Tade Ipadeola is a Nigerian poet, essayist, storyteller, translator, and lawyer. The recipient of many awards for both prose and poetry, he writes in both Yoruba and English. Among his main publications are three poetry volumes – A Time of Signs (2000), The Rain Fardel (2005) and The Sahara Testaments (2013)—the last of which won the Nigeria Prize for Literature; his latest collection is Cold Brew (2023). In 2009, his poem “Odidere” [Songbird] won the Delphic Laurel in poetry at the Delphic Games held in Jeju, South Korea. He has translated the novelist Daniel Fagunwa from the Yoruba, and W.H Auden, Tomas Tranströmer and Lu Xun into Yoruba.
Q: What reading is on your night stand these days?
TI: At the moment, I have a small stack by my headboard. There is Golda Meir’s autobiography My Life, originally published in 1975 and recently reissued in 2023. My late mother spoke often of Golda Meir and now I see why. There is Derek Nnuro’s debut novel, What Napoleon Could Not Do. My copy is autographed and it has proven to be a steady source of joyful recognitions. There is Abdulrazak Gurnah’s novel After Lives--masterful, if restrained, storytelling. There is Akinwumi Isola’s historical play in the Yoruba language, "Efunsetan Aniwura," about one of the most prominent Yoruba women of the 19th century. She was at once a civic leader and a major slave trader. There is also a volume of the selected poems of Antonio Machado, translated into English by Alan Trueblood. For some reason, I prefer these translations to those by Robert Bly, which are deemed extremely accomplished.
Q: As a young writer, did you have literary infatuations or influences?
TI: Yes indeed, there was Mariama Bâ, whose epistolary novel So Long a Letter utterly transported me into a world I could not have imagined for myself. I was 15 when I first read this book and it was a powerful turning point for me. A year after my definitive encounter with Mariama Bâ, Wole Soyinka won the Nobel Prize for Literature. That too was a major milestone and his poetry and his plays began to influence my thinking about my country’s history. And finally, as an undergraduate I read Berthold Brecht for the first time. It was, I imagine, like Gabriel Garcia Marquez reading Kafka’s Metamorphosis for the first time and discovering that a writer can take artistic liberties to any extent necessary to drive home a point, all the while remaining rooted in meaning.
Q: How do English and Yoruba speak to each other inside your head when you sit down to write? Do you ever self-translate?
TI: I have consciously tried to self-translate many times, especially with my poetry but I am always happier with the translation done by others. Most of the translation in my head happens without consciously trying. The way Yoruba and English mingle while dreaming, with some pieces of conversation beginning in Yoruba and finishing off in English and vice versa is something I wish I can write about but which I haven’t yet done. It’s on the list of essays to be written. There is a certain sense in which Yoruba stakes its territories in my mind when it comes to real works of the imagination while English does the same when it comes to ratiocination. Perhaps I’ll convince the languages to switch sides sometime but so far they remain stubbornly embedded in their default terrains.
Q: At what angle does your lawyering meet your poetry?
TI: I think it was Eliot who was reported to have concluded that immature poets imitate while mature poets steal. The lawyer in me is never far from cautioning against imaginative larceny. I have been lucky to have argued cases in court before judges who appreciate fine distinction in language. I have also been fortunate to have received official recognition from the Bar Association for what they say is an elevation of the language of discourse. Otherwise, the lawyer’s default setting is like that of the policeman when it comes to language. Perhaps it is worse because I often feel I cannot even take liberties with Traherne or Milton or Boccaccio after their works have since passed into Public Domain. There is one advantage though, and it is this, in my experience: poets tend to have a flirtatious relationship with poverty which tendency is emphatically eschewed by the lawyering instinct.
Q: Is there a difference for a writer between living in Abuja and in Lagos?
TI: As I live in between both locations, I can only offer proximate conjecture from a few known facts. Lagos is the country’s commercial capital while Abuja is the political capital. I know for a fact that for every writer in Abuja, there are ten in Lagos. Abuja is a young city still finding its soul whereas Lagos is full of experience and is even jaded sometimes. The evidence is in the writing coming from both locations. There is a new kind of literature coming from Abuja though. It tends to concern itself with what passes for politics and the intrigues of governance. These new books issue as collections of short stories and novellas. There are also plays and collections of poetry. Lagos tends to have full novels, thematic anthologies, essay collections, flash fiction, multiple indigenous language books, and bilingual volumes and so on.
