AN INTERVIEW WITH A VERY PROMISING TALENT
By Shaun Ajamu Hutchinson
Monday, February 08, 2010.
Describing twenty-something Inua Ellams as a writer probably limits the range of his expressive powers. Currently working on his third book – intriguingly entitled - Candy Coated Unicorns and Converse All Stars, the performer uses visual art, spoken word, free verse and theatre techniques as part of his much travelled show The 14th Tale.
Already well-received in arenas as diverse as the Latitude and Glastonbury Festivals, and to the intimate Battersea Arts Centre, the autobiographical 50-minute piece now gets a 10-show airing at the decidedly upmarket Cottesloe Theatre at The National in London.
It looks set to be a busy year for the articulate and intense young Nigerian who counts Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Shakespeare, Keats, Saul Williams, graphic design, and hip-hop amongst his many passions. Following the success of his acclaimed first work Thirteen Negro Fairy Tales - published in 2005 – the softly spoken self-confessed geek is also working on a play anticipated for an autumn airing at The Soho Theatre.
Ellams shared some of his views with me on audience participation, writing and printing with Brother toner, travelling, numerology, his influences and other subjects.
How're preparations for show - it’s a step up into a more prestigious venue?
It’s OK. I'm just literally going to try and just tell the story as I have everywhere else really; whether two people turn up or two hundred. I’m going to try and focus on delivering the tale with as much heart and truth and soul as I can. We are looking at different ways of staging the play. That’s always the critical thing.
What’s the reaction been like at different venues and festivals? I read somewhere that you enjoy an interactive atmosphere and environment to perform in. Has it been as you expected?
Yeah. I mean those comments that I made were referring to when I was just travelling. When people have come to see the play they just come and listen. There has been one time whilst doing The 14th Tale when a gentleman came and proceeded to fall asleep from the onset and fall asleep very, very loudly! Other than that everything has been perfect. People who have come have really liked it. I guess I achieved what I wanted. I wanted to write a longer play that people would want to come to and expect to sit down and listen to something quietly.
You’ve taken it to large festivals such as Latitude and Glastonbury, to more intimate spots like The Drum in Birmingham and London’s Arcola Theatre. Do you prefer the small intimate spaces or the bigger venues?
Really, honestly - I prefer smaller venues; an intimate setting. The instant response when people can physically [be] moved by the influence of a good poem. I can actually see their faces, their mouths drop, or their eyes light up, or where they nudge their boyfriends and say: ‘I know exactly what he means’. That’s what I love. In a huge crowd that becomes lost. I definitely prefer intimate audiences to huge ones -for that reason I am probably never ever going to be successful!
How did you end up in Dublin, and what were your impressions of that city?
That’s a long story. The small version is that my father got offered a job; when I went there I was 15. That was after spending three years here in London. I arrived here [London] from Nigeria when I was 11. When I went to Dublin I was the only Black boy in the whole school and I was faced with this dilemma: the weight, of drowning under the expectations of being an ambassador for the whole of Africa - or just being myself. I was confident enough to do the latter, and the instant I made that decision I began to swagger around a lot more. I put a chip on my shoulder and the chip on my shoulder became a bridge, a shield, a wall that I put between myself and the rest of the world. It was as much for my mental well-being as it was to equip me with the self-belief to do whatever I wanted to do. When I returned to London I realised that a lot of Black males in London they walk around with a swagger. I think it comes from having to prove yourself again and again.
There’s a stereotype of Nigerian parents wanting their children to pursue academic endeavours – what are their perceptions of you as a writer?
From my family I think it was borne of love and also borne of worry. They weren’t really sure about this and they didn’t understand what I was doing. It wasn’t until they came to my book launch and saw this room rammed with poets and I read some poems and got an incredible response. It was only after that happened that then my parents began to understand. After that happened and I began to make some sort of money from it that they understood and [it] made sense in the context of this western society.
How did you start in writing?
Yeah there were certain other factors that determined that. There are times when I feel as if I am supposed to be doing what I’m doing. There were times I spent just on my own, where I had no one to talk to and had lots of ideas, and had time to read…and reading history, philosophy... bits of me would take bits of characters from two completely different novels and have them talking in my head. Borne from that was the idea of language and the interplay between people and other voices...all of that set me up for doing what I’m doing…so though I haven’t been to university or studied literature or studied poetry I know a little bit about life…so ultimately that is what I write about.
Who are your writing influences; what do you prefer - poetry or prose, will you move onto novels or other fiction?
Shakespeare. We can’t get a way from him and his prevalence. He was one of my greatest influences. Living in Dublin he was one of my greatest and most literature important friendships. Also John Keats, the new romantics, Saul Williams, Ben Okri, Mos Def, Talib Kweli. I have described myself as the love child of John Keats and Mos Def.
Do you prefer writing or performance and how did the performance poetry evolve?
I prefer the writing. I would happily I sit down in front of my laptop, or a piece of paper for hours. Writing is why I live. [There is] nothing more perfect, more right, more glorifying than when you actually say what you want to say, the way you want to say it. As to poetry and performance - I just remember writing poems and showing them to a friend of mine ...and this guy gave me a CD of Saul Williams’ first album… I listened to this and said: ‘wow; he put out an album and people actually go out and buy this’.
I had an interest in hip-hop and philosophy, [and] poetry. Then from Google searching poetry in London and finding out there are things going on; after two months of going down to this poetry event sponsored by Nii Parkes I plucked up the courage to do one poem. This lady whispered to me: ‘I really, really like that’ - that was the first rush of sharing and giving something of myself. Instantly I was hooked. Nii took me under his wing and gave me my first slot. Things took off from that; I published my first book [and] it became a best seller. Things began to slot into place.
Why the title…Thirteen Fairy Negro Tales; and what’s with the numerology with The 14th Tale?
I wanted to stand on a couple of people’s toes - to be controversial. And also again it came from a mental standpoint and from my experiences travelling around in London; and in the world and viewing myself as a citizen of the world [no matter how pretentious that sounds]. At the same time I like fairy tales and I wanted to write contemporary fairy tales from the point of view of an immigrant; and that is where the concept and the voice came from.
I chose the number thirteen because it’s a taboo…on The 14th Tale [I was] building on the foundations and showing a progression in the language and mindset.
What’s the rest of the year hold for you; any more books to be published?
The text of the play [The 14th Tale] is being published by The National. As well as that I’m working on my next work to be called Candy Coated Unicorns and Converse All Stars. At the same time I am working on my next play for The Soho Theatre for the autumn.
Shaun Hutchinson is The New Black Magazine's arts editor and a London-based freelance journalist.