Iquo DianaAbasi writes prose, poetry and scripts for radio and screen. Her book, Efo Riro and Other Stories was released in January 2020.
An avid student of human nature, Iquo’s writings explore social themes, pain, love, womanhood and trials of the griots of this age.
Her first collection of poems, Symphony of Becoming, was shortlisted for the NLNG Nigeria prize for literature, and the ANA poetry prize; both in 2013. It has also been shortlisted for the Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature.
She is an alumnus of Fidelity Bank’s International Creative Writing Workshop, and was writer in residence at the Ebedi International Writers Residency.
Her poems and essay are forthcoming in African Literature Today. Her other writings appear in Kalahari review, Saraba magazine, ANA Review, AfricaInWords and Olisa.tv. She has also been featured in several print and online poetry anthologies.
Iquo is known to perform her poems with a touch of Ibibio folklore. Stages she has graced include: Lagos International Poetry Festival, Ake Arts and Book Festival, The Big60 Cultural Exchange, Wole Soyinka @80, Lagos Black Heritage Festival, The Macmillan Literary night, PLAY Poetry Festival, Word Slam, The Lagos Poetry Festival, and more.
Iquo is passionate about the environment, and spreads the message of sustainable environment through various activities with the not-for-profit organisations Beach Samaritans and CATE (Children and the Environment).
She has engaged in several radio drama projects targeted towards communication for social change, with the African Radio Drama Association, since 2011.
Iquo resides in Lagos, where she has just completed work on a novel, and a second volume of poetry. She also edits Omenana, a speculative fiction magazine.
I first found out about you some five months ago when I discovered your collection of short stories titled Èfó Rírò and Other Stories. The title was fascinating to me, and I drew my allusions to it, however subjective they were. Tell us what inspired that title.
Èfó Rírò as you may know is actually the name of a vegetable soup which is native to Western Nigeria. The name connotes a mixing or stirring of vegetables. It is also the title of one of the short stories in my book. The book title is actually inspired by the fact that the stories in the book represent a sort of salad, a mix of personalities, situations, struggles and triumphs of everyday Nigerians.
You’re very versatile. You’re a scriptwriter, editor, poet and critic. Your versatility is evident in your dabbling into short stories with the Regium-published Èfó Rírò. In a sense, you deviated from your poetry here. How are you able to blend these skills together to build you oeuvre?
Blending these skills requires constant learning, and improving upon one’s skills. It also requires that one has the discipline to compartmentalise, and to be faithful or true to whatever art form one is handling per time. It is a most delicate balancing act for me, and I do not joke with any one genre or activity. I have to always find the discipline to follow slightly different rules when writing prose, and another set of rules when writing for radio – which is basically writing for the ear. Different rules, too, when writing poetry. However, I will be honest and say that poetry is still my first love.
In a 2016 interview with WORDUP 411, you had mentioned some of the emotions that influence your art, your poetry. Can you throw more light on that?
In that interview, I mentioned pain, hopelessness, love and hope. Today, I will say that there definitely is still pain in my work. But in place of hopelessness, there would be a restless yearning for a solution, a way out. Hope is definitely to be found in my writing now. There is resilience — we will not give up, as we say: We die here! And there is love. This, I believe very strongly, is our essence as human beings. Love for life, love for nature, love for other human beings, and love for our country. Love, definitely!
I perceive African Literature is taking a bold step away from Africa and into other unknown, distant lands away from home. There is a sort of Diasporic feel to a lot of African works today. What’s your take on the movement of 21st century African Literature? Is there a movement at all to you?
For a long time, there has been the attempt by African writers to produce literature that will appeal to many, and particularly the markets in the West. The West presently has more opportunities for writers; they have prizes which many Africans scramble for. They have schools that are more respected for their MFAs. Very few institutions in Africa do MFA in Creative Writing. So, I don’t judge writers who appear to be pandering to the tastes of the west. However, what I see now is an attempt by more writers to tell African stories, with no shame or inhibitions. More of us are daring to try new things; have bits of dialogue in our indigenous languages appear in our books, write whole stories in pidgin – like I did in Èfó Rírò. Even in genres like fantasy and science fiction, we have many more writers engaging in African Speculative fiction, and blending what we know as folklore or even urban legend, into fiction.
For the Diasporic writers such as Teju Cole, Chika Unigwe, Helon Habila, Taiye Selasie, etc, I feel it’s more of an ideo-geographical shift more than succumbing to telling Western stories. It’s more of these African writers situating their works within Western contexts while still discussing African issues. Don’t you think?
As regards telling tales about other places, I think it’s a matter of choice the manner in which a writer decides to express their creativity. I’m not one to try to dictate who or what one writes about. Writing about an African and their experiences in the Diaspora may be as exciting and engaging as a story about a European and his experiences in Africa; it all lies in the beauty of the story, and the skill of the storyteller. I believe the more varied the stories we tell, the better for our creativity.
We must realise also that when an artist moves away from home, there is often the pull of home, an almost unbridgeable longing, and that attendant nostalgia often pushes them to write about home. This may or more not be a calculated activity. Sometimes it could also be a matter of writing about what one is more familiar with.
