Book Talk

‘Writing has got me through some tough times’

‘Dikeogu Chukwumerije is a celebrated performance poet and a debut novelist with his Urichindere, a funny and chatty novel of an adolescent’s boarding school experiences, garnering some acclaim. I had the pleasure of interviewing him about his works,  his poetry, prose and Taekwondo, among other things.
Dike Chukwumerije in his element

Dike Chukwumerije in his element

So, Dike, you are a performance poet, a novelist and an essayist. What sort of writing don’t you do?
Please, forgive my colloquialism, but the only way I can laugh in writing is with the letters, ‘lol’. So, lol. I don’t write dramas.

Your reputation as a poet is immense and having seen you perform on several occasions, I must say it is deservedly so. Where did this passion for performance poetry come from?
Thank you, Abubakar. Performance Poetry is something I stumbled across. I was invited to a literary event once, about 7 years ago, and I saw people ‘performing’ poetry. It made a deep impression on me. There’s something gripping about someone looking you in the eye and making sense. So, one day, I decided to put the sheet of paper aside and recite my poetry from memory. And it felt like something I had done all my life. A feeling like that is always a good sign that you’ve just discovered something you were born to do.

What did it feel like winning your first poetry slam championship?
I won’t lie to you, it felt really good. It must have been 2010 or 2011. And it was my first poetry slam ever. So, you can imagine how happy I was. There were three rounds. I was the last to perform in the last round. I remember finishing my performance and people were jumping out of their seats and rushing forward to embrace me, people I had never met before. It was a really nice feeling, and just goes to show the power of words.

You are still young, but yet you are an inspiration to so many other young people.
My brother, Che, and his friend, Onesi Dominic, inspired me when I was a child to write. I’m forever grateful to them because they helped me find something that has given me wings. If I can do that for someone else it would be a real blessing.
Who is your inspiration as a performance poet?
I like the way Maya Angelou reads her poetry. I know she’s not really a performance poet as such, but I love the way her voice gives meaning and life to words. Nearer home, I like listening to people like Reward Enakerakpor, Michael Ogah, Ifueko Ogbomo, Simon Abiodun, and so many others. I’m also inspired by really good public speakers – people that know how to hold an audience with what they are saying and how they are saying it.

The increased popularity of performance poetry seems to counter the claims that poetry is a dead art. To what extent would you say this is true?
Poetry? Dead? For the sake of your readers, because I know you know this all too well, let me say this – Nigerian Poetry is alive and well. It’s flourishing on Facebook, on blogsites, in countless literary groups up and down the country. Performance poetry is bring poetry out of dust-covered textbooks and into the mouths of today’s children; it’s de-mystifying Shakesperean metaphors and dressing them up in the imagery that we can connect with and be inspired by; it’s allowing an entire generation of people to find expression and engage with their world; it’s definitely giving Literature a new, and needed, lease of life.

Having talked about being young, let’s talk about your novel Urichindere, which is the story of a boy navigating the minefield that is boarding school and adolescence. It is also your first novel. How much of it is biographical?
Is it possible for anything anyone writes not to be biographical at some level? I can already see you rolling your eyes. I know – that is the standard answer to this question! But I’ve heard you use it yourself so, please, allow me. I will be honest. I don’t know if ‘biographical’ is the right word, because many of the things that happen to Urichindere are fictional, but to make him real I had to lend him a lot of my own emotions. And experiences. And these emotions and experiences are familiar to a lot of people, because they are so commonplace. So, yes, Urichindere is ‘biographical’, but the biography is that of my generation, much more than mine, personally.

How many boarding schools did you attend?
(Laughs.) I was a boarder throughout secondary school. So, yes, I am completely familiar with that world. I only attended one secondary school though (King’s College, Lagos).

What was the motivation for writing this novel?
Novels like ‘The Bottled Leopard’ by Chukwuemeka Ike. I’ve always found accounts of the schooling experience of our fathers fascinating. And I thought it was important to document the secondary school experience of my generation for posterity. The book also deals with the traumatic political events of the 1990s. And the dynamics of growing up; which can be just as traumatic. These are issues I’ve always wanted to tackle as a writer. All in all, I wanted to write a funny, but meaningful, Nigerian novel, something any Nigerian could pick up and get into. They say Nigerians don’t read; I wrote Urichindere to prove them (whoever ‘they’ are) wrong.

