Author of ‘Creating Africa’ and ‘The Prophetic Vision of Chinua Achebe’, Boluwatife Akinro, considers writing, ‘a work of care and hope.’ It is important, she explains, ‘to study the world, to see what is amiss and document what has survived.’
Our questions are italicized.
What books or kinds of books did you read growing up?
Of the many joys that reading lent my childhood, time spent at the National Library in Akure deserves honourable mention. My siblings and I found excitement in many things: television, picking mangoes our father plucked from the trees in our yard in March, feeding fish in the time we owned a pond, making pencil illustrations of our favourite animated characters. When we were not fisher(wo)men and miniature farmers, however, we passed considerable time burrowing through collections in the library right across the street. There was no short supply of literature texts in our home, from the Oxford Classics my parents read in grammar school to books from the Pacesetters series. Dog-eared copies of Agatha Christie, Hadley Chase and John Grisham got passed around quite easily then.
The range of Kola Onadipe’s works were necessary reads for children who grew up in Nigeria, I think. There was Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Ama Ata Aidoo, the series, Uncle Arthur’s Bedtime Stories, and a fondness for Daniel Dafoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Mum also found for me a copy of Batman’s Adventures at a used-books store once. These were the kinds of gifts we received. I have to mention, of course, prescribed texts from school by authors like Zaynab Alkali, Eddie Iroh and Isidore Okpewho—whose The Last Duty was the first fictionalization of the Civil War I read.
There was Ìjàpá Tìrókò by Ọlágòkè Òjó and other texts like it without which I would not have learned to read and write Yoruba. I would not read a lot of contemporary fiction, Nigerian or foreign, until I was much older. One popular bookstore, Arowolo Bookshop, sold foreign books that were not school prescriptions, but they were mostly Harlequin and Mills and Boon romances, which I read for a while before some traveling preacher convinced us that they filled our brains with toxins and shortened our concentration span. There was a book burning at school and that was that.
My siblings and I loved adventures and often made our own, and in a small town like Akure, where everything seemed to stand perpetually still, books were, most times, the only way to leave. By virtue of where we lived, we often felt like observers and never participants in world processes, so we read to familiarize ourselves with the world in preparation for when our time would come.
Which books from your childhood would you pass on to someone younger?
My memory is fuzzy on this, but I recall that I loved Zaynab Alkali’s The Virtuous Woman as a child, but least of all for the idea of femininity it propagates. Besides it being a channel to view the North of Nigeria, a region that is still greatly mystified in the southern imaginary, I was captivated by Alkali’s depiction of the familial love and tenderness the heroine, Nana Ai, shared with her grandfather and friends. Stories of fellowship and camaraderie, especially with older Nigerians, and in a way not filtered through their sternness and sacrifice, are rare in our literature, unfortunately.
The Virtuous Woman was also a story about disability, about growing up in an inaccessible society where the disabled are perpetually othered. Perhaps most of all, I enjoyed the book’s presentation of girlhood and playfulness before the transition to womanhood. One sees the way the former, girlhood, is quenched in our society’s project to transform it into womanhood, through the performance of culturally constructed and socially acceptable interpretations of virtue.
What’s the last book/article you disagreed with, and why?
I would not say ‘disagreed with’, but I have set aside Teju Cole’s Known and Strange Things for now, and I do not think I can yet articulately say why. Cole’s text pulses with an awareness of the unruly ordering of the world as it moves through all those different spaces. Cole is in occupied Palestine, Obama’s America, Ebola-affected Africa; a griot. I like a lack of surety when I read, an awareness of unsettledness, but it felt to me that most of the book’s exploration was held back, like words close to the tip of the tongue but unuttered. There seemed to be a restraint against putting a name to underlying structures behind the disorderliness of the world, or, in truth, its orderliness, in the sense that the state of the world is deliberately and strategically planned to disenfranchise some even as it empowers others. Restraint, I think, is costly. I could not abide Cole’s gushing admiration for Naipaul, and I do not think the ‘tact’ he was praised for in handling the situation is admirable.
Dining with powerful strangers, stakeholders in the world’s arrangement, strangers to whom the world, your world, is easily available, should make one apprehensive. This apprehension is neither cowardice nor self-deprecation. In fact, it is a healthy kind, one of self and world knowledge, of an ordering of the world that we should not be accustomed to; one that pricks you and reminds you there’s still work to be done. I thought Known and Strange Things was too comfortable dining with strangers. A quote from Cole’s essay on Kofi Awoonor’s death comes to mind: ‘An ancient poet from my tradition said, ‘I have something to say. I will say it before death comes. And if I don’t say it, let no one say it for me. I will be the one who will say it.’ I wonder(ed) what Known and Strange Things wanted to say. Some friends would disagree, though, so, who knows?
