Author of ‘A Post-Coup World’ and ‘Looting as Catharsis’, Promise Frank Ejiofor grew up on books. ‘I grew to love literature to the point that I feared that I would go mad if I did not read or write something every week.’
Our questions are italicized.
What books or kinds of books did you read growing up?
I was raised by parents who adore the life of the mind. Reading was part and parcel of family culture. This meant that there were lots of books littered around the house―textbooks, dictionaries, novels, and so on.
My mother―who, in fact, is an English teacher―required me to read all the novels she bought and to provide her with summaries of the recurring motifs and expressions. As a kid, those summaries were anything but enjoyable and I dreaded not being able to produce them whenever my mother asked to see them.
When I complained that I did not understand some words in the novels, my mother asked me to look up the words in the dictionary―and most importantly, to check their usage in different contexts. There was no escaping from the summary tasks.
Gradually, I grew to love literature to the point that I feared that I would go mad if I did not read or write something every week. This habit has remained with me. My favourite authors included―in no particular order―Buchi Emecheta, Charles Dickens, William Boyd, Mario Puzo, Chinua Achebe, George Orwell, Cyprian Ekwensi, Wole Soyinka, Kazuo Ishiguro, William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, and Sir H. Rider Haggard.
I discovered the power of creative writing to arrest our imaginative capacities after reading The Joys of Motherhood by Buchi Emecheta, an exquisite novel that provided a glimpse of the challenges of motherhood in Igboland. Nnu Ego―the protagonist―single-handedly gives her best for her children, ensuring that they had a good education with the hope that they would take care of her if they became successful.
But, this dream did not materialize: with two sons abroad and two daughters married, Nnu Ego died a lonely death in the village. The monies that her children never spent on her when she was alive were channeled to her funeral―a lavish funeral at that. I remember weeping bitterly after reading this excruciating story.
To a large extent, the story is an irony: the joys associated with motherhood seem to be sorrows but Emecheta tries to suggest to the reader that, despite her sad ending, Nnu Ego’s life was a very fulfilled one. Her children’s successes are hers. Motherhood, Emecheta seems to suggest, is a conjunction of pleasure and pain pulling in different directions at different phases of a woman’s life. To ignore the challenges intimately connected to it is to wallow in opaque fantasies bereft of any meaningful engagement with the messy world. Whilst this is a fictional story, it captures the plight of some Nigerian―and, dare I say, African―families where women are the breadwinners.
The preponderance of patriarchal ideology in traditional and modern African societies tends to portend the ideal family as one wherein men are the ‘head’ and women are the caregivers. Nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, in some Nigerian families today, women engage in multifarious activities beyond the ones socially ascribed to them: they are life-givers, caregivers, home keepers, breadwinners, and so on. Emecheta’s novel counteracts the extant narrative of femininity and womanhood.
For crime novels―and this is largely due to the fact that my father had a collection of Puzo’s novels―I enjoyed Mario Puzo’s depiction of the Sicilian and Italian-American Mafia in The Godfather and Fools Die. I was very much glued to our television when I discovered that The Godfather had been adapted into a film: I saw it many times and never had enough.
Whenever I asked mom for more food she would quote a popular line from Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist―‘Please, sir, I want some more’―and we would have a laugh about it. And the concatenation of William Boyd’s Restless, George Orwell’s Animal Farm, and William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet meant that I was introduced to themes around love, espionage, and politics.
Writing is an art so that what matters is not what is communicated but the way it is communicated―that is, the style. Great authors are defined not so much by their voluminous writings but by their inimitable and spellbinding writing styles. These novels were profoundly critical in my formative years.
Dictionaries were very present in your childhood. What’s a word you recently learned, what does it mean and how should you use it?
I recently learned the word ‘contumacious’ which means refusal to obey or respect authority. In legal terminology, it is synonymous with contempt of court especially when an individual willfully refuses to submit to the summons of a court.
What book from your childhood would you pass on to someone younger?
I would pass on William Boyd’s Restless in consequence of its amazing diction and style. Boyd is undoubtedly my favourite novelist; he has a very unique way of capturing and sustaining the reader’s attention.
I discovered the power of creative writing to arrest our imaginative capacities after reading The Joys of Motherhood by Buchi Emecheta, an exquisite novel that provided a glimpse of the challenges of motherhood in Igboland.
If you could rewrite a classic book/text, which would it be and why?
I would rewrite the French historian Ernest Renan’s What is a Nation? (in French, Qu’est-ce qu’une nation?). Renan contends in the text that ‘Forgetfulness, and I would even say historical errors, are essential in the creation of a nation.’
