- ‘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.
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