by Johannes Goransson on Sep.24, 2013
Johannes: OK, great. First a basic question: Can you tell me about your background? Ie how/why did you end up in the US? From what I can tell, you’re from Nigeria but lived for some time in Germany.
Uche: I was born in Nigeria in a family of christian priests. I was four years old when the Nigerian civil war began.I am Igbo and belonged to the Biafran side of that debacle.Many children of my age perished in that war through starvation.Till date some Igbo men and women and children are still being massacred in that country,particularly in the Northern parts.Sometimes for religious reasons and at other times for political reasons.Recently some members of the Igbo nation were deported to the East(Igboland) by the government of Lagos State.There are those who believe that after the civil war which ended in 1970 Nigeria resumed being one united nation.What crap! My generation nationally accepted the country but the nefarious actions of both military and civilian regimes that had piloted the country since the end of the civil war have given us cause to doubt a real Nigerian nationhood.Those civil and political injustices that led to the civil war in 1967 are still there.Now the problems of Nigeria are compounded even more by a sham democracy.For me the scars of living through Nigeria’s darkest decades are still here,and can never be forgotten. The Biafran War left a vicious gaping wound in life and art in Nigeria. I lived in Germany for about nine years and taught and wrote and explored that country.I lived in Holland for three years.I have been in transit in all the countries i have lived in since 1994 when i left Nigeria through the award of an Arts Fellowship by the Goethe Institute.I remain grateful to the Germans. I left Nigeria to free myself from organized idiocy and repression. I arrived in the United States Of America in 2007 to reunite with my parents and siblings who are naturalized Americans and who I did not manage to see throughout the twelve years i lived in Europe. At the moment I am a naturalized American: Nigerian-American.
Johannes: That’s an amazing answer, Uche. Did you ever write in German while you lived there? From what I understand, English is the official language of Nigeria (and I think Wole Soyinka wrote in English as well); but how has your relationship with the English language changed as you have moved around the world?
Uche: Thank you,Johannes.No,I never wrote in German though I could read and speak German haltingly.I am beginning to notice that my little knowledge of German is fading.Perhaps I should visit Germany soon to reacquaint myself with the language and the beer! You are right. English is the official language of Nigeria.That was the language I studied with in the Secondary School(Okija Community Secondary School) and at the university(University Of Nigeria,Nsukka.)It is true that Wole Soyinka-poet,playwright,novelist- wrote and writes in English.I find his usage of English language wonderfully intoxicating! In Nigeria we have about 250 indigenous languages.I wonder how we could all have communicated with each other as a so-called nation if English was not introduced as the national language.One of those paradoxes of history. Any way,I grew up Bi-lingual.I spoke and speak fluent Igbo and English. My parents spoke both languages to me as a child.Now as an adult and committed writer my attitude with regard to English Language is defiance. As a traveler, I regard English as both an ally and an opponent. In my art I am both sensitive and aggressive with it.Despite its role in colonialism and imperialism I have somewhat taken a liking to it. When i write I find myself adding scraps of Igbo,German, and Dutch to it in translation. I see something of worth in destabilizing the English language as much as I can.It is my way of showing solidarity with it. After all,it is a language that was thrust upon me since my birth.It gives me great pleasure to allow influences from every language I have ever heard to seep into my writings. So far I just like doing my own thing and not buying into the hype of either formal or informal English ; traditional or avant-garde usages. I enact a language style that suits my mood and the subjects I am interested in. Linguistically it seems there are a lot of trenches that have not been explored in poems/poetry. I keep attempting to investigate them.I don’t want to feel like people expect me to write in English timidly. I have always been wary about the conformist pressure of Nigerian, African, European, and American literary scenes. Yet I guess I am not fully in possession of the knowledge of the things/factors/situations that motivate the shifts in the usage of English in my work. I try not to overthink this phenomena.Pushing the boundaries is what a real poet does. I am writing about the United States of America now, but with my eyes wide open. I do not glorify its violence, provincialism and avariciousness. And I am not unaware of its artistic bounty.
Johannes: You’re poets certainly don’t seem “timid”! Your writing is wonderfully insistent and intensive. How do you see yourself fitting in to “American literary scenes” (if at all)? To what extent do you stay in touch with the European/German and Nigerian literary scenes?
Uche: I don’t totally detest the American,European/German and Nigerian literary scenes.I just need to operate without pandering to their stylistic or thematic imperatives/prescriptions/vogues.I will not intentionally try to write my way into the traditions they represent and trumpet.I cannot fully operate as a writer if I don’t feel fully free aesthetically and ideologically. The polarity i see between the “traditional” and “experimental” camps in the United States is unnecessary.Stylistic or thematic purity bores me.My recent writings thrive on instability,complexity,humor,anarchy,the erotic, the cinematic,the atonal.The strategy of composition for each of my books appears while i am writing. I am more inspired when i notice that i am being pointed to new terrains or realms while i am at work on a book.Whatever happens while I am writing a poem becomes part of the form/architecture of the poem.I also think that the best way to get into a poem is to live it. To live it both imaginatively and in the flesh.While from time to time i enjoy the community of writers in each nation or continent I have lived in,I don’t accept any constraints put upon me as a poet from any quarter.I defy categorization. I insist on wedding the sacred to the profane; on merging the political and the personal; on linking the philosophical to the mundane. I know there are some writers among my cohort of contemporaries internationally who also value the transformative in their work above fashion and cliquishness.These poets/writers believe that wrecking orthodoxy is one of the functions of their calling.To reiterate:intransigence is my calling card. The Nigerian and the European/German literary scenes were tangentially necessary to my own formative years as a poet. Most times those scenes gave me something to kick against. So far restlessness and metamorphosis mark my poetry and I intend to live and write in the United States of America with those traits.To a large extent, writing poems/texts/lyrics /notes/journals is my way of both battling and making peace with the day. My way of experiencing the heightened level of pulsating life in me and around me;engaging widening experiences and means and methods;delighting in the unimpeachable messiness of creativity. Though I live in the US now,my geographical wanderings have not yet come to an end.I certainly do not intend to lead an isolated life here as both Ijele and Nine East- my latest books-attest. Regarding being in touch with the European/German and Nigerian literary scenes I am in contact with writers like Ian Watson,Tim Ingold,Tim Schumacher,Christoph Spehr, Gerry van der Linden, Sanya Osha, Afam Akeh, Amatoritsero Ede, Maxim Uzoatu, Pius Adesanmi,Nduka Otiono, Unoma Azuah, Lola Shonenyi, Harry Garuba,Obododinma Oha, Benson Eluma, EE Sule, Obi Nwakanma, Maik Nwosu,Toyin Adewale-Gabriel, Olu Oguibe,Remi Raji etc