Sola Osofisan interviews Ikhide Ikheloa, a book interrogator, blogger and digital advocate once known exclusively online as Nnamdi.
I have been following Ikhide Ikheloa’s essays and views on the web since 2002. I started publishing that year a bunch of carefully crafted emotion drenched essays written by him on Nigeriansinamerica.com (now iNigerian.com), and later, on Africanwriter.com. Over the years, his book reviews and opinion pieces have fetched him online fame, and in some cases, infamy. I emailed him a few questions I’d whipped up, hoping to introduce his early web presence to his current contributions, as well as needle him on some of his pet peeves. He accepted the challenge whole-heartedly and here is the outcome of our exchange.
Sola Osofisan: Chief Ikhide…I still think of you as Nnamdi, that faceless guy shooting out those occasional musings on our varied experiences in America. We published a whole chain of essays from you on Nigeriansinamerica.com as far back as 2002. But I never asked you why you had to publish under a pseudonym back then. Is it time to share the story of how and why you came up with Nnamdi? And when did you realize it was time to retire him and let Ikheloa roar?
Ikhide Ikheloa: Sola, so, I don’t know that many people know about you, certainly not about your pioneering work in the field of African literature, in introducing an entire generation of writers and thinkers to that huge canvas in the sky that we call the Internet. I am thinking of your work with your websites Nigerians in America and africanwriter.com. I am also thinking of your leadership on the listserve Krazitivity, the first real digital watering hole for Nigerian writers, artists and thinkers, from Ngozi Chimamanda Adichie to Helon Habila, folks like Afam Akeh, E.C. Osondu, Toni Kan Onwordi, Remi Raji, Chika Okeke, Wumi Raji, Unoma Azuah, Jahman Anikulapo, Victor Ekpuk, Chika Unigwe, Olu Oguibe, Nnorom Azuonye, Obi Nwakanma, Obemata (Abdul Mahmud), Molara Wood, Victor Ehikhamenor, Lola Shoneyin, Amatoritsero Ede, Pius Adesanmi, Tade Ipadeola, Tolu Ogunlesi, etc. etc. In those days, if you were not on Krazitivity, you had not arrived, as a writer. We should hold a reunion. This is my long rambling way of saluting you for your quiet, purposeful work as a digital visionary, helping to shape, without fanfare, the trajectory of literature. The world may not know you, but I hope history shines a light on you as that mysterious near-mythic force that helped nurture African literature on the digital space in the 21st century. I salute you. You are famously reclusive, and so unlike many of your peers, you are not an e-household name, but you do have a cult following (me included) who adore you for your mind and awesome prose poetry. For those who do not know you, I would recommend your latest book, Blood Will Call of which E.E. Sule did a wonderful review (here).
Now to answer your question. I have always written. It is a disability. The Internet and miles of digital foolscap made my disability worse. When the kids came, I started writing even more. They came in rapid succession and as a young couple, we were scared and anxious, there was this sense of responsibility. In my case, writing helped me to process those anxieties. I wish there was a romantic excuse why I chose to write under Nnamdi. I don’t know why I chose that name. I remember thinking I needed space, disembodied from me as it were, to share my deeply personal experience, without making it look self-absorbed and narcissistic. I am not trained in the arts, and I certainly did not know what I was doing, but I kept writing and somehow I stumbled onto your website and the rest is history. In those days, there were only a handful of people like you, but you seemed to like my work. You never asked me to reveal my true name, and we were good. There came a point when I realized that I had cultivated a following. I suspect people were enamored of this romanticized notion of this mysterious person writing stuff.
No one forced me to start using my real name, it just happened, and quite frankly there are days after absorbing abuse from a pained writer that I wish I was still hiding behind a mask. I met the writer Victor Ehikhamenor, who introduced me to Krazitivity around 2005. In order to join, I had to show some evidence of writing. I felt I had no choice but to share that I am that Nnamdi. The mask had to fall off. I was sad. It is what it is, but I had fun with Nnamdi, good clean fun. So now, you have Ikhide. Some people would wish that I return to the underbelly of that slimy rock from which I came. I understand. But I have grown used to being me. I like me now.
