezie: His immense ability to conjure up springs of knowledge from unknown wells and his delight, nay entrancement, when elaborating the nature of such knowledge. It takes a tremendous amount of erudition to do that. I consider myself lucky to have been taught by him.

Darlington: Speaking of luck, I recall reading Niyi Osundare’s interview with Ezechi Onyerionwu, in which he described himself as a “lucky teacher” to have taught Diala and his class of students. It will seem like you’re talking with your fellow professor, to rephrase him. It is usually exciting when a student pays a moving tribute to a deserving teacher, like Diala did for Ben Obumselu in The Responsible Critic, but the feeling one gets reading a teacher’s honest remark on his student defies every form that words can take. Again, I remember how Diala’s commitment to the works of Esiaba Irobi motivated a friend of mine to make an utterance I consider monumental: “Granted power to raise the dead,” Felicity Ezekwe said, “Irobi would be first.”

Chimezie: Diala’s interest in Irobi is nothing short of a fixation. His intimate and literary interests in Irobi’s personality, his acute understanding of Irobi’s work, as well as his summation of such understanding in Irobi’s social and human experiences are deeply engaging. Suffice it to say that a book such as Esiaba Irobi’s Drama and the Postcolony is not only a daring statement on Irobi’s life and work but also a heartfelt pean to a man so less than sung. I am therefore grateful to be a recipient of such deep understanding of Irobi’s personality. More importantly, through Professor Diala’s efforts, I now regard Irobi as the absolute vanguard of a generation of angry and politically-charged Nigerian writers (mostly now exiled) who came of age in the late ’80s and early ’90s. These include Olu Oguibe, Chris Abani, and others.

Darlington: Irobi’s understanding of Europe’s exploitative voyage to Africa is enlightening, overwhelmingly so. In Cemetery Road, for instance, Irobi is upset with the Western media who, despite their distorted vision of Africa, are in a hurry to pass a negative judgment on her, and care not about capturing her endowments; so engrossed with chronicling the anguish of the people that they not only ignored to question the cruelty of the government but also overlooked the dauntless efforts of the people to stand up against a murderous military regime. The problem with the West, I think, is not that she is not interested in Africa but that her interest is loaded with negative assumptions of Africans only as a dying people who must be redeemed from the backwardness of their culture. Who saves a man from his culture? You rather rescue him, that’s if he invites you, from the arrogance and ridicule of foreign cultures threatening to uproot and dislocate him from his nativity. But the Western media don’t show the world our resilience in the face of the shooting pain we endure daily as we reclaim our broken selves. No. And if they must capture us at all, then their choice would have to be that moment when we’re temporarily downcast and unable to help ourselves. It is then you’d see the West pose as the savior of the “savage people” of the earth.

Irobi, essentially, bequeathed to us an avant-garde theatre that audaciously interrogates Europe’s presence in Africa. And I think it is crucial that we follow his steps in drawing a stringent parallel between interest and love. In other words, that you’re interested in me doesn’t necessarily mean you love me; that you tell my story doesn’t mean you understand, to the point of recollection, the complexity of my condition, it could mean you wish to tell the world that I have no voice, or that my voice lacks power; that you share the images of my struggle doesn’t mean you’re sympathetic of my tragedy, it could just be that you want to broadcast my vulnerability, to draw attention to yourself and to use the dividends of the media traffic to empower the institutions that have blatantly, perpetually held me down. The West, in my opinion, will on no account understand the enigma that is Africa, will never tell a complete and honest African story until she shifts her attention from this Africa of her conditioned imagination—a people ruined by their lack of wisdom in rejecting colonialism and neocolonial intrusions—and create an opening for a more human, more progressive, more central conversation able to acknowledge the beauty of diversity.

Chimezie: Always a firebrand, Irobi is not one to keep silent in the face of neocolonial tyranny. He is a thorn in the flesh of military buffoons hell-bent on dragging the country, their country, to the precipice. His literary interventions into this issue are myriad. Cemetery Road, for which he won the NLNG Prize for Drama, is a postmodernist grilling of the negative effects of neocolonial incursions in Africa. Mazeli becomes the quintessential martyr of a failed state and the sacrificial lamb of tyranny and revolt. You know, Irobi has Marxist propensities. He believes in a political revolution of the youth that will oust the institutionalized gerontocracy that rules this nation. Sadly, such drastic view is almost inapplicable in the socio-cultural context of our milieu. But it is evident in Irobi’s work, from Nwokedi to The Other Side of the Mask.

