Professor Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo opens up to Jeff Unaegbu about her latest book – Roses and Bullets.
Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo is a professor and former head of the English Department, University of Lagos, Nigeria. She has published five novels, four books of short stories, three books of poetry, two plays and twenty children’s books. Adimora-Ezeigbo is a Commonwealth Fellow at the Scholl of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, a Research Fellow at the University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg, in South Africa, a Visiting Scholar at the Centre for African Studies at the University of Bayreuth in Germany and a Research Fellow at Royal Holloway, University of London. She was named Best Researcher in the Arts and Humanities at the University of Lagos in 2005. Adimora-Ezeigbo jointly won the Nigeria Prize for Literature in 2007 with Mabel Segun, for her children’s novel, My Cousin Sammy, and Heart Songs, her first book of poems won the 2009 Cadbury poetry prize. Seventeen of her short stories have been published in journals, magazines and anthologies and four of them won prizes in short story competitions. She has also published fifty academic books and scholarly papers in local and international journals. In addition to her literary and academic work, she is a committed activist for women’s rights. Akachi Adimora-Ezeigbo has travelled extensively in Africa, Europe, North America and Asia.
For excerpts from her new novel, Roses and Bullets, get the link here
JEFF UNAEGBU: Ma’am, it is a pleasure having you in this interview. I am particularly fond of your new book, Roses and Bullets…. A play on my mind of intense romantic love between Eloka and Ginika and intense pathological hate between Biafra and Nigeria. No doubt you did this to other people’s minds with other works (*laughs and winks) and up one work went to the big prize… wow, congratulations for the NLNG Prize! Now, in Roses and Bullets, Eloka gave Ginika a red rose (growing roses was his passion), and you spoke through Ginika that it was symbolic of love and sacrifice, whether for woman/man or country, such that blood may flow to uphold what one loves. Should we take this as the adequate definition of love? If yes, was Eloka in love with country more than woman when he joined the war rather than stay behind to protect Ginika from the danger of losing her if harm were to come to her, which finally came after all (Ginika said to him once: “I’m sure when you were in the war front, you didn’t think of me… except the fight before you”)? In other words, can we split a red rose and love one part? Secondly, what’s your personal take on Eloka’s form of love (seeing that Eloka sang to her: “Dear girl, if you ask me not to fight, who then will fight in this war?” and in another place, you wrote: “he knew why he joined the army— to fight and fight with contentment until victory is won” and in yet another place, Eloka didn’t believe Ginika when she said her pregnancy came from a silent rape by a soldier)?
AKACHI ADIMORA-EZEIGBO: Thanks, Jeff. I’m so delighted that you like the book, that you enjoyed reading it. It’s so big – over 500 pages long, and I often worry that readers might consider it too long. But the feedback I get is that readers’ attention does not flag until they get to the end. You are absolutely right – it is the story of a love relationship that blossoms and dies in wartime Biafra. At a time Nigeria and secessionist Biafra were locked in mortal combat, these two young people fell in love. The whirlpool created by the civil anarchy destroyed them and their love, just as it destroyed so many other dreams, lives and beautiful ideas. I tried to capture all that in Roses and Bullets. The comments I get from people, especially those that were around when the war was fought is one of awe – awe arising from the profundity the recollection and recreation that is evident in the novel. One reader said she couldn’t “remember when last she read a novel that made her cry so much”.
When Eloka gave Ginika a red rose, it was the finest gesture to convey the depth of his feeling for her: he considered her pure and beautiful and worthy of his sacrifice both as a lover and a soldier. Rose is a symbol of love, beauty and purity and the red rose meant all these to Eloka. Red also is the colour of blood – the blood of the youths of Biafra that sacrificed their lives, their talents and potentials for their fatherland. To Eloka, the sacrifice is double: he was willing to give his life to protect his country and by protecting his country, he would also be protecting his love and wife, Ginika, his Mermaid, as he called her. Eloka demonstrated in the novel that he is capable of self-sacrifice – for the sake of both Biafra and Ginika. The idea of Biafra and the person of Ginika were his ideals and passion throughout the war. And when Biafra lost and he discovered what he regarded as Ginika’s betrayal and infidelity, he had no wish to continue living really.
JU: You portrayed Ginika’s father as a strict person who expects his orders to be obeyed without questioning and who hardly changes his mind (hmm, a mind harder than climbing Ugwu Nwosa) or hardly laughs or show emotions, even seeming incestuous (he examined Ginika’s body which was the root of Ginika’s rebellious hatred of him in later times, even after he explained what he did with a tale about trying to prevent a repeat of his sister’s death from abortion). Now, there seem to be a running pattern by Nigerian female writers to portray father figures and even husband figures this way, especially humbling them somehow later on in their novels and also using a female character to channel the hatred, for example, the father figure in Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus and husband figure in Buchi Emecheta’s Second Class Citizen etc. Why is there this wish to put up such mean male figures in order to subdue them later? Is it an unconscious desire in females to kill, if by a cathartic work of fiction, the hard and immovable male stereotype?
AAE: Your interpretation of Ginika’s father’s character is revealing. I never thought about it from the angle you are seeing it. Well, I see it from a different perspective. You see, fathers were very strict in the past but they seem more permissive these days because we live in a permissive age and a ‘global village’. The Nigerian society is becoming more permissive now than in the 1960s. This trend is more noticeable in the West, especially in Europe and North America (where parents can get into trouble when they are considered to have been too hard on their children or wards). In the 1960s when the war took place, parents were stricter then than now – they were disciplinarians like Ginika’s father, Dr Ubaka Ezeuko, especially with their daughters. They were afraid that their daughters would misbehave or get into trouble with men if they were not brought up firmly. In his case, Ubaka had real psychological reasons to fear, for his young sister had been a victim. In a way, one can understand his predicament and his actions though he seemed to have gone too far. I am surprised you think I wanted to humble or vilify him. That was far from my mind, but you are free to interpret it the way you deem fit.