Indeed. Perhaps that’s why reading Urichindere brings to mind the works of literary greats like Mark Twain, RL Stevenson and even our own Onuora Nzekwu of Eze Goes to School fame and Cyprian Ekwensi’s Juju Rock. Apart from Ike were you influenced by any of these other writers or their style of writing?
Honestly, no. At least, not consciously. But I read these books growing up and like I said earlier, they left a lingering desire to capture the teenage escapades of my own generation. But works like the ones you mentioned certainly suggested many of the dominant themes in Urichindere. The writing style came naturally. You’re a writer yourself so I know you understand. Many times, stories choose the way they want to be written. And that was what happened in this case.

They do indeed. Any plans for a sequel to Urichindere, should we be looking forward to it?
I would like to write something that engages with my University experience. There’s so much material there! But I don’t think it would be written in the same style as Urichindere.

I suppose I should ask, for the benefit of our readers, why such an unusual title for a novel and what does it really mean?
I have an obsession for African names. Urichindere is a slightly corrupted version of the more well known Igbo name, Chidera. It means – You can’t escape your destiny.
Your family is famous for its affiliation with Taekwondo, among other things, and I know you have a black belt in the sport.  Any plans to go professional?
Ah, Abubakar, I can see that you don’t like me at all! Professional? Two of my brothers do the thing professionally and whenever they are fighting I sit down in my room and ask my wife to relay the scores to me. So, no, that is definitely not in my future! Seriously, though, martial arts is a part of me, and will always be. But I’m happy doing it for personal fitness and self-defence purposes only.
Let’s hope you don’t have to unleash those skills on some one. You have won many slam championships and now you are a published novelist. Are we likely to see you doing more prose or is poetry still in the main thing for you?
Both genres have always been equally important to me. It just happened that poetry brought me my first slim slice of publicity. I intend to keep writing in both genres for the forseeable future.

And I suppose every writer has to overcome some challenges to get anywhere. What have been your biggest obstacles in you becoming a writer?
Finding my voice. Writing in this country is also difficult because, as with all the other creative arts, Nigeria doesn’t really make it easy to make a living from it. But then – what would this life be without challenges?

How really important is writing to you?
Writing has gotten me through some of the toughest times in my life. And it still does. Let me put it this way, even if I knew no one would ever read me, I would still write.

First published in Sunday Trust, 18 August 2013

Thoughts on Things

We Do Not Know Their Names

The first I heard of it was from the BBC website. Twenty-nine, they said. Twenty nine school children had been killed in a dawn raid in Mamudo village somewhere in Yobe State. Twenty-nine and one school teacher. I had just returned to my hotel room from a long day of engagements at the British Library and a very late dinner and was eager for some news from home. And that was what I found. I sat before my laptop and fought back the tinge of tears in my eyes as an invisible desperate hand yanked my heart homewards.

I shut down the laptop and spent the night drifting, in my thoughts, in my aimless motions, held in place only by the weight of my heart. It occurred to me then that there are challenges to mourning home away from home. It is worse when you are in a place where things work and are mourning a country where nothing does. It is occasioned by the helplessness you feel because you are faraway from it all and this helplessness takes an even deeper shade when you realise there is nothing you could have done even if you had been at home. Absolutely nothing.

The next time I checked the news, the casualty figure had escalated to 42. The students were roused from their beds by gunmen who stormed their boarding school. The gunmen rounded them up and threw grenades into their midst, blowing them and their dreams to bits and shooting down anything else that moved. School children. All young. Their crime? They dreamed, they coveted knowledge, they went to school because they wanted to improve their chances in life, they wanted to improve lives in their own small ways. They wanted perhaps to improve their country somehow by being better educated citizens. But where, I am tempted to ask, was their country when they needed her the most?

