Doing Life and Literature: An Interview with Ikhide Roland Ikheloa

January 14, 2024
11 mins read

By Darlington Chibueze Anuonye

Tuesday, October 17, 2023.

Over the years, Nigerian critic and writer Ikhide Roland Ikheloa (main picture: in glasses) has been consistent in his advocacy for the recognition of the internet and social media as platforms that house authentic African narratives in the twenty-first century. Ikheloa’s childhood was coloured with books, especially titles published in the Heinemann African Writers Series, from which he experienced the fascinating beauty of narratives. Reading books by African writers like Chinua Achebe was one of the exercises that saved Ikheloa from the trauma of the civil war that ruined the newly independent Nigeria.

After earning a degree in Biochemistry from the University of Benin, Ikheloa moved to the United States of America where he proceeded to study for an MBA in International Management at the University of Mississippi (OLEMISS). Since his relocation to America in 1982, Ikheloa has worked as an education officer, activist, radio presenter (Radio Kudirat), journalist, literary critic, poet, and memoirist.

The social and political challenges in Nigeria as well as his migrant experiences are some of the issues that have heavily influenced Ikheloa’s writing over the years. Some of his works appear in journals like Guernica, Independent UK, Eclectica, African Writer, and the defunct Next Newspaper. More of his writings are archived in his personal blog –xokigbo.com. Ikheloa has also been consistent in his advocacy for the recognition of the internet and social media as platforms that house authentic African narratives.

In this interview withDarlington Chibueze Anuonye, Ikheloa talks about his life and works as well as offers useful insights into the works of other African writers.

Darlington: Hi, Pa. I’m drawn to your name Ikhide Roland Ikheloa. Names embody cultural heritage and also speak to the reality of human civilization. The name is the origin of all things. But even that origin has a history, the narrative from which it derives and upon which it relies to express itself. What is the meaning of your name?

Ikhide: Our names are markers of the many rivers that run through us, accurate pointers to all our anxieties, traumas and triumphs. Where I come from, they are often prayers, wishes, and/or proverbs and missiles directed at allies or adversaries as appropriate. In my ancestral land, your paternal grandfather or his proxy attends to the solemn duty of naming you. Ikhide is my first name and it literally means “I will not fall,” or “I will not fail” or “I will always be victorious.” I think it’s a beautiful name that bears the burden of the dreams of my paternal ancestors. Roland, I found in my birth certificate. I think I know what happened. In those days we had a book of English names, my parents must have chosen Roland from that list. I am the oldest of ten children, and as the youngest of my siblings were born, it fell to me to pore through the tattered pages of that book and suggest a name for them.

I am proud to say I must have named at least five of my siblings. Ikheloa is the ancestral surname of my paternal forefathers and has been handed down from generation to generation. It literally means “I await you at home.” The poetry of the name has ironically quenched my curiosity about the origin and context of the name. I was born in Lagos, where my dad was a policeman. This awesome event occurred two weeks after the death of my paternal grandfather. The Yoruba in the barracks thus, christened me “Babatunde,” the old man is back, something I quipped about in my essay, “Cowfoot by Candlelight.” 

I am reading a really good bookMy Seven Black Fathers by the Nigerian American Will Jawando in which he interrogates the context and struggles that birthed his names William Opeyemi Jawando and when, how and why each name is used. You should find that book and read it. In the Catholic boarding school I attended, the priests also christened me “Roland” and that name has stuck ever since. I prefer it to “Fat Head,” which Mr. V. O. Thomas, my English literature teacher, christened me. In retaliation, I married his wife’s beautiful niece.

Darlington: Your transition from “Fat Head” to in-law is amazing. Your story reminds me of D.H. Lawrence’s elopement with his former teacher’s wife, Frieda. But I suppose that the blow you dealt to Mr. Thomas is not fatal, unlike what Ernest Weekley endured in Lawrence’s hands.

Thank you for introducing me to Jawando. I have read a number of reviews praising his memoir highly and I look forward to reading the book. Isn’t it sheer serendipity that we are talking about the delight of Jawando’s self-search today being the third anniversary of Toni Morrison’s induction into the comity of ancestors? I remember Morrison as Henry Louis Gates Jr. wants us to, the writer whose novel,The Bluest Eye, sparked  “the women’s movement within African American and African literature”, a writer who became the subject “of essays, reviews, books and dissertations” with greater speed than “Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin,” an editor who “continued to publish texts by black women and men, from Africa, the Caribbean, and the United States” and whose role “led to the burgeoning sales of books by black women.” It is possible to see from Morrison’s work and her relationship with Chinua Achebe and other early African writers just how remarkable African and African American literary ties were in those years. As a Nigerian who has lived in America for about four decades as well as an informed reader of African and African American literatures, how significant is the alliance between African and African American writers today?