Sola Osofisan: Still on the essays…They were often contemplative, philosophical like journeys to uninhabited places, and even spiritual in some cases. You drew the world in to witness conversations you were having with yourself, each piece suffused with internal conflicts, sadness and poetry. I still re-read Ring Around The Roses, San Ysidro Windsong and Rising Sun. Where did that sadness come from, Oga Ikhide? That heaviness, the plodding hand scribbling on sand…What was Nnamdi’s driving force back then?
Ikhide Ikheloa: Life away from Nigeria was always difficult for me. I left when I did not have to. I never really got used to America, all my senses seemed to rebel against everything. I hated the food, I hated everything, even the rice did not taste right. I missed pretty much everyone I’d left behind in Nigeria. I did not want to stay here in America, but like many, there was no other choice but to stay and live a life of noisy desperation. The essays were a way of processing my anxieties. I wrote very sad pieces that were really about a part of my daily existence. I think now, that was a major reason I wrote under a pseudonym, to seem detached from it, to not be the object of pity; I would get feedback from many people and I would be glad that I was using a pseudonym; many felt my pain, perhaps because they could relate to it. It was easy for me to ignore their attempts to reach out to me; I was this blob in the darkness somewhere. I was processing my pain and anxieties and if someone found them useful, more power to them.
So, where did the sadness come from? The despair came from many places, so many things were challenging at a deeply personal level; relationships, the job, parenting, the color of my skin, Nigeria, exile, there were so many things that would set me off. And I tried to write away the pain. It helped, but the pain always kept returning, mean, aching painful waves of longing. I am still here. And you know what, I am feeling better. Age helps to dull the pain of the dislocation.
Sola Osofisan: You sounded older in those essays too. Each piece celebrated life, yes, but never forgot to remind us that the life could be born of anguish. Nnamdi wrote like a weary man who’d survived everything the world had to hurl at him. These days, you write like a rejuvenated man. Your voice is not the same. It is lighter now, albeit angrier sometimes, like moving from one phase to the next. Do you sense the change? Has it got something to do with your online persona switching from Nnamdi to Ikhide Ikheloa? Writing for a wider audience? Or is the change only in my head?
Ikhide Ikheloa: Nope, you are right; I agree there is a change. For one thing, I am older now, and there is a sense in which I am relieved to be much older and crowing in writing about my mistakes and calling them the sum of my experience, smh. Sure, there is a wider audience now, I can see them, and I do enjoy entertaining them as I interact with them in real-time. I feel like the edge is there still, sharper now even…
A big part of it is that while the advent of the Internet in the 90’s began the process of breaking down the walls, social media has done much more. The walls are pretty much down; stories are interactive, in real time. The writer feeds off an attentive audience. Social media gives me that satisfaction. I love it.
On the Internet, especially with social media, the audience is vast and potentially infinite. Technology has forced literature and story-telling to be interactive. Today, list-serves are dying and social media (Twitter and Facebook) have an addictive characteristic – the writer interacts instantly with the reader. Indeed it is the case that the reader and writer switch roles instantly, the reader becoming a writer in response to a thought. There is laughter, sadness and joy, all these passions cascading into the e-streets. From deep inside my mother’s palace in Ewu to my hut in Babylon, it is suddenly one small world; I can reach out and touch whomever I want, a la carte. I can build relationships on my own dime, to my own specifications. I don’t have to be with you. It is a great time to be alive. I am in love with life, and the Internet is a great part of the reason I am.
Sola Osofisan: Your catchphrase back then used to be “America is hard.” It appeared in pretty much everything you posted online, especially in the “Life in America” series of essays. You know what would make a brilliant addition to the book market? Your memoir – or even a contrived “Everyman’s life in America” story – written in the voice of that world weary Nnamdi guy. Are you on it already or you’re waiting for us to beg for it?
