Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The Writing University conducts is a series of interviews (the "5Q Interviews": five questions for all) with writers while they are in Iowa City participating in the International Writing Program's fall residency. We sit down with authors to ask about their work, their process and their descriptions of home.

Today we are talking with Gimba Kakanda, a fiction writer, poet and journalist from Nigeria.

1. Do you have a plan or project in mind for your time at the residency?

Iowa is a timely answer to my prayer for a quiet. It’s a salvation from my busy schedules that make sitting to write, with my attention rapt, seems like unaffordable luxury. You see, I finished the first draft of a novel about five years ago, and then suddenly I became too busy to return to it. I live in Abuja now, the capital of Nigeria, and since my relocation from my hometown, Minna, I became more of an ever-running clock than the stop watch I used to be. I worked first as a Program Officer at a non-profit organisation before venturing into journalism, while also adjusting to the demands of pursuing an academic degree at an Abuja-based university. It’s a tiring chaos!

So Iowa is that opportunity to finish and polish my novel. It’s a coming-of-age story of a northern Nigerian Muslim haunted by what his family has explained to him as a curse from the past, which he interprets as also responsible for a series of misfortunes that befall him and the people around him. Whereas the character’s family has a long history of mental illness his parents keep away from the public for fear of stigma, as it is in this part of the country. I’m also considering working on a new poetry volume around my promotion of the idea of the human identity as the most significant, much more than the religious, the racial and the national, in uniting the world. We are first of all human before we are ever Christian, Muslim or atheist, before we are ever Nigerian or American, and of course before we are ever black or white.

2. What does your daily practice look like for your writing? Do you have a certain time when you write? Any specific routine?

I maintain a syndicated weekly column for periodicals, and a fully charged iPhone is all I need to write, even if in a crowd, in transit or as a passenger in a noisy car. I write even while having a discussion with friends, or listening to loud music. I treat it as casual because there are no academic bulldogs waiting to assess and measure the weight and relevance of every word used, there’s no fear of pedantry. But this rule doesn’t apply to creative writing, which requires unusually rapt attention to details and application of imagination to create a stimulating and convincing story in well-adorned sentences.

Creative writing is often the art of self-alienation, as the writer’s quest for a solitude to write without disruption, is seen as somewhat awkward. For a full-time creative writer, there is always that challenge of apologising to your family and friends, juggling your life of under-appreciated drudgery with being a reachable and available chat mate, confidant and frequent companion. How do you get to tell them of that great story eluding you, and of those interesting characters who deserve a solitude to be brought to life? Working on a book isn't as easy as it seems, for it isn't just sitting to string words into elegant sentences and then an appreciable book. It entails thinking, thinking and thinking again, a weird habit that may mean withdrawing from distractions, from physical interactions, becoming a sociopath to those whose life you probably judge as wasting, wasted or wasteful.
The only similarity between journalism and creative writing is that both involve stringing words, which is exactly what we do every day on social media. The routines are where they differ, for me. I need an uninterrupted quiet to imagine and create a believable world, the key thing here is the effort.

3. What are you currently reading right now? Are you reading for research or pleasure?

I don’t know how to read one book at a time anymore, this literary gluttony I can only attribute to two things: my large bookshelf and the internet. I’m what you may call a polygamous reader. Currently, I’m reading, perhaps for the millionth time, Yusuf Idris’s The Cheapest Night. It’s one book I fawn over, for it defined my childhood. The short stories collection may easily pass for the best gift I got from my father. I took it from his study, and allowed my young mind to be lured into the realism of the memorable world it created, into the poverty, the fatalism and the vulnerability of a people that were - aside from their race and nationality - like us, Muslim, ambitious, uncertain, flawed, naive, curious, and yet enjoying life amidst the social chaos. Idris was Egyptian.