Ikhide: There has been and continues to be collaboration among African and African American writers within literary communities and in academic circles. Many African American scholars of literature have been instrumental in literarily rescuing young African writers from the hell that is many African nations and offering them warm nurturing spaces in America. I applaud that and we must encourage even more collaborations so that our stories can be told. African American authors have the privilege of access to a robust publishing industry, and necessary resources. We could use their help.

Morrison, as you know, had an abiding fascination with Africa, her stories were infused with African mythology, history, etc. She made special efforts to meet and collaborate with writers like Wole Soyinka, and read many books by African writers. Here’s a really goodpiece that curated Morrison’s work and how it aligns with Africa. Morrison was not the only one. I have a video clip of Gwendolyn Brooks holding forth on the genius that was Okot p’Bitek. I wonder if the younger writers do much reading of this depth anymore. Anyway, my point is we need more of this.

As for Mr. Thomas, I loved him until he passed. He was one of the people who turned me on to stories and the opportunities of traveling the world in books. I wish he didn’t call me fat head.

Darlington: Speaking of young writers and the depth of their reading, I think that it is possible to measure the profundity of an author’s reading through their writing. And this, the measurement of the aesthetic and the ideological values of a text subsumed under literary merit, is the responsibility of the critic. For the literary scholar Ben Obumselu, the literary merit of creative texts is measured by how the texts “stand in relation to other works in the canon, what major resources of language they exploit to deliver their meaning, how they allude to and signify upon other works in the canon, and what they say or fail to say to enlarge the meaning of human experiences.” As a critic of African literature, what do you consider the defining qualities of excellent literature?

Ikhide: It depends. What is the purpose of literature, especially with regards to Africa? My view is that African narrative needs an extreme makeover. African writers are still attached to the pre-colonial tools that birthed African literature as we know it. A cultural revolution is coming that will wean us of the orthodoxy and toxicity of much of what passes for African literature. Another wrinkle that offers possibilities is technology. How can we use technology to create our narrative? I smile when our thinkers lash themselves to alien canons. If alien canons are the asymptote, we will never get to the promised literary land. We must create our own canon and celebrate it. Until we find the courage to be as insular as our western counterparts, much of what we will be writing would be mere mimicry. We need bold writers.

We have no bold writers. We do have innovative writers but they lack the structure, and more importantly the self-confidence to execute their vision. The future of African literature is not in books, but in the new media proliferating on the internet. Imagine if the music industry was still using the cassette as the medium of choice. We are making incremental progress though, who would have thought that Bob Dylan would get the Nobel Prize in literature? We need a real revolution, not merely incremental change.

There is a method to my madness. I have stayed away from specific prescriptions because I don’t want to force African literature into a box, that would be against everything I have fought for in the past two or so decades. It is counterintuitive. The creative process is stifled by the abundance of rules and structures. That, in my view, has been the tragedy of contemporary African literature as exists in books. I think that the MFAlienation of our writers has tended to produce stilted, clinical and soulless narratives, given the unique circumstances of African communities. We are told not to write the very sentences that give the African reader goosebumps because these alien rules say so. I say, learn the rules, and break them. Every one of them. As a reader, I want narrative to speak to me, organically, to reach for the sum of my experiences and tell me a story. I want three dimensional characters, and I am not just talking about living things. I was reading a book the other day, and an office was literally a character. That’s awesome. When the white man writes, he writes for himself. He’s very insular. Our writers should develop the same self confidence and be insular.

African literature is more than what obtains in books. This is a very central point to my advocacy. Many people are on social media writing right now. They are not aware they are writers; they think they are readers. That morphing of boundaries, the call and response, the real-time dialogue between the reader and the writer, that makes online narrative three-dimensional is missing in books. Thinkers like you should get out of the box of traditional thinking and expand the definition of literature from what obtains in books to the universe of where African readers and writers are. Books are still important because unfortunately that’s where writers are, even though most young African writers avoid them, preferring digital contents which they can afford, and which engage them. There are of course some books I would read again,Things Fall Apart by Achebe,Dreams of my Father by Barack Hussein Obama,Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie,Son of the Houseby Cheluchi Onyemelukwe, etc., because they contain some of the attributes I have alluded to, and because they are authentically African. When you readThings Fall Apart, it’s as if you are reading in Igbo. That takes creativity, if not genius, to achieve that.

