Few book reviewers have captivated the attention of writers and book lovers like Ikhide R. Ikheloa who used to write for the now rested Next Newspaper from his base in the US has done. He is a way cooler person in real life than his online persona. In this interview I had with him (first published in Sunday Trust newspaper, January 12, 2014) he talked about harsh responses to some of his reviews, why he lives on the Internet and his thoughts about writing and literature on the continent. It’s vintage Ikhide!
You have always denied that you are a critic, yet by omission or by design, you are now one of the most influential book reviewers around. How did this happen?
I do find it amusing, a bit exasperating that people mostly see me as a literary critic. I write non-stop and have been published in books, journals and in every space that harbours words. My nightmare is coming to fruition – that my epitaph will describe me as that man who had opinions of other people’s works. I am not a literary critic in the academic sense; I simply read books and offer my mostly unsolicited opinions about what I have read. I am not so much influential as I seem to be everywhere using social media and my blog to give an urgency and immediacy to my anxieties. Hardly a day passes by when I don’t have something to say on Twitter or Facebook. I think of something and I say it. I must say, every now and then I go back to read my tweets and Facebook rants, many are quite simply silly and cringe-worthy. Maybe that is why I am “influential”, you know, “that grumpy old man that always has something to say.” I am not old.
Let’s just pretend you are not and leave it there. You have often said people take you a lot more seriously than you take yourself. How is this so?
It is a personal observation, an amusing one also, about how disconnected I feel from how people perceive me. My opinions seem to have an effect on people beyond how I ever imagined they would. One gets the sense that these are visceral emotions that my views evoke that span a wide spectrum of extremes, giddiness (at say a positive review) to extreme loathing. My sense is that a few writers have strained hard not to cause me bodily harm whenever I am in their presence. I find it amusing really, and those who follow me on social media know that I joke around about it. Here is a recent piece where I published verbatim some writer’s violent feedback upon receiving my review of his book. He called me a conceited ignoramus. I am not conceited.
Regardless of this, does it surprise you how much you are liked by writers and book lovers despite your provocative reviews?
Yes. I am not the easiest person to be with. I imagine you writers and book lovers are sadomasochistic, revelling in unnecessary pain. After all to hear some of my rabid critics describe me, I am an obnoxious, patronizing, condescending, judgmental jerk of a headmaster, an all knowing wanna-be reviewer out with a red pen, looking for gotcha errors. Seriously, I am probably the most playful of a group of reader-writers that thrive on instant feedback with an audience, revelling in the call and response that the Internet offers. I am thinking of folks like Chika Unigwe, Obiwu, Victor Ehikhamenor, Pius Adesanmi, Okey Ndibe, Lola Shoneyin, Chuma Nwokolo, Molara Wood, etc. etc. folks who are sold on a vision of the Internet spreading the word seamlessly in song.
But of course you have had caustic reactions from some writers because of your reviews, such as the one mentioned earlier. One incident that readily comes to mind is the exchange between you and Chioma Okereke when you reviewed her novel Bitter Leaf. How do such exchanges affect you, do they make you want to just stop writing reviews?
Overall, I have been treated very well, but I continue to have caustic relations with some writers. I find the reactions to my opinions amusing and every now and then I write a self-deprecatory piece about it (Ikhide the Terrible (Book critic)). As I often say, no one lives rent-free in my head. I say my stuff and let people knock their heads on trees of steel. I do love Chioma Okereke’s mind, she reminds me so much of Taiye Selasi. Bitter Leaf was brainy and different, just like Selasi’s Ghana Must Go. In the end, I just didn’t think the book was a successful outing. Okereke was unhappy about my comments and she let me have it. I understand her position, anyone that criticizes my child is in for war, a book is like a child. I doubt that I will ever stop writing reviews simply because someone yelled or glowered at me. I haven’t in terms of reviews lately because I have been preoccupied with treating my space on social media as an open book, with folks reading it – for free. I have also been busy with my own work. As you know, I do a lot of creative non-fiction. I will be back to offering my unsolicited opinions about writers and their works. Soon.