Darlington: Your depiction of Irobi as firebrand is fitting. I recall the commentary of Professor Michael Echeruo that “Diala manages very admirably” in the writing of that important book you just referred to “to respect Irobi’s volatile temperament…” Remarkably, it is through Lawani’s question to Douglas and Douglas’ response that we’re enjoined to participate in Irobi’s revolutionary aesthetics and the unfolding drama of conscience and retribution between Africa and Europe. “What has sugar got to do with slavery, tell me, Douglas…” Lawani asked. “From the sugar,” he asserted sternly, “England became rich, became the envy of the world… From slavery came so much money that you named your currency, the guinea, a country along the coast of…. From the same fund you built Lloyds and Barclays Bank.” The repercussion of Europe’s contact with Africa is heartbreakingly myriad in its destructiveness—not only politically but also morally, for Douglas puts up a defense for Europe stating that: “Africans also participated in the slave trade. They captured their fellow Africans from the hinterland and led them to the coast and slave ships. Some of them sold twelve men for a bottle of whiskey. Others sold thirteen women for a mirror or a box of matches.” But thankfully, in the end, Douglas admits somberly that greed is one of Europe’s parting gifts to Africa, a cancerous colonial legacy. Invariably, it is phenomenal that Irobi wears most of his characters as a mask in his daring attempt to expose the evils of neocolonialism and the cluelessness of our past military regime.

Chimezie: Definitely. Irobi’s blistering presence can be felt all over his work. In Mazeli’s character, he accentuates, to the level of apotheosis, the image of the artist-activist as an exemplary fighter of a just cause. The just cause being the total annihilation of the political and military ruling class. Irobi’s “volatile temperament” rubs off on his characters because we find that they are iconoclasts dissatisfied with the politico-social status quo. Mazeli’s character, then, is basically an epitome of the people. He represents the common man and his aspirations, the common man who is deprived of his destiny in a failed state.

Darlington: In The Other Side of the Mask, as in Cemetery Road, Irobi, following the steps of the legendary dramatist Wole Soyinka, creates a powerful syncretic theatre. What do you think is the impact of this synchrony?

Chimezie: The impact of such blending is far-reaching, especially in Modern African Drama. Esiaba Irobi’s work, as a reinterpretation of Soyinka’s work, recuperates Igbo culture and tradition in modern drama. A close perusal of such plays as Nwokedi and The Other Side of the Mask establishes the fact that the use of traditional motifs and symbols subsumed in modern dramatic techniques and theories creates a wholly inclusive dramaturgy. To this end, Irobi’s oeuvre examines the extent to which Igbo culture can contain Western culture, its consequences and results. He is also stating directly, in applying this technique, that drama has always existed in Africa but can attain its full potential when married to European dramatic techniques. This is more or less Echeruo’s argument in “The Dramatic Limits of Igbo Ritual”.

Darlington: In Irobi’s plays, one observes the recurring presence of masks, and it’s not surprising that he draws immensely from the cultural potentials of Igbo mask. Think of Mazeli’s devotion to the mask in Cemetery Road and his boldness to speak truth to power even at the expense of his life and you’d marvel at the incredible ability of the mask to deify mortals, offering, at least, a sense of immortality. As a symbol of truth, Mazeli identifies the mask as the last hope of the people and that, in every sense, is Irobi’s signification of the crucial place of culture in the attainment of political emancipation and social cleansing.

