In Conversation: Culture and Influences with Chinua Ezenwa-Ohaeto by UDE UGO ANNA

The first time I got to hear of Chinua Ezenwa-Ohaeto he had been nominated for the Pushcart prize. I was delighted to have an opening to interview him as one of the “young” Nigerian poets getting recognized all over the world. Turns out I was wrong, not about the recognition but his age.

In this interview, Chinua Ezenwa-Ohaeto, lecturer of English Language and Literature at Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka and recipient of several creative writing awards, including the Castello di Duino Poesia Prize (2018) and Creators of Justice Literary Award (2020) gives the insights into what his background as a child of a literary giant looks like and how it affected his writing.

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Thank you so much Chinua for granting me this interview. Can we begin by doing a background check? Kindly tell us where you are from. Does your locality or tribe in any way influence your kind of poetry?

I am from Owerri-Nkworji, Nkwerre in Imo state. That makes me Igbo. And yes, my tribe or locality has some influences in my writings, especially poetry. The influences come in the form of ideologies, history, folklores, identity, culture and language. I have been exposed to the aforementioned well enough, and with my writings I question the things I don’t understand about them, the things I feel that need our close attention and the things because of innovations, developments and equity need changing or adjusting.

Now that we are talking about your childhood, I saw in a column on Frontier poetry magazine that you grew up between Germany and Nigeria. When did the move to Nigeria/Germany happen?

Yes. That’s true. I wasn’t born in Germany. I was born in Nigeria. Though Germany was where I met my sister. My only and lovely Sister, Nnedi Ezenwa-Ohaeto Okoli. I was little during the move between Germany and Nigeria. I started writing at 14 years old or thereabout. Then we, my family, were already settled in Nigeria.

Tell us, have you ever written poetry that is ‘close-to-home’? I mean poetry in an indigenous language?

A good number of my poems are about home and my society. Things I have observed around me. I have not written such as you said, poetry in an indigenous language. It’s not that I cannot do it. But I lack the complete intricacies of my language. This is what I am ashamed of. This is majorly the issue caused by the society and the Government. Now, look at our schools, children are flogged for speaking their languages. Indirectly, these schools make children feel bad and inferior if they can’t speak or write in English. We need to look into this issue and strike balance. If we don’t, we will have big language problems in the future. Language is part of identity. My parents tried so much during my upbringing to see that I understand Igbo Language and its intricacies. They made sure I spoke Igbo often and told me stories about the Igbo. But you know our school system. In my primary school I was punished for speaking Igbo. Everything was in English. My mum and dad made Igbo our home language. Everything being said, I haven’t written any poem in Igbo.

Just so this interview is not so formal, I can’t speak my language too. I’m Efik-Ibibio and Ogbia. I cannot say a word in Efik but I know phrases in Ogbia and try to piece phrases together.

Alright. I speak Igbo well enough.

Now that the topic is centered on tribe and locality, it’s wise to bring up what happened some time ago. I was conducting research and was to find out about Imo State as part of the Niger Delta. Turned out I was not the only one making that error of omission.

Yes. You weren’t the only one. This is the doing of the Nigerian government. To be specific, Imo state was only included as part of Niger Delta when Olusegun Obasanjo was the president of Nigeria. Though, if history wasn’t removed from the school curriculum, we should have known this and other information about Nigeria. The educational system here is a playground. The Nigerian geopolitical/geographical classification is also a playground.

Now that you know you’re Niger-Deltan, do you think the stereotypes about the Niger-Delta are true?  How do you feel knowing that you are not exempted from the umbrella of these stereotypes?

I really don’t know there were stereotypes about the Niger-Delta.

Really! You’ve heard nothing about militancy, underdevelopment and the likes?

Are those stereotypes or regional problems? We know the geopolitical/geographical classification is a mistake. That already said, I am sure about the oil spillages. Most of the places in the real Niger Delta are underdeveloped due to struggle of its oil ownership and control, though the country is underdeveloped in general. The militancy aspect is a conflict between foreign oil corporations and a number of the Niger Delta’s minority ethnic groups who feel they are being exploited, particularly the Ogoni and the Ijaws – this saw the death of the environmentalist, Ken Saro-Wiwa.

