Conversation with Karen Ann King-Aribisala

by Ronnie Uzoigwe

Karen King-Aribisala is of the Dept. of English, University of Lagos, Nigeria. The author of Our Wife and Other Stories and Kicking Tongues, she has published several short stories in international journals such as The Griot and Presence Africaine. Other works recently completed by her are The Hangman’s Game (a novel) and two collections of short stories. She won the Best First Book Award of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 1991.

VERONICA (V) Some things I’d like to know, things for example, the environment when you were growing up because you were saying something about your Father encouraging you to actually read, and I was very impressed to see how you have had to really move a lot. Another thing I’d like to know is for example the literary background, the things that actually helped because it is one thing to be encouraged and it is another to be able to do something about enjoying the reading or actually writing. So what would you say helped a lot?

KAREN ANN KING-ARIBISALA (K.K-A:) Well a part, I think, as I said my father, In particular, took a keen interest in me as a person you know, reading to me. About the environment, my father himself reads a lot and there were books always around, and not only the books but a discussion of the books after having read them. You know, on every level he didn’t think that anything was too difficult for me and because he thought that, I thought that nothing was too difficult for me and so I read anything, everything.

V: Was your brother also involved in this literary world?

K.K-A: Ahm, my brother does not, we were closer; my father and I were closer. My brother is; his imagination is geared in another way. For instance he preferred to read comic books and in fact his profession now is writing scripts for products; you know, some scripts for advertisement and so on. So it’s still creative but obviously books influenced him but not in the same way as it did me because I had that kind of relationship with my father.

V: Then later on when you had to go to different schools, were you able to keep up reading even though your father wasn’t around.

K.K-A: Yes, he had set the pattern as it were, and so I read all the time and I’ve been doing so ever since. I love to read.

V: What would you say influenced you most; which of those books were you really interested in?

K.K-A: In terms of the short story, I think I was interested in Guy de Maupassant, a French writer and Somerset Maugham. That’s for short stories and poetry, I used to read a lot of Shakespeare and come to think of it I did a lot of acting and I had elocution exams. I got distinctions in all of them in England, for the London Academy of Dramatic Arts. So that having to learn by heart these select pieces for examination purposes and also I tended to do it on my own. If there is a particular poem I liked, I would commit it to memory and say it out loud and I think there is an oral quality in my writing, actually…

V: You pay a lot of attention to sound.

K.K-A: Yes.

V: Those short stories you wrote when you were very young is there any collection?

K.K-A: : Oh no, no I have them, I have the book, it’s written in pencil with my own illustrations etcetera. (She laughs)

V: It would be very interesting to read those ones.

K.K-A: It is interesting to look at them now, yes, yes.

V: … because in a developmental study I don’t know how – the imagination, your outlook on life would have been then compared to now. Whether the interests are the same…

K.K-A: I’ll look at them. I haven’t looked at them for.. no I haven’t but, em suspense is a key part of that. I think I remember the ending of one, which I was rather proud of, which is “Girl has been rescued from merciless crooks”. That’s how one of them ended; different types of stories, few essays.

V: So it’s not that you have any collections.

K.K-A: Yes, yes.

V: Were you not influenced by any of the Caribbean writers, for example, when you were in Guyana?

K.K-A: No I wasn’t actually. Growing up I wasn’t particularly interested; not interested; I just, I didn’t come across them funny enough, now you come to mention it. But when I was in Rome as a teenager, I met a very good friend of mine now; she is Canadian and she had studied at the University of West Indies and she infact introduced me to West Indian Literature. And from then on, I got into that, reading. And then eventually I was doing my doctorate on, partially on that.

V: Right but then when you got into that, which particular authors were you reading or did you just read what had to do with the course work or…

K.K-A: Well, I wouldn’t say that. There are very exciting ones, for instance Lamming’s novels for example, In The Castle of My Skin the lyrical poetry of the narrative; I find very attractive, ahm, who else? The poetry of Walcott, Sam Selvon’s The Comedy; different writers for different things. The Passion, of Martin Cartier. Another influence is Hopkins. Do you know of Hopkins?

V: Yes, G.M. Hopkins?

K.K-A: I like his terrible sonnets They’re called The Dark or Terrible Sonnets. Some people say terrible because of the wrestling with God and the truth that comes out of it.