Darlington: It feels so refreshing to have Onyemelukwe on your list. When I readSon of the House, I was struck by the tenderness of the prose. The novel is an eloquent testament to the complexity of the human condition, our capacity for good and evil and how, when confronted by such strict patriarchal burden that Nwabulu and Julie found themselves in, even the best of us could become captives of their cherished desires. It is striking how Nwabulu and Julie, two women apart in age and class, are united by a past forged, on the one hand, by the cruel loss of a son and, on the other hand, by an illegitimate possession the same son? Such was your own delight in Onyemelukwe’s literary achievement that in yourreview of the novel, you likened the linguistic exploits ofSon to Achebe’s attempt to nativization of the English language. What is your relationship withThings Fall Apart and Achebe?

Ikhide: Achebe was at the vanguard of the women and men who wrote under the aegis of Heinemann African Writers Series. He was fond of saying thatThings Fall Apart is not the only book he wrote. He would also share that he wrote books for his children because the books on the shelves at the time were not written for his children. We were all his children. And he and his fellow writers wrote for us. In those days, you read for entertainment. There was precious little else to do. I remember days spent trudging the streets, going from bookshop to bookshop looking for newly released books. Achebe spoke to me in his use of the English language, how he appropriated it as if it is Igbo, and I marveled at the depth and nuance of the words inThings Fall Apart, how I would notice something new each time I read it again. I consider Achebe one of my three fathers and said so in this in the essay “My Father’s Cupboard.”

Let me say it again, Onyemelukwe wrote an amazing book. She quietly and confidently rode the waves of change in the way she adapted the English language to carry the enormous burden of her story. I am proud that the points in my review of her book were affirmed by readers and the literary community. She certainly did not italicize Igbo words in her book. We need to do more if that: disrupt toxic orthodoxy.

Darlington: Permit me to ask a personal question. How is BigLion? It is such a wonderful relationship you have with the dog. Anyone who follows you on Facebook will have no doubt about the central space BigLion occupies in your home. Growing up, my family had a goat, Agnes, with whom we shared a similar relationship. Agnes had her first kid the minute Nigeria scored her first goal during the 1996 Argentina vs Nigeria Olympics final match. Agnes inspired my short story. How did BigLion come to mean so much to you?

Ikhide: BigLion identifies as a ferocious lion, please. I have had a complicated relationship with animals as pets, growing up, and as a parent. These misadventures have been the subject of a number of essays, notably “For Fearless Fang: A Boy and his Pet” and “Good Night Ginger.” BigLion was a serendipitous addition to our family. Our daughter had got her as an Emotional Support Animal to help her through the trauma of a horrendous car crash in 2018 that almost killed her. He was particularly helpful and comforting. My early memories of BigLion are of him at the foot of our daughter’s bed watching over her quietly. When my mom passed away in 2019, our daughter loaned him to me to help me with the grieving process. I don’t remember the details, but we have been inseparable since then. Our daughter says I stole her dog. BigLion is a lion. She should go and look for her dog.

My bond with BigLion is mysterious in how intense it is. With all due respect to those who love me dearly, no living thing has loved me as much as BigLion. We are together nonstop. He sleeps in our bedroom and his favourite activity is sitting at home with me for hours, doing nothing. Sometimes, I think my late great mother’s soul resides in him and is here to comfort me through what’s left of my life’s journey.

Darlington: Let us end here with the joy BigLion brings.

Ikhide: Thank you, Darlington.

Darlington Chibueze Anuonyeis a creative writer, essayist, editor and scholar. He has been published in a variety of publications, including thenewblackmagazine.com and brittlepaper.com. In 2021, Anuonye wasawarded Amplify Fellowship by CovidHq and the MasterCard Foundation; longlisted for the 2018 Babishai Niwe African Poetry Award; and shortlisted in 2016, by the Ibadan Poetry Foundation for its inaugural residency. He is currently a PhD researcher at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Picture: Shola Adenekan..

Doing Life and Literature: An Interview with Ikhide Roland Ikheloa

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