The following conversation reflects on the artistic visions and commitments of the author Uchechukwu Peter Umezurike. The conversation covers the author’s recent works, his artistic influences and interests, his philosophy of art that is addressed against artistic closure, his fascination with traumatic subjects, and the relationships of writing and identity.
Umezurike is an assistant professor in the Department of English, University of Calgary. His teaching and research interests include African and African Diaspora literatures, postcolonial literatures, gender and sexuality, cultural studies, and creative writing. Umezurike is an award-winning writer and literary critic and is widely published in several literary genres. Several of his essays have appeared in Metacritic Journal for Comparative Studies and Theory, Men and Masculinities, NORMA: Nordic Journal of Masculinity Studies, Journal of African Cultural Studies, among others. Umezurike is a prolific creative writer. He is the author of three poetry collections, two short story collections including most recently Double Wahala, Double Trouble (Griots Lounge, 2021). His latest book is a poetry collection titled, there’s more, which is forthcoming in August 2023 from the University of Alberta Press. Umezurike is also the author of several children’s books including recently Wish Maker (2021).
---- quote here -----
There is this enchanting Christopher Okigbo poem that is a favourite of mine and seems a fitting tribute to the conversation that we are about to have. The poem is the fourth in the “Siren Limits” series from Okigbo’s collection Labyrinths. I believe that the four poems that makeup “Siren Limits” provide a complex meditation on the “African” artist’s struggles to create “art” amidst the historical and contemporary adversities of colonization. The poet having pondered the dreadful conditions that make art impossible in Africa concludes as follows:
When you have finished
& done up my stitches,
Wake me near the altar,
& this poem will be finished… [Labyrinths: Poems (Heinemann, 1971), 27.]
I have returned to these lines over and again for what they suggest to me about the impossibility of artistic closure—of artistic practices as the sacrificial attempts (even if failed ones) to ritually stitch up the corpses of history that litter our individual and collective memories, imagination, and realities—especially given that human beings have proven time and again to be incapable of transcending cruelty. I am hoping that our conversation about your writing and artistic commitments will pay homage to this impossibility of artistic closure that I detect in your work more broadly.
Chigbo, thanks for offering Okigbo’s poetry as an opening to our conversation on artistic closure, particularly in a time of heightened global crisis, a time still haunted by coloniality, relentlessly so, sadly. I remain awed by Okigbo’s poetics, lyrical intensity, elegiac cadence, glorious imagery, and capacious social vision. Such poetry of rare delight that always leaves me quite breathless and astonished. I never lose that feeling whenever I dwell in Okigbo’s world. I remember finding Heavensgate and Labyrinths, among other African poetry collections, in my uncle’s library in Owerri1; the astonishment that took hold after I finished reading Heavensgate, which lingered even as I slipped next into the numinous world of Labyrinths. That astonishment has never once diminished but intensified instead over the years. I stress this affectivity of Okigbo’s work because it was crucial in my artistic development. I first read Okigbo’s poetry in 1993, during the dictatorship of the late General Sani Abacha, a period of immense terror, gloom, and despair for millions of Nigerians. For me, particularly, it was a time of disorientation, agony, and insomnia – you could say I was living in a crisis myself. At the time, I hadn’t considered writing poetry. I couldn’t even write a poem to save my skin. So, finding Okigbo’s poetry was, indeed, transformational. After I finished reading the two volumes in a sitting, I stayed enraptured, almost vertiginous. As if in a trance, which I might have been, because I hadn’t encountered that kaleidoscope of lexicon and prosody before, such textual magnificence until then. A mystical experience and yet so calming – the harmony of each word, precise imagery, vibrant rhythm, all deftly distilled and rendered, so incantatory that it covered me in goosebumps. That’s the effect of Okigbo’s poetry, even to this moment. A burst of sunshine in crushing darkness, in an era of unbridled human cruelty characteristic of military tyranny, that was the luminosity of Okigbo’s vision.
“A burst of sunshine in crushing darkness” is indeed the perfect metaphor for Okigbo’s poetry addressed also to the conditions of colonialism. The humanistic visions he delineated in his art seem especially relevant in our time—particularly his ideas about the role of art and the artist in times of historical rupture, which are crucial points of your own art.