Have you ever felt, in retrospect now, that perhaps you have been too harsh in some of your reviews, for instance, your piece on Akachi Ezeigbo’s Roses and Bullets readily comes to mind in this instance?
No. The feeling is not mutual, the targeted writers would say. I understand.
You had a wonderful time at the Ake Arts and Book Festival recently. But beyond the fun and famzing, what was the most important thing you took away from the festival?
The most important thing I took away from the festival? Yes. I got a free SIM card for my phone, that was just awesome. Beyond that, outside of the Internet, the Ake Arts and Book Festival (AABF) was the most comprehensive and important gathering of African writers and patrons to be held on African soil in contemporary times. We were all in this space, in this village, there was not much else to do but to talk to each other. We did a lot and created lasting networks and friendships. The gathering confirmed for me the power of the Internet in harnessing all our resources for the greater good of our stories. I came away from that meeting pumped up and excited about the possibilities out there.
You have, by and large, been credited with the evolution of the term “poverty porn” in literature. To what extent do you take responsibility for this and seeing that the term has been at the centre of recent debates on literature from the continent, do you mind sharing your thoughts on it?
“Here lies Ikhide R. Ikheloa. He discovered poverty porn.” My epitaph. I don’t think so. Before me, many people, most notably Binyavanga Wainaina and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie had become disenchanted with the single story that was turning the label ”Africa” into a pejorative of sorts. Adichie has her seminal video, The Power of a Single Story, Wainaina has his epic How to Write About Africa. Much of the angst was directed at Western journalists and writers who tended to see Africa as the continent of disease, poverty and mayhem. I sought to interrogate that analysis by insisting that African writers needed to own their share of responsibility in churning out stories that spoke only to what the West wanted to read. This I attempted with a series of essays: The 2011 Caine Prize: How Not to Write about Africa, The Caine Prize and Unintended Consequences, In Search of the African Writer, and Of African Writers and their Uncles. At the time, I was troubled by what I saw as a narrowness of range and lack of depth to the stories. I felt that these single stories now known as poverty porn were defining us in the most perverse of ways, and worse still, our writers were not taking responsibility for how the West viewed our continent. I do see hope, the Internet now allows us to read literature beyond just books. Many African writers are using the Internet as the publisher of choice and really celebrating and documenting the sum total of our existence. I spend infinitely more time on the Internet than on books. Our stories are there as well as in the books. And the West is beginning to take note. My point? You cannot define Africa simply by what many of our writers put on paper. Read the Internet. I am happy.
Is there African literature? I ask this because of Taiye Selasie’s recent pronouncements that the term should not exist because there is no body of literature known as European literature and knowing how taken you are by her and her work, I thought it would be interesting to know your thoughts on this.
Yes. There is African literature. So what? I admire Taiye Selasi. She is in my view a courageous and forthright thinker. Many people that I respect have very principled and well-thought out views in opposition to her world view, sadly they are in the minority. For the most part, her views are opposed by a tribe of lazy people who are united by the appalling fact that they are yet to read a single sentence she has written. I am a fair man; I am offering people a chance to read her starting with her seminal essay, Bye-Bye Barbar. People should read past the title of her essay, African Literature Doesn’t Exist before killing trees in reams of hyperventilation. Her arguments are more nuanced and complex than the latter-day opponents are willing to admit. We really owe her a debt of gratitude, she is saying what ought to be obvious, in the 21st century, look beyond mere physical boundaries and think of the infinite possibilities before you. May her tribe increase. Maybe with her type, we might end up getting to the moon unassisted. She thinks out of the poverty porn box that many African writers have put themselves in. It is not her problem. And yes, I love Taiye Selasi. Please watch this fun video clip of Taiye Selasi holding forth on being an Afropolitan, on identity, the writing process, etc. and tell me why you would not be taken by her. Your body na stone? She is impressive. Period. And please, do not die until you have read her book, Ghana Must Go. That would be so wrong.
At Ake, you moderated a panel on new Nigerian writing where you were doing all the asking. Now since we are free from that panel and the tables have turned, what are your thoughts on new Nigerian writing?