I was shocked and numbed. And that has to be news in a clime were being shocked and numbed by such quotidian atrocities has become the norm. Perhaps because I was away from it all when it happened, I did not see the habitual social media angst that had characterised our recent agitations against injustices, against bumbling idiots who torment us with bad governance and make away, quite brazenly, with public funds, against laws that are socially retrogressive such as our overpaid lawmakers are fond of making.

When I got back, the tragedy in Mamudo had escaped, by and large, from our social reality into the convenient place of forgetting; that alcove were we tuck away the sad realities of our existence, were we put away those things that we tire of talking about without any change coming out if it. That was helped, I suppose, by the fact that half-away across the world, George Zimmerman had been acquitted for the murder of Trayvon Martin.

Now Trayvon Martin: that is a name with a face to it, that boy in a hoodie who certainly did not deserve what Mr. Zimmerman did to him. We raved and ranted, as usual on social media, we shook our fists at the Americans and the system that allowed a murderer escape with a heinous crime—we still do in fact. But of the 42 children of Mamudo, we only sighed and shrugged and moved on to the next trending news. We don’t have their faces staring back at us from newspaper pages demanding justice, not one single image to make our DP or Profile Picture. We don’t know their names. Not many of us even remember the name Mamudo, where this terrible thing happened. Some just remember the figure, 42. That is all those ornate dreams and gilded ambitions nurtured for years by those children and their parents have been reduced to. A number that will soon blur in the midst of other numbers.

The usual inane rhetoric followed. President Goodluck Jonathan, tired of making the same statement over and over again, sent his mouthpiece Rueben Abati to “condemn” the crime. But there is no talk of justice for the massacred. No arrest has been made of the perpetrators, those people who deserve to be hounded relentlessly by the apparatus of the law and made to face the severest punishment the law provides for such unspeakable crimes.

There are no flowers for the 42, no memorial, no monument to tell future generations that once there were children who dared to dream and died for it, to remind us that something like this happened, gruesome as it is, there is no record of their names, in the papers, online, no record of their parents who are grieving, no record of what their dreams were, what they wanted to do with their lives.

Is it even valid to ask if being overexposed to such violence on TV and social media, and in our realities hasn’t caught up with us? For how else can we explain this apathy for the atrocities that we are being forced to endure daily, these series of unspeakable murders and barbarity, one coming too quickly on the heels of another? Are we growing numb to our own pains and turning instead to share in those of people elsewhere, to places where when you talk, someone listens, where attempts are made, even if unsuccessful, to bring the Zimmermans of this world to justice while the Shekaus of this other world gloat at such atrocious massacres and dare to vindicate it in the name of God?

The media here seem to have tired of such news. Or are they just too lazy, too sloppy to put names to this numbers, to put faces to these names, to humanise these students blown to bits by animals in human form? Are we, the journalists, too preoccupied with the pursuit of the little demeaning brown envelopes, running after politicians for meaningless interviews and feed off the crumbs they throw at us to make them look good in the public eye? Or is it too disturbing to put names to this figures or are we just comfortable with random numbers. “40 killed in Kano Bombings!” “32 Killed in Borno”, “FG Condemns killings of 42 students!” Numbers. Just numbers.

It hasn’t been a pleasant few months for children in the world. You read about men like Spaniard Daniel Galvan who was convicted of raping 11 Moroccan children, all between the age of four and 15 and the King of Morocco thinks that crime is pardonable and sends off Galvan to his native Spain to lounge by the poolside and sip his martinis while those little girls nurse their physical and emotional scars and their parents wave angry fists in the air. I will not pretend to be civil about such things. If I were the King of Morocco, I know who my first eunuch will be. Male animals like Galvan don’t deserve the balls they carry, wallahi.

And you think of those poor children of India, 23 of them wasted because they were hungry, because they wanted to eat up and go back to classes, because they wanted to improve their lot and you ask yourself: what if one of them had been your child? What if one of them had been you when you were their age?

I grieve for the children of the world; those who wander the streets scrounging for a living, those who are fed poisons because some people want to cut corners, those who are cut down in violent orgies because they dream. I grieve for those children whose names we do not know, and may never know. Whose killers may never face justice for stealing the innumerable scented dreams these children nursed.

Rest in peace, children of the absent country.