Inua Ellams is a poet, playwright, performer and graphic designer. Or rather, a wordsworth, peruser and interloper traversing different worlds with rhythm and slice. His writing and performance comes with ornate detail and structure that straddles his Nigerian roots and British upbringing. Layered in richness and full of iconographic imagery – he presents British audiences with a hologram of an immigrant’s creative coming of age.
Inua’s critically acclaimed first solo play, “The 14th Tale”, described as a piece that is punctuated by “beautiful poetry, while challenging the audience’s expectations of what it is to be a young, black male in London today,” won at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and showed at The National Theatre in London. His follow-up, conspicuously titled “Untitled”, bravely moves into the next realm. It continues as a more formal encounter of his British upbringing and Nigerian roots combining magical realism, and personal narrative. It’s rife with the rich poetry and intricate language Inua’s spoken-word style is known for.
He speaks with This is Worldtown about embracing his writing and background to eventually spew words as epically detailed as his hyper-observant conscience. Influenced by nature, classical poets, and by virtue of being “a child of the hip hop generation”, Inua’s personality and poetry channel a vivid picture of a modern immigrant’s tale. This is…Inua Ellams.
Interview Script Below:
This is Worldtown [TIWT]: Talk about your earliest experience with writing, play writing, or which ever came first.
Inua Ellams [IE]: Earliest experience with writing: I was 12, 13 in Holland Park secondary school. We had this English teacher and she smoked like an industrial chimney, it was vile. Smoked so much, the stench was infusing everything she owned. When she came to school her stench would come before her and get the classroom comfortable and announce her presence before she walked into it – it was crazy. Anyway, she set us this homework – and we had to write something inspired by Man in the Iron Mask. I wrote a version of that story. When I got to school a couple of days after handing in the assignment, she stood up in front of the class, and read it. And when she finished, I got a standing ovation. She read my work and I had a standing ovation. And the girl I had a crush on came running to the class and hugged me [it was gratifying]. That was my earliest experience writing something that I felt an audience thought was good.
Earliest performance probably goes back to living in Nigeria, and doing plays in church, which is quite surreal. I have a vivid memory of dressing up as a doctor, my twin sister was my patient…
Earliest memory of graphic art: drawing a plan of a city for my for my father and he was so proud of it he folded it and put it in his work briefcase. Might as well as have been the arc as far as I’m concerned. That was my earliest memory of what I do now.
TIWT: Can you talk about your projects, and your other work – including that which you published?
IE: 13 Fairy Negro tales came out when I was 19, when I was fearless enough not to care what anyone though about my work and I didn’t know I could get it wrong and I just did it. It was after I’d been writing for a year or so. These poets came over from Chicago, they went to this event, and they sat there reading poems. They were rich, rhythmic, hip-hop influenced, alive, vibrant. This girl I’d taken to see them (curiously enough the same girl that gave me a huge when my teacher first read my work) fell for for a guy called LaMonde who wrote a line about describing kisses like origami butterflies. They began flirting and struck up a relationship for two weeks. I got jealous and drifted into a rage. On my way home I wrote this poem called 13 Negro Fairy Tales – a stream of consciousness where I let myself go and wrote whatever came. I gave it to my best friend who’d introduced me to that girl when I was 11 years old and fresh off the boat from Nigeria. He said it was pretty good and he dared me to write 13 Fairy Negro Tales. So I did and that became my first book. It’s kind of a conceptual book where the first poem references about 6 other poems within the pamphlet. To fully grasp the poem you have to read it and come back to it. It came out when I was 19, and was critically acclaimed. It helped me realize that I had a voice worth investing in and reading. That was my first kind of poetry outing. Before that, I had spent years focusing on visual art and painstakingly creating images and growing up that way. And that way of constructing visuals informed the way I write – so I write detailed painstakingly well-crafted things. A lot of times you have to pay an acute attention to fully grasp the things that I create. I got tired of reading in pubs and clubs where people were far too intoxicated to listen to what I was saying. I had to create something where people would come specifically to sit down and listen to a longer narrative. I went around and a couple of people thought I could do that and gave me money to do that. So I referenced it as such to call it the 13 Fairy Negro Tales but also to suggest a departure from that. The 13 Fairy Negro Tales came first and the 14th tale came after.
TIWT: Your play The 14th Tale was one of the first plays at he National Theatre featuring a Black man in a solo production. Can you speak about you trajectory in getting The 14th Tale there?
IE: This happened over a two-year period. Five days before I showed a scratch I was still working on the script. I showed it – the first show went well…the 2nd show I thought was awful…the 3rd one went well. No one contacted me at first and I thought the show was dead in the water and no one was interested. A couple of months passed I got this phone call from this lady called Kate Mcgrath from theatre production company called Fuel. Said she liked it and wondered if I’d be interested in developing it. Also that same week, a friend of mine who’d seen the show and thought it went horribly saw it. He runs a festival called the London Word Festival and he thought he could get London Arts Council funding to finish it. All of this happened within the space of the week. A couple of weeks passed and we scratched the first full play at Dalston’s Arcola theatre. We sold out, everyone loved it and came with such vibrant, brilliant instant responses to it. So a lady from the British Arts Council came and loved it and booked the play to go to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival for the British Council. [We got to the festival] It was about crazy audiences, good reviews people came down with 4 star and 5 star reviews. Edinburgh Fringe Festivals give rewards to the best things that come to the festival every year and they deemed The 14th Tale to be one of those. It was awarded the Fringe First, which was really cool. All these guys from the British Council came and saw it and really loved it. Returned to London to do the National Tour in September or so. After that someone from the National Theatre came to see it and loved it and asked us if we’d consider doing some dates at the Cuttles so we said yep, then we went to the National Theatre. I guess I just believe in the importance of doing that – of staying true to yourself and thinking the more you write that is finite, the more you can reflect the infinite.
