Tuesday, November 08, 2005

an interview with Amatoritsero Ede

This interview was conducted over email from October to November 2005

Amatoritsero Ede is an ex-Hindu Monk with the Hare Krishna Movement, born in Nigeria. He worked as a Book Editor with a major Nigerian publisher, Spectrum Books, before starting his studies in 1991. He has published in the past in Nigerian literary newspapers and more recently in Olongo (Ibadan Journal of the Arts, Nigeria); in international journals like Versal (Amsterdam), and in various anthologies, including Voices from the Fringe: An ANA Anthology of New Nigerian Poetry ed. Harry Garuba (Lagos: Malthouse Press, 1987), The Faith of Vultures: BBC Prize-Winning Poetry eds. Peter Porter et al (Oxford: Heinemann International, 1989), Und auf den Strassen eine Pest ed. Uche Nduka (Bad Honnef, Germany: Horelmann Verlag, 1996) and May Ayim Award Anthology eds. Peggy Piesche et al. (Berlin, Germany: Orlanda Verlag, 2004). In 1993 he won the runner-up prize of the Association of Nigerian Authors' (ANA) Poetry Competition with the manuscript of "A Writer's Pains." In 1998, he won the ANA All Africa Christopher Okigbo Prize for Literature (endowed by Wole Soyinka, Nigerian Nobel Laureate) with his first collection of poems, Collected Poems: A writer's Pains & Carribian Blues (Bremen, Germany: Yeti Press, 1998) and in 2004, he won second prize in the first May Ayim Award: International Black Germany Literary Prize. He is currently writer-in-residence at Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada under the auspices of PEN Canada's Writer-in-Exile Network. He is currently working on a novel, two collections of poems, and a play. He has had readings all over Europe, including the Frankfurt Book Fair, the German PEN Centre in Berlin and the Tropical Museum in Amsterdam. In 2002, Amatoritsero Ede received a combined Honours Masters degree in German Language & Linguistics and Literature in English & Cultural Studies from the University of Hannover in Germany, for which he had a scholarship grant from the Friedrich-Ebert Foundation. He is a trained book editor and has a certificate in Print Production from the Graphic Media Development Centre, The Hague. He currently edits the online poetry journal Sentinel Poetry at sentinelpoetry.org.uk

rob mclennan: Tell me a little bit about your background.

Amatoritsero Ede: Well, my background. I am Nigerian from the Niger-Delta area of Nigeria, that rich and accursed patch of earth where Shell and other multi-national oil corporations spoil and despoil, polluting air and water. I grew up to the hot orange glow of gas flaring on the horizon. I grew up in a small coastal town called Sapele. I spent most of my adult years in Ibadan, where I also started studies in 1991, ten years after high school, after a job in book publishing with a major trade publisher and, after a romance with the muse. I began writing in high school and had my first book publication in 1988. Before that of course there were countless readings and literary journal appearances. In the Nigerian case we had literary newspapers, like the Nigerian Guardian. Soyinka, Achebe and Pepper-Clark -- three of Nigeria's biggest writers, all studied at the Ibadan University. I started studying there in 1991. Since I was in the department of Modern European Languages, I had to go to Germany (I studied German) for an immersion in the culture and the language. I ended up staying there for eight bitter-sweet years. There is still too much racism in Germany. I must always emphasize that there are very great humanists who are Germans … but the political structure allows some individuals and groups to propagate xenophobia and murder, murder in a literal sense. So I looked for a peaceful corner of the earth and hit upon Canada. The best country in the world! I was not sure returning to Nigeria was wise, even though the government seemed to have changed, my political anti-Nigerian government activities in Germany could still be in a cold-case file! So I came to Canada for the PhD, which I dropped because the department was too poisoned for any serious academic work.

rm: How would you describe your writing? Are you working strictly within Nigerian forms, or have other influences, whether German or Canadian, began to seep in? How difficult is it to write poetry on an international scale?