V: Does that have to do with your new … after your life took a dramatic turn?

K.K-A: I think even before then, I find that somehow, God has always been in my writings, it’s very peculiar. My first published paper; an academic paper had to do with Hardy’s religious compulsion. My first published work, “Another Kingdom” mentions… I’ve changed that poem. In that poem I was looking at, saying that the only kingdom to which one can belong to is the ‘self’; now I’ve changed it to the only kingdom one can belong to is the ‘kingdom of God’. But even in that poem I was writing, God was there specifically. There is a section from the “Nunc Dimittis” in that.

V: I wanted to talk about your …especially the two books Our Wife And Other Stories and the Kicking Tongues. First, of all … sorry, my questions are just… I mean I don’t have a specific order, I’ll just ask them as they come. Talking about Our Wife And Other Stories, would it be right to say that the questions at the centre of it and of most of your creative work is this relationship between man, woman, the culture clash… especially in Our Wife and Other Stories

K.K-A: It would not be correct, No. In Our Wife and Other Stories, I’m looking…

V: …there is a lot of soul searching, in most of the stories there…the individual, is the point of focus…, I don’t know if that is always in relation with the culture clash. Someone from somewhere else, married to someone who has a different set of values, culture and all.

K.K-A: Ah, I’d like to think it’s a bit more than this hackneyed culture clash…

V: The famous culture clash! (Laughter)

K.K-A: Ah Yes, em (she laughs) But in that book, I’m looking at; the specifics of it are of course alienation within a specific cultural context. But at the same time, I found it heart warming and very revealing to find that so many Nigerians themselves; so many indigenous Nigerians relate to the book in the way that I will relate to the topics discu

ssed because I think the country is so large, you know. For instance, an Igbo person came to say that he found it very interesting to find out what happens at a Yoruba engagement ceremony. So they can feel, Nigerians themselves can be alienated within this particular society. So I think that’s the strength of the book: that it is particular and it also relates to other people within and without Nigeria. They can identify with it. So I think most people at one point of their life will feel alienated in one guise or another.

V: Also with Kicking Tongues comes the concern with this chaotic country that is Nigeria. It is very much like Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales I mean… did you have that in mind when you were actually writing it though the structure of Kicking Tongues is a little bit different; I mean the idea of the host, “The black Lady The” playing the more active part, she’s aggressive. In some cases she even tells the story of some of the travelers present.

K.K-A: Ahm, well, I’m dealing with, first to go back to the first thing you spoke about Chaucer. Yes it’s based on Chaucer to the extent that it’s a journey from one part of the country to another. It is a journey of penance for sins committed because the characters are going from Lagos to Abuja. It’s a spiritual, psychological and physical journey in which the characters would talk about their own problems … for instance in terms of gender, politics, religion and so on and give their own point of view.

And in terms of what you said about the character, why did she take on the stories of others? I’m trying to show also her own individual journey of starting off as a very aggressive, domineering, bossy person. And because she is able to get into the imaginative lives of other people, she also undergoes a change just as the society and all the other people are going under a change. So at the end, she, or gradually you see her relinquishing her domineering tactics.

V: Yes, and even gets to like pink!

K.K-A: (She laughs) Yes at the beginning she says no, this is my way, I paid for you bla bla bla.

V: OK. Another thing, some writers like some of the ones you mentioned, would tackle the problem maybe by just pointing out the problems that there are; others would be confrontational and others in a more passive way. But then some other people would say it would mean a re-education of the people. And what would you think? In your stories, in the end, one gets the feeling that your own solution was more or less in a spiritual hope.

K.K-A: Yes.

V: Like it was something spiritual … Is it the way people think or much more what they actually do? … Of course the way you think later on will inform the way you act but then … I don’t know if that would actually be it. Because now when we think of so many churches and still things are more or less the same in that sense so exactly… how would the spiritual part of it solve the practical problems we have?

K.K-A: Well it is not as complicated as it might seem. Simply by believing in God and leaving it to God to change things. Which is again not to say that you don’t do anything on your own part. But you try to listen to the other person’s point of view as “The Black Lady The” does. And you converse and you talk it out. You hear another person’s point of view. You may agree with it or not but you are all achieving to some vision. And people perish for lack of knowledge and of vision. You have one vision of the Nigeria that you want to come into being right? And it is, I think a spiritual problem as most problems are. It’s just that you get the expression in the physical. This is a spiritual problem that has to be dealt with in a spiritual way.

