A hiss and a loud ‘ping’ announced the arrival of breakfast, in the manner in which all his meals were delivered from below. It made no sense if the victuals came from above. But from how far below, he could not tell.
With another ‘ping’ a little metal door in the wall slid open and a loaded dinner tray lay revealed on a stainless steel platform. It was a small elevator system: after the meal was over he would return the dishes and the tray to the platform. The little metal door would slide shut.
Sometimes he toyed with the idea of escape via that route, but the space was only large enough to carry the dishes and the occasional bottle of wine ...
The dining table in the cell was not large. It was meant for two people and had a round Formica top with a most exquisite design: startling white with an ingrained spiral of vanishing grey. The spiral started out in the middle of the circular top and spread out in tight windings to the edge. The table legs, made of stainless steel, were just about as thin as his little finger, and each was coiled into a helix.
There were two identical chairs at opposite sides of the table, made of polished wood and steel.
At every meal he wondered about the other seat standing mockingly vacant ...
From “Spiral”, first published in Mr Happy and the Hammer of God
Martin Egblewogbe covers many bases.
He’s a working physicist and university lecturer in that field. He is a poet, and a prose writer whose fiction crosses literary boundaries, influenced by Kafka, Beckett, Asimov, and the great African realists and surrealists. One writer he sometimes reminds me of is another Ghanaian, the great B. Kojo Laing. Sometimes Egblewogbe’s stories explore African traditions from a scientific perspective.
His last great publishing success was in 2012, a volume of short stories, Mr Happy and the Hammer of God, but in 2017 when we spoke, the year of Kojo Laing’s death, Egblewogbe was facing the difficulties of being a writer on the continent.
On the Ghanaian literary scene, he is an indispensable figure, tirelessly promoting reading and local literature in Accra.
He has a story published by Ayiba in their collection All the Good Things Around Us edited by Ivor Agyeman-Duah, containing work by the who’s who of African authors including Ama Ata Aidoo, Tsitsi Dangarembga, and Shadreck Chikoti. ). That story was “...and the dog lay there dying”. He wrote a vivid article based on stories told him by Accra taxi drivers, “The Ferryman” in Litro magazine. The 2014 Caine Prize anthology The Gonjon Pin and Other Stories was named after his contribution.
I meet him in his lab at the expansive, low-lying campus of the University of Ghana, and from there we go to the bougainvillea-fringed staff club. As always with these interviews, I ask him how to pronounce his name. It is something like Egg-bla-oh-bay. He starts to talk about his writing.
Martin: “I’ve been working on a new collection of short stories that’s been bounced by a number of publishers. I was hoping it would be published this year. I think it’s a much better collection than the first collection, which is Mr Happy and the Hammer of God.”
Of that first collection Chimurenga’s The Chronic said:
The setting of Martin Egblewogbe’s debut collection of short stories is mostly in Accra but the space it occupies is Achille Mbembe’s postcolony: “a reality that is made up of superstitions, narratives and fictions that claim to be true in the very act through which they produce the false, while at the same time giving rise to both terror, hilarity and astonishment.” It’s a time-space characterised by different, intersected and entwined threads and themes in tension with one another. Stuck between ghettoisation and globalisation, bureaucracy and chaos, tedium and crisis, exhaustion and acceleration, the characters in these stories have long abandoned ontological questions, preferring to escape into wild flights of existential and metaphysical fancy.
Martin: “In between that publication and the second collection—which I consider as milestones more or less—in between them are several little outputs, short stories mainly that have appeared in different places (for example, “Fever” in Afreada). There are a few other very strange ones. One of them is on a website called Timbuktu and is the story about a man who in the final of a chess competition decides to go stark naked. (Chuckles)”
GR: “Why did he do that?”
Martin: “It doesn’t say that in the story, just that he wanted to finish the competition naked and he didn’t think about it until he got arrested. (Chuckles).
“And then I think in terms of successful writing that’s about it. I’ve been writing since I was eight or so. The output then was rather foolish but it all built me up to what I am now.”
GR: “They say it takes ten years to learn how to write.”
Martin: “At least you will be resilient if you survive ten years. (Chuckles).”
GR: “Does the physics have any input into the writing?”
