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The City and the Writer: In Lagos with Okey Ndibe

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


Can you describe the mood of Lagos as you feel/see it?

Despite losing the title of capital to Abuja in 1991, Lagos remains Nigeria’s most vibrant, complex, and compelling city. A first-time visitor might mistake Lagos for a city trying too hard to make a spectacle of itself. But Lagos is at once a gumbo of spectacles and absolutely at ease with itself. It brims, whenever and wherever you look, with drama. Do you crave comedy? Then step into a Lagos pub and see the most hilarious variety of comedy. You yearn for a bloody, MMA-grade fight? Just stand for a few minutes at a bus stop and you’re guaranteed to see more than a few good brawls. If your appetite is for theater, why, tarry at a traffic intersection and watch a shaggy-haired madman take charge of controlling one of the most maddening traffic jams you’ve ever seen. If you want a zanier brand of theater, head into one of the mushrooming, American-style prosperity churches. You’ll behold people—eyes shut, heads upraised, faces contorted into weird inhuman shapes—kicking, stomping, and punching invisible demons, their bodies aquiver with impious rage, lips muttering a thousand and one indecipherable tongues at diarrheic velocity. Do you wish for an amazing meal? If you have deep pockets, and want to “dine,” there are exquisite but expensive Japanese, Italian, Mexican, Thai, etc., etc. restaurants to splurge on. Or if you’re low-budget and want to “eat,” you can have your pick of bukas, shacky street-side establishments. Buka meals are so tasty they should be illegal, but they’re not for the squeamish. Odds are the eatery is right next to an open gutter chock-full of rank, brackish water. But next to the promise of spicy, finger-licking good food, why on earth would anybody demur or complain?

Lagos epitomizes contrasts: opulent real estate owned by its parvenu juxtaposed with sprawling slums. There’s a permanent, in-your-face exhibition of the city’s dysfunction—its snarling traffic, its unplanned streets, the (in)human composts of its slums. Yet for the devoted resident or patient visitor, there’s a deeply alluring quality about Lagos. A friend of mine, a former West Africa correspondent for the Financial Times, once captured the city’s spirit in an anecdote he shared with me regarding the essential difference between Nairobi and Lagos. In Nairobi, he said, he had to turn stones and peek around all corners for news. In Lagos, by contrast, he merely had to stand in front of his apartment to behold an amazing parade of news. I’ve never known a quiet city, but Lagos has a peculiar brand of energy, a particular kind of electricity, and a tempestuous way of being unquiet. It’s tempting to describe Lagos as a city of colors; but the fuller truth is that its cityness is sensual. Lagos is a fascinating kind of orchestra: seemingly wild and chaotic and poised on the edge of anarchy, but bound together by its own strange kind of magic and order and inner logic.


What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

About twenty-nine years ago, just before I relocated to the US, a friend and I “squeezed” into a taxi that already had three passengers, one in front, two in the back. As the car pulled away from a bustling bus stop, the guy in front suddenly let out a bloodcurdling scream and turned to face us. In his hand was the most terrifying dagger I’d ever seen. “Bastards,” he shrieked at my friend and me, “hand over your money!” As we reached into our pockets to surrender our wallets, the two guys to our left, his accomplices, kept giving us blinding backhand slaps to the face. With one hand we tried to retrieve our wallets, with the other to protect our faces from the relentless sortie of slaps. Once they had dispossessed us, the taxi driver pulled to a stop. Our assailants ordered us to get out and run in the direction the car had come from, and never look back. The memory still fills me with fury.


What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

For all its surface restlessness, Lagos and many of its inhabitants have a deep and abiding hunger/affection for the arts—drama, poetry, fiction, fine arts, fashion, indeed for the broad harvest of activities that exemplify sublimity and aesthetic taste.


What writer(s) from here should we read?

Lagos is so rich with writers that I consider it a form of heresy to make a list at all. So I must apologize beforehand for the incompleteness of my list. Some of the city’s most perceptive chroniclers and fascinating minds in fiction, essays, and poetry are Toni Kan, Olajumoke Verissimo, Odia Ofeimun, Adewale Maja-Pearce, Tricia Nwaubani, Maik Nwosu, Uzor Maxim Uzoatu, Helon Habila, Victor Ehikhamenor, Kunle Ajibade, Akin Adesokan, and Yemisi Aribisala.  


Is there a place here you return to often?

