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This is Weird…I Grew Up In A Dust Bowl In Nigeria

October 19, 2009

An Interview with Inua Ellams 

inua ellams 1

Inua Ellams and I are doing something quite unconventional in the back streets of Shoreditch…

We are both pressed for time so we are doing an intense interview in 20 mins as this is all we have to spare. After having just watched him perform at the brilliant Writer’s Block evening, we walk and quick fire question and answers, down the quiet streets of Old Street whilst I am armed with a poncy dictaphone. Inua is an evocative, visual wordsmith, a product of immense continental movement and cultural crossovers where Nigeria quite happily chats to Ireland, and London looks over lovingly. This is the product of our foot pounding and hyperactive gurning.

Sheena: How did you find Writer’s Block tonight then?

Inua Ellams: Like an orgasm man it was brilliant, just all over the place I felt like, baptised in all of it I was like [high pitched] ‘ahhhhh’

Ew! Are you er, is that the kind of response you’re used to (!)

I’ve performed here before, it was fun!

What brings you back?

What brings me back is Felicia, she’s a nice girl I can’t say no to her, she gives me the eyes and then I’m like ‘OK’

How did you get to know them?

Well Felicia, it was crazy, I had just broken up with my girlfriend, or I was seeking for girls or something like that and I was at Remedy and there’s this tall, black young lady in front of me –

She is pretty tall.

So I was just kind of dancing minding my own thing and then I turn around and I see [Felicia] and I’m like ‘woow’ and then we begin talking and she knows me, she knows my name and she’s seen me do stuff around, then blah, blah, blah she said she has Writer’s Block would I like to come down and I said I’d check it out then I was like ‘cool’ and that’s how I met Felicia.

And how did you start writing then?

This is a very long conversation.

Give us the edited down version, seeing as we’re only walking to Liverpool Street.

One of my best friends who I discovered literature with was Steven Divine –

That’s an amazing name.

Yes it is! Steven and I used to argue about literature, about poetry and about everything and one day Steven committed suicide and then I started writing because I lost the person I most I was most alive with through literature and through words. So that’s the very short edition, it’s much longer and more, I guess, poignant then that.

I’m so sorry. How long ago was that?

I think I was 16, 17 at the time. It was back in Dublin.

…. Have you written any poems dedicated to him?

Hmm – mm, I wrote this poem which begins: ‘Dear God’ and it’s almost a letter to God, but through Steven just talking about I don’t understand what happened but I’ve never read that poem out, I’m not sure why.

It’s probably too personal, something just for you,

Hmm, I’ve never tried to commit it to memory, I wrote another one I guess directly talking  about what happened and um. Yeah, I’ve tried to do that twice. Yeah.

What’s your writing process like?

Because I grew up wanting to be a visual artist and specifically that. When I first write what I see is images and, two different objects clashed together and I think how I want to present that to an audience and I throw different narratives and ideas to it until something sticks and then I tease it into a longer thing. So it begins with an image and I think my work is visual.

Yeah you can definitely get that. Especially from the 14th Tale, you can get that – it’s very evocative… How important is Nigeria to your work? Or the memory of Nigeria, or your Nigerian heritage.

Well it is the focus of my work but essentially the more I work, the more I read, I consider myself more a citizen of the world, I know how pretentious that sounds.

I say that to fob boys off!

[Laughs] It’s who I am really,  I mean Nigeria is important for my because it’s who I am. I don’t like how Nigerians are picked on across the world, they have a negative image across the world. I’m used to proving myself again and again, so I like that challenge. ‘Ohhh you’re Nigerian’ and I’m like ‘Yeah, so fucking what.’ It is important as it’s my standpoint, it’s where my philosophy begins and where it ends, but it’s ever breaching, wide and spanning. So.

inua first award

You impressively won an Edinburgh First Award –

This is true.

For those of us who don’t know what the hell that is, can you briefly tell us what it is and what it means to win it.

The Edinburgh Fringe First Award is awarded by the Scotsman and it’s for the best – one of the best performers or plays or shows that takes part in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Usually they award maybe 15, so 5 a week across the Festival and it’s extremely sought after – none of which I knew and considering there are 3000 performers and roughly 2000 shows, even to be shortlisted –

Is incredible.

Yeah, so to actually win one is nothing short of a miracle. Again none of this I knew, when my producers informed me that I won a Fringe First I just remember laughing and thinking ‘yeah OK that’s cool’ –

Is there any money!

Yeah! Exactly! I swear my reaction was that! I went to the ceremony to pick up the award, there was 600 people rammed into this beautiful auditorium, they called my name and I kind of slouched onto the stage, scratching my head, looking at the audience. And just laughing at myself, and the audience started laughing and there was this circular laughter going around. I gave the worst acceptance speech of my life.

What did you say?

My very first words were this is weird! I can’t believe I grew up in a dust bowl in Nigeria and I met these two women who are the owners of Fuel and it felt as if they grew up with me all my life and suddenly I am here and I throw about this ridiculous life and you guys are giving me an award for it and its strange and just dazzling.

What’s your favourite poem?

Oh that’s quite –

Or like – actually people ask me stupid things like ‘what’s your favourite book’ it’s like choosing between my children.