AE: In Nigeria, education- especially at the university level- exposes one to the western canon. Even in high school Shakespeare is a regular diet. At the university if you study English (as I did alongside German), you have to read the English classics. The difference these days, since oral literature has given way more and more to the written literature of Africa, is that we also have Modern African writers as part of the curriculum. So, in a sense, you have the best of English Literature- especially British and American and then postcolonial literatures. Again the British educational system- a colonial inheritance- ensures that there are inter-departmental elective courses; so one could take electives in classics or philosophy or any other area of the humanities. At the Modern Languages Department of the University of Ibadan, where I did my undergraduate work, they make sure we were steeped in the classical 'Greek' tradition as a map of the literary pedigree of the poetics of modern European Languages. And in the English department there is something similar in literary criticism, where you always start out with Aristotle's Poetics. So we were well schooled in the literatures of other places, and consequently were influenced by these. I had read T.S. Eliot before I ever left Nigeria -- and Neruda, Derek Walcott, Pound, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Blake, Longfellow and so on. So actually coming from the periphery, with the weight of an inherited colonial educational curriculum made our reading list truly Global. And one was of course influenced by what one read, willy-nilly. I started out reading Gerald Manley Hopkins, Alexander Pope and John Dryden- just for fun! I would go into a bookshop and just pick these off the shelves. And we did have very good bookshops and library systems. I don't know their state right now, though, in the wake of bad governance and treasury looting by brigand governments. I am sure the reading culture is still strong due to the activities of the association of Nigerian Authors in cooperation with the British Council, which is still very much active and strong in Nigeria. There are literary outreaches in high schools and literary activity is still very rich, with each province having a very active chapter of the Writers' Association. The Ford Foundation funds literary activities there too just like the British Council. The 'book' is very much celebrated. I grew up in that kind of ferment. And most books published elsewhere in the world are readily available in Nigeria due to the presence of local subsidiaries of multi-national publishers like Heinemann and Longman, for example. So I have been influenced by international English Literature even before leaving Nigeria and, by the educational curriculum, which steeped us in the 'Great Tradition' of Britain. I was amused that my recent poetry is influenced by a book I read here in Canada, The Life of Pi by Yann Martel. Though I don't note myself being influenced by him directly, there is also one young Canadian poet, who I think might get the Nobel Prize one day- Adam Dickinson, Edmonton poet, originally from New Brunswick. His first collection Cartography and Walking is a joy to read. If he continues on that part, I have great expectations from him. So as you can begin to understand, my influences are not only local but global as well due to a cultural globalism where cultural borders are more and more fluid. And of course I have been a traveler, gathering the dust of other places on my shoes. I have lived in Africa (Nigeria), Europe and I am in North America. What we have is a situation where the world's literature is more and more hybrid, with influences from the most unexpected places criss-crossing its surface. Now to take a related example -- think of Picasso and Modern art; his cubism was essentially a result of an encounter with African sculpture. And it revolutionized the way art was perceived in the West. There is inter-textuality for you, to use a rather literary term, which can be applied to art as well. There is one other influence, which is almost unconscious but natural due to the first language I spoke or the first culture I lived and grew up in- the Yoruba language and culture. It is a very poetic language and very tonal. This can well account for my lyrical predilection. The strongly oral and lyrical background of Yoruba orature also informs that lyrical sway; the pull and tug of the Yoruba voice is discernable in my own deployment of English rhythm. I think I have managed to marry both such that I take a middle ground. But I am still hybrid. Hybridity is the only constant in world literature today. Just take any postcolonial text and read- even Walcott. Language- the English language begins to take on colours unto itself and parades a rainbow tongue. Though I make use Standard English, but to paraphrase Achebe, eminent Nigerian writer, I make English 'carry the weight of my experiences.' I was not really influenced by German literature as such. I concentrated in my studies more on linguistics. I did write some poems in German though, which I refuse to publish because of German racist political structure even in the 21st century. Just a little protest on my side! I am a bit conversant with the German poet Holderlin and more with Maria Rilke. But I won't say I have been influenced by German poetics. I would more likely be influenced- if at all- by Brechtian theatre. These forms are not as alien to each other as we might think when one comes to think of it. Well, I am still discovering Canadian literature. The reason I did not know more about it in school and at university in Nigeria can be attributed to the fact that it is a relatively young literature. So I would describe my writing- especially poetry- as cosmopolitan, hybrid and open to influences from all directions. I still have to explore aboriginal Canadian literature. That should be interesting. So I do not think, given my experience, that it is difficult to write poetry that can compete on an international scale.

rm: How did you come to be writer-in-residence at Carleton University in Ottawa?

