An Endless Pursuit of a Perfect World:
A CONVERSATION WITH RASAQ MALIK GBOLAHAN
Rasaq Malik Gbolahan is a graduate of the University of Ibadan. His chapbook, No Home In This Land, selected for Chapbook Box edited by Kwame Dawes and Chris Abani, has been published. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Colorado Review, Crab Orchard Review, diode, LitHub, Michigan Quarterly Review, Minnesota Review, New Orleans Review, Prairie Schooner, Poet Lore, Rattle, Salt Hill, Spillway, and elsewhere. He won Honorable Mention in 2015 Best of the Net for his poem Elegy, published in One. In 2017, Rattle and Poet Lore nominated his poems for the Pushcart Prize. He was shortlisted for the Brunel International African Poetry Prize in 2017. He was a finalist for Sillerman First Book for African Poets in 2018.
When did you know you had become a writer?
Well, I think the reality of being a writer transcends the conscious self. We are aware of the fact that we write, but we also dread the possibility of being not enough to be in the public gaze, to say we write, because writing is an endless pursuit of a perfect world, and we must, always, continue the task of gifting the world our words till death comes. Even when there are bombs breaking walls, children rendered homeless, the work of a writer continues through his/her ability to bring to the fore the realities of the world.
In secondary school, I was fascinated by the mind-stirring use of diction displayed in the poems of Kofi Awoonor, David Rubadiri, John Milton, and others. Through their poems, I discovered the aesthetics inherent in poetry. I became aware of how poetry serves as a veritable medium through which we can communicate to people, a medium through which we can ferry our ideas and thoughts to the world. In SS2, I wrote my first poem—an elegy for late Gani Fawehinmi. In what turned out to be a product of my juvenile creative life, I held it closely to my heart, but soon I lost it. In my first year at the University of Ibadan, writing poetry became pivotal to me as I started documenting my experiences and the happenings around me. I became intimately drawn to a lifetime of devotion to poetry. I would read and write, and most times I would attend literary readings. In 2018, ABPF published my first chapbook, and in 2020 Konya Shamsrumi published my second poetry chapbook. These successes do not signify my arrival; rather, they point at the continuity of working religiously toward writing more important poems.
No Home in this Land has been described as “an irresistible investigative poesy.” What inspired this collection of poems?
As a writer, I feel one of the fundamental tasks we must execute is to react to our collective daily woes and failures in a besieged world. I started writing about the insecurity problem ravaging Nigeria as far back as 2011. In 2012, I found myself reading news about bomb blasts in daily newspapers, and sometimes listening to news on the radio. The heart-wrenching happenings in some places in the Northern part of the country inspired the poems in the chapbook. Over the years, Boko Haram insurgents have relentlessly launched attacks on innocent people in the north. There have been recorded and unrecorded casualties, and life has become extremely unlivable, owing to the fact that people are scared to return to their houses, because they know they could be bombed anytime. In writing the poems in the chapbook, I was transported through grim events that have destabilised the peace in these places. In one of my poems, I commemorated Abu Ali, a young, gallant soldier who was ambushed with his colleagues by the insurgents. Apart from Abu Ali, a lot of soldiers have paid the supreme price by being killed in the battlefield. Last year, two soldiers from Iseyin, the place of my birth, were killed. News about poor facilities in IDP camps and the incessant rape of victims of Boko Haram are terrific highlights of the failure called Nigeria. These sad events culminated in the writing of the poems. They birthed the aches that permeate the verses in the chapbook.
How was growing up like for you, and how did your Iseyin background influence your art?
Growing up was solitary for me. I spent my days with my mother who was always busy with searching for the means of our survival, and on school days, I always returned home after the bell rang. That was the routine till I graduated from primary school. Nothing changed in secondary school, except the fact that my academic performance improved rapidly. I would spend my days reading, and at nights, my mother would tell stories about her life and the indigenous books she read during her formative years in Igbo-Ora. In Iseyin, I was offered the pristine cultural beauty that shaped my cultural understanding. I enjoyed the pastoral sensibility it presents at each returning. The festivals, the songs, the chants, the communal power, etc. introduced me to the resources pertinent to me as a Yoruba person, and as someone whose passion for culture is undeniable. Even when I hardly found my feet outside, I learnt a lot from listening to people talk about Yoruba traditions, about past events that birthed heroes/heroines and legends that we return to in our history books. In our parlour, my father had a shelf stacked with books. I remember flipping through pages of TELL magazines, and one thing that tugged my curiosity, always, was the pictures of a pickup and a tiger that adorned the back of the newspaper. There used to be an advertisement against smoking cigarettes, and to my little self, I couldn’t fathom everything they wrote, except the pictures that piqued my interest. I started drawing, and I would draw pictures of people in the books I found in his shelf. Alawiye, a popular Yoruba textbook also helped me significantly as I started learning. The stories and poems in the book taught me more about respecting the elders, the virtues of hardworking, the need to be honest in all my dealings, the importance of being a good student, etc. Sadly, we lost a huge amount of these indelible books to the past. These days, I chant for people. I chant to celebrate people’s birthdays, and I also co-founded Atelewo, an indigenous literary journal. Sometimes people ask me what I studied in the university. I studied Literature-in-English, but my love for Yoruba started in Iseyin. My love for poetry began in the four walls of Blue Crescent International College, Iseyin. Thus, I owe a lot to this place that nurtured my becoming.
