The fecundity of Professor Hope Eghagha’s literary predilection is proverbial. Aside many critical essays in reputable international journals, his nine creative works cut across the genres of drama, poetry and prose. An erudite researcher, he has had the Fellowship Award of the American Government to study Contemporary American Literature at the University of Louisville (1999), was awarded Honorary Colonel of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, US (1999) and got an honourable mention in the 2007 Pat Utomi Award for Literary Excellence. A professor of English in the Department of English, University of Lagos, Eghagha is currently the Commissioner for Higher Education, Delta State. HENRY AKUBUIRO wangled a chat with him in his busy office in the state capital on his literary works.
How does a story idea come to you?
I develop ideas often as a reaction to maybe a line, a stanza of a poem, a paragraph of story or an experience. I try to, as it were flow, interrogate ideas as they come. Sometimes I read a line –I have said elsewhere that sometime when I want inspiration for a very good poem, I read Chris Okigbo, because it evokes something in me, something deep. I read not just Okigbo, sometimes any deep work, any work that can make me reflect on the human condition or politics. For example, the immediate impetus for writing the play, Death, Not the Redeemer, came from reading an essay written by Professor Adebayo Williams, who was formerly at OAU, Ile-Ife. After reading it, it got me thinking, and I started writing Death, Not a Redeemer. Sometimes it is an experience, like when I read the story of a father, who, during the Ikeja bomblast, lost his ten-year-old son. The newspaper report was that he knelt before the corpse of his son and said: “Sing to me as you used to sing, my son”. That evoked something in me, and it gave birth to a poetry collection. So, sometimes it is an experience or a line from a poem; sometimes it is a narrative by somebody. Deep reflective thinking –that helps me generate ideas.
In the novel, Emperors of Salvation, an idealistic lawyer is assassinated for being an exemplar of truth, and there is an echo of committed literature. Do you write with commitment in mind?
If you know my background, I try to make my work relevant to the politics of the time or times. I have a social conscience that still bleeds when I see deprivations and when I read about injustice and contradictions that we find in our society. So, it is there; I can’t run away from it. So, one is committed to ensuring that literature plays the role in trying to unravel the social mystery in which we have found ourselves –the quagmire, the contradictions and challenges we found ourselves. Some of these are man-made, some we inherited from colonial legacy, but which I think, by now, we ought to overcome, the economic basis for the existence of this federation of this country, the share of the individuals that constitute the federating units in this country. In order words, as an individual, you ask yourself, what is the responsibility of the federal government to my welfare? What’s the responsibility of the state government to my welfare? What’s the responsibility of those in authorities to the welfare of the individuals? So, to that extent, I can say that I remain committed to the cause of the poor. It is all over Africa; it is not only Nigeria. You can also find it on all continents where there is poverty. So, when you talk about poverty globally, Africa is always a starting point, because we are the poor relations of the western world, sadly. But, as we know, Africa could be the bread basket of the world. That’s why there is global focus on Africa now. The very stage of our colonial encounter was by force when they raped our economy and made away with our natural resources. Now, we are inviting them at the second stage, because there is a dialogue going on. But what happens is that one party in the dialogue is superior in terms of assets and wealth. Yes, it is a dialogue, but it is like a monologue, because one person determines the pace of the discussion –it is an ongoing thing. As a writer, I believe that we should be relevant to the society, drawing attention to the challenges we have in our environment, and that is very important.
Still in that novel, the activist lawyer is murdered, with some verisimilitude. Why the choice of the title, Emperors of Salvation, when emperors are remarkable for haughtiness?
Emperors of Salvation is a recreation, in fictional terms, of some of my very bright friends who lost their lives, whose continuous existence perhaps would have helped to change society. But I have recreated and pushed them to the national level, [in the drama] engages them in the national discourse and then their lives are terminated by the system. It is not a historical in the sense, that, well, they once existed and then played a centre stage role in the national discourse; but, in my own view, they could have been or given the opportunity to project themselves to that level. The lawyer in question [in the play], for instance, is fashioned after a very good friend of mine who died in a tragic road accident –he had been a sickler, but he had challenged that sickle cell disease and did not succumb –he was very strong –only to lose his life in a motor accident. But, in fictional terms, I said no, he didn’t die that way, because he challenged the existing social anomalies.You know, I wrote that novel with the military at the back of my mind, at a time the military was in charge of governance in the country, and anybody who dared to confront the military to that extent suffered one deprivation or the other. In a sense, that character is a merger of all those who lost their lives in the struggle for democracy before we had it in the form that it came in 1999. There is an apparent contradiction between emperors and those who struggled for freedom. It has to do with my own process of interrogating those who claim and assert that they want to change. Sometimes, in championing the cause of change, we tend to be overbearing; we tend to arrogate ourselves powers that we don’t have. In that context, I am playing on the word “emperors”, because they ascribed to themselves the power to change society. In my view, if you want to change society, you don’t have to proclaim it –just go ahead and do it. So, there is a play on the word “emperor”. All the nuances are very clear to me. So, the concept of the struggle itself, as we see in the novel, is slightly tainted by some of their own human weaknesses and errors, just like emperors who believe they are in charge of the lives of the people –they represent God, and it is the destiny of the people to be subservient to them, as they want to change society and make life better for them. That’s the history behind the use of “emperors”.
