Richard Ali, The Monday Writer Interview

Richard Ali

The Beginning

I started writing in secondary school, I think junior secondary school. I remember, particularly, finding Shelley’s poem Ozymandias and an excerpt from The Lays of Ancient Rome, Macaulay. Something in the majesty of the lines got me. We were learning English Literature for the first time, you see? This switched to Literature in English in our senior years, incorporating non-English poets — Soyinka, Kwesi Brew etc. My first poems would have been by my third year of secondary school, unremarkable and there’s nothing lost in my having forgotten them. At about this time, Emeka Nwogu introduced me to a couple of listserves where mostly exiled Nigerian poets gathered. It was this happenstance that gave me an insight into how the mind of poets worked and the realization that my mind worked quite like that—somewhat quirky. I locate my first serious poems here — the poem Buddha Child is the marker because it was the first to be published, in Chuma Nwokolo’s African Writing Journal.

Writing poetry has become easier in the sense that I am more in control of my material now; the days of the formal, overweening “British” curriculum selected influence are long gone, the days of Africanist concern as well. My poems have become fingerprints. That writing poetry is easier now has seen a drought in the number of poems I write, a greater concern that each poem must count for something.

What he writes about

I am a wind chime and the nature of my poetry is to identify and interpret the winds of my times. Literary critic, Carl Trever, recently reviewed by poetry collection, The Angush and Vigilance of Things, for Praxis Magazine, and I think he got his finger to the pulse of this. Because my poetry is a personal meditation, the themes vary with the styles each poem dictates and while there was an effort at corralling the poems in that book into sections, assuming central themes, subjects and whatnot would be wrong. Poetry is a woman, and you must hold a woman’s waist lightly, for me, and follow her. My poetry is various, and I do not know what next about it.

On why he writes and how much of it is biographical

This question! There’s this film clip from the 80’s where a character throws a hammer at a large, Big Brother, screen which explodes in a million pieces. I have mulled this question for years, not just my poetry but my fiction and essays too and I have come around to a certainty that the world we live in is an absurd place yet that it is crucial that we make essentially existentially useless acts. I write because I must. I am that sort of person. So, in this sense, a burden. I see the world correctly and nothing at all can change the lockstep of illogic we’ve gotten steeped in. My point? Here’s the thing: that film clip was from an advertisement for a Mac in 1984. What is more ridiculous than that the image I choose for dissidence in from an ad, the most collaborationist thing ever? It’s fantastic, almost, to think that Apple is the seventeenth richest country in the world today. The Mac was never the hammer that destroys the absurdity of Big Brother, the Mac was Big Brother. It’s the same with poems, and writing, and art, earnest hammers we throw at a system that, at its heart, appeals to the world of human psychology—greed, acquisition, envy, perversity—and fuels it well. The hammer does not destroy Big Brother, it is swallowed by the Big Brother screen. Big Brother has made provisions for it. My work is personal and autobiographical and important, but in the larger scheme of things, the larger performative public space, insignificant and worse, incapable of significance. Those days are long gone now and its not me in the docks.

Biggest challenges he has faced as a writer

Gravity. Age and experience are the inevitable weight of the world and with these gifts you’ve not asked for and cannot refuse, it becomes harder to re-enter the unspoiled creative space where writing, if it is not commercial and factory-processed, must be done. When you’re young, and if you have the temperament for it, you are able to abstract easier, leap about the place more confidently but with time and experience comes the desire for self-realization usually in terms of a career, a responsibility to one’s family and children, even a desire that expertise gained should be shared with others—to solve problems, for a price or not. I have found that the price of all this is the loss of access. Paradox: without these weighty, unwanted gifts, were one to live the true “life of the poets” where there’s money and no responsibilities and travel is a thought away and so on, one is equally miserable. Every writer who has put a bullet in their heads, or stuck that same head in a gas oven, has come face to face with either this gravity or with misery and they have not known what to do with it, or themselves.

