I showed my friends a picture of Uchechi posing beside a dancing drag queen in red. You don get mouth, Wale said. Cyprian licked his lips, already mind-fapping to her carnival bikini-clad body. When we go meet her? Wale asked. I no know, I replied. Na Lekki Phase 4 she dey stay. He opened his mouth and looked at Cyprian, who said, I know say that job go make you fuck up; I no just know say na sharp-sharp the thing go happen.
The job he spoke of was my internship at the new archives department located in the old Museum Building on Awolowo Road. It was part of the reconciliation project that recruited Mainlanders to work on the Island, both to help the city recover its cultural roots, and to offer a way for bright Mainlanders to be integrated into life on the Island.
Part of my job was to go through the Twitter archives of a few residents of the old city who our friends at AmaSoft had considered essential. Twitter was a mixed baggage: one dude had #HistoryClass every week like books had gone extinct, and another just posted bad puns that ran into millions of tweets. The jokes were, however, valuable in understanding the city. One time I found this: BROKE UP WITH MY BF WHO WENT TO RUSSIA. NOW A GUY SAYS I SHOULD VISIT HIM IN IKORODU. WHY WOULD I WANT ANOTHER LONG-DISTANCE RELATIONSHIP? Only if she knew…
From “Yes I Can Dance,” in Omenana
IfeOluwa is a prolific writer of just about anything except SFF, but I’m talking to him at Ake 2016 because of his highly unusual 2015 SFF piece “Yes I Can Dance.” This story spun me around because it’s such a tapestry of voices. I thought then—whoever writes this understands voice. The interview turned out to be one of the most touchingly honest pieces about the difficulties of being an African writing SFF. I thought at first that Ife was maybe forty years old—his voice is so gruff and deep, in contrast to his willowy frame. He was then twenty-six. He was on the 2016 shortlist of Outstanding Young People of the Year awards in the Young Writer category.
Ife: “The story is about a guy who likes a lady. She kinda likes him but she’s from a different world and he has his hopes dashed. The idea was take the social divide we have now in Lagos and take it far into the future.
“It was flash fiction, so I didn’t have room to build up the world to the extent it should be. In Lagos now, there’s the mainland where more people live who are thought not to be as affluent, and the Island where people who are affluent stay. That’s what Lagos is now. I imagine that there’s been a class war and a strict divide so that you need a visa to enter the Island. The bridges have been cut, but the hero has a visa.”
I ask Ife to talk about how the narration is in one voice that is so different from the dialogue.
Ife: “When I’m writing about characters, I try to get the voices, because the voices are really what get me going. My own personal voice is very flat, very straightforward almost like I’m writing science papers. So I try to then imagine a character and how they will talk and that voice will be very much more colourful than my own rather droning voice.”
We talk about the whole concept of voice, both in terms of style and in the wider sense of what they do. We also talk about Lagos’s social divide.
Ife: “If you live on Victoria Island, you would never have to encounter people who speak pidgin to you. The English in the story is the street-level English you speak in Nigeria. Pidgin is a mix of very many things. Someone from Warri will speak a pidgin that has local elements and we call it Wafi. It’s very different from the pidgin I would speak because of my growing up in southwest Nigeria. I grew up in Oyo State, Ibadan, which is close to Lagos. The pidgin there is a little different.
“The thing is then to capture (in the story) the pidgin that I use to speak to my friends, when I’m speaking in informal settings. It’s very different from pidgin elsewhere. I almost have to voice it to write it down exactly.”
It was the science fiction element that gave Ife the most problems.
“I didn’t use my imagination so much for the rest of the background. Once I got the class war out of the way, I just depended on tropes. It was just robots, plug in all of that.
“There are stories I want to write in speculative fiction where I have to create the world from scratch, create the rules for the world that don’t depend on the regular tropes that we recognize as science fiction.
“I came into speculative fiction from a very Star Trekkie point of view. So you have the androids, the spaceships and all of that. It’s always a struggle for me being able to imagine a very different world. It takes a level of work that I’ve not done yet. It’s always a concern being able to imagine a world that is very different from that which has been given to us.
“Most of us grew up reading Western books, grew up on Star Wars, Star Trek, not even very hardcore science fiction unfortunately. It’s difficult to break out of that. I find it difficult, speaking as someone who has tried. So you see something that Ursula Le Guin would do, for instance, and you wonder how she gets there.
“It’s a conversation we don’t like to have as Africans. The idea that our imaginations are still not entirely divorced from that which is handed to us, the stories, the narratives we’ve been handed. It’s unfortunate because we had some very original people initially. When people talk about Amos Tutuola, it’s one of the things that fascinate them about him. It’s very original.”
Listening to the recording later, I realize that Ife is talking about the discomfort that African writers sometimes feel with the literary legacy of colonialism.
Ife: “Not everybody labours under that cloud. When I think of Wole Talabi’s work, ‘Wednesday’s Story’ (Nommo-nominated story, first published in Lightspeed) is based on things that are very familiar to me. But the idea of what he did with it … I struggle with how to put it: how it feels to see someone do that with material from myths in the cultures. The very idea of Oluronbi (the story of a woman who asks for the gift of pregnancy from a tree inhabited by an entity) is a myth that we all know.