AE: I came to be PEN Canada's Writer-in-Residence at Carleton University under the Writers-in-Exile-Network Program of PEN International, of which the Canadian chapter is a very vibrant branch. What the exile network does is to rehabilitate and integrate writers exiled due to persecution or political and extra-political reasons, in order to protect and promote freedom of expression, which is necessary as a form of checks and balances on the political terrain. It would allow the writer to continue functioning as the conscience of his society and of the world at large. Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) insisted that poets are the "unacknowledged legislators of the world." Indeed writers should be the unacknowledged legislators of the world. How do you tackle imaginative practice and political engagement without upsetting the status quo? Impossible. Therefore writers need a 'human rights arm of authors' bodies. This is the function of PEN International. And if the writer is displaced, as is too often common, then wherever he finds himself he has a home in PEN, which is represented in at least 130 countries right now. Salman Rushdie believes that "writers are citizens of many countries: the finite and frontiered country of observable reality and everyday life, the boundless kingdom of the imagination, the half-lost land of memory, the federations of the heart which are both hot and cold, the united states of the mind (calm and turbulent, broad and narrow, ordered and deranged), the celestial and infernal nations of desire, and- perhaps the most important of all our habitations- the unfettered republic of the tongue…" The writers-in-Exile Network started out under the auspices of The International Parliament of Writers, set up at the instance of the assassination of Algerian writer Tahar Djaout. An appeal was launched in July, 1993 from Strasbourg, at the initiative of Carrefour des literatures. "The organization declared that it was necessary to create a structure that could provide tangible support for writers victimized by persecution. Within a few days, a petition was signed by 300 writers throughout the entire world. This marked the birth of the International Parliament of Writers (IPW). Its goals included creating a network of Cities of Asylum and protecting the freedom of intellectual creation wherever it is threatened, by carrying out investigations on cases of censure and researching new forms of the phenomenon. On February 14, 1994, the fifth anniversary of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, the organization established an executive branch made up of seven members: Adonis, Breyten Breytenbach, Jacques Derrida, Edouard Glissant, Salman Rushdie, Christian Salmon and Pierre Bourdieu. Elected first president of the IPW, Salman Rushdie drafted a Declaration of Independence, which served as the Parliament's charter." The Cities of Asylum, is what has blossomed into the 'Writer-in-Exile Network,' vibrant in North America and Europa and the Americas. It is made up of Universities and cities, who are willing to take up or take in a displaced writer for a year or two in helping to facilitate the production of literature in freedom and safety. In short as Percy Shelley would have it there is a government of writers; it is a symbolic government, with its International Parliament of writers consisting of Nobel Laureates and important writers as its head of government, and with PEN international and its branches all over the world as its organs, and the committee within PEN International (writers-in-exile, writers-in-prison, readers-and-writers and so on) as its enabling tributaries. As a member of PEN Nigeria I am automatically a member of PEN Canada or USA or UK by association. And so are you rob, if you ever find yourself in Nigeria, you approach PEN at once or they approach you. Again, according to Rushdie, "our Parliament of Writers exists to fight for oppressed writers and against all those who persecute them and their work, and to renew continually the declaration of independence without which writing is impossible; and not only writing, but dreaming; and not only dreaming, but thought; and not only thought, but liberty itself."

In 1944 as World War II raged and explosions went off close-by, a great symposium was organized where notable thinkers gathered in London to discuss "The place of Spiritual and Economic Values in the Future of Mankind." English PEN sought to pay tribute to the idea that "the human mind, if it is to develop to the full measure of its potentialities, must be free: free to grow, free to express itself, free to blunder, to make mistakes, and try again. That freedom of expression is needed more urgently in today's world with the threat of human destruction of the world by nuclear annihilation always thick in the air. Look at the Middle East, Europe (with its rabid racism and increasing right wing activity), Africa (with its endless wars and greedy dictators) and the USA's erosion of the whole idea of freedom- Guantanamo Bay is a good example.

rm: What sorts of activities have you been involved in since arriving at Carleton University? I understand, for example, that you've been involved with much more than simply the English department.

AE: As Writer-in-Residence in any university one is primarily expected to cater to mentoring creative writing students in the English department. But this is just only part of the duties. I am a general resource person for the department. I give guest lectures in the English department and in other departments. Since the inception of this residency on September the 1st I have appeared as a guest at a creative writing class led by Armand Ruffo, I have lead the creative writing workshop of the English literary society, gave a guest lecture in the English department on the question of language in African literature, gave a talk on Writing and Human Rights at the Law department and I have given a two-hour reading from my poetry at the English department. It is only just the tip of the iceberg. There will be more activities. For example, I have a public lecture at the History department in January, 2006. But I also have to make sure I am writing, which is the main part of the residency. At the end, in about a year, I should have finished manuscripts on projects I have set for myself. The Canada Council also expects this; so does PEN and so do I!

rm: What plans do you have for when you leave Carleton?

AE: Plans for the future will depend of the outcome of the residency itself. To quote Walter Savage Landor, “the Present, like a note in music, is nothing but as it appertains to what is past and what is to come; same thing with the future, since time is linear. I will play that part of the orchestra when the Conductor, Time, confuses his baton in my direction.

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