Friday, 24 February 2012

CONVERSATION HIGHLIGHTS: Nigerian scribe Igoni Barrett riffs on art and life

OUT OF AFRICA: "Everyone says we are on the verge," observes Barrett.

With his stunning literary gifts and deep Afro-Caribbean heritage, A. Igoni Barrett is an excellent conversation companion on matters concerning the Motherland and the art of being a writer. Ahead of his headline appearance at this weekend’s Talking Trees Literary Fiesta in Treasure Beach, the Nigerian author, 33, spoke with TALLAWAH about his Jamaican roots, living in latter-day Africa, and his meticulous approach to his craft.

TALLAWAH: How does it feel to be on this side of the planet for a change?
Barrett: It feels great. This is actually my first time in the Caribbean, my first time in Jamaica. It’s a good experience. This is a gorgeous place. I’ve enjoyed myself so far, and I know I’ll enjoy the rest of time that I have here.

You have relatives who hail from Jamaica, so it’s minorly surprising that this is your first trip to the island.
My father left Jamaica in the ’60s and he never came back, so he’s been living in Nigeria for over 40 years now, and as you know Nigeria is very far from Jamaica. So for one reason or another I never got to visit. The family always planned to have reunions, but most of my relatives that were here have moved to the United States and Canada. I have one uncle who still lives here in Jamaica, and he doesn’t live here full-time. So when [the organizers] got in touch with me for this festival, it was the perfect opportunity for me to come.

In a general sense, how would you describe life today in Africa?
Well, everyone says Africa is on the verge, Africa is next. And it’s interesting because Africa is a rich continent with fast-developing countries like Ghana. Nigeria is a much larger country with a population of over 150 million, making it the largest Black nation. So it’s big in a lot of ways, but it has its issues it’s trying to fix. And when it does Nigeria will be an even greater country. You also have greatly developing countries like South Africa, Morocco and Kenya. So things are different for different countries in Africa.

What’s the latest on your writing life?
Well, I’m working on a novel now. I just finished writing my second short-story collection earlier this year called Love Is Power or Something Like That. The novel doesn’t have a title yet. It’s too early to speak about, but I hope it will be out next year. I’m really excited about this short-story collection though. It’s about love, it’s about power, it’s about domination, and it’s about oppression. But it’s also about the ways in which love binds families together.

Where do you stand on the matter of novel writing versus crafting the short story?
I enjoy the short story form. I think it’s different from the novel in the sense that it allows you to tighten your writing. For many years I lived in Lagos; it’s a vibrant city, and in every corner there’s a story jumping out at you, and I just thought that there were just too many stories demanding attention and bubbling in my head. The short story also allows you to hone your skills because it is a shorter form, a shorter distance. It allows you to find your voice, but the short story is not a trial run for novel writing. It’s a different form. And now that I’ve become pretty good at short-story writing I find that it is difficult to move to the novel because it’s a different beast. (Laughs).

Finally, how big of a reggae fan are you?
I love reggae. Reggae is very popular in Africa. Of course, there’s Bob Marley, and on the dancehall side, there’s Sean Paul. Beenie Man has been a staple. So I love reggae and dancehall as much as other Africans.

LIT AND LYME: Barrett, with Talking Trees chief organizer Christine Marrett.

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