Now playing on the Otherppl with Brad Listi podcast, a conversation with Ayobami Adebayo. Her debut novel, Stay With Me, is available now from Knopf.

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Deji Olukotun by Beowulf SheehanDeji: I’m not sure what the point of another interview is. What can you tell me that Google can’t?

Bryce: Slow down, there, Deji. You’re way too pushy.

Deji: It’s a Nigerian quality. We like to get things done.

Bryce: You’re half-Nigerian. Anyway, not all Nigerians are like that. Some of them do yoga.

Deji: They were probably disinherited from their families. So, about my question–answer it.

On St. Patrick’s Day, a holiday significant to engineers in the USA, I wrote about the prominence of that profession within my family. It so happens that I’ve had occasion to expand upon that on another holiday. I’ve never really been big on Father’s Day, despite having four children of my own, but on the usual phone call to my father we got to talking about his background in electron microscopy.  He was not only a pioneer applying it to materials engineering, but also involved in education, looking to produce the next generation in his field, particularly from Nigeria.

I’ll get one thing out of the way first of all, to address whose in the know, and as a point of interest for those who aren’t. “Akata” is to some a pretty nasty word. It’s Nigerian Pidgin deriving from the Yoruba for bush civet cat, and is used as an epithet for Americans of African descent. Some people claim it’s not derogatory in intent, but I don’t really buy that given the context in which I hear it used most of the time. It certainly leaves an offensive taste in the mouth of many Nigerians, especially in diaspora. Yeah, taboo language sometimes marks the most superficially surprising vectors. Nnedi Okorafor, author of the recent fantasy novel Akata Witch (Viking, 2011 ISBN: 978-0-670-01196-4), is well aware of the controversy she courts with its title. It takes an extraordinary book to put such an abrasive first impression into the background, and in short, I think Nnedi has well accomplished this.

They come from bars and frat houses,
Chins sporting the last chug’s dregs;
They’ve shut down the POTUS block
Down lawn chairs! Time to tap the kegs!

“Na na na! Hey hey hey! Goodbye!”
Caught in the unstoppered ear—
Perspective fails the sloppy street
It’s just one terrorist’s career!

What giant wheels when Brezhnev sent
Red troops into Afghanistan;
House of Saud and CIA,
Tipped shots to Charlie Wilson’s plan.

I’ve long trumpeted (most recently in “50 Observations on 50 years of Nigeria, part 3”) the marvelous efflorescence of young Nigerian writers, and especially Nigerian women writers, both in Nigeria and in diaspora. I’m not much of a reader of novels, but I waste no time getting stuck into any new work by Adichie, Oyeyemi or Okorafor. Nnedi Okorafor is the author of the novels Zahrah the Windseeker (winner of the Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature) and The Shadow Speaker (winner of the CBS Parallax Award), and the children’s book, Long Juju Man (winner of the Macmillan Writer’s Prize for Africa). Her latest novel, Who Fears Death (DAW Books), was released in June. Her forthcoming novel, Akata Witch (Penguin Books/Viking Press), is scheduled for release in 2011. Nnedi was also a finalist for the Andre Norton Award (The Shadow Speaker), the Essence Magazine Literary Award (The Shadow Speaker), the Kindred and Parallax Awards (Zahrah) and the Golden Duck Award (Zahrah and The Shadow Speaker). Nnedi is working with Disney to produce a chapter book in the Disney Fairies series, tentatively titled Iridessa and the Fire-Bellied Dragon Frog.

This is a continuation of a series of personal observations about my native country on its golden jubilee. For items 1-16, please see part 1. For items 17-32, see part 2. In this final installment I include a few observations I’ve culled from my father’s memoir of his life in Nigeria and abroad “Seeing the World in Black & White.” (SWBW) (AWP, 2006)¹

33. Modern Nigerian literature, ever vibrant, is certainly on the up. Young as it is Nigeria has already had an early generation of great writers, household names such as Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka, not to mention the likes of Cyprian Ekwensi, Amos Tutuola, Christopher Okigbo, Flora Nwapa, Buchi Emecheta, and even the prolific pulp novelist Dan Fulani. It’s almost too much to ask for more, but as it happens, we have much, much more with new generations exploding on to the scene, including poets Chris Abani, Uche Nduka, Olu Oguibe and lesser known contemporaries such as Chinweizu. But the real earthquake manifests in novel form, with the emergence of the likes of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Helen Oyeyemi, Sefi Atta, and Nnedi Okorafor. I can’t pass without a word for the recently deceased poet and playwright Esiaba Irobi. One of the neat aspects of these 21st century blossoms is that so many of them are young women.

This is a continuation of my series of personal observations about my native country on its golden jubilee. For items 1-16, please see part 1.

