One third of this year’s Life Writing Prize judging panel is Inua Ellams: poet, playwright, performer, graphic artist and designer whose creative work has been recognised for a number of awards. In this interview, Inua tells us what he’s currently up to, the value behind winning awards and shares his top tip for those of you who are thinking of entering the Prize…
Francesca Baker: I’m here with Inua Ellams, who is a poet, playwright, performer, graphic artist, designer, and also a judge for the Life Writing Prize this year, which is very, very cool.
You’ve published many books – full books, poetry, you’ve written plays, you’ve organised different events. You do an awful lot in literature. Can you explain a little bit more about how you come up with ideas? Is it from life, for you?
Inua Ellams: From various things. I’m definitely a machine – that is written in my experiences and things that happened in my childhood, and I’m constantly regurgitating ideas and things that I went through and find different forms for them and different repercussions or implications of those things in real life, in the real world.
But I also read a lot as well, and I think my ideas come from a meeting of those two, both my life, the real life and my experiences, and also concepts and ideas which just percolate as almost in a kiln, like in a furnace, just keep on turning and heating up till it’s right for it to come into the world.
Francesca Baker: Yeah. I don’t know about you, but I think that the distinction between fiction and nonfiction is perhaps not as polarised as classifications in the library or the bookshelf might tell us. There is a blurring.
Inua Ellams: Yeah, I think there’s a blurring, and I think everything is fiction. I think the only way to tell the truth is to have everyone who were involved in the incident speaking at the same time, because then you cover all the bases.
When you sit down and write – even journalists who try to be entirely objective – when you sit down and construct and create or edit, you are imposing a fiction on the world, because the world is chaos. What writers do is give it order, and that requires editing. That is one way of thinking about constructing fiction: to edit out the things you don’t need.
I think of it the way sculptors think about – they have a block of marble or wood, and they edit out the stuff to be left with the form.
Francesca Baker: And that form in itself could be the truth, even though you’ve done some editing. Or at least, your truth.
Inua Ellams: Yeah, exactly. It’s a truth, it’s your truth.
Francesca Baker: Obviously you’re working with Life Writing Prize, and you’ve won quite a lot of awards and prizes yourself.
Inua Ellams: Oh, quite a lot.
Francesca Baker: You’ve done all right. How do awards and this kind of recognition help writers?
Inua Ellams: How do awards and recognition help writers… I think the first thing is something like a boost of confidence and a small swagger in your step.
If someone says you have won this and your work is deemed to be the best of things, what that does to the brain is suggest to the brain that it knows what it’s doing, and that it can carry on. It can chase even bigger, more fanciful and more hypothetical ideas, regardless of how daunting or how frightening it can be. Because you’ve been recognised as doing something right, it means you might also be able to do things right.
I think awards give us permissions to dream bigger, and I think that’s really, really vitally important.
But also, when you’re awarded by your peers as well, it means that you guys are all doing this work of creation together, and they’ve recognized in you talent or skills which somehow sits in line with what they’re trying to do – which means that you’re not alone anymore. Even if you’re working alone in your room, there are other people who think ‘I understand what you’re doing and why you’re doing it’, and we’re somehow spinning the same plates together.
So I think for me, what I get more from it is acceptance and understanding and a pat on the back, even when that pat on the back comes from a ghost or comes from an idea, like a fistful of dollars or just a nod from somebody. It still helps us carry on that lonely journey of writing, knowing that there are people around us who think the path we are walking is worth it.
Francesca Baker: Like you said, it’s that community and that nice feel to that, because writing can be quite a lonely and solitary process.
Inua Ellams: Oh my God, it endlessly and necessarily is sometimes, yeah.
Francesca Baker: A few years ago you were commissioned to write and perform a poem about the African Diaspora on the BBC Politics Show.
Inua Ellams: Oh, that was years and years ago, oh my God.
Francesca Baker: Yeah, a long time ago. But I thought it was really interesting because it shows how life-writing and creative writing transcend boundaries of art. It’s the Politics Show, it’s not a creative show. Is that something you always try to do, to go beyond the confines of what might be considered just art? I’m thinking of the Midnight Run as well. That would fit into that.
