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The City and the Writer: In Lagos with Jumoke Verissimo

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Can you describe the mood of Lagos as you feel/see it?

Lagos is a phenomenon. It is a city that leaves your mind filled with striking and interesting images. I see it as a city that sits in your head once you live in it. Its infamous traffic congestion (known locally as “go-slow”), its open markets and new malls, and the diversity of its people both in character and in color help one to realize that this is a city with character. You hate it, you love it.

Sometimes I think of Lagos as a city that suffers mood swings. This could be because the city’s social and historical narratives have divided it into two parts—the Lagos Island and the Lagos Mainland—each with its own vibes. On the island, which is so called because it is in the lagoon area, the affluent live side by side with some of the world’s most famous ghettos. The island is home to crumbling colonial houses hidden by tall buildings. The island has art centers and most of the major art events take place there. During the week, Lagos Island is a swarm of hurrying feet, knitted congestion, and tired brows. This changes on the weekends, especially Sundays, when its streets become so bare that it sometimes feels like one is watching a city in shock. The mainland is where the multitude of hopefuls are said to live.

Lagos continues to change, as the Lagos I was born in has evolved considerably, and it is different from my father’s narratives of his own Lagos. Yet the fierceness, the cultural stimulus, and the rush in the veins are still the same.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

My cousin was killed at dawn by armed robbers. He was visiting his father. The incident remains one of the most devastating memories, not just for me but for my family. He was a promising young man, firstborn of a mother who had previously lost a child. His last words were, don’t let me die, please. But the hospitals could not help him. His mother, strong as she is, failed against the turmoil of raw emotions and fear that ate at her bones. It felt like being stabbed in the back. How could this city do this to us?

I remember how we gathered together watching the noisy silence of his mother, who just stared into space, volunteering only long sighs. For a long time I could not understand how this same city that gives you a dream can take it away so violently.

We stumbled through that period. The loss made us stare at ourselves with fear and shame, our anxieties open like sore wounds. We went through that time, and we came out stronger.

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

The conversations on the public buses. They are gems. You can determine the anger, the promise, and the excitement of the city on a bus. Its oracular bus conductors and drivers are usually characters in an impromptu skit.

What writer(s) from here should we read?

Lagos has influenced many artists, those who were born here and those who live here. Lagos is a confluence of the arts in Nigeria, and people who travel everywhere come to Lagos. Considering how difficult it is not to be affected by Lagos life, you have a whole lot of brilliant writers who do not live in the city but have a story about Lagos. It is a city that adopts stragglers, passersby, and visitors. This makes it difficult to define writers from here.

Some writers who have been strongly influenced by the city in their works and worldview: Odia Ofeimun—his Lagos and the Poet is arguably the best effort to carry the city into poetry. He also has a body of essays, Imagination and the City. Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka set several of his books in Lagos, including The Interpreters, The Jero Plays, and Beatification of an Area Boy. Rasheed Gbadamosi, Cyprian Ekwensi and Naiwu Osahon, and Sefi Atta have interesting narratives set in old Lagos. Akin Adesokan and Maik Nwosu capture the stories of the Lagos that existed between the old and new Lagos. Toni Kan, Leye Adenle, and the Chibundu Onuzo in their latest books bring interesting perspectives on the Lagos experience. Edify Yakusak’s After They Left and Teju Cole’s essays explore Lagos, and Helon Habila has some of the most riveting poems I’ve read on Lagos.

Is there a place here you return to often?

I love to stand at bus stops and walk around open markets at night. It keeps my mind in check. There I can also meet the thoughts of others and leave mine to stray.

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

I’d choose the house of the poet Odia Ofeimun in the Ikeja area of Lagos. You never know who you’ll meet there. His house, choked with books, comes with a lot of stories as well. Too many writers have many things to say about this house and the part it played during the military dictatorship. Writers may spend time at the National Theater, although it holds more performances these days and does not have the same repute as it did in the past. There’s also the Terra Kulture center, and bookshops like Glendora and Jazzhole are famous for being great writers’ hangouts. In recent times, there’s been an influx of literary meet-ups at Freedom Park and in Onikan, where the annual Lagos Books and Art Festival is held in November. It’s on Lagos Island and it was a colonial prison where Nigeria’s national patriots were first imprisoned. It is known to host several readings and cultural events, including “Nights of the Poet,” a collaborative poetry project between Nigerian and Italian poets. This led to the publication of the poetry collaborative anthology Migrazioni/Migrations, edited by Wole Soyinka and curated by Alessandra Di Maio.

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

I am intrigued by the several thriving hamlets that you find in Lagos. In one moment, you’re in a busy commercial area, and in the next, you are walking in a maze of traditional houses handed down by fathers who settled in Lagos a long time ago.

Where does passion live here?

In the streets. It’s impulsive here. You stand at the bus stop and you see someone screaming and crying into a mobile phone. Then you turn around and see another person dancing to the loud music blaring from a speaker close by. Once I was walking deep in thought and a man in a car slowed down like he was about to ask for directions, and, baring full teeth at me, he said, Auntie, make you smile now. He go beta. I burst into a cackle. The energy on the street can be infectious, and when there’s a downturn in the economy, you can also tell—the streets, the people become edgy and tense.

What is the title of one of your works about (city) and what inspired it exactly?

Lagos influences everything I write, beyond its geography. Usually, I try to situate myself in the emotional language of the city—its urgency to speak to newcomers, its largesse of imagery, the music that seems to be everywhere, and its noise. I hate it. I love it.

My novel There’s no Forgetting, forthcoming by Cassava Republic in 2018/2019, is set in a nonrepresentational Lagos. It was inspired by the way darkness appears to swallow the city whenever there is a blackout.

My poem “The Pain of the Excluded,” written for a collaborative project that brought together five different artists, was inspired by the changing face of the city. As I previously mentioned, there’s old Lagos and new Lagos. Old Lagos is the Lagos of our fathers—you can feel its presence in the narratives and the rundown buildings. New Lagos is the aggressive attempt to bring order to the city—the cars, the high-rise buildings, the estates springing up, and the rat race. However, the poem goes beyond the landscape. It focuses on pain, joy, anxieties, aspirations, passion. It was published in Missing Slate magazine as Transgendered.

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Lagos does an outside exist?”

The line that connects people is bleached, but in this city, people mutate. This is Lagos—that’s how you are welcomed to this city, where anything can happen.

Jumoke Verissimo is one of Nigeria’s leading poets and the author of two acclaimed poetry collections: I am Memory and The Birth of Illusion. Her poetry has appeared in several anthologies and magazines, including Lagos of the Poets, Reflections: An Anthology of New Work by African Women Poets, African Sexualities, Chimurenga, Boyne Berries, Biblio (India), Voldposten (Norway), Ann Arbor, Dag og Tid (Norway), Modernity (Macedonia), Saku (Japan), and Kitap (Turkey). She is the creative director of the Ibadan Poetry Foundation (IBPF). Her novel There’s no Forgetting will be published by Cassava Republic in 2018/19. Verissimo currently works as a content strategist, editor, and researcher for a public relations company in Lagos.

Jumoke Verissimo’s work is forthcoming in Migrazioni/Migrations (66theand2nd, Rome), an anthology of African and Italian poetry edited by Wole Soyinka and curated and prefaced by Alessandra Di Maio. Alessandra Di Maio and Maaza Mengiste will discuss the book in NYC on February 27 at NYU’s Casa Italiana.

Published Feb 20, 2017   Copyright 2017 Nathalie Handal

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