About this writer
Nigeria always rocks, in a literary sense! If we are asked to draw a list of new interesting voices in the Nigerian Literary Scene, it would be a very long one. Gimba Kakanda, Emmanuel Iduma, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, Umari Ayim, not to mention Nigerian authors who live out of Nigeria (Chika Unigwe, Yewande Omotoso, etc.); and among those who live in Nigeria of course the name of Richard Ali has a strong place under the spotlight.
Born in Kano and grew up in the resort town of Jos, even though Richard practices law by profession, out of a desire to further the promising profile of African writing, he formed Nigeria’s newest publishing company, together with Mrs. Azafi Omoluabl-Ogosi in January 2012. Parrésia Publishers Ltd has thus far published two novels and a collection of short stories under its imprints – it also just published the prestigious anthology of Commonwealth Prize-winning author Helon Habila’s Creative Writing Workshop. Richard has drawn an interesting novel which runs from past to present back and forth through a complex net of human relationships where love retains his character’s cords till the end of the story on the background of Nigeria, a country ‘locked’ in its huge political and religious identity. Precise and exhaustive, with a fine constructive criticism, Richard Ali is definitely an exquisite interlocutor.
VALENTINA A. MMAKA: Richard, your novel is a mosaic where all the pieces of the story need a special space to draw the final image: religion, identity, history, love and politics, and this space is the city of Jos. Why Jos?
RICHARD ALI: Thanks for the question, Valentina. The image of a mosaic is integral to my idea of what literary fiction is about, the interpretation of a complex world in the terms of literature from the reflexive point of view of an individual’s life. Such an individual is, in this sense, the artist, and a book such as mine is an attempt to paint a mosaic of Nigeria and the world. The various pieces, as you call them, the history of central Nigeria, the Muslim-Christian identity question, how much mileage love can give and the dynamics of politics, all these things, like objects in a mosaic, need a canvas to fit on to. That canvas is Jos. Jos is a city in central Nigeria where I grew up and both in terms of geography, and in terms of social mindset, it possesses the depth to carry the universality of my fiction. Jos symbolizes Nigeria, and Africa, and the world. Now, if we follow our parallels further, there was a Fall – a moment when things fell apart. I try to describe that in the event that brought the characters Rahila Pam and Nabila together in the novel. So, my Jos and its cosmopolitan humanity fell into bigotries and ethno-religious conflict, into political impasses that were viral and self-destructive. But this is also what happened to Africa, from the mid-60’s onwards.
VALENTINA A. MMAKA: Your characters are always, somehow ‘called’ back to the past. Faruk, one of your protagonists, reaches the point where he needs to know the truth about his mother – her true identity, her death and why her life story has never been explained to him by his father, Col. Dibarama. How does memory influence the perception of who we are?
RICHARD ALI: Yes, we all, each of us, have our cities of memory – some near magical place in the past where everything was perfect, a sort of childhood space. Most people go back there mentally when they are in trouble and unhappy, and people are encouraged to go there when they are depressed. I used that as a sort of machine, a skeleton, on which the plot of the novel hangs. Faruk goes to Bolewa to seek out the story of his tragic mother. Rahila goes to a convent. Even in Bolewa, the emir Ramalan speaks of an earlier time when the events that killed Faruk’s mother did not exist. We all have a place to go when we cannot stand it anymore. Sometimes it is a mental place we reach by thinking and meditation; other times a physical place to go. The disturbing present which sparked off this novel was during the Jos ethno-religious conflict in September 2001 when my family had to seek shelter at a Mobile Police barracks. As a writer, I wanted to look back in order to understand.
VALENTINA A. MMAKA: City of Memories is also about love and its impact on the society, especially when it comes to ethno-religious problems. Rahila and Faruk belong to different backgrounds and cultures, and especially religions. These differences are pitted into evidence by their parents. How much does it really influence people’s life in Nigeria, and their private interaction?
RICHARD ALI: It is absolutely tragic, Valentina, that religion plays such a disreputable role in Nigerian society. I’ll tell you an anecdote I heard a few weeks ago – naturally, it involves the British colonial history’s most disreputable perpetrators. It goes that the British came to both India and Nigeria with three things – their culture, their technology and their religion. The Indians rejected British culture and religion, took up British technology and are now a BRIC country. Nigeria, my Nigeria, took the British culture, naming themselves after everything imaginable, took the British religion and its complements, adopting every imaginable denomination on earth, and rejected British science and technology and evolved into the hotbed of a clientist élite and superstitious and ignorant citizenry. And where did we wind up? 143rd in the 2011 Corruption Index, with 60% of the population living below the poverty line.
How does it influence Nigerians? Largely as a con.
