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Eghosa Imasuen: On Fine Boys, new Nigerian writing and the NLNG Prize

 

Following the success of his second novel Fine Boys, medical doctor and banker Eghosa Imasuen opens up to Abubakar Adam Ibrahim on his writing, Nigerian literature and his disappointment on missing out on Nigeria’s most prestigious literature prize.

 

Eghosa Imasuen signing his book for a fan

Eghosa Imasuen signing his book for a fan

I suppose the logical place to begin would be the language of your novel. It is very Nigerian, something we haven’t seen fully deployed in literature before now. How did you decide on writing your stories using this language?

I was creating a character. You have to remember that the novel, Fine Boys, is written in the first person point of view, i.e., the story is narrated by one of the protagonists, Ewaen, who is 16 years old at the time the novel begins. The voice had to be authentic to its time and place. So it was a conscious effort to go for that voice, to speak that way; if you agree that there was a way young Nigerians of the time sounded, and that we are representative of that generation. I tried to write the way we spoke in the ‘90s. It was interesting; I think the greatest pitfall was allowing anachronisms to creep into the characters’ dialogue, into the narrative itself, which is a dialogue with the reader.

I found it refreshing, and nostalgic. A bit difficult, because it seemed so easy to do, but there were the dangers of sounding too normal, too recent, and forgetting the small-small differences that a decade-and-a-half allows to creep into speech.

 

I am sure you have been asked this before but really, to what extent is Ewaen, the main character in Fine Boys, different from Eghosa; or are they one and the same?

No they aren’t the same person. I will admit that in creating the character I drew from my own experience. But there was more. Here I remember an aphorism, I can’t place its creator, which suggests that all writers use three tools in their fiction: experience, mining one’s own; research, listening to what you’re told, using what you’ve observed; and imagination, creating the rest. So, Ewaen is an amalgam, of memory, of self, of my imagination. And I am terribly boring; I could not have managed what any of the characters go through in that novel in my own life.

 

There have been positive reviews for Fine Boys, as the author you must feel good about it. But as a writer, and with the benefit of hindsight, if you are to change anything, what would it be?

The reviews that are good, even the mixed ones that say a few good things, are a sort of validation, I must admit. When I come across them, I am happy. It is gladdening when a reader gets what you were trying to achieve, the effect that you were shooting for, more so when they assert that the execution was well done.

Concerning any changes I would make looking back; even while writing I struggled for a long time with the decision to tell the story from the point of only one character. I tried a few experiments with voice, even published a short story lifted from an early draft of the novel—you might have read it, The Cadavers, it’s online—but I finally stuck to the decision to tell the story in the first person POV. Another thing I might have toned down is maybe the profanity; too many people find it difficult to get past the way human beings speak when they read it in print. But all in all, I would not have changed anything major.

 

Your character Ewaen, among other things, witnessed domestic violence between his parents and it seemed a usual occurrence to him and his siblings. To what extent do you think domestic violence is a problem in contemporary Nigerian society?

It exists. Sometimes one is tempted to attribute it to a different period, tempted to assert that, no, it cannot happen now, the moral zeitgeist has shifted too far, that in the past even “good men” could beat their wives, and it didn’t mean much. But the truth is that there has always been a type of man who would do this, who would break all moral and social norms of his time. These are not good people. So I don’t think of domestic violence in terms of prevalence in any time period; I think in terms of prevention and deterrence. In education of our boy-children, and in punishment of those for whom education would do no good. I believe in teaching our women to walk away from unhealthy relationships.

 

I see in Ewaen the contradiction that is Nigeria in the sense that he seems to be conflicted about his morals. He has no problems indulging in exam malpractice but yet sturdily resists attempts to initiate him into secret cults. Is that what you set out to demonstrate originally with the character, this contradiction?

