Ake Book Festival 2015 – The Fluidity of Identities and Breaking Boundaries

Ake Book Festival 2015

“Were you to ask any of these beautiful, brown-skinned people that basic question – ‘where are you from?’ – you’d get no single answer from a single smiling dancer. This one lives in London but was raised in Toronto and born in Accra; that one works in Lagos but grew up in Houston, Texas. ‘Home’ for this lot is many things: where their parents are from; where they go for vacation; where they went to school; where they see old friends; where they live (or live this year). Like so many African young people working and living in cities around the globe, they belong to no single geography, but feel at home in many.”

Those are not my words. They are Taiye Selasi’s as she captures the idea of the Afropolitan, identities without borders, in her famous essay “Who is an Afropolitan?”. Her thoughts on the fluidity of identities were re-echoed in the bookchat of E.C. Osondu and Chris Abani which was moderated by Toni Kan during the Ake Arts and Book Festival 2015. The issue of identity was appropriately dissected. These dissections revolved around the idea of home, nostalgia, emigration, coming back, and nigerianness. E.C. Osondu and Chris Abani are two writers whose famous works have won prizes. The book chat was based on reading from their recent books, E.C. Osondu’s This House is not for Sale and Chris Abani’s The Secret History of Las Vegas. Questions regarding identities and the associated uncertainties and nostalgia they often well up began when Toni Kan asked how it felt writing about Africa from the outside since they both were immigrant writers living in America. Chris Abani shocked the audience when he said home did not exist. He claimed home was an invention of an individual’s imagination. Home to him was anywhere an individual makes it. So writing about Nigeria was not a far-fetched thing and not something he had to belabor for. He claimed he had always been in contact with home as home was in him. He however said he visited Nigeria once in every short while and made some linguistic display when he flawlessly spoke in igbo to show for it. Again, the audience was shocked. He seemed to be an American and yet he was Nigerian. Again, this show supports Taiye Selasi when she says “Most of us are multilingual: in addition to English and a Romantic or two, we understand some indigenous tongue and speak a few urban vernaculars…. We are Afropolitans: not citizens, but Africans of the world.”

For E.C. Osondu, writing about home from the outside was easy, as he said, being outside of Nigeria made him more Nigerian. He recounted how he took places and cultures in Nigeria for granted until he was out in America. With memories laden with relishes, he relived how he often visited Fela Kuti Shrine with friends. His sadness therefore was that he did not take Fela Kuti’s music seriously when he had the proximity. He overlooked everything that made him Nigerian. However in America, he began appreciating his life as a Nigerian. He narrated how people would want to determine his nigerianness by how conversant he was with Fela’s afrobeat music. These questionings, while he was away, began making him embrace his nigerianness than he would have if he had been home. Writing about Nigeria from the outside was not a task too. He submitted that most of what made a writer were things experiences would have thought him around the ages of 12 and 13. What this presupposed was that he had enough to keep writing about Nigeria while in America. This may lead one to question the ability of experiences long gotten to capture present realities of home. Chris Abani may have answered this when he said home, Nigeria, had not changed that much. He said it was still full of the “same magogo (deception)”.

Chris Abani did not believe in nostalgia, he deconstructed the idea of nostalgia as he said he did not longingly seek for his past experiences of living in Nigeria. This should not mean he did not like the experiences. From the memories he would recall after, he loved his childhood times in Nigeria. He vividly reenacted the times he had with his playmates and how they would harmlessly make fun of his fair pigmentation by calling him “oyinbo pepper”. He posited that to be Nigerian is a way more complex identity suffused with so many experiences. He later went on to say that he did not believe in the authenticity of a Nigerian identity. According to him, he did not owe proving his nigerianness to anyone.

As regards the authenticity of an identity, he said such authenticity did not exist. To show the complexity of his Nigerian identity, he said he was a practicing herbalist and had been more traditionally inclined even when he was being forced to ‘play’ church as a kid. E.C. Osondu would disagree with the non-existence of the authenticity of an identity. E.C. Osondu gave his riposte when he told Chris Abani that in trying so hard to deconstruct the authenticity of an identity, he had become more Nigerian by doing so. This was true as Chris Abani’s show of his indigenous linguistic genius and his familiarity to the traditional customs of his roots had also serve to prove his authenticity as a Nigerian, even when he had not intend it to.

The bookchat with E.C. Osondu and Chris Abani showed that telling stories traverses boundaries and identities cannot be pigeonholed. Literature is fluid as society is dynamic.