“There was a story I started to write. It looked like a highly original idea. But after I got to a thousand words, I realized I was going back to the same things. At the start of it, it looked really fresh, really different. For almost a year I would go back to that story and try to reimagine it from scratch. But I couldn’t figure out a different path for the story.
“It’s easier for us to write the sort of stories we would call speculative fiction (rather than science fiction), stories that would depend on how we see the world. Let me not be too general. Where I come from, when you tell people everyday stories, those stories are never just plain reality. Someone might come to your house and say, ‘Oh, did you hear what happened next door? Someone became a chicken.’ You never question ‘How does someone become a chicken?’ It’s just a part of life.”
I start to talk about how in some of the previous interviews, Chikodili Emelumadu or Kiprop Kimutai talk about how Africans let Christianity and science and traditional belief coexist. When I start to talk about that, Ife cuts in.
Ife: “You really can hold them together and we do hold them together. It’s easy for us to do it. It’s easy for me to write a story in which someone becomes a yam. It’s been bastardized by our film industry, but these are the stories people tell.
“The attempt to start something that is different from what you know is the struggle. I usually feel that science fiction lives in that place where you project in the future.”
GR: “So you’re saying that traditional belief is holding back the writing of science fiction?”
Ife: “No, it’s not being held back by it. Science fiction could be liberated by it. You could do what Wole did with it. You can still own the myth of Olunrobi, and imagine the spirits having a conversation on how to control the days of the week. So it’s not impossible to do it. You can still hold the traditional beliefs.
“Sometimes the stories are tied to morals. Someone becomes a goat because they did something wrong. And they still own that and transmit that into something different. I don’t know what you need to do that. I still haven’t figured it out for myself.
“I still went back home last December and we were talking about someone who had been crazy on the streets for twenty years. And then suddenly the person’s head was clear. And the suggestion was that someone had died in the region who was cursing them. That’s the religious stuff … you could do anything with it.
“To come from that path (tradition) that is still very rich and to be able to take it to wherever I want to take it without … I guess like you said, it’s like the nearly hundred years you’ve had to write SFF in the West, defining how it should be done and breaking it down. (Sighs) Yeah.”
GR: “It sounds like you’re a pretty committed science fiction person?”
Ife: “I am, but my problem is that when I say that I am there’s no proof of it. (Laughs). I have reams and reams of paper. I’m always trying to stretch the limits of known reality, take the simple elements of them and just work with them. I give myself assignments of reimagining stuff and see what comes out of it and then always it just comes to some sort of a failure, and it sometimes can be quite depressing not being able to get out of it.”
I ask him if there is anyone he sends his work to get feedback from.
Ife: “Pemi Aguda (emphasis in each case is on the last syllable. PemEE AgooDAH), for one. Akintunde Aiki is a friend in Ibadan. He is a writer. So I show them some of my work. The two of them would see what I write.”
I ask him where his interest in SFF comes from.
Ife: “I was going to school and there was this guy selling roadside secondhand books and I saw a copy of a Star Trek book and just bought it. I had an idea what it was. I bought the first two and then bought again and again until I had a collection of about fifty. It was much later that I found the TV show and tried to watch.
“The secondhand book stalls are a feature of African life. They are where we get everything. And they’re very cheap. People have a theory that people tried to get money into the country and the easiest way to launder it would be books. I don’t know how true it is, but fascinating. Back then they cost about a half dollar each.
“We read a lot of Fagunwa in our house in the original Yoruba. We would read them like bedtime stories. They were for adults, but they were full of magic, things to scare you, and were really, really funny.
“I read a lot of books from my dad’s library. Zambia Shall Be Free by Kenneth Kaunda. I can’t remember a word from that book. He had a couple of Shakespeare books in his library as well. Let me add this: abridged classics. Ben-Hur. He had Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare and Pilgrim’s Progress. He had a really good collection of books. He was a pastor. I’m not a pastor. I’m an engineer, he’s really not pushy about what I should be or not. My mom was a nurse.”
He studied engineering but his job now is editing with some writing. Apparently for a time he had an internship with Ove Arup. I ask him what he’s done recently that’s the most fun. He looks a bit taken aback and then says, “In my room, reading and not going out that much.” Then he adds:
“I did the Farafina Workshop this year and that counts as fun. That’s with Chimamanda (Ngozi Adichie, author of Half of a Yellow Sun) and Binyavanga (Wainana, founder of the Kwani Trust and author of Some Day I Will Write about This Place). He has very interesting ideas about how you can liberate your imagination from what’s been received. He has very fascinating thoughts about that. He was supposed to be here at Ake.” Read Ife’s Farafina memoir here.
“If we all keep turning out work, if we continue to produce, we will create a space that will really be the beginning of something radically different from the past. That’s the exciting part. We are in a time when there is so much stuff happening that eventually something is bound to break out of that. To be on the lookout for that, so to be always on the edge of that is always exciting thing for me as someone who reads. Even if you don’t get to write at all. To be able to read that stuff while you are here.”
Since this interview in 2016, Ife has worked (until recently) as writer and critic at musicinafrica.net.
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