Just like Sean Carswell’s self-interview, I, too, asked my wife, Femke van Zeijl, who is a journalist as well as being the only person who knows why I dread dreaming of toilet bowls, to ask me questions as if she didn’t already know the answers. And then I rewrote her transcription.
First of all: why aren’t you interviewing yourself?
Because I know what questions to ask myself that I find impossible to answer—the kind of questions we keep asking until the day we stumble off this mortal coil. And so, in my head, this self-interview had grown into an existential issue that would require an entire novel to answer. I consider the publicity-oriented parts of writing as disparate from the creative process. The public appearances, the press interviews, etcetera, are all part of the writer’s job, yes, but interviewing myself is too close to the creative process. Thus I figured I would turn to my in-house journalist, since she knows nearly everything there is to know about me. That’s the closest I could come to a self-interview. Besides, journalists enjoy meeting deadlines, while I almost unfailingly miss mine.
What is the question you most dread from journalists about your novel Blackass?
I have been worried to be pressed to answer why the Igoni character was necessary to the story. I have my own answers as to why that happened, but they haven’t been put through the fire of public scrutiny.
Was it an ego thing?
Definitely, that figured too, as it does in everything a writer writes. Only a supremely egotistical person would think their voice was important in a world of more than six billion people. But the introduction of the Igoni character was also a structural device, an artistic decision. I was trying to stamp the book with some difference.
That sounds like a gimmick.
Maybe it is. But isn’t even this, self-interviewing, a form of gimmickry? As is also, to some extent, editing, especially when you’re Gordon Lish and he’s Raymond Carver. But the fact that its creation involved some gimmickry doesn’t cancel out the artistry of a story like ‘Cathedrals’. For me, the crucial question is, does a storytelling device serve a purpose other than blind adherence to literary convention? Phrased another way: What is the point of creating something that isn’t new? In the Nigerian space, I knew introducing a fictional character that seemed to be the author would, for one, spark a conversation. And it has. Many people have said, this writer is an arrogant bastard, some have found my device refreshing, and others have even questioned my sexuality as a result of the transformation the Igoni character undergoes.
You find sexual identity an important topic?
It is a conversation the rest of the world is having, and we, Nigerians, are trying to avoid, swatting it aside by proclaiming it is alien to our ‘African’ culture. But no earthly culture is alien to the human heart, and I wanted to drag Nigerian readers into the global conversation about sexuality and race.
Some critics have pointed out the Igoni character’s story could have been more developed.
When I introduced the Igoni character, I left it to the reader to fill in the blanks. From the start, in writing Blackass, I intended the book to be a participatory process for the reader—I didn’t want to spoon-feed anyone’s imagination. It is a novel that throws up issues as you read, but afterwards you have to continue thinking about these things, and in a sense you even have to complete the story yourself. And so the Igoni character is exactly as fleshed out as I intended when I finished writing. Were my artistic intentions perhaps hampered by all sorts of authorial limitations? I don’t believe so. But neither do I believe in the existence of ghosts even though I still tremble whenever I watch ghost movies, so there.
Readers have been wondering what happens next to Furo and Igoni. Any chance of a sequel?
Rather than define the end of a story as where the writer stops, I prefer to think of it as the pause during which the reader’s imagination accepts the baton from the writer. When readers ask for a sequel, it means they can imagine more than one direction in which to run with the story. For the readers of Blackass, that sequel is theirs to complete in their heads. I am done with the running.
A. IGONI BARRETT was born in Port Harcourt, Nigeria in 1979. He is the author of Blackass, as well as a winner of the 2005 BBC World Service short story competition, the recipient of a Chinua Achebe Center Fellowship, a Norman Mailer Center Fellowship, and a Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center Residency. His short stories have twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He lives in Nigeria.
Photo credit: Victor Ehikhamenor