Gambit (The Art of Creating) No. 9 - Ayodele Morocco-Clarke
Ayodele is one of the most consistent Nigerian writers of the last half-decade. She’s the oldest writer in the Gambit series, although I wouldn’t want to ask her if she’s comfortable being grouped with younger colleagues. I figure that question would be answered with a wave of her hand; Ayodele gives the impression that even the most obvious of borders doesn’t exist. Meeting her in person, I was drawn to her infinite knowledge about everyone and everything in the literary world.
Her work, even more interestingly, testifies of her openness to our world, a willingness to engage with cogent essentials – she is a writer of our times, as though she is always writing in present tense.
Born in Lagos, Nigeria and descendant of kin from the West Indies, Sierra Leone and the Republic of Benin, Ayodele Morocco-Clarke is writer of mixed heritage and an award winning Solicitor and Advocate of the Supreme Court of Nigeria. Describing herself as stubbornly unconventional, she is the editor of Critical Literature Review and her written works have appeared in To See the Mountain (the 2011 Caine Prize anthology), Crossing the Lines (a 2011 anthology edited by Jackie Kay and Kachi A. Ozumba), African Roar 2010 and 2011, Author Africa 2009, African Writing, the New Black Magazine, Saraba Magazine and Sphere Literary Magazine, among others. She has a short story forthcoming in Recess Magazine in 2012. Morocco-Clarke hopes to publish an anthology of short fiction soon and is currently working on a novel.
EMMANUEL IDUMA: Do you write full time? Do you think writers who do are exceptionally lucky, maybe privileged? And is there any argument for—or against—writing full time?
AYODELE MOROCCO-CLARKE: No, I do not write full time. I write as and when the mood strikes me; which I believe is a luxury. If I do not feel like writing, I don’t. And no, I do not think that writers who write full time are exceptionally lucky—au contraire; for many, writing is a love affair—they are doing the job they would rather do above any other. However, writing is a lonely arduous task and the constant search for the muse (whatever that is/means) which often goes AWOL without so much as a by-your-leave has reduced many a strong-stomached writer into babbling quivering wrecks. Moreover, the financial insecurity that is the lot of most full time writers is not a status I eagerly covet and at the risk of being heckled, I will say that my ego cannot endure, on a full time basis, the barrage of rejection slips/letters that most writers have to deal with. I will probably be unable to get out of bed each day due to the depression that would consequentially result therefrom.
EI: So, I’m reading What Matters is the Way We Are and my first thoughts are not about taboo subjects, but something that comes to mind with a reading of Kenani’s Love on Trial—that perhaps the debate on homosexuality is the story. What did you set out to do with that story?
AMC: The story is quite simple. It is a plain love story and one might argue that it is almost formulaic except for the fact that instead of “boy meets girl; boy falls in love with girl,” it is girl meets girl and girl falls in love with girl. You would not be asking me this question if it was a boy meets girl story. When writing the story, I did not have any agenda in mind; I just decided to write about two people who fell in love. If I am pushed, I will say the story is about discovering love in the least expected places; about not seeking or searching, yet finding love. It is about fate and how sometimes not all actions and attractions are down to careful orchestrations or calculated manoeuvrings; about falling (metaphorically), knowing you are falling, yet being powerless to stop the descent and catastrophic effects you know will occur as a result of the fall.
EI: One of the things that, I think, fascinated Heinrich Boll was the idea that “here on earth we find ourselves in a waiting room.” writing could be an attempt to question longevity, to emphasize that no matter how long we’re here, we will eventually move on. Does this resonate with you? How do you think your writing can directly address the question of our joint temporality? Perhaps, ah, this is ambitious.
