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Igoni Barrett — Author of Blackass

 Igoni I

It’s the Port Harcourt Book Festival. I’m speaking to Igoni Barrett, telling him to consider writing non-fiction, to take up the essay form between stories. We are on the grounds of the Hotel Presidential and the basis for our conversation is some brew and the excerpt of his novel published in the Africa 39 collection. To my mind, his story featured in the anthology reads like an essayistic account of the relationship between the Lagos traffic, road users, and the celebrity bestowed on the city’s radio presenters.

“Persistent power cuts in Lagos,” he wrote, “in the whole of Nigeria, meant that battery-operated radios were the entertainment appliance of necessity for both rich and poor, young and old, the city-based and the village-trapped, everyone. Radios were cheap to buy and free to use, no data bundles or subscription packages or credit plans, and they were also long-lasting, easy to carry around, available in private cars and commercial buses, and must important, they were independent of the undependable power grid…Radio was deathless. Radio DJs were superstars.”

Mr Barrett is having none of it, though. ‘I’m not a non-fiction writer,’ he tells me.

Many months later there’s this:

I first met Muhtar Bakare in January 2006, when I travelled to Lagos to ask if he would publish my manuscript of short stories. Before then, we’d exchanged a few emails, as he’d accepted one of my stories for the website of Farafina, the literary magazine he had founded. His emails were terse yet casual, while mine, as I read them now, were fussily formal. I was a 26-year-old university dropout who was desperate to remake himself as a writer, and it was crucial to me that Bakare take me seriously.

Bakare is a man of many parts. He was born to parents of two ethnic groups, a Nupe mother and Yoruba father. He grew up in the Epetedo area of Lagos Island, known for its crumbling infrastructure and slum-like congestion, but now lives in Victoria Island, home to some of the country’s most prized real estate…


Achebe’s Curse

As much as I proselytise about prose (playfully among writer-friends and relentlessly via quotes and links to great writing on social media) I truly consider the fairly common idea that a writer sticks to a genre—mostly fiction in Nigeria—wrongheaded. The best writers in the English language, at least the ones with style, with a mastery of the possibilities of the English sentence, write everything: essays, reportage, memoir, fiction, criticism. Hemingway, Orwell, Bellow, Updike, Mailer, Roth, Coetzee, Amis, Heller, Franzen, Rushdie—all writers primarily known for their make-believe have written reams of non-fiction. Never hiding behind the ready, steady pleasures of story, they believe the ability to turn a sentence in prose impels the writer to serve many gods; and it’s anathema to be competent at the sentence-level and be monotheist.

Ditto essayists James Baldwin, EB White, James Wolcott, Adam Gopnik, James Wood, Anatole Broyard—all of whom (have) worked in more than one prose category. Multiplicity, for these ones and rightly so, is what it is to be a writer. Which in practice is a more encompassing term than storyteller.

That notion hasn’t travelled well. For most Nigerian dabblers in fiction, there is only story and no style. Stricken as the country is by Achebe’s Curse, there can be only a few writers in the general sense—because non-fiction requires a way with sentence and structure, and some essays provide no plot to duck under.

Unfortunately for writers after him, too little has been made of the evolution of Achebe’s prose, spotty at Things Fall Apart, crisp in his essays and mature by Anthills of the Savannah, the great man’s excellent last novel. Like everyone else, Achebe wasn’t conceived fully formed—to his credit he grew and by 1987 when Anthills was published, just under 30 years after Things Fall Apart, Achebe’s prose had caught up to his innate gift of storytelling.

This evolution, however, is not quite as sensational as the story of the fully-formed debut African novelist. And so far has proven unpopular, enabling the Curse among Achebe’s heirs, many of whom, keen to tell a story, are content with penning slack sentences. While it is frowned on to insist on a writer’s duty, it seems that the onus is on the current generation of prominent Nigerian writers to illumine a new path, to write more—and diversely—and thus overcome widespread mediocrity with varied artistry.


Igoni II

But the bit you have in that book could be an essay, I told Igoni that evening as we conversed by the Hotel Presidential poolside. In the terse, patently-Igoni manner, he responded with thank you but maintained that he’s no non-fiction writer.

A year on, with debut novel Blackass out to acclaim, Barrett’s by-line is affixed to the Al Jazeera profile of Nigerian publisher Muhtar Bakare, excerpted in italics above. Is this penitence? After all, on his twitter bio, placed within mentions of his books, are the words, ‘reluctant essayist’. Is this hurrah for Nigerian non-fiction? Is one fiction writer’s embrace of non-fiction antidote to the Curse?

