Anaele Ihuoma has worked as a journalist, banker and teacher. He is the author of the novel, Imminent River; the short story collection, The Sea Route to Senorita’s Heart; the poetry volumes, Tongues of Triumphs, Song of the Threshing Floor and Song of the Swallow; the play, One Day with the Hounds. among other works. He holds an MA in Literature from the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife. HENRY AKUBUIRO chatted with him recently in Port Harcourt on his writings.
You released three works recently, a novel, Imminent River; a collection of stories, The Sea Route to Señorita’s Heart, and a play, One Day with the Hounds. How long did it take you to write and publish these books?
Although they rolled out of the press within six months of each another, they were written over a period spanning thirty years. The play, One Day with the Hounds, which was my first work of any genre, was written in the 1980s but forgotten. The Sea Route to Señorita’s Heart is a selection from my short story pool, written over a period of more than five years, and was published in 2019. The first word in Imminent River was written in April 2006, in Uyo. I can vividly remember that. The novel went through several rewrites. It’s now that I can better appreciate the saying that good writing is actually rewriting! Published in 2018 by Narrative Landscape Press, copies were only received in 2019 after an excruciatingly long wait at the Lagos port.
One of your works making waves right now is Imminent Rivers. To what extent were you influenced by Alex Haley and the trajectory of Kunta Kinte in writing the novel?
Alex Haley’s Roots brought tears to my eyes after I read it in the University library back at Ife in the1980s. I wouldn’t say it was the Aristotelian tears of catharsis; it was a sort of revenge-seeking tears, revenge for the physical, emotional and psychological pains inflicted on the Kunta Kinte family by slavery –pain you felt vicariously if you were a young, impressionable student and a Black person anywhere in the world, for Kinte was a kind of Blackman’s Everyman, an archetype. Yes, that experience will stay with me for life. However, at that time, it was a one-track emotional response, a we-and-them stalemate. But, as I matured, I began to see things, including Slavery itself, from a wider socio-historical prism. If we demand reparation from the West for Slavery, it is not out of place to also seek reparation from the Arabs, and from fellow black Africans, all those who were complicit in the ruinous enterprise and who profited directly or indirectly from it.
Yes, you could say that a sort of gene was mentally carried over from Haley’s Roots, but not in the sense in which, for instance, Achebe’s Things Fall Apart writes back to Joyce Cary’s Mister Johnson and Josef Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. And it was an afterthought, really, because Haley was nowhere in my mind’s horizon when Imminent River was being conceived. But the moment my subconscious released what it harboured as the writing progressed, there came the need, also, to revisit Haley’s setting. Being an overtly historical novel, a work of monumental and trans-generational relevance, whatever Roots posits, directly or by association, invariably carries much weight. Thus, the portrayal of life in Juffure, which was the life in a particular community in the Gambia, could be extrapolated by the unwary, African or non-African, to mean the life in pre-colonial Africa.
What I have done in Imminent River, in this respect, is proffer another, not necessarily, a counter-cultural setting to Roots. You would notice, of course, that the trajectory is inverted: from an African-American coming down to Africa in search of his ‘roots’, to the African going up to America to look for his ‘shoots’ or ‘leaves’. While this is the mainstay of the narrative arc of Roots, it is only subtly hinted at in Imminent River, like a teaser pulling the reader along, until the very last pages. The multiple conflicts, ultimately connected with the search for the longevity formula, have enough nous to propel the story along. And Haley did not have the luxury of adding love stories, the one between Ezemba and Agbonma, for instance. His was strictly historical. Perhaps the very imperative of his quest did not allow for such luxury.
The plot of the story begins in the 19th century, and it is fascinating how you recreated the ancient setting, with the matriarch Daa-Mbiiway pulling the strings. What went into the research of this fiction?
