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A Conversation with Amatoritsero Ede

David Shook

amatoritseroAmatisoritsero Ede, born in Nigeria, has been a Hindu Monk with the Hare Krishna movement and worked as a Book Editor with a major Nigerian trade publisher, Spectrum Books. His first collection of poems, Collected Poems: A Writer’s Pains & Caribbean Blues, was published in Germany and Nigeria. His work has appeared in seven anthologies in Canada, England, Germany, and Nigeria. A second poetry collection, Globetrotter & Hitler’s Children (New York: Akashic Books, 2009) just came out. He has won several awards for his poetry, and was the 2005-2006 Writer-in-Residence at Carleton University, Ottawa, under the auspices of PEN Canada’s Writer-in-Exile Program. He edited Sentinel Online Poetry Journal from 2005-2007, and is the publisher and managing editor of the online Maple Tree Literary SupplementHe lives in Canada, where he is SSHRC Fellow and Doctoral Candidate in English at Carleton University.

We engaged in this conversation with a series of emails; over the course of our correspondence Ede proved to be intelligent and generous, often responding late at night.

Tell me about your experience as a Hare Krishna monk. Was that in Nigeria? Does that spiritual background affect your writing?

Yes, I was with the Hare Krishna Movement in Lagos, Nigeria. I was 24 at the time. I was dealing with too much existential angst and needed solitude and withdrawal, the better to self-study. I had tried all forms of spiritual contemplation–Christianity particularly, only to discover that Biblical teachings are too literarily understood and disseminated by the clergy, and that it was merely “religion” with all the regimentation and unquestioning acceptance of dogma that that implied. I simply had too many questions and the church little or no answers. So as Dambudzo Marechera would have said, “I picked up my bag and left” that House of Hunger. I left, especially as I witnessed the overt commodification within–particularly–the Pentecostal “prosperity churches” that were beginning to mushroom at the time.

Growing up within the traditional Yoruba worldview of accommodation, religious and otherwise, as emphasized by Yoruba traditional religious pantheism, I also did not understand such fascist utterances like, “Jesus is the only way” and, “No one comes to the father except through me.”  I guess they presume the father is your ubiquitous next-door family man, and did not grasp the esoteric importance of  “father” as deployed in any scripture. And to expect that a father would put the child in hell, say a bakery oven—let me mimic the clergy’s own literal (mis)understanding of scripture—for being a sinner beat me too. The Bible did say that He gave us free will to choose from good and bad. Why does He not just make everyone do what He wants, if that is His will? Many questions; no answers.

It seems like a lot of your struggle with Christianity in particular seems to stem from interpretation of texts, from issues of language.

You can see how language must have taken over the process of interpretation–of hermeneutics–and reads the people who are supposed to be reading for meanings. In retrospect, there is also the problem of translation from original biblical source languages into target languages. A lot of metaphorization must have been lost or watered down in that globalizing process. Where then are “the errors of the rendering” as Christopher Okigbo says? Beyond metaphor, there is also the question of the esoteric significance of any scriptural language. For the lay clergy, it is all mostly literal–not all the time, but mostly. So when there is mention of “hell,” clergy and laity alike take it literal and tremble in fear thinking of a bakery oven. With a mention of “prosperity” ‘people of God’ think of Gold like Aaron at the foot of the mountain waiting for Moses to come down with the Ten Commandments. I am coming to the significance of all that to Vaishnavism–the Hare Krishna Movement–in a minute. Many question and little answers.

More confusing for me was the fact that this religion, Christianity, has been responsible for, or complicit in, a lot of atrocities historically; its investments in slavery, colonialism, and capitalism is all too well known, even if often ignored in analysis or on the pulpit. Part of the arrogance of this religion is that it never apologizes for anything. Not for the Nazi gold scandal, not for the crusades, not for pedophilia in the church, not for excesses like psychopathic pastor Jim Jones in Guyana and many more. Definitely not for slavery or colonialism and the “civilizing” mission. So you see the transliteration of scripture is then taken to an extreme and misreadings occur, which allow psychotics to hijack such transliterations for their own warped uses.  As Shakespeare has it, “the devil cites scripture for his purpose.” At some point earlier I was a Muslim, though that was due to an adult’s prodding to get us young rascally boys out of the way. I did it by rote. I found there were—still are—a lot of misreading of the Koran as well–literal misinterpretations of what should properly be esoteric and not so mistranslated as it often is.