AMC: I doubt that any living person can dispute that, “no matter how long we are here, we will eventually move on.” This fact is a driving force in many people’s lives; in the desire to build and leave something that would last long after they are gone. It is the reason that quite a substantial number of people choose to have children. The desire to live on; IMMORTALITY. I believe that writers (particularly published writers) take this to another level. It is the dream of any serious minded writer to leave behind a body of work which will last through the ages. Success and critical acclaim in one’s lifetime is desired, but to me, the very idea that generations of people I cannot even imagine could read my work; talk about it; debate it even, is mind boggling. That long after the physical flesh has rotted away in the ground, one might still loom larger than life and be relevant is the very essence of immortality. I think of Shakespeare, whom approximately five hundred years after his demise, remains relevant, and wonder how many of the billions that have gone before him or since have managed to do the same. The idea is to do your best and leave as good a mark as you can regardless of your profession (not just writing). When one thinks of architecture, the likes of Sir Christopher Wren and St. Paul’s Cathedral come to mind. I know who Wren is because of his work, as do millions who have been to London and seen St. Paul’s. There is Newton – Gravity; Marie Curie—Physics/Chemistry. I could go on.
Unlike Heinrich Boll, I do not think that we find ourselves in a waiting room here on earth, though I do appreciate his analogy. My people (the Yoruba) say that our time on earth is akin to going to a marketplace. We come to this world to buy and sell and then we must all leave in the end. That is, there is always this hive of activity; but in the end we must all leave the market and go home. I personally would like to compare our time on earth with being on a conveyor belt of an assembly line; we start out with/as nothing, but things get added on along the way. For us, these things are our achievements; the decisions we take; the paths we choose to follow. We grow as we go along, but when we reach the end of the conveyor belt, we have to get off it. Then it becomes the turn of another toy/gadget. The choices we made along the way would determine whether we will be remembered fondly; talked about; derided etc. Might not be apt, but that’s the way I see life.
As regards whether my writing can address our joint temporality, my answer is an emphatic yes. Writers (myself included) have a special charge. Each writer is the gatekeeper of what is the sepulchre of her/his era. We hold the keys to unlock the catacombs of our time to others who were not privileged to exist in the same time and space that we have. We are the ones who over the ages have immortalised people and events. I know if people want to have an accurate catalogue of events they should turn to history and historians (who by the way are writers too), but the role of fiction cannot be overemphasised. I have read more fiction on the Biafra war for example than I have non-fiction. I am richer for having read Shakespeare, Austen, R.L. Stevenson. The Dickensian London is alive to me even when I walk down alleys and streets written about or areas covered by him in his work. I imagine life then; can see in my mind’s eye the sort of people he wrote about. He immortalised them; their circumstances; an era. I feel my writing can do the same for us and this place and time. Ambitious? Maybe; Delusional? Who knows, but I think not.
EI: I notice that in your stories there is a struggle of the personal to transcend the societal; for instance, you situate a family at the threshold of poverty, faced with the dilemma of survival.
AMC: I am fascinated by the “human condition.” By how much strife an individual can endure before she/he reaches a breaking point. The dynamics of choices, decisions and how they affect the overall outcome in a person’s life is something I enjoy exploring. Life is a perennial struggle. The struggle for survival and success; for self-actualisation. The struggle to provide for our needs and when we achieve that, the struggle for the attainment of our wants and desires. In many instances, society and the State either aids one in these quests, or frustrates one. Nigeria over the last few decades has done more of the latter than the former. Genuine success stories (and here, I mean REAL success, not the self-aggrandisement and looting extravaganza fuelled by obnoxious sycophantic adulation that has recently come to be defined as “success” in Nigeria) are records of triumphs over and despite the odds. These success stories are feats of remarkable resilience and determination in the face of general and personal adversity. It is oft said that when one is down, even a dog will piss all over you. This, I tried to capture in the opening scene of the story you refer to where a woman, who is down on her luck and forced to live under a bridge with her children, is raped and her rapist is aided by another person who waits for his turn to defile the woman. In this country of ours, there are so many times that someone with millions of Naira will, if given half a chance, deprive a downtrodden individual of his only Naira and feel no guilt at having done that. Daily, the ordinary man is immolated by an avaricious few, in a bid to assuage a greed that is clearly insatiable. Survival is not easy in Nigeria and excelling in this environment is often a herculean task. Now, as my art mirrors and/or imitates life, anyone who reads my work will find that many a time, the characters are overwhelmed by their struggles; that there is no “happily ever after” ending. I write factual stories, not fairy tales and oftentimes, I will not and do not impose a fairy tale ending just to give readers the "feel-good" factor at the end of it all.