A lot. Don’t forget the story is based on a real, flesh-and-blood person, my maternal aunt by the name of Mbiwe; so we all called her Da-Mbiwe (pronounced Daa-mbiiway). To give life to the dream, I had to scour libraries and cyberspace and relevant histories, interviewing and observing certain elderly persons. As I began writing, it was as if she was there in the room with me, even while the bulk of the work was being done at Ebedi Writers Residency in Iseyin, Oyo State. That was sheer good fortune. At some point, I disappeared and the story started writing itself. Certain things happened that I still do not understand to this day. As a ruddy young man emerged from the strange river, I was trying to give him a name when he quickly introduced himself as “David the son of Jesse, the healer from the Healing Home.” My hairs stood on edge. When, back in the early chapters, I needed to give a name to Daa-Mbiiway’s assistant, the name Jesse had simply dropped from the sky. And now this! I see divine orchestration in all these, for at the time of Jesse’s creation the David episode was not even in the picture.
Just when I thought Daa-Mbiiway was going to metamorphose and play a bigger role in the plot, she disappears. What informs her cameo appearance?
It is also perhaps informed by the logic of the plot; and also the suspense factor; the reader wants to know what has become of her, or what she is up to. I would think the immediate aftermath of her capture by the men in the caravan, that is, the slave raiders, was rather blurred so that the reader can begin to imagine various scenarios and to begin to speculate as to what could happen next, who has the longevity formula and what this person or persons could be up to. Now that is the narratological side. But, frankly, Daa-Mbiiway’s disappearance and disappearance is the story! A storyteller does not have to explain the whys and wherefores of certain twists in the tale outside of the story itself. That is the province of critics and reviewers. Everything has its nature; this is the nature of Imminent River, just like the warm and cold waters of Ikogosi; it’s the nature and, therefore, the main attraction of this particular spring,
The search for the longevity formula is at the heart of this narrative, which created rifts from generation to generation. In a way, it reminds one of the blockbuster movie, The Black Panther, and the discovery of special natural resource in the fictional African nation of Wakanda, which holds the key to future of Africa and the world. How close to reality is the longevity formula?
Wow! I’d rather look at it in its simplest term – this is, or has to do with, the story of an ageless woman with a formula that prolongs life, whose ancient healing home recorded no deaths! As the story unfolds, we don’t know the specific active ingredients or their combination. Perhaps Jesse or his wife, Edidion, might know since he talks about ‘pharmaceutics’, but he is murdered and Edidion lost, to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Cell biologists and eugenicists who study human longevity and improvement of the species often talk about phenols and polyphenols obtained from plants and reputed to prolong the life of the cell, which is the unit of a living matter in an organism. In the hands of such people the story might have assumed an entirely different dimension. Why do Chinese and Japanese, people whose lifestyle is associated with certain plant-derived foods and drugs, live longer, for instance? Here, though, we are dealing with fiction. However, you may consider the fact of the existence of these longevity phenols with interesting anti-oxidant properties to be a link between the story and reality.
If you want to draw parallels with Black Panther in the sense you are suggesting, you could then connect the fact that the search for the longevity formula led to the discovery of manganese and other minerals used in the steel making. This, ultimately, leads to the emergence of E and J conglomerate, Ezemba’s cashcow as he strives for economic supremacy with Chief Ojionu. But they are two different stories.
The mystery surrounding the Insibidi code also plays out in Immanent River. How did this secrecy help the Igbo nation or otherwise?
No idea. I think the notion of secrecy in relation to Nsibidi is more in the realm of conspiracy theory. It fits neatly into a cultural narrative that sees pre-European African societies as mutually antagonistic rather than cooperative. However, given the fact that Nsibidi was essentially a writing system still in gestation –it is also answered to other descriptions – a ‘secret’ context was not inconceivable. Different age grades or perhaps masquerades, artist guides or trade groups or, as used in Imminent River, griots, could have found it useful and expedient as a communication tool in furthering their group interest. Such things could be done, have, indeed, been done, with other languages with diverse alphabet systems. That does not turn such languages into ‘secret’ languages. It was simply an evolving writing system. Did Nsibidi ‘secrecy’, granted, help the Igbo? Depends. But mind you, although it is generally associated with the Igbo, it was said to have also been practised by the Efik and Ibibio, Anang and other neighbouring communities around Calabar and beyond. Every language is a cultural asset not just to the ‘owners’ but also to the users. In that sense it must have been beneficial. But I am not sure it was in the sense in which use of codes played a major role among French and British intelligence elements in the Napoleonic wars, or critically, the allied forces and the Nazis in the Second World War. But let’s not forget; this is fiction or perhaps an elevated version of what my children would call ‘story book’.