If you could be anything else asides being a poet, what would it be?
It would be a teacher, or a Yoruba newscaster. In Ibadan, I have taught in three different secondary schools. I taught for four years. In my first year at the University, I taught in a secondary school at Ado Awaye. In a way, I have spent years of my life teaching, and it is quite possible I return to the classroom soon. Also, in the future, it is possible that I start a Yoruba program on any of the radio stations in Ibadan. All I have craved; I have tried to achieve. My dreams are leaning on the edge of hope, and I hope that as long as I breathe, these dreams, In sha Allah, will become realities.
Over time, I have developed a grouse with self-publication, and in a 2017 interview with Blueprint, you echoed my thoughts when you said writers should not be in a hurry to publish. What do you feel about self-publication? Would you advice it to the emerging writer who wants to push out their first book?
I wouldn’t stop writers from pursuing self-publication, if that is what pays them. I agree that publishing a book is a significant step for every writer, and it should be handled diligently. In a country like ours, it is uncommon to see young writers craving the stage of publication. They desire the noise that a new book attracts; but before and beyond this ephemeral celebration, there are salient things to note about publishing. One has to look out for a publisher whose interest in one’s work is beyond publishing alone, because at the end of the day, books need to be marketed. People have to buy books, because that contributes to the success of a writer. One of the problems of publishing in Africa, especially Nigeria, is the unavailability of these books across places. A published book needs to be available, unless it is out of print. Thus, one can self-publish and still find it difficult to promote these books. This is one of the ways a publisher can help a writer. Being in a hurry to publish shouldn’t force one to self-publish. Like I always say, the success of a writer is not hinged on the number of books he/she publishes, but the quality of these books, the impacts of these books. I have read writers whose books continue to surprise me in the most sublime way. I have read books that taught me how to interact with language. These are things that we should consider as writers.
The Other Names of Grief. What inspired this project, and what was your writing routine like?
The unrest happening in Nigeria. The killings. However, what I did differently in this chapbook was my attempt at infusing love verses into the poems. In a country like ours, love has to be a conscious effort. The grimness of life is enough to mask the little rays of hope we have. Also, I write anytime. I love being in a quiet place. It offers me that grace to think about a lot of things.
You have been described in many quarters as a Yoruba culture enthusiast, and this has good bearing in your art. Do you feel African writers should take it upon themselves the propagation of their culture, ethics and beliefs in their works?
Well, I think it depends on what a writer wants. Starting out as a poet, I read a lot of African writers, and this influenced my exploration of thematic preoccupations. I have read poets like Niyi Osundare, Akeem Lasisi, Tanure Ojaide, J.P. Clark, etc. These writers invested heavily in propagating African cultures in their works. They rendered our cultures and traditions in their works. Reading Niyi Osundare is equivalent to touring the African landscape, especially the landscape of Ikere-Ekiti. The beauty of nature and the light of cultures are seen through their verses.
How would you describe your brand of poetry?
I write in free verse.
What would you say have been your biggest achievement so far in your career as a poet?
The publication of No Home in this Land, my first poetry collection. There is a poem in that chapbook titled In Another World. The poem is about a father’s fear of losing his children to unrest in a war-torn world. It is the vulnerability of our children to danger. This poem has travelled far across the world. Sometimes, I receive messages from people about how intensely they love the poem. On digital platforms, I have seen videos of this poem. I have read reviews of this poem. People published it on their blogs. I remain grateful that this poem succeeded. I never thought that I would have a poem out one day, speaking to people, inspiring conversations.
Do you think Nigerian literature is gaining ascendancy?
Yes, Nigerian literature is gaining ascendancy. Since pre-colonial period, Nigerian literature has successfully marked itself. Books like Amos Tutuola’s Palmwine Drinkard and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, remain, till date, a groundbreaking proof of the brilliance of Nigerian writers. Both home and abroad, our relevance is notable. Our writers are doing quite well outside the country. Think of literary platforms and you’ll meet Nigerian writers there. We owe a lot to our homeland, and to places that have inspired us, too. Every year, the number of award-winning books written by Nigerian writers is noteworthy. Think of Nigerian writers abroad, and their books, and what they have achieved through writing. In this digital age, there are manifold opportunities online. Writers are becoming more attuned to online media and the resources they can deploy to revamp their literary lives.