Cover of Fine Boys

Cover of Fine Boys

I set out to create a mirror, yes, we could use that metaphor. To create a mirror, a clear one, with its ability to be very unflattering. I make very few moral judgements; very few, treat your neighbour as you’d want to be treated, do not betray the public trust, survive by any means that do not hurt another without cause. So I look at these characters in the story; should I have made the narrator a preaching, do-gooder? He was actually in an early draft. I found him so annoying during the revision period that I had to be more honest. It was not a planned effort, in truth; it was just an honest rendition of this mirror. That morality can be relative; that sins are not equal, that being outraged by corruption even when one’s own garments aren’t white isn’t hypocrisy, it is humanity. I hate it when people play that card: look at you; throwing refuse out your car window, you are one of those contributing to the problem in Nigeria. It is a disingenuous (and sometimes, honestly naive) argument that only succeeds in perpetuating the status quo; a citizen’s personal failings should never be used as an argument to stop them from speaking out about their leaders.

 

Indeed. You have told the story of a generation of Nigerians that has largely gone unacknowledged but the picture of this generation we get is that of a lazy brood who have an aversion to serious intellectual engagements. Is that really what this generation is about, in your opinion?

I hope I haven’t been complicit in painting that picture. Oddly, our generation, those born during the civil war, and immediate post-civil war decade, are no longer youths. We are in our thirties and forties. We are getting old. And I think each generation, as messily as you can manage to demarcate one from the next, speaks to its own issues with its own voice. Serious intellectual engagement? How is that measured? We speak with our tools, and there will always be those who raise the discourse to lofty heights. But you must also factor in the ease with which information is propagated now, the internet message boards, that morphed into listserves, and then into Social Media; the ease with which anyone can find a platform on which to air their views, TV, radio, newspapers. There is a din of voices out there. And the emptiest are still the loudest. But it doesn’t mean there isn’t serious intellectual engagement going on, or that there aren’t those who are capable of engaging in deep thought. It is just harder to see, to discern. It is a double-edged sword, this proliferation of voice. See what it has done to the reputation of our generation; people actually doubting if we can think.

 

And perhaps, in relation to this, there is talk about a new generation of Nigerian writers, home grown talents making waves and having an impact in the digital age. Prof. Pius Adesanmi has even called them the Cyberia generation. What would say are defining the stories this generation, to which you belong, are telling?

Aren’t we all home-grown? Even those who travelled abroad mostly left in their late teens and young adulthood. What defines us, I hope, is a healthy irreverence. An ability, nay need, to mix up influences. It is everywhere, this mongrelism, it is in our music, our clothes. But it is under attack. Our generation is facing new fears, new uncertainties, and the solution on offer, the easy one, seem to be increased religiosity, an abandonment of doubt, of uncertainty, an abandonment of the drive to question. We need to look to the past, to see where anti-intellectualism can lead. We need to fear that road, and hope we never take it.

 

And we have heard this debate a lot, especially from the older generation, about how this generation is not as good as previous ones. Now speaking for your generation, how really good do you think you guys are?

Should I reel out names of writers who are doing great work? Do I have to mention you, Adam Abubakar, Chimamanda N. Adichie, Elnathan John, Helen Oyeyemi, Chika Unigwe, Lola Shoneyin, A. Igoni Barrett, Tolu Ogunlesi, Jude Dibia, Uche Peter Umez, Efe Paul Azino, Uduak Isong Ogwamanam, Rotimi Babatunde? It is a pitfall of human experience, to look at the past with unquestioning nostalgia. Even those who should know better can slip into this fallacy. I remember an article that Abati wrote a few years ago that was so out of touch, wherein he tried to make the case for the emptyheadedness of all of today’s music, of today’s social scene, of today’s generation. It was embarrassing. He made no allowances for what I have mentioned earlier, the din of voices; he made no attempt to really listen to what those who have come after him were really saying. And the most eloquent response to his bunkum was written by a hip-hop R&B artiste, Bankole Wellington the Third. Your readers should search for that exchange, it is still online somewhere. And in perfect eloquent echoing of their then editorial chairman’s mistake, the Nigerian Guardian tried to milk the controversy by purportedly printing a series of rejoinders and counter-rejoinders, and all the rejoinders they printed seemed to prove Abati’s point, with their robust outrage, their ad hominen attacks, their din. They sold many Sunday editions in the weeks that followed. But they never published Banky W’s article in their paper.

So, I think those who are good, and they are many, are very good. It is just that they are no more gatekeepers of taste, and many people are demanding to be heard. The responsibility has now shifted to the ordinary consumer, the reader, the listener, to become a connoisseur of sorts, to sift through the many for the brilliant “few”.

