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In Conversation: Inua Ellams

“I’m from a long line of troublemakers,” a poignant and captivating statement by the poet and writer, Inua Ellams. His one man show, The 14th Tale opened at the national theatre in February 2010, to rave reviews. At 26, Ellams is one of the youngest playwrights to have his work staged at the national Theatre, London 26 year-old London.  An achievement many only ever dream about.

inuaBelinda: Which part of Nigeria are you from and when did you come over to the UK?

Inua: I was born in Jos, plateau State and I came to the UK in 1996

Belinda: When did the muse of poetry discover you?

Inua: It was in Dublin. I lived in Dublin for two years and it was through one of my teachers, that was where the love came in. He taught us a lot of Shakespeare and you either loved it or hated it.

Belinda: What inspires you as an individual, an artist and are there other sources you get inspiration from?

Inua: I am inspired by language itself. I am inspired by the sense that there is a vague order to everything. You can trace how things happen and that they happen for a reason. I am inspired by life and also by the hip-hop generation, the cultural and social braggadocio, the beauty and the idea that one man is talking about and representing where he is form and strutting down the street with nothing to show for it except his words. I am inspired by classic writers, people like John Keats, William Wordsworth, William Shakespeare, an American poet called Saul Williams, another called major Jackson and a host of British writers

Belinda: When did you start sharing your work publicly?

Inua: 2004

Belinda: You have performed at a number of prestigious venues, which one stands out and why?

Inua: It is not necessarily about venues. Most of the time, I don’t remember venues but I remember the performances and audience. One of the most intimate things was in a bookshop at a filling station in a shopping mall, off the motor way and it was in a Borders bookshop. I just sat down and it was two people and I just read poems to them. In regards to the bigger venues, one thing I remember is reading poems on the bus, just standing up and reading poetry. Another thing was the first time I performed the 14th tale and it was at the Arcola theatre and the audience was…let’s say about 25 per cent of them were my friends and it was a very warm intimate crowd and everything was perfect for testing out the audience. And then the Royal Albert Hall was good. A huge monumental landmark and in the basement, I read at the launch of an exhibition to people dressed in bow ties and ball gowns. I walked on stage and shouted at them until they came close and then I read them poems and that was memorable because of how strange that experience was and the people that were there.

Belinda: Now, it’s the national theatre, which I am sure you must be looking forward to, how does the experience differ from the others?

Inua: The royal Albert Hall was an event and I was added to it but the national, it is my play and the story of my life that people are coming to see and I feel a lot more pressured but my producers are doing all they can to deflect much of the attention away from me and have a girlfriend who is perfect and makes me focus on what is important and she has a sharp tongue and never lets my ego get big. And I am looking forward to it and it is definitely the biggest audience I have played the 14th tale to and you are right when you say people dream of being able to take a show there. I never dreamt of it, it was far of the scale for me. It was a distant dream that I never ever drove towards and when it came, it was completely out of the blue and chocked me.

Belinda:  If it came as a shock, how did it happen?

Inua: One of the programmers came to Edinburgh Fringe festival and liked it. So, he sent another person to come down and see and she liked it. So they contacted my producer, who called me and asked me if I would consider doing it. I remember being on the bus and just laughing because I didn’t know what else to do. I didn’t know how to react. I remember, I was so shocked, I called my father and his phone was engaged. I called my girlfriend and her phone was engaged. Pretty much everyone who was close to me was busy and I was just full of excitement and I did didn’t know what to do. So, I ran to the top of the bus, sat down to contain myself and I taped a man who was sitting nearby on his shoulder and said hi, can I tell you something? I told him and it turns out his father was a playwright and he grew up in the world of theatre and it turns out that when I was touring with the 14th tale, that it was showing at one of the venues his father was a director for. So, he knew how big and important it was and he was able to share in the excitement with me.

Belinda: When you say that you are sceptical about being called a poet, what do you think makes a writer or anyone worthy of being called a poet and what must be in their past, that makes them deserving of that title?

Inua: It’s a difficult thing because. I believe in the sole power of language as a defining art form and stays true to the fundamentals and the voice and language. Those are things that make a poet worth of being called a poet. There is the responsibility and purity of it.

Belinda: What inspired the whole concept and idea behind the story of the 14th Tale, and what themes and subjects did you want to explore did you have in mind and wanted to explore?

