Inua Ellams was born in Nigeria, moved to Dublin as a schoolboy and now lives in London. A poet, playwright, graphic designer and polymath, Ellams is best known for the highly successful Barber Shop Chronicles. He talks to long-standing friend and critically acclaimed author Nikesh Shukla about race, identity and masculinity.
N S : We’ve spent lots of time together over the years but one thing you said really stuck in my mind. ‘When I was growing up in Nigeria, I was a Nigerian. I didn’t realise I was black until I came to Dublin.’ I always wondered what impact that feeling made on you the first time you went back to Nigeria.
I E : That was a trip. I left in 1996 and didn’t go back until 2012. I only got the right to live and work in the UK in 2011, and that was the first time I travelled back to Africa. Those years were nuts, I used up my entire passport in eighteen months. The first place I went to was Australia, then India. I landed in Mumbai and there was something about the texture in the air, the moisture, the warmth, the light — my body remembered Nigeria and it freaked me out. Maybe it was being in a country where the majority were people of colour. Maybe the smell of food, the breakneck speed of Mumbai, which is like the chaos of Lagos…but my childhood self rose up to colonise my body and the rush of emotion floored me so when I was getting ready to go to Nigeria the following year, I remembered all of the literature that had been written about people of the diaspora going back to the country of their origin. I thought, nothing is going to happen. It’s just another work trip. But something happened. What about you?
N S : It was 20 years between visits for me. And it was weird, hard, amazing. People saw the way I dressed, my lack of Hindi and my white girlfriend and they knew I was NRI — Non-Resident Indian. But I’m always conscious that my knowledge of what it is to be Indian is very small and filtered through the lens of my family, who is Gujarati, and middle class. Do you have similar feelings?
Inua Ellams believes it's okay to ask questions about life and keep searching for the answers.
I E : My father and mother were both middle class so I dissect Nigerian society through a particular lens. I feel like a fraud sometimes, like I’m not really Nigerian. I don’t speak any of the languages. I speak a type of English that is a mix of English-English, Irish-English and Nigerian-English. I don’t even know what it is. I’m trying to use language to figure out these complexities to define myself.
NS : Looking at Barber Shop Chronicles, what did writing that play teach you about masculinity?
I E : When I was doing my research, I got to meet a lot of Black/ African men and see different modes of masculinity, posed in different types of English. It brought me back to something I had read in John Keats’ work about Negative Capability - the notion that it’s ok not to know the answers and to exist with the awareness that you don’t know. He wrote the line: ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty, - that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know’. I think what I discovered in writing the play is that there isn’t a fixed mould of man. It’s okay to accept that. It’s okay not to fit in. It’s okay to be yourself and ask yourself questions. It’s okay to spend your life searching. It’s all good and anyone who tells you they have the answers is just lying and imposing their insecurity on your world. It was one thing to write it down. It was another to put it in a play and have that conversation in public. It was yet another to hear from other men, from other people of colour, thanking me for saying these things.
N S : You also founded the R.A.P Party, combining hip-hop poetry and songs. Do you remember the first time rap made an impact on you?
When I was growing up in Nigeria, I was Nigerian. I didn’t know I was black until I came to England.
I E : It was in the first few weeks I lived in Dublin where I witnessed such kindness and also such senseless racism. Both happened in my first English class. We were reading Catcher In The Rye, and my classmates were stumbling through the book. I raised my hand to read and everyone started laughing because they didn’t think Africans could read. I made sure to read quickly and clearly. My teacher, our eyes locked, and she was like, you read a lot, we’re gonna be friends. So, I think in order to show me that she knew elements of Black culture, she asked me if I was a hip-hop fan. I said yes. She said she liked it too. The class started laughing at her, thinking, wow this middle-aged Irish woman, what does she know about hip-hop? So she got the class to shut up and she played Do For Love by Tupac. It was her and me, jamming and vibing. And I remember thinking how amazing it was for her to go out on a limb like that to make a connection with me. It cut across levels of understanding between her and me. Just Tupac and us listening - I realised the power of rap to unite people.
N S : You’ve never been a ‘this is what Trump did this week’ poet. I think that’s why you’ve had such a brilliant and varied career. Because you write timelessly.
I E : I remember listening to this podcast about how artists of colour, specifically Black people, specifically Africans, exist outside of time. In one way it’s because we’re late to everything! Maybe we believe there is always time so it doesn’t really matter. But perhaps we’ve always had to imagine and place ourselves in the future because we could barely exist in the present. The police might shoot you dead. Your kids might be taken away. Your country could be colonized. The present has always seemed psychologically and physically hostile to me so the work I create for the present always existed beyond it. I started writing when I was an unsettled immigrant, when the Home Office might have deported me and my family. I was always writing, thinking, this moment might not exist. The work has to exist beyond now.
Anyone who tells you that they have all the answers is just lying.
N S : So where do we go now, from that?
I E : I don’t know. The first thing that popped into my head is that this is a very western way of looking at an artist. Always thinking about the next thing. I think about Ralph Ellison who wrote Invisible Man and didn’t write anything else. Look at the repercussions of that one book. Think about artists who put out one album. Maybe it’s okay that I’ve made that one comment and it’s up to the next generation to take on the conversation and do else something with it. It almost doesn’t matter what I do next because I’ve added my voice, my verse, my paragraph, my one line to the great poem of humanity, and that’s okay. I don’t know what comes next. And that’s okay. The best thing to do is to continue to try to be yourself.
Nikesh Shukla is an author, columnist and broadcaster. Having written three novels and edited The Good Immigrant, a bestselling collection of essays, he has been described by The Bookseller as one of the 100 most influential people in publishing
Photography: Andy Lo Pò