A. Igoni Barrett: Ig-oh-nee
Can you tell me a bit about the culture of English literature in contemporary Nigeria, as you've experienced it? I know you've been quite active in the community with events like the BookJam reading series and the Nine Writers, Four Cities tour.
Though Nigeria has about 500 indigenous languages, the official language is English. Ninety-nine percent of the most popular books in Nigeria by Nigerian authors are written in English. There is a smattering of local literature in indigenous languages, especially in the languages of the largest ethnic groups. Yoruba newspapers and plays have a market in western Nigeria, and I've heard that popular novels in Hausa have a wide readership in the north. Pidgin English is the closest we have in Nigeria to a national language, so to speak, but it is not formalized or studied with any seriousness by Nigerian academics, nor given the structure any language must have to survive in written form. As a result of this neglect, the number of books written in pidgin that I know of can be counted on the fingers of one hand. And so Nigerians are taught in English in the school system, and even those Nigerians who think best in their own languages or feel most at ease speaking pidgin must still pass examinations in English.
Many of the stories in Love Is Power, or Something Like That showcase the lingual fluidity of your characters. I'm thinking specifically of the scene in "The Shape of a Full Circle," in which Dimié Abrakasa shifts immediately from the pidgin he speaks with the other boys his age to the standard school-taught English he speaks with a female former classmate. How many of those 500 languages are you familiar with? If it is indeed several, do you think that access to the syntax and lexicon of a variety of languages has given you an edge as a writer? Would you ever write a book in pidgin English?
Among Nigerians of my generation I am somewhat unusual, as I speak only English and pidgin. My mother speaks two indigenous languages, and several of my younger relatives are adept at three or four languages. But Nigerian English, and thus the Nigerian accent, is greatly influenced by the syntax of our indigenous languages. And of course pidgin incorporates many words and even phrases from these languages. To get a sense of how far-reaching this influence is, think of Irish English, which unlike American English doesn't have its own spelling rules. Same thing in Nigeria. We spell like the British, but the sound, the character of our English is not the same. My understanding of Nigerian English, its hidden meanings, and the playfulness of pidgin, is as essential to my writing as I would assume American English was important to the narrative style of, say, David Foster Wallace.
You asked about writing a book in pidgin English. That's an intriguing ideaand I have thought about it. The result of that thinking led to the story "My Smelling Mouth Problem," which is narrated in a broken form of Nigerian English. The major challenge for me is that Nigerian pidgin English is so far only a spoken language. There are no agreed-upon rules of spelling or grammar, no available dictionaries, no successful body of work to refer to, and, as far as I know, no university courses on the language. Writing a book in pidgin English is an almost Shakespearean task to undertake. For that very reason I'm still thinking of it.
In many of your stories, you handle technology with a real elegance. "Dream Chaser" and "Trophy" confront tech head-on: Internet cafes, incomprehensible tech jargon, a cell phone that won't stop ringing. Elsewhere we have a Facebook friend rendezvous and a character downloading pop hits straight to his phone. And yet it never distracts. Rather, your characters occupy a world that is both of your construction and the real world in which we all live. Is this is a conscious issue on your part? Do you concern yourself with the technological trappings of a story? Do you have any advice for a writer who wants to make a story "real" without making certain details superfluous?
The seemingly superfluous detail has its function in storytelling, of course. Cervantes used windmills to great effect in Don Quixote, and telegrams played a prominent role in the opening of Howard's End. Both of these technologieswindmills and telegraphywere considered modern at the time those books were written. Today, social media and telephony are as integral to our lives as windmills were to Cervantes's era and telegrams to E. M. Forster's. The twenty-first century writer could do worse than replace Cervantes' windmills with an iPhone and Lawrence's telegrams with a Twitter DM. And so, yes, I'm preoccupied with the technological trappings of a story, but only insofar as these serve to refract the secret workings of the human heart.
Would you say then that the revealing of these secrets is a primary motivation in your writing? While we're speaking of hearts, let's turn to another word that often sees heart as a companion: love. Your title considers love with a playful cynicism, and the epigraph (from Annie Proulx's The Shipping News) muses on it with a guarded hopefulness. Some of your stories affirm a classic definition of love, but elsewhere you compound it with violence, or obsession, or fickleness. How has the writing of this book changed the way you relate to that word, love, and the roaring ocean of meaning it contains?
In answer to your first question, I'll paraphrase Faulkner: the human heart in conflict with itself is the only subject worth the agony and sweat of writing fiction. So yes.
And now, love. Your phrase "the roaring ocean of meaning" is an apt description of the bottomlessness of that emotion we call love. I had no idea that this subject was the book's theme when I started work on the first stories. I had thought I was writing about characters whose voices, in my quiet moments, interfered with my thoughts. While writing story after story I just said to myself, "know your characters and their stories will find you." An easy enough rule to apply when the writer approaches fiction with the unshakable knowledge that a story is the characters it happens to. But in writing this book my preconceptions were shaken. I now suspect everything I think I know about my characters until I find out their story.
While this book has changed the way I relate to fiction, to the psychology of creating lives out of words, I doubt it has altered in any major way my outlook on love. Or then again, maybe it has. I'll have to find out my own story to know for certain who I now am.
The penultimate story, "Godspeed and Perpetua," portrays a classic, shall we say "romantic" version of love. Yet it also strikes me as the most nuanced and intimately crafted depiction of a romantic relationship to be found within your book. I started to wonder whyin a collection whose characters represent a full range of economic and social statusI was most moved by the story whose characters were by far the most wealthy.
Are there ever any characters who are, by virtue of power they control, choices they've made, or flaws they exhibit, less deserving or completely undeserving of our empathy as readers? Or is it the job of literature to open up pathways of empathy to even the most (seemingly) undeserving of humans in our midst? What are we to make of the fact that much of the world population does not have or does not need to have literature central in their lives?
Curiously enough, this is a question I recently gave some thought when I put aside a book that I admit was well-written, but whose poverty-stricken child narrator I found myself profoundly bored with. Now, some of my favorite characters happen to be destitute children, such as Huck Finn, or Birahima from Allah Is Not Obliged, and so I won't assume my lack of empathy for the other child narrator was solely a consequence of economics. There are others who found the voice of this same character engaging and insightful, etc.and so it should be. We each approach the complexities of life, and of art, in different ways. My best friend's wife could be someone I abhor, and as such I don't expect that a book I enjoyed reading will be liked even by those closest to me in taste or temperament.
The only job I demand of literature? Electrify me with awe for life. Failing that, it should at least entertain me. But I believe that every person, and by extension fictional character, is deserving of empathy. Getting what one deserves, now that's a different matter. The argument can be made that Humbert Humbert, for example, is undeserving of empathybut just try telling that to the millions who have read and loved Lolita.
Every human society has cultural stories, language, ideas of history. This is a literature much more ancient and mysterious than anything ever written. Besides, ideas are transmitted in other ways than books. And formal education is quite widespread these days, as is television, telephony, even sophisticated weaponry, all of which are more influential in society than the books you and I enjoy. So the world will have its plastic surgeons, its Internet gurus, TV celebrities, and fundamentalist murderers, but readers of serious fiction will continue to shrink in numbers. In the world today, each individual is presented countless options of how to live a fulfilled life, from which gods one should worship and which college one should attend to what foods one shouldn't eat to avoid bad skin. For me, as someone for whom literature is essential, I can only assume that everyone else will burn in hell. Yet I won't be too surprised if it turns out we all end up in the same place after all.
Interview by Adam J. Segal, Managing Editor, Whole Beast Rag magazine. Reproduced with permission from the Graywolf Press blog.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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