 

Interesting indeed. Now going back to your writing in particular, despite the uniqueness of your style you must have had some influences growing up as a writer. Who are those influences?

My influences are rather scattered. I am child of the thriller. I loved reading my mother’s Harold Robbins novels; I would steal into the family library to flip backwards to the naughty bits. The African novels I read were more serious stuff; I think Ngugi’s early novels, Achebe’s and Ekwensi’s had an effect on my voice. As a young adult I became a fan, actually I have always been a fan, of science fiction and fantasy. I particular think that Isaac Asimov, famed for his frank artlessness, influences my style, his honesty, his uncluttered prose. Adichie too is an influence; the wayo simplicity of her prose is something I try to emulate.

 

And how exactly did you discover that you were going to be a writer. What was the defining moment for you?

I can actually pinpoint the exact moment I made the decision to write seriously—I’d always written, a notebook novel, time travel, complete with illustrations, I wrote in primary school comes to mind. My eureka moment was in 2005. I was practising medicine in Warri. I had this conversation with my mother, which coalesced into this indescribable need to put a story on paper. That story became my first novel To Saint Patrick.

There have been a lot of positive reviews of Fine Boys and, in some quarters, disappointment that it didn’t make the LNG Prize longlist. How did you feel?

I was disappointed that I didn’t make the longlist; who wouldn’t be? And it was a difficult emotion to feel because some of my closest friends as writers, Lola Shoneyin, Chika Unigwe, Jude Dibia made the cut, and one of them eventually won. I suppose the judges knew what they were looking for, and didn’t find it in my novel. It hurt, but one can’t take these to heart. One must write the next book.

 

And what do you think of the Prize as a whole, the judging and administration?

The NLNG Prize for literature is evolving. It will get better and better. If I would suggest anything it would be that the judging panel’s make up be changed to include writers, readers (opinion makers, respectable and of impeccable character, these could be musicians, reviewers/critics.) You must have people who read contemporary literature, who feel the pulse of the times. The fear is that with only academics, you have books scored to a template, measured against an unattainable nostalgia, but good literature is always more than the sum of its parts, is always a product of its present. I recall a quote I read in a Neil Gaiman’s novel, “A novel is a long piece of prose fiction with something wrong with it.” I think it suggests that the perfect novel would be perfectly boring. I would also suggest that they do away with the annual prize rotation among the genres. There is an existing prize, the National Book Awards, in the US, whose template looks like it could be an almost perfect fit for what the NLNG can be, what it will be, eventually.

And I think drama should not be a “book” prize. It is literature, and should win prizes, but how do you save a genre by not encouraging performances.  Better minds than mine will come up with solutions to these issues. It will get better, it has to.

 

I am aware you are an admirer of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, which I enjoyed as well. To what extent do you think writers reinvent myths and legends using fiction?

I should speak primarily from what I am most familiar with, prose, the novel, the short story. Writers mine experience for their stories, they listen. And what better source than the old stories. What Gaiman did with American Gods had such a profound effect on me. Here is an Englisman trying to write about his experience of America, the disconnectedness he felt, his awe of the people’s enterprise, a travelogue. And what does he do? He looks at the Old World stories of myth and legend. And he creates a world in which America itself is a deity, a place whose soil isn’t healthy for gods. He supposes, what if the gods and mythological characters of our stories were real, existed in the physical and thrived, so long as we believed in them? What if all the different people who had emigrated into this strange place, America, brought with them their gods, their stories? What if these stories were being forgotten? It is a great angle from which to examine the human condition, as I believe that all good fiction must do, and it illustrates perfectly my opinion that our best stories are our oldest, and that we will continue to retell them for our times.

You experimented with alternate reality in your first novel, To Saint Patrick and now you have served up Fine Boys, which is somewhat autobiographical. What next will you be serving up?

I think I will do something set in the “now”; our present environment, social, political, creates so many stories. I am drafting a treatment for a contemporary novel. I hope it succeeds.

 

(First published in Sunday Trust, March 17, 2013)

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Culture

Barmani Choge: The last of the strong ones

The death of Hajiya Sa’adatu Aliyu popularly known as Barmani Choge was a phenomenal loss to women and to traditional Hausa Music.

