Interview: Poet and novelist Ikenna Okeh

Nicklas Hållén: What is your background? Where did you grow up and what is your educational background?

Ikenna Okeh: I come from a middle class home, the second of six children. My father is a businessman who has ventured into many businesses – from dealing on automobile spare parts, car sales, industrial supplies, and lately, land prospecting. Both my parents put much stock in formal education and they spared no resource in that regard. This is primarily owing to the fact that they were not so privileged in their time. In fact, I must point out that I was first exposed to the treasury that is my father’s personal library when I was eight. Every textbook and novel he had ever bought and read, he had stored in a tall glass bookcase which he always kept locked in his bedroom in his father’s house. It was a treasure for me. I felt thrilled the first day he had forgotten to lock it up. I stole Animal Farm and Memories Of Our Recent Boom. More of such escapades were to continue until a time came when he learnt to let me have access to the contents of his book shelf.  I read hungrily and have always done so. 

I was born in Port-Harcourt where I have lived for the most of my life. For my undergraduate studies, I did food science and technology in Imo State University. I had wanted to study medicine but I was never admitted into the department despite trying hard to beat the barriers of entry.  

Ikenna Okeh

Can you tell us a little about your work as a poet and writer? What have you published so far? What made you begin to write poetry and what are your goals as a poet? 

I write narrative poetry. They are mostly inspirational. Sometimes I set out to entertain and at other times I take on activism with poetry. Aside from poetry, I write prose. I started out with short stories published on a blog I ran at the time, and on short story websites. Soon afterwards, I wrote novel manuscripts. My focus is on crime stories set in contemporary Nigeria and this is because in my stories I dwell on dialogue and action. Secondly, I see the need to feed a subtle hunger for the genre. Many Nigerian youths are fans of James Hadley Chase even though they may not identify with the settings of his books as much as they can’t readily identify with his characters. Hence I saw the need to feed them crime stories whose settings and characters they can readily identify with.

I have published two narrative verses, A Tale To Twist and An Eye For An Isle both of which have been likened by readers to Homer’s Iliad. In addition, I have published in print a selection of poems from collections previously published as ebooks. It is titled A Harvest Of Verses. In December of 2018, I published a crime novel, The Operative. It is the story of a freelance security agent hired by the Department of State Security to verify information as regards the location of an arms shipment that had earlier been known to leave a port in Iran and is rumoured to be housed in a warehouse in Port-Harcourt owned by a very influential Lebanese businessman. Already the Presidency is walking a diplomatic tightrope with Beirut and if things are to go out-of-hand, the DSS and the Presidency would maintain absolute deniability. However, certain highly placed individuals in the Nigerian corporate world and law enforcement do not want the location of the arms to be disclosed until the moment was right.

It is the beauty of poetry that attracted me before ever I sought out the goal in being a poet. In the art of writing, I perceive poetry to be the royal form of it. And when poetry serves a purpose, and a high one at that, it comes alive and is sustained by the thoughts and experiences of the reader. My goal so far as a poet is to share enlightenment and to bring to the consciousness of the reader certain aspects of life which are often given but cursory attention in the course of dealing with the concerns of living.    

I write music reviews too. They can be found on the UbuntuFM HipHop website. UbuntuFM is a platform I co-founded and is dedicated to the promotion of music to a global audience.

The link between hip-hop and poetry is quite evident in contemporary Nigeria, perhaps in Lagos in particular. What links do you see between them in your life and in your career as a writer?

Hip-hop and rap, in particular, have their lyrical value in their use of poetic devices, most common being rhyming and pun. In my opinion, hip-hop is ideally a form in which poetry is expressed.

How have your books been received by your readers? 

I am still growing my reader base but all I have ever received from readers is positive feedback. Some of that feedback, especially from anonymous readers, touches the very core of me – and this is especially for my poetry collections. I have not sold much by way of ebooks but I am having a growing readership in China where the Mandarin translations of my poetry collections are being sold as ebooks.