What he means by this is that nations cannot thrive if there is no single national story. And because almost all nations are founded on historical errors―brutality, violence, terror, extermination, say―we should not resort to historical research as it would unravel myths, legends, and unwanted truths that are antithetical to homogeneity and nationhood.
Of course, Renan’s view on nationalism is plausible: nations need grand narratives to survive. However, he seems quite mistaken to suppose that possessing a single story is requisite for nationhood. Most modern polities are heterogeneous as there are often many different groups with different stories of their genesis.
The United States is, for instance, one of the most diverse states in the world as is Nigeria, South Africa, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, Brazil, and so on. But the history of Native Americans in the United States is not the history of African Americans: this in no way implies that Native Americans and African Americans do not, and cannot, share one nation-state. Despite their different histories, they are invariably American.
Because different groups have distinctive histories, it makes no sense to undermine their paths to the present as it would rid them of their culture and identity. Furthermore, for pragmatic reasons, I think it is crucial that groups’ histories are narrated and preserved in order to address historical injustices.
The legacies of slavery and racial segregation (the Jim Crow laws) are still being felt amongst African Americans so that it would be somewhat totalitarian, nay illiberal, to quash those histories under the pretext of safeguarding the nation.
In fact, coming to terms with historical injuries in an honest and sincere way would go a long way to address deep-seated grievances and to ensure the survival of the nation. Such a gesture would traverse lip service and help provide collective healing for perpetrators and victims.
The moral philosopher, Susan Neiman, has―in her coruscating book entitled Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil―demonstrated how Germans’ ‘vergangenheitsbewältigung’ (realization of collective culpability) in the aftermath of the atrocities committed against Jews under the Third Reich has been instrumental to Germany’s social and political progress.
But many nations have failed to acknowledge their horrid past. The history of the Nigerian (or Biafran) Civil War is absent in schools’ curricula in the federation and that means ordinary Nigerians are either uninformed or not very knowledgeable about it. If history does not repeat itself it surely rhymes so that we need to draw on the past in order to know where we are and where we are going.
We cannot waive history by sleight of hand or chicanery not least because a great many historical errors have longstanding effects that should not be shrugged off. Consequently, if I were to rewrite Renan’s text, I would underline this—nations are built not so much on homogeneity as on pluralities, varieties, multiplicities. The forte of any nation depends upon how it reckons with its past and manages ineluctable differences amongst its denizens.
What is the last book that you disagreed with, and why?
Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of World Order. In this work, which has not evaded criticism, Huntington posits that the conflicts in the post-Cold War era will be civilizational, that is, determined by culture and religion.
He demarcates the world into eight civilizations: Western; Latin American; Islamic; Sinic or Chinese; Hindu; Orthodox; Japanese; and African. For him, some of these civilizations are profoundly incompatible and this would engender inter-civilizational conflicts within and between states.
Though influential, this clash of ‘civilization thesis’ is profoundly misguided for two reasons. First, it lumps together diverse societies and pits them against one another. Western civilization consists of United States and Canada, Western and Central Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and the Philippines. The idea of Western civilization is redundant.
Kwame Anthony Appiah has argued in The Lies that Bind: Rethinking Identity that all the values associated with Western civilization such as tolerance, liberty, rational inquiry are not the birthright of any single culture: you can find them in most places beyond the West. And what is African civilization? There are a myriad of cultures in Africa with inimitable customs and traditions that could constitute civilizations.
Even positing Ethiopia, Israel, and Haiti as ‘lone states’ with their unique civilizations risks undermining the diversities within them. If civilization is synonymous with cultures, then every culture is a civilization in its own right―though inherent differences do not automatically engender conflicts. The politicization of differences precipitates gory conflicts and we have seen the consequences in places such as Nigeria, Central African Republic, Ethiopia, Myanmar, Cameroon, Somalia, Rwanda, Burundi, Bosnia, and Sudan.
But, also, Huntington’s thesis reeks of racism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia, for the West is synonymous with ‘whiteness’ and contrasted with Islam which is coterminous with ‘darkness’. The closer one civilization is to another, so the argument goes, the less likely there will be conflicts amongst members of two similar civilizations. Islam and the West, in Huntington’s imagination, are profoundly irreconcilable.
From this, we can partly comprehend the roots of ‘othering’ in modern time as one of the fiercest arguments employed by white nationalists―in Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, and a bunch of other European countries―is that refugees most of whom are Arabs and Muslims from Syria and Afghanistan do not assent to Western values and therefore cannot integrate. You will find the perfect extension of the ‘Huntingtonian’ thesis in Douglas Murray’s The Strange Death of Europe.
These ideas are perilous for tolerance and mutual coexistence because they presuppose that differences are all that matter and that what we share in common―our humanity―does not. As a cosmopolitan thinker and writer, I could hardly agree with that.