So it was out of curiosity and the continuous search for something beyond my immediate grasp that I ran into the Hare Krishna folks dancing in downtown Lagos. I loved the sound of the mrdanga (the oblong drums), conch shells, and cymbals. And they did look weird. So I approached to find out what the ruckus was all about. And they began to explain the Krishna philosophy and religious thought to me. It was deep and not the usual literal slant I had experienced with Christianity particularly. The esoteric nature of the musings also struck a cord with my yearning for a deeper or higher explanation of things. I was in the face of the esoteric. I had toyed with the esoteric growing up; reading books like 14 Lessons in Occultism and Enter the Silence, books of palmistry and astrology. Lets us say I had a yearning and an affinity for the esoteric. Christianity took all of that away with its jealous ways. I got “born again” and burnt all my esoteric books, which were “of the devil”! When I got out of the church I was mad as a hatter! I cannot find some of those books anywhere. Hinduism–that’s what Krishna consciousness is–is pantheistic like the traditional Yoruba religions I grew up with. Hinduism in my experience is not as jealous as Christianity and Islam. These religions, younger by far than the traditional African and most Eastern religions, are very narcissistic. So I listened to the saffron-robed, bald-headed Prabhuji and decided I would go to their temple later and find out more–case the joint if you like! I went in and didn’t come out for a long time. I shaved my head too and wore a doti.

The Hare Krishna experience is one of a kind. You are supposed to drop all attachment to material life–family, friends, books, habits – good and bad. In short you renounced material life and lived a spiritual life of austerity and self-denial. Even food is not a big necessity. At some point you are supposed to conquer the tongue enough to need maybe just a piece of fruit a day. I never got that far–because again, I picked up my bag and left! The discipline was good but unearthly. You went to bed at 9 pm, woke up at 3 am; if you don’t wake up someone douses you in a sprinkle of water or rings the morning bell right into your eardrums. To further aid your wakefulness you take a cold shower, then mark your body (solar plexus, navel, forehead, shoulders, and so on) with tilak, which is clay from the Ganges, wear your doti and go into the Temple by 4 am to begin morning devotion with songs: Samsara dava dana lida loka trayana karuna ganagana twam, praptasya karlyana  dana lolu paysa vande guru sri ca na ra vindam. That is Sanskrit. Don’t ask me what it means because I don’t remember; there is a book where all the songs are translated. I loved those songs and still miss the temple if only for their resonance and the accompanying mrdanga and cymbals. It was bliss I can tell you: meditation, concentration and contemplation all in one. It definitely was consciousness- changing for me. Then the morning sermon–well, not really a sermon as such, but a meditation read (in Sanskrit) from the Bhagavad-Gita, then translated and explained by a more senior devotee–like the temple president. All, very very esoteric and mystifying for a bhakta–a new devotee.

The evening singing lifts you bodily and you are slapped flat like Spiderman against the ceiling for the next one hour at least, dancing in spiritual ecstasy. It was better than weed or cocaine! That’s why Hare Krishna thrived in the USA during the flower power, punk and hippie eras when even prominent figures like John Lennon were members. If you needed drugs simply “chant and be happy.” That was the drug! Chant the Hare Krishna maha mantra,

It was great experience but tough, so one day I picked up my bag and left. It was a tough decision to leave; it was difficult to go. But poetry and other matters called. I left.

That spiritual background does not affect or influence my poetry in a direct way but rather in the roundabout fashion that I insist on the truth as an ontological phenomenon; calling a spade as spade, as I see it. I do not play the mind games with self that people like to play. If someone is deceiving me at least I won’t deceive myself. “I am finely attuned to my own psyche” as Soyinka says in The Interpreters.

There are a lot of contemporary poets from a vaguely Christian tradition—I think of many of the Japanese haiku poets as well—that conceive of poetry as a sort of prayer. Does that at all resonate with you?