The death recent of iconic Hausa singer Barmani Choge perhaps marks the end of an era. Not only was her brand of Amada music peculiar, sung in her sultry voice to the accompaniment of calabashes, sometimes inverted in water, but her lyrics were defining.

Since her death in Funtua was announced by her son, Alhaji Hamza Aliyu Monday March 4, eulogies have continued to pour in for a woman considered both iconic and in part deviant.

For a part of the country shackled in tradition and hemmed in by patriarchy, Barmani’s rise to prominence with her daring music that can be defined as feminist in every sense of the word, and sometimes very racy is a remarkable feat.

Often parents would shield their children from listening to her music when she was aired on TV or on radio, especially when she crooned out those salacious lines that women hailed with ululations and cheers and sometimes with bowed heads due to the brazenness of her words and their delivery. But this often increased the young ones’ desire to hear this woman the more.

Born in 1943 or 1945, (that has not been definitively established) in the town of Funtua, Barmani soaked up the cosmopolitan nature of that place that produced the legendary Mamman Shata, and she picked up what had hitherto been a pastime for women in the confines of their houses (the beating of calabashes) and made a successful music career out of it. And all these, while having a dozen children or so along the way. A feat she celebrated in her song “Gwanne Ikon Allah”. She reportedly married at 15.

Hajiya Barmani Choge in her element

Hajiya Barmani Choge in her element

The Funtua in which Barmani and Shata grew was teeming with brothels and a joire de vivre approach to life and was perhaps ripe for the lewd lyrics of her hit song “Wakar Duwai wai”, which in contemporary Nigerian music would have taken a fitting title like “The bum bum song”. In it, Barmani praises the female physiognomy and its inherent powers, how a woman can wiggle her backside and have a man do her bidding. Women loved it, and men smiled a silent acknowledgement. And Barmani’s place as a social deviant was firmly established.

Some of her lyrics focus on the emancipation of women, economically and otherwise. She is sometimes brutish in her criticism off women who refuse to do anything to improve their economic stations in life. Consider her lyrics in “Ku Kama Sana’a, Mata” (Women, take up a trade) or her unreserved bashing of women who are not as smart as they ought to be and prefer to be reliant on others such as in “Sakarai Bata da Wayo”, (Fool, she’s not smart).

But Barmani was not a total rebel and did not encourage social disorder despite the unconventional slant of her lyrics. This despite her opposition to polygamy in her song “Dare Allah Magani”. She sang about childbirth and bragged about her dozen children, split equally between the genders. Of this dozen, she was survived by six and some 60 grandchildren.

Her successful career spanned over four decades from when she started singing at 27 and in the tradition of Hausaland acquired a number of wealthy patrons who sponsored her on trips, showered her with gifts of cars, money and other luxury items.

She was, for a long while, the sole proprietress of the Amada brand of music, having been preceded by Hajiya Uwaliyo mai Amada, whom Barmani had since outclassed and surpassed in accomplishments.

But her star had been in decline for a while, no thanks to the changes in time, globalisation of music, and the influence of contemporary forms of Hausa music a la Kannywood. And at the time of her death, Barmani was not in very good financial standing.

She had been ill for some time, reportedly on and off over the last five years, until she was struck down by hypertension that left her paralysed some two months before her death. That according to her son Hamza, who had the grave task of announcing her demise, saying one part of her body had been totally immobile in the last few weeks.

With Barmani gone, it would seem the curtain has fallen on an era of traditional Hausa music particularly among women, which she epitomised in all its glory and brazenness and which now yearns for an heir.

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Culture

Carnival Fever

Barranquilla’s annual carnival is one of the biggest in the world and has been going on for as long as anyone can remember. One Colombian’s hunts for her costume makes for interesting reading. Shadia Cure, 28, has a dilemma. She needs a costume for the annual Barranquilla carnival, one of the biggest in the world. The theme for her costume for this year is ‘shout’. But she doesn’t know precisely what her costume is going to look like. In fact, she has no idea. And in her halting English, pausing every now and then to find the right word, she describes her head gear (the only things she is certain about). It is elaborate, with many sides. But she is not sure what she would wear with it that will fully express her theme. “I want to release some demons,” she says and laughs. So she has been going about Barranquilla with her camera trying to capture images of total strangers screaming into her lens. She asks politely, always smiling.