As for my debut novel, the intention for which I wrote it is being met and readers are coming to identify with the realisation that they are getting literary entertainment which they can readily enjoy and identify with. This, for me, is a good sign as I am set to release the first of a two-book crime series this year.

Ikenna Okeh

Tell me about the story behind the Mandarin translations of your works. How did that happen?

I stumbled upon Fiberead. It is a company which authors and publishers can submit their books to, to have them translated and sold digitally to the Chinese literary market. When I submitted a few ebooks to them initially, it took many months before a team of translators accepted it. But soon afterwards, my submissions get picked up in a matter of days, and I have had some translators write to me to express their appreciation for the value they personally find in my poems, especially. I have not made a fortune in sales so far, but I am glad to realise that every month, some new Chinese readers get to download and read any one of my books.  

Your poem “For Them Who Soar on High” in your collection The Way of All Things is about the role and responsibility of the poet, as I understand it. You write that Providence created artists to keep the balance in the world and check people’s urges to pursue power over others. Can you tell us more about your view of the role of poets and poetry in society? What inspired you to write this poem?

Poets, like every other custodians of some art form are sentries amongst the people whom nature has planted them amongst. They are to observe and warn or enlighten where necessary. It is understandable to entertain when occasion calls for it. However, I see it as madness that a poet should be writing about flowers and ripples in his tea in a time when disaster looms over his environment. It is like a sentry playing a lullaby to the city from his perch high at the tower even when an advancing army bears heavily on the city gate. I still do not think that a sentry should think less of his role and thus aspire to the throne. He bears in his control the conscience of the people and that is great responsibility and power enough. If the people do not heed the poet, then it is their fault and not his; perhaps others before him had made light of their role and patronised the people with deadening lullabies. It is the role of the poet, like every other person, to use his talents to preserve the opportunity for advancement of the people amongst whom nature has planted him. By extension, the world will benefit thereby, because the human race is more like a garden of flowers. There has to be variety, each one luxuriant as is their nature, thus contributing to the beauty of the garden. 

I was inspired to write this poem after observing the past and present of Nigeria and some other places. Wyclef Jean once ran for president in Haiti. For some reason, he dropped out of the race. I know not why. Still, I think he will serve to preserve an opportunity for development of the Haitians better as an artist than as a politician. In 2010, an earthquake hit Haiti. I don’t think any politician got this incidence to the world’s attention like Wyclef Jean did, and it would have cost much more to bring the plight of his people to the world’s attention were he a politician and not an artist. At every election year in recent times, you notice Nigerian artists vying for political offices and wooing the sensibilities of people with promises of making things better as public office holders. But it should surprise you to know that as artists they had engaged the minds of the public with mundane things and all those psychological poisons masked in the form of music. And if anything, it derogates the people’s minds and jeopardizes their opportunity for advancement. He who trifles his natural role in the overall system of things is never, in my opinion, to be taken any seriously. I also wrote a lengthy narrative poem in this regard. It is titled ‘The Man Who Thought Less Of Himself’ and it features in the collection A Harvest Of Verses.

I read the title of the collection, The Way of All Things, as a kind of promise to the reader that it will teach him or her things about the world. It also says something about the poet’s ability to interpret and describe the world and human existence. Do you agree with this interpretation?

Yes, I agree with your interpretation. The beauty of poetry is in its ability to interpret the world and human existence and communicate them through imagery created with words. And this is what makes the difference between art and craftsmanship – beauty.  I chose the title because I could come up with no suitable title for the collection. Hence I took the title of one of the poems contained therein. The collection does feature some activist poems that mirrored the impression of my environment upon me at the time. It was a moment of spirituality for me, and at the same time there were so many things falling apart; the Nigerian government-sponsored killings of the Biafran people seeking to exercise their legitimate right to self-determination as enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations of which Nigeria is signatory to, the xenophobic attacks of other African nationals in South Africa, the unchecked and unchallenged raping and massacre of whole rural communities in Benue and Enugu states of Nigeria by Fulani cattle herdsmen whose barbaric acts the government is undeniably sympathetic to. All these inspired the writing of the collection, The Way Of All Things – and A Tale Of Two Men too, which is also available as an ebook.   