Ikhide Ikheloa: I am fond of telling people that my fondest wish is to die without having written a book. I sincerely mean that. I was in London last year for a book launch and the immigration officer asked me if I’d ever written a book, and I said no. I sensed that he briefly entertained the idea of denying this American entry into the United Kingdom. Americans have been known to flee the destitution of America into the warm lush riches of the UK. In the 21st century, you no longer need a book to share your personal opinions. Each week, I write whole paragraphs of my life on Twitter, Facebook, and my blog. I probably have more readership as a result of people lured into my restless world than if I had written books. Who reads books these days anyway?
You are not going to get a memoir from me. There is not really much I have to say about my life that I have not already shared on the Internet. Folks should simply google me and feast on my narcissistic navel gazing. My essays on your websites would make for an interesting memoir. I half-joke that when I die, either Kola Tubosun or Victor Ehikhamenor has my permission to go through the darkness that passes for the contents of my mailbox and release them to a nosy world. The world would get a chuckle out of that. Most of my essays riff off my troubled restless journeys; here are samples – Notes from my Middle Passage, Life in America: Cowfoot by Candlelight, For Fearless Fang: A Boy and his Pets, San Ysidro Windsong, The Second Coming, Cellphone Conversation with Papalolo, Our America, Lost in America, Self Portrait, Barrack Boy, etc. etc.
Sola Osofisan: Many of us know Afam Akeh as a brilliant poet. He dedicates a recent poem to you called The Greying of Ikheloa and I quote: “He has travelled far but / never left home, like a tortoise / slowed by its shell home and prison…” You know how home and safety can sometimes also be a prison. You left home decades ago, home in this instance being Nigeria. I’m not sure you’ve ever told the story of your departure from Nigeria. Is it time to share it with the world? Or you’re saving it for that explosive memoir?
Ikhide Ikheloa: It is complicated. In The Greying of America, Afam Akeh’s muse uses an imagined Ikhide as proxy for addressing many issues – exile, alienation, longing, the new world, life, etc. It is a brilliant production, except I am not that old. At 31, I suffer from premature greyness – and Akeh was being impish. We are no longer on speaking terms. As for how I got to America, I actually have addressed that issue in several satirical pieces mocking my tenure in Babylon. I can think of Lost in America and Cowfoot by Candlelight. There is not much else to say, really.
Sola Osofisan: “I am not a writer. I am a reader who writes.” Those are your words. What’s the distinction you’re trying to make here? All writers started out primarily as readers before finding the voice that forges the written word. Can you just admit that you’re a writer please and let’s move on? Flip-flopping, to borrow the cliché, does not suit you.
Ikhide Ikheloa: That statement is perhaps the only security blanket that I own, one that points a finger at my anxieties and laughs. Deep down, the writer is perhaps the most insecure human being on the earth. My many detractors scoff that protesting the label “writer” is a cover-your-ass (CYA) ploy on my part to avoid the ridiculous reviews that have already been written about a book I will never write. They are right, who wan die? Seriously, the 21st century taunts labels, on the Internet, especially on social media, roles are constantly changing; one minute you are a writer, and the next minute a reader glares at you with beautiful prose. Maybe I am a writer, who knows? Who cares? Labels are meaningless. I love the notion that I am a noisy reader.
Sola Osofisan: On covering your ass…you don’t think the reviewer is wary of being reviewed? You were serious about creative writing at some point – as can be seen in some of your poems published in 2005 on Africanwriter.com. But now you call your poetry “moonlighting” – “Poems for my lover.” Are you sure that’s not a cop-out, an attempt to escape the kind of sometimes brutally critical attention other writers have received from you?
Ikhide Ikheloa: I still write a lot of creative non-fiction. Lately it’s been mainly prose; some would say prose-poetry. You may well be right, that overall, I am deeply insecure about my writing and do not wish to draw critical attention to it. I don’t know of any writer who is not, but perhaps I have taken my insecurities to ridiculous depths of cowardice. You couldn’t tell that from the evidence though. I write everywhere there is space and people have not been shy about telling me where to go hide my head. In the case of poetry, you are right, there was a time I actively practiced poetry. They were mostly angst-ridden pieces, many of them navel-gazing cringe-worthy crap celebrating my infatuation with my narcissistic side. I am much older now and whatever is left of my poetic side is infused in my prose. For me, poetry is not dead. It is infused in much of my work. As I always say, the poet in me lives deep in my words.
