Prof Chimalum Nwankwo is seen as one of Africa’s greatest exports in the world of letters, having taught in some of the best universities in the US. A critic and award winning poet, Henry Akubuiro caught up with him recently at Veritas University, Bwari, Abuja, where he is teaching at the moment, after a reading held in his honour by ANA Abuja chapter. He responds to questions pertaining to his affirmation as an Igbo poet, the problem with universality, the place of cultural valorisation in African literature, his innovations in Love Song for Julian Assange, and his idea of “African Holistique”.
You have described yourself as an Igbo poet writing in English. What exactly does it imply?
People say I sound so Igbo in what I do, and I say yes, I am an Igbo man. What I try to do is what I explained in one article I had in ALT long ago. I was describing the works of Yvonne Vera. I used the word “trans-emote” —you are carrying the emotions of your people, cosmology and everything into what you are depicting, and I gave the example from Igbo and with a little bit of pscycholinguistics, that when you say “anwu na eti”; if you translate it, it means “the sun is beating.” It is just telling you that the sun is a living thing, an elemental force in life, in the cosmos.
What’s your problem with universality? You don’t seem to be on the same page with its proponents.
My problem with universality is that they have a new masquarade called globalisation — a masquarade which has replaced the universal. The games are clear, and the games of the west vis-a-vis the rest of us are all about hegemonic dominance. But, if you are in a table negotiating and you are not strong enough, your bargain is weak. We are always going to the table with little or nothing.
One of my friends said he is looking at Okigbo’s works, its offer of a marketplace shocking from a marketplace of values, that is, from his eclecticism; he is speaking of things from all over the world. Then, I said, which world? It’s the western world. Why are they not picking from us? Why is the western world not picking from us? Look, the erudition of our writers is sometimes disgraceful — you can quote everybody except your own people. He refers to Gilgamech and Byzanthum, what of your own icons? This is ridiculous. We have some of the richest cultures on the planet: the Yoruba, the Zulu, the Ashanti, the Dogos of Mali, very powerful people in the depth of their visions for the world. It seems we like disgracing ourselves as Igbo people (laughs). Our things are ihe ekwensu. You can quote the entire planet and not quote your people, does it make sense? What kind of children are you raising? Which world are you raising the children? For them to serve the world and not to serve you? That’s where we actually have the depth of our agony today. You know about the world, and little about your people.
For young writers writing today, do we still have the challenge of recreating our culture?
Look at what Achebe was doing over the years —historical realism — moving and following the way we were growing; looking at new challenges. I hear people say he has changed his attitude to women, but he is looking at the Igbo woman in new circumstances. The Igbo women in the Things Fall Apart were different women in Anthills of the Savannah —these were educated women. Remember the scene in Anthills…where a woman was fighting with her husband and the daughter came to help, but she warned her to stay out, “It’s me and my husband.” These are women in new circumstances. I don’t know how people read texts; they don’t understand what’s going on. You can’t go back to the past. You may reuse the past. Look at what Chenney Coker Syl did in The Last Harmattan of Alisune Dunbar: it’s a chronicle from slavery back to Africa. Isidore Okpewho did the same thing in Call Me by Rightful Name. You can telescope experiences backward or forward either by speculation or whatever.
In Love Song for Julian Assange, Ahmed Maiwada says you have reached a new level. What particular new things did you set out to do?
It is a very complex love song. It is symphonic of life. A symphony player. You get so many depths of levels, points and counterpoints, deeping into the past, staying with the present and future. I dig up everything. All my resources are at work in terms of saying the things which I wanted to say about the world. I am sure, of course, the work I have been doing, even with the essays, is to define the African angle and the solutions, this great crisis we have without knowing we have it. And I gave you guys during the reading a list of them: we are Africans and we are Christians; we are Africans and we are Muslims; some of us are Nigerians, some of us are not. There are so many contradictions about us. How do we resolve them? If I read in Igbo and tell a Hausa person to interpret it to the audience, he may be stuck. It’s unfortunate we went through colonialism. We are even luckier than the French people who were assimilated.
You are one of our greatest African intellectual exports to the world, having taught in America for over 35 years in some of the best universities. Have our contemporary writers successfully stepped into the shoes of the Achebes, Okigbos and Soyinkas?
These greats are gifts for mankind, and they don’t come everyday. Once in a while, they come to the world, do their thing and go away. These are specially gifted people; you can’t replace them. You can only extend what they did. You can’t write another Things Fall Apart, for God’s sake. You cannot. It’s like English people telling you there is somebody more than Shakespeare. Please, stop dreaming. It’s not possible to have another Shakespeare. There are gifted writers like that who come and blaze, and their fires will remain, even when they are gone. In art, we may not even be recognised while we are alive. In European art, for instance, some artists became more famous after their death. The more people can open up what they did, the more they become attractive in the meantimes. But maybe because of money or love for fame, Nigerians want the satisfaction immediately. That’s why they do crazy stuffs.
You said you came out with so much power in The Womb in the Heart. Do you consider it that ultimate work of yours?
Like Achebe said, you can’t say this is your favourite child of all your children. But my most serious works are The Womb in the Heart, Of the Deepest Shadows and the Prisons of Fire and Love Song for Julian Assange. The others are somewhere in between.
You are guest-editing the latest edition of African Literature Today journal (39), what do find striking among the current crop of African critics?
Watch my editorial when it comes out. There is a lot of debate going on about African speculative fiction or science fiction. A scholar called Davy calls it African futurism, while Nnedi Okoroafor calls it Afro Futurism. When the debate was going on about marvellous realism and magical realism, I explained it to the world. Marvellous is just marvel. Magical is actuated action; you evoke some abracadabra and something happens; you make some rituals and something happens. But marvellous is the inexplicable; you can’t explain it. If I am sitting down with you and, sudenly, some beings start working into this place through the walls, it’s marvellous. I think people should understand the differences.
Here we are now, and Davy is saying African writing is African futurism, whether it is science or speculative, and Nnedi Okoroafor say it’s Afrofuturism. I say it is Universal African holistique. Modern physics says there is no time. What we have is infinity. In future, they are putting time. It’s like art is moving to somewhere. Whether you call it “Afro” or “African”, once you put “futurism”, it is deloping towards a time zone. A holistique that is universal is telling you that there is no time —no forward or backward —everything is the same thing. What happened 100 years ago could be replayed today. We could actually go into the future and we are still here. The being is holistic. Everything is happening at the same time.
If you look at Woman of the Aeroplane by Kojo Laing, the biggest name in that genre as far as I am concerned, he has a story where human beings cooperate, because they are able to rise to a level of immortality. It’s a siter town of a Ghanain town in England. They relate, because they have achieved immortality. Immortality is timeless. So it’s not about rich or poor, small or big, elder or young. That’s what I am talking about. How do we get to that zero situation of neutrality in which nobody is superior to the other and no time is yesterday, today or tomorrow? Time is just time, and we are living inside it. That’s why I coined the word “holisque”.