A conversation with Rotimi Babatunde
Rotimi Babatunde is the author of the short story ‘Bombay’s Republic’, winner of the 2012 Caine Prize for African Writing. His works have been translated into Swedish, French and German while his plays have been produced at venues worldwide such as the Halcyon Theatre, Chicago; the Young Vic, London; Riksteatern, Stockholm; the Royal Court Theatre, London and broadcast on the BBC World Service. Rotimi Babatunde has received a Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation award for his fiction and has been awarded fellowships by Ledig House, New York; the MacDowell Colony, New Hampshire and the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre in Italy, among others. He lives in Nigeria.
Emmanuel Iduma I re-read ‘Bombay’s Republic’ and the first thing that struck me was that you were setting up a historical game show. The past and the present keep referring back to each other. Did you intend that?
Rotimi Babatunde I have long been fascinated by the possibility of recursive time. Several of my favourite writers, including William Faulkner, explored temporal circularity. So I am not surprised that tendency has crept into my writing.
ED What fascinated me was not merely the circularity but the historical disruptions that also happen. It’s like you own these histories and at the same time you disrupt them. Perhaps you’re interested in this as a sort of project?
RB The ‘pastness’ of historical events is often illusory and ghosts from the past tend to intrude into the present. Acknowledging the connections between the past and the present serves not only to retrieve and possess the past but also to rediscover the present.
ED Exactly. I think it’s the same premise for your play Life is a Spectacle.
RB Life is a Spectacle takes the recursiveness of time to extremes in a way that the story ‘Bombay’s Republic’ does not. My intention with the play was not only to make connections between experiences from different points in time but also to fuse the past, present and future into a new realm of simultaneous singularity — a realm that is, perhaps, similar to the one that Wole Soyinka theorised in The Fourth Stage.
ED I don’t like linear time. I don’t believe in it.
RB I am also quite suspicious of it because I don’t think we can understand the present without taking the past into cognisance. Some people have argued that the zone of experience being explored by contemporary writers connected with the continent of Africa is way too narrow. I think more needs to be done by our writers of fiction to illuminate the present by refracting it through the prism of history.
ED I like this because I see that your works existing in a continuum, feeding itself by itself. Perhaps that’s some kind of imperative for you?
RB Self-reflexivity and formal circularity in my writing is sometimes just what it is — the prankster in me trying to blur the boundaries between fiction and reality. That can be seen as the writing feeding on itself, ouroborus-like — you know, like the serpent swallowing its own tail. However, in line with your earlier observation, self-reflexivity in my writing is also functional. It gives one an extra tool with which to disrupt orthodox readings of history and to plumb human experience.
ED So, which pasts are you interested in?
RB Much writing about Africa refers only as far back as European colonialism of the continent and ignores even major historical experiences prior to that, for example the traumas of the trans-Atlantic slave trafficking era. I am interested not only is such neglected aspects of history but also what I will call the ‘mythical past’, for want of a better term. The boundaries between that ‘mythical past’ and existence in the present day, between performance and reality, were what I tried to erase in Life is a Spectacle. The buried past can be seen as metonymic of other dimensions of the hidden. Consequently, in my excavation of the subterranean, contemporary experiences that have been subsumed under more dominant narratives also come into major focus.
ED When you say ‘mythical past’ the first thing that comes to my mind is a sentence in ‘Bombay’s Republic’, ‘everything he thought fantastic was indeed credible.’ I imagine you’re trying to give credibility to this mythical past, because the space where it exists is perhaps negative.
RB Imbuing everyday experience with mythical intensity – as well as reinvigorating hackneyed speech with expressive freshness – that is what great writing is about, isn’t it?
ED Yes, it’s what the great writers do, like Cormac McCarthy, whose writing I know you love. They take a landscape; make it dystopic, at the same time filling it with so much grace.
RB Cormac McCarthy is a terrific writer. His virtues lie not only in his descriptive energy and in his uncompromising handling of challenging themes but also in his ability to exteriorise the interior in, and with, his landscapes. And those landscapes are not always realistic landscapes, even though they superficially appear so. Oftentimes, they are actually landscapes of the imagination, landscapes that are concretisations of abstract, existential concerns.
ED What I love about your project is that it’s not overrating or underrating fiction as a form. People say the novel is overrated, but I feel as though you’re saying, let’s mess with chronology and time.
RB The novel continues to remain one of the most useful intellectual instruments we have to investigate the workings of reality and illusion, and to show how both ontological polarities, at the moments they overlap, beguilingly undermine and reinforce each other. That was what Don Quixote, at the very beginning of the history of the novel form, was all about. And that is what the fiction of writers like Saramago and Tabucchi, of Borges and Calvino, continue to remain about, even centuries after Cervantes created Quixote.