What could you say is the biggest bane poets in Nigeria face?
Publishing in Nigeria is quite hard. To many poets occupying the digital space, resorting to sending works to journals seems to have replaced the quest to publish in print. Also, some of these journals are paying journals. If they get published in a paying journal, they will be paid, too. Here, I think we need more Nigeria-based journals to publish our works. We need to establish more literary prizes in Nigeria. I understand there are other prizes on digital space for Nigerian writers, but we need more. We need vibrant and devoted literary prizes. This way, writers will get to be rewarded for their works. It is OK if we have Nigerian journals that pay writers. Agbowo and Olongo Africa, two from the literary journals making waves online, are paying journals. Emulating these journals is not a bad idea.
On a wider scale, what would you describe as the biggest pitfall African writers and African writing face today? Would you agree our problems are more internecine than are external?
Over the years, I have read essays that critically engaged the problem of African writers writing in the west and for the west. I have read how African writers covet western prizes, and how they worship western people. Well, I think we have to pay attention to the things triggering these issues. Home, to many, does not provide formidable platforms for writers to strive. Personally, I don’t blame those who patronize the west. We can’t all stay back at home and bleed to silence. I have friends attending MFA schools on full scholarships. African writers need to be celebrated. They deserve to be accorded the kind of honours and accolades they shower writers in the west. Before we accuse these writers of crossing over to places where their language is not known, we must ask ourselves what we have done at home that will inspire them to stay back. Recently, Atelewo, an indigenous literary journal I co-founded with Oredola Ibrahim held an event in Ibadan to celebrate Yoruba writers who submitted for our literary prize. The finalists came from different parts of the country. A man, who was also a finalist, told us that in his career as a writer, he had never received an award before for his writing. In a country like Nigeria, writers pass through the rigour of survival despite their importance in our society. It is a shameless thing to say outside. We need to address these disturbing issues.
You were shortlisted alongside other African poets such as Romeo Oriogun (Nigeria), Nick Makoha (Uganda), Saddiq Dzukogi (Nigeria), and Sahro Ali (Somalia) among others for the 2017 Brunel International African Poetry Prize. How was this victory for you? Did that validation help your reception and visibility?
I was shortlisted for the prize in a year swarmed by doubts. I had submitted in the past years with no success. However, I never surrendered to loss. I felt I could be selected one day. Thus, I didn’t stop submitting. When the mail came in, I was overjoyed. It felt so good to be shortlisted. As a writer, we can’t displace the place of prizes in our career. We always crave the light that winning a prize brings to us, and the sudden publicity it offers. But the thing is that to attain that stage when this kind of acceptance and celebration will come, one has to devote time to writing. Like I do tell my friends, there is no shortcut. When I was shortlisted, I became known to people whose idea of my life was little. I entered into a space where my name was passed from one mouth to another. This helped. But it is also temporary. Last year, I and Gbenga Adeoba, one of the past winners of Sillerman Prize, discussed extensively about prizes and the short span they have. No matter the weight of validation that accompanies each prize, I think the greatest prize is the remembrance of our works by readers. I mean, not only how far our works travel, but also the space these books occupy, the impacts felt by people who read these works. Sometimes in the streets, I meet people who call my name. They mention that they read my poems on Facebook. I feel they have learnt one thing or the other. I feel this is what I crave: people reading my work, creating their own worlds and dreams from my poems.
What advice would you have given your ten-year old self?
As a ten-year-old boy in Iseyin, I was probably staring at the birds touring the sky, or watching some children play football in a field. Now that I am in the last phase of my twenties, I would love to advice my ten-year-old self to still be that boy staring at the birds touring the sky. I would love to remain innocent, untouched by grief. At ten-year-old, I knew nothing about grief. I didn’t lose anyone to death. I didn’t witness my mother cry in my presence. I never had to fear that the next hour could be the end of my life.
What new writing projects are you working on at the moment?
I keep returning to my unpublished poetry collection. I am particularly interested in the success of language, in the strength of each poem, and how the poems drive through the pages with their messages. More than before, we need words that speak to us in the most tender way. We need healing, and I believe words—poetry – is a panacea to our wounds. Also, I have some non-fiction pieces that I am working on. I hope to send them to journals soon.
What book are you reading now?
I am reading Fugitive Atlas by Khaled Mattawa. It is a new collection of poems, and Mattawa is one of writers initiating pivotal conversations through his passionate chronicling of the events happening in today’s world.