Living in Ibadan but working in both Abuja and Lagos, I think I notice these trends. There are more critical writings coming from Ibadan, always has been that way. Ibadan is home to the University of Ibadan, established in 1948, the first Nigerian university, home to the first thinkers trained to think critically about literature. Ibadan produced Elechi Amadi, Wole Soyinka, J.P Clark, Chinua Achebe, Abiola Irele, Molara Ogundipe, Lola Shoneyin, Dan Izevbaye, Harry Garuba, Mabel Segun, Femi Osofisan and Niyi Osundare to name a few of the more prominent writers and critics. Amadi, Osofisan, Shoneyin and Osundare were early recipients of the IWP fellowship.
Q: The transatlantic trajectory in the past decade, plus, between Nigeria and the US is now legion for novelists. How does this traffic project onto poetry in either place? ......and, by extension: did your own time in the US/Iowa City leave any mark on your work or thinking?
TI: In a way, it is ironic that it is now very noticeable that there is a crosscurrent of transatlantic ideas showing up in the writing by Nigerians featuring various destinations in the US and in Nigeria. For a long time, this was true of Nigeria and the UK. Novelists, particularly, tend to make the most of these exchanges. They feature less with playwrights, for example. I say it is ironic because Gabriel Okara and Nnamdi Azikiwe, first generation poets in Nigeria active from the 1940s to the 1990s together with a handful of other Nigerian poets studied in the US. And they actually published before their contemporaries who schooled in Europe. Also, some of the most recognized poets in the world then working English, Seamus Heaney and Geoffrey Hill among them, wrote of Nigeria and Nigerian themes. I imagine that they taught some of these things in their tenured positions in American universities.
There is a useful line, from The Shawshank Redemption, I think: “Geology is the study of pressure and time.” That line perhaps can help to illustrate how the steady accretion of poets and scholars from Nigeria studying in the US have turned the tide on what used to be the Eurocentrism palpable in Nigerian writing and criticism for the most part of the 20th century. Given time, these shifts occur as I have observed in my own work. My newest collection of poems, Cold Brew, is devoted to my experiences of North America, including Canada. Iowa and Iowa City feature in the collection, punching well above their weight in the representation of life in America as I experienced it because I simply had those lenses to work with for an extended period, and not as a tourist.
Most of the works that I have read by Americans on Nigeria and Nigerians in the past decade tend to be works of non-fiction and essays. Some of the most significant scholarship on Nigerian literature and film are by Americans or Nigerians working in American universities. It is a question of time before we have creative writing by Americans on Nigeria and Nigerians.
Q: You have at one point reminded us that "Ex Africa semper aliquid novi." That context was literary. In what ways do you see this apply [hold true] to larger social or political developments on the continent today?
TI: The world today is even more inextricably bound together than it was when Pliny the Elder first wrote those words. He referenced the few wonders that the Iberian Peninsula had seen of creatures from the Maghreb. Today, technology, enabled by materials which science has determined are in abundance in Africa, is a stronger magnetic bond. Beyond the exchanges across the Mediterranean Sea, we now have players from China, India, Europe and America angling for geopolitical advantage and of course, metals. The Cold War never really ended in Africa and it has produced hybrids of what the key players intended. Some of the ideological transplants and mongrels have found their way into the new and rapidly forming intra-African alliances. An example is the Sahelian Pact between Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger Republic announced this December. Another example is the ideological bifurcation of Sudan and the literal rendering of Somalia. These have far reaching consequences for many planned projects in Africa, Europe and Asia particularly. For example, these pacts mean that gas pipelines from Nigeria, planned to run through these territories into Western Europe, cannot proceed. Which in turn means that manufactured goods from Germany particularly will be more expensive and that Germans will lose more of their disposable incomes to expensive Russian gas this winter and beyond.
There is a rising tide of young Africans following the oil and gas and metals into China, Europe and America in unprecedented waves of human migration out of Africa. These are unsettling demographic projections worldwide and making some European countries decide on more insular policies. Both India and China have demonstrated their own unique forms of resistance to the human waves out of Africa. Mass migration out of Africa is the elephant in the room of global discourses. It is the ouroboros of global entropy. Perhaps these are developments we need to consider carefully when revisiting Pliny.
Africa is, and can be, more than a locus for material extraction. There are tessellated models which have worked in Africa for constructive engagement with itself and the rest of the world. Those models and the minds which have conceived them, are reflected in the literature from the continent here and there. Poets such as Leopold Senghor, Niyi Osundare, Kofi Anyidoho; novelists such as Ayi Kwei Armah, Ngugi wa Thiongo, Naguib Mahfouz; essayists such as Harry Garuba, Odia Ofeimun and Akin Adesokan are worth looking up in this regard. What is required now is for adults in the various rooms from Africa, Asia, America and Europe to meet and seriously explore these paradigms. Empires wax and wane as do peoples. What may remain beyond the ebb and the effluxion are the bonds formed in peace.