V: And the spiritual way in what sense? Prayer?

K.K-A: Prayer and just giving the control back to God, to handle it.

V: Isn’t that a little too abstract?

K.K-A: No it’s very concrete (She laughs)

V: Yes because your idea of what would be perversities, – because in the end you talk about ‘perversities’ ‘tongues that would kick down perversities’ – now what you call perversities might be different from someone else’s idea of perversities.

K.K-A: Why, how do you know?.

V: Because, let me…

K.K-A: You see, you cannot negotiate truth: truth is truth because it is truth. You can’t talk around it you know. Whether one sees it as a perversity or not I believe it is a perversity.

V: So you think people actually know but it’s just that they do not want to accept.

K.K-A: Yes, yes.

V: … So it’s a business of stressing those things that everyone knows is a perversity and to get rid of them. Because I got the impression that of course… this idea of perversities… this idea of giving bribes and taking them; they tell you it’s no bribe, it’s just someone saying ‘thank you’… or he wants me to do this fast and so he advances you know. You also get people who say whether you take the money before or after, it still is bribery; so if you’re going to talk about something to do with bribery, then don’t take any … so in the end people get a bit confused.

K.K-A: There is nothing “confused” about it like I said. It’s very clear you know. Everyone knows when they are doing a 419. If you relate, I think if you relate to your heart, you will know.

V: But then it’s difficult to relate to one’s heart.

K.K-A: Well, it requires trusting , trusting God and yourself. That’s not going to say that you won’t mess up. But once you put it in his hands I really do think that he can order things for you. He does.

V: So you think God has to be there.

K.K-A: He has to be… yeah, Kicking Tongues the title, it refers to, on the one hand, those politicians and military dictators, who try to kick down, figuratively, the populace, with their tongues by the promulgation of false decrees, by promising things which they can’t come up with and so on. Kicking Tongues also refers to the passengers who are going on a journey and who are kicking down those barriers, which have constrained them from realising their true potential individually and as a society. So in the end, they are kicking down, like you said, perversities, and kicking up truth instead.

V: And then, they were made specific in those different people.

K.K-A: Yes in the different sections; the different sections deal with different … well phase one deals with women issues, i.e. the stories and the poems. Phase two, with colonialism; phase three with education, I took out all of the…

V: PG?

K.K-A: Yes, I took out all of the other stories because it would have been much longer… and because I am still here (she laughs)… so I found it better to do that. And then phase four just deals with the society at large; different aspects of it culminating in “Bus play”. Then em, class is phase five and phase six, culture and phase seven is the spiritual, the religious section. Understanding…to the prostitute and McLean at things not understood, classing myself above all with this tongue, level directed at those who claimed on seeking truth for “forty tongues” and my own tongue you know, I’m to blame for my prejudices.

V: Towards the end, the part that talks about…after eating the meat pie…

K.K-A: What do you want to know?

V: …the part which talks about ‘settlements’ after eating the meat pie whether…

K.K-A: Yes, it has to do with bribery, yes.

V: Then the one we just went to before we came back to this one…you were talking about the prejudices and all that. But then does it have to do with other things like projects that were, should I say misdirected or you know these ones they start off and they never finish …or were you not referring to that at all…?

K.K-A: Yes

you can if you want, may be subconsciously or (laughter) I don’t know.

V: I don’t know if I’m seeing too many things in that work.

K.K-A: You know, em, when you; I find that when you are criticising or analysing something it is different to when you are writing it and sometimes you can see more than the person who is sitting writing it ‘cos that’s the job of the critic.

V: And how do you feel when you are misunderstood? When people understand something absolutely different from what you intended?

K.K-A: Well, it depends on the nature of their misunderstanding. Ahm, sometimes I find it very interesting. You know, I read some critique of Kicking Tongues and the writer said of how I was referring to the Oba of Lagos whose name is ‘Oyekan’ and that my Oba is ‘Oyelekan’ and that I was really talking about him and it is not true at all! You know, I didn’t know the name of the Oba of Lagos. It just happened but whether or not anybody would believe that…

V: … Is another thing.