Not quite, not yet. However fine Barrett’s hybrid of memoir and reportage is in Bakare’s profile, it is far from victory for the form. But it is close to vindication—if only for this writer. Someday soon, perhaps at another book festival, I’ll say to him, I told you so.



Post image:

Igoni Barrett via Incessant Scribble

Chinua Achebe via African is a Country


About the Author:

Portrait - OrisOris Aigbokhaevbolo, a writer, critic, and essayist, is nominated for the African Journalist of the Year for his music writing. As a film critic, he has been invited to academies in Germany, South Africa and The Netherlands.

His reportage and reviews on cinema, pop music and literature appear in Chimurenga, This is Africa, The Africa Report, and The Guardian UK. He holds a degree in Pharmacy and tweets from @catchoris.

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I hold a doctorate in English from Duke University and recently joined the Marquette University English faculty as an Assistant Professor. I love teaching African fiction and contemporary British novels. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

8 Responses to “On Achebe’s Curse, Igoni Barrett and Nigerian Non-fiction | by Oris Aigbokhaevbolo | An Essay” Subscribe

  1. A Kuffour 2015/10/26 at 11:59 #

    Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc.
    Even if I invest much in dubious logic and bad manners (famzing of the worst sort), I’d still find it difficult to argue Igoni Barrett did not write this before Mr. Aigbokhaevbolo told him so. Hitching Barrett to Achebe as he does, it is quite odd that Barrett’s tribute to Achebe is the fly in Mr. Aigbokhaevbolo’s I-told-you-so ointment. Mr. Aigbokhaevbolo’s quotation marks don’t change the fact that gossip is his style, and gossip now has to contend with the evidence of Barrett’s publications.

    Matthew 23:15.
    Having wondered what sort of company Mr. Aigbokhaevbolo must be, I wonder also what sort of company he keeps when he’s not hobnobbing with Barrett. Who are these ‘monotheists’ of whom Mr. Aigbokhaevbolo speaks? I would have thought that by ‘Nigeria’ Mr. Aigbokhaevbolo refers to that country where Peter Enahoro, Pius Adesanmi and Emmanuel Iduma, to take but three trans-generational examples, are highly regarded for their non-fiction prose styles. Interestingly, Iduma also writes fiction.

    Teacher No Teach Me Nonsense…Those Wey You Teach Yesterday Don Die Today O!
    Isn’t there ample evidence on social media of younger Nigerians who look up to Adesanmi, Tatalo Alamu, Chris Ngwodo etc., etc. as fine examples of what a writer should be? Whatever the case, I am convinced that Mr Aigbokhaevbolo’s case for Nigerian exceptionalism won’t stand up to even the most casual of comparative examinations.

    Inconvenient Truth.
    And since for his purposes Mr. Aigbokhaevbolo is concerned to comment on Achebe’s ‘prose’, it is quite unfortunate that he chose not to give us the benefit of his commentary on There Was a Country. Somehow, I can’t shake the feeling that it would have been convenient for Mr. Aigbokhaevbolo’s argument had Achebe written nothing but fiction.

    Achebe’s Curse.
    As it stands, I am left to wonder what the ‘Achebe’s Curse’ is. Middle style Achebe is different from early style Achebe, not necessarily better, probably worse. Even if I were to follow Mr. Aigbokhaevbolo in arguing that Anthills of the Savannah is the apogee of Achebe’s prose style, I would then be compelled to follow him to the evidently fatuous conclusion that the improvement I am arguing for is a cursed one.

  2. A Kuffour 2015/10/26 at 16:17 #

    Here’s more non-fiction from Barrett, from 2011:

    Pastor Oris, Pastor Oris, this man, Achebe, he was penning slack sentences but he has since stopped after you told him so. For the most part of his career he laboured under a curse until you ‘did’ deliverance for him.

    Ben Okri, Chimamanda Adichie, Helon Habila, Teju Cole, Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani all stuck to either fiction or non-fiction and didn’t illumine new paths until you told them so.

    Adebola Rayo, Dami Ajayi, Chibundu Onuzo, Elnathan John, Temitayo Olofinlua Amogunla, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim all are waiting for you for encouragement.