Martin: “Yes, I think it does. It has a lot of input, even down to how I construct the stories. There are some stories that are laid out on a blackboard. So you have a full idea of where things are going, what needs to be put in it. And then I think there are some ideas that I think are directly from science. The way the characters think and the things that bother them. I think those are very strongly coming from the scientific background.
“There’s this story called in the first collection, ‘Spiral’. Someone is trapped in a tower, a very high tower and he’s alone in this cell. And strange things keep happening in there. The room itself has two chairs and one lone table. And since he’s alone he has no understanding of why there should be another chair. The construction of the chairs is such that their legs are in a spin, a helix. Some of the legs are in right-handed helix and some of the legs are in a left-handed helix. He is there wondering how the whole thing came to be and he borrows ideas from quantum mechanics that by observing you create. Things are not physically realizable until they are observed. They are in potentia.
“In the end, he hears some footsteps, which are coming up from below, and he’s wondering where the footsteps are going, and he ends up wither in terror that the footsteps will come right by his door.”
I ask him about the research he’s doing.
Martin: “It’s called condensed matter physics. What I’ve been working on last few years is synthesizing zinc oxide compounds or compounds that are like zinc oxide. And making nanopowders of them and cauterizing them.
“Why it is still worth pursuing is that zinc oxide has potential for being a very good electro-luminescent material. And so that is the focus of the research. How are you able to coax this material to somehow deliver light when you run an electric current through it?
“You have the nanoparticles suspended in a polymer. So you have something like a polyethylene oxide. Sometimes you want to use a polymer that is able to emit positive charges because zinc oxide is electron rich. If you are able to do it well, you will have these nanoparticles, each of which can emit an electron, surrounded by a polymer which can also give off a hole. If you have an electron hole in isolation that gives rise to a photon. So that is your light-giving material already because all you need to do is apply a potential difference. The electrons jump out and combine with holes, and then you get your light coming out.”
We joke about his mad scientist lab and jars with tentacles in them. We switch back to fiction. We talk about Henrietta Rose-Innes, a writer I call a fellow traveller to science fiction, whose concerns overlap with it. It seemed to me that some of the stories in Mr Happy and the Hammer of God had slight elements of magic realism and spiritual realism.
Martin: “Um. So if I think about the last two stories in the second part of Mr Happy, yes they actually have a lot of magical realism. I think that ‘Jjork’ would be the most quote-unquote bizarre. I mean with all those elements. Here is a personality who is living in his mind. The whole construct is in someone’s mind. It doesn’t really exist. But then we have all these fascinating things that happen. For example, Jjork is in a room suspended right at the top of this cube that is hollow ... I was just really trying to identify the idea of power that gets thrown down. To begin with, this personality envisages himself as the all-in-all. Until he’s challenged and then he feels that he really doesn’t have the power he thought he had ...
... and ends up destroying himself by throwing himself off the building.
“That really was the idea behind it. The thought of a person’s worldview being so severely challenged but they have no option other than to self-destruct. Or the challenge itself is self-destruction.
“That story was written when I was having a very serious issues with religion. I think I got into this state where I felt that my religious concepts were facing a very severe challenge from myself.
“That story I wouldn’t even call magic realism. Classifying the stories is very difficult for me. I don’t know what to call them (Laughs).
“‘Mr Happy’ is the last-but-one story. The final three stories are becoming more and more unrealistic from story to story. In ‘Mr Happy’ itself, it’s the character’s insanity that brings in the show of things that are not real. But in ‘Three Conversations with Ayuba’ the unrealistic things are built into the story.
“I don’t know if you’ve seen ‘The Gonjon Pin’ [his contribution to the Caine Prize anthology The Gonjon Pin and Other Stories 2014]. There’s a chap who finds on his wall the scrotum of someone he doesn’t know."
GR: “Scrotum? How does he know it’s the scrotum of someone he doesn’t know? Why not the scrotum of a friend?”
Martin: “That’s ... that’s ... that’s ...(Cracking up). He doesn’t know that he doesn’t know him that’s true. This is a man who has been kicked out of university. He’s a fairly bright chap. He’s trying to write computer code to predict the lottery. His next-door neighbour has a mental breakdown and runs out of his room naked. But those events are connected with the appearance in this computer guy’s room of somebody’s scrotum hanging on the wall. This drives him almost insane for a number of days until he chisels the wall and removes the entire section of the wall. So that I think also signifies my approach to magical realism where people who are otherwise sane get confronted with things that are a bit bizarre.