Dining with powerful strangers, stakeholders in the world’s arrangement, strangers to whom the world, your world, is easily available, should make one apprehensive. This apprehension is neither cowardice nor self-deprecation.
What’s the last book that changed your mind about something?
I think we should all read Keguro Macharia’s ‘black (beyond negation)’ published in The New Inquiry. As a people from whom so much has been taken away, the idea of black excellence is not just a goal, it has become an organizing principle around which black people strive in a bid to prove that ‘we can do it, too’. So much of black scholarship, our production and our living, is dedicated to disproving, to dismantling, to deconstructing colonial archives and the anthropological gaze. Time is spent trying to situate ourselves within canons that were founded on black negation, founding ‘the black intellectual’ to ‘speak back to the centre’.
Macharia asks what our attachment to ‘the fabulous, the spectacular, the theoretically interesting has made invisible about the quotidian we inhabit and practice.’ Our devotion to the black extraordinary inevitably, even if unconsciously, casts disdain unto the black mediocre, the black ordinary. Oppression and ‘the brief glimpses of black agency’, become the dominant frames with which black life is to be imagined. The text asks a solemn question: outside the canon and the archives, the race to become and belong, stripped bare of the white man’s clothing, ‘How are we known to ourselves and to each other?’ This is what Macharia thinks care entails; it ‘lingers at the ordinary’ and it is what I think should be our concern as a people in relation to the world.
What three books should everyone be reading at this moment?
First, Saidiya Hartman’s Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route. It was published in 2006, so not a very new book, but it could help broaden our understanding of the complexities of our black diasporic relations. The text sufficiently disabuses us of our illusions of ‘Mother Africa’ and her attending symbolisms of freedom and liberation. This is very relevant in our world of transnational encounters, slavery tourism to African slave ports and ‘doors of no return’ and so on; where it seems increasingly so that these tropes are drawn on by well-meaning, albeit misguided, individuals in music, film and lifestyle in search of a ‘home’ that is not there anymore and probably never existed in the first place. It also complicates our understanding as Africans of our responsibility and complicity in the Transatlantic Slave Trade in a way that our postcolonial literature has avoided.
The second book is Arundhati Roy and John Cusack’s Things that Can and Cannot be Said: Essays and Conversations. It is a little book that can be taken as a handbook of sorts. It is structured as personal conversations between friends that one is privy to, and it can serve as an introduction to the regime of international politics under which we are all subjects. It tackles issues like democracy and its contradictions, the myth of the ‘Free Market’, and the insidiousness of charity and philanthropy as a political tool.
The third would be Graham Huggan’s The Postcolonial Exotic, which tackles the pervasiveness of spectacle-making and the exoticism that postcolonial peoples’ cultural products cannot seem to escape. While I am currently reading Akin Adesokan’s New African Writing and the Question of Audience, which poses salient objections to some ideas in Huggan’s text, I still think The Postcolonial Exotic is an important read for both producers and consumers of African material culture to help us consciously and purposely interact with and within the global, largely Western-controlled marketplace.
What’s your writing process: edit as you write or draft first, then edit?
Both, I’d say. I’m rather obsessive and am likely to change my mind with the reception of new information. I live with a perpetual dissatisfaction so that I never think a work is quite done, even when it is. More than the obsessiveness, though, I believe in intentionality in writing. A lot of my work is in the field of cultural studies and I am often writing about people and current affairs and critical analyses involving the two. As such, I cannot afford to be unintentional or thoughtless. I think writing is a work of care and hope. It is something important to study the world, to see what is amiss and document what has survived. This is, many times, the only way to reclaim what has been lost and, perhaps, envision what could yet be. It is a huge responsibility to oneself and the audience.
What was your process for writing ‘The Prophetic Vision of Chinua Achebe’?
My co-author, Joshua Segun-Lean, once said to me that it is imperative to perceive blackness not as a position already in crisis. Knowing this, Chinua Achebe spent his body of work trying to dislodge the naturalization of blackness as existential peril. What we did was try, through a perusal of Achebe’s essays, to illuminate the technologies that construct(ed) it so, as we wrote: ‘the colonial mastery of the language-power-dynamic’. Publishing-wise, accessibility is important to Joshua and I, and I always want to publish my writing close to home because it is where my heart is and where I care about. The Republic has given us that opportunity, and repeatedly too.
