Years after converting to Literature, A. Igoni Barrett wants to channel its divinity—anyone who’s read his Love Is Power knows he already has.
Zola: In an interview with Granta about Love Is Power, you claimed you were trying to “show your head that you could write from your gut”—as if your head had previously been in charge. In what ways were you guilty of over-thinking your fiction before this collection, and how did you manage to switch from “head” to “gut”?
A. Igoni Barrett: When I set out to write a story I usually know what I want to say. In much of my fiction before this collection, I would create character and incident for the principal purpose of speaking my mind. Fiction served as a vehicle for me to say “I pity street beggars” or “I’m terrified of lynch mobs.” And so I would enter a story with one set of opinions about whatever, and then emerge at the end with my convictions untested and my opinions in full display. That’s writing from the head—telling a story whose purpose, whose “point” is already determined from the first word. The work I produced then was joyless stuff for me once I got over the satisfaction of seeing my voice on paper. But in writing Love Is Power I went for a different track, I subsumed my voice to the narrative, I allowed my characters do the speaking—which I achieved by going with instinct rather than thinking. And then I discovered that I had much more to say than I had thought.
Zola: Most of the stories in your book portray asymmetrical love bonds: in “Trophy” and “The Little Girl with Budding Breasts and a Bubblegum Laugh,” for instance, men seduce girls half their age or less; in “Godspeed and Perpetua,” the protagonist’s husband and daughter love each other more than they love her. Is love asymmetrical by definition, or is harmonious love simply too boring to write about?
AIB: It takes work to achieve harmony even in music—and work, struggle, striving, that’s never boring to write about. I’m sure there are love relationships that achieve the harmony of an ABBA song. Love Is Power just happened to focus on a different tune.
Zola: For a writer, you’ve done a surprising amount of work as an editor and promoter of letters: you co-founded the online literary journal Blackbiro, served as editor of Farafina Magazine, organized a reading tour with several Nigerian writers and the BookJam series in Lagos. How do these literary contributions differ from your contributions as a writer? Which do you find more rewarding, and why?
AIB: I write first for myself. I write to seek meaning in the big mess of life, to give meaning to my own life. Yes, I want to be read by others, and yes, I want to earn a living from my books and make a name for myself and travel the world at others’ expense, but over and above these perks I want to be what every writer secretly thinks he is: a flesh-and-blood figure of God. My non-writing contributions to literature are grounded in a place less holy. I started editing literary journals because I saw the need for locally based outlets for Nigerian writers. I organised the book tour and the reading series mainly because I wanted to sell books, mine included. I’m now trying to acquire a sailboat because I plan to tour the African coast with a boatful of writer friends to hold book readings and sell books. These activities are my efforts to provide some healing to the society that’s wounded me into writing. And this literary activism has proven the more rewarding to my self-image and bank account. But only the writing commands my loyalty.
Zola: In your essay “On Becoming a Writer,” you claim Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera convinced you to pursue a literary career; it became a talisman against your fear of failure. How? What are your talismans today, and what new fears do they serve to counter?
AIB: I was twenty-one when I read Love in the Time of Cholera in three sleepless days. It was the first work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s that I’d encountered. I didn’t know anything about him, I had never heard of his name, and so I began the book with no expectations other than the hope of some entertainment. But once I began reading I couldn’t stop even to live, I just couldn’t, because on every page I recognized the urgency of life. The thing is, at that time I felt that the narrative arc of my existence was pointlessness. I was then heading towards the end of my study in university and still I had no idea what I wanted to do with myself. I knew I wanted to graduate from school like everyone else, then get a job, earn a living, buy expensive things, and find love, sexual fulfillment, etcetera, but at the same time I somehow felt that all these wants were distractions that would lead only to disappointment. In retrospect I now realize that I hadn’t the courage to settle for unhappiness. One could say that I was ripe for conversion to whatever fundamentalist project came along. Literature came along. Love in the Time of Cholera showed me what to do with myself. Even before I turned the last page of that book, I knew without a shred of doubt that I wanted to make other people feel alive in the way Garcia Marquez had made me feel. Florentino Ariza’s tenacity in his pursuit of love became something to emulate in my trek towards a writing career. I dubbed the book a talisman because I would reread it to renew my self-belief over the many years that it took me to become a writer. I read that book into a wreck. Presently my biggest fear is that I not stagnate as a writer. That I hold open the gap between the business of writing and the magic of it, the mystery, the urgent life of literature. My talisman remains essential writing.
Zola: Carlton Lindsay Barrett is an acclaimed poet, novelist, essayist and playwright. He also happens to be your father. Did that help or hinder your own craft?
AIB: If asked this question thirteen years ago, when I first informed my family that I had decided to become a writer, I would have answered that my father being a writer was a hindrance. Eight years ago, when my father edited and published my first story collection, I would have declared that his position was a help. Today I’d like to think that I am what I am regardless of who my father is. But also because of who he is.
This article originally appeared on Zola Books.