“This thing with the scrotum has a link with stories from Ghanaian folklore. It’s turned into a joke now, but going to see a fetish priest and not providing fully what the fetish priest asks. For example, the fetish priest wants a totally white boot, but you present a boot with a spot on it. So there’s this story that someone goes for a charm to make them vanish and they present an animal with a blemish. They need to use the charm to vanish, but when they vanish they leave a bit of their body behind.
“The thing that is freshest in my mind right now are stories I’m working on now. They’re not published and I don’t know if they really will be, but people are interested.
“There will always be stories that are entirely in people’s minds. I don’t think I’ll ever stop doing that because it allows you to explore vistas which are really vast. Anything can happen in somebody’s imagination.
“And then there are some that are now becoming more focussed on little things in people’s lives. For example, there is a story which has to do with someone remembering an instant that happened when he was in secondary school, a very little incident of being ignored by someone’s mother, which carries on through his life. He is trying to connect all the dots in his life to that incident and why it may have ruined his life.
“I have no good idea what makes me write a particular kind of piece. There’s no structure. Most times when I am undergoing some sort of distress, then I write. There’s no real form as to what the output is. I can’t say I’m writing more of this or less of that or that my writing is going in this direction or that direction.
“The story that I want to write which foremost in my mind is to do with paranoia. I think it’s again because again of the idea of living in someone’s mind. I find it fascinating that someone can be locked in their mind with just a terror of anyone understanding them and it’s impossible to break out into a realistic scenario that some people like you, some people don’t like you.
“Then I am also working on this story; this is straight out sci-fi about a fugitive nuclear engineer on some planet that is terraformed. The planet derives its electrical power for the terraformation to keep going from a nuclear reactor. This has been going on ages and there is just one person who can run that reactor. Unfortunately, that chap is a fugitive who is being pursued by the industrial galactic police. And so finally where the story is set in the final stages coming to get him. If they get him the planet shuts down. I’ve only thought of the story. It’s been on my mind maybe for a decade but I’ve never put that structure.
“There is this third story that I actually submitted a synopsis to the Miles Morland Foundation in hope that they would fund it.
“I am trying to bring together the whole idea of African magic and what it looks like with the very sophisticated science of what the human brain is capable of now. It’s about a person who through drugs finally finds he can use a lot more of his brain but more importantly he can connect to other brains and take control of them. This becomes very important for the military people. It means that a fighting army can be controlled as one organism with a thousand hands. He can control not only humans but also birds, so he can see through the eyes of birds.
“So that one has an outline, but the Foundation didn’t like it much so they didn’t give me the money to write it. Those are three projects that I would like to work on. I will always write my short stories because they are always like pressure valves.”
We talk about how difficult it is to find time to write.
Martin: “Unfortunately, this is a very bad thing. I will change it. I work all the time. So sometimes during working hours I steal time from the university and write. Other times I’m here weekends because I have to sort stuff out in the lab. Typically I’m here every day till eight or ten, Saturdays and Sundays. It’s a very horrible life. My family doesn’t like it either. But I try. There are some days I spend at home.”
We start to talk about his journey as a writer.
Martin: “My father was a professor here [University of Ghana] in linguistics. So there were lots of books in the house. Many of them were over my head. The children’s books, I started with from the primary school and they were running a British curriculum, so we were reading books straight out of England. My memory is quite poor, but I remember these brightly coloured books full of motorboats” (Laughs).
GR: “And snow.”
Martin: “Snow yes. And we had lots of these rhymes. Coming into my first-year Class One, those were the books we’d be reading. That would be about six to seven. And then we had a pretty well-stocked library. So we did the Hardy Boys thing, the Nancy Drews. And then at that time there was a series called Pacesetters, very small books about eighty to one hundred pages. Written mainly by Nigerians, racy action stories.
“I think from about Class Five, they all of a sudden became a fad. ‘Have you read this? I’ve read this.’ And so the stories went round and round. I think the Pacesetters were really exciting. Most of my class had read them. Six months down the line there would be another title that no one had read so it was a challenge ‘I want to read this one.’"
(Some of Faith Ben-Daniels's early favourite works were also published in the Pacesetters series. Some of them had fantasy of spiritual realism elements.)