EI: Perhaps there’s a connection between being called to the Nigerian Bar and fictionalizing? Because I often see your writing as a dialogue with immediate concerns, especially as it relates to justice, even the right to self-realization. How do you see yourself? As a Lawyer who writes? Or a writer who acquired legal education?
AMC: Neither. I am simply Ayodele (Morocco-Clarke). What I do is different from who I am. Should I stop writing today, I still will be Ayodele. If I was not a lawyer, I still will be who I am. I might decide to become a beach bum tomorrow, yet the essence of me will not change. I am, because, I am. Neither writing nor my legal profession would change this. I bring "myself" to my writing. I have [I would like to believe] a distinct voice unique to me. I might be influenced by the things around me; things I hear, see, read, etc. but these are factors which affect every human being in his/her day-to-day life. My stories do not choose me, I choose them. There are so many begging to be told that I am spoilt for choice. I will compare choosing to write a story to going to the market to buy oranges, if they are not appealing to me, I do not choose them and they get left behind. I choose only the one(s) I fancy. Like an unsatisfactory orange, if a story is not working for me, I discard it. Along the way, while crafting a story, the trajectory of a character or plot might change, but it’s me in the driving seat all the time.
All I have said about writing also applies to my legal practice and cases.
EI: Are you wary of the term ‘writer’ as I am?
AMC: I am wary of a myriad of things; thankfully the term ‘writer’ is not one of them. If per chance it is and I have mentally blocked it out somehow, it will be way down the ladder filed under heading “non-angst, but something to potentially quibble about someday”.
EI: I don’t know how far we will go with the term ‘short story’ because in an increasingly distracted world—in a world where gems are lost in the multitude of ‘contents’ struggling for attention—meaning might have to be encapsulated. Do you get what I mean? What’s the future of the short story, in contrast with the future of the novel, especially within the context of our fast-food culture?
AMC: I would have argued that the situation you just painted i.e. distraction, numerous things struggling for attention e.t.c. was a strong reason why the short story should trump the full novel in today’s technological age. I personally favour the novel over the short story, but that is Ayodele the reader. As a writer, I do not have a novel published; just short stories and a couple of poems.
EI: Of all your first lines, my favourite are “you will never again look at the blighted contraptions in the same way.” It easily reminds of how the past and the future often mingle into a complex whole. Could this be our national story—the blighted country in which we live in? Is there something about our past that is telling what we will become?
AMC: Like the story that line is taken from, I do not think that it is so much the past we have to worry about in this country as we do the present. Whilst the past has not been glorious, the present we have is showing us that those might have been the golden years. We have reached a point in our history where people are comparing our present ‘democratically’ elected politicians to past dictators and for not a few, the dictators seem to be coming out on top. We are on a directionless freight train which has faulty brakes and its throttle jammed down. If we continue on this path, most of us do not have to worry about what we will become because we will cease to exist. There has been a failure in all levels of the Nigerian society; starting from our ‘elected’ representatives down to the common man on the street. I do not know why anyone refers to our politicians as public servants when they lord it over all of us and help themselves to what is collectively ours. They should rightly be known as ‘Public Lords’; after all, a servant is accountable to his master or lord. Do you know of any of these politicians who is accountable to you or any of your peers?
EI: I think the term ‘political story’ often used in describing stories should be, necessarily, wrested of its complications. For the very essence of reaction,of any kind, or even imagination, is to tell what one has seen, felt, experienced, been angered by. I think a story always has a political element—is this true for you too?