The writing itself was a bit of a tedious process as Joshua and I currently live on different continents, so after deciding what the goal of the essay was, we split the themes we wanted to explore between each other and merged our write-ups when they were done. We went back and forth editing a few times, there were a few phone calls at odd hours, before we decided we had something worth tendering. Editing the piece actually reached a head near Christmas 2019 and, even though I grumbled at having to work on vacation, I am grateful for the editorial guidance of Wale Lawal and the team who trimmed the work and made sure it was publication-ready. The project was a rewarding one. Joshua is a fascinating writer and thinker and Achebe’s critical works, which I think are understudied compared to his fiction, are a great treasure.
So much of black scholarship, our production and our living, is dedicated to disproving, to dismantling, to deconstructing colonial archives and the anthropological gaze.
What is the most meaningful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
Be open to criticism. It is so easy to mistake criticism of one’s work for criticism of oneself. Sometimes it is criticism of oneself, especially if the values the work propagates are unethical; but many times, criticism is an attempt to fill in the gaps in one’s work, and, perhaps, worldview. I have gotten the best advice and motivation to do better work from objectively engaging with criticism about my writing. It smarts, sure, but it also makes you and your work sharper and more attentive to the world.
Who is an author you wish you had discovered earlier?
This is a hard question as there are so many writers I wish I had encountered earlier. I remember the first time I read what bell hooks wrote about homemaking; how for the black woman in a racially segregated US, creating a homeplace for oneself in a society that perpetually cast her as an outsider was a radical act. Home making, childhood making, rest, all the things you would take for granted were acts of revolution in a place that denies you belonging.
Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyèwùmí also comes to mind, with her explanation of the cultural origins of the Àjẹ́ and what she terms a mistranslation of its gender-specificity. I was stunned by the simplicity and yet complexity of the notion. I was upset about all the time that had passed before this knowledge came to me. At university, we were taught gender studies—through Simone de Beauvoir and Judith Butler—as an afterthought. There was no referencing of the work by African writers in the field. The tutor smirked as he talked about queer theory and sex work. I’m forever thankful to those who took the work seriously. I was a child who loved the library, but these critical texts were simply not there, and they should have been. I am, however, grateful for the first-hand lessons in the obligations of care and justice we owe to one another that my background afforded me. This is the most important knowledge, I think, and it enables me to properly interpret a lot of the theoretical frameworks newly available to me, from Stuart Hall to Pierre Bourdieu to Roland Barthes.
What’s one book everyone should read before leaving university?
Since I have been writing about books for a while now, I would like to discuss a pedagogical practice that was lacking in my studies, especially as I was in the humanities: an appreciation for popular culture. We are inundated with dozens of canonical texts, fiction and non-fiction—from Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa to Soyinka’s The Interpreters to J P Clark’s poetry. These are important texts, but I fear their culmination made for a rather rigid and unaccommodating academic experience.
There is a running joke among my classmates from my days in university about a colleague who wanted to write his bachelor’s thesis on the music of Burna Boy. This was in 2014 before Burna Boy ‘went international’. Our professor thought it was silly and we teased and called him Burna Boy—to be fair, he had a weird obsession with the musician—but, evidently, this colleague was on to something. Today, we joke that he could have been Nigeria’s foremost authority on Burna Boy’s music, but this is a symptom of a much deeper malaise.
The failure of our archives is the failure of our education. I see no reason to not study the proliferation of Nigerian Highlife music alongside the aftermath of our First Republic. Or transnationalism and the music of Christy Essien-Igbokwe, or feminism in the music of Shina Peters before they are incorporated into some canon or other through Western acceptance, especially when all these artefacts of popular culture coincide with such formative moments in our national memory.
For a country with as many varied forms of self and communal expression as Nigeria, we are too invested in the dichotomy of high and low culture, where Soyinka is Canon and worthy of the classroom and Naira Marley is meant for the ‘streets’; but where it leaves us is unresponsive to the society around us, and isn’t that the purpose of education? It is so refreshing to see magazine and blog coverage investigating popular cultural production as a response to our times. As Stuart Hall notes, popular culture is a site of struggle, the arena in which we negotiate consent and resistance in hegemonic systems.
For a country with as many varied forms of self and communal expression as Nigeria, we are too invested in the dichotomy of high and low culture, where Soyinka is Canon and worthy of the classroom and Naira Marley is meant for the ‘streets’…
What is your favourite topic to write or read about these days?