You are right about the idea of the poem as a prayer. The Jesuit Priest Gerald Manley Hopkins–early modernist and precursor of a full-fledged modernist movement–did just that with his poetry, pray. Is all of Rumi not one long prayer to the psyche? But to be more specific, religion has sometimes been an impetus for devotional poetry or literature generally. The critic G.H. Vallins in his The Best English has an elaborate analysis of how the Bible has been a model for early English poetry or prose. The Psalms of King David could be considered as free verse, praising the Christian God.

Have you read any of the recent translations of the Psalms, focusing on their poetry and the Hebrew poetic devices employed rather than, say, their sanctity as holy texts? I’m thinking specifically of Robert Alter and David Rosenberg.

No I have not read that. That would be an interesting read. I will definitely look out for the Literary Bible when it comes out. But to get back to Hopkins… What Hopkins, like King David of the Psalms, does is to praise God with his idea of inscape and instress. “By ‘inscape’ he means the unified complex of characteristics that give each thing its uniqueness and that differentiate it from other things, and by ‘instress’ he means either the force of being which holds the inscape together or the impulse from the inscape which carries it whole into the mind of the beholder”₁ And that instress is the God in the thing, the object; it is the creative essence, which reflects the workings of a supernatural supreme personality of Godhead. In that way his poems are eternal prayers. But he wrote in secret. Poetry was considered too secular a preoccupation for a Jesuit priest to indulge in. It was seen as almost a sinful self-indulgence. So none of his work was published in his lifetime. Talking about which the spiritual background of Hare Krishna does not appear in my public poetry directly because I was almost forbidden to write poetry in the temple unless it had something to do with the religious, focusing on Krishna, the supreme personality of Hindu Godhead. I did write some poetry in that fashion and they were published in a journal we produced at the temple called transcendence. But otherwise you won’t find any directly spiritual poetry in my oeuvre. I could not not write poetry of all kinds. I felt restrained by the ecclesiastical demands of writing to form. So I picked up my bag and left. Now I am retracing my steps into traditional African religion and my patron saint, the Yoruba Trickster God Esu, is very liberal. “I write what I like.”

Obviously your relationship with Germany—political and personal—has had something to do with your poetry. It’s found its way into your subject matter; have there been any other, deeper ways its affected your poetry? What about the German poets?

There are no particular direct stylistic ways the German poets influenced or affected my poetry. This definitely has to do with the fact that I was a finished poet by the time I moved to Germany from Nigeria.

A finished poet? What, exactly, do you mean? Your fundamental sense of aesthetics had already been developed?

By a finished poet I mean that I was already largely formed in my stylistics and aesthetic predilections, yes.  And importantly I had already serviced my apprenticeship. I had written my juvenilia. I remember presenting Wole Soyinka with a notebook of handwritten poems when I first met him as a teenager of 18. He was kind enough not to say anything but just, “it is coming up; it is coming up!” None of my juvenilia is published at all. I can’t even find them, or I unconsciously lost them. Later on, I belonged to a group of poets at the University of Ibadan referred to in Nigeria as the Thursday People because we (the poetry club) met informally on Thursdays. That group was a spawning ground for good poetry and cross influences. It is the same group that Niyi Osundare belonged to–more and more in a fringe sense as he grew up and away as a poet.  Others include Harry Garuba, Chiedu Ezeanah, Remi Raji, Uche Nduka by affiliation, the late Sessan Ajayi, Sanya Osha and many more. I particularly had a close poetic relationship with Chiedu Ezeanah for his rigor, and we critiqued each other’s work honestly and without rancor. Such frank and no-nonsense criticism within the group generally helped me hone my craft. I am amused how in North America, despite the proliferation of creative writing schools, no criticism goes on at all. What passes for criticism is usually the unalloyed praise of the blurb writer. Writing blurbs has become a profession in itself and the unspoken ethic of it is that you praise the book to high heavens, deploy hyperboles couched in comparatives like “the best,” “the greatest,” “the most accomplished”— In comparison to what? one wonders. Even though I have left Nigeria, Chiedu still electronically sends me his poems from time to time to critique. He knows I will not call a spade a fork. The result of North American political correctness is that critics, both academic and lay, are petrified and refuse to do their work. Everyone is so sensitive; egos are so frail that you don’t dare offend their testiness by saying a poem is bad! You are supposed to simply praise. Why was it that the Romantic poets cut off the public and formed an inner group to critique their works? Wordsworth, Coleridge, and others at some point refused to follow the demands of the rabble about the direction their work should take. It led to a rejection of the age-old patronage system and the relationship of the Romantic poet to the public was then mediated through the market–especially with the increase in the English mercantile class and expansion of the middle class. Today, the general public and the critic behave like Wordsworth’s uncritical, unholy rabble. What you have out there is a lot of badly, hastily written poetry. There is also the desire to “popularize” poetry with things like slam and the “prose poem”—what an (oxy)moron! I think Derek Walcott recently frowned at that expression in a public talk. I can’t remember the circumstances now. These days everyone wants to be a poet. I wonder why. Poetry might be the queen of the arts but it is a beggar queen, you don’t make money with it. I suppose perhaps that some think writing poetry is easy and fast and does not need the patience, diligence, discipline, and long-suffering of prose. This view is far from the truth. The art requires more rather than less discipline. My own litmus test is this: if you can replace any word in any of my lines with another word, without causing a major breakdown in the very essence and structure of the poem, then I did a poor job in the first place! With me if at the syntagmatic level something is removed you will discover that it affects the whole paradigm. One word replaced and everything goes to hell! The rhythm and cadence–what Seamus Heaney refers to as that “ta-dum-ta-dum” in his The Government of the Tongue–the imagery too would probably go to hell, especially with me. I am an informal imagist.