Sola Osofisan: You often start your dissection of a book from an examination of its cover, on to the specific bits that fired or infuriated you. It is as if you’re seeing the book as a lay reader would approach it. Have you noticed that you sometimes sound like a teacher or exasperated dad in your reviews, sans the cane? Is that you? Cranky? Or that’s just a voice that works for the occasional review?
Ikhide Ikheloa: People enjoy calling me a cranky old fart. I am not old. Everything has to have context. The writer NoViolet Bulawayo wrote the brilliant debut book, We Need New Names, (by the way every reader should own a copy of that book; that is how to write). I simply adore her. I think now that she is one of the original thinkers out there. I do not know her personally. I was not always a fan, and I suspect that the feeling is/was mutual. She is the 2011 Caine Prize Winner. I had read the entries in the shortlist and upon reading them, I angrily penned this piece, The 2011 Caine Prize: How Not to Write About Africa in which I said: Zimbabwe’s NoViolet Bulawayo has a fly-ridden piece, Hitting Budapest, about a roaming band of urchins, one of them impregnated by her grandfather – at age ten… Bulawayo would be my pick for the prize. She sure can write, unfortunately her muse insists on sniffing around Africa’s sewers. I was cranky, perhaps, over the top angry, but I needed to engage those of us who somehow speak up about issues of Africa, those that I felt needed self-policing. Ngozi Chimamanda Adichie talks eloquently about the single story that the West likes to propagate about Africa. I like to remind us that we are responsible for much of what Adichie calls the single story, what I call poverty porn. Again, everything has to have context. It is perhaps possible that many who have been stung by my loud words of protest have carved pejoratives for me, who cares? If they insist that I live rent-free in their heads, I say whatever rocks their boat. To Bulawayo’s credit, she sent me an advance review copy of her book with a nice little note where she referred to me as a noisy reader. Noisy reader. That stung. And stuck. She is no shrinking violet, that Bulawayo.
I am not a perfect person. I have tried to get people’s attention to certain anxieties, about how our stories are told, about who tells our stories, and about the politics of our storytelling. We are living in exciting times when it comes to literature but I think there are many among us who have consistently thrown Africa under the bus for self-serving reasons, that is, for fame and fortune. I have not been shy in calling people out (for instance, see my views on Chris Abani here and here). In the tortured journeys of Philip Emeagwali and Abani, etc., my harsh words are meant to remind us that in many ways we are an integral part of the problem that we say Africa has become. Owning responsibility in the work that needs to be done would be a great contribution to the solution. The good news is that we are having robust conversations about the issues that keep me howling like a lunatic. Once people get over their anger at my words and my attitude, they tend to settle down and really think about things and talk about them. We are making progress.
Sola Osofisan: Every lover of books is partial to a certain kind of book. I know you have a ton of books you will never read. So, what kind of books do you actually read? What makes you spend your money and review time on a book?