There is a sense of being muffled in the title poem in the collection, Pepper in my Chest (2007) and, towards the end of the poem, we have a contradiction in “The Pepper is Gone”. Signification here tends to be parabolic and palimsest, don’t you think so?
When the work starts … you see there is a historical development in that collection. There is pepper: in order words, the circumstances choke you. It is like the beginning of a journey you want to embark on and circumstances choke the traveller, the agitator, the fighter: circumstances imposed by man, one’s own psychological weaknesses. So, the ability to confronting these circumstances, fighting and taking them headlong can lead to release, and that is reason I say the “pepper is gone”, and when the pepper is gone, you can proclaim. When God asked Moses to go for the “liberation of the struggle of the people of Israel”, Moses has a deficiency. She said she was a stammerer. God looked at him and said his brother, his alter-ego, would go with him and he would be his spokesman. At the beginning of the journey, therefore, Moses was choked: there was pepper in his throat, if you take it metaphorically; he couldn’t speak; he had his own hindrances and challenges. But the supervising, motivational and inspirational authority said, “Go ahead, I am going to create a way for you”. It is in that light, too, that we look at the character, the man who says, “I want to take on thus challenge; I want to make a critique of society; I want to make my own contributions to the radical changes in society, but there is pepper in my throat that obstructs my ability to speak….”
Is the persona here emblematic of the downtrodden?
It has to do with that of the man who wants to face challenges, not necessarily the downtrodden. There are many inhibitions in the society, the fear of the military, for instance. So, many people are cautious. All of these could be as a result of the pepper.
In Death, Not the Redeemer, a Soyinkan patina of the paschal lamb finds resonance, especially in Death and the King’s Horseman, where you tend to reverse the tragic sequence in the original plot tapestry…
In writing Death, Not the Redeemer, I was very conscious of the dynamics of the society in the sense that: what is death? Whoever welcomes death? No matter how ill a man is, when death is coming, there is some apprehension, regret and feeling that, can death be averted? If a man has been condemned to death keeps hoping that tomorrow should not to be the last day, then, for death to be seen as a redeemer of society, for me, raises a serious question: how can death redeem society, particularly the death of somebody who is young, vibrant and still has another fifty years to go in terms of age chronology, that is, the ascribed number of years to man? So, in reading Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman, when I found that the Elesin Oba committed suicide in order to serve as a bridge between the world of the living and the dead –he was requested to die to serve as a bridge between the world of the living and the dead –I then asked myself, is it not possible for the living to do that? Is it not possible for us to have heroes who are alive than create dead heroes? And I looked at the experience of Colonel Fajuyi, former governor of Western region, during the time of General Aguiyi Ironsi, when, in the prelude to the 1966-57 crises, he refused to let go his visitor [Ironsi] and said, “I am going to be with you”. For that reason, he sacrificed his life. When you look at it philosophically, it is, of course, deep and laudable. But you begin to ask yourself a question: those around him, his family, children and his people, did they think it was a necessary sacrifice? Did that sacrifice stop the descent into anarchy that took off in 1967? So, that death was not enough. Perhaps, if they had been alive to confront the reality of the situation at the time, we would have not got into the anarchy we had. The whole idea is to question death as a tool for redemption: why don’t we keep our heroes alive, let them take on these challenges and live?
At the end of the play, a vote is passed against sacrificial suicide, and Chief Wukari is prevented from committing suicide…
There are so many questions about why he dies at the end of the play, because he doesn’t die a sacrificial death; he is prevented from committing that suicide because of his religious faith: he has become a born-again Christian, and his faith teaches him not to die that kind of death. Sadly, perhaps, the situation has been too much for him that, even when he has been relieved of the burden of dying for the community, he still succumbs to death, but no longer a redemptive death but death as a natural cause. It is subject to all kinds of interpretations. One interpretation is that, well, the traditionalists have had their way finally. But I don’t see it that way –anybody could die at any time.