So yes, I was a finished poet and was not directly influenced by German poetry. Nevertheless there are great German poets like Goethe (in a loose sense), Holderlin, Maria Rilke, Stefan Georg, and more. I particularly studied the last one and like his work. The only direct influence Germany has on my poetry is in my political engagement with that country, and in borrowing its language as a medium for poetry at some point. I wrote poems in German for a while and had enough to make a small collection. But as a form of personal, almost inconsequential protest, I stopped writing in German and destroyed all the work I had in German. I felt that as long as there was xenophobia against foreigners I had no business expanding the language by one person–me.  Germany, as I say always, was a bittersweet experience. It was the best of times and the worst of times. Some of my great friends are in Germany and are Germans. And I need to clarify the irony and oxymoron that German was for me all the time. You have some of the best and humane minds in that country. But you also have the unthinking right. You find such ironies everywhere. There is the example of a post-apartheid, xenophobic South Africa. And strangely their ire is turned on fellow Africans most of the time, against those who fought, in moral terms, alongside South Africans against apartheid. Even let’s talk about Nigeria, known, in certain section of its society, for its corruption and scams. Not every Nigerian is a scammer, nor is every Germany a right-winger, nor is every South African xenophobic. So it is a human thing, not a national malaise of any one country. Of course there are different degrees of myopia. Anywhere I meet a German I embrace them as family–if I am not pushed back. I owe that country a lot in my development–much more than I owe Nigeria.

The Nigerian Diaspora seems to harvest bumper crops of new, innovative writers. Is that because so many of you write in English?

It is not so much the language itself as the imagination and tradition of good writing that already exists and is an example for those who are willing to follow the path. As Eliot put it in his “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” no one writer can exist outside of a tradition. It is the same with Nigerian writing or Indian or British. Chimamanda Adichie has Achebe as a backdrop.  In fact one of her novels, Purple Hibiscus, in its very first sentence makes a direct allusion to Achebe’s Things Fall Apart: “Things started to fall apart at home when my brother, Jaja, did not go to communion and Papa flung his heavy missal across the room…” In the same tradition you find Helon Habila, Chris Abani, Chika Unigwe, Sefi Attah, Uwem Akpan and many more.  Even those who did not grow up in Nigeria—like Helen Oyeyemi—are not completely free of the encroachment of tradition. Her stories remind one of D.O. Fagunwa’s metaphysics in his novels written in the Yoruba language–again a sign that it is not merely the vehicle of English that energizes Nigerian literature. There is writing in indigenous Nigerian languages. There is a rich tradition of oral poetry, stories, and folklore in indigenous languages. Ben Okri’s animist realism also goes back D.O. Fagunwa, unwittingly. The Nigerian writer, like most ex-colonials, simply has the rich addition of the English tradition to draw from, and that language in which to disseminate the perpetuation of that tradition intermixed with the indigenous.  And oh, do not let us forget the Pidgin English in which Ken Saro-Wiwa wrote. Or a book like Beast of No Nation, which follows that tradition of “rotten English.” It is linguistic appropriation per excellence. And when you read some Caribbean writers, like Samuel Selvon, you find the richness of that kind of intermixing of traditions, in plot, style and language. Derek Walcott’s Homeros is a work celebrating that kind of marriage. In this way the English language itself, coming out of a globalized, globalizing and oppressive history, has some inevitable human and humanizing side to it–humanizing in the sense that it bridges disparate communities, who can thus speak to each as in a shout across the gulf. And the result? English gains. We cannot even begin to conceptualize English literature without the Celtic fringe, the Irish, for example.