K.K-A:. It’s true.

V: I haven’t been able to see any of these critiques. Was it in the papers or in a…

K.K-A: No, this is something one of my students wrote, I’ve actually not granted many interviews because the book is not here in the quantity that I would like. In fact they are very few and it is so expensive. So I thought I would wait until they are here and then grant the interviews and take the opportunity may be to give a presentation.

V: And then also still talking about your… you are trying to experiment on poetry and prose.

K.K-A: Yes, yes

V: Anything to do with Jean Toomer’s Cane? or is it still just Chaucer all the way?

K.K-A: I didn’t know Jean Toomer did that; I haven’t seen it.

V: (Explains a bit about Jean Toomer’s Cane.)…even in it he brought in a play, poems, some prose and…

K.K-A: No. What I did was; there are so many, again, prejudices in the literary world if you like, that if you write a novel it has to be purely a novel. This is a novel, which is made up of short stories and poems. So I’m …well, it’s a risk one takes. So it’s an attempt also to break down those particular barriers. Did you find it difficult to read? Because I have heard people say that it is difficult.

V: I didn’t maybe because I was actually ready for the surprises. I knew it was precisely going to deal with what was written at the back, talking about the problems of Nigeria. So I was out looking to see; that’s why I see bribery when I read “settlements”; and then with others; even if I couldn’t really give them a name as you have just done say for example, women issues I mean I could pick out the women issues but I didn’t know they were all in that one phase, you know. Then the one of colonialism, education, society at large, class; I could see all these things you know … But the things I found a little bit difficult were the poems but then that’s why I paid more attention to them, I took more time, reading them once or twice before going on, I saw that maybe this is a poetic summary of what has just come before, or something like that.

K.K-A: Yes, that’s what it was meant to be. (She laughs).

V: I wasn’t so sure. (More laughter)

K.K-A: Yes

V: So I found it quite interesting because of that. And then also the idea of Chaucer, his was more poetry and then afterwards, the different people just told their stories…another question, were you thinking of forty years of independence?

K.K-A: No, not really! I was thinking exactly of what I said there (Laughter) That it is a spiritual journey first and I am liking it to forty years in the wilderness. Yes, and so the penance they are making this as a kind of penance to a new beginning just like Jesus was in the desert or whatever; in the wilderness, fasting.

V: I was thinking it’s almost exactly forty years, 1960, no, one more year…

K.K-A: You see, It’s funny. (Laughter)

V: Yes

K.K-A: Very odd, I didn’t know that and that’s why there are supposed to be forty people also.

V: O.k. And then I was hoping to see forty stories but they are not up to.

K.K-A: There were forty stories, there were forty stories and forty people, But I had to cut it, cut it by half because of the requirement of the publisher. Apparently it can only be used as a textbook if it’s up to 260 pages and this is.

V: I hope you’ll still publish those ones.

K.K-A: Yes there are lots so I can separate…

V: And the different thing I also saw was in Our Wife and Other Stories, each story was complete in itself but in this one (Kicking Tongues) every thing seems to be interwoven in the sense that the journey gives it the continuity… and then when they actually get to Abuja it is as if they are …disillusioned. Does that have to do with democracy? The country just started. Is it that we finally got what we wanted but that it is not as fantastic as we actually hoped?

K.K-A: I suppose so. (Laughter).

V: Why do you write?

K.K-A: Why do I write?

V: Yes. Why?

K.K-A: So many reasons, one, to again, get some control over my existence and of the things that happen around me. I write because I just love it; it’s a passion of mine. I feel very uneasy when I am not in the middle of a project or when I’m not writing. And it’s a way of communicating with the inside of myself I suppose, my own thoughts and so forth.

V: Which of your short stories do you like most?

K.K-A: I don’t know, well all of them are like my children and I like children. Even the ones I have not published or the ones I find fault with, I still like them, ‘cos they’re mine, they come out of me.

V: Are you a feminist?

K.K-A: Am I a feminist? What do you mean by a feminist?

