Interview: A. Igoni Barrett

A. Igoni Barrett & Ted Hodgkinson


A.Ignoi Barrett’s debut collection Love is Power, Or Something Like That, has been published to rapturous acclaim in the US (
Graywolf
), with Teju Cole commenting: ‘Barrett’s artful, unsparing, and unsentimental stories confirm the arrival of a major talent. The reader is plunged right into the dangerous and exciting heart of contemporary Nigerian life, and would rather be nowhere else.’ As the collection is published in the UK (
Chatto & Windus
) Barrett spoke to online editor Ted Hodgkinson about the importance of writing ‘from the gut’, why the gap between ourselves and our awareness is the ‘most widespread fact of our existence’ and the role of fiction writers in the digital age.

TH: World-class writers continue to emerge from Nigeria, including Teju Cole, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Helon Habila, to name a few. Do you feel part of a generation at all, and was the death of Chinua Achebe earlier this year galvanizing or divisive for those that follow him?

I don’t feel part of a generation. It’s too soon to think of myself in such deterministic ways. Fixing the rhythm of one sentence in the novel I’m working on is more vital for me than any considerations of where I’m coming from or where my work is headed. On Chinua Achebe, all I can say is that I respected him as a writer and admired him as a man of courage.

Motherhood is an important theme in your stories, from the collateral losses that a mother may have to shoulder across a lifetime (as with Ma Bille in ‘The Worst Thing That Happened’) to the way they are rendered occasionally helpless to affect any change in a violent male world, as in the title story. Are you interested in showing us the power and strength of these maternal figures, despite the adversities they face?

The power of mothers is among the oldest themes in literature. It would be dishonest of me to say that I intended to illustrate this idea in my collection. Each day I keep discovering myself in others’ reading of my work, and that feeling, when it’s good, is really good. It just happened to sprout up again and again. I find that my strongest writing is born of subconscious preoccupations. My best ideas come from south of my head. So whatever a reader asserts I was doing in my stories is probably right. Or possibly wrong. Each day I keep discovering myself in others’ reading of my work, and that feeling, when it’s good, is really good. Ego masturbation doesn’t compare. So I’m wary of spoiling that feeling for readers by sounding off that I set out to achieve either this or that in Love Is Power. The only thing I set out to do was to show my head that I could write from my gut.

Many of these stories hinge around Nigeria. In the final story of the collection the narrator tells us: ‘The engine of Nairobi is fired by cash crop farming, oiled by tourism, steered by NGO money.’ Is part of the advantage of stories that you can illuminate a culture that has so many worlds within it?

Yes, one of the many advantages. Another advantage is that, with a collection, a story-writer can aim for the compass of a big novel like War and Peace. And not feel suicidal when I fail.

The title story features a brutal moment when a policeman beats a protester with a butchered cow leg (‘the hoof dug him in the wrist and bloodstained ligaments extended like hacked wires from the knee joint’). Your sympathy extends to all of your characters, even the policeman, but does witnessing this kind of abuse in the press and on the streets make you want to capture it in fiction?

When I read of violence in the press, or see on TV that a young girl has been shot in the head by fundamentalist bullies, or even hear my next-door neighbour slapping his three-year-old because the boy’s restless from being forced to sit indoors all Saturday watching cartoons, I don’t feel inspired to turn to fiction. That’s what I end up doing of course, because fiction is my escape as well as my job – and lucky for me I have a job that lets me express myself in any way I deem artistic. But at the moment of seeing or hearing or experiencing abuse, all I want to do is make it stop by any means. Which, more times than not, I am powerless to do.

There’s a funny story about the way that identity can be forged online, particularly when it comes to dating. Is the Internet a barely explored territory for fiction writers, rich with possibilities for characters who want to hide behind a mask of their own making?

It is a trove of possibilities. For characterization, yes, that’s obvious, and also for modernistic literary forms such as the micro story and the hypertext haiku. But the Internet also hints at the evolution of narrative styles. Only No human being has ever directly seen their own face. glance at the comments section of any contentious article published on the Guardian website and you’ll find yourself in the pages of an exciting, exasperating, hilarious and eternally unfinished fictional narrative. And regarding the fact of it being barely explored, we can only make this claim because the Internet is still new ground. New for everybody: fiction writers, commercial enterprises, national governments. But as shown by the current news cycle on Edward Snowden, that exploration is gathering speed. And fiction writers will find themselves in the vanguard.

Comedy in your stories often comes from the gap between the way a character sees themselves, or even smells themselves, and the way they are. The narrator of ‘My Smelling Mouth Problem’ is catching up on his affect on others. Is having fun with this gap what a story can do?

That gap in man’s awareness of himself is perhaps the most widespread fact of our existence. No human being has ever directly seen their own face. It’s biologically impossible – the most you can do is glimpse your nose and, for those with full lips, the curve of your upper lip. And so we only see ourselves through external sources, whether as reflections in mirrors, pixels on the screen, or words of love from a wife, words of hate from an ex-wife. That’s perhaps why we find comedy in others’ mistaken views of themselves. Because we recognize ourselves in the person we’re laughing at. To circle back to your question: having fun isn’t all a story should do with that gap. ?

Love Is Power, Or Something Like That by A. Igoni Barrett is published by
Graywolf
in the US and
Chatto & Windus
un the UK.

A. Igoni Barrett is a winner of the 2005 BBC World Service short-story competition, the recipient of a Chinua Achebe Center Fellowship, a Norman Mailer Center Fellowship, and a Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center Residency.

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