Inua Ellams: Definitely. Even my last play, ‘Barber Shop Chronicles’, 50% to 60% of it was verbatim. I travelled, met people; they told me about their lives, I noted down their lives, I edited it and I constructed drama from it, and I invented other things to meet in the middle.
The Midnight Run, this project that I do where I gather strangers to explore a city for a duration of time, also comes from a way of thinking about the theoretical aspects of art – what a desk is, what a writing space is, how you can find that within the city and create work that is site-specific and time-specific as well.
Also, by work I don’t necessarily mean writing, or writing in a traditional sense. Sometimes, for instance in how musicians create, writing means playing live in real time, making music in real time. When you make something like jazz, which is necessarily freeform sometimes, the musicians are writing in real time, all their instruments, and sometimes in contention with each other, but there’s harmony that comes out of it.
So I’m always thinking about that. How do I make what I’m creating more present? How do I create a present-ness, an interaction between myself and my audiences? And how can I democratise what it is to be a poet, what it is to write, and really allow for complete novices, complete strangers to find resonances between themselves, between myself, and the work that exists that attempts to bridge us together?
Francesca Baker: How long have you been calling yourself a poet?
Inua Ellams: I didn’t call myself a poet until my first book was published, when people were asking me to sign it. That’s when I began to call myself a poet. Even though I’d been reading and publishing for some years, and my publisher gave me a book deal and signed it, I didn’t call myself a poet until the book came out.
Francesca Baker: Real, tangible evidence.
Inua Ellams: That was in 2005, so 13 years.
Francesca Baker: Yeah, lots of people feel like they need that tangible evidence to be able to say ‘I’m a writer’. I think that’s one of the values of even entering a competition. ‘I’ve entered a competition, I put my short story down into words, and someone else has written it’, and that’s a real validation in itself.
Inua Ellams: Yeah.
Francesca Baker: Next up for you is The Half-God of Rainfall. That’s being published by 4th Estate, and you’ve also got a play coming out with it at the same time.
Inua Ellams: Yes.
Francesca Baker: What’s it like writing for both publication and for performance?
Inua Ellams: Well, the text is the same thing. Essentially it’s an epic, epic story. I hope the actors we choose will be able to deliver the text with as much gravitas as is needed. That’s it, really.
Initially I wrote it for myself to perform, but as soon as I finished the first draft I realized that I don’t want to confine the text to the world of theatre and drama, which can be very small sometimes. Because of the form it’s written in, it could straddle various spheres, so I want it to be published as a book.
Francesca Baker: As a book as well.
Inua Ellams: Yeah, so it’s coming out as that. Then I guess theatres can also buy it as a play text if they want, and the actors just have to tell the story well. So it should work. It should. Fingers crossed.
Francesca Baker: I read that you described it with ‘various aspects of your personal mythology built in’. What do you mean by that?
Inua Ellams: The most personal story that I’ve written to date – actually, there’ve been a few. The 14th Tale, my first play, was a coming-of-age story. I wrote a show called ‘An Evening With an Immigrant’ where I just talked about –
Francesca Baker: That was quite recent, wasn’t it?
Inua Ellams: Yeah, that was also recent. And then there’s a show called ‘Black T-Shirt Collection’, which a lot of the angst surrounding the religious aspects of my family, my immigration narrative, we really drilled into that. Those mythologies were grounded as in they were more real than what I’m experimenting with in The Half-God of Rainfall.
In The Half-God of Rainfall, the mythologies I’m experimenting with that are mine are to do with playing basketball, to do with what it means to be a man, what it means to try and defend the women around you – my three sisters and my mother – and the feelings associated with that. It also fools around with immigrant mythology.
But also, the myths that I explore with it are actual myths from Greece, for instance, from Nigeria, for instance, and I’m mixing all of those together.
Francesca Baker: Oh, you are weaving it all together into a real story.
Inua Ellams: Yeah.
Francesca Baker: That’s awesome. Finally, what advice do you have for people entering the Life Writing Prize?
Inua Ellams: The main advice is write your own truth, really. Don’t be obsessed, and acknowledge the fact that that truth is a fiction and that you are lying, and find liberation with that. That’s the main thing.
And then something that Stephen King said, which is ‘write with the door closed and edit with the door open’.
Francesca Baker: Brilliant. Thank you so much.
Inua Ellams: No worries. Thanks.
Find out more about the Life Writing Prize and how to enter here.