On best advice received

Punch the keys. Create your significances. The first is from the writer, Toni Kan, whose breadth of work, ranging from the commercial work he’s done in PR to very serious literary work like The Carnivorous City, I find impressive. He told me this at his house some years ago, while we were knocking down beers. The second, by someone I loved in what turned out to be an impossible affair, a walled English garden from which one must venture out. These are very good advice. But, have I heeded them? Not always. Besides, the thing with good advice is for it to be given away to someone else as quickly as possible.

Any advice then for other writers?

Punch the keys. The writing must be done and no one but you will do it. Waking up an hour early might work for you, or it might not. Blacking out a long weekend to work on that novel might be the thing, if that’s it, then do it. But, any which way, you must punch the keys. No one else will do it for you.

His books and which one he’d be caught reading when no one is looking.

I have meagre output—a novel, City of Memories (Parresia Books) from 2012 and a poetry collection, The Anguish and Vigilance of Things, from last year (2019). I am currently working on a second novel, roughly 40,000 words in, about halfway done. See, I need to take the good advice I’ve been given, which I have just given to other people. I need to punch the keys.
City of Memories is rooted in a different time and I like to pick it up. In reality, I tend to stumble upon my copy, and read a paragraph here or there which takes me back, inevitably, to the little room in an unpainted house at Lo-Anguwan Cele where the writing was done. The city of Jos is the ruined flower of my innocence and that’s what the book is about really, a moment in time. It’s been out of my hands for nearly a decade now but I still feel somewhat sentimental about that book.

Top 5 books read

Ah, just five? Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient (and Divisadero), J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, Zukiswa Wanner’s London, Cape Town, Jo’burg, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s novel Dust (and her new one, The Dragonfly Sea, which you absolutely must read). Lastly, Cyprian Ekwensi’s novella, Burning Grass, alongside his entire oeuvre. I think the reason I love these books is because they explore disappeared places in great detail (with the exception of Disgrace of course)—whether its cities and rural areas in a rapidly industrializing Nigeria in Ekwensi or Yvonne Owuor’s reckoning of Kenya and its history in Dust. Or Zukiswa’s knowing eye on today’s South Africa, how its promise came to be so publicly destroyed in what becomes, to quote Wilde, a long (and not so lovely) suicide.

Which of these books does he wish he’d written?

I do not wish I had written any of these, these are geniuses of a different bent from what I assume to be my best abilities. I am glad they wrote them.

But they influence/d his writing?

Absolutely. They are, alongside others, of course. Ondaatje, who is also a poet, is a major influence in my writing, as is the tenuousness of pioneers that I see in Ekwensi, in Jagua Nana, for example, a woman in Lagos, first generation off the farm, is thoroughly herself in a world she does not fully understand which yet she faces with bravery. I like the tenuous, very human stories that pepper the life of Almasy in The English Patient, whether he is meditating on Herodotus or telling a married lover that the one thing he hates the most is ownership. I do not think I can achieve a character like Nyipir Oganda in Dust, one who is broken in the end because the book starts with his only son being killed like a criminal on the streets of Nairobi. Because Oganda knows it’s the ghosts of Kenya, the people who he made ghosts, who have taken his son, made his boy a sacrifice to the Kenya that became because of what he and his generation did. It takes a Yvonne to do history in such broad swathes and then take a surgical scalpel to it.

Walk us through your writing habits, Richard

Nothing special. I like writing in the mornings and get my best writing done between 6 a.m. and perhaps 9 a.m. These are luxurious days though, when I do not have to go into the city for meetings or work. I have a desk, about 3 by 2 feet, on which are a printer, a calabash and two piles of various books—at the bottom right corner is my laptop. Here, I write. Most days though, I cannot write in the mornings so I make do with a weekend, or late on those nights when sleep does not come where yet the lethargy of it can be overcome. Or just procrastinate, as I’ve been doing. I just punch the keys when I can, and leave the rest to the editing process. SLQ

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