In the case of Islam, the Fodio jihad led to a class of rulers called the masu sarauta who the British displaced. Now, in the course of a hundred years before the British showed up, the emirs and masu sarauta had become oppressive and corrupt and wielded power for personal gain, no longer in line with the Quran and the tenets of Fodio. Yet, their legitimacy came from the fact that they were Islamic, that their subjects saw them as Islamic, so while they aggrandized themselves, they ensured an elaborate religious indoctrination of the subjects and the creation of us-against-them in an equation where the other, the them, was defined by the expedience of this ruling class. When the British came, they imposed indirect rule to govern the north through these same decadent masu sarauta who lost no time in using maxim-gun sanctioned power to deal with dissent and perpetuate their oligarchic, plutocratic interests. Thus were the indigenous cultures of northern Nigeria destroyed in place of a hodgepodge, quasi-Arabic culture so-called, based, of course, on Muslim identity defined as us-against-them and less as an innate spirituality.
The South, on the other hand, adopted Christianity of various persuasions and theological arguments and were developing their own us-against-them; Catholic-versus-Protestant, imported Christianity versus “indigenous” African churches and so on. There exists a sizable Muslim population in the south as well. This Christianity also sprouted its own clerisy, and of course, behind it all, a set of business and plutocratic interests.
All these came to a head in central Nigeria, the middle belt, and this is where the most ferocious ethno-religious crises have been experienced. The average Nigerian sees himself as religious, yet, a cursory probe reveals superstition and simple, dangerous ignorance. This ignorance and superstition are manipulated by the elites in both the north and south to benefit their financial interests. This is the pervasive and perfidious influence of religion on the average Nigerian. And, there is an inhumane elite behind it all. This is what underlies the Nigerian drama; it is what underlies the characters of my novel.
VALENTINA A. MMAKA: Throughout your novel, you question Nigerian Identity. With more than 200 languages and different people, with all the division across the country, with all its past and present complicated history, how would you define Nigerian Identity using a metaphor?
RICHARD ALI: That’s a tough one. What if we used a cosmopolis? But no, that wouldn’t do. It’s helpful, but it wouldn’t do. Do you know that painting by Salvador Dali, early 1930’s, Premonition of the Spanish Civil War? It comprises a figure, a massive person or being that is tearing itself apart. Evident in the painting is a desire to stand up straight yet, the arm of the figure holds it down, and, the same figure has its foot firmly stamped on its own torso. I don’t know how the art historians’ interpreted this paining and they may say I am being insupportably literal, but I think it is a fine metaphor for the country.
That painting is Nigeria. Nigeria is that Dali painting. The top half of the giant is the Nigerian State and the Nigerian elite, and they are stamping down on the Nigerian masses, by manipulating religion and engendering a politics of death. But, they themselves cannot go anywhere, you see, for the masses are holding them back. Both are locked in a death wish.
VALENTINA A. MMAKA: Ibrahim Dibarama, Faruk’s father, in his lecture at the Polytechnic, says religion is ‘a danger to play with; it’s just like fire, and once it starts burning it’s not so easy to put out’. So how can religion be dangerous considered out of the identity equation?
RICHARD ALI: It comes back to the structure of Nigeria. After decades of mismanagement, corruption and oppression, the elite realized that the people were getting on to their tricks. This awareness happened in the late 70’s, to a group of radical elements who had constructed a leftist political philosophy for themselves, men like my mentor Dr. Bala Mohammed Bauchi who was assassinated in 1981. These men challenged the status quo, they were mostly academics; Dr. Bala, Soyinka (then younger), Segun Osoba, Dr. Yusuf Bala Mohammed the historian. Yes, Patrick Wilmot, the Caribbean academic then at Zaria. In northern Nigeria, it coalesced into the People’s Redemption Party. This movement was crushed politically by rigged elections in 1983 and then by the military coup of December 1983. This coup, steadily sliding into a pure dictatorship inimical to the interests of the elite, was replaced with another coup in 1985.
By the time democracy returned in the late 90’s, ours was a large country without statesmen, and one including 450 legislators and possibly a hundred times as many political appointees. If we count local government levels, we are talking of possibly a hundred thousand politicians of some sort who, in the manner of politicians everywhere, realized that playing the religious card in any number of ways would keep the people busy in-fighting and away from a proper appraisal of corruption and mismanagement. This was easy to do, for the people had already been systematically dis-educated and were already susceptible to the worst religious viruses available. And that is how Boko Haram came about – politicians infusing religion to cover their corruption and their ineptitude. Now it is out of hand and it is normal people who are getting killed by the score.
It is this reality, this present Nigerian reality that the character Ibrahim Dibarama and his creator foresaw when City of Memories was being written.