Care to elaborate on this link between the activist element in your work and spirituality? 

First of all, the knowledge of self and purpose is one of the very most important stages of spiritual awareness. When that purpose goes against artificially established norms and edifices, it becomes common to tag its expression as activism. I often look at societal issues with two important questions: does this go against natural order? Does this preserve for the people an opportunity for advancement? The answers I get determine my unalloyed support or opposition, and I know no better way to oppose or support than with writing. Whether I choose to use poetry or prose as a medium is determined by how much time I have on my hands and the medium that best suits the purpose of effective communication to the reader.

Besides The Way of All Things, you have published some longer narrative poems. This is a kind of poetry that we don’t see so often nowadays, but was popular further back in history. Can you tell us a little about these works and why you decided to write this kind of poetry?

The first of the two is A Tale To Twist. It is a story of some fictitious African community set at a time long before the first Europeans came to their part of the world. The European missionaries had come to their neighbours far away and news had filtered through as to how those neighbours were being influenced by the coming of the ‘strange ways’. The desire to compete advised this community to send a delegation to go seek out the missionaries rather than wait for them to find their way to their lands. It is a reflection of human nature in a way that entertains with humour, action and suspense.

An Eye For An Isle is also an epic story, but of politics and subterfuge. It is a story of four islands, each one with their own kings who ruled supreme in turns over the rest of the islands. But suspicion and ambition threatens the traditions of old, and loyalties are tested in an unending turn of events.

For A Tale To Twist, I think much of the inspiration came from the history of my village, Ezeoke-Nsu. The time lapse of the story offers a telling of history, a reporting of events and a warning of things to come, in that order. Before writing these books, I had been toying with the idea of breaking boundaries with poetry. I did some bit of narrative poems that were not book length, and then I tried out with something more lengthy. The product was a small volume which I titled The Chronicles Of Romeo. It is the story of a Nigerian youth struggling against all odds to make something out of his life. He has been unable to graduate from university because the department’s secretary is unable to find his academic transcripts, he hates his job but has saved enough to buy an old taxi. But then he falls desperately in love and the bride price for the girl is as much as the cost of the taxi.

I was not satisfied with The Chronicles of Romeo. I wanted something of weightier artistic value but did not find the inspiration until I listened to one of my village leaders complain bitterly about the wrongs at home. In thinking about what could be done about it, the inspiration came because I saw that only when a sizeable portion of a people are enlightened enough to realize a problem, then by sheer expression of their collective will, a change will come.

The inspiration for An Eye For An Isle can be said to have come from hearing a lot about Jaja of Opobo, a figure whom I greatly adore. He was one of the ancients who were one with the elements. I’m yet to do something satisfactory on him while there are still people alive who can give me the information I need.      

How have these narrative poems been received by readers? Have they received more attention than your collection of shorter poems?  

Roger D’Arcy, a British country musician described A Tale To Twist as a Homeric effort that is both thought provoking and uplifting. He was amongst the first people to get his copy when it came out in print, and the first European. For An Eye For An Isle he likens the plot to the collapse of the Prohibition Era USA crime gangs of New York, Atlantic City, Chicago and Philadelphia. His exact words are: “… the form and rich wordplay lend a dynamic sense of urgency which propels the story forward, gripping the reader until the very end …”

I think it right to also point out that A Tale To Twist did earn me some disaffection from local circles who felt I was being confrontational in my writing and challenging the status quo thereby.    

It is undeniable that poetry is never received with warmth in Nigeria. I think it is appreciably received in South Africa, but the percentage of poetry enthusiasts in Nigeria is negligible. My narrative poems are not received as my novel. My shorter poems get almost as much attention or lack of it as my narrative verses. If asked the reason for this, I will say that the social environment is to blame. There is desperation in Nigeria which the exuberance belies to different degrees. Poetry is beauty, and it is only when a man is satisfied and at peace that he seeks out beauty in what he does.

Who designed the ebooks and print books you have published so far? 