Chimezie: The mask is an important symbol in African culture. Suffice it to say that a mask is, in traditional terms, representative of the wise spirit of our fathers. It also signifies the “other” hidden part of every individual, the part that is buried deep in our unconsciousness, sequestrated away from our conscious selves. Mask also points to the deity, Ofo na Ogu, the Igbo god of retributive justice. Irobi’s application of the mask philosophy in his drama is laudable, in that it not only awakens our awareness of the regenerative power of cultural beliefs but also problematises the mask as a tool for political correction. Irobi uses the mask to symbolize the activist orientation of his characters in a politically dysfunctional society, meting out deserved justice to the corrupt political officials, like we see in Mazeli’s final lynching of the Head of State. For Mazeli to do this, he loses his identity and becomes the retributive god. In other words, he crosses the space between the human and the spirit world and acquires the power to mete out justice. This liminality is a motif in most African cultures. Wole Soyinka has also used this motif in his dramaturgy, most evidently in Death and the King’s Horseman, where Elesin Oba performs the ritual suicide marked by a series of customary procedures crescendoed by that ritualistic crossing from human life to spirit life. Mind you, death is not final in most African cultures, nay in Igbo and Yoruba cultures. This liminality between the conscious and the unconscious, life and death, human and spirit world, is massively bridged through the mask. Thus, the mask becomes the all-seeing tool that does not shrink away from power. It attacks power and it does that through a revolution. Bloodshed by masks in Nwokedi, in The Other Side of the Mask, in Cemetery Road, is seen as sacrifices for the ultimate cleansing of the land.

Darlington: You put it correctly and beautifully. We can go on and on elaborating the inestimable cultural values of the mask. Remember that the egwugwu of Umuofia, in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, function as respected adjudicators of the land, listening to complaints, giving verdict and meting out punishments. It was so in the pre-colonial Igbo society that the legal system established by the mask allowed for the ascendancy of justice. But I have noted also that in writing The Other Side of the Mask, Irobi offered an apocalyptic prophecy over his own life. Or do you consider that as the final, inescapable, destination of a faithful writer who must follow the Muse to the end of all things—both sacred and mundane?

Chimezie: Irobi, to my thinking, is an immensely prophetic writer. One reading of Hangmen Also Die would buttress this fact. The Other Side of the Mask is no less a signal prophetic text. At that point when Irobi wrote it, he was bitter at so many things: at the government, at the academia, at the literary establishment. We know all these from reading Diala’s scholarly and biographical study of Irobi. So Irobi, in his bitterness, wrote a literary response as an artist. He was overtly angry that in spite of his prodigious efforts, outputs, and talents, he was not duly recognized by the literary establishment. He was also bitter at being largely ignored in diaspora. So, you see, it’s a personality thing. Irobi was someone who loved to attract attention, so when he failed to get them, he suffered greatly psychologically.

So, in The Other Side of the Mask, Jamike’s artistic commitment is a paradigmatic replication of Irobi’s desires as an artist. Irobi, from both Diala’s study and several interviews, comes across as excessively and obsessively devoted as we find in Jamike’s life in his studio. In the end, Jamike kills and dies for his art, even if he sees this death as the ultimate fulfillment of his life. In fact, Jamike’s obsessive fixation on getting so much work done in so short time could be located in his belief that his lifeblood is short or that, at the point of his death, his tryst with Amadioha and fate would have come round again, and that he had done nothing in life but use up his short lifeblood, his chi, in creating immortal masterworks. So much could be said for Irobi.

Darlington: Definitely. And I agree completely with Professor Martin Banham that “Irobi’s adventurous and often innovative playwriting deserves much greater recognition”, while commenting that “Diala’s study fills an important gap in our knowledge of contemporary Nigerian theatre.” It feels good to live in a time when words are overtaking the world and literature is educating humanity beyond the possible realities of our immediate environment and race. Yet, doubtless, the misrepresentation of blackness in European Literature is one plague that continues to reinstate the base perception of the West about Africa, and this did anger Irobi so much that he had to rewrite Shakespeare’s The Tempest. In Shakespeare’s Othello, we find an honest and prosperous Moor whose undoing is the blackness of his skin, just like we encounter Caliban in The Tempest, a character so maligned in literature. What do you think are the continuing implications of these stereotypes, and how would you appraise Irobi’s contribution in repudiating them?