Sacrificial death recurs in global dramaturgy, from Greco-Roman and Shakespearian times to the Soyinkan and the present. Why the thematic fascination across generations?
It is because it is constancy in the human equation: some people die on behalf of others. All of us are not equally gifted in terms of confronting challenges as around us. There are some who are gifted with the foresight, knowledge and the courage to challenge the status quo, and when do that, it may not be death in the physical process –it may be death in the figurative sense, because you to lose some of your benefits. So, that way, we say that it is a recurring decimal in the human equation, because certain persons have more human abilities and more endowed than others to taking on the challenges of society and, often when they do that, they suffer some deprivations. So, it is death in different contexts, and that’s one of them.
In Mama Dances into the Night (2007), the theme of death recurs in the second segment of the play and one finds a valorization of a late mother but with emotive undertone. Are we talking of one death too many?
Well, often you never really feel the loss of a mother until it happens. There is a very deep link, as far as I am concerned, between mother and son; between mother and child: the fact that there is an umbilical cord, which comes from the mother to the child, the fact that, for 9 months it is what the mother feeds on that the child feeds on and the attention with which the mother gives to the child during infanthood; in fact, even when you are an adult and you are in your 50s or 60s, your mother still speaks to you as if you were a 3-year-old, because she has seen your history; she carried you in her arms. Even in your matrimonial home, your mother can intrude, and she does it with a right, not as a privilege, because you are hers; you belong to her. So, when you lose that motherly attention, when you lose that person, something goes in life. So, that’s the reason the death of my mother in 2002 was a big loss to me personally, in personal terms –I wasn’t the only child she had ten children; but going to see her in the hospital during the last illness that took her away at 77, she was strong, articulate and still talked to me, she made some statements about death, her immediate transition and she was saying she wanted to be somewhere in particular. For the first and last time in my life, I carried her in my arms from one bed to another, and she was asking me whether I had the energy to carry her. The irony was not lost to me. I knew as a baby, she carried me; as a boy, she carried me, too. Now, I was an adult, and she had never had cause to be carried around. So, that day in the hospital, I didn’t; want to wait for the nurses, and I am happy I didn’t, she had to be moved from one bed to another (she hated the wheelchair), and I carried her. As I was leaving, she said, “Mama dey go o”. Four days later, she died. In order words, she already had a premonition that she was going. But her going away was elegant. She didn’t believe that she would remain alive and be a burden to others. So, looking at her death, I used it to look at the relationship between mother and child and other things in the society. It was very emotional for me.
In the second part of the poetry collection, you speak of “difficulties” and there is a particular poem in that collection, “The Travails of an Imp”, that is quite representative in terms of prevalent woes. In what light do you appreciate this distraught imp persona?
Sometimes my poems are not persons-specific: they look at the human conditions, the crisis in which people go through, and I can envelope all of that in the experience of one character. It is often said that when a mother is alive, the children are often protected. There is a kind of spiritual protection that the mother’s presence gives to the kid. When she goes, the kids also lose that protection. So, when it happens like that, the children begin to face some challenges. It was after her death that we lost two members of our family in four years, reducing our number to eight. So, you need to ask yourself now, are the challenges we have as a result of her absence? It is in that context that we look at “suffering”. The imp is that beautiful, private person, who goes into some kind of suffering experience as a result of the loss. So, the mother figure goes. The mother figure goes away in many senses, not just as mother, but the psychological, because there is a void when you lose your mother. I didn’t feel that much when I lost my father (of course, I loved my father). But that feeling of emptiness was greater when my mother died.
In The Rhythms of Last Testament (2002), there is a backward glancing to oral tradition. How does the memory of the past influence your poetic conversations?