VALENTINA A. MMAKA: You draw the parallel stories of Faruk and his father, tracing the differences between time and places. Do you think it would be fair to draw Faruk’s family story without passing through the larger history of Nigeria?
RICHARD ALI: You cannot go forward without knowing the past, this is axiomatic. I’m young now, and I assure you, I have been younger still and I know a bit about the heady desire, earnest and fiery, to move, to progress, to, as you say it, move forward. It is a thing of youth but without a grounding in what has come before, this heady optimism soon becomes disillusioned and discouraged. You know how light gets snuffed out of a candle? That is what happens when we try to plunge into the future without having understood the past enough to make a clean break with it.
Who was the sage who said those who do not study their past are doomed to repeat its worst errors? I think that is a very true saying. The trick is to study the past without developing romanticism of the good-old-days. We, as writers and as readers, as people generally, are authentic in the present only because we are the heirs and heritors of the past and the past is all that has come before, in all its nuance and detail. But, as heirs and heritors, we are not beholden to the past.
VALENTINA A. MMAKA: When did you start thinking at yourself as a writer and how do you combine your being a lawyer, a writer and an editor of Sentinel Nigeria?
RICHARD ALI: Sometime in 2007, when my poems were first accepted for Chuma Nwokolo’s African Writing Journal. I have always written poetry, possibly since 1999/2000 and the story at the core of my novel, City of Memories, came to me in 2001 and it started with a short story – about the character Ummi al-Qassim. I had written a few stories, one of which was shortlisted for the John la Rose short story competition in 2008. Yeah, I’d say I first started thinking of myself as a writer about 2007/2008. I had gotten my poems published in a reputable journal, had made the shortlist of an international short story prize and then participated in a British Council workshop. Also in the period, Nigerian writer, Toni Kan had mentioned in a newspaper interview that I was a young writer to watch. At about that time, I realized, hmmm, you could actually be a writer, Richard.
Striking the balance between practicing law, editing and writing is not easy, but I manage as best I can.
VALENTINA A. MMAKA: How are Nigerian readers? How do they get access to books?
RICHARD ALI: The Nigerian market for books is largely tethered to the major towns; Lagos, Port Harcourt, Abuja, Kaduna and Ibadan. It is quite promising though the problem of piracy is also there. Nigerian readers are very perceptive and they get books from bookshops in the major towns as well as during book readings. There are a number of writer’s bodies, the largest of which is the Association of Nigerian Authors – I’m in the present EXCO. These bodies hold readings regularly to which writers are invited to read, interact and autograph their books. Journalists also haunt these venues.
VALENTINA ACAVA MMAKA: Now, about other Nigerian writers who live abroad, do you think being far away from their country compromised their being Nigerian?
RICHARD ALI: I have often wondered about the émigré experience, whether political exile or emigration for personal reasons. I think one carries enough of one’s country along wherever one goes. A sense of country is very similar to a sense of self, is it not? And this isn’t a physical thing. It is the mental impression of these places and sounds, something intangible. I have only a traveler’s interest in living abroad, never permanently. But I imagine if I lived abroad I would still be able to write about Nigeria and would still retain my Nigerian sensibilities. After all, I would be writing fiction, not journalism.
VALENTINA ACAVA MMAKA: Here in South Africa one of the initiatives which connect people who love to read and helps authors to reach as many readers as possible, are book clubs. Meeting, discussing, exchanging opinions and thoughts is a way to get into the world of literature. Can you experience the same in Nigeria?
RICHARD ALI: Book clubs are really few in Nigeria, no more than three – I know of the Rainbow Book Club and Mimi Ogbanga’s Reading Bridges Club, both in Port Harcourt. A friend of mine, the writer Kechika Nomu, has plans to open one in the Sapele, a city in southern Nigeria. What we have a lot of are voluntary associations which hold fixed events, book readings and slam competitions. For example, we have the Book ‘n’ Guage and iRead in Lagos; Abuja has the Abuja Literary Society and the Abuja Writer’s Forum.
What we need also is more cultural exchange between African countries. I want to go to Kenya to read my book, I would like to have Kenyan writers, South African writers, Egyptian writers come to Nigeria to read. The embassies and governments of African countries should be interested in these things.
VALENTINA A. MMAKA: Nigeria seems to be the greatest source of great literature. Wat makes Nigeria so literally unique?
RICHARD ALI: Because of its sheer size and variety! One out of every three Africans is a Nigerian and that one can come from one of three-hundred different ethnic groups in this country. I like to think it is this variety that makes Nigeria such a hotbed of influences. Wole Soyinka, Achebe, Abubakar Imam all the way down to Helon Habila and Chimamanda Adichie are heirs to Nigeria – and Nigeria is nuances, a paradise of nuances. It is an artist’s field day.
