“Mangos. I think of Mangos from eating way too many when I lived in Ebute Metta. I think of Odogbolu, about being punished in boarding school. I think of riots. We had a useless driver, who one day was driving my mother and I home from school through a riot, got scared, jumped out of the car and left her there. My mother had to drive us past thugs and all the mayhem.”
A young creative born in Jos, Nigeria, he moved to United Kingdom when he was 12, relocated to Dublin for 3 years and moved back to London. Now 31, he constantly travels the world performing poetry, researching stories and generally being creative. February 2016 saw him in Lagos as a participant in The British Council Nigeria and WaterShed collaboration, Playable City Lagos.
In this interview Inua shows why it is that he, a Nigerian in Britain and British man in Nigeria, understands what it means to be a refugee. We are granted a private view to his thoughts on borders, his dual nationality and creative process.
When Inua thinks of Nigeria the story of mangoes and riots that begins this article comes to mind, and other thoughts that reflect the country’s beautiful yet chaotic spirit.
What comes to mind when you think of Nigeria?
Our vibrancy. I feel as if when the British pulled out of Nigeria they tried to get us to sabotage each other. The fact that we’re still functioning, sometimes barely, as a country is a testament to the Nigerian spirit. We are fearless, resilient, proud, even when we have nothing to be proud about. I just love that, you know? That’s how I feel about Nigeria. We’re the most talented, and most complicated, twisted people on the planet… although our talents sometimes lead to darker pastures, we somehow make it work.
What comes to mind when you think of Britain?
I think of legacy, history. I think about darkness. I think of denial, guilt and shame. I think of a culture of sweeping things under the carpet, Of various complications, vast, ineffeable, and hidden. I think joy, happiness, opportunity, rebellion. I think of home, I guess, as much as it can be for anyone not born here.
Can you remember your exact reaction when you found out Britain had voted to leave the European Union?
I was deeply angry, afraid and flabbergasted. I couldn’t believe we had made so colossal a bad decision. These are definitely the last days of the British empire. A part of me celebrates that because as a Nigerian, as a poet from a country that was colonised by it, I know the darker sides of the empire. I know the legacy of that and a part of me is happy that those days are gone and Britain can look towards a different future, but this isn’t the way. I don’t feel it is. I’m also deeply saddened by this attempt to pull out of the European Union, because we have chosen to leave 27 countries that we influenced; we currenlt have political, economical and social influence there, when we leave, it’ll just come to one. The British people have largely voted to cut off their nose to spite their own face. I didn’t think anything that colossally small minded, singular and petty would happen. And I do think it’s all of those things. Just under fifty percent of the Country think so too.
At the same time, it’s a potential for poetry. This is what I mean: I think as poets or writers generally, our job is to walk against all currents; to be outsiders. I’ve always been an outsider in Britain and now I’m a further outsider in the European Union, and because I voted to stay in the EU, I’m an outsider in these conversations. This means I am in a stronger position, to watch and comment, think and write clearer objective stories and ideas and Try to articulate them hopefully to a willing, listening British audience.
If given the chance would you vote to create a truly free world? One devoid of complexities like nations and boundaries?
Absolutely! Without a doubt. Maybe I’m short sighted or an idealist and I can’t see the long term chaos that that might bring, but I know that all the world would be far simpler, open and more welcoming if we didn’t have these invisible lines in the sand that demarcate who belongs where and who owns what land. Buying and selling land in itself is deeply problematic. How can you claim something that was here before you and would live long after you die?
A nation is nothing but myth.
What happens is this: people sit together and say this is when this country started and these are the people who lived there at this date start and this now means we’re this country and these songs and actions make us a nation. Countries/Nations then will change depending on the point in history at which you choose to begin the narrative. It is a creative project, it is mythology. If you go far back enough, every one belonged to everyone and came from the same place. This is verging on Adam and Eve territory, but logically, we all crossbred and travelled, we multiplied from the same source. I think humanity is nationless. Civilization creates nations. And some aspects of type of civilization the currently governs the world are some of the most barbaric things we have done to the most natural, the most basic idea of humanity, spirit and of he human spirit.
We are naturally nomadic, humanity I mean, and this way of drawing lines in the sand and creating borders is problematic for me so, definitely. If we were to create a nationless world it would be more balanced and fairer, it, by nature, would have to be.
You recently collaborated with the Thomas Reuters Foundation to create a short film. It featured a poem titled Dolphins. The film has been nominated for a UN Humanitarian Film Awards. Has your experience with migration and living in Jos, one of the first Nigerian cities to be attacked by Boko Haram, influenced your persistent cry for the plea of displaced persons?
Yes. Definitely. My whole approach to writing comes from a migratory experience where I had to go from place to place. I think it affects how I work as an artist; I go from art project to art project sometimes from art form to art form. Being an immigrant, leaving Jos, living in England and Ireland has affected the way I think of the right to humanity, the right to roam and the plight of refugees.
I remember reading a brash comment on twitter about allowing Syrian refugees coming into the country. The person said ‘we need to stop these terrorists from coming’. What they had failed to recognise was that the Syrian refugees themselves were running away from terrorists. They were running to a safer place. And often a lot of refugees who come to the west are fleeing persecution or fleeing problems that were caused by the west. The Berlin Conference was not that long ago. There, the most powerful European countries carved up the African continent and began to make inroads into the Middle East. They unleashed multiple Pandoras boxes of chaos right across Africa. Most of the worlds current refugees are living in the echoes of those disastrous decisions. Many western countries, including those in Britain, have a debt to pay. So yes, leaving Jos and just growing up around the conflicts that were there at my time really affected and continues to affect my plight for the refugees. I understand what it is not to have a home, what it is to want to a home, and how simple it can be to create one.
In your work there are three main themes; displacement, identity and destiny. These are all feelings and situations you have vast real life experience in. As you grow, encounter new situations and garner new experiences, do you see your work moving away from these themes?
These three themes intersect in vibrant, new and surprising ways, even to myself. I don’t think I’ve tired of the themes yet. I don’t think the ways in which the themes manifest are exhaustible. They are evolving into new things. I think they are fluid. Identity is fluid, displacement is fluid, so is destiny. They mean different things from generation to generation, country to country, culture to culture, city to city, place to place, poem to poem, story to story.
The death of a friend and lack of funds propelled you to write and perform poetry. Now a success, what motivates you to keep writing?
I don’t see myself as a success. I haven’t won any Pulitzer, I don’t have a full book published. You know? I haven’t won any major awards. I don’t have recognition from the people I would like to recognise me… I put up a shield and I pretend that the lack of recognition doesn’t exist, and that it isn’t needed. But it’s quite something to be appreciated by your peers. I don’t think of myself as a success at all. I think I’m still striving to sound like Inua Ellams.
I’m trying to figure out what Inua sounds like. That is the most elusive thing in poetry, to know what your voice is and to make it distinctive. Above all, I am trying to write and create beautiful things. This blue rocks of ours seems increasingly complex and messy at the best of times. It can be deeply horrific and uncaring. I keep writing to create mirrors. To be able to hold it up to the world and say, “This is who you are”. I want the mirrors to be beautiful, to be political and universal and at the same time deeply personal.
Most of the time I’m just trying to shave wind, to find a pure breath. That would be the most beautiful poem. I don’t know if I’m gifted or talented or lucky enough to find it and write it, but that’s what I strive for.