Chimezie: The misrepresentation and othering of blacks within the larger body of European Literature can be traced as far back as ancient Greek and Roman literature, where witches and slaves are black-skinned or “black-hearted”. In any case, black has become over time a most repulsive and unsavory term. This negative perception of Africa has long been there in all aspects of life. Before the voyages of discovery between the 15th and 16th century opened the eyes of the world to hitherto unknown geographies and cultures, Africa was condescendingly referred to as the “dark continent” not only because Europeans knew little about it but also because it was presumed that dark-skinned homo erectuses lived there. This view gained ascendancy when the voyagers who came to Africa went back to Europe with outlandish tales of black-skinned people with eyes in the middle of their forehead, people who walked upsides down, dark lands that never saw the light of day… and so many other ridiculous stories. Coming from such a historical milieu, African writers are indeed obligated to correct such misconceptions and misrepresentations about Africa, its peoples, and its cultures. Achebe’s works were geared towards the correction and rebranding of the negative view of Africa. Many other writers followed suit, vehemently stating that Africans have dignity, culture, and a way of doing things. It is pertinent to state that our life did not begin with European “discoveries”. Mungo Park merely saw the Niger that millions of others saw before him. David Livingstone did not “discover” the Fall in the upper Zambezi, Shona people did. The Boars did not come to an empty land in 1652. They met advanced Zulu, Xhosa, and Tswana civilizations. So, you see, the African writer has a lot of work to do in reordering the view of Africa as the “other”.

Shakespeare mirrored the trend of his time by portraying black characters in his dramatic works (Meredith Anne Skura wrote a very erudite essay on this). It is contentious as to whether these portrayals were positive or negative. The important thing though is that Shakespeare was among the first European writers to acknowledge the existence of blacks—the cultural “other”—in their works, as we see in The Tempest, Othello, and others. For instance, Othello and Caliban, who is not necessarily black but represents all colonially oppressed peoples, are epitomes and archetypes of what was supposed to be the essence of the African person. In other words, we have little sense of discernment and we are nothing short of “bare, forked” beasts, who must be thankful for the refining influence of our European overlords who summarily destroyed our heritage and human dignity.

Irobi’s literary intervention is just one in a dignified line of such rewritings of European classics by African writers and intellectuals. For instance, Soyinka’s The Bacchae (Euripedes’ Bacchae), Efua T. Sutherland’s Edufa (Sophocles’ Antigone), Ola Rotimi’s The Gods Are Not to Blame (Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex), and many others. Irobi’s Sycorax creates an alternate situation in which European domination is repelled. In Sycorax, Irobi is of the opinion that the development of Non-European civilization has existed prior to European incursion. The African is the initiator of civilization here and not the other way round; he takes the position of the altern and not the subaltern. He manages to control vast powers and strange arts with which he uses to enforce his identity upon the rather innocuous Europeans. Using the techniques of dance-drama and postmodernist play-within-play, Irobi revises and interrogates common postcolonialist tropes. What is important is that he continues the conversation on European cultural perceptions of the supposed third world.

Darlington: I followed the debate between you and Mr Lehmann, the American, who asserted that: “Writing, like any art form has evolved in whitemansland over millennia. Written language has been around here for a while now, and as such has replaced oral traditions almost completely… The way I understand it, most of Africa did not have a written language for anything close to this amount of time, and those that did (Egypt etc) aren’t considered “real” Africans. So from a purely developmental standpoint Africa has not had the chance to evolve this art form.” Would you like to share your opinion with me, reacting to Lehmann’s assumption?

Chimezie: First, it hadn’t crossed my mind that there could still be such chronically parochial characters as Mr Lehmann. I mean, this is 2018 and people are supposed to be more enlightened in the age of internet. It is almost like Adichie’s incredulity when asked at La Nuit des Idées if Nigeria had libraries. Such presumption by the West is a sad paradigm that mars literary discourses between the West and Africa. A recent tweet by Eketi (@eketiette), calling out white people who still know so very little about Africa that they still think it is a huge unexplored country ridden with intertribal wars, man-eating savages and wild animals, explains it better. She told an imaginary white person that she “uses two lions as pillows”. This says a lot about the average expectation of the average white person regarding Africa.