TIWT: A lot of your work speaks about your background, i.e. being in the diaspora. How has that influenced your expression, creativity?
IE: Before I wrote the 14th tale, I’d never considered writing about myself. The 13 Fairy Negro Tales – written in the voice of a lost African voice written in that of a sort of lost African storyteller in the Western world, and his voice speaks of an immigrant experience, it’s very political and it’s about the world he lives in rather than about himself. I wrote it when I was 19 – 20 yrs old, where I went through my angry Black Man phase, when I realized everything was f*cked in schools I thought everything was just f*cked and I thought everything was going to the dogs. I had just read Malcolm X’s biography, and I’d read this book called Let the Trumpet Call, which is a biography of Martin Luther King right up to when he died. And when he died I remember calling my twin sister into my room and reading the last chapter and crying on her shoulder and just thinking “omigod they killed him”, and and I just thought everything was wrong. Everything I wrote before then was about the world and about things that I just thought should not be. After that was when I wrote The 14th Tale. After that success, I began to consider that perhaps I could write about myself and my experiences but stay true to a global and political atmosphere since then I’ve realized I can do that, I’ve begun to explore myself and the implication of myself within that context and what that might mean. A lot of my work does stem from this, but only recently in the last couple of years that I’ve begun to do so confidently.
How does that effect my work? I guess I just believe in the importance of doing that, in staying true to myself. The more I believe that the more that I write that is finite the more I can reflect the infinite. Also is an awareness that I’m constantly changing and I’m influenced a lot by things that I read by people that are around me and the difficulties in trying to stay true to who I think I am amongst this cloud of influences.
TIWT: What Kind of Influences do you have in your work?
IE: Influences just ways of writing by other authors other writers, people with different standpoints, views and people that think: that an African voice shouldn’t necessarily be here and that if it is it should be suppressed and things like that – I guess it’s a discourse between the world clashing with who I think I am. It’s an ongoing internal conversation. Have all these things trying to influence who I think I am and why I write and the reasons why I write. I haven’t found an answer to it or a method to the world and the front door, because the windows are open and things keep passing through. As an artist, that is how you are supposed to be. Ben Okeri (Nigerian poet) writes that the world flows in one direction and the poet must flow not opposite to it but tangentially and sometimes sideways through it. So things are constantly clashing against you from the left or right and you have to learn to shoulder it and go with it and friction and kind of swimming and zigzagging through it. So that’s currently what I do.
TIWT: Does everything you write about automatically speak about your experience?
IE: You can’t create anything of any importance to you without reflecting something of what has happened to you. It’s like putting flour and water into an oven. Or more like a baker making a cake or something. Something of his DNA, his fingerprints infused with the bread and of kneading it. Something he’s created lives in that bread. It’s the same thing when you create anything – even if I don’t create anything specifically about my youth, my experiences shape the way that I think about anything. It comes out reflecting myself in it. Most of the things I write now aren’t based on my youth but they’re inspired by it. Inspired by things that I believed in when I was a kid. For similar reasons I find it difficult to listen to contemporary music because when I was 19 or when I was 20 I listened to a Dead Prez album, I listened to a Roots album and it just spoke to me and it made me alive and it lit a fire that burns to this day and everything I create is tinged with that.
TIWT: What inspires you to write a story or poem?
IE: It usually starts with philosophical questions or dares or mixtures of both. The 14th Tale was written with a philosophical standpoint and a belief there was a vague order to things, and that regardless of how mad or chaotic something might seem there is structure inherent, chaos is order and vice versa [which is] one of the things that I believe in that influenced The 14th Tale. And how it’s written and the structure of it.
I’m influenced by philosophy and belief that there isn’t an idea of the “other”, it’s a construct – I just hate that, I just hate that. That influences me a lot. I firmly believe that I could speak to a Mongolian herdsman and once we get past the language barrier we could find things that we find in common with each other. So the idea of an “other” – something I try to dispel in everything I write. Also, I’m a hopeless romantic so that influences me a lot. I like tying things together. Bows. When I begin to write poems sometimes I start with two completely different things and try and make them meet in the middle – maybe related to something I experienced as a kid. That influences me a lot. I’m influenced by classical literature. People like John Keats, William Shakespeare. Wordsworth, Elliot. I just love the classic cats for doing what they do and giving ground to what we do. On the flipside of that, I’m influenced by the hip hop generation- I’m a child of the hip-hop nation and bragadocia – by the desperateness of it all. For me, both things exist on the same plate. In the same way that classic poets talked about holding the midnight candle while sitting there and writing in the darkness, I think Hip Hop artists echo that same image, poeticness. Nothing more poetic than a rapper working in the middle of the night, strutting with nothing to show for it, except his words and writing by street light. Both images contract and meet for me. Both these things sit and meet for me. There’s a saying I like:
Old’s cool = oldschool. Try to mix the old with the new society and odds with eachother and tie ‘em together.