What’s the last thing you read that changed your mind about something important?
Kwame Anthony Appiah’s The Ethics of Identity has been hugely influential in my life as a person and as a scholar―particularly his notion of ‘cosmopolitan patriots’.
Basically, this means that we could take our roots with us wherever we go as citizens of the world, making contributions both to our own home states (where we were born) and the states of our choice (where we choose to live). So there is no conflict between commitment to your country of birth and your country of naturalization.
There is a general perception amongst some Nigerians―and this oftentimes happens whenever someone leaves in search of greener pastures in a country such as the United Kingdom, United States, Australia, or Canada―that those who leave Nigeria betray their fellow citizens and will hardly contribute to its social, economic, and political development. These are spurious claims.
That one lives in England or New Zealand in no way suggests that one cannot contribute to the upliftment of one’s compatriots back home. Indeed, there are multifarious ways a Nigerian―and, in fact, any―expat could contribute: through good actions so as not to shame others in global affairs; through writing on significant socio-political and economic issues in Nigeria; through transnational activism on women’s and LGBT rights in Nigeria; through campaigns against various banes of development such as ethnocentrism, tribalism, terrorism, and corruption; and, of course, through knowledge, technology, and resource transfers.
We are all citizens of the world: the internet and travel make possible the intimate interconnection of humans everywhere. I do consider myself a cosmopolitan patriot who is at home wherever he is in the world even whilst committed to making Nigeria a better place. The local, national, and global should not be comprehended as mutually exclusive but as different layers of belonging that should not be shied away from under the pretext of a vacuous commitment to a nationalist project.
What three books on politics should be on everyone’s bookshelf?
These three books capture almost every bit of modern politics: from freedom, totalitarianism, and democracy to poverty, development, and cosmopolitanism. Anyone interested in politics should be conversant with these issues as they are inevitable in public life.
We cannot waive history by sleight of hand or chicanery not least because a great many historical errors have longstanding effects that should not be shrugged off.
What’s your writing process like? Do you edit as you write or write a draft first, then edit?
I edit as I write. I repulse at the daunting task of having to return to my text to reread and make corrections. In other words, I generally loathe the idea of reviewing myself so much so that even when my articles are published I do not take my time to go through them. I like the idea of having a close friend or companion appraise my work and make suggestions which I then deploy to boost my arguments.
But this also means that every word, sentence, metaphor, prose, or phrase counts in the writing process. I could spend 24 hours rewriting a sentence: this makes writing at once frustrating and rewarding.
What was your process for writing ‘A Post-Coup World?’?
Thinking for me means thinking globally, being cognisant of how the local, national, regional, and international intersect, and what we could take from one space or time to another. We are, as I say, interconnected humans.
When Mali’s recent 2020 coup happened to the cheer of ordinary Malians I wondered whether coups could salvage democracies from their deficiencies. This thought led me to examine coups within and beyond Africa by thoroughly reading the literature on coups and democratization.
I realized that democracy is its own cure―that the solution to corruption and violence is more, not less, democracy. Reading is a critical node in the writing process that cannot be overlooked. The writer is likewise a reader so that writing and reading are two sides of the same coin. I would find it preposterous if a writer says they could write on a particular social, economic, or political issue without reading what others have said about it.
Every view comes from somewhere as it is the case that knowledge is built on knowledge. Thinking is also a critical phase in writing and I left some days to myself to reflect on the readings. Without a doubt, it was after I was satisfied with the breadth of cases that I proceeded with drafting the article.
Did you follow a similar approach in writing ‘Looting as Catharsis’?
Yes, absolutely. For me, the #EndSARS protest was not an isolated phenomenon but part of a larger complaint against police power. I had to reflect on what the looting meant for ordinary Nigerians and it was facile to posit it as a catharsis and nothing more.
The looting, as should be clear to everyone now, has changed little or nothing. Indeed, struggling businesses and shop owners suffered from the mess. I believe in looking at the bigger picture and it is rather unfortunate that most, if not all, looters were profoundly myopic in their approach to the governance crisis in Nigeria. We cannot transcend the malaise of the Nigerian condition through looting palliatives and stealing peak milk and bags of rice from individuals’ shops.
Thinking for me means thinking globally, being cognisant of how the local, national, regional, and international intersect, and what we could take from from one space or time to another. We are, as I say, interconnected humans.
What’s the most meaningful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
Write on underexplored issues and find your own voice. I cannot remember where I got this advice. Originality is not just a gift but a virtue. There are certain fields that are so saturated that one wonders whether there is anything new to contribute to them.