I’m also reading Teju Cole’s latest book, Known and Strange Things. Cole is a cerebral show-off I admire for his presentation of literature as a carnival of colourful words. His pedantic concentration on the elegancy of words tends to make you excuse even the instances you do not subscribe to his views. Cole is alternately Nigerian and American. He cites, or identifies with, these national identities based on convenience. It still amuses me how he’s portrayed as American by his promoters in participating in literary prizes open only for Americans, and as Nigerian – or simply African – whenever he’s reacting to a demonising portrayal of Africa or the blacks in western media, or by non-African writers.

Oh, and I’m reading these books for pleasure. Yeah.

4. What is one thing the readers and writers of Iowa City should know about you and your work?

I’ve only published a book yet, a poetry collection titled Safari Pants, which reveals a persona’s submission to fatalism, it’s a deeply depressing volume. In my forthcoming novel, however, I intend to explore schizophrenia and how it’s often approached as spiritual challenge, and not a medical, through the struggles of a family and the stigmas that trail being identified as mentally ill in my part of the world.

Another thing I may want to reveal about me my literary worldview is, as a columnist and public affairs analyst, my campaign has always been to challenge stereotypes. You see, I do not really believe in Sociology, it’s often a discipline of normalising and promoting stereotypes. This is why a writer must strive to be a self-trained psychologist, paying more attention to the individual instead of the collective in offering verifiable perspectives of, and explanations for, why we do the things we do. It’s our dependence on the sociology of a nation or race, as popularised by sensational news organisations, that births and multiplies cultural stereotypes, racism and xenophobia.

Perhaps, during my stay in America, I’ll attempt to have conversations with fellow residents around popular stereotypes about their people and country, and their perceptions of America. Iowa International Writing Program is a meeting-point of cultures, races and nationalities. I want to explore this diversity in a series of essays to see the world as it is to us, a prism. I may have these views and observations turned into a book to be titled “Searching for America,” with America used as a metaphor for the archetype, the model or the measurement scale of everything, from politics to even the taste of a burger.

5. Tell us a bit about where you are from -- what are some favorite details you would like to share about your home?

I wish you’re specific about the things you want to know about my place. I’m from Nigeria, a place with over 400 ethnic and linguistic groups. With a population of about 170 million people, it’s said that one out of every five black people on earth is a Nigerian. So, Nigeria is the most populous black nation. But you must note that Nigeria is a complex place, hard to force into a label. You probably must’ve read that Nigeria is sharply divided into “Muslim North” and “Christian South.” There is a saturating distribution of Muslims, Christians, agnostics and atheists and worshippers of various traditional religions across Nigeria. For instance, until 2015, the most cosmopolitan state of the 36 states and the federal capital territory that make up Nigeria, had no Christian Governor since the return to democracy in 1999, after years of interrupted military governments. Lagos is in the so-called “Christian South”, and in the same region are Muslim Governors in Osun, Ogun and Oyo states. In the so-called “Muslim North” are Christians serving as Governors of Taraba, Benue and Plateau.

Going farther into years past, and as decided at the infamous Berlin Conference of 1885, Nigeria was a British colony from 1901 to 1960, inheriting the coloniser’s language, education and political administrative system. Of course, like many African nations, it retained the maps prepared by the Europeans. So, yeah, English is the official national language in Nigeria, which explains why we are often shocked whenever schools in the West make Test of English as a Foreign Language a compulsory requirement for admission. LOL.

Let me end this with a CNN-compliant description of Nigeria today. The country has failed in managing its diversity, surviving a war of secession that lasted from 1967 to 1970. There’s a lingering agitation for breakup by the Igbo ethnic group of Southeast Nigeria. In the North-east, there’s an insurgent Islamist group terrorising us. We call them “Boko Haram,” for their aversion to western education and values. I won’t call this a clash of civilisation. I didn’t foresee these bomb-strapping lunatics attempting to turn West Africa into an annex of global terror networks. At least not in my lifetime. This current reality used to be a tragedy we followed on radio and TV, and wondering why. 


Thank you Gimba! 

Come hear Gimba read in person at the Shambaugh House Reading Series this Friday, Sept 8, 2017 at 5pm.