But I’m not sure Nigerian female writers deliberately portray fathers (male characters) as mean, as you said. It depends. These things are relative. Are you saying there are no fathers like Ubaka? My feeling is that Ubaka was doing what he thought was good for his daughter under the circumstance – trying to guide her. As you said, Ginika does fall into the trap he is trying to protect her from. So there is cause for her father’s fears. Did you notice that in the novel, there are other fathers who may be considered different – Onwaora, Eloka’s father, and the more positive Uncle Ray, Auntie Chito’s husband and Ginika’s uncle? I want to also point out that if you read my other novels, The Last of the Strong Ones, House of Symbols, Children of the Eagle and Trafficked, you will see how the different fathers (men) are portrayed. If you read these books, I believe you will discover that my portrayal of male characters is complex rather than stereotypical.
JU: Oh dear! Thanks for putting my mind straight on that issue! Point taken. Now, Prof., with the mention of real names of living figures and places in your novel, one may take it to be historical fiction, is it historical fiction or is it a novel veiling events that actually happened in real life, albeit with the use of some personas, just like Buchi Emecheta did with her Second Class Citizen?
AAE: It is both. The Nigerian/Biafran War is part of Nigeria’s history. As most historical novelists do, I have taken liberties with reconstructing our national history to suit my artistic vision, to interpret historical facts. One of the characteristics of a historical novel is to bring in some real personages that were actors of the events being depicted. Hence my use of real life characters in the novel. Roses and Bullets is an imaginative work that used the events of the past to reconstruct historical moments in Nigeria, during its transition to a modern nation. I was a witness to that war though I was a young schoolgirl at the time.
JU: In your novel, youths, especially males, even only sons like Eloka, were anxious to join the Biafran army and did so without their father’s blessings, is this a show of patriotism, taste for adventure or an escape from suffocating parental protection on the part of the conscripts? And are their fathers’ reactions a show of lack of patriotism for Biafra and more love for family? Forgive my ignorance, I was born after the war, so I innocently ask, ma’am, was this how it happened during the war?
AAE: Yes that was how it happened. Parents did not want their only sons to fight, for they were afraid of losing them [You know how male children are valued and often preferred to female children in Igbo culture.]. In wartime, soldiers die easily so parents whose children are soldiers are afraid they would die. However, in the then Biafra, parents who had two or more sons were more willing to let one of them join the army. But it was different from the perspective of young men at the time. Most of them wanted to fight, to defend Biafra and its ‘independence’. So many young men went to the Biafran Army Headquarters and recruitment centres in droves, asking to be recruited or enlisted, especially at the beginning, just after the war started. That was how many Nsukka students joined the army as officers. But later, of course, when things became very difficult and soldiers were dying from starvation, and there was shortage of ammunition and other supplies, many young men began to hide away so that they would not be recruited or conscripted.
JU: Prof., with awesome respects, you are a great weaver of the finale of sex scenes without the slightest touch of being vulgar (“Ginika let him into the core of her womanhood and anchored him”), what do you think about putting such scenes in novels, especially for a Nigerian audience, much of which seem to observe a non-permissive African culture?
AAE: You will notice that the tendency these days is to depict sex more explicitly in writing. This is so obvious in the West where books (novels) that do not have this feature might not sell. But this is not to say that sex had not always been depicted. Sex has been an important feature of literature, especially the novel genre. Remember D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (an extreme case, no doubt, which earned the novel a ban in Britain when it was published). However, a writer should depict sex scenes with a measure of responsibility: that’s my view. Sex is beautiful and a natural way to express true love, and so should be depicted in fiction but with profound responsibility. It should not be ‘sex for sex’s sake’ but sex to show who should indulge in it and when it should be enjoyed. However, in the case of rape, it should be depicted with clarity to show the bestiality of some human beings so as to condemn it and warn potential victims to take precaution. However, everything should be done with moderation and a sense of responsibility, especially if the work targets adolescents.
JU: On a lighter note, please what is the English name for the fruit utu which was given to Udo to eat when he was on AWOL?
AAE: Have you eaten utu before? It’s so delicious. It grows wild in the South-East, especially in Uga, in Anambra State, where I come from. I love it and often look for it in vain, in Lagos markets. It is one of the fruits I really enjoyed when I was growing up. I don’t think it has a name in English but I have heard people call it ‘monkey apple’. Utu has a shape that resembles an apple and the colour is somewhere between deep yellow and orange.
JU: Hmm, Monkey apple? Hahahaha! Yes, I have eaten utu, it is really delicious, Prof. Now, what advice do you have for upcoming writers?
AAE: I advise them to keep writing, and reading to improve their proficiency in the language they write in. They should hone their writing skills and never be discouraged by anyone or anything. Let them develop their styles. Finally, let them plough half of their ‘sex energy’ [Laugh.] into their writing by focusing on their work and avoiding unnecessary emotional distractions.
JU: Wow. My prof., Sex energy!? I am happy you also believe in sexual transmutation! Thank you prof., for this exhilarating interview and shedding more light into the Biafran war, especially naming such places as Oji River and Nkwere-Inyi (a village in my town!) as places visited by Biafran attack traders in your novel. I hope to chat with you again someday!
AAE: Thank you very much, Jeff. And thanks for your perceptive comments on Roses and Bullets and the deep insights you brought into the meaning of the novel. Yes, let’s chat again one of these days.