Are there any African poets that you think deserve wider audience outside their home continent? What about African poets that deserve translation into English?

I can think of a few African poets right away who need to be disseminated widely because they will enrich the global poetic archive. One is Chiedu Ezeanah, little known outside Nigeria and a contemporary of mine as I said above. I have a deep and abiding respect for his work. I am known to be really finicky when it comes to poetry, so for me to say that about a fellow poet is quite a lot.  Those poets are legion who need to be translated. There is a whole gamut of traditional poetry in African languages that is not much read outside its respective communities.  Wole Soyinka translated some of these in his Poems of Black Africa (1975) edited by him or he had them translated. Nevertheless, let us problematize this matter of translation for a minute. English has a death-hold as a language of commerce on other world languages. While for pragmatic purposes it is useful to have books translated from other language into English, perhaps it is about time English reflect on its monologism and begin to learn other tongues. It can only benefit from it.

When did you learn English? When did you start reading English-language literature seriously? What about other languages?

I grew up speaking in English. I refer to it as my step-mother tongue in one of my poems–“Speaking in Tongues.” I can’t remember when I did not speak English! But chronologically I spoke Yoruba first because you did not begin school till the age of 6. At that time colonial education takes over and English suffuses your consciousness. But I never lost my Yoruba. In fact I speak it with the same facility as English. And it would be depressing and alienating for me if I could speak German and English as fluently as I do without speaking my own language. I was lucky in not having parents or guardians who forbade their children’s speaking their own mother tongues or neglected to instruct in those languages. Most ex-colonials suffer this. I am always flabbergasted when I meet First-Nation or aboriginal people in Canada who cannot speak their autochthonous languages. Empire is so strong that its result is the European-izing of everything, including first names. This is usually out of a misguided idea that the child of modernity will progress faster and better if they, for example, speak English, French, or Portuguese only; if they adopt European airs. This is the colonial hangover. So today you find Africans who are so alienated that they can’t speak their own indigenous languages; they speak French, English, German, and so on but not one African language. They are “sophisticated” in this way and are upwardly mobile: snobbish, middle-class social climbers, yuppies and yummies. And they are completely out of touch with their psyches. If they are women, they physically externalize that inner vacuity by taking the hot comb to their hair or wearing wigs. In some cases they bleach the skin! These are part of the uniform of blind ultra-modernity. An extreme of this iron, unreflecting modernity is in display when the French-speaking African looks down on the English-speaking African as “uncivilized” for not knowing French. A historical linguistic nationalism between the French and the English, two contesting colonial masters in Africa, is transposed onto the subject and subjectivities they helped to linguistically create. Let me exemplify this slavish mentality in the unreflecting African subject for you. Cameroon is Anglophone and Francophone due to colonial history, and the linguistic partition of the one country between their relative occupying colonial powers–English and French respectively. The French practiced assimilation as a colonial policy, which meant that the colonial subject was supposed to be a black French man, in education, culture and in all ways–up to even inheriting colonial French superciliousness. The English allowed the indigenous culture to thrive alongside Englishness. With that background in mind, one can easily contextualize the kind of estrangement from self that would make Francophone Cameroonian writers refuse to attend the burial of a fellow writer simply because the deceased never spoke French or wrote in it! I am talking of Bate Besong, who died a year or so ago. Once I began primary school my own Anglicization began, and alongside it training in English colonial education, and especially the anglicizing of African History. African francophone children where taught to chant the following slogan in primary school: “Our ancestors the Gauls!” That is a French-ifying and denial of African History. In the same way the English colonial curriculum taught me that “Mongo Park discovered the River Niger” in Nigeria. Mungo Park, the explorer, walked all the way from Trafalgar Square and discovered a river around which people were already living and in which they were fishing.  Salman Rushdie has a quip in answer to this kind of illogic: “How can you discover what was never covered?”