It’s apt to think within Okigbo’s humanism the struggles of the artist in a period of crisis, and here I am thinking of manifold ruptures, from ecological destruction, species extinction, refugee precariousness, political terror, and iterations of anti-blackness across the world, to name a few. Now, to circle back to what you refer to as “the impossibility of artistic closure,” I am trying to appreciate that phrase as a fecund mode to be in for any artist, as the very ferment of artistic engagement with a world beyond our ken, a world both material and mysterious, finite and infinite, a world generous and cruel in its own right, a world that is at once familiar as it is alienating. And yet, what does closure feel like for the artist? Are we to understand it in its therapeutic, or psychiatric, sense? Does closure signal understanding, resolution? Is closure another way of seeking mastery over what haunts, wounds, or disorients us? Perhaps, closure demands that art imagine a world void of cruelty, which, to be sure, much of (decolonial) art has been articulating as part of its project of worldmaking, despite the hauntings and violences of colonial modernity. Still, let’s imagine for a second. If artistic closure were possible, then we would not need imagination, right? Thankfully enough, art abides, even as some authoritarianism schemes, covertly and overtly, to repress and police it. Art persists so long as humans have imagination, can wonder, and remain astonished. Art persists since we can dream, and (here I’d like to rephrase Okigbo) thirst for sunlight.
----image of there's more here----
Anyway, I don’t know that art, or any artist, wishes to aspire towards closure, resolution of any sorts, for that would seem like art were static and monologic rather than dynamic and dialogic, that we could enclose art as if it was never supposed to be collective; indeed, to desire artistic closure in whatever form is a striving to tame the storm, no less quixotic. More productive for the artist would be how to live with others in a society inexorably haunted by ruptures and bloody memories, while not allowing their voice to fade “like a shadow.” This is part of the tension, what is irresolvable behind Okigbo’s vision, what he seems to wrestle with in “Siren Limits,” and I doubt, the visionary he was, that he found answers to this irresolvable, or arrived at any point of closure. A world without cruelty would be ethereal, divine. Yet cruelty lives within and amongst us. Perhaps, the idea, appealing and noble as it is, is not to transcend cruelty, which itself is a phantasm, since to be human is to be potentially cruel, to potentially instigate or enact one form of cruelty or another. The point here, for me at least, is how to keep challenging and subverting the conditions and structures that enable, even reward cruelty, to proliferate in human communities. I know that it’s convenient to read Okigbo’s “Siren Limits,” especially the last two stanzas, as illustrative of despair, but then Okigbo urges that we must “hurry on down,” “sing” and “make harmony,” no matter the “crisis point.” I recognize the impossibility of closure, even as the world appears as one unbroken crisis. Thus, I understand (my) art as partaking in a refusal of closure. To do otherwise could mark the end of music and harmony. To lapse into complacency and stasis. Along this line, I embrace art as a desire not for answers but grappling with questions and contradictions, the desire to remain astonished, openly so, and this is what is irresolvable at the heart of every art.
I sensed in your work what you have just described as “a desire not for answers but grappling with questions and contradictions, the desire to remain astonished, openly so.” It was largely for that reason that I invoked Okigbo for a guide. It seems fitting then to turn to your most recent poetry collection (titled there’s more) that is coming out later this year (2023) from the University of Alberta Press because it underlines some of your points about art as fundamentally oriented against closure. The opening lines of the titular poem, “there’s more,” read as follows:
your day begins
coffee croissant a kiss at the door
hunch over a keyboard lost in the contours of your head
but there is more
Subsequent sections of the poem provide a narrative reel of the more of the banality of everyday experience: traumatic flights, never-ending agonies, the humdrum of abject living, and courageous quests. The more one steps beyond the doors of one’s own familiar life the more, it seems, life becomes a wind rushing in all directions with bits and craps all about. I have pondered about this more (or the mores) of experience that you seem enchanted by in the collection.