VALENTINA A. MMAKA: Last September, writer Toni Morrison was a guest at Mantova Literary Festival in Italy where she said that a writer shouldn’t only stick on what he/she knows, but write on what he/she doesn’t know at all. Do you agree with this?
RICHARD ALI: I agree with Toni Morison. If we write only what we know, what would we be adding? We would be mere mimics of our narrow experiences. But the writer is possessed of a creative imagination and he must let this loose in the world and on the page. I’ll give you the example of the city, Bolewa, in my novel City of Memories. It is entirely created. I have never been to northeastern Nigeria before. Yet, people who have read the book find Bolewa easily recognizable. But the shock of it came when, after having published by book, I discovered that there is an ethnicity named Bolewa in Yobe State of Nigeria.
Now, the advice to write what you know relates to the authenticity of one’s narrative. As Chimamanda says, the readers cannot be conned, they know what you are up to and what rings true and what does not. So for the young writer, or the writer still seeking his words, one should write what one knows well and err on the side of safety. But there is something of a rubberneck in every writer that causes you to test yourself and see what more, what else, your craft can deliver. To achieve great fiction is to tell the perfect lie, the lie that is truer than what is merely real.
VALENTINA A. MMAKA: Publishers tend to reject books set in countries they believe are not close to a wide understanding. How does literature set in a specific place conquer the international reader?
RICHARD ALI: This is a bothersome question, Valentina. I think it is a question that borders on access to the market. If, for example, I own a cow and you are thirsty, I am in a position of power, right? If on the other hand all I have is milk and I need my asthma medication, which you have, you are in a position of power. This is what is happening in the world today. Publishers in the West have a vast market; hundreds of thousands of books are bought each and every day in the USA and let’s say, Western Europe. This is not so in Africa. The publishers in the West have both the yam and the knife and they know it. Boy oh boy they do! And what is power if you cannot flex it? So, the publishers try to impose a certain narrative about the continent which we, writers from Africa, have to checklist in our fictions.
Now, every so often you have a writer here and there who ‘talks back’ and who assumes militant stances against these perspectives and sometimes they get a counter-idea across to the West. But no sooner than is this done than these same writers become purveyors of a new orthodoxy. To borrow Chimamanda’s famous phrase, it would seem that the single story is very changeable, capable of assuming a variety of unrecognizable forms. The single story, the anti-single story, contra single story and whatnots are all symptoms of the fundamental disease that the primary market for our fiction is more abroad than here.
So, what needs to be done is that the African market for books needs to be actively boosted from its present piteous state. We need a pan-African market for books by African writers in order to be able to leverage our authentic creations onto the grand table of world literature.
VALENTINA A. MMAKA: Recently Kenyan author Ngugi Wa ‘Thiongo, guest at Cape Town Book Fair, shared his reflection on how the African continent is still perceived as a place of starvation, diseases, poverty and wars. In the West, Africa is always described through prejudices and stereotypes, often as a one country and as a place of loss. What should be done, according to your own experience, to rehabilitate the image of this continent and who are the main actors that should be starting this process of rehabilitation?
RICHARD ALI: Ngugi merely stated a simple truth. I have more or less answered this question in my response to the last one. We need to develop the African market for books, for books by African writers and international writers – with a market that is geographically here. Publishing is a business and all businesses interested in profiting from a service they offer go to where a market exists and try to attract clients and customers. The guidelines of each market are set by the owners of the market. Owners of markets can extend their influence over great distances and geographies.
What should be done is that publishers in Africa need to sit up and quit patting each other on the back for their fifty kobo sales. They need to put in place mechanisms for a continental marketing of books. I set up a publishing company in Nigeria early this year, and from running Parrésia Publishers I can clearly appreciate the challenges. But I can also see the great fat prize, in millions of dollars, to be won, if we publishers get it right.
VALENTINA A. MMAKA: You took part, together with 21 African writers, in the last Farafina Creative Writing Workshop organized in Lagos, led by great authors such as Chimamanda Adichie and Binyavanga Wainaina. Can you describe what this collective experience was like?
RICHARD ALI: The Farafina workshop was a defining experience for me. Beyond what was taught and facilitated in the classes by Chimamanda and Binyavanga, there was the inimitable experience gained from interacting with the most talented of one’s peers from across the continent; Yewande Omotoso, Nana Sekyiama, Nasir Yamamma. These guys were all brilliant and I learnt as much from them as from Chimamanda, the Binj and Aslak Mhyre, who took creative non-fiction. There is something virile and authentic going on in Africa and I was in the centre of it. For ten heady days I was in the very pulse of it and now that pulse, at the side of my head, beats a steady rhythm.
This interview is done by Italian/South-African author, Valentina A. Mmaka