Shadia convinces a trader to shout her demons into her lens

Shadia convinces a trader to shout her demons into her lens

Although some think her request is odd and walk away, others agree and scream. The carnival spirit is rife in the air and people here are given to occasional eccentricities. Preparations for the four-day event in February go on all year round and get into top gear from October. Everyone one, rich and poor, old and young participates, almost all 2 million residents of the Northern Colombian city. For Shadia, this will be her third year participating in Barranquilla’s famous carnival, which coincides with the city’s 200th anniversary. Before she left to study Theatre and Dance in Buenos Aires, Argentina, she had merely been a spectator. But two years ago, she discovered a carnival group called Disfrazate Como Quiera, (Spanish for “Disguise as you wish”) which encourages radical thinking and liberties with costumes. In the organised insanity of the carnival, that has to be scary. But Shadia found the group and its idea appealing. This year, she will not be left out, so she goes shopping for material for her costume at the bustling Carrera 44, accompanied by her sister Karilyn. Karilyn’s pre-carnival jitters are over already. She has settled for a simple Carlos Valderrama look as her gear for the costume. “I have the wig already; all I need is to get the shirt.” Valderrama was probably Colombia’s most recognised football star with his distinct mane of yellow, curly hair. Massive. It was the curls that inspired Karilyn. Her naturally curly hair, which she shares with her sister, has been made fun of in a light way by her friends so she decided to use the Valderrama look to get back at them. Simple for Karilyn. Not so for her sister. The huge William Chams shop on Carrera 44, is incredibly busy. Tens of people buzz in and out with a Christmas-eve-shopping frenzy. They walk the aisles and contemplate different fabrics with dreamy eyes seeing what they could make out of them. Many uniformed attendants buzz around, moving bales of fabrics, showing customers around, their smiles masking their tiredness. Karilyn points Shadia in the direction of a fabric with golden flecks, almost like scales on a fish. Shadia’s eyes light up but dim immediately when one of the shop attendants tells her the price – USD140 per square meter. Pretty expensive, even for Shadia, who comes from the upscale part of Barranquilla. “It is much cheaper Down Town,” she says. But she won’t go Down Town. “It’s too far.” “It’s too insecure, too poor,” Karilyn offers. “Colombia is one of the most unequal countries in the world,” she explains as Shadia drives down the street to an open market besides the Estadio Romelio Martínez. She, alongside Karilyn, walks the streets festooned with mementos of the carnival –colourful costumes, masks, buntings and fancy lights displayed on shop windows. Lots of vibrant colours. It is a huge market for carnival costumes and accessories. More shops are being set up even that late in the day as the sun sets over the Magdelena River. Trust the Chinese. They have found ways to profit from this carnival on the other end of the world. They import somebrero vueltiao, traditional Colombian hats and symbols of the carnival, at far cheaper rates than the local hand-woven ones, made from the cana fleche, a cane native to the region. “The artisans, they are not happy about this,” Shadia says. Eventually, after sunset, she realizes she won’t find what she wants for her costume so she puts off shopping for the next day. “They will bring more fabrics tomorrow,” she smiles.

Everything goes. Shadia tries to make a costume out of many things, including this cord at a shop in Barranquilla

Everything goes: Shadia tries to make a costume out of many things, including this cord at a shop in Barranquilla and below, even some netting