I am charmed by your apt phrasing of “the more (or the mores) of experience” from your reading of the poem, “there’s more,” and how we might contemplate “more” in its plenitude – or even lack. The determiner “more” as locution, affect, orientation, or ethics. The more that organizes speech, how we relate with each other, how we see and what we see in the other, the more of how people look like or not like us, the mores of difference or sameness, the more that registers bodies in different frames, all the forms of recognition framing bodies. There is also the more that expresses itself as dream, desire, or fantasy, the mores of intimacy, of perversity, which impels a culture to assert itself superior over other cultures, or a people to believe that they must dominate or even annihilate others based on skin colour, religion, ethnicity, or gender to reinforce their sense of superiority. This capaciousness of more that poetry opens up for contemplation has an energy of its own, for are we not prone to orienting ourselves against lack? Are we not always desiring more, more of ourselves, family or friend, lovers or strangers, or something more, whatever that may be? As though we can’t think of more outside the spectre of lack that haunts the unconscious, right? How more saturates the human life: to become more nationalist, more democratic, more diverse, more inclusive, more equity-driven, more human, or more than human, as if we could evolve into anything other than matter. It is all struggle, constant. Yet, we continue to struggle against lack, which we hope to placate with some more. The hunger for more of/from life, as if neither debility nor death is ever close by. This hunger within our desire for more, to do more, have more, demand more, become more. As if more were an end itself, a telos that forecloses all striving and desire. Does the acquisition (of more) foreclose further acquisition? Consider the materialistic ethos surrounding more, which manifests as consumerism in our capitalist modernity, the glut, surplus profit, the unbridled acquisitiveness of modernity imperilling the planet. Not to ignore the alienation that taints more, that comes with excess. And yet I am drawn to the more of relationality, which is to say, what is more in the you and I, the intersubjective that makes affinity and kinship possible; the more of what it means to live in this decimated world with another, regardless. I can’t help but ponder about lives we deem marginal or negligible, lives in flight from home, terror, or what you rightly term as “the humdrum of abject living,” which epitomises the precariousness of numerous lives across the globe. How does anyone think about home if it dramatizes “never-ending agonies”? Home haunts the mind, whatever the distance, wherever one finds themselves. James Baldwin, in Nothing Personal, speaks of the “fearful hope” that makes us move on, brave another day, despite the cruelty in society. Perhaps it is this hope that impels the flight across the sea, for many African migrants – what you conceive of as both a traumatic flight and courageous quest. I wrestle with hope and fear, with the shimmer and shadow. The grace of being more. The alienation that lingers.
Thanks for these generous insights and for your elaboration of what you described aptly as the “capaciousness of more that poetry opens up for contemplation.” Indeed, I find your recent works to be underpinned by this poetics of more that overlays there’s more. In your 2021 short story collection Double Wahala, Double Trouble, you appear to narrativize the more of experience as an excess—the superfluity that in Nigerianspeak is generally conceived of as doubleness by which is meant an overabundance. Your works seem fixated on the overabundance of traumatic experiences—double troubles, surplus violence—the more one tries to end one’s suffering the more suffering one enters. The capaciousness of traumatic mores in your work reminds me of the Yoruba myth of Atunda as elaborated by Wole Soyinka in Idanre and Other Poems (1967). Atunda who was the slave of the one and only godhead had been punished with the task of rolling a gigantic boulder up a hill with the boulder rolling back down each time he rolled it to the top. One day, Atunda on nearing the hilltop discovered that his enslaver had fallen asleep below the hill. He imagined the possibility of liberation, of ending his suffering, and so smashed the boulder on the sleeping godhead. But rather than liberation, the smashed godhead splintered into four hundred and one pieces, each piece emerging as a separate god or goddess with a distinct personality and identity. This origin story of the creation of the Yoruba pantheon underlines an intricate and complex vision of the more of tyranny I find in your writing generally. While there are many ways to understand this myth—including that Atunda’s liberationist attempt creates more tyrannies—it is also the case that destruction and creativity, that tyranny and liberation co-occur to the extent that they seem inseparable. It is this co-occurrence of destruction/creativity, tyranny/liberation that I find myself pondering the most in your work. The following lines from a poem you titled “Photos on Twitter” (in there’s more) may help to underline my point:
totter out of ruin
from sepia photos
new stories arise
from scars of history
What I sense here is the creative possibilities—one of the mores—that emerge from destructive or traumatic conditions and this is what I sense as the kernel of your art generally. What is this art that depends on the “scars of history” to create “new stories”—an art that seems to derive its essence from the overabundance of trauma?
Knots, this is what you’ve offered, Chigbo. Not kola nuts. These are not easy questions, yet I appreciate the braids in our conversation about art and its creative potential. Lest we forget how easily hegemonic cultures use art for destructive ends. Think of colonial and racist representations. The excess of trauma on bodies, Black bodies, for instance. Art on my Mind by bell hooks and The Black Gaze Tina M. Campt, amongst other texts, remind us of the subversive power of Black aesthetic to deal with the trauma of slavery. Art is a mirror, a double-sided mirror. Art is also a prism, depending on which angle catches the eye. Double Wahala, Double Trouble offers a prismatic facet of “the overabundance of traumatic experiences” of Nigerians living with political disrepair since the 1960s. Loss, grief, alienation, a surplus of suffering. The collection also offers another facet of Nigerian life: tenderness. Resilience, yes. Healing? Not so much. Let’s pause awhile. What art does not emerge from scars, wounds, or loss? Or a reckoning with lack? A longing for fullness – what is wholesome? Or a longing for what is lovely in humans, this earth we call home? Modernity is the story of wounds and scars and resurgences – not healing. Consider genocides. Slavery. Colonization. Wars. Planetary despoliation. We live in a world of trauma; we live with trauma. I understand how art can make way for reckoning, conversation, contemplation, and resolution; what I find challenging, however, is to imagine healing – or the capacity of art to provide closure.
