Victor Ehikhamenor defies stereotype — a master at multi-tasking and multi-thinking and multi-creativity. He has produced, to critical acclaim, short stories, photographs, illustrations and paintings. He “needs no introduction” in the Nigerian art scene, as YNaija pointed out. In this conversation with novelist Emmanuel Iduma, Ehikhamenor highlights what probably stands him out and admits that his mind is always “pendulumic” and “constantly swinging.” The newest offering from Victor Ehikhamenor is his new book, Excuse Me! which is released by Parresia Publishers on 29 November. He states his expectation for the book, and what he intended to achieve. Ultimately this short conversation is a peek into the mind of one of Nigeria’s finest contemporary artists.
I know Milan Kundera was not referring to non-fiction when he said “the art of the novel came into the world as an echo of God’s laughter,” but do you share his sentiments? How much of laughter reverberates through life?
So, you are starting this interview with a communist exile’s quote — this should be interesting. To a large extent I can reason with Kundera and his religio-philosophic approach to the birth of the novel. And in that case I would like to say the art of non-fiction writing came into the world when humans took over the laughter from God. You know laughter can be contagious. To me reality makes us laugh quicker than fiction because laughter is an integral part of human nature. Even at funerals, if you observe closely enough, you would see some people laughing in the midst of that grim sombreness.
What kind of success would be success enough for you? Especially for this new book?
The word success is relatively individualistic. What I probably consider a success might mean a different thing to another person. However to find a suitable answer for your question — that the book is getting published at all is a success already, because the first Nigerian publisher I offered the manuscript sent me a very nice and wonderful rejection email. Another success for the book would be if it inspires new writers to write creative non-fiction and engage issues that beleaguer Nigeria.
When I heard someone say Nigerians are suffering from visual illiteracy I wondered what that could mean. Could it mean that there are few of us who try to record what we see, our ‘mundane’ experiences?
To be honest with you, this is new to me, I haven’t heard that before. Whoever said that to you is the one probably suffering from that malady, because there is a lot of output from Nigerians in various ways — especially in the art industry. When next you encounter such a person, tell that individual: “shine your eye!”
Don’t you think Excuse Me! as a title gives us both the idea of arrogance and politeness, especially when we think of how we often use it in these parts?
‘Excuse me’ is a very versatile phrase — the meaning lies in the swagger and attitude in the tonal inflection of the speaker. However for the purpose of this book, it is the one said when you want draw someone’s attention to a serious matter.
Maybe writing is an attempt at self-interrogation? Does this resonate with what you tried to do with Excuse Me?
I think it was Pablo Neruda who said “I speak to you and myself.” Excuse Me is not so much a self-interrogation but a careful examination of events and issues about our/my reality.
The word that comes closest to understanding how you work both as a writer and visual artist is schizophrenia, especially since it is defined in terms of mind splits. Do you make any attempt to distinguish your approach to prose from your approach to visual arts? Is it technique or artistic vision that makes this distinction?
Was God schizophrenic when he started creating plethora of things? Schizophrenia is too strong and bristly a term to use for the process of creativity, although some psychoanalysts have argued otherwise. I think artists and writers are what I would call multi-thinkers and restless doers. Many people think of a creative idea and hinder themselves with “it cannot be done” or “I don’t have time for that”, whereas an artist or writer thinks of the same thing and devices a way to make it happen and visible for others to appreciate or abhor.
But I must admit that my mind is always pendulumic, constantly swinging but not in the sense of mental instability. I have made art and written for quite some time now and I am no longer conscious of the processes that demarcate the two forms. What I know is that sometimes I feel like painting, drawing, carving, photographing and other times I want to write. I tend to gravitate more towards painting/drawing because it is easier and more enjoyable for me than writing. Writing is a difficult form of expression, but I love it like an obstinate lover. The whole process of stringing words like my grandma in her weaving loom is just scintillating.
The message I want to pass across makes the distinction, because that is what dictates the technique and the artistic vision all the way to how it is executed.
Is there a false division between laughter and thought, between comedy and seriousness?
The lines are blurry. We don’t just junk things that make us laugh into the mind’s trash can. When you go to a comedy show and the comedian jokes about a serious situation, you laugh first and then ruminate and sometimes go — “That is so true!” and continue with your laughter.
And how can we laugh and not forget? I am very curious about knowing your thoughts on this.
Extreme laughter has the same weight as extreme sadness/crying. You cannot afford to forget what made you laugh, even if you do, it is only temporary before something triggers your memory again.
I found no other way to ask this question, but it has nagged me since we began this conversation. How do you see?
With my eyes first, like every other human being that I know. Now how I process what I see is another thing totally different. I am constantly seeking and composing, deconstructing, formulating, arranging and re-arranging within seconds with my eyes — that is what being a photographer does to your ways of seeing.
Let’s return to God’s laughter. Howard Jacobson says God laughs at the idea that we can think our way out of the unthinkable. In Excuse Me! do you want us to laugh at things we would otherwise be pessimistic about?
The primary purpose is not really for you to laugh but to arrest your attention to something you would probably gloss over. When I was a kid, there was a malaria medication called Nivaquin, which had the nastiest taste ever. Back then the packaging of “tablet” was crude, and you had to either deal with the “bitter pill” or remain sick. Now, you have pills encapsulated in tasteless casings and the bitterness is contained and cannot be tasted. Some pieces in Excuse Me! are bitter pills encapsulated in laughter. So, in the book I want you to laugh and ponder.
You say you regarded NEXT as an institution of higher learning. Maybe it was for all of us too, because when it folded up, we all ‘graduated.’ What do you think? What did you (and all of us) graduate from?
I graduated from the school of excellence and hard work. One couldn’t have worked with Dele Olojede and not learn how to smell news and package it; or Amma Ogan the most elegant and exciting editor with a tongue the sharpness of a Nacet blade; or with Molara Wood who will never let go a feature until it is whistle clean even if you put a gun on her head; or Kadaria Ahmed who was like a war General and a mother Theresa at the same time; or Kayode Ogunbunmi whose patience and gentleness yet fierceness in chasing a story would make a cheetah cover its face with shame; or Dapo Olorunyomi who teaches meekness yet would sink his teeth into a hard untouchable news and won’t let go of it until he unearths the underbelly that stinks to high heavens; or the entire creative unit with some of the craziest, best and tenacious artists I have ever met. I can go on and on naming great names because the place was filled with really awesome Nigerians that believed in the country and what NEXT was all about.
Will you be tempted to work less on a new book now that Excuse Me! is out?
No. I get bored easily. I must keep myself busy. I don’t have a novel out there yet even though my short stories have been published in various journals and magazines. Also I would like to see if what Milan Kundera said about God’s echo of laughter as the origin of the novel is true. So I’m working on that.