Or which one do you return to?

It perhaps is the one that made me realise that perhaps I am a writer. It’s by Saul Williams.

What’s it called? What’s it about?

I don’t necessary remember titles of poems, it’s just lines. And the poem begins:

‘Children of the night
Only some will star the sky
Only believers in death will die
And fathers must feather
the wings of women
For the unfeathered masses                                                                                                                                                                                                       
dangle ridiculous
Carrying crosses to phalayx filled tombs’

and it just goes on and it’s this rip-roaring metaphor for our times about who we are for the future and the past, all gorgeous and ahh.

If you could describe yourself in three words, what would those three words be?


Nothing is coming! I don’t know, just the basics: Man, Boy, Child.

Ooooh! That was deep… And pretentious!


Whilst trying to be extremely simple at the same time…What trait do you despise in others. And what trait do you despise in yourself.

Honestly I hate hypocrites, but I’m not sure if I do. It’s the contradiction in me. I’m a little bit scatterbrained sometimes. What traits do I hate in people? I don’t like being betrayed, I kind of, open my heart to complete strangers and I wait for them to make me distrust them before I begin to distrust them. So when people do that I really fucking hate it because I try not to do that to people. That I hate, what do I dislike about myself? Sometimes… because I’m so scatterbrained I don’t pay close enough attention to my friends. And I have this thing where I can have vibrant friendships and be really intense with people and suddenly it disappears and it goes. And I’m crap at following up on friendships, so I can know people for years and they can just remain acquaintances more than actual, actual friends, that’s what I really, really despise about myself and I don’t know how to change it.

Which poem was the hardest to write for your book?

… Probably it was the last one that I finished: ‘Alice in Never, Never Land.’ It was about a friend, who I kind of fell in love with and nothing happened between us. Alice is a friend of mine who lives in London and I wrote it and gave it to her just before she left London for a year .So she was in a plane when she first read it, and she was just crying into the book and she was away for a year. And it was difficult to write because I was being completely honest with myself and it was hard. And I remember I broke up with the girl I was with at the time to go out with her and she was like “no, I don’t really want this” and the thing is I love her intensely, she’s one of my closest friends, and to this day we call each other up and we speak. I mean, I’m her back up husband and she’s my back up wife, but it’s completely platonic now.

What’s the response been like to the book, Thirteen Fairy Negro Tales?

To the book? The book came out when I was 19, 20 –

And you’re now forty five million years old and it’s still sold just two hundred!!

[Laughs] The original book has sold 25 hundred copies and the reprint has sold two hundred and ninety nine out of three hundred and thirteen. But that’s because I wanted to sell to people rather than for them to get it from the website as it has the more personal interaction and they are all numbered.

inua graphic art

Where are you going to take the graphic art and the poetry?

Ah the graphic art. I’m probably going to write a graphic art poetry novel, or a graphic poetry novel. I think I’m probably going to end up doing something like that. I really, really wanna write really beautiful poems and illustrate them, to sell them as pieces of art or as postcards. Or create a postcard pack.

Money maker! Cha- Ching!

However, this is just a brainstorm, I’d like to do it from the point of view of an inanimate object. For instance a doorknob writing to the Landowner about y’know the tenant. I’ve also come up with short stories for kids, about a boy who is being bullied intensely and eventually he goes out one night, after beating up the bully in his school and he’s so angry and he’s so raging he gets struck by a meteor. But instead of dying he learns how to fly.

A bit like The Little Prince, kind of.

Yeah! So I’m going to write that and illustrate it as 23 short poems or postcard poems and illustrate it.

inua now playing

You have 30 seconds I want you to tell us why we should go and see The 14th Tale.

You should see the 14th Tale because if you’ve ever been born you will find something within yourself within the story. It’s funny, it’s true, it’s honest, it’s sincere, it’s about growing up, it’s a coming of age story and it’s true and it’s poignant and it’s brilliant. And I wrote it, and I’m there. It just shows the power of – I feel like I’m blowing up by own trumpet here.

No but you’re supposed to.

OK right. You should see The 14th Tale because it shows the power of transformation and of transportation. It’s one voice in a tiny black room and in it you visit Ireland, you visit my great grandfather, my grandfather, my father, me and my son.

(Really high pitched and happy) You have a son!


Oh metaphorically!

No not a son, son, dude. I keep that shit locked down!

You wrap that shit up!


 [Hysterical laughter from the both of us, when we should know better]

inua book



Go and see the incredible Inua at the Arcola Theatre in London. Now. Go on.

19th – 31st October (exc 25th):

BAC, Lavender Hill, London, Sw11 5TN
8.30pm | 020 7223 2223

4th November:

The Drum, 144 Potters Lane, Aston, Birmingham, B6 4UU
7.30pm | 0121 333 2444

5th & 6th November:

the Albany, Douglas Way, Deptford, London, SE8 4AG
7.30pm | 0208692 4446

25th November:

Croydon Clocktower, Katharine Street, Croydon, CR9 1ET
7.30pm | 020 8253 1030

27th November:

Merlin Theatre, Bath Road, Frome, BA11 2HG
7.45pm | 01373 465949



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