ED Can you do this same thing with plays; investigate the workings of reality and illusion? I mean, it’s set up to happen in real time, with live action, but it’s also fictional and the actors, like in your plays, inhabit these landscapes of the imagination.
RB Awareness of that potential is central to my practice as a playwright. Theatre has been enriched from time immemorial by thespians who explored with haunting intensity that investigative possibility. Permit me to illustrate with a story about Polus, an actor in Attic theatre, who brought an urn containing the ashes of his dead son onto the stage. Polus was acting the role of the ostensibly bereaved sister of Orestes in Sophocle’s Electra and by bringing his son’s ashes onstage, reality and fiction became fused. In his performance, he was using the lines of Sophocles to mourn not only the fictional Orestes but also his recently dead son. I also remember an incident that happened while I was in primary school. We were acting Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, and I was playing Mark Antony. While giving the famous oration delivered by Mark Antony after Caesar’s assassination, the younger sister of the actor playing Caesar – she couldn’t have been more than five years old – came onstage. She knelt down beside her brother – who was lying still on the floor, his toga stained red with fake blood – to check if he was truly dead or not. I still find that incident fascinating. My alertness to the virtues of blurring boundaries in theatre is not only informed by my love for the whimsical. Destabilising certainties makes the ground beneath the feet of the audience quake. And I think good plays make their audience uncomfortable, they make the audience re-think matters that seem long settled. Many excellent plays even go as far as inflicting some pain on members of the audience. Interrogating and reframing reality play an important part in that process of unsettling the spectators.
ED In your plays, especially An Infidel in the Upper Room and The Bonfire of the Innocents, you give us nameless landscapes. It’s what you say about McCarthy, exteriorising the interior, in my mind. Even in the story ‘Bombay’s Republic’ you don’t name a place.
RB In ‘Bombay’s Republic’ locations outside the continent of Africa were named but those in Africa were not. That may be seen as an acknowledgement of the similarities in the experiences of soldiers taken away from Africa to fight in Asia during World War Two; it may also be seen as a criticism of the reductionist lens through which the continent of Africa has been viewed by alien eyes.
ED This makes me think that you find intensity in plays that you don’t find in fiction.
RB I don’t think so. They are different genres, so their workings are radically dissimilar. Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and Bolano’s Amulet are as intense as any play you’ll ever see.
ED I understand. I’ll take you back to an earlier comment you made about contemporary writers connected with the African continent. I wonder if you’ve thought about other possible virtues that we could work with, virtues that are hardly talked about today.
RB I would love more formal experimentation and more narrative adventurousness, as well as more playfulness and humour, in contemporary writing from Africa. Those are not prescriptions from me, though I derive more joy – even ecstasy – from works that display the traits I just mentioned. Every writer must work out his own salvation with ‘fear and trembling’, to appropriate Kierkegaard’s use of the term in a somewhat loose way.
ED Kierkegaard was the master of prescriptions! From what I know about your practice you seem interested in the important, not necessarily the urgent. I mean you work on manuscripts for an audacious length of time (it makes me fear and tremble!) Does this distinction exist for you, between an important piece of writing and an urgent one?
RB Journalism and literature are urgent in different ways. With journalistic writing – and by that I don’t mean only what appears in the newspapers, because many works that present themselves as literature are actually journalistic in their intentions – getting things out as soon as possible is vital. In literature though, it is more important to get a piece right before releasing it for public consumption. Pound described literature as ‘news that stays news’, and I agree with him. Some would argue though that endlessly revising one’s work is not necessarily desirable. Thomas Hardy felt that the Flaubertian extreme in matters of revision would make a work texture-less and over-polished, like an old, well-thumbed coin. And one would do well to remember that one of Paul Valery’s most important poems might not have been published, at least in Valery’s lifetime, if Andre Gide hadn’t truncated Valery’s interminable revision of the work.
ED I think every writer must work with different sets of virtues and imperatives. The point of this conversation for me was to discover yours — which is why I’ll ask, where does your writing come from?
RB I consider writing as a continuous discovery of the self and as a dialogue with other works of art. The latter was the reason why Auden described art as ‘breaking bread with the dead’.
ED Yes, certainly, it’s a gift economy and a tributary dialogue. And a follow-up question will be where do you hope your writing will take you?
RB I would be glad if my writing took me back to itself — if I could read my works many years after they were written and still find them engaging. To continue quoting Auden, he wrote that poetry ‘survives in the valley of its making’. I would find such survival sufficient recompense.