Later that night, at Lunabril, a local bar in Barranquilla, Shadia’s group officially kicks off its’ pre-carnival celebrations with a party. The captain of the group, a French woman who has lived for almost a decade in Barranquilla, dressed in a Queen’s regalia with a tiara that has the Eiffel Tower as the crown jewel delivers a lively speech in Spanish just at the entrance of Lunabril. She charges onto the street, alongside a young man waving the group’s black flag, pursued only by the carnival spirits and the dance music from a live band. The party spills into the street. Shadia turns up later, after the dancing and drinking had been going on for a while. She stands on one side, a canned drink in hand, smiling at people and exchanging pleasantries. She isn’t dancing. “I am tired,” she says and smiles. But she dances eventually, not much anyway. Down Town and Mud Bath DSC01310The next day, Shadia makes an astonishing decision. She is going Down Town to shop for costume materials. Her guide will be Magali Padoli, a 51 year old seamstress who will also make Shadia’s costume. Magali is from the poor side of town, from a neighbourhood called La Luz where they celebrate their carnivals not with flowers but with mud. La Luz is far from where Barranquilla’s biggest carnival parade, the Battala de las Flores, or “battle of flowers” takes place. There is a happy and somewhat sad glow in Magali’s eyes as she recounts her experience in the mud pit. “One year, during the carnival, the people in the barrio (neighbourhood) came to ask for money for drinks. I didn’t want to give them so I ran to my room and hid under the bed. They jumped the fence and caught me. They took me to the mud pit and hurled me inside,” she says laughing. When she crawled out of the pit, they all danced around and slung mud at each other. In her voice, there was evident nostalgia as she recounts the only Battala de las Flores she had attended. She had to take a long bus ride to get there. She describes the grandeur, the colours and dances. But as she absorbed the ambiance  her children cried through the night in her absence. So she decided never to leave them for the grand parade, and revel instead in the local carnival of La Luz. Along with Shadia, whom she had known since she was a baby, they scour the huge market of Down Town looking for the perfect material for Shadia’s costume. They knock heads together, exchange ideas and laugh. But unlike Shadia, Magali doesn’t have the luxury of spending days thinking of her costume.

Knocking heads: Shadia Cure and Magali Padoli contemplating costumes for the carnival

Knocking heads: Shadia Cure and Magali Padoli contemplating costumes for the carnival

She uses remnants, pieces from the costume she makes for her customers to patch together something to wear. And when these are not enough, she wears her old cloths inside out and has her brother, an artist, paint something on them. Somehow she will always find a headgear. After all, she is very resourceful. She had sponsored some of her children to the university patching up dresses and costumes for others. In the process, patching together a life for herself. Shadia could afford to travel abroad for studies. Decking the Queen At her vast residence, septuagenarian fashionista Amalin de Hazbun sits at her desk, taking phone calls and sipping coffee. She is a busy woman, and an important one too. She is called ‘The Golden Needle of Colombia’. She designs and makes costumes for the carnival queens over the years and other Barranquilla and Colombian elites. Framed pictures of the carnival and pageant queens she had dressed blotch the many walls of her house. In several rooms, workers are busy trying to put finishing touches to some grand costume or the other. “Making costumes is very, very important to me,” she says. “It is the most important work for me because it represents my people, our culture and everything we stand for.” Everyone in Barranquilla, from the lowest to the highest, is involved in this carnival. Their lives revolve around it and some of them, like Amalin, work all year round.       Shadia would be happy to have this celebrity designer make her costume but she smiles and shakes her head. “Ah! She will be too expensive.” Three days of searching have yielded no result for Shadia. Standing outside yet another shop besides the market, she shrugs with a wry smile and says, “It is hard for me to make a decision. I hate having to make a choice. It is like punishment for me.” Night parties           The pre-carnival fever is now officially in full swing. All the major clubs in Barranquilla are officially flagging off their parades. The Danza  del Garrabato holds at the high end of town and is graced by this year’s Carnival Queen, Daniela Cepeda. She arrives in a grand fashion, dancing vigorously and waving to the multitudes lining the street. Her entourage is grand, made up of the police, military and fire fighters marching to the wails of sirens. Behind her, an incredibly long carnival train of dancers dressed in glittering black consumes trimmed with red, yellow and green ribbons, the colours of Barranquilla, flow. But in La Luz, where Magali Padali lives, the neighbourhood pre-carnival party is merely a fund raiser for the carnival. Proceeds from food sales go into the coffers of the neighbourhood carnival proper, where a local queen will be chosen for her dancing skills. She will be crowned by the overall queen, who will arrive yet again in a grand carnival train. The queen of La Luz, which ironically means ‘The Light’, will have only a bicycle drawn rickshaw for her parade. Shadia Cure, who, in trying to shout out her demons, and having ironically captured strangers’ and friends’ shouts in her camera in the

Shadia Cure trying to shout out her demons

Shadia Cure trying to shout out her demons

process, has finally decided, after four days, to dress as a croissant instead. For now, her search begins again, for materials to make a croissant costume. But there is no telling if she might change her mind yet again.

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