DarkVisions. That’s the title of my book currently at the final stage of publication. Although It was completed years ago and Heinemann and Ken Saro-Wiwa offered to publish it back then, I held on to the manuscript for various reasons. The most significant may be that my previous slim books (released simultaneously by Heinemann) caused me a lot of grief and I didn’t want DarkVisions to end up like that.
In the passing years, the manuscript has been subjected to many rewrites, the last here in the United States. It was during that final rewrite that I got the first inkling that I was someday going to write what has become this article you’re reading.
I suddenly wasn’t sure for whom I was writing the final draft. Was I writing to be published in America, which, tempting as we all know, has a buoyant publishing industry and readership – or should I still address the last incarnation of the manuscript to Nigerians, my people whose stories and moments propelled me to walk down that dark road? I suddenly found myself confronted with one of the questions many immigrant artists must have asked themselves at some point in their creative foray…Now that I’m so far away from home, who is my primary audience?
Mr. “Nigerian Artist in the Diaspora,” don’t tell me you don’t have a primary audience. The artist always speaks to some person, some people. It used to be I wrote my stories for myself first. But that is unrealistic, right? There is much satisfaction to be had in being read by more than your mother and a couple of fault-tolerant friends. As long as there is pleasure in hearing your music seeping out of the speakers in places you’ve never been, the Other will remain next after the first, the “universal audience” of secondary interest. In many instances, the Other is no more than a welcome bonus. The American novelist writes for Americans, and if the book also taps into a global frequency, all’s grist to the mill. So, for whom does the writer who grew up to discover the power of the pen elsewhere write in the season of cross-continental gallivanting?
More disturbing was the question that quickly trailed the first, bordering on inspiration and influences. I am today the output of a natural supercomputer that has gobbled up all shades of inputs, from the critical to the mundane to the elevated and the pedestrian: the way my mother used to call me Olu; the peculiar look on the face of a noon passenger on the now almost extinct Bolekaja bus; the trip to the first International Trade Fair in Lagos; the sound of thunder one wet afternoon as it crunched off a huge chunk of the slate roof in the low cost housing estate at Shitta; the near death tales of encounters with armed robbers; the strange whirl of harmattan dust that often got the children jubilating and the mothers yelling and warning of hungry spirits on the prowl…Reality. Realities actually. All the cultural sounds and furies and visions and emotions that have roiled and tumbled through time to mould me and now take the credit for what I am, what I have become , the what, why, where, when and how of my creativity, my sources of inspiration that I hope will never dry up or desert me…
Did I bring them with me to America? I distinctly recall packing a box of much-cherished books and another teeming with fading recollections, works in perpetual progress. But I didn’t bring the guys sleeping under the bridge at the National Stadium. I neglected to pack the urban legends too. And the rush of kunu coursing through the system. How could I have packed the panicky flow of people responding to the sound of stray bullets? So, what do you do for inspiration when you travel so far away from your natural fount? What feeds the fire under the cauldron of ideas when you wander from all you have taken for granted all your life?
In Nigeria, the literary output of a particular group has been labelled dark and disturbing for reasons bordering on the generation growing up at the time Nigeria’s boom became her doom – and jobs became scarce, inflation hugged the skies and would not be dragged down, book publication fled the country, hastily accompanied by quality in all spheres of existence. The artists of that generation who have now found residency in places like England, Germany, the US…from where do they find the faggots for their current fire? At whom do they now direct the anger that once propelled their literature and music and etchings? A handful among them who wrote or directed plays that pointed accusing fingers at Military mis-rule, have they chopped off their fingers by leaving the stage empty in their theatre of engagement?
Truth be told, there is another kind of anger here in America, and a patient creative spirit can soak in enough of it to spit out works as flame-broiled as will be found anywhere. The question is can you truly identify with this fire you didn’t play much of a role in igniting? Are we not too removed from it to really feel the heat? After all, we can pack that same traveling bag and return home. They are home!
The formative years of every creative person inform to a large extent his worldly outlook, creation and creative voice. Those years are the ones you’ve been through, filled with the music that awakened the singer in you, the performances that started you going down the pathway to dramatic arts, the wonderful book that prompted you to say “I can write something like that…” You know these years because you’ve been one with them, you discovered yourself somewhere on the winding road.
When your state of reality has not connected enough with your being to burst out in artistic offsprings, only the past keep you going, the many memories, the years…How long have you lived on recollections? Does the battery run down occasionally or do you return home to recharge every other year? How long shall we flaunt the images of home stuck in our fuzzy recall? And how true are the pictures of home we paint after we’ve been away for a while? Are we merely recycling the past? And do we have the right – after relocating to some other place – to write or sing of that home? Do we still know the native country?
