Q Congratulations on the publication of Measuring Time and on your achievements since our last meeting nearly five years ago at the Tate Gallery. What have you been up to in this time – apart from writing Measuring Time?
A: So much. I’ve been on a couple of fellowships, including the Chinua Achebe fellowship in New York, which lasted a whole school year. The most exciting things seemed to have happened between last year and this year: my son, Adam, was born last year, my new novel, Measuring Time, came out this February and of course I left Norwich and moved to the USA to teach Creative Writing at George Mason University this January. So you could say I have been busy – I haven’t even mentioned the short stories and poems and reviews that I have written, or the kind and interesting people that I have met on the numerous trips I took.
Q Reading the book, I was conscious of a strong theme, a continental vision of Africa that runs through it, in LaMamo’s experiences of war across the continent for instance, and his discussion of African revolutionary leaders, and yet I wondered if this does not promote the stereotype, popular in the West of Africa as one entity facing the same challenges and ignoring the nuanced differences?
A: Stereotypes are often created out of ignorance, and sometimes malice. The best counter to that is of course education, which is one of the things, my novel does, I think. I approached the writing of this book with an epic conception, that is a view of events and history that goes far beyond what is discussed or represented in the book, call it an echo if you want, that bounds from the book and goes on and on to give the reader a sense of the vastness and complexity and the limitless possibilities that is Africa. Mamo, the main character in the book, tries to express this to his students when he tells them to imagine other horizons beyond the one they can see outside their window, a million other horizons. And so I presented not just the war theatre in Liberia as a microcosm or metaphor for the continent, but I also presented the serene and deceptively eventless village of Keti. If we are to paint life truly – and to me the quest for truth is the sum of a writer’s endeavours – then we mustn’t fear to show the ugly as well as the beautiful. It uses appearance and stereotypes to lead you to the complexity below. A novel goes deeper than a newsflash on CNN; it doesn’t just show you a war, but it also shows you why the war happened, and also the folly, the human cost, of seeking to resolve our differences through war. It brings up-close the lives of the ordinary soldiers, and their hopes and dreams, and how they might never live to fulfil these dreams – and in that we see how just like us they are. That is what a novel does, and that is why Aristotle says a narrative is ultimately more beneficial than either philosophy of history, because it contains both strands in itself.
Q There is a sense of endlessness, of waiting that flows from the title and runs through the book. Indeed in places it reminded me of the languor of my days during the period when Babangida closed down the universities and we spent months at home waiting…did you draw on those experiences as well?
A: Yes, I do remember the Babangida years, the school closures – one reason why it took me five years to finish my degree instead of four. It seemed so interminable then, and I remember at a certain point I got so fed up I was ready to walk away, to drop out of school and go on to face real life. Some of my friends talked me out of it, and I am now grateful to them. I particularly drew on one of those closures, the one of 1992, I believe, when I and a few friends stayed on campus and didn’t bother to go home. I have my main character also staying on campus during vacations, but his reason is because he doesn’t want to go back home to his father. Measuring Time, the title, I chose deliberately to represent how, in Nigeria, we often have to wait too long for our dreams to come to fruition. A lot of lives have been wasted because of that. A lot of talent lost – there are some things that just can not wait.
Q I find Uncle Iliya’s admonition about questioning tradition interesting and valid, especially when he asks “What is our way?” Yet the reality is that many Nigerians of our generation aren’t even sufficiently familiar with our history and the roots of our culture to even engage in that debate.
A: The character Uncle Iliya, who is an uncle as well as a mentor to Mamo the main character, has an interesting view of history and culture, and the exploration and dramatisation of that in a way forms the central thesis of the book. Ordinarily we assume history and culture or traditions are fixed, static entities, but in reality they are so dynamic, so kinetic. He suggests that culture must adapt to change; because sometimes that is the only way a community can ensure its own survival. We often use culture – meaning our language, our religion, our social norms – as a basis for division, for enmity, for a false sense of superiority. But all these seem silly when you understand that most of these ‘cultures’ we only acquired on the way as we migrated, or as a result of conquests and other interactions, and perhaps who knows, fifty years, hundred years hence we’d have no need for some of these observances, and some of our languages would’ve changed or disappeared. Take for instance pidgin English, a hundred years ago there was no language like that, but because of circumstances, mainly the colonial contact, it has developed into an autonomous language in the West African coastal region. And so in truth our culture only defines us in a superficial, ephemeral way. One thing that truly defines us is our humanity.
Africa to me is at that point of change, that cross-road, that important cusp of history which Achebe captured so well in Things Fall Apart. Most people often misinterpret that book as some jingoistic affirmation of the superiority of our African culture, but actually it is an indictment of a particular, conservative, reactionary vision of culture – it is saying, here we are, faced with this insurmountable leviathan called modernity, what do we do to ensure our survival? Do we embrace it blindly and turn our back on our tradition and culture? No, we re-examine our traditions and culture, drop whatever is useless and even harmful, and take whatever is useful from there and add it to what is useful in the modern – that is what is called change, or survival. If we don’t realise that, then we end up like Okonkwo, dead in some evil forest. The evil forest symbolises all that is intransigent, obdurate, and immovable in a people’s way of life. And often that evil forest is there to benefit some priestly class, some elite status-quo defender, not the masses.