17. Nobody deploys the witty put-down quite like Wafi and Safi boys (and girls). You know it by many names: “the dozens,” “snaps,” “cracks,” “yo mama jokes,” and such. The tradition of non-violent contests of wits through rapid-fire mutual insults is well know anywhere Black culture has left a mark. But in my travels I don’t think I’ve met any group that dishes it out quite as expertly as folks from the Niger delta towns of Warri and Sapele (AKA Wafi and Safi), rendered in the particularly extravagant brand of Pidgin English for which that region is famous. I myself still bear the scars from some such encounters. And if you are trying to get cozy with a girl from that region, you had better come correct, or you might not survive the resulting put-down.

Nigeria’s 50th birthday was a fortnight ago. On October 1, 1960, the British officially turned over sovereignty of the country to the Speaker of the newly independent Nigerian Parliament, Jaja Wachuku, in the form of the Freedom Charter. The new nation nearly convulsed apart within ten years, and in many ways, it’s amazing such an entity has survived intact, an agglomeration of hundreds of ethnic groups (and indigenous languages), many of which were so recently colonized by Britannia that they were not very warm to the idea of sharing political commonwealth with a bunch of circumstantial peers.

The holiday got me thinking of what it means to me to be a Nigerian, born in Nigeria, educated in Nigeria and abroad, living (and naturalized) in the USA, but with a very strong sense of rootedness off the Bight of Bonny. Nigeria is enormous. I’ve read estimates that a quarter of all black people in the world are of recent Nigerian origin. Among such multitudes there is so much to say that I’ve just begged off to a series of vignettes in a number that suits the occasion, and I’ve broken the expansive result into three parts. Please do join me in this sampler from our enormous platter.

I’ve never been a runner.  Then I moved to Boulder.  This brings to mind an atheist moving to  some similarly-sized Bible belt town.

New arrival: “Hi! I’m your new neighbor. I’m Mark.”

Neighbor: “Howdy Mark. I’m Chad. Great day for the move, eh?  By the way, what church ya’ll looking to go to?”

Except of course the Boulder version goes:

New arrival: “Hi! I’m your new neighbor. I’m Mark.”

Neighbor: “Namaste Mark. I’m River. Gotta love this Colorado weather, right?  So!  You a 5K guy? 10K? Marathoner? Iron man?”

I’ve never been a runner.  It’s the boredom that puts me off.  Just pumping one foot in front of another over and over again with no other real goal is not my flavor.  I do play soccer, tennis and basketball, which involve sprinting and jogging for maybe an hour or two at a time.  I skateboard, and I snowboard hard.  I practice Kenpo a few times a week.  I’m in pretty good shape.  But this is Boulder.  All that’s just dilettante shit.  No run?  No cool.

For my fellow misfits at The Nervous breakdown

 

To belong? What’s it mean? Is it creature of tense? Is it active or passive?
Is it cold set in bone, magma oozing to plate ocean floor, or explosive
Crackling reaction, plume clearing to flesh jacked into the massive?

My parents were wartime romance. “There was something in the air that night,
The stars were bright, Fernando…” For liberty indeed, and ten years prior, NOT
Fernando; to ditch the justice of the peace and priest’s decree of might makes names right;

They’d fought the Queen so that Gerald could be Uche, raised on Nigerian playgrounds
But when ancient wounds opened and national grass ran red, they fought for…Biafran greens.
Never thought that they could lose so they stitched their winnings into my ten birthweight pounds.

BOULDER, CO-

I’ve studied martial arts most of my life, but I don’t enjoy watching fistfights. Sure, I sometimes watch MMA bouts, mostly as an exercise in making sense of techniques I learned in my Jujutsu days. But I am a salacious voyeur of one class of fights, one that weighs more in murderous intent than in mere blood. When it comes to fights over language, I’m part Don King, part corner, part cut man, part ringside rat, but never referee nor pugilist. This is the first of a few pieces about linguistic rage. First up, the real powder-keg: words of social distinction.

The title is the beginning of “Heavensgate”, by Christopher Okigbo, the greatest modern Nigerian poem, and I think the greatest modern African poem.  Okigbo is my patron saint, and my personal Janus (he died in the war that gave life to me), so it’s appropriate to pour out for him before I take a draught.  The second proper and good thing for me to do is to introduce myself.  I’m Uche Ogbuji, computer engineer and aspiring poet (I think I have a fair bit of skill with verse, but I set pretty daunting standards for myself).  I recently started reading TNB, following my dear friend Erika.  I’ve enjoyed my time here, so I was thrilled when she recommended me to Brad as a contributor, and twice thrilled when Brad welcomed me.