  3. Kike 2015/10/27 at 04:48 #

    Kuffour, your comment is a lengthy stroll of straw man arguments. Read well the third time and then troll.

  4. A Kuffour 2015/10/27 at 14:53 #

    It just so happens that in his non-fiction tribute to Achebe, Barrett demonstrates that he was aware of the non-fiction potential of his fiction before Mr. Aigbokhaevbolo told him so.

    And just in case you think the Achebe tribute had no precedent, here is more Barrett non-fiction of the same sort, from 2007:

    Dear Kike, for your assignment, please read Michel Foucault’s ‘What is an author?’ three times. You then might be willing to consider the possibility that the emails two writers, previously known only for their novels and short stories, exchanged provides evidence that they must have been writing non-fiction all along. I put a carved pumpkin at the top of that straw man just for you.

    Having done that, you may well be disposed to read the body of work left behind by the Mailer that Mr. Aigbokhaevbolo cites as well as the Truman Capote that he doesn’t, and you just might realise that in defining their prose styles they paradoxically attacked the very basis of the distinction between fiction and non-fiction that Mr. Aigbokhaevbolo hopes will ward off the Achebe Curse, whatever that is.

    Next thing we know, you people will be telling us tales about Ukamaka Olisakwe not writing non-fiction and Tolu Ogunlesi not writing fiction until you told them so. What won’t you do? You’ll substitute gossip for actual stylistic analysis of samples from the prose of the authors you tell tales about.

  5. Mahau Kacci 2015/10/28 at 03:07 #

    Mahau Kacci knows who this ‘A Kuffour’ is from a ‘stylistic analysis’ of his posts. Oris has written a terrible literary history, indeed, a non-literary non-history, a misconceived, misbegotten essay belonging to no genre of literary labour, fiction, non-fiction or what-have-you. And ‘Kuffour’, aiming to cosplay egungun, but inadequately masquerading in flammable straw and pumpkin-head, will whip him to death for the unforgivable slip — well, not a slip as such because Oris’s wobbly, self-congratulating argument seems — and that’s what is baffling! — carefully rehearsed. We’ve seen it happen before, people taking their nonsense seriously.

  6. A Kuffour 2015/10/28 at 04:24 #

    Mahau Kacci, I presume this is the esteemed Mao Kaci, lately of the next parish. It is a pleasure to see you up and about.

    In other news:

    Wisely disregarding the existence of six classic rap albums because Jay-Z had said somewhere,’I thought I told you characters I’m not a rapper’, when The Blueprint 2 album came out, an intense search was conducted to find out who it was that encouraged Jay-Z to take up rapping and realise his remarkable potential.

    The retiring and modest Mr Aigbokhaevbolo has been identified by many industry insiders as the one responsible for that useful nudge.

  7. Ola 2015/10/28 at 04:26 #

    Kike was brash. And Kuffour can’t comprehend.

    Aigbokhaevbolo is arguing for inclusion. As he says, “The best writers in the English language, at least the ones with style, with a mastery of the possibilities of the English sentence, write everything: essays, reportage, memoir, fiction, criticism.” It is well to broaden the argument into fiction and nonfiction. Look closely at nonfiction, however, and just Teju Cole belongs.

    How many of the writers cited in the comments can rightly claim to have written adequate pieces in those categories? Is anyone going to say Adichie’s nonfiction is as good in volume and quality as her novels and short stories? Have Ogunlesi, Temitayo Olofinlua Amogunla or Abubakar Adam Ibrahim written critical or memoir pieces? Onuzo writes op-eds. Is this a legit literary category? Has Adesanmi written a novel or reportage? Does anyone know of their existence? Beyond satire and a personal blog, has Elnathan written much else?

    Re: examples of non-fiction by Igoni Barrett, what does a half-dozen brief essays from 2007 to 2015 say about the writer’s position? The only essay by him that truly qualifies as one is an account in the Millions. Kike and Kuffour, do Google it. You can continue posting afterwards.

  8. Hannah 2015/10/28 at 16:01 #

    Honestly, all this uproar. Why can’t a writer write what she or he wants, when she wants, as the ‘spirit’ moves–fiction, nonfiction, or what-have-you? Does one or all of these make one a ‘real’ writer? If it hurts, then go write your own.

    I was going to say that I wish Mr. Oris had included more Nigerian examples, names like A Kuffour mentioned somewhere, that write or wrote both fiction and non-fiction. Our own Soyinka was left out.

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