This interview between Nnamdi Okose and Chinonso Nzeh took place via email.
About the Author:
Nnamdi Okose won the 2012 ANA/Esiaba Irobi prize for Playwriting with his play titled Children of the River. The Theatre Arts Department of the University of Abuja staged his play, Trial of Amadioha. Nnamdi is a strong believer in the power of art to educate and his community plays written in pidgin English have been staged at various markets and public places in Nigeria. Nnamdi collects African masks and is fascinated by the unity achieved between man and spirit. He lives in Abuja.
Chinonso Nzeh: Thank you so much for granting me this interview. I read your play, Song of Ima, a while ago, and I was mind-blown. It’s such an urgent work of art. Can you talk about the writing process, what informed the premise of this play, and what you intended to do with the play?
Nnamdi Okose: I think that my writing process is different depending on how the subject comes to me. I imagine that this is different for every writer. Sometimes, I am tormented by a particular idea which will only be resolved when I approach it artistically. Sometimes, I start off writing an essay and end up with a play. I have found myself writing plot outlines which I never fully commit to. It is safe to say that I do not follow a regimented process. However, it is important to research subjects extensively. This helps one to have a better understanding of the subject.
In the ‘Song of Ima’, I wanted to deal with a difficult subject which many Africans feel uncomfortable with. Mental health has always been considered a taboo. In Nigeria, people with mental health issues are still called mad. I wanted people to see things from the perspective of someone who has gone through trauma and whose mental state is precarious. Perhaps we can begin to identify with this character and see a bit of ourselves in him.
C.N: I think a beautiful thing about this book is how realistic it is that you think it was drawn from personal experience. The depiction of the military, amongst other things, is well-wrought, the scenes and the characters had great depth regarding the military bearing, were you ever part of the military at some point? Or connected in a way?
N.O: Since 2010 the Nigerian military has been waging a war against terrorism. We read this in the news every day. Nigeria has lost a lot of good men and women. However, most of us do not stop to consider the humanity of these soldiers. How has this war which has lasted more than 10 years traumatized them? How has their mental state been affected? What have they witnessed? What have they lost? In what way does the corruption in the political system influence their trauma?
Though I haven’t been in the military, I have tried to follow the war against terror. The military is quite stoic, but I have been able to look at the fringes. In 2019 a Nigerian Military captain died fighting Boko Haram. He died when a live cable electrocuted him. There are many more soldiers who have died from ambushes. Sometimes, survivors who were spared death suffer more. These things are reported in the news. I think that we have lost the capacity to feel them.
Like Colonel Otaro, I have also had the misfortune of losing someone dear to me. The loss of love in such a sudden and violent way is an experience I have lived through.
C.N: I find myself being drawn to the intimate life of Colonel Otaro—I think an interesting thing you captured was his emotional landscape and this is a representation of all military men, that they, too, can feel, can be emotional beings, however that is translated. Was this deliberate?
N.O: I feel that Colonel Otaro speaks to the universality of trauma. Sometimes we find a friend or colleague become unhinged and seek to end their own lives. We tell ourselves that this is un-African or un-Nigerian. We believe that it is a sign of weakness to pass through mental ailment or be so besieged by trauma that our mind snaps. Most of the characters in the play are dealing with one form of mental ailment or the other. It sort of echoes our Nigerian experience. Nigerians have been so abused that it would take some form of collective therapy to heal us. We have been enslaved by a political class who see us as mere pawns in their quest for power and riches. Last year, Aisha Buhari informed Nigerians that her husband suffers from PTSD. That tells us that the oppressor, the villain and the war criminal is also affected. In the end, I intended us to see our collective trauma and mental illness.
C.N: It’s always refreshing to see playwrights shine in the literary scene. There
Isn’t much focus on this genre in the Nigerian literary scene, do you have any
thoughts on this?
N.O: As a playwright, I feel that the genre has not received enough attention. We have lost the culture of going to the theatre to see a play. I feel that a play is truly fulfilled when it is staged. A staged play affects us differently from a film. I hope that there will be a renaissance someday.
C.N: Which writer(s) has shaped you in some sort of way, and how?
I feel that writers are shaped by a legion of things. A receptacle cannot claim to be influenced by this or that alone. Our lives and experiences expose us to things at that leave tell-tale marks. These marks become one with us. It is the same with writers and art we meet in our sojourn. If a playwright has read Sophocles, or Shakespeare or Ola Rotimi -he or she is somehow a culmination of these writers. He might choose to work with the style of one, but somehow, he bears the mark of all of them. In this way, I find that I bear the mark of Augusto Boal, of Soyinka, of Esiaba Irobi. I bear the mark of classical operas like Puccini’s La Bohème or Motzart’s Marriage of Figaro. I also bear the mark of Igbo operas like egwu amala. I bear the poetry of masquerades from Igbo land. I feel that if one looks, they will
find these influences.
C.N: Do you have forthcoming works, and do you want to talk about them?
N.O: I actually have a novel which is coming out sometime this year from Griots Lounge. This would be my first foray into the world of the novel. ‘White Hearts – the Beginning’ is a work of myth and fantasy which explores Igbo folklore from a radical point of view. It also resurrects gods in a battle which will be fought by both mortals and immortals. I believe that this is the first time that Igbo folklore has received such a treatment in fiction. It is my hope that the story inspires us all to imagine and dream.
C.N: Thank you so much for speaking with me, this conversation has been profound; we are anticipating your next book! Song of Ima revolves around Colonel Otaro who wades in trauma after war, heavily influenced by the flailing political climate of the country amongst other things.