Just an example: Boko Haram’s terrorism. There are thousands of articles, books, and reports on the activities, strategies, and goals of Boko Haram to the extent that I think it would be extremely difficult to craft something novel that would constitute a major contribution to the literature.
When one explores even the seemingly irrelevant or petty conundrums in everyday life, one is likely to be very original in one’s thoughts and there will definitely come a time―whether or not in the author’s lifetime―when those issues become the dominant topic of discussion and the author’s name will be highlighted. Writing never dies―it just goes in and out of fashion.
Who is an author you wish you had discovered earlier?
In philosophy, there is this weird distinction between analytic and continental philosophers. It is often assumed that analytic philosophy deals with the analysis of language and logic whilst continental philosophy is concerned with the synthesis of modernity with history, thought, and praxis.
I wish I had discovered Achille Mbembe earlier. Though I should say this: Kwame Anthony Appiah is my role model and I relish his use of techniques acquired in analytic philosophy to dissect identity politics. He is the sole author that has had the greatest impact on my life. But Mbembe seems to be on the continental side of things. I had not given Mbembe’s oeuvres much thought until last year when the world went ‘woke’ in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd. I find his continental style intriguing and captivating: he dissolves the problems of the post-colony, making critical interventions into issues bordering race, biopolitics, decolonization, democracy, difference, mobility, planetary entanglement, Afropolitanism, amongst others.
Once I was done reading Mbembe’s On the Postcolony, I quickly went on to all others such as Critique of Black Reason and Necropolitics. I have ordered his more recent book entitled Out of the Dark Night: Essays on Decolonisation and I cannot wait to read it, too. Amongst the multiple ideas packed in Mbembe’s work that I admire are his Ethics of the Passerby, which suggest that living in the world is essentially about movement, journey, and transfiguration.
That some persons can move around the world freely without restrictions and others cannot just by virtue of passport and citizenship is a global injustice that needs to be addressed. Ideas, goods, and services move freely but certainly not human beings.
That is a shame in a neoliberal world where we are all considered equal. What sets Appiah and Mbembe apart from other scholars I have read is style. They have powerful ways of communicating their thoughts so that the reader is rarely, if ever, bored.
What is your favourite topic to write or read about these days?
My favourite topic to read about these days is sexuality. There are lots of fierce debates about gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer identities in general and I am following the debates.
I think it is important to follow these debates as I do not want to come across as disrespectful to anyone in consequence of using terms that are out of fashion or unknowingly saying things that are derogatory to people of specific gender or sexual orientation.
A cosmopolitan should be willing to understand not just himself or his kith and kin but his fellow citizens regardless of their sexual or gender identities. Books that have been useful in that regard include Lillian Faderman’s The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle, Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other, Matthew Todd’s Pride: The Story of the LGBTQ Equality Movement, Eric Rosswood and Kathleen Archambeau’s We Make It Better: The LGBTQ Community and Their Positive Contributions to Society. These are either on my desk or saved somewhere on my computer and I am consuming them.
What can we expect you to write about next?
There are many topics I work on. For reasons including that I am still trying to figure out my idea, I will not share what I work on in academia. But beyond academic dissertations, I am preparing an article on homosexuality in Africa. This needs to be written not least because the homophobia of the ordinary African is based on fallacious arguments that do not hold water.
Homophobic Nigerians tend to think they possess all the truths about gender and sexuality so that they are generally unwilling to tolerate conversations on the morality of homosexuality. There is either a resort to overt violence or abusive ad hominems against anyone―whether gay or straight―who considers the idea that gay rights are human rights. My next article will clarify some of the inappropriacies and illogicalities of anti-gay prejudices in order to further the cause of gay emancipation. Nigeria definitely needs its own gay revolution and we must commence this difficult conversation even though the majority do not want to have it.
There is no true democracy―and we are well aware Nigeria and many other African countries with draconian laws targeting homosexuals are flawed democracies anyway―when the right of people to love and marry people of the same sex is criminalized. Science is discarded in favour of some atavistic cultural and religious beliefs. That is very medieval and regressive.
Writing never dies―it just goes in and out of fashion.
Question from Dafe Oputu: What’s a book/work that doesn’t exist yet, but you wish someone would write?
I would like to read a book on the gay revolution in Nigeria and how it came about. Of course, that is for the future. Why does it seem impossible to realize in Nigeria now?
I suspect this revolution might take a few decades as Nigerian societies are very much anti-gay and repressive of whatever they do not understand or want to understand. That Nigeria can have its own gay revolution and that someone would chart its history would be a great achievement not only for the writer but also for the global LGBT community.
Bonus: Please suggest a question for a future author’s First Draft.
If you had the power of immortality and could make a writer live forever, which writer would that be? And why?⎈
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