Inua: The play came about from trying to do something I was afraid of, which is to write about myself. When I first started writing, I mostly wrote about political things or things that I felt were wrong with the world and classically, wanted to change everything. So, when I first started writing, I wrote about things that were about outside of me and the world is a big place. So, for me it is easy to write about the world, what is most difficult is to write about yourself and that was what I felt I could not do, and what I wanted to try and do with the 14th Tale. The play is also a metaphor for that change in literature and voice.

Belinda: I understand it explores your life. Hence, why the decision to examine the expectations of young black men?

Inua: I guess when you start writing about yourself, it is impossible to do and not write about other men. In order to criticise any creation, you need to frame it by other things going on around it. I could not write about being a black boy without looking at other aspects of it. So, when I started writing the 14 Th Tale, wanting to tell my story, I did it knowing that there is an expectation and an idea of a black man that is prevalent to all British society. In writing about myself, I tried to stay true to myself, knowing that these things I talked about exist. The UK and British society is all about boxes in order for things to be accepted and digested properly. It also sheds light on Nigeria, a positive light.

Belinda: What was it about Nigeria that you wanted to say?

Inua: I didn’t write it to make any comments about Nigeria as such. I wanted to write about myself and my own internal conflict but if I was to draw any parallels with Nigeria, I guess then, that I would be trying to draw similarities with society. Growing up in Nigeria, I remember at some point having this theory that there are only a certain group and types of people and you have relationships with these people and kinds of people. Then coming to London and having the same thing replicated in London and Dublin, and that reinforced on me that people are people. Again, it is central to my work, the idea of commonality that you will meet a Mongolian herdsman some where and there will be some commonality between the two of you. So, in writing about Nigeria, it is the idea that, despite what is said, the images that are broadcasted around the western world, we are as we are, there is not the idea of the other.

Belinda: How far back did you go and how much did you dig into your memory bank in order to write?

Inua: It was brilliant because I remember sitting for hours in the dark, laughing as the memories came flooding back. I remember being chased by my housemaster at Federal Government College Odogbolu, into the forest with my friends because instead of going to dinner, we were hiding. So, things like that just came. A lot of things centred around me being beaten at Odogbolu. It was an interesting process and then after that, the aim was to structure it in a chronological and narrative sense. It was entertaining for me to look at my life and leave in the poignant part and the ones that should not go in.

Belinda: What theatrical or devising techniques have you employed to help you keep the audiences attention?

Inua: My director, the first time I met him, I read poems to him and he instantly liked the idea of just the voice and me reading my story. And because of the way the play is written, it is very visual, very poetic and has intricate rhymes and rhythm, and he didn’t want to add or use anything that will take away from that. Prop wise, we only have a chair and a torch light and they are both black. So there is nothing apart from those two. All the images and characters are conjured up by my description and voice. In terms of performing this, there is a lot of scope and there are different techniques and things we are playing with. It is the idea of my physicality, of how I can slouch into different characters or how my voice is high pitched at different points. How I look over my shoulder is behind me or how I look at things or behave if someone is behind me or in front of me or my body gestures. For instance, there is a scene with me fighting with my friend at school and all of that is done with me describing the situation and demonstrating with my hands. Also the lighting, when we are in Nigeria, the light is bright and yellow which is the reference to sunlight and quality of brightness that we have in Africa, and when we are in London, it is cooler to suggest the winter. The things we are playing with are light, descriptions and my physicality to add to the whole production.

Belinda: Your opening line says, ‘I come from a long line of trouble makers.’ What was the purpose of that?

Inua: Well, the truth is when you begin to write, make sure you have a first line that grabs the audience, something that gets their attention. So, on one hand, that first line was to get the audiences attention, draw them in and even make them laugh. But on the other front, the line is also simply very true. My great-grandfather was troublesome, my father grand-father was troublesome and had a total of seven wives and my father was quite mischievous and troublesome as well. Even to this day, he still has arguments with friends he went to school. So I do come from a long line of trouble makers. Men who are at odds with authority and  don’t like to be controlled in any way, who stayed/remain stubborn-headed at all cost regardless of whoever or whatever was said. I have had to let go of certain vices, so that I will be more open to people, for example when I moved to Dublin and was the only black boy in my school. I had to let go of certain things and change some views of myself to avoid distancing people. However, I have managed to stay stubborn in myself. The trait, the character trait of the men in my family, knowing what you want to do and going about how to get it done has been passed down to me. So, I am from a long line of trouble makers. Its true for me, the legacy of my family and the men in my family and in a way, it works as a poetic device.