So my introduction to English literature was a subject-forming experience which luckily did not completely erase my mastery of self through the loss of nation languages, the learning of modern idiosyncrasies, which rather than necessarily make one “civilized”—as is advertised to us by empire—merely turns one into a more efficient producer, better fitted as a useful cog in the wheel of the capitalist machine; hence my rejection of Christianity in its complicity with capitalism over centuries. The pseudo-colonial curriculum in primary and high school and A-levels immersed one in the whole gamut of English literature. Shakespeare was a staple, for example, and most of the English poets and novelists, from Wordsworth to Coleridge, Charles Dickens to Hopkins, which has caused Chinwezu, et al in Towards a Decolonization of African Literature (1983) to accuse our first wave of African writers, especially poets, of having “Hopkin’s disease” in their colonial influenced Anglo-obscurantism. This issue of linguistic opacity is subtext to a broader language problem in African literature, which goes back to Obi Wali’s essay, “The Dead End of African Literature” (Transition, 1963), in which he queries the rationale of referring to a literature written in foreign, European languages as “African.” That last point is a smaller part of a larger cultural critic by Frantz Fanon (Black Skin; White Mask, 1952) on the iron-grip of colonial culture on the indigenous consciousness, and strategies for a decolonization, which was then taken up by Ngugi Wa Thiongo in Decolonizing the Mind (1986), for example. The language problem has made the critic Abiola Irele, in “The African Imagination” (1990), argue against any correlation between literature and nation where African writing is concerned since there is no one unifying, indigenous African language specific to each African state and which would then be the usual medium of a “national literature,” which everyone would understand as distinct from the alienating official European languages on the continent.  His call is a desire for the kind of linguistic inclusiveness common in the Caribbean and in their literature. The scholar-poet, Kamau Braithwaite, lauds that inclusiveness as representing the existence of a “nation language” in the Caribbean case.

It’s interesting that we assume that there ought to be an African literature, when the continent contains 55 distinct nations, hundreds and hundreds of languages and ethnic groups.

It is possible to have 55 distinct nations and multi-languages and still develop or have nation languages in each of those countries. The logic of the proponents of nation languages is simple. British Literature is written in English, German literature is written in German, French literature in French and so on. These countries also had/still have dialects. For example, there is low German and high German. What happens is that by conscious cultural engineering, a standard German or French or English (as distinct from Cockney) is instituted and is the official language and lingua franca. Africa’s case is historically more complicated than the European countries situation. And the reality on the ground is that African literature is written in European languages. Reality trumps cultural nationalism. The French writer Maupassant says that reality is what happens while you are busy planning it.

Ngugi Wa Thiongo has continued to champion the decolonizing rhetoric in Africanist discourse. The matter can never be resolved in the face of the reality of the life-changing results of colonial history.  This is the moral of Pius Adesanmi’s “Europhonism, Universities and Other Stories: How not to speak for the Future of African Literatures” (2002) in response to Ngugi’s “Europhonism, Universities, and the Magic Fountain: The Future of African Literature and Scholarship” (2000). Clearly since the late 20th century till now the language debate has not been exhausted. Most Africans inserted into modernity speak one European language at least – and in my own case, two while others speak three. I am dead lucky I still know one African language at a literate level. In oppostion to Ngugi’s unyielding stance, I am for the stance of Wole Soyinka or Pius Adesanmi or Chinua Achebe: the need for a pragmatic and inevitable way of seeing the acquisition of language in a global market especially necessitated by colonial history. The regrettable thing–which, perhaps, should be of more concern–is the unidirectional channel of influence between Western Culture and indigenous cultures. The African is simply richer for having all of those languages and his own African language; the Westerner is the poorer for his lack. Let me put aside the question of ideology and power imbalances for a minute.