True. It is true that people have formed stereotypes around these regional problems. Folks outside of the Niger Delta, most of the time, think everyone from the Delta is not as ‘exposed’ as they are. Still, let’s move on.

This information is new to me.

Have you gone on any literary pilgrimages?

That’s new. Or is that another way of referring to literary events and festivals?

Not at all. Have you ever travelled to the birth place of an author, poet or literary legend? Alexander Pope, maybe.

Oh. That’s what that’s called. Thought as much. No, I haven’t. Have you?

No, I haven’t. I’m Nigerian. ??

And a Nigerian in Nigeria is asking a fellow Nigerian in Nigeria about literary pilgrimages. Well, I know people visit the birth place of Woke Soyinka and Chinua Achebe and perhaps, other writers. But they do it out of adventure or something related. The country’s Education system is like a madman’s everyday life.

Speaking of festivals, what literary festival do you look forward to every year?

At the moment, I wish to not answer this. Let’s not talk about it. There’s a lot to it.

Do you come from a literary background?

Yes I do and more. My late father, Prof. Ezenwa-Ohaeto was a great scholar, critic, short story writer and poet. My mother, Prof. Ngọzi Ezenwa-Ohaeto is also a scholar. So you can tell the amount of books that surrounded me when I was growing up.

Wow! That’s a huge legacy to live up to. Now tell us, were you asked to go read your books all the time?

No. I wasn’t. When you see things around you often, you explore them. When you see people reading around you often, you learn to read.  When you see people talk about books, you talk about books too. When you see people appreciating books, you appreciate books too.

Two more questions now. Are you a full time writer? If yes, how do you monetize your craft? If not, are there times you’ve wished you had stayed doing your profession?

In Nigeria, you can’t be a full time writer. You will die of hunger. The government doesn’t inject any fund into literary festivals or literary magazines or creative writing. Just nothing. The few ones managed by individuals are not enough. We don’t have anything like MFA in Nigerian Universities. That’s why you see most Nigerian writers leaving for places where they are appreciated.

I wouldn’t argue with this at all. Finally, how does it feel to be a very young Nigerian poet with works on almost every renowned publication?

Oh. I didn’t even know I am very young. Seeing my works on renowned magazines makes me feel appreciated and that my works are projecting my intentions.

Got anything to say about the challenges you’ve faced and the amazing people who helped you out or the brilliant things you did that helped?

We face challenges everyday of our lives. To appreciate the people who help me, I will have an endless list. I am grateful every day to the people in my life. It is great that people keep to their craft. And be open to new ideas. Make good friends who help one another.

To wrap this up, tell us, if someone were to gift you a self-care package, what would you want to get? 5 items only.

1. Grants and Editors to complete my collections 2. Free Membership card to an online library 3. Number one again 4. Number two again 5. Food

Hopefully someone sees this and sends you a self-care package. Thank you so much for your patience and time.

Thank you!

Thank you so much for reading. Go find and follow Chinua Ezenwa-Ohaeto on his social media handles (@chinuaezenwa for twitter, @_chinua_ for Instagram) to stay updated about his latest publications. See our poetry column for his poem, “What I Said to God” that was first featured on Frontier Poetry.

Bio

Chinua Ezenwa-Ohaeto (@ChinuaEzenwa) is from Owerri-Nkworji in Nkwerre, Imo state, Nigeria and grew up between Germany and Nigeria. He has a Chapbook, The Teenager Who Became My Mother, via Sevhage Publishers. His works have appeared in Poet Lore, Rush Magazine, Frontier, Palette, Malahat review, Southword Magazine, Vallum, Mud Season Review, Salamander, Strange Horizons, Ake Review, Crannòg magazine and elsewhere.

ABOUT NUNRITECINE

Nunritecine is a digital storytelling platform on the Niger Delta exploring, expressing and redefining identities and stories through literary, art, culture and film lenses. We are a community of young and devoted creative artists passionate about distorting narratives and changing perceptions about the Niger Delta.

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