Belinda: Was your aim to write about yourself? Hence, is it an historical story or sections of your life so far?

Inua: It is definitely sections of my life. It is some parts, this is just some parts out of a life because I could write the story of my life completely from my sister’s point of view and she would have a different way of describing things as would my father and others. So this is one way of writing about myself.

Belinda: what has the reaction been like form place to place?

Inua: It varies but generally, I have enjoyed it. And I have been to places in the UK I have never been to and how different people respond to theatre and I have enjoyed things and learnt a lot about myself, how I deal with myself and expectations.

Belinda: Do you have favourite topics to write about

Inua: One of my vices is that I always touch on light and dark in my work, I do that far too often. Most of the time, I write about the night and its because I like the idea of the night and the idea of a blanket being dropped over the entire world and the poet is with the torchlight and is about to shine it on something. So, I write about the night a lot and in the metaphorical sense. One thing I also play on is music and rhythm, and also what it is to live in this city and spiritualism and magical realism comes into my work a lot. I am inspired by the notion that we live on earth and it’s not where we belong and I write a lot about humanity and the mortality that comes with it. I write a lot also on vulnerability and I write about love because I am a romantic at heart.

Belinda: Your book, The 13 Fairy Negro Tales, an interesting title, which you started writing on a bus journey. What triggered that book?

Inua: I view myself as a citizen of the world, I know how pretentious that sounds but that is pretty much the standpoint from which the 13 Fairy Negro Tales comes from. Its like seeing a Mongolian herdsman and you still trust enough that you will find something of yourself in that person (the fact that we human beings are alike) It is written in the voice of a man, a west African man who travels around and feels compelled to write them. It was also about fooling around with the idea of magical realism and fairy tales. And that is where the title came from, The 13 Fairy Negro Tales, urban tales from an immigrant perspective. It was written when I was 19, a period of self discovery.

Belinda: Poetry from the little I know has started many movements. As a Nigerian, who is based outside of that situation, if asked for your opinion on the situation, or to write a piece to capture the current mood of the country, what would you say?

Inua: My next play tries to address this. It’s called Untitled and is about two brothers. They are separated at 7 months and one grows up in Nigeria and the other in London. What I am trying to do is for the play to make a comment really on the issue of relationship and friendship, and on the question of nature versus nurture regarding Nigeria. Looking at where it has come from to this year it is turning 50. The play is asking questions, who are we to blame for what has happened and whose responsibility is to fix the problem and the things that are wrong? Do we still sit back and blame it on colonial days on West Africa being raped for all its wealth or the corrupt government or do we think that what happened in the past has happened and what is now is now. And so because of the now, we must stand up and take matters into our own hands. And for me, my answer is that what happened in the past is the past and we must leave it there because the view points set in the past will mean we are going to stand there and keep complaining about the past. Generally, the mood of Nigeria and there are people who agree with me and this is what we are tying to do. We are trying to ignore what has happened in the past and saying okay, this is us now, let’s have a government who will listen to us, a government who not only listens to us but acts for us and who we are responsible for.

On being called An Africa Writer: Ellams says he hates to be described as an African writer because of the connotations and the small shelf space that exist and comes with it. “But I do not mind being described as a Nigerian writer, because for me, I like the idea of going into a room with an audience and that is how I am described and suddenly I am on a back foot because of the perceptions of Nigerians in the western community. I like the idea of having to prove myself and say yes, I am but whatever you think or are thinking, or whatever the world has used to describe me, I am none of that. I am going to read this poem to you and you are going to love it and there is nothing you can do about it. I like that setting and challenge of it but I don’t like the idea of being called an African writer because it almost feel like a cultural trend, having the African life. Its insulting, it exoticisess’s the idea of west Africa that we have become fashionable rather than the people on a global table who demand a sit and who are welcome, and should be there anyway. Instead, we are being offered as desert and that is what I don’t like about it, the idea and perception of it. I don’t like that term.

Image: Ed Collier


One Response to “In Conversation: Inua Ellams”

  1. Hans Schippers says:

    had to laugh when he talks about wanting to tell someone and running to the front of the bus and just tapping the next person’s shoulder :))

    Interesting comments on being called an African writer… Seems it’s a sensitive issue, and I’ve seen answers range from being proud of it to really hating it, like in this case… Interesting that the reason he hates it seems to be related to his perception of the western perception of Africa…

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