Ikhide Ikheloa: There is no science to my selection; it is mostly random, word of mouth, stuff I see on the Internet, etc. etc. As I said, my overriding passion, some would say obsession, is the politics of literature, the power of the one who gets to determine how the story is told. Chinua Achebe reminds us of that profound proverb – until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter. So I look out mostly for hidden riddles in books. I troll the Internet relentlessly looking for books that speak to me, make me laugh, and infuriate me enough to make a fool of myself on my blog. These days though, truth be told, I mostly read Twitter and Facebook, the two greatest books birthed by Africans. I am finding it increasingly burdensome to read a book just for the fun of it. I am also resenting the feeling that some African writers just want to write a book, and Africa’s sorry condition is a money maker for them. I never see any of these writers of stature speaking up directly on any contemporary issue affecting say Nigeria, instead, I see them happily publishing in the New York Times, The New Yorker, Guernica, etc. I liken them to grim rippers, gleefully harvesting Nigeria’s woes onto the pages of books – for fame and fortune. I really don’t want to reward their selfishness by paying to read their books. Do I need their books to know that there is rape in Nigeria? Or human trafficking? How does their book help those impacted? To be fair, many are becoming involved, pushing the envelope in terms of making our leaders accountable. We are making progress. I will read Chika Unigwe’s books, any day. *swoons* dies*
Sola Osofisan: Are you friends with the writers of some of the books you have reviewed? Should book critics/reviewers and writers be friends, for instance, on Facebook and Twitter? Does friendship hamper objectivity?
Ikhide Ikheloa: I am friends with many writers. I can’t help that. I enjoy their company immensely even though the feeling may not be mutual. I have tried to refrain from critiquing my friends’ books, but I am not always successful. I don’t think those my friends whom I have reviewed their works fully appreciate my candor or feedback. We remain friends, I think. Yes, I do believe that friendship hampers objectivity, but then I approach my work not as a review but as a commentary on our condition, using the book as proxy. It is not always about the writer.
Sola Osofisan: When you find your opinion of a book is in the minority, do you ever question your judgment? Do you ever change your opinion on a book or story; say it grows on you after a while?
Ikhide Ikheloa: No. I say my piece and move on, I can’t say the same for some of the aggrieved writers; they seem to take it a bit too personally. There is no science to my personal opinions. It is art, sometimes, annoyingly so. People should get over themselves; it is just a book, not the bible. People criticize the bible daily, you don’t see God sulking. Well, maybe he does, who cares?
Sola Osofisan: Reactions on your blog posts are sometimes fiercely critical or passionately supportive. But your reviews of books always seem to engender a conversation. Is that what you aim for, a conversation? Is that important to you? What path do you hope a conversation will take us?
Ikhide Ikheloa: Yes. If I have been successful in making people think about these things, then I am chuffed as they say in good old England. I really don’t care much where the conversation leads; as long as people are forced to be honest and engaged, it always takes us to a good place.
Sola Osofisan: You’ve been labeled a cranky old man, especially when you sink your teeth into something and you just gnaw and gnaw at it, refusing to let go. You obviously have no tolerance for bad writing and will not hesitate to make that clear. Do you have an issue with political correctness too, if only to shake off the labels?
Ikhide Ikheloa: I have been told by many that I am sometimes like a cranky old dog with a bone; when I have it between my ancient gums, I don’t let go. That may perhaps be true, but I plead guilty with a reason. Many Nigerians who have powerful voices have garroted their voice-boxes for selfish reasons. Many times, there are only a few of us willing to tackle issues and I must admit I am the loudest and most relentless of all. I wear that badge proudly. Someone has to do the dishes.
Where are the voices? The landscape today is depressing. There is no newspaper in Nigeria worth reading, none, zip. It is not impossible to find a journalist of any repute, it is simply hard. Nigeria’s fourth estate of the realm is a pathetic shadow of its former self, openly corrupt and incompetent, in a few cases, merely mediocre, like its counterpart loitering about in the ruling houses pretending to do whatever for Nigerians. What passes for journalism is an army of pretend newspapers lined up behind their political paymasters, digging up dirt, and regaling an imaginary reading audience with poorly written cut and paste jobs. Many people avoid Nigerian newspapers like the plague. I ask people, do you want to be an informed citizen? Do you want data-driven information, devoid of cut and paste sophistry? I tell them, do what your Nigerian journalists and writers do: Avoid Made-in-Nigeria news. Most of it is crap, lazy opinions and falsehoods typed from the dangerous safety of a con-person’s bedroom. Do what they do, go directly to the source, read Western newspapers, troll the Internet and create your own news a la carte, Who is minding the store? Our best writers are at the doors of the New York Times, The New Yorker, etc. needy little beggars, begging the white man to publish their single stories, italicizing egusi and their dignity to oblivion. Do what they do, not what they say.