Why isn’t our art in the mainstream of Western consciousness? Okay, very little art from anywhere is in the mainstream of any kind of consciousness. Aside of some music, movies and books (and Chris Ofili grabbing controversy in the hot spot by flinging dung at the Virgin Mary), the whole world gets by just fine, thank you. It’s obviously much easier for the visual arts than for any of the other art forms. Visit any collector of African art and you’re sure to find Muraina Oyelami, Twins Seven Seven, Bruce Onabrakpeya or any of the other ritual inspired works on the wall. If you’re lucky, you may find a Soyinka or Achebe. Ras Kimono is not there yet. The same can be said of Majek Fashek (once our most promising export), Mike Okri, Floxxy Bee and kola Ogunkoya who are all doing their thing – like me – in America. There are actors, dancers, film-makers, drummers, comedians like Away-Away, writers, all of us refining and peddling our act so it can bring us the same fulfillment it did ba ck in the native country. No, we’re not that thirsty for the popular audience. A fringe one that brings fulfillment and some cash will do just fine.
We run into the obstacles too. To communicate with America, we have to first change…Perhaps recreate is what I wanted to say. We recreate ourselves to find some relevance. (This is probably what Kole Ade-Odutola calls crazi-ti-vity!). Many of us change in these countries we migrate to. We change our way of speaking, thinking, dressing…We go with the Romans. Once, all I had in my closet were locally made adire tops and matching baggy bottoms. When I arrived these shores in the Fall of 1997 and the cold sank chilled teeth into my bones, I quickly changed my wardrobe to suit my new environment. We change chameleon-like to blend with whatever branch we’re perched on. There is no real way to measure the impact of such subtle differences on the art we create though. It may be positive, innovative. It may also end up diluting our art. We may end up producing precisely what people want, the mass-market machine that feeds all their expectations and panders to their misconcepti ons about our art and us.
“Write what you know” is a popular advice to burgeoning writers. One would expect the painter to have heard “paint what you know” at some point in his life. The dancer too will dance what he – okay, you get the idea. But when you move to another country as an adult, can you ever truly know that country? America is the eel, slippery wet or dry, and those born here are still trying to figure out what part to grab. Without becoming one with America – as Susanne Wenger did with Osun Osogbo before she could produce the towering awe-inspiring masterpieces at the grove – how can we produce art about America? The audience will only patronize what they can identify with. Will the immigrant artist be left holding the short end of the stick, like Abiku, bestriding many worlds, belonging to none? Is that why some quickly hasten to dub us exiles? Have we inadvertently exiled ourselves from relevant creativity?
It was most exciting to know more lucid minds have also seriously explored the “relationship of creativity to exile.” Robert Park calls the artist elsewhere The Marginal Man in his book of the same name. We’re now the people who migrate from one culture that has fuelled our art into existence, the people who can’t truly fit into the new one and so become denizens of the border town.
But, are we not creating new stories even as we live in these in-between worlds? Is it probable that someday will come when we will be able to write or sing not about the culture we deserted or the one we’re flirting with, but about that third one, the one on the periphery…the outsider’s own personal planet…Can we know enough to create its art? Isn’t there the danger, as Park also warned, that we will become critical of “the dominant culture” (of our host country) because we find it even more difficult to push our kind of art into renown?
Salman Rushdie is seemingly of the same opinion in Imaginary Homelands, his 1991 book of essays. While admitting the “past is home” and reality is relative, this writer who was born in Bombay and now lives in London doesn’t think it fruitful to hold on to what you have left behind by riding the unreliable horses of memory (“the past is a country from which we have all emigrated”). Rather, you can mould the pieces into a whole new world, his “imaginary homelands” and “Indias of the mind.” You can “negotiate” a new life, a better understanding.
I know you guys are out there: the painters, poets, composers, dancers, sculptors, guitarists, photographers and vocalists…How are you confronting the challenges posed by a new environment? Leaving the fount of all initial inspirations (and justification for whatever you produce), does it inhibit or free the soul? One wondrous fact of creativity is its ability to grow and adapt and change. Is that how we all get it on now? We can still feel, right? We still listen to things said and left unsaid, and our eyes strain to focus the blurry pictures, and we dream. Above all, we dream. As long as we continue to wish and yearn for something, anything, the adrenaline of creativity will continue to flow…Those are the fallout shelters, friends. When pieces of the sky start cascading down, listen to Ras Kimono and “Run fi cover.”
As for DarkVisions, with the help of my editor, I kept it true to its original voice and spirit. I am still exploring how much I have changed and will change, and the other books I’m working on may have to find other voices and muses…But as long as I’m the one going through the labor that eventually gives birth to them, they can’t really wander too far, can they? I suppose they can be different. Different can be good…right? Right?