AMC: I disagree. Whilst many stories might be political, I feel there are ways stories can be (and are) told that is completely devoid of any political element. Whilst political manoeuvrings permeate almost every facet of our lives, one can craft a beautiful love story, or a story about an incident or occurrence in the home which would be bereft of political elements. Nevertheless, let me even argue, without conceding that it is impossible to write a story without it having a political element. I would say to you that one (or a couple of ) political element(s) does not a political story make. A political story is the sum-total of the entire story not just a bit here or a drab there.
EI: Let me ask what Boll was asked: “How does a work start? What is the first thing that comes to mind? Is it an image—or a character, or a social situation?”
AMC: For me, it is never necessarily the same thing, I have started stories on all three (not at the same time of course), some start with an image, some a character, some a social situation. I even started a short story titled “The Nesbury Tree” by taking the shortest verse in the bible, i.e., "Jesus wept,", flipping it to "Mother wept" and building a story around those two words. Anything can start a story for me. It could sometimes even be in reaction to some work of fiction I read. I remember that after reading The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Moshin Hamid, I was determined to write my own end to the book in a short story form because I was so dissatisfied with the way the book ended. Then I read an article or interview in which Annie Proulx talked about how people constantly wrote her, telling her how they thought “Brokeback Mountain” should have ended, and how this was disrespectful to the author or something to that effect. That sufficiently deterred me from my “Reluctant Fundamentalist” story ending quest.
EI: And following from that, he was asked, “Does a work change from your original concept of it as you go along?”
AMC: Speaking stricto sensu, the concept never changes for me. Bits of the work may change, characters sometimes change and the outcome might even change, but the concept, once conceived and accepted as the valid basis of a story, remains the same.
EI: When you describe yourself as unconventional, what do you mean?
AMC: I refuse to conform to the everyday notion which governs the average individual’s life. I question most things I come across which interest or fascinate me and I am sometimes known to court controversy. I do not believe I should be satisfied with or accept the status quo simply because that is the norm. I do not succumb to the school of thought that because I am a woman, I should be relegated to certain roles and should be subservient to a man. Life is too short to live by some antiquated discriminatory rules which were created by a biased race and sex. Such rules had no place in the twentieth century and certainly deserve no place in the twenty-first century. Thankfully the old rule book is constantly being torn up; archaic cultures and their discriminating biases are being shaken, tested and destroyed every day. Thus, what seemed unconventional years ago is not so unconventional today, but I will keep pressing and remain unrelenting in the quest to shatter the status quo and ensure that my individuality is not submerged in the mediocre ‘proper place of a woman’ that society dictates the female species should be relegated to.
EI: In my mind, being of mixed heritage supposes being an assemblage of fragments. And then, because we are born into a world that is not one, someone like you could be termed a fragmented-fragment (permit me). How did you grow up with the consciousness that you were such a person? Or what consciousness enveloped you as a child?
AMC: I never had any consciousness that I was fragmented or a ‘fragmented-fragment’ (as you put it). Most of my family shares the same or similar heritage with me. Maybe things might have been different if I had met and related with my grandparents who could have told me stories of their heritage from various countries in the world, but they were all dead before I was born. Consciousness and appreciation of my unique heritage came later and I must say that where the Nigerian section was a front-runner before, with the way Nigeria is shaping, it has come bottom over the past few years.
EI: I think I’m interested in knowing how you relate (related) to these different cultures to which you were born to?
AMC: No different than any Nigerian who is privy to a plethora of different cultures relates to those. It is not something I go thinking about every day.
EI: There’s the idea that perhaps this generation of writers have a different need from the older generation—let’s say we attempt to talk about Adichie’s generation, what made them successful, and now close to a decade later, what can make (is making) ours successful. In this respect, we could think of "independent spaces"—blogs, twitter accounts, etc—as the tools for success. Basically, it’s the idea that sitting in my room, writing on my blog, creating my own space, I can be as ‘opened up’ as writers before me. Feasible?