Sola Osofisan: You say “The book and the library are dying.” But it is “print” that’s dying and not the book itself, right? The book is merely changing its form and how it’s accessed. I think the book can only die if we all cease to imagine. How can something so edifying, educative, and personal die when every eyeball that scans a page or screen invests new life into it?
Ikhide Ikheloa: You are correct. It is print that is dying. I assumed, perhaps incorrectly, that people would understand that I am referring to print. More importantly, I refer to the analog nature of print, the sage on the stage mentality of the 20th century writer, as opposed to the random-access open-source nature of the digital medium, the paradigm and attitude shift to the guide by the side of today’s thinkers. Today, we don’t simply say, read books; we say, read. I am a genius!
Sola Osofisan: A major web destination for folks looking for your column was taken offline unceremoniously not too long ago. Why are you such an advocate for social media usage and web publishing, when a website’s life can be snuffed out with just a mouse click, taking with it a vital archive of materials that may not be available elsewhere?
Ikhide Ikheloa: You are referring to the website of the defunct NEXT newspapers owned by Dele Olojede. I was angry about what happened to me and several employees at NEXT, and his sudden decision to yank the website, and I let the world know about it (Read What Dele Olojede Owes us Next). I said,
I shall be blunt; Dele Olojede’s decision to shut down Next’s website is irresponsible; it is not that expensive to keep a website going. More importantly, many of us who had hoped to have access to our column pieces are now struggling mostly in vain to recreate our works. We should have been given ample warning ahead (of) time to allow us retrieve our column pieces. This is simply unacceptable and I am happy to call Olojede on this (snip) conduct more than any other management deficiencies of his. It is abusive, it is wrong, it is irresponsible. Mr. Olojede, I ask you to bring back the Next website by all means necessary
That was in April 2012. He promised to reopen the website. It is still down. I think your admonition should be that writers should keep redundant backup copies of their work. We lost a lot in NEXT, money being the least of it. I did have virtually everything I sent over to NEXT, except they were not the final versions of what was printed. These days, many of us have the opposite problem; it is almost impossible to delete anything, especially stuff you want gone like yesterday. You type something on your computer and it squirrels it away in a thousand places.
Sola Osofisan: As far as I can tell, the natural inclination of a vast majority of people – and not only African youngsters – is to avoid any kind of reading or application of the mental faculties. It’s obviously due to the attractions and distractions of the times. Add to that the fact that someone failed to take them on guided tours of the realm of words before they choked the dreamer inside. You’re in education here in America. College students who can’t spell or string a sentence together are in abundance. They buy electronics and are too lazy to read a dumbed-down manual. “Keep it stupidly simple” has to be their mantra. How hard can it be to read a book, when even the worst smartphone in the market has a text-to-speech feature to read anything to you? So when you urge our writers to write what people want to read, I sometimes wonder, because if we all get only what we want handed to us, how would we ever have the pleasure of savoring new and unthought-of pleasures, discovering new authors and dreams just by perusing a neighborhood bookshop? From my experience, what mainstream readers hanker to read – commercial it may be, but I’m sorry it’s mostly puerile. I know you’ve called that kind of talk snobbish in the past. I beg to disagree. You write beautiful prose because you grew up on a diet of great literature. Read great writers and you will aspire to think bigger, better, and do and say and write things that transcend the moment, transcend time and space, things that elevate. Many of us have no idea what we would love to read until we actually try reading something – the blurb, a first page perhaps, a chapter? How can anyone say our writers are not writing what they want when they’re not even sampling what has already been written? How do I write what they want? They have no clue what they want.