I am very interested in African philosophies and forms of knowledge and because I have no formal training in this, I will often take time to study works of writers in this field. I currently have Prof. Sophie Bọ́sẹ̀dé Olúwọlé’s Socrates and Ọ̀rúnmìlà: Two Patron Saints of Classical Philosophy on my shelf and plan to get through it soon. A fascinating essay I recently read was Francis Nyamnjoh’s keynote address at the 2019 Digital Humanities Conference at Utrecht University entitled ‘ICT as Juju: African Inspiration for Understanding the Compositeness of Being Human through Digital Technologies.’ In it, Nyamnjoh argues that West and Central Africans had always realized the incompleteness and compositeness of humans and therefore attempted to extend their human capabilities through all sorts of magical and supernatural interventions—what is called Juju. This augmentation of the human self was done with acknowledgement of one’s ‘indebtedness to the others- human, nature and the supernatural’. What this made for was the acceptance of a world where fluidity, open-endedness and interdependence was the norm rather than the unusual.
Nyamnjoh illustrates the detriment to not embracing our incompleteness with Amos Tutuola’s tale of the Complete Gentleman in The Palm Wine Drinkard whose state of perfection was his appeal to his bride to her subsequent disappointment. An unexpected twist is his relation of ICT to Juju: if ICT is essentially a means to communicate, socialize and exist beyond our bodily capacity, to achieve extraordinary feats in the sense of the ordinary as the limits of our basic motor functions, why does Juju stand in binary opposition to it? Perhaps there are ways to incorporate Juju’s embrace of human incompleteness, accessibility and our necessary interdependence on other forces in the universe into the pursuit of perfection and completeness that ICT essentially is. Nyamnjoh’s work pertains to work in the Digital Humanities, but it is equally applicable to other fields and everyday activities, especially in our age of increased surveillance technologies, space exploration and what not. As he writes, ‘the fact that completeness is an illusion that can only unleash sterile ambitions of conquest and zero-sum games of superiority is an invitation to explore, contemplate and provide for a world of open-endedness, interconnections…; a world in which no one has the monopoly of power or powerlessness, a world in which humans and things complement each other and double as one another’.
What should we expect you to write about next?
I am interested in representation and power, how these are presented in images; what we see, how we see it and how it potentially reorients our world. I have written before about Nollywood and its preoccupation with respectability, but I think there is still something to say about the recent charade of revolution that seems to have taken over our mainstream film production, which I think is stifling. Too often, revolution is misconstrued as newness, a breaking from what is past, or at least, an aestheticization of it. Unfortunately for Nigeria, though, what we think belongs to the past, the unsavoury beginnings, are tied up with Western ideas of modernity. If there’s anything we’ve learnt from history, however, it’s that the modernity project is cruel and violent and unforgiving to those it considers non-conforming.
Nollywood, I think, suffers from a lack of imagination, and while it is a huge factor, I do not think insufficient economic capital is the real culprit here. The problem stems from the lack of meaningful engagement with radical traditions and precedents in filmmaking, both from African and non-African antecedents. The contrived plots, the repetitive themes, the inattentiveness to class relations and its implications in the Nigerian society, the rinse and repeat approach to casting and producing, all point to a lack of appreciation for film as art. In fairness, there are filmmakers, mostly independent, who are thoughtful in their work. Ishaya Bako, whose 4th Republic was released last year, is an example. I think we do a disservice to Nollywood and ourselves to allow this ‘celebrating all things Nigerian’ attitude keep us from offering legitimate criticism.
Question from Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún: What is the most important question everyone should be trying to answer?
What would Jesus do? I’m kidding. A question from a recent article by Teju Cole in the New York Times caught my attention. He writes, ‘Every picture of suffering should elicit a question stronger than ‘Why is this happening?’ The question should be ‘Why have I allowed this to happen?’ There is definitely a wealth of scholarship on the spectacularization and consumption of images of non-white suffering that I think we should engage with, but, in the meantime, why I think we do not come to this point is the incredible human ability to separate ourselves from the mass and, in that way, escape culpability for the state of the world. Raymond Williams says about massing that one does not think of their relatives, friends and peers as masses; it is the others whom we don’t know and can’t know, other people who are simultaneously massing us as well. There are no masses, he writes, only ways of seeing people as masses. His use of ‘seeing’ in that sentence is profound because of the immense power inherent in looking. Who we see, what we see them as, who is disappeared in our view of the world matters immeasurably. Who we mass or mob is, oftentimes, bound up in our ideas of who is deserved of humanity and recognition. We let things happen because we cannot, must not see the mob as individuals, exactly like ourselves, for to do that is to turn the world order on its head, and we might see that we’re not so innocent after all.
Bonus: Please suggest a question for a future author’s First Draft
What do you think is the responsibility of the writer to their audience?⎈
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