V: People who are interested in topics that just have to do with women; and then everything; the idea of reading a feminist meaning into things; to change things; and then equality between men and women absolute; to the point of even relegating men to one side or not even taking them into consideration or…

K.K-A: (Laughter) Mmm, I’m not an “iiist!”; in the first instance I do believe that the world over, women have been subjugated and oppressed in so many ways whether it is culture. You know just in day to day living you see this oppression coming to bear. And I have attended so many conferences women’s conferences, spoken at some, written about women’s issues in a creative way; in my capacity as a writer and as an academic also. I think that women should be given equal opportunity in jobs. In doing the same job as a man why shouldn’t she be paid the same? Why shouldn’t she be given the same respect? I think that women shouldn’t be condemned because of their gender because of their physicality in fact I’m writing something now, relating woman to the short story. That is that women are like the short story, condemned because of their physicality. The short story because it is short and therefore it is thought to be in somewhat lacking and it has to be even qualified as “short” within the literary hierarchy. I have people telling me that you have really arrived as a writer when you can write a novel, not a short story. Even poems are not treated in the way short stories are. So I am making that connection and showing how you can use the mechanics of the short story to prove the worth of the short story and of “woman”. The short story becomes like a weapon in the hands of a capable woman writer.

V: Just like concentrated orange juice…

K.K-A: Exactly…

V: In your stories one gets the impression that you see or point out things, which affect women in many ways but then, you seem to comply.

End of Ta

pe, Side A

Beginning of Tape, Side B

K.K-A:… things that happen within people like in the title story “Our Wife“, which takes place at a burial ceremony. The protagonist is boning about having to wear this heavy gele and you know, all these people who are claiming her as their wife, denying her individuality an so on and so forth. And she forgets that there is another individual who has just lost her husband you know. And when there is need, that transforming thing comes about. So what I’m saying is that culture, basically, is a dress that people wear and you have to get beneath that dress. Again like with women you have to get beneath that physicality and look at what really matters, the things that endure which we cannot see.

V: So the idea of leaving one’s problems for a while, to see that of the other lady because in the end she goes to dance.

K.K-A: She dances out of recognition that a human being is suffering.

V: So to think more, a little bit more of the others.

K.K-A: Yes.

V: I guess it goes to tie up with what you were saying before, of listening to what the others would have to say, with that you … is that what you mean by the solution being on the spiritual sphere.

K.K-A: Yes, correctly. By trying to identify with the roles of other people with the lives of other people and this is where you have the power of creative writing because you are forced to put yourself into somebody else’s mind, body and profession, gender everything. And see, ask yourself how would they react in such a thing? And I think that that makes for compassion. It should anyway.

V: How would you describe your creative process, for example? Do you think of a topic or you think of something that has happened or your short stories for instance are they all things that happened to you?

K.K-A: I said it before that my writings are a collection of the things I have experienced, what I have read, what I have seen… And when you’re writing, like if I’m writing a short story there is something obviously that I want to say about a particular thing and I think of the premise. First of all I have to have that burning feeling of wanting to say what I want to say and then I have to channel it. And so I write down the premise and then I write down the points that I am going to use in the story to arrive at that premise.

And then I write, non-stop for at least four pages, that’s my limit and I don’t break it even if anything I’m writing is rubbish. I just keep on writing for those four pages and as I’m writing I’m finding that it is as if I am drawing on a bank of reservoir that has been deposited somewhere and things are coming in, coming out; the way somebody smiled at me or you know, a list that I saw and just as if it’s all stored in you and it still is coming out. Then after that, I look at it. Sometimes I’m blessed enough to have a story in a single take. But more often than not, I have to go back now and see that I have kept to that premise and then excise anything that hasn’t. That’s it.

V: Do you sometimes have to go back maybe after a few days or a few weeks to go and retouch, cut, add…

K.K-A: Well if the story was a novel, definitely yes ‘cos the novel I’m writing now of course it is the longest span of time, you have to be very careful; of the mood, development, all sorts of things. So in a novel, yes, but in a short story, no. I think maybe because I’m just more used to that. But it’s a very, very exciting process. When I was writing Kicking Tongues, I wrote it in a year and I would just come into campus, lock myself in my office. You know, sometimes we were having riots, at that time there’d be tear gas, people outside you know, I’d just be writing. It was just so marvelous; and it was energising.

V: Some people would say the opposite; that it saps the strength…

K.K-A: I guess hmm.

V: Your parents seemed to travel around a lot. Were they diplomats?