----image of double wahala, double trouble here----
Trauma is the condition of the modern world, and we are only trying to get by as best we can. This might explain my fascination with trauma, which, as you note, has been an impetus for my art. Then again, I’d argue that art is how I try to reckon with the trauma of modernity. Every art is a longing. Art is how we express that longing, a longing for the possible. All art articulates a dream of a world less brutal. Less cruel. A less traumatic world. Art is our desire for tenderness, intimacy, and connection; a desire to feel less alienated from our world, less of a stranger to ourselves and others. Art as a quiet prayer, art as protest. Art as justice, art as resistance. Art as seeing individually, art as communing together. The mirror before the gaze. A saucer of kola nuts before guests and strangers. Art is, perhaps, how we reimagine kinship beyond the ubiquity of troubles. Here is also what I long to draw attention to in my poetry – the “habits of beings,” as Hooks puts it. Gestures and intimacies, ordinary though they may seem, that animate human sociality. Gestures that affirm our shared resolve to get along, despite advocates of cruelty. Of tyranny. This is why there’s more narrates intimations of tenderness and instances of connections – or kinship, broadly. Gestural goodness, a nod, a smile, textures of touch and affection, conjured in encounters between humans, in particular. Encounters that resist the aridity of feelings espoused by some people. Do we not feel estranged already enough? To be sure, there are encounters that violate, that leave one more estranged and less safe. More incapacitated. My ongoing interest is about encounters that kindle embers of relationships beyond consanguinity. How do we reimagine kinship then? That is a question I ponder in my poetry, a question I encountered in Becoming Kin by Patty Krawec, an Anishinaabe writer. May I offer you this story as a lobe of kolanut. Picture a boy returning from the Urashi river with a bucket of water on his head. A woman, with tears in her eyes, sits on a boulder by the roadside. The sky is calm, as after rain. The boy stops and asks the woman, “Are you sad?” to which she replies, “No, it’s the birds.” The boy frowns, quite puzzled. “Listen,” says the woman. And the boy lets the music from the nearby bush fill his ears. Then, after a while, he sprints home, eager to share the song with his mother.
Your anecdote about the boy and the woman by the roadside is fascinating. The critic in me considers it “a homage to paradox.” The phrase belongs to my teacher, Professor Olusegun Adekoya (at Obafemi Awolowo University, Nigeria), who told a somewhat similar story to illuminate the work of paradox. A boy who is living with his parents in a decrepit, one-room, slum house wakes up in the middle of one night to the sounds of his parents’ lovemaking: his mother’s cries and his father’s furious groans. The boy thinks the father is beating his mother and so begins to cry. How do you explain to the poor boy, asked the professor, that what he hears but cannot see in the darkness of the room isn’t the violence he has imagined but the ecstasy of love?
Yet I want to think that meanings precede encounters, sometimes. The boy must have previously witnessed his father beating his mother to reach such a meaning about that encounter. The boy who connects a woman’s tears to sadness and runs home to share his new discovery of another source of motherly tears (birdsongs) must be familiar with the sadness that makes his mother weep. The woman with tears in her eyes from contemplating the birdsongs must have been reaching, connecting to, or escaping an experience—maybe of beauty, nostalgia, pain. The birdsong from the bush is open to meanings impelled by our experiences and subjectivities. For example, I believe that my understanding of these anecdotes would likely be different if they have girls in place of boys. Or if in place of a boy/mother relationship, they have boy/father or girl/mother relationships. I agree when you said that “trauma is the condition of the modern world” and that some traumatic art could be a form of longing for possibilities of a less cruel world. Yet, as your own art makes clear, in this longing for possibilities art sometimes overwhelms the imagination with the trauma it seeks to transcend and “our” meaning of such art trapped in the signifying power of trauma. It seems to me that this is the paradox of the art of the kind you speak of, that is, the art of oppressed peoples these days who have been forced or reduced to making essentially traumatic art: we seem to recognize this art by its already predetermined traumatic meaning; even when it seeks to escape this meaning—its longing for a better reality—it can only do so, sometimes, by saturating us with trauma if only to reckon with it. Is this an inescapable condition of the victims of the West’s conquest of the world? With this question, I am also asking you about art and identity, on being a Black [Nigerian] immigrant writer, student, and professor in Canada.