You were born in Uyo, the capital of Akwa Ibom state. How does place have an influence on your writings. Has your origin had any profound impact on your artistry, your ideology?
Funny you should ask. I’ve been in Lagos since I was four. I missed Uyo so much I used to dream of it several nights in my childhood. I missed the folklore and proverbs that my grandfather shared with us children. I missed the fruits which couldn’t be found in Lagos. I always remembered the folksongs of my people. The ones I heard whenever I visited at holidays, and on the occasional television programmes. I missed the dances of my people; I only saw a few during Christmas in Lagos. I missed the masquerades. Maybe these were the things that pushed me to incorporate Ibibio folksongs into my poetry performances. In my stories I also reference Ibibio sayings/proverbs, and every so often I write characters that are of Ibibio extraction. Yes, Place has some influence on my writing, when I visit a new town, I am struck by landscapes, monuments, the people and their ways – these also find expression in my writing
Symphony of Becoming. What inspired this book?
This poetry collection was a coming of age collection for me. A number of the poems in Symphony of Becoming were very personal and heartfelt. Others were a response to situations I saw around me. It was a collection that strung the threads of the different shades of my Becoming. It was my breaking forth, and was inspired by a number of things, but primarily this: I had set forth amidst challenges, lack, and sometimes disdain, and still, I was ready to soar!
Would you have chosen to be anything asides being a writer? You studied Industrial Relations at the Lagos State University. Had writing always been at the fore of your interest?
I had always written one thing or the other even before I got into University. But the other thing I would have loved to do is Mass Communication – I would love to go into radio presenting.
Back to Èfó Rírò, tell us the relationship between food and Literature for you.
Food is life. Literature is life. This is Gospel – the gospel according to a foodie, who happens to be a writer! (LOL) I love food, and I like good stories. Without meaning to, I often find a way to add food to my writing. I mean, what is life if people do not eat, or crave food? Or starve? Or get into trouble on account of food?
Chuma Nwokolo blurbed on Èfó Rírò that your prose “…has a fluency and assuredness that makes for compulsive reading, with a euphony that betokens her poetic pedigree.” Would you agree your background in poetry influenced this work?
I guess so. I mean, it’s difficult to hide the metaphors, or mute the finer sensibilities, or to erase the cadences at play when I describe things and people in my stories.
We witnessed recently the rise of the Nigerian youth against police brutality and gun violence perpetrated by the federal Special Anti-Robbery Squad (FSARS). Unfortunately, this culminated in the October 20th Lekki killings in Lagos where soldiers opened fire into the crowd and killed a number of the peaceful protesters. What role does the writer play in this social trend?
A writer can write about/condemn the ills in society, of which police brutality and bad governance are but a few that we face in Nigeria. A writer can share information to his/her numerous followers on different platforms. A writer can protest, or create awareness where they cannot physically protest. We can be activists on the streets, as well as on social media and on paper. The writer is a member of society, and that in itself instills the moral responsibility to be the conscience of that society. Creativity can and should be a tool for engaging leaders, for educating society, for galvanising change. Together we move!
2020 has been quite problematic, troubling and hellish for many, writers inclusive, with the global Coronavirus pandemic. Many took advantage of the lull to work on areas of their lives and mend broken pipes. Wole Soyinka had mentioned he used the free time to write up his soon to be published novel. Would you say this period gave you an opportunity to write more, be a better artist and person?
2020 feels like half a lifetime already, I must say. Yes, I wrote some. But not as much personal stuff as I’d have wanted to write. I did some work on radio dramas and then wrote some poems.
This year is also the year my baby passed, so it was quite trying; especially as the Coronavirus hit Nigeria at about the time of his passing. Grief doesn’t always culminate in immediate productivity for all creatives. But as the months passed I took time to rework a poetry manuscript, as well as to make plans for a historical novel which I would love to write soon. One thing though — 2020 gave me ample time for introspection, time to reevaluate who and what is priority, and time to take more decisive steps to be more giving, more considerate and generally, a better human being.
Do you have any word for the young African writer today?
Dear Young African writer,
Read. Learn. Write. Be unafraid to try new things. Be bold in your storytelling; you have a right to be here, as much right as every other writer. Hold on to this belief and spring forward with your tales. Read. Read. Read. Write your stories, rewrite them, read some more. Do not short change yourself by assuming you can do this journey without also seeing how others before you did theirs. Read wide. Expand your world view. Not to sound like anyone, but to be a better you, a you worthy to be read and loved, for the sheer insight you can bring to the most mundane things.
Your heritage is beautiful, be proud of it. It is one thing that can ground you, like earth, and help you grow. Read, attend workshops. Improve yourself. Keep writing.
Are we expecting any new work from you soon?
Depends on what your definition of soon is. I do have two manuscripts ready, one of which should be out within a year. I am my own greatest/worst critic, so, it takes me a while to agree that a work is ready to be seen by others. But this poetry collection has been bubbling for too long. It should be out soon. The novel, I don’t know yet, we’ll see.