Much earlier, I have had a friend do some designs for free as I could not afford the professional services of a graphic designer. By a stroke of luck, I became friends on Facebook with a Malaysian reader, Murni Hamza. She is a graphic designer and illustrator. She still remains a great fan of my poems, and lately, of my novel. It was she who offered to do the first professional graphic designs for the ebook version of An Eye For An Isle. Junior Idoko Abbah did the design for The Chronicles Of Romeo. A Tale To Twist had the stock image done by the illustrator and comic artist, Nnamdi Aliche.

The covers for the print versions of all my books are done by Akor Emmanuel Oche who is also my publisher in Nigeria. So far, I have published four books in print and seven as ebooks.

Have you ever considered writing and publishing texts in Igbo? If not, why is that?

I have toyed with the idea. However, the much I have done is in throwing in bits of Igbo dialogues in my novels – but only bits. It is an undeniable fact that writing and publishing in Igbo is an uphill task especially when it comes to getting a local audience for it. I follow closely the progress and challenges of Maazi Ogbonnaya who writes and publishes in Igbo and promotes the language through podcasts and other media. His work is admirable and I would rather collaborate with him or some others or leave the future to decide the course.

You have published your works through the mobile app OkadaBooks. Why did you choose to use OkadaBooks and would you encourage others to do the same? 

I chose Okadabooks because we do not have a viable publishing industry in Nigeria. And believe me when I say that I am downplaying the situation when I say so. The reality is that there is no existent publishing industry in Nigeria. It is the shadow of Chinua Achebe’s venture into publishing in the 60’s which lives on today. Publishing fiction is one thing which a Nigerian publisher is not willing to stake capital on, especially when the author isn’t Chimamanda Adichie. My next novel, An Assignment In Owerri is set against this backdrop because the main character is a frustrated young Nigerian writer with ambitions to get published. I would encourage anyone to publish with Okadabooks because it is the only and cheapest option as long as the writer is not Chimamanda Adichie. It is mostly the case that the writer has to foot the bill to have his or her book published in print. Still, there is nothing to lose in having their books in both prints and as ebooks on Okadabooks. In addition, there are no other better platforms for Nigerian writers. The competition is fiercer on Amazon, Smashwords and other global stores. With Okadabooks, the chances of visibility for Nigerian authors are bigger and the barriers for entry are quite non-existent for both local readers and writers. Readers must not have a paypal account or a credit or debit card to buy books. With an airtime recharge card, one can get the book of their choice downloaded onto their mobile devices.      

What do you see as the up- and downsides of publishing works through platforms or apps like Okadabooks?

The upside with publishing on Okadabooks is that it is cheap for the author in terms of costs. With a good cover and a properly edited manuscript, the author is good to go. There is also a level of assurance for the local author that their promotional investment will yield a sale or more. The local exposure is something I appreciate. The downside is that for poetry, the text flowability could play down the aesthetics of the poem. It just could be really frustrating for the poet on seeing the appearance of his poem on the app. Another downside is that internet data comes expensive with relatively slow speed in Nigeria. This is one factor that militates against patronage even though about eighteen percent of the over two hundred million of the Nigerian population could be a reasonable target for patronage. And that is a huge market, believe me.  

Something I have heard people talk about in both Nigeria and Kenya is that some authors and poets feel that digital publishing is all fine insofar as it is an effective way of reaching readers and keeps down production costs, but that it does not quite give the author the same satisfactory feeling of being published, you know what I mean? What are your thoughts about that?

I agree with you that nothing beats the feel of physical books. Not many African readers are enthusiastic about reading on mobile devices for many reasons, one of which may be the ability to highlight and make side notes. 

For me, I prefer print versions any time. It is something which the digital revolution is yet to change. I should also point out that I have sold more in print than in ebooks. Ebooks work for exposure, which is invaluable, but you can’t attend events or host signings with ebooks. So, in essence, ebooks alone do not give the author the satisfactory feeling of being published.

Ikenna Okeh lives in Cyprus and is currently working on a two-volume crime fiction story. The first of these will be published before the end of 2019.

Nicklas Hållén is currently working on an academic book about emergent forms in new urban African writing.

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