“Then I began to read more difficult works quite early. I think I read a lot of J. R. R. Tolkien about twelve or thirteen. I liked it so much the story stuck in my mind and when late 2000s I found a copy of the trilogy, I just bought it right off because I remembered it from way back when.
“From my father’s libraries, there were all these African Writers series—Achebe, wa Thiong’o. There was also Kafka.
“Then the reading took a hit when I went to secondary school because we had a library that didn’t have a lot of novels. As somebody who would typically spend all my free time in the library in primary school, I found that the secondary school library only had books, not novels. My reading shifted to when I came home on the holidays. It was a big help that there was a library in our house so there was some stuff to read.”
GR: “When did you say, 'I’m going to write?'”
Martin: “Actually, I started writing soon after I started reading. I remember it because my elder brother (He starts to laugh) he would remind me of a story. He kept laughing at me for ages. It was some story about a king and all sorts of shenanigans and there was a last line that he would always remind me of: ‘He collapsed and died.’ Many years down the line my brother was springing up and saying ‘Ah and then he collapsed and died’ (Laughs again).”
GR: “Sounds good to me. A nice spectacular ending.”
Martin: “That was probably ‘82 or ‘84. I was born in ‘75.
“I can’t put an age to it. You see, sometimes I don’t write for long periods. Just recently I could say, maybe probably after university that I would say, ‘Yeah my writing makes some sense, I should stick to it.’
“Previously I would write when something was bothering me. And I think much earlier on I was just writing as a way of replicating what I had read. When I read a mystery story for children, I’d try to write a mystery story around me and my friends. Seeing some tyre tracks and trying to investigate. But I don’t think it was a serious stuff until much later when I left university and was writing things I really felt.”
GR: “Jonathan Dotse talks of the difficulty of writing science fiction set in Ghana. Do you feel that?”
Martin: “Personally no. I think that you very easily borrow from the work that is already in existence. If you are reading lots of European literature and stuff you just plug in. Somehow you think you are some kind of European or American when it comes to writing. Let’s put it this way—Kafka and Becket have been very strong influences on me. More than I would say any African writer because of the extent of their imaginings.
“When I much younger I did my bit of science fiction. Not pulp science fiction—things like Gene Wolfe and Ursula Le Guin. People who really imagined worlds. Of course Asimov. And then Russian science fiction.”
GR: “You were able to get hold of the books. Some of the younger writers really haven’t been able to.”
Martin: “Maybe they didn’t look hard enough. Some of the science fiction I got from people who do these flea market kind of sales. They have piles of books that someone from the US shipped down. If you go through them you will find things like the Nebula Award story collections that I bought. I got them from places like that. The Forever War.”
I tell him that he was a book hunter, like Mehul Gohil in Nairobi who wrote a blog about how to find books. We talk about The Forever War and how imaginative it was and so grounded in the Vietnam War. He gets another phone call and the interview interrupts. I tease him about his brother and suggest that he ends one of his new stories “And he collapsed and died.”
I then ask him about his work for The Writers Project of Ghana.
Martin: “So I think the real genesis of the thing was in around ‘99 or 2000 when I got introduced to a radio programme that was running on campus radio. I got to host the show for about seven years to about 2007. I used that to build a certain community of people who were interested in writing, poets.
“In 2009 this American writer Laban Carrick Hill visited. He was a visiting professor at the University of Cape Coast. And he found one of my poems in an anthology so he got in touch with me and we had a conversation pretty much like this. We became friends. He thought we should organize a few reading events, so I just called on the network that already existed. We organized a couple of reading events and that went really well.
“After that we thought maybe we should form an organization. So we started what we called initially the African Poetry Project. About six months down the line we changed it to the Writers Project of Ghana. And the whole idea was to expose the voice of writers, make writers more visible and also create fora for them to interact with their readers
“So we organize readings. We publish anthologies. We’ve put out two anthologies of poetry so far and we are working on a third anthology but that’s of short stories. We run a radio programme. We been running the radio programme since 2009, a weekly radio programme. It’s on CitiFM 97.3.
“On our website we have a podcast page and we have a weekly show. It’s actually streamed live across the world. This year we’ve been having participation of people who are not locals. For example, a week ago we had a Canadian poet, Rob Taylor on the show. For a radio show we’ve become less Ghanaian orientated. We’ve wanted to explore as much as possible with guests from other countries.