AMC: Yes, very feasible. There have been quite a few successes over the years that would not have been possible before this technological age. I do not know if you have heard of Brooke Magnanti. She was a woman who became famous as a result of her defunct blog "Belle de Jour: Diary of a London Call Girl." She got a publishing deal as a result of the blog, and the blog and her books were adapted into a TV series. That is success right there; just from writing about her experiences on a blog. Stories of successful bloggers abound. Amanda Hocking’s tale of becoming a millionaire author and her success in selling over 1.5 million books is another success story. Her books were rejected by traditional publishers and being skint, she decided to self-publish and market the books on Amazon. She shattered the traditional concept of publishing and bucked the trend. The trick is to make your work interesting, vibrant and relevant; to grab your reader’s attention and not let that reader go until (s)he has finished reading what you have to say. Nowadays, the social media is integral to how we communicate and reach mass audiences: go and ask Obama and Romney. If one wants to be relevant, you must move with the times and keep up with current trends or you will become irrelevant. This is a lesson writers must learn and take to heart. My friend, Ikhide Ikheloa, has harped on about the inevitable death of the book as we traditionally know it; I am not happy that this is a possibility, but if it does happen, I sure do not want to be left behind.
EI: Yet, there is a peculiar challenge—Thomas Friedman argues intelligently about the rise of "popularism," how ours is a Baby Boomer generation, premised on instant gratification. How can we, as writers, expected to be witnesses, write in such a way that our work is not lost in the myriad of web links, in the culture of frivolity that bedevils addiction to social media?
AMC: Quality is the key. It is often hard to find a rare gem, but once found its beauty and worth does not go unappreciated. The rise in growth and strength of the internet means that people from all over the world have access to the works of many people that would never have entered their stream of consciousness previously. It is therefore up to each of us to make sure that we put out only our very best. At the same time, one must be mindful that the attention span of the average reader is very short, thus you only have seconds to make an impression; to engage the reader and ensure that (s)he continues reading what you have placed out there. Unfortunately accessibility means that millions are putting things out there every day too and it is only the quality of one’s work that would determine if it would be sifted out with the chaff. I have read and recommended stories and articles on line to friends years after they were written and similar material has been recommended to me. No one recommends trash...well, except for two reasons, viz., (i) as a subject of derision; and (ii) as a lesson used in a "How not to..." guide.
EI: Someone asked me a particularly disturbing question – why do you write?
AMC: There are writers out there who say that they write because they absolutely need to or else they would die (or some other melodramatic balderdash), which is fine for them, I guess. For me, I write because I want to; because I enjoy writing. It is something I desire doing and I will have it no other way. The very prospect of being held in a stranglehold by something or the other is perfectly dreadful and absolutely horrifies me. There is pleasure in writing for me; it brings me joy oftentimes and I believe that the day that stops being the case will spell the end of my writing life. Now, I am not that obtuse as to think that there would not be a band of “writing-is-my-whole-life writers” who would raise a hue and cry over this statement and denounce me as some imposter masquerading within their beloved profession. Oftentimes, writers take themselves way too seriously; I don’t.
EI: And to further complicate matters (the aggression of that moment I now transfer to you), he wanted to know what "transformation" I hoped my book will bring to the world. (I told him ‘transformation was a political word). So, what ‘transformation’ do you hope your book, when it is published, will bring to the world?