In one word: Wow. Yep, wow! I love what this generation is doing with social media, blogs and so on. I am hoping that history will be kind to this generation, it is easily the most innovative generation when it comes to writing. When you adjust for the child abuse that passes for public education in Nigeria, add a buffoonish government, many contemporary Nigerian writers are certified geniuses – and lunatics. I think it is the height of injustice to judge Nigerian writing based on books, no, this generation is bigger than that. I stay on Twitter and Facebook and on those blogs and literary journals reading you guys non-stop. I would start mentioning names, but I would omit some and that would upset me, but to be in Abeokuta with all these writers I’d only met on the Internet, kai, it was like I died and went to literary heaven. So, yes, there is a quiet revolution going on with respect to the literature of Nigeria. We are talking of an era that spans generations. We are seeing technology forcibly rewriting how we see our world. This is not to say all is rosy, the Internet has surely democratized the reading and writing culture, it has also introduced dysfunctions. There is a lot of literary noise and it takes patience and a certain skill to navigate the noise. We need good editors, we need a robust publishing industry and I worry that there is too much focus on winning prizes.
I suppose the internet is very important to you since it has helped you stay in touch and engage in real time with developments in your country. What would your life be like without internet for a week?
A week without the Internet? I would be dead, I would not last a week. The Internet is oxygen. Without it there is no life. Next question please.
Ok. You have always advocated that ebooks are the future. How soon do you think the apocalypse will come for books in the traditional sense?
The (hard copy) book as the primary medium of the written word is dead. No, let me be generous, it is dying a long slow death. Anyone who thinks otherwise is in great denial. Ideas live as I often remind folks, the medium changes. It is not open to debate; it is the hard cold truth. If you don’t believe me, keep writing books that no one reads.
Not many people know that you are actually a biochemist by training. How exactly did you become a book buff?
The question should be, “How exactly did you come to study biochemistry?” It is a long story, but I survived it. I have always read, it was what you did as a child, there was not much else to do. These days, it is more challenging; the book is competing rather poorly with other forms of media and entertainment. I studied Biochemistry because my father wanted me to become a medical doctor. Many people should be grateful that I did not end up being a doctor, I could have hurt them. I was not wired to be a doctor. I don’t regret the path I took, I ended up being a generalist of sorts, I have a regular job that pays the bills and gives me the independence to sound off on any and everything. It could be worse, Abubakar, hell, I could be a dreamy-eyed destitute writer like you, hoping to win the Nobel Prize each year. Instead, I live a life of lush mediocrity and whenever I am bored, I say something that is bound to infuriate some destitute dreamy-eyed African writer somewhere. It is a great life.
And there are many of us, aren’t there, destitute dreamy-eyed writers whose books you have to read? And I know it takes a lot to read all these books and engage in all these endless debates and write your opinion. How do you find the energy for it?
I am a driven person. I am driven to read and to write, by what I think is a mysterious force, let’s call it the god of lunacy. I also have an incredibly forgiving family, pretty forgiving of the fact that my head is in the clouds most of the time. I find time. I am not a physical person, I live pretty much in my head and I find time to express what is in my head. It is no big deal for me to start writing on my smartphone at my son’s football game. I am there. He is happy. I am writing. I am happy. It is a win-win situation for everybody.
You have said severally that you were seduced to go to America by a photo of a friend posing by a grand car, which you later discovered was never his. There is a lot of writing now about the immigrant experience, do you mind sharing some of your experiences with us?
(Laughs) Actually, if you view my Twitter and Facebook accounts as open books, then you would agree that almost daily I share the sum total of my experience on their pages for the reading pleasure of many. In addition, I have shared my experiences over and over again on my blog, in literary journals. Here are a few samples: I love: Our America, Lost in America – Coming to America, Life in America: Cow Foot by Candle Light, Notes from my Middle Passage, For Fearless Fang: A Boy and his Pets, and Life in America: Cowfoot nor be cornbeef. Shameless self-promotion: The easiest thing to do is to simply join my Facebook page and follow me on Twitter (@ikhide).