I am intrigued by your superb handling of the story of the Aro Confederacy and its might when pitted against the white supremacist. Is there any statement you are you making with this historical context?
Thanks for the compliment. As a story writer, my brief, and the debt I owe my reader, is to write good stories, not to make what you call ‘statements’ which in this context might mean political or military statements. However a work of art cannot exist in vacuo; it emerges from the interaction of writer and society. I leave it to the reader and the reviewer to elicit statements, if any, from the work, otherwise, I would be an essayist or a commentator. However, let it be said that it is incumbent on the committed writer to write such a compelling story as to draw a captive readership, and at the same time make the reader to easily make the connection between the work and the imperative of social action, as is often the case with a writer like Bertolt Brecht. Your question is also an interesting one, given the elision of history from the school curriculum. As nature abhors a vacuum, it wouldn’t surprise me if vocations such as journalism, literature, film and related practices take up the space created by the deliberate abandonment of history. From history ,we learn of forces such as the Aro Confederacy which perhaps wielded such anti-imperialist power in the hinterland of what is now southern Nigeria, as the forces of Jaja of Opobo and Nanna of Itsekri did on the waterfronts, to checkmate British mercantile forces as they bid to dominate the lucrative commerce which paved the way for imperialist expansionism in the region.
In the Epilogue entitled “Ajaelu Tastes the Hiatus Music”, the setting levitates to Abeokuta in 1934, when Wole Soyinka was born, and there are echoes of African-American models as the curtain draws abroad. What informs this strand in the narrative?
It is a very critical strand in the narrative. As many have observed, the story of Imminent River draws as much from the fictional impulse as from the historical. This is a pan-West African story with characters stretching from Nigeria – or what became Nigeria – to the Gold Coast. It is in the epilogue that the story is finally resolved – the Da Vinci Code-like puzzle, the face behind the mask of Ajaelu, etc. and of course the events of July 13, 1934 both in New York and Isara, Abeokuta, etc, were all real. One who reads in-between the lines will then unravel the custodian of the longevity formula! Why did I do it? Not sure I have an answer beyond the fact that it syncs with the story. I also perhaps wanted to open up the genre space, rather than show servile fidelity to the supposed content, format or style book of a particular genre.
When do you consider a subject apt for a short story exploration?
Any. The acclaimed masters, their cohorts and pretenders – Edgar Alan Poe, Anton Chekhov, August Strindberg, Luigi Pirandello, Dambudzo Marechera, Maxim Gorky, Binyavanga Wainaina, etcetera –all explored diverse themes: mystery, love (or its denial), the psyche, hunger, madness, marriage, poverty, religion, sexual orientation, war, peace, etcetera. People of different political and ideological bent: freethinkers and anarchists and demagogues and socialists and religious zealots, and right wingers have all written and are still writing. Who can stop a man or woman with battery in his laptop? Nothing but failure of craft! Or perhaps those done in by the subtle diktat of prize administrators, who might want to literally effectuate the dictum the the one paying the piper dictating the tune.
What inspired you to write One Day with the Hounds?
The society. Nigeria is a story waiting to be written. One Day with the Hounds was actually written in the 1980’s just after my NYSC. Originally titled A Day in the Life of a Trapped Nation, it was presumed lost until Emeka Egwuda who had published my three poetry works needed a play and so put much pressure on me. By the time I fished out the manual typewriter-created manuscript, it was dog-eared and roach-eaten at several points. But it still contained the critical mass to yield what we now have.
As can be guessed from the storyline, One Day with the Hounds was inspired by incessant incursions into the Nigerian political space by the military; but it has been a lose-lose situation for the proverbial Nigerian man on the street who has to hail every change of government, only to see them turn his dreams and expectations into nightmares. But rather than lamentation, the dark comedy the play inheres is to enable us laugh and live, to fight another day.