Homage to paradox, I like that phrase. It’s mellifluous, poetic. Still, the paradox persists. It inheres in all forms. Nothing social can escape paradox. Nothing flesh. A man loves his family and has no qualms about killing another family. There is a woman who seeks prosperity for her community but impoverishes others. I remember “Vultures” by Achebe, a poem that has haunted me since I encountered it in the 1990s. It registers the themes of love and violence, cruelty and tenderness. I shudder every time I read the poem. This is the paradox of anything flesh. Indeed, trauma is also the condition of those who parade themselves as victors, whatever hegemony they claim. It hardly matters whether they construct the world in their image. They are haunted as well. Almost like Macbeth. Both victors and victims founder in each other’s nightmare. The past and its phantoms, the present reeling from the stench of bloody history. The paradox of our time is an aspect I contemplate in my art. I founder at times. As if drunk on yesteryear palm wine. It may sound clichéd that Nigerians become a different kind of Black once they arrive in white spaces, but it is a reality, unsettling though. The way spaces construct and reconstruct identities remains fascinating. Tell me about architects who disfigure the earth, who are never satisfied until they deform the mind and seethe the heart with hatred of the Other. The bonds between space and identity. How does anyone escape the burn of identity if they must inhabit or navigate a place? Identity maps onto place, place maps identities. Geography is clay. Migration is a crossroads. Of setting out and settling in. I remember then how my Yoruba neighbours in Lagos often referred to me as omo Igbo. I worried that they were questioning my Nigerianness. As an Igbo person, I recognized that the spectres of Biafra haunted the nation, decades after the war. Perhaps this is why some Nigerians reduced my ethnicity to Biafra in some encounters I had with them. Here is an instance: a fellow Nigerian once asked me, What do your people want? You Biafrans? I replied, I wonder why every Nigerian can’t enjoy good roads and a stable power supply. That question haunts because this fellow is a literary scholar. One might almost despair, for art (some art) is supposed to deepen empathy. Soon after I left Nigeria for my doctoral studies in Canada, I realized that my ethnicity and nationality counted zilch. I was Black mainly, then African, Nigerian, and Igbo, in that order. An immigrant, too. Fragrant jasmine dreams of diaspora, the niggling of disorientation. Identity orients but also disorients. I long to count the ways I present myself. Present a self that is legible, non-threatening. Proper. Yet which identity is not haunted? What place is not haunted? We live with the uncanny, victim and victor. We haunt each other with our presence. Who can say that my white neighbours don’t feel haunted by my body? It’s uncanny, such mutual haunting and yet sociality persists, at least. The homeland haunts, the diaspora haunts. And the crow outside my window, restless on the pine tree, asks, Where’s home for any of us? My doctoral dissertation supervisor often asks me if I have arrived whenever we skim over the landscape of memories. Can any Black person arrive in a white world? Perhaps arrival for the African immigrant is deferred. Might this be the arrivant of which Derrida speaks. If hospitality is a gift, what colour is the future? There are shadows tailing the light-to-come on the horizon. And if I stare too hard at the map, the lines contort. Blur. I feel vertiginous. In my head, I still hear the toll through the funereal air. The sirens chant. Okigbo is at the altar again. There is one more river yet to ford. Time is a trick of sand between my fingers when I recall the Senegalese barber who peddles his trade somewhere downtown, saying, They be like, you’re the Black barber. I smile, but he frowns and adds, I’m just a person who makes a brother’s hair look cool. Later, in a wildfire sunset, I’ll ride the bus to my apartment, thinking, Yes, the barber is an artist. A poet of haircuts. But a rose is not everyone’s delight. As Shakespeare is to Caliban.
Wayfarer, you have seen again
River Urashi shimmer with slick,
a family of fish gasp for breath,
a raft of ducks on its head, flailing,
maize and yam char from flares,
the sky raining soot of dreams,
the young so seared their minds spool,
the company and chiefs swap memos,
and you ask,
who would choose to leave home?2