That’s the very first poetry collection that I published. You can see that the style is different, although, in that collection, I drew from native, oral tradition than other collections, yet it is in other poems that it was more defined and mature in the use of oral traditional sources. So, I leave that to the reader to judge. But the past influences one in different ways, and the past impinges on your consciousness and subconscious in different ways. The past counts in terms of experience. The past will surface in terms of style, the voice that you use (the persona), sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously and subconsciously; but these impinge on you, because they are part of your consciousness –they impinge on you and your history; they are part of your person; they are there. My mother, for instance, was fond of telling us stories, and my first source of oral tradition was my mother. She would tell us tales as a way of shortening the night. So, the past comes like that and then one started reading history, the history of African people. One of the challenges we have in modern-day Nigeria is that our children don’t know our history; they are not familiar with the history of twenty years ago. The civil war, for instance. I once travelled to the southeast with my driver and my orderly, when I saw some bullet marks on some walls, and I said to them that building might have been brought down during the war, and they said, which war? One of them was born in 1973. So, he doesn’t know. In school, nobody taught him about the Nigeria-Biafra civil war. So, there is a memory blank in his consciousness about the war. He might have heard of Biafra, but he didn’t know what actually transpired that time. So, when he deals with Nigeria in 2013, it is tabula rasa in terms of that war. His attitude, his expressions and his coming to terms with Nigeria presently is only from the time that he gained consciousness. But Nigeria predates all of us. So, in dealing with Nigeria, we must go back to 1940; we must go beyond our own ethnic group within the federation; we must go beyond our own age –we should look at what brought all of us together, what predates us, how we can live together in my view, rather than looking at the forces that will tear us apart. Let’s look at policies that will bring us together. The binding force of the River Niger shows that is more than meets the eye. There is no ethnic group in Nigeria now that can say when they are on their own life will be better for them. There will be challenges. Look at Europe, the Sudan: they are still living with their challenges. Nigeria will be much better if we negotiate our co-existence. The Nigerian state should remain, but under what condition will it remain? That’s some of the issues we should be looking at, and that’s how the past impinges on us. As a writer, one is familiar with history, and one draws with past historical experiences, both personal and ones one has read about.
In the poetry volume, Premonitions (2005), you wrote on immanent dangers and how they can be averted. How easy is it for the poet to morph into the universe of a seer?
Yes, a poet is seer. How is he a seer? In Emperors of Salvation, there is a line: “Let the prophet speak, let the madman speak; he whose words come to pass is our prophet”. So, as a poet, you ruminate about the society, about human life –all aspects. A poet is conscious of the past and the present, and, as a result, is able to project into the future that, if we continue like this, we are going to end up like that. So, a poet is like a priest, therefore: he sits on the altar of truth, because it is passionate. His language, all the nuances of expression that he puts together, what he draws from –innocent, holy, pure sources –in order to make comments on society are pointers. Even, if you look at the Old Testament, those prophets were poets and seers. Look at the kind of language that they wrote in. David, for instance, was versed in the use of language [like a poet].
How does the post-sacrifice era of heaven you painted in that poetry volume border on the experiential?
Well, I haven’t seen heaven yet. So, I have not talked about utopia, the benefits of sacrifice, because, in real terms, which society do we say the act of sacrifice has created utopia or heaven or total bliss? No, it might create a channel to achieve that. But, for me, not yet.
In the play, Onowawi Shall Rise Again, you characteristically meld the traditional and the modern. Why the preponderance of orature in your writings?
I really don’t know. That’s really one of the strange things that I have seen. I didn’t grow up in a strictly traditional society. I grew up in Sapele and Port Harcourt [urban settings]. So, I really don’t know the source of that flow, my connection with the traditional. My mum used to tell us stories –that’s all. As I grew up, too, I read Literature, including Chinua Achebe and Okot p’Bitek. When I read Bitek, I said to myself, “This is good poetry”. Again, I did some sociological studies on African societies; I was interested in pre-colonial African society, oral tradition and literature and methods of communication in the traditional society. I will tell you a story: a young man died suddenly at Ibadan and his relation is a very close friend of mine, and we had to bring the body to the hometown in Delta. After the body arrived, there was a heavy downpour, and we all took cover in a room (about 7.30pm). So, I just found myself with strange persons, women, men, old people, and there was absolute silence. Suddenly, a woman speaking to herself, said, “Duke (addressing the deceased), we said your father’s death was surprising, but your tragedy was greater” (she said it in a way I cannot translate in English exactly due to some onomatopoeic infusion in my native Urhobo language). Of course, I went away with that. That’s part of the things that influence my creativity.
You haven’t yet written your kidnap story, a year after you got the jitters for some days…
(laughs)Well, it is still very raw, and it still sits on a sensitive nerve. But it will come. I have spoken some snippets of it, for instance, when one of the kidnappers said he read some poetic lines written by a friend of mine, an American poet, and tears came to his eyes and, of course, he said, “The kidnappers cried”. That’s one. The very experience of it, how one went into the lion’s den and came out shows that anything could have happened. Those are things that have to be captured at the appropriate time. However, I need to really know what happened to me and how it happened. Odia Ofeimun said, I shouldn’t concern myself why it happened but how it happened and then write about it; and if I keep asking why me, then, why not you?