Q On the generational theme, there seem to have been quite a few books in the recent past about African wars- Iweala’s Beast of No Nation, Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun and now your Measuring Time. Can you venture a guess as to why this might be?
A: I wouldn’t describe my book as a book on war – it is only partly so. War is a sub-theme, not the main theme. But then, people have always written about wars – it is a way of exploring the human condition. It is interesting because a war situation reveals human nature at its most unadorned, unpretentious. It brings out the basest as well as the noblest in us, and such intensity, such starkness, is a godsend to a writer of imagination. Wars have always happened, Achebe has written about it, Ekwensi, Iyayi, Soyinka, Saro-Wiwa – almost all our best writers have addressed it. The Nigerian civil war in particular has become a sort of metaphor for the situation we happen to find ourselves in, it seems a war is raging in our midst over the question of whether we are strong enough to put aside the legacy of hatred and sectionalism and divide and rule and narrow ethnicism and opportunism and elitism left to us by the colonialists and embrace what we have in common and move on. As it is now there is no single dominant philosophy holding us together as a nation – to survive as a nation we must have that. As it is now we only have a group of elite politicians and generals, from the north and south, holding the country together because that is the best way they can loot its resources. We need to make the people feel they have a stake as well – we need a common vision. Americans have their philosophy of freedom and liberty and self-reliance, Britain has the leftover ideology from the days of empire, India has Hinduism, Israel has Zionism and the memory of the holocaust. We have nothing – but the point is that it is up to us to create a vision, a philosophy for ourselves; it is possible to do that.
Q Another parallel is in the theme of twins in recent contemporary Nigerian literature, depending of course on your definition of Nigerian- but we’ve had Georgia and Bessi in Diana Evans’ 26A, Olanna and Kainene in Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, Tillytilly and Jessamy in Oyeyemi’s The Icarus Girl and now Mamo and LaMamo in your work, who incidentally seem to be the first male pair, why do you think is there this fascination with twinship, the duality of nature?
A: I find the coincidence interesting as well – it is almost as if we all sat in a congress and decided to write about twins. I remember when Diana Evans first told me she was writing about twins, that was sometime in 2002 in Norwich, she was doing her MA and I was a fellow. I told her I was also toying with the idea of twins as my main characters. Then that year or the next I came across Oyeyemi’s book with the twins. I didn’t know about Adichie’s twins till I read the book last year, by then of course my book was finished. A lot of critics have ventured explanations to this: some say twins represent the African world-view of community over individualism; some say it is a metaphor for the split psyche, some point to the mythical, supernatural awe in which twins are held in some African communities etc. The others may’ve had all that in mind while creating their twins; mine emerged purely for formal, utilitarian reasons. I wanted my novel to have a unity of place, everything must take place in a small village, and alongside that I also wanted to give a sense of the wider world outside. I couldn’t do that with one character, he couldn’t be in two places at the same time. At first the novel was written with just one major character, Mamo, who narrates in the first person, but later I created a brother for him who goes to these other places and sends back long, detailed letters of his adventures. But a mere brother isn’t enough; he has to be as close enough to Mamo, the elder twin who remains in the village, as possible. Because they need to see things alike, to think alike – so it had to be a twin.
Q Elsewhere, you’ve talked and written about the lure that the city of Lagos held for you in your youth and in your first book, Waiting for an Angel, I thought that you captured the essence of Lagos in the Abacha years quite well. This lure is echoed in the twins’ desire to escape the village; did you feel a similar lure to the West and to the United States?
A: Historically artists have always gravitated towards the metropolis, away from the fringe, because art needs patronage and infrastructure for production and dissemination. My case, initially, was similar, Lagos was the metropolis and to achieve my dream of becoming a writer, I had to be there, in the mix, as it were. But you could say that Britain and America happened not out of design but as natural consequence of events. Britain happened after I won the Caine Prize – the next thing I heard from the British Council and the University of East Anglia asking me whether I’d like to be a fellow at UEA for two years, and I said, well, why not. I ended up spending five years there – two years as a fellow and three years as a PhD candidate. America happened in an almost similar fashion – some friends in Iowa told me of this job opening at George Mason. The university was looking for an international writer to teach creative writing, and they said why don’t you apply. I was in the US then, in the very last month of my Achebe fellowship, and back in Norwich my PhD was almost over and I was thinking of what to do and where to go after Norwich, maybe back to Nigeria where the future was uncertain because I had no job waiting for me. A job sounded like a good idea, so I applied to George Mason and I was short-listed and eventually chosen. So here I am in America.