“We have a reading series. I think it’s the longest running and I would say most consistent reading series in Accra. We’ve been on this since 2009. We are currently doing the reading series in collaboration with the Goethe Institut. We’ve had fantastic people from across Africa. We’ve had Sefi Atta, Ama Aidoo, Chuma Nwokolo, Manu Herbstein, and most amazing of all, Kojo Laing.”
GR: “That’s a great list.”
Martin: “We’ve probably done almost fifty different writers. This month we are having two co-authors Estelle Appiah and Margaret Rouse-Jones. Margaret is coming from the Dominica and Estelle is in Ghana, they are reading a book Returned Exile, a biography of a man who returned from Dominica to Liberia.
“We organize writing workshops too. We’ve had a few. Including some with this crime fiction writer from the United States. He’s Ghanaian, Kwei Quartey. He writes a lot of crime fiction. He’s based in Pasadena. He’s done a reading for us. He’s done workshops. He’s also been on the radio show.”
GR: “What are the issues for African writers?”
Martin: “The main issue is that there doesn’t seem to be a critical mass of readers. That’s the main thing. You hear ghastly stories of a publisher being unable to sell a thousand copies of a title. Something like that beats my imagination. If we say that across the country we are about eight million voters, that means eight million adults who should be able to read. Why can’t you sell a thousand copies of a book to them? I believe that a key thing is that we don’t have enough people who are interested in just sitting down and reading a book. And I think that is the main block because once people are reading you have an output.
“As a writer, you need to know your work is going somewhere. You’re getting feedback. You need an audience of one hundred thousand or two hundred thousand. Once we are able to build that space locally, the work is done.
“The roadblock I see is that a Ghanaian writer is having to pitch his story at the West all the time. When you think about it, why should an American reader be interested in your story? Americans are churning out their own stories anyway. So I think that growing a local readership is to me the biggest barrier.”
GR: “I would agree very much. Even with all these stories online from African magazines saying these stories are for you, the writers are writing to sell to Western magazines. It’s different for comics, which are thriving in Africa, like The Comic Republic, publishing mainly for phones and the web. They seem to have leapfrogged over print and desktop computing.”
Martin: “You know I think that we will never ever leapfrog writing. I don’t see how realistically as a society we can build anything that is intellectually robust without making sure there are writers and there are readers. I am not someone who is fascinated by games, 3D immersive technology. Frankly, I’d rather take a walk. I can see doing the CGI stuff is really exciting. Pushing technology to its limit. But I think at a certain point it will just be something that is there, its been done to show that, yeah, we can do that. We fall back on the very rich spectrum that is available in nature. We’ll take a walk in the garden and that beats virtual reality.
“I have met many many people who write, and some of them have great ideas but they have met a roadblock. Because nobody’s reading. There’s no challenge. There’s no reason for them to challenge themselves and so they are stuck. They are circling in some kind of stagnant pool.”
GR: “So how do you get more readers?”
Martin: “Some people are not reading because they can’t. They haven’t been taught how to read. Technically they see words and they can’t pronounce them. That’s an entirely educational thing. People have to be taught in schools and in homes.
“But then there is also another group of people who can read perfectly well, but they don’t care. Nothing has made them excited about reading for pleasure. They can read hundreds of self-improvement books, which will just improve the writers of the books. So they are interested in reading something but it’s just they will not pick a book of fiction.
“For such people, I believe that things like public readings where they get to meet a writer who is living and sitting there, and they can talk to them and buy the book after that—things like that I believe will encourage people who functionally read but just haven’t found a reason to do that.
“The second thing that I believe will work is a book club. The Writer’s Project has a book club. Every month we select a title and we read it. Especially for professionals who have the strange idea that because they are working they don’t have time to read, being part of a book club they meet people like them, who can read. Spend twenty minutes in the morning to read a novel.
“Finally somehow we have to expand the conversation about books. If you turn on the radio, and somebody is talking about a book. You have a conversation with somebody and there’s a quotation from a book. You know, just making books part of the conversation makes them come alive. So you know they are there. Rarely do you have a conversation during the day with colleagues about a book, it just doesn’t come up.”
Since this Interview
Martin’s second collection of stories The Waiting has been announced for publication in February 2020 from Nii Parkes’s company Flipped Eye.