It used to be Bar Beach, the part of Lagos that first and most deeply enchanted me. Bar Beach—which inspired B. Beach in my first novel, Arrows of Rain—was the gathering place for all kinds of adventurers: swimmers; seekers of romantic thrills; pickpockets; palm readers; and hawkers of beer, grilled fish, marijuana, and everything in-between. It was also the haunt of white-clad Aladura prophets and prophetesses who danced in the sands, the froth of the rushing waves fizzing around their unshod feet. It was one such prophet who once tried to sell me something called “Touch-and-follow”—a love potion that, by mere touch, was supposed to win me any woman I fancied!  

Bar Beach was my place of recurrent pilgrimage—until some entrepreneur dreamed up a scheme to snatch a swath of the ocean’s erstwhile real estate for the most opulent of Nigeria’s rich. The once bustling beach has been filled up with tons of sand, and a new, swanky, Dubai-like city is sprouting from space where the mighty ocean once shimmered and reigned.

And I used to visit Fela Anikulapo-Kuti’s “Shrine,” a mecca of music fused with activist rhetoric. But Fela, a musical genius and fascinating human, is long dead. Even though the Shrine abides, it’s not the same thing for me without its founder’s larger-than-life presence.


Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

I wouldn’t use the word iconic, no. But Lagos has some indispensable addresses where writers and other aesthetes congregate. Terra Kulture is one of my favorites, but there are also Jazzhole and Quintessence.  


Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

Absolutely. The slums of Lagos, Ajegunle being one of the oldest and most frequented by me, can seem like locations unfit for human habitation. I don’t mean to romanticize poverty, but there’s a vitality, elasticity of humanity, and cooperative cement I find in Ajegunle that’s not matched by what I’ve encountered anywhere else—and certainly not in the affluent sectors of Lagos.


Where does passion live here?

Within the family, no question. And also in the many spaces and forms of community that people create in order to temper or ameliorate the anonymity, invisibility, violence, and other maladies of cityness.


What is the title of one of your works about Lagos and what inspired it exactly?

My first novel, Arrows of Rain, is set in a city I call Langa. But every reader familiar with the biography of Lagos recognizes, from the first page, that I’m limning a thinly disguised Lagos. And as I remarked earlier, the opening scene is my homage to Bar Beach.


Inspired by Levi, “Outside Lagos, does an outside exist?”

By its very character, its impulse for expansion and transformation, Lagos suggests that the inevitable answer is yes. Cities are forever changing shape, reinventing themselves. I’d say Lagos does this more than most cities I’ve known intimately. Each time I return to Lagos, I discover that the city has shifted and changed in remarkable ways, in space and time. This constant, unrelenting redefinition of its own boundaries provokes the idea of an outside that is also in dialogue with Lagos—an outside that, in some ways, helps to feed, fertilize, and vitalize Lagos.  


Okey Ndibe is the author of two novels, Foreign Gods, Inc. and Arrows of Rain; and a memoir, Never Look an American in the Eye: Flying Turtles, Colonial Ghosts, and the Making of a Nigerian American; and coeditor (with Zimbabwean writer Chenjerai Hove) of Writers Writing on Conflicts and Wars in Africa. The New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Cleveland Plain Dealer, and Mosaic magazine named Foreign Gods, Inc. one of the ten best books of 2014. The novel was also included in National Public Radio’s (NPR) list of best books of 2014. Book Riot named his first novel, Arrows of Rain, one of one hundred must-read debut novels. Ndibe earned MFA and PhD degrees from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and has taught at Brown University in Providence, RI; Trinity College in Hartford, CT; Simon’s Rock College in Great Barrington, MA; Connecticut College in New London, CT; and the University of Lagos (as a Fulbright scholar). A fellow of the Black Mountain Institute (BMI) at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Ndibe is the 2017–18 Viebranz Professor of Fiction at St. Lawrence University in Canton, NY. He served as the founding editor of African Commentary, a US-based international magazine published by the novelist Chinua Achebe, and was an editorial writer for the Hartford Courant, where one of his essays, “Eyes to the Ground: The Perils of the Black Student,” was chosen by the Association of Opinion Page Editors as the best opinion piece in an American newspaper in 2000. Another essay, “Unwarranted Graphic Authentication,” was named the 2001 best opinion piece by the Connecticut chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Ndibe’s writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Guardian (UK), BBC online, Al Jazeera online, La Repubblica (Italy), the Financial Times, the Fabian Society Journal (UK), and the (Nigerian) Daily Sun. He is currently working on a novel titled Native Tongues

Published Dec 18, 2017   Copyright 2017 Nathalie Handal

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