Richard Ali is a Nigerian lawyer, novelist and poet. Author of the warmly received 2012 novel, City of Memories, Richard was Editor-in-Chief of the Sentinel Nigeria Magazine and was a runner-up at the 2008 John la Rose Short Story Competition. He has been Publicity Secretary of the Association of Nigerian Authors (2011 to 2015). A founding member of the Nairobi-based arts collective, Jalada Africa, he also sits on the board of the Babishai Niwe Poetry Foundation, based in Kampala, Uganda, which runs BN Poetry Award — Africa’s only in-Africa continental poetry prize. He has served as a consultant, holding a public policy-shaping role as Technical Assistant to the Honourable Minister of Interior from 2015 to 2017, working on the Ministry Strategy Group (MSG). He is presently Programme Manager of the Association of Nigerian Authors Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism (ANA PCVE) programme, which seeks to use literature to counter extremism. A noted expert on issues of violent extremism, he is an alumnus and member of the Africa Centre for Strategic Studies (ACSS) and has participated in several roundtables across Africa. He is also an alumnus of the US State Department’s International Visitor’s Leadership Programme (IVLP). He co-founded Parrésia Publishers Limited in 2012 and practices law in Abuja, Nigeria. His debut collection of poems, The Anguish and Vigilance of Things, was published in 2019 by Konya Shamsrumi. He recently co-authored a chapter titled Governance, Climate Change and Security Challenges: The Case of Lake Chad in Governance and Security in the Sahel published by the Foundation for European progressive Studies, Rome.
The Monday Writer Interview
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.
Poems (from The Anguish and Vigilance of Things)
Dreadlocked child sitting amidst
Fleeting cinema of urban feet
Child in Buddha squat, palms between thighs
Forlorn on a city pavement
They do not see you, mendicant child
But I do
And I know you too are on your way
Maybe you’ll be a rasta someday.
I love you as ash, I say, each speck of me
Teases a pore of your skin, herdswoman brown
As ants across earth, my desire invades you.
Nothing is left but the stir of your eyes
Eyes are pathways. I’ve seen enough.
Truth is but the echo of dreams; flex of
Arms, taste of tongue, the way you lay
In my bed are all truths. Eyes are doorways.
The roads are old, the lines are ancient, all lead
To this Kampala of tucked hills hiding secrets
You despair the end of fire. I say—ash is potent too:
Ash is the dream of wood that cannot be burned.
She-shell insists on finding me, braving pot-holed seas
Comes to rest at my feet, not saying a word, holding
Hollow lessons of what has gone before, keeping faith
In the promise that love stretches to pick up
Paring the lie of certitudes, eyes do more than mirror
Depths of greyness; dammed by irises are errant desires
Cresting to breast, fires that at times volcano like tears,
Raining redemptive pearls on sand
Between eternities, my mind explores subterns—whiffs
Of perfume, cadenced laughter, chance glances glimpsed
At market squares, ephemera. Dreams are groves in psyche
Beckoning our trust. I close my eyes and melt into her dream.
(Excerpt from a work in progress)
Liman Amfani arrived Kano City in 1923 with two camels and a woman. Kano was a capital of trade in the central Sudan. Its merchants had a famous boast — Kano Surpasses. The Fulani had ruled for a century but now, they were governors under the British, who had arrived in 1903. Power was shifting from Gidan Rumfa to Kurmi Market. He had money to risk and his father’s tokens which would be useful with the Sarkin Bai, who was a distant kinsman. He would find a place for himself and for Mairo.
“Ko da me ka zo, an fi ka.”
Liman was a black man standing six feet tall, with a wide forehead over pleasant eyes that missed nothing. He had a wide nose and full lips, his head of curly hair drawn off his forehead, baldness checked mid-stride. His movement was always deliberate. The first impressions people had was of shrewdness and reserve, but also cunning.
Mairo was a lithe woman as tall as he was, her veil revealing the light-skinned face of an Arab. She sat easy on the camel, surveying the new world with elliptical eyes. Her black irises, flecked with sea green, gave nothing of her thoughts away. Thinly drawn eyebrows arched in a slight upwards curve protected her eyes. Pert centre was a short, aquiline nose, fish-like when seen from the side. She was happy, but no one would know it. Unease followed in her wake, like a wave cresting to shore and havoc. But he did not know this then. He still thought she would change. People they passed on the streets saw her first but always looked away, fixing a gaze on Liman instead, sometimes offering greetings. But when the duo passed, the people always looked back. The woman ought not to be there, did not fit somehow. She was the aftershock of a slap.
The couple found the compound of Sarkin Bai Abdulqadir in Dambatta. Abdulqadir was a giant of a man, head of the powerful Damdazawa clan in a city the jihad had changed. Liman presented his father’s tokens and was embraced by Abdulqadir.
“He was a throwback,” the Sarkin Bai said, twirling his goatee. He sat on a cushion dais placed on a red carpet; a severe young man in a white turban, his son, Bello, sat beside him. His leading men sat on the carpet in silence, listening to Liman tell his story. Liman’s father, a minstrel, had died from a poisoned knife in the back during a bar fight in Oshogbo.
The older man continued. “We Fulani are nomads. I knew your father; we grew up together. I hope you will settle with us. They tell me you have a woman.”
A house was assigned to him.
The new princes of Kano were those who could trade with the British. A former smuggler, Liman Amfani had an advantage he was willing to press in 1920s Kano which was a generation behind the south. He understood how trade worked as a whole. And he had a natural ear for languages and for understanding people.
He told Mairo of his plans as they made their way to the city, offering her a picture of domesticity. She said little but of this was encouragement. It had taken them two weeks to make their way from Sokoto to Kano. The roads were not good, but they were not molested either.
Liman set up his trading firm. Money and influence poured in.
“The minute the child arrives,” Mairo said, “the clock starts ticking down.”
“You should stay. Why leave? You have everything.”
She sucked the air through her teeth.
Their child was born two years after their arrival in Kano.
“Shehu,” Liman said.
“I shall call him Abba.”
That was that.
For the first time since the morning Richard Thesiger had crashed into his life, Liman was at ease, rested, rooted, growing rich and bringing up a son. Mairo behaved as a textbook wife, deferring to him, accepting his gifts and his love.
She gave him only the boy Shehu, just as she had promised. As the years went on, he knew she would leave him. Just as she promised. Mairo was a djinn on a mission, to destroy Richard Thesiger. She had, by his help. She would pay the agreed price and no more. Their fights started, rooted in his jealousy for a future she would have without him. She was powerful, but he did not fear her.
Each time Liman saw her arrange her face, arraying it as she saw fit, anger kindled a new fire in his heart. He cursed the day he and Richard Thesiger had rescued her; he cursed the day he had agreed to travel with the strange white man.
He rubbed a finger on the accursed emerald ring he wore, and cursed her for filling his ears with a different truth that had led to murder.