AMC: None whatsoever. I have no desire to transform the world with a work of fiction, since fiction is what I mainly write and that which I intend to publish in book form. When I desire transformation, especially of the unsatisfactory status quo, I write opinion editorials, academic articles and theses. Unless of course, one also considers the twin desires that – (a) writing and writers out of Africa (and I use “Africa” loosely here) are taken out of the obscure box that they have been shoved into to take their rightful place on the pedestal amongst their peers from the developed world; and (b) that the works for which I am known are deemed in their own right and on their merit as illuminating literary canon which have succeeded in opening up the lives and modus operandi of people like me who come from what is derisively called ‘The Dark Continent’, i.e. promoting an understanding that though we come from what is currently a troubled continent, we are no different from our counterparts all over the globe. We are born the same way; fall sick the same; love the same; cry the same; shit the same; have the same fears; bleed the same and die the same. We are no different—skin colour be damned. Now if I was to desire my work of fiction to “transform” anything, it would be THESE.
EI: I recall you had a poem in pidgin published in Saraba. Is there any linguistic future for this language? Could it be that it could be taught? That more and more people would realize its peculiarity? Does it even have any peculiarity?
AMC: I am a massive fan of the English language and I am one of those who bemoan the decline of the proper use of grammar and the general structure in the language. However, the English are culpable in the decline of this beautiful language. When one goes to England and observes the amount of English people who cannot string together a couple of sentences in proper order, it can be quite dismaying. This is not to say that I speak or write the language flawlessly/perfectly; however, I do try, and I am grateful for corrections when it is clear I am wrong. It riles me when I am using my PC and/or the internet and the autocorrect mechanism (whatever the right name for it is) decides that what I have written is wrong and offers the "American" spelling. That is a source of constant irritation...but I digress. Pidgin in whatever form is supposed to mean a basic simplified language mode of communication amongst people. The rise and popularity of Pidgin English in Nigeria is arguably as a result of the sheer number of people who are illiterate or semi-literate in the country. Thus, even the educated have to use Pidgin English as a form of unofficial lingua franca to enhance communication amongst all strata of society. But it has really caught on amongst the various levels, such that it is now common place to interject words of pidgin into conversations wholly conducted in English. Does Pidgin English have its peculiarity? Of course, it does. It takes its peculiarity from the languages of the regions its native speakers come from, injecting bits of those languages into traditional English to create a hybrid language. Could pidgin English be taught, you asked? Yes, it could. Should it? Most definitely not. But that is my personal view. As regards, the possibility of any linguistic future for Pidgin English as we know it in Nigeria, I would say that that remains to be seen. Time will tell.
EI: Would you like to be considered as a writer of any theme, say "city?" When I read some of your stories, I think you have a knack for social consciousness—a vibrant awareness of the human condition. Are there writers you read that make you see in this manner?
AMC: Writer of any theme, you ask? I’d rather not be pigeon-holed, thank you very much. And as regards the second part of your question, I do not go about looking for a writing style when reading books. What matters to me is that a writer can hold me enthralled; transport me from wherever I physically am to whatever plane she/he has crafted. I must be entertained by a book; I might be enlightened about something or the other. And here, I mean a book of fiction or creative non-fiction. I do not want to be preached at or have some lesson rammed down my throat. If in the course of being entertained, I do learn a lesson or two, that would be an added bonus. But believe me, if I want to be educated, I can find my way to the educational section of a bookstore or a library. Nowadays, the internet is equally expedient as a resource material. I do not need to be taught or preached at on the pages of a fiction book I picked or bought for recreational purposes. For the avoidance of doubt, "enlightenment" and "education" are not interchangeable in my answer.
EI: What books are you currently reading? And why?
AMC: For the first time in a few years, I am reading only one book in a period—F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Why, you ask? Simply because a friend brought it to my house and I realised that for some unfathomable reason, I had actually never read this classic.
July 26, 2012
What Matters is the Way We Are, New Black Magazine
Our Daily Bread, StoryTime
The Nestbury Tree, Hackwriters
The Last Straw, Saraba Magazine, Issue 4
The Problem With This Our Country, Sphere Literary Magazine
Wonderful Life...Not, Author-Me
Molue Conductors’ Argot, Issue 4b, Saraba Magazine
Cold Refuge, African Writing
Follow Emmanuel on Twitter @emmaiduma