Personally, I can’t believe we are still having this conversation in this age. One would have thought the world has moved beyond such parochialism; sadly, we are still fighting the same wars that our forebears fought. What Achebe criticized in, among other things, Conrad’s fiction is still alive and well. In his words, Africa is still even today very much, in the eyes of the West, a place where “man’s vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant bestiality”. This is beyond sad. It means that the derogatory view of Africa by the West has calcified. They expect nothing more from Africa. They turn blind eye to developmental efforts and good news about Africa or even anything that negates their condescending vision of Africa. They hanker towards bad news or anything that proves their thesis that Africa is a country with savages and all that nonsense. It’s annoying when a white person wonders how you can even operate a phone or know how to use a water tap. I mean, do these people really think we still leave in huts and wear animal skins? Do they really think we have inchoate brains? One wonders whether the world is really moving backward or forward. Again, this is disappointing.

Even the literary space is not spared. In 2011 the critic and social media influencer, Ikhide Ikheloa, criticized the Caine Prize for peddling what he calls “poverty porn” and choosing only to tell a single story of Africa by shortlisting and awarding mostly stories that tell a negative story of Africa: of hunger, disease, wars, slums, vagrants, etc., which is really what the West wants to hear about Africa. In fact, certain notable voices have contemplated that the quickest way to achieve literary success is by pandering to the patronizing Western view. While reviewing NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names in the Guardian UK in 2014, the Nigerian novelist Helon Habila complained about the palpable presence of what he called a veritable “Caine Prize Aesthetic” in the novel, the idea of poor urchins in African cities and suchlike. While Habila may have been too harsh on that rather excellent novel by Bulawayo, I think he makes some valid points, especially when one considers his statement against the background of the recent Caine Prize shortlists. Regrettably, the parochial range of the stories certainly does not represent “African Writing”, for which the Caine Prize claims it is awarding the prize.

That little social media debate, or rather exchange, to which you refer to is unfortunate. As Otosirieze Obi-Young put it, Mr Lehmann is a “whitesplainer” who does not deserve the dignity of a reply. Almost everything I have said so far contradicts his basic argument, which in essence is that African Literature could hardly amount to anything. Unfortunately, he bases his argument on the etymology of writing. He describes writing alone as art. How ridiculous! And this is coming from someone who confessed self-consciously to having “read so little” of African Literature. Such prejudiced arguments are almost non sequitors. In my angry riposte I tried to point out that literature as art does not entirely depend on writing. The emphasis is on the manner, the style, the peculiar way in which words are strung up, spoken or written. Mr Lehmann’s rather narrow view eschews Oral Literature, denying the existence of much of world literature. I found myself recalling the bigoted “older man” that Achebe describes in his trenchant essay, “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness“. Like that unfortunate man, Mr Lehmann sees what he does not say and says what he does not see. That is sad too.

Darlington: Literature possesses the power to inform. I just hope Mr Lehmann avails himself for a refining touch. And what hope do you see for African Literature?

Chimezie: African Literature is alive and well. More than ever, several African authors are being read world over. Some like Yaa Gyasi, Imbolo Mbue and Taye Selasi have secured mega deals for debut novels. Adichie’s fame has gone even beyond literature. I love Ayobami Adebayo with all the strength in me and I am eagerly awaiting her sophomore book. Prizes in Africa are also discovering new talents. The Brunel International Poetry Prize, The Caine Prize, Short Story Day Africa, The Commonwealth, etc. These prizes have discovered several young writers of my generation. There is Akweke Emezi, Otosirieze Obi-Young, Arinze Ifekandu, Gbenga Adesina, Romeo Oriogun, Chibuihe Obi, and so many others. These are young writers vehemently opposing the status quo, writers writing what they want to write and not what they think people would want them to write. People unabashedly owning themselves. Literary renegades. The literary establishment is robust with constant debates. Journals like Enkare, Brittle Paper, Expound, Bakwa, are doing excellent jobs. There are also literary festivals and book fairs such as Ake, Writivism and numerous others. The future is exceptionally bright for African Literature. There is no doubt about that.

Darlington: I’ve been enlightened and lifted by your striking revelations, your profound knowledge of history and your sense of hope. May we always find the courage to speak these truths when they matter most, and may these words overtake us.

Chimezie: Certainly, there are words that overtake mortality. And the pleasure, as always, is mine, Darlington.

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