Ikhide Ikheloa: Interesting thoughts and viewpoints. I must say, Sola, for someone who has been a pioneer in the digital frontier, you seem reticent about its influence, perhaps pessimistic about its worth. I prefer to look at it differently. Who reads a manual these days? That’s what Google is for. Thinkers and writers are emerging who understand, respect and appreciate the force that is the Internet. Many writers of note are stepping out of their safe zones and interacting directly with their readers on social media. As far as I can tell, it has been a mutually rewarding experience. I challenge the notion that much of what obtains in the digital space is drivel, just like in the analog medium, where you go may be incredibly rewarding, or an immense waste of your time. People should read, read, and read, none of that has changed. Those who teach should figure out where there students are and go teach them there. Many of us are losing our readers because we have romanticized our fascination with a dying past. Tolstoy is not coming back.
I will say it again and again; the myth that people don’t read nowadays is a myth. They may not be reading your books, but they are glued to the monitor of something, hungry to reach out and touch with words that convey feeling and meaning to them. My teenage son hates reading print, but his soul comes alive on the iPad and as he points and clicks, swipes, points and laughs, in his joy I remember the library of my childhood. The iPad has become this generation’s library. Before we build the next big library that no one under 40 will go to, let’s have a town meeting and ask the youths whether they really want a library and where they would want it. My teenage daughter wants hers in her laptop. She hates the iPad. But, you are right, and I have said it before, the library lives, still.
Sola Osofisan: In January 2013, you wrote on your blog, and I quote: “The most popular African books that are being read voraciously today are Twitter and Facebook.” While I think it is a stretch to call the snippets of often unprocessed, spontaneous ejaculates on Twitter books (and you probably did not mean that), is this something we ought to be celebrating? Are you suggesting writers should be writing to suit fleeting attention spans? I thought the non-fleeting, the edifying, training our attention to transcend the temporal, these are some of the reasons why we read books. Don’t you think you’re doing a disservice to your younger readers who read comments like that and thereby get tempted to join the un-enduring band-wagon when this incarnation of social media may be nothing more than another fad as we have seen with others in the past? The book always survives. Besides, writers write what they read – at least in the beginning; what are the readers of Twitter going to write? Tweets?
Ikhide Ikheloa: I am suggesting that writers should be writing to engage their readers. Right now, many traditional writers are losing their audience to bloggers, Facebook pundits and Twitter overlords who hold their audience captive with all sorts of tricks, and when the reader is not looking, a thoughtful, profound essay on say, the prurience of existentialism (I have no idea what that means, but I figured I should sound intelligent!). I love Twitter. Properly used, it is entertaining, informative, and yes, engaging. It is magical how a tweet containing only 140 characters can expand like bush meat to fill the mouth of the reader. If you are a writer in the 21st century and you don’t have a twitter account, you are not serious. I use Twitter to share links to essays that may also have links embedded in them. One tweet can start a wondrous journey of exploration for any curious mind. My point, don’t fret; Twitter will not be the end of literature.
Sola Osofisan: “He needs closure, something new. Normal is / babysitting a homeland still teething at fifty…” (Afam Akeh in “The Greying of Ikheloa.“). Nigeria, from the outside looking in, there’s a perspective you get that those living within cannot fully comprehend. I know you’ve written on how sad and frustrated Nigeria makes you feel. Do you also see signs of hope? What are your thoughts on Nigeria and Nigerians today?
Ikhide Ikheloa: Nigeria makes me sad and frustrated most days. It is an obsession that will probably kill me. It does seem that the role of democracy has been to prove how utterly irrelevant government is to the lives of citizens in the 21st century. The Nigerian government is beyond irrelevant, it is an unfair pox, a perverse taxation on those unfortunate to endure her malu droppings every day. The poor are the most impacted. The political and intellectual classes are united in making life miserable for the people. Do what I say, not what I do is their mantra. From ASUU to Aso Rock, the people are royally screwed. I see hope in the great work being done in the private sector, but you cannot sustain a private sector with an infrastructure that seems like it has been eaten to the bone by termites. This democracy is a cancer that must be excised from our nation. It is literally killing Nigeria. I am sad, as you can see.
