Inua Ellams discusses how his heritage and his multi-placed identity laid the foundations for his new collection #Afterhours, in which he roams freely through literature old and new.
My father’s mother was a Hausa-Fulani woman. The Hausas, the historically nomadic nation tribe of equestrian-based cultures, raised livestock to graze across planes in the northern part of Nigeria. Much of the ancient history of that region is documented because Islam came to the region in the seventh century and brought the technology of pen and ink. By the fifteenth century, we were using a modified Arabic script called ‘Ajami’ to record the Hausa language. With it, we took down the constellations and noted the passing of time in calendars. The Hausa kingdom was prosperous and grew exponentially under the legendary war queen Amina, and when the Fulani nation tribe invaded the Hausa states in 1804, so similar were their cultures that their lords learned the Hausa language and intermarried. Overwhelmed by British military power, the last Vizier of the Sokoto Caliphate (the seat of scholarly and political power) surrendered in 1903 and, shortly after, the ‘Boko’ script was imposed by British and French colonial forces.
‘Boko’ is a Latin alphabet that was used to write down the Hausa Language, which, as you can imagine, the Hausa-Fulani scholars distrusted, favouring their own. ‘Haram’, in Islam refers to that which is forbidden and ill-willed. The term has been politicised and colonised by the war on terror narrative to mean ‘Western education is bad’. But given the historical context, ‘Boko Haram’ – the term popularly used for fundamentalist Islamic extremists operating in Nigeria right now – in its earliest conception culturally meant ‘This foreign script is wrong’, ‘This symbol of colonisation is bad’, ‘Why the hell are we using these weird squiggly lines anyway? Oh right, they’ll kill us if we don’t,’ and, above all, ‘Our culture is good enough for us’.
In my book #Afterhours, I re-write my childhood by narratively, culturally and historically translating/transposing poems by British and Irish poets. One such poem is ‘Shooting Script’ by Seamus Heaney. Here, Heaney describes the Irish script being eroded by water, symbolic, I believe, of British military power:
And just when it looks as if it is all over –
Tracking shots of a long wave up a strand
That breaks towards the point of a stick writing and writing
Words in the old script in the running sand.
I saw in this the erosion of ‘Ajami’ with ‘Boko’ and, for history is locked in language, the erasure of aspects of my ancient culture. Much happened after direct British rule left Nigeria. The Christian and English-educated Nigerians who had grown wealthy under the colonial capitalist powers came north and permeated various facets of the historically Islamic life and culture. They bought up huge swathes of land, which severely disrupted nomadic cattle herders and drove them to destitution and poverty. Out of work, angry at the new culture that ostracised and brutalised them, these young men were (and still are) drawn to ‘Boko Haram’ who promise security, wealth, community and brotherhood. Violence erupted in the late seventies and, in this context, my Christian mother met my Muslim father and they fell in love.
Of the five-hundred languages in Nigeria, my father grew up speaking two, Hausa and Edo, and my mother grew up speaking Isoko. English, imposed in schools across Nigeria, became the official language and, wishing to create an environment that would best equip us for the future, English was the only language spoken in our household. It isn’t my father’s tongue, my mother’s tongue, or my mother tongue, yet it is all I speak and write in. Of the Yoruba, Igbo and Hausa main nation-tribes in Nigeria, by my father I am a Hausa man. I like to think that the nomadic literary tradition, which ceased with ‘Boko’ and English and is coded in my blood, became unlocked when we left Nigeria in 1996, when we became international nomads, or immigrants.
#Afterhours covers this period, from 1984 to 2002, from when I was born to when I turned eighteen and settled in London. Those years, in which I lived and learned in Nigeria, Ireland and England, fostered querulous and often contradicting voices, yet much of my creative output grows where they intersect. I belong to all three worlds, or none of them. Dublin, where I spent the least amount of time, is where I started truly grappling with art. The love and enthusiasm I have for literature was sowed in me by an Irish basketball coach who loved John Keats as much as he did a crossover; the tasks he set us, the journeys of introspection and interrogation needed to fully engage with poetry, invited me to criss-cross my own internal borders.
Much of the world has changed since 1984. Britain has been systematically shutting down its international embassies or making needle-eyes of visa granting processes. The wealth in ‘The Commonwealth’ is all but myth. Climate change (which creates opportunities for ‘Boko Haram’ in the form of disenfranchised young) is adding great numbers to the global migration crisis. There are sixty-five million displaced people presently, numbers not seen since the Second World War, and all this is set against the rise in far right nationalism here in the West, whose child is Britain’s exit from the European Union, whose child is racial profiling and attacks on people of colour in the streets of London.
Those sixty-five million who have crossed borders to survive, as my parents had to, will have children, border-crossing-offspring who will consider themselves citizens of the world, as I do. Last year, when the British Prime Minister said, ‘If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere’, the implication was that we who are multi-placed will never be British, or British enough. The implication is ‘nativism or else…’. To choose nativism is to deny my Hausa-hood and my inner Irishman, to flatten the tumult of my rich mixing to a single English plain plane. The choice means a crisis of identity and sanity. It is not a choice for me. I am ‘or else’, and I have to be.
One way to consider #Afterhours as a text is as an exploration of how possible it is to contain multitudes, to be one and many. In translating and transposing the poems, I hope to demonstrate how transient and borderless cultures can be when built on understanding. Just as the Fulani married the Hausa, and my mother married my father, the book marries contemporary British history with Nigeria’s, and I thank my Irish teacher for the space to understand. I spent twelve months as the National Poetry Library’s Poet in Residence, flipping through their archives looking for poems I could reset. To write was to carry myself and roam through British history and culture, but to read was to roam even further.
Books are borderless as breath, and the last poem in #Afterhours engages that ‘right’ to roam. In it, I talk about a project I founded called The Midnight Run, where I gather strangers to migrate through a city from dusk to dawn. I invite local artists to run interactive workshops on anything from poetry writing, to interpretive dance, to basketball. I create a safe space for anonymity; for them to be whoever they wish. Relating to this, I reset a poem by Andrew Motion called ‘Aftermath’; it is about journeying into the countryside. My version is about travelling through the city and looking for space. It begins:
I feel like an exiled child going walkabout by night
for the first time, packing everything I can imagine
I’ll need: spare socks, rain coat, assorted fruit, map
of central London, notebooks, pencils and a torch.