K.K-A: Yes (with a nod of the head)

V: … tell me a little bit about the life of West Indians or foreigners married to Nigerians

K.K-A: (She laughs)

V: There was this article once in The Guardianby Rueben Abati about West Indians or foreigners married to Nigerians, how most of them are not citizens, they’re not naturalised. And then it just occurred to me that maybe they’re not citizens… I wondered whether they were interested. But then when he talked about a lady who had stayed here (in Nigeria) for over 25 years and after her husband died, she had to get a residence permit before she could stay on in the country. So is it that it is difficult to get the citizenship or some would rather not? … I seem to see some of that in Our Wife and Other Stories, could one say that these stories here are actually trying to address the problems they encounter being wives of Nigerians?

K.K-A: I don’t think so, I don’t think so. Like I said it’s to deal with…

V: … alienation.

K.K-A: Yes ahm… I don’t really know how to ahm I think I could speak for myself. I personally don’t…, you know people see you as being married to a foreigner. But I see myself actually being married to a person. And then when you’re married to… you have to live with them in a society and also the society sees you as ‘the other’. And ahm… so you have to deal with that. But I can’t say that I’ve had really and truly any problems in that regard. But I know a lot of people have.

V: Now about Modupe Gbote with a tail sticking out so fairy like… how did you come by that? Was there some particular story or something you actually wanted to depict or just one of those ‘fantastic’ things you wanted to add like one more fable…

K.K-A: Ahm, I had a friend who used to live here and she, her own friends, … went abroad and left a cat. Left her in charge of a cat. She had to go out and buy this cat, specific cat food, very delectable stuff, ahm, tinned food and all that. She felt really embarrassed because after buying all of this cat food it would be more expensive and come up to more than the salary of her house help, so she would … (she laughs) she would be tearing off the labels of purchase so I think the idea…

V: …came from there, o.k. then there was the part of this … early American… also the part of the, Elias, the prophet

K.K-A: You mean, Isaiah.

V: Isaiah, sorry, Isaiah I think he was killed, firing squad and then instead of just slumping, he flew… it reminded me of this one, I can’t remember who wrote it now, “God’s Chullen had Wings” by an African American writer … that talked about a …they were in the plantation, and then they were working very hard…

K.K-A: Mmm…

V: … very, very much like it because instead of the girl slumping, (there was another older African American there; each time the girl was almost going to fall, she’d ask: is it now time? He’d say: no, no, till finally he said: now its time! And that was when she slumped and died. But instead of just slumping,) she flew, above the plantation, above the white slave driver. So I was wondering whether you actually had that in mind or not at all.

K.K-A: No I hadn’t. It’s very interesting ‘cos I’ve heard, a lot of Black American Literature uses this thing of flying. Tony Morison’s Song of Solomon and there was a Fulbright scholar here who actually delivered a paper on; or was coming to research a paper on this flying motif in Afro-America Literature. But I suppose I don’t know. It somehow entered my consciousness but I haven’t read that.

V: Yes, do you know this anthology? Edited by Louis Gates Jnr. one of the first ones that talked about the folk stories…

K.K-A: Is it Zora Neal Hurston?

V: No, I don’t know the name, they are old stories picked up…

K.K-A: Ohh..okay…

V: …like these anonymous stories…

K.K-A: …okay, really; strange, isn’t it?

V: So I thought maybe most probably you might have thought of putting all that in.

K.K-A: It must show that there is a kind of collective consciousness somewhere.

V: Across all nations…

K.K-A: Yes, no? Funny…

V: I hope I’m not missing anything… I would like to have some of your other writings ‘cos the only one I was able to see was the one in the journal where you talk about… I don’t think I have it here, the consciousness of the Caribbeans how they have no… not that they have no culture but this idea of being alienated that’s the only writing of yours I have, okay, “African Homogeneity: The Affirmation of a United African and Afro Indian Identity.”; that’s about the only one I have. I want to ask you for more.

K.K-A: So you mean academic articles.

V: Yes.

K.K-A: I have, ahmm but where do I get them?…

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Seun Badejo January 28, 2011 - 10:19 am

“A collective conciousness, from which we all draw from”

Quite fascinating and thought provoking.

Great interview!

Anonymous May 6, 2005 - 11:10 am

great interview!


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