Sola Osofisan: Everyone speaks of your love for Malbec; Victor Ehikhamenor, E.C. Osondu, Pius Adesanmi, even Afam Akeh immortalized it thus: “The remains of a drink go down / his gullet – Original Malbec, ‘fire water’ / and comfort juice to his bones…” How did your love affair with Malbec begin? How do you “travel light with Malbec as guide” (Afam Akeh)? Some people drive under the influence and it gets them in trouble. Have you ever written with a little too much Malbec in the blood, accounting perhaps for why one review may be more scathing than another?
Ikhide Ikheloa: Well, that young man Pius Adesanmi came to the house in the company of Victor Ehikhamenor, we had a few bottles, er glasses, and the rest is now literary folklore. Moral of the story, do not ever invite Pius to your space; certainly not when you are drinking. His fertile imagination will not let you forget how much you had! Yes, I would like to say I have written with a little too much Malbec in the blood, woken up, and gone, “damn, that is good! Did I write that?” The role of alcohol in the writer’s life tends to be glamorized. I will only say this; my writing and Malbec don’t mix very well. I like to enjoy the company of Malbec in the presence of friends. Actually a good bottle of cognac will get my attention over Malbec any day, but then we are talking about my writing life. Each review that I do goes through a fairly rigorous process; it takes quite a while to produce what I am ultimately happy with. Many people don’t know this but I also subject it to the withering eyes of the writer Nkem Ivara, my friend who also doubles as my long-suffering and unpaid editor. Nothing goes out these days without Nkem’s stamp of approval. That writer can smell drunken rants from afar. I do write best when I am sober. Mornings in America are my best. My creative spirit enjoys the energies of the morning – and the solitude. I read. And read. And read. I write. And write. And write. And I enjoy the warm lunacy that purrs in me.
Sola Osofisan: Let’s wrap this up with a final reference to Afam Akeh’s “The Greying of Ikheloa.” Talking about greying literally now (Yeah, I know! You’re only 35!), is it something you welcome with a hug, or you’re kicking and screaming? Do you feel wiser, or much of life still remains a mystery to you that you’re going to be deliciously unwrapping every new day?
Ikhide Ikheloa: Ahem! 32 years! I am enjoying myself. This is the best time of my life so far. The aging process is a humbling one. You experience changes physically and emotionally and there’s not much you can do about it. People may find this hard to believe, but I am gentler now, and the things that used to upset me in my youth do not bother me now that I am 32!
By the way Afam’s poetry moves me in ways few other owners of words do. As you know, he has a lovely book of poetry out, Letter Home & Biafran Nights (available on Amazon). The poem The Greying of Ikheloa is now one movement in four of a long poem Letter Home. I love that book. In my review of the book, I summed up my feelings for the gift that is Afam’s beautiful mind thus:
Akeh is different from Okigbo in one important sense; his verses allow you to own them personally, and he is generous enough to e-smile indulgently when you claim them as your own. But I think of both Okigbo and Akeh as master wordsmiths, fastidious almost to a fault. I think of them as master gardeners, tending a postcard-perfect garden, each flower in its right place, a snip here, a touch there, nothing goes to the market until it is perfect. And because the master gardener is rarely satisfied, the market is starved of the genius of prodigy.
Back to the question, it is interesting that as I have grown older life has grown even more mysterious and baffling. My mystical senses have mushroomed and I feel a connectedness with a spirituality that is beyond traditional boundaries. I find myself muttering, there is no end, there is no beginning, because there is an end and there is a beginning. I am moved more easily these days by the sheer banality of cruelty and the grace and poetry of kindness, but I seem to feel injustice more. I am in a different phase of the journey now and funerals are becoming more frequent in my calendar. But I love more, I laugh more and I am enjoying myself, I am. As I often say, it is what it is, I did not ask to be born, I was born. I am here, deal with it.
Interviews with Ikhide Ikheloa available elsewhere:
a) Abubakar Adam Ibrahim interviews Ikhide (January 14, 2014)
c) The Irreverent Critic: Interview with Ikhide Ikheloa (February 25, 2013)
d) Emmanuel Iduma: Conversation with Ikhide Ikheloa (September 30, 2012)