It is in that light that Ngugi’s practical experiment these days is ironic and self-defeating, where he insists on first publishing his novels in Gikuyu and then having them translated into English almost immediately. Why translate them at all and at once? Dissemination is easier in English. Do I speak Gikuyu, even if I am an African? No! English, he seems to unwittingly agree, has become the inevitable and final arbiter of market standards, willy-nilly. It is dictatorial like that. Ngugi’s decolonizing project is defeated by an imperial language. And the resistance to English by other ‘englishes’ has not worked much either. It is a losing battle that academics and pundits fight with English. It has an iron-hold on other languages, such that some of those languages are asphyxiated and are dying out. A UN report confirms some languages–some African languages inclusive–are going to become completely extinct in the course of this century.

I really admire Wa Thiongo’s book on decolonizing English. But like you say, his effort seems more an act of personal defiance—of course, that’s not at all to minimize its importance—than a trend in post-colonial African literature. I wonder, though, if technology—especially increasing worldwide access to the internet—will begin to favor smaller, more diverse literary communities. What do you think?

Ngugi’s position is certainly a very lonely one. Since the language debate in African literature flared up in the 1960s, raged, then became a dim glow, his camp has lost more followers than it has gained new foot soldiers. Understandably so. Achebe has made his own pragmatic position clear in his 1964 lecture “ The African Writer and  the English Language,” where he declares that he can make the English language carry the burden of his African experience. He proved this in Things Fall Apart were he overlaid the English language with the essence of his Igbo culture–especially through the African proverbs which pepper that book. The Internet has started that kind of mini-revolution you talk about. For example, I think there is now Google in the Nigerian Yoruba language. There are specialized Yoruba keyboards too. This is likely to be replicated for other minor languages. Nevertheless such efforts are a mere ripple as compared to the huge historical waves English and other Europhone languages has set in motion; waves that are still ongoing and strong. It is a losing battle. There are power dynamics, market forces, economic pragmatism, and matters of prestige and social habit involved here. I think it is a losing battle for suppressed languages. Luckily there are still literatures in indigenous languages in Nigeria; I don’t know about elsewhere.

Your book has a lot of references to cities. I’m kind of obsessed with cities. Especially Mexico City and Los Angeles. Any thoughts on cities in poetry, in relation to the poet or their process, or any bad subway stories?

Bad subway stories. I tried to avoid subways when it was dark and isolated in Europe. I have not used Toronto’s subway enough to know if it has secrets and stories to tell. Cities in poetry… What comes to mind is that sad, sad poet, Arthur Nortje, talking as a South African exile about London in an intimate and observant way in the poems, “London  Impressions.”  A dark, dark powerful horse in full gallop, Arthur Nortje used place to reflect on existence and the condition of exile and alienation. I think his brooding nature killed him. He committed suicide. Yes. Poetry in cities. London did have a lot of poetry lurking in it if you consider its role as an imperial center, and the fact that Nortje had to run to London for refuge from another imperial center–Apartheid South Africa. Nortje described London with the acute and keen eye of the poet per excellence. Powerful poet. Cities generally function in writing of all kinds—travelogues, novels, poetry—as a kind of anchor against which to buoy up the self, especially the self of a stranger in a strange land. It is a measure of learning anew. In that self-reconstitution against a new backdrop, a new city, Nortje the exile re-integrates himself into the landscape, “having learnt the value of other faces, acquired the pace and tone of other voices.” My own Globetrotter is more a celebration of Toronto and its diversity, its rainbow coalition and my place as an immigrant in all of that. In some sense it resembles what Nortje was doing. But I don’t think I have the stomach to kill myself. That needs a lot of courage.  I am cowardly like that. As one south African poet said on learning that a friend in the apartheid struggle died while that struggle was not yet conclusive, “that man had no business dying.”

Thanks, Amatoritsero, for your time.

Thank you very much David; it has been a pleasure.

November 2009

₁ Glenn Everett at


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