An Interview with Writer-Professor, Dr. Ogaga Ifowodo

[Article by Robbie Fraser]

When I first met Dr. Ogaga Ifowodo it was in a small class room on the campus of Texas State University where he works as an English professor.  I was his student, and at the time I could not have been less enthused about it.  My pessimism was rooted in the prospect of a semester spent grappling with the course topic – writing poetry.  I had been late to register that semester, and having few options with most classes already full, I decided with heavy reservation to enroll in Ifowodo’s class.  At this point, I hadn’t read much poetry, and certainly had never taken up the task of writing any poetry myself.  As he started his first class, he asked who among us was “passionate about poetry.”  I was one of the few who kept their hands down.  Yet, as the semester continued, Ifowodo’s own passion began to chisel away at my initial disinterest.

My interest was piqued further over the course of the semester as I heard brief mentions from classmates and other professor’s about. Ifowodo’s background.  I learned he was an established poet.  A civil rights activist.  A political prisoner.  His class had my attention, and I soon found myself eagerly reading every assignment, eagerly writing my own poems, and when the semester eventually ended, my study and writing of poetry did not.

Thus, when I first learned that Ifowodo had ventured into the realm of fiction via the publication of his short story, “The Treasonable Parrot,” I was intrigued.  Before the story’s recent publication in the 72nd edition of the acclaimed literary magazine Agni, Ifowodo’s creative work had been focused entirely in poetry.  He is the author of three award winning collections: The Oil Lamp, Madiba, and Homeland and Other Poems, all winners of prizes administered by the national association of writers in his native Nigeria.  He was now entering a different realm; a realm he points out during our subsequent interview, that every poet, with few exceptions, aspires to find success in at some point.  I wanted to see how he might fare.

Robbie Fraser is an associate editor with Synchronized Chaos Magazine and may be reached at robbiedfraser@gmail.com.

It seemed a natural transition.  Ifowodo’s poetry has a strong narrative quality.  “We put order on chaos.” He tells me.  That basic task remains the same for writers of poetry and fiction alike.

The result of his effort to do so in fiction is a compelling, semi-historical, and at times comical work that is a genuinely interesting read.  It is the story of the aftermath of a botched coup attempt during the second run of military dictatorship in Nigeria, and over the short course of around ten pages it manages to provide a slice of commentary on the state of a nation whose history is fraught with political instability.  The main character, Colonel Akalo, is effectively developed for the story’s purpose; a tall and vitally important task in short story writing.  The colonel is a military intelligence officer bent on uncovering the secret of a coup that not only nearly succeeded but had also been sponsored by a civilian business tycoon.

As an interrogator, Akalo manages to serve as the typical arm of a military dictator, while having enough of his own eccentricity to make him unique.  His interrogation of the “treasonable parrot,” which Akalo believes has overheard information from the coup plotters, is comical, yet never so outlandish that it doesn’t feel somewhat realistic.  And this applies to the story as a whole.  While clearly fictitious, the story’s ability to ground itself in Nigeria’s historical context adds to its overall effectiveness, and sets up an excellent ending.

But the story’s strength is more than the simple product of a skilled writer.  Before coming to the United States and continuing his studies at Cornell, Ifowodo was a direct witness to regime changes and the devastating effect of oppressive government.  They were events that he did not watch passively, and which he still feels passionately about today.

Although he may now freely speak his mind on the subject, he was not always able to do so without knowing that those in power may attempt to silence him.  While working with the Nigerian Civil Liberties Organisation, he was vocal in his opposition to the military regime of General Sani Abacha.  In 1997, that opposition landed him in prison.  When we met to discuss his story and the topic inevitably shifted to his activist background, I wondered aloud how he and other Nigerians found the courage to speak out in such a situation.  “Even under the most repressive regimes, we can always speak,” he says.  “I never felt for a second that I could be muzzled.”

With such sentiments, it is easier to understand how he came to be an effective civil rights advocate, as well as an effective writer.   Despite being a world away, his desire to see conditions in Nigeria improve has not faded.  When I mention that it seems Nigeria has been making steady progress since the time of his imprisonment, his response is immediate.  “Too slow!”

He explains to me that the country still suffers from the effects of colonialism, while also noting that Nigeria must find a way to move past using such blame as an excuse for all current problems.  According to him, they are deep and often complex issues that will not be easily solved; issues that require, as a matter of urgency, a rigorous and unsentimental examining of the collective unconscious, the wounded psyche, of a people traumatized by the world-historical violence of colonialism.   In this, Ifowodo urges a return to the famous anti-colonial theorist who drew his major insights from the long-drawn Algerian war of independence from France, Frantz Fanon: “Only a psychoanalytic interpretation of the black problem can lay bare the anomalies of affect responsible for the structure of the complex.”  It is an approach, needless to say, that has always found an outlet in the poetry and fiction of countless writers, post-colonial or not.

Undoubtedly, this is one of the reasons that African literature has become so much more prominent following the continent’s wave of independence that followed World War Two.  Nigerian writers in particular have found a great deal of success.  The nation’s writers include internationally renowned figures such as Wole Soyinka, as well as Chinua Achebe, whose novel Things Fall Apart is widely agreed to be one of the greatest books of the 20th century. Ifowodo first attributes such success to sheer numbers – Nigeria is the most populous African nation by a wide margin – but also admits there may be something more at play.  Something intangible in the nation’s culture that lends itself to the written word.  “Call it the volksgeist, if you will.” Ifowodo adds.  Certainly the history of modern Nigeria provides its authors with plenty to draw upon and examine.

Only independent from Britain since 1960, Nigeria was patched together from a multitude of various ethnic groups, religions, and languages.  With the interests of imperial Britain as the sole objective, it took only six years after independence before the inauspicious circumstances of the country’s birth led to civil war, and for the country to be plagued by instability ever since.  They are circumstances that have also created ripe conditions for oppression and corruption to thrive still today.

This is why something as simple as a short story about a Nigerian colonel and his actions in the aftermath of a failed coup attempt can be so interesting.  The country has changed a great deal in the past few decades.  But in many ways it hasn’t.  Understanding this, the year of completion for Ifowodo’s first raw draft makes a bit more sense.    That year?  “You won’t believe this,” he tells me.  “1992.”

He says that when he came back to it all these years later he did the expected: subjected it to a radical revision, though the plot remains essentially the same as it was almost twenty years earlier.  The Nigeria that Ifowodo uses as the setting for “The Treasonable Parrot” is not identical to the Nigeria of today, the many flaws of its return to democracy notwithstanding.  Similarly, the Nigeria in which Ifowodo was imprisoned for his active opposition to military dictatorship – he was arrested on his return from a summit of heads of government of the former British empire in Edinburgh, Scotland – is not the same as the nation he returned to this past summer when he visited the same prison where he had been held.  However, for him and many others, the changes are not fundamental or nearly enough.  This is why he still cares so deeply about his native country, and why “The Treasonable Parrot,” as fictional or straightforward as it may be on the surface, is more than just a good read.  It’s a reminder of a past that isn’t “past,” and that seems all too present.

Dr. Ogaga Ifowodo is a professor of English at Texas State University in San Marcos, TX.  He is currently working on a number of fiction pieces, as well as a memoir of his detention, excerpts from which have been published, including the online piece, “The Travel Commissar” (http://www.african-writing.com/aug/ogaga